Serge gets Buffed!!

Artist must paint over his best intentions

Posted on Fri, Apr. 04, 2008
Artist must paint over his best intentions

Ever the artist, a Little Haiti painter may have taken some liberties with a very public assignment.
Serge Toussaint painted a mural of slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on an Interstate 95 underpass. He has since been forced to cover Obama's image. He used white primer. The muralist said he was paid by the city of Miami to paint a King theme piece as part of a beautification project.

''What's the point of painting Martin Luther King Jr. if you can't paint his dream?'' said Toussaint, referring to Obama as King's realized dream of racial harmony.

Acting on a tip that the Obama mural was an unfair political endorsement, the Florida Department of Transportation ordered the mural removed. FDOT also says the city of Miami needs to reapply for a special permit because the project falls outside the boundaries of what was originally filed -- a request to paint walls and pillars with blue skies and clouds.

''At some point, the city of Miami will have to reapply for a permit,'' said Brian Rick, an FDOT spokesman.

A painter since he moved to Miami from Haiti at age 15, Toussaint is one of Miami's most prolific and well-known muralists. His bright, cartoon-like handiwork appears on storefronts throughout the Haitian enclave, as well as in neighborhoods and cities to the west, such as Liberty City and Hialeah.

With that in mind, a city of Miami agency picked Toussaint in December after he applied to do work along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, said Elaine Black, president of the Liberty City Community Revitalization Trust.

Toussaint was paid $3,000 to color the concrete poles -- he painted sky blue clouds and used uplifting King quotes along the pillars -- under I-95 and an entrance east of the highway. He was not allowed to paint the highway wall, Black said.

''We did not pay Serge to do that,'' said Black. ``He decided to put that one up.''

So for almost two weeks, Obama's face greeted motorists at the southbound exit ramp off I-95 and NE 62nd Street.

Toussaint's cellphone rang. Callers complimented him. They also complained he was denigrating King's legacy by juxtaposing him with a politician. Others called to object to Obama's candidacy.

Then an anonymous caller reported the mural to the Florida Department of Transportation.

''Fyi -- do you think it was a Clinton supporter who complained?'' an FDOT engineer wrote in an e-mail to a colleague.

'I believe so, because he indicated if the O'Bama [sic] painting was to remain, then he should be allowed to paint a picture of `his' candidate,'' Margaret Higgins, an executive assistant at FDOT, wrote back.

Notified by FDOT, the Trust called Toussaint: Obama's got to go.

Given a 72-hour notice, Toussaint ventured to do the paint job at night -- free from the stares and glares of passersby.

''I was so ashamed,'' said Toussaint. 'It was like I was painting on Mr. Obama himself -- `Bro, I'm sorry!' ''

The new paint job generated further finger-wagging.

Toussaint said he got an earful about using white primer. Callers, he said, accused him of ''whitewashing'' Obama.

That wasn't his intention.

Toussaint said he used the white primer to paint over the image to allow Obama's face, navy blue suit, and red tie to appear, albeit barely, under the paint coat. Besides, Toussaint said, Obama's profile remains -- with a giveaway.

''Obama's the only man with big ears like that,'' Toussaint said, chuckling.

On Thursday, the image of King still appeared on the wall, but that, too, may go because it doesn't fit into the permit description.

''It's still an open issue,'' said FDOT's Rick.

Just a block away, a business owner wondered why Toussaint wasn't allowed to keep up the Obama painting.

''I think they ought to put it back,