Little Haiti is a lot of things. It's full of Haitians and Haitian culture. It's a little dangerous in parts. But mostly, it's colorful. And a lot of that color is the work of muralist Serge Toussaint. If you've spent any time in Little Haiti chances are you know his work, even if you don't know his work.
His murals adorn storefronts and dilapidated walls, the underbellies of bridges, and just about any open spot of plaster or cement he can find. He's best known in Little Haiti but his work is spread across South Florida. And now, after 16 years of climbing his ladder to paint in the Miami heat, the artist is getting noticed by more than just those driving through a carwash. So pick up a copy of Miami Muralist: Serge Toussaint, Neighborhood Paintings by a Haitian Artist by Rachel Goldberg. It just hit the virtual bookstore.
"I try to feel the vibe of a neighborhood first. That's how I know what type of work I should paint. Like if I'm working in Overtown, I know they like rappers. So I might paint Tupac (Shakur). But I wouldn't do that on Biscayne Boulevard -- they don't know nothing about Tupac. Or in Hialeah, I wouldn't do a rapper. I'd paint a famous person that goes with that neighborhood," Serge says.
After overcoming a youth spent getting into trouble, Serge settled in Miami in 1994 and began his work painting Little Haiti. He was thrust into the spotlight in 2008, temporarily, when he was forced to erase part of a mural depicting Martin Luther King, Jr. and then Senator Barack Obama he painted on an I-95 underpass. The mural was paid for by state funds and it was believed to be an endorsement of the soon-to-be President Obama. Serge insists the mural was never political -- they are both dreamers, he says in the book -- but he got the last laugh in the situation. "You can still see the picture of Obama. Even after I painted it off you can still see his resemblance."
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Street art enthusiast Rachel Goldberg saw news of the controversy and she was drawn to Serge and his work. She sought him out and embarked on cataloguing his work much like she did for renowned New York City street artist De La Vega. As well as his skill, Goldberg says she's also impressed with Serge's work ethic. "I've never seen anybody go outside in 100-degree heat and paint. It doesn't matter how hot it is, he's always meticulous." She says she was also drawn to the nuances and humor in Serge's work -- he's known to throw his name on a can of Pepsi or two.
What started as a labor of love to expose Serge to a wider audience took on much greater significance when a massive earthquake struck Haiti killing hundreds of thousands. Goldberg says a $1 from every book sold will go to the Red Cross to help with the reconstruction of the island nation. Though Serge is known for braving the heat to paint his murals, he admits the years and the heat are starting to chip at more than just his paintings. "I'm getting old. It's getting hard to get up on the ladder," he says. Serge admits that he might be willing to give up his outside work for teaching gig in a comfy classroom. "It wouldn't be for the money. It would be to teach kids to paint and draw to keep them away from violence and gangbanging like it did for me."