A fleet of ships with billowing sails moves across a large plywood sign posted at the Express Hand Car Wash on NW Second Avenue. The boats, flying Haitian flags, weave determinedly toward their island home, amid gulls and frothy clouds. Bright red hand-painted letters spell out the bottom line: Paye Nou SVP (Pay us please.)
On this hellish weekday morning, when the sun prickles the skin through a wheezy haze from the wildfires to the north, the sea-licked shores of Miami Beach and its summer players seem as far away as Haiti. For the inner-city entrepreneurs who work here each day, summertime means business as usual. Several young men are carefully sudsing and rinsing a row of taxicabs and sedans at the car wash while the drivers look on, jangling their keys and chatting in Creole. A little girl and her grandmother wearing identical straw hats slowly push a shopping cart piled with clothes to the crowded laundromat across the street. A pungent smell of frying oil escapes from the Delice Restaurant next door; on its façade jaunty paintings of a jumping fish, a steaming roast chicken, and a highball glass beckon customers for the approaching lunch hour.
Unlike those Miami neighborhoods designed to ensure tidy anonymity, with code-approved barricades and identical condo towers, here life spills voluptuously into the street. Small-business owners with a dream, a plan, or at least a notion announce their intentions in bright acrylic paint that blazes across the faces of tired buildings -- often erasing the bad memory of a failed predecessor. Little Haiti and its northern and western neighbors, extending to Liberty City, compose the land that neon, airbrush, and computer graphics forgot. Instead, a dynamic gallery of hand-painted murals featuring laughing cows and spry crabs, dancing soda cans, swaying palms, steely-eyed Vodou deities, and pensive political heroes covers the walls of shops and restaurants, advertising car parts and tires, refrigerators and slip covers, curly perms and "ocean waves," bail bonds and tax returns, birthday cakes and goat's head soup. The anarchic urban landscape spurred by plain necessity has made this area of Caribbean immigrants and African Americans more picturesque than any tourist board could have ever planned.
"The people who make up these communities come from cultures where art is a functional part of their lives," says Marvin Weeks, a Miami-based artist originally from the Sea Islands off Georgia, whose own work often explores the ties between African-American and Caribbean visual culture. "It's an everyday form of expression."
In the artworks on these city walls, cultural icons are put to the service of commerce. On the side of a market on NW 63rd Street, Martin Luther King stares poignantly into the distance. He may be composing a moving discourse, or perhaps just trying to decide between the turkey wing and "porck" sparerib from the list of offerings printed in colored letters on the wall next to his portrait. Over in Liberty City, the Arab owner of a one-stop hopes the rappers' faces painted on the front of his store will give it the neighborhood seal of approval.
"You've got a lot of people selling a lot of things, so you've got to find an image that people can relate to in order to attract their attention," says Weeks, who on a recent afternoon perches atop a scaffold outside the My Dream Laundry on NE 79th Street. A huge hyperrealist face of King floats on the white wall before him.
Weeks, age 44, has been painting in the street for more than two decades, most actively as a member of Washington, D.C.'s Urban Muralists Association. When he moved to Miami twelve years ago, he noted evidence of a street-painting tradition in the city's black neighborhoods, especially a few remaining signs by a character named Johnny Cool, who, legend has it, rode around in a red Cadillac and painted most of the signs in Overtown and Liberty City in the Fifties. "He never got his due," Weeks laments.
More recently, Oscar Thomas, who died last year at age 41, covered the walls of Liberty City with powerful photorealist murals of historical black figures in an effort to boost community morale. "We as black folk don't take much time to go to galleries and museums. The way to get impact is to use the cities," Thomas once said. "If this is not supposed to be the place for art, then I really need to be here."
Most of Miami's urban artworks are created out of a different sense of need -- to get by. Stores have to advertise, paint is cheap, and so is the labor. Theo Daniel, a 33-year-old Haitian, recently covered the facade of Cayard's Market on North Miami Avenue and 62nd Street with naive depictions of a girl balancing a basket of tropical fruit on her head, an idyllic island scene, a tiered cake, meats, and seafood. Daniel, who came to Miami when he was twelve, graduated from North Miami Beach High (he faked his address so he could go there instead of Little Haiti's Miami Edison High). Now he has four children to support. His regular job is stock supervisor of the market, which caters to a Haitian clientele with items like salted pork and cod, homemade pistachio cookies, and huge bags of rice bearing the kerchiefed visage of Madame Gougousse -- Haiti's equivalent of Uncle Ben.
Daniel has also used his creative talent in his own business, a snow-cone cart mounted on the back of his small pickup truck. Every day after work at the supermarket Daniel sells snow cones in the street, shaving the ice with a lead ice shaver he bought on a trip to Haiti. He painted the red and blue cart, a wooden structure that holds a block of ice and bottles of fruit-flavor syrup, in the colors of the Haitian flag -- part of a nationalist marketing plan he has found good for business.
"There are a lot of people here who leave Haiti because they have to," he explains. "They don't really want to be here, but there's more opportunity. They don't want to forget their culture. When they see my cart and they see I'm shaving ice like it's done back in Haiti, they'll buy a cone just because it reminds them of home."
Daniel says he would like to study commercial art someday, but for now he doesn't think about trying to make a living from sign-painting; he says that Haitian store owners pay very little. "I don't do it, because it doesn't bring in money. The shopkeepers are going to pay you maybe $50," he says. "I'm not like Serge -- he'll paint anything, any time. That's Serge."
If there is a Picasso of the painted sign, it's Serge Toussaint. Most of the images found on buildings in Little Haiti bear his name, signed "$erge." At Henry Jewelry on NE 78th Street is a caricature of a couple getting married, with a bubble coming out of the groom's mouth declaring, "They got me" in Creole. At the Dieu Qui Decide restaurant on 62nd, he painted a dramatic Apocalypse scene, with God coming down from the heavens and a stopwatch marking the final minutes. The words "Countdown USA" are written in the corner. At Quick Release Bail Bonds off 54th, he painted two conga drums covered with Vodou inscriptions. At the Little Haiti Meat Market Cafeteria on NW Second Avenue, his symbolist composition includes a chicken laying eggs, sausage links, sandwiches, and a cow wearing bottle-cap earrings that read "Serge."
His pictures may be ubiquitous; the artist is much harder to find. He painted the seascape sign at the Express Hand Car Wash, and another one featuring a red Corvette convertible. But no one there has seen him lately. Ferdinand, the car wash manager, turns off the vacuum cleaner and laughs with another employee at the mention of Toussaint's name. "Who knows where he is? Serge is a slippery guy," says Ferdinand. "Serge is no businessman."
A rapper on the stereo rails about a "motherfuckin' cop with his big ass," competing with the bouncy compas music coming from the laundromat. Ferdinand wipes down a gold Toyota SPV with last season's Tommy Hilfiger jersey, shaking his head: "If I were Serge, if I had that talent, I'd be rich."
A Creole spiritual blares from inside the studio of Radio Pep La on NE 54th Street. On the wall outside are portraits of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Martin Luther King beside sunny Caribbean scenes. A severed and bloody handcuffed hand clutches a Haitian flag above the phrase Tous pour la Liberte (Everything for Freedom). American and Haitian flags fly over a globe and the slogan "We Are the World." $erge is signed in several places, with a phone number printed underneath. That number, however, is disconnected.
"Everybody looking for Serge," says Ben Merusbenoit, owner of Ben Photo, where Toussaint painted a backdrop of the Miami skyline that customers pose against for pictures to send back to Haiti.
"Why you need him, he going to make a million dollars?" cackles Toussaint's cousin Jumel, who owns Bortan Fabrics just down the street.
Merusbenoit heads off to look for Toussaint. A guy sitting on a plastic milk crate under a shade tree by the side of the road thinks he saw Toussaint painting on 62nd Street, but he isn't there. A skinny old man wobbles down the street in a hungover haze. Ben pulls him aside for a hushed conference in Creole, pressing some bills into his hand. "I'll bring you Serge," says the man.
A few hours later Serge Toussaint appears at the counter of his cousin's fabric store. He's a slight 34-year-old in paint-stained jeans, with a shy grin and a far-off, agitated stare. His appearance, as he has learned, is not as impressive as his artwork: "My work's all over the place and when I'm working, customers come looking for Serge. I say, 'That's right, I'm Serge.' 'No, I'm looking for Serge.' 'This is me, Serge,' I tell them. 'I'm looking for the artist who's doing all these murals.' 'It's me, ma'am.' They look at me from the ground to the top. 'You, Serge? Anyway I'm leaving a card for him to call me.' I say, 'All right, when Serge come I'll give it to Serge.' Because they don't really think I can be Serge. Because they be thinking I'm a bigger man than that. They be thinking Serge must have something to lift him up in the air, and I'm out there with a ladder, going up and down, up and down all day. And I keep doing it because I love art. That's the only thing I know all my life."
Toussaint left Haiti to attend high school in New York City, where he lived with his father ("a guy who don't really care about kids, you know?"). He spent his school years doodling on the back of chemistry tests. He says he passed his courses because his teachers were impressed by his artistic talent. He later came to Miami to stay with his cousins. To thank them he painted the front of their fabric store with kitschy depictions of women draped in racy animal prints.
"That got people's attention, and people started asking, 'Would you do it for me?'" says Toussaint, moving out to the street for a guided tour of his works. "They just give me an idea and I just be doing them. They say, 'I want Aristide,' and then I just doing them for the public to appreciate. Most of the time it's political and commercial. There are different styles. If you're going down there toward Liberty City, I mostly draw rappers. And then down there on a laundry I drew Martin Luther King because right across the street from the laundromat there's a church and the people there are preachers, church people. You've got to look at the environment to see what kind of picture, what kind of message, to make for the neighborhood. That's how you draw. And then advertise what they're selling. Right down there, at Get Down Auto Sounds, the guy's a Jamaican, so I draw Bob Marley on the side of the wall there; a musician, you know. There's a picture for E-Z Wear, for a fabric store, so I draw a woman with the clothes. If it's a market, I draw cows and stuff.
"There's my work on that botanica, that's [the Vodou spirits] Ezili Danto and Kouzen Zaka. In most of my work I just say messages, make it mean something. Most of the time I paint for the kids, too -- like there on that grocery store where it says, 'Just say no.'
"An Arab, Majik, owns that store down there. He said just put a rapper here. You put rappers, you put famous people like Muhammad Ali. You've got to put the rappers and the role models so the kids know the difference between good and bad. That's Tupac and Biggie Smalls. I put the R.I.P. -- 'Remember in prayer' -- for the kids to know that there's no life in the thug life, they die young. This really gets their attention about being a gang member. See the diamond earrings and everything? But look what they're losing, they're losing the whole world by being a world by themselves. That black shooting star behind Tupac? That's me."
Toussaint may be the most popular artist in Little Haiti, but he still can't make a decent living. He currently lives in Homestead with his girlfriend Nadia, who's studying to be a nurse. He barely gets by.
"The first day the store owners'll tell you, 'Man, we just opened and business is down,'" says Toussaint. "But once I start painting I just love it so much, that's why people take advantage of me. I'm looking for all kinds of opportunity. That's why I do it for so cheap. People think I'm making millions out of it, but all I get is $40. I just want to get enough recognition for me to get on up.
"I was working at the airport, picking up baggages, and the manager said, 'You be late again, you fired.' I said, 'All right, I'm fired, because I know I'm going to be late.' An artist is just made to be free. You don't tell an artist what time to be here. Well, unless it's an art job. Then I won't be late."
Toussaint can name a few other Little Haiti artists who paint walls -- Tony and Gilbert, and the venerable Jude Thejenus, who did the heartbreaking mural on the Haitian Refugee Center, which shows a young Haitian man shackled to the Statue of Liberty. That painting is faded now and seems to have been partly whitewashed.
Toussaint blames the defacement on a would-be artist named Alex, and adds that Alex has been signing his name to works Toussaint actually did. In fact, Toussaint says, he defended his honor by angrily confronting Alex, a squabble that Toussaint glumly notes ended with him on probation. He says he has to attend anger control classes at five o'clock every weekday.
"It's really hard for an artist to make it, real tough," Toussaint complains. "They just use and abuse you, taking advantage of you. Call you names and stuff. As good as you are, you should have been this and you should have been that. I don't have nothing. I just try and stay straight." He shrugs. "Every time I feel tired, I just look at my work and go on."
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Marvin Weeks is painting the abstract background for his portrait of Martin Luther King in colors vivid enough to stop traffic at NE 79th Street and Third Avenue -- and, with any luck, to bring more customers into My Dream Laundromat.
Down the street, in his graphic design shop on 79th Street where he creates business logos, Weeks displays some of his evocative paintings of windswept rice fields, and of wooden shotgun houses with clotheslines in the yard. The My Dream mural is his first outdoor work in Miami, but he plans to do another in the black Grove that he says will reflect the residents' Bahamian background, like the works in his shop.
"The importance of doing art in the street is to show what art can do, the influence it can have on the community," he stresses. "The ironic thing is, this work would never exist if it had to be created within the bureaucracy of certain municipalities, if the artists had to subscribe to their regulations. There are certain neighborhoods that just won't allow it, so most of it is in the inner city, in the black neighborhoods.
"Unfortunately, there's not a lot of interrelationship between the neighborhoods," Weeks adds. "People say, 'Are you crazy? I'm not going there,' so they're never going to see any of this. They're really missing something.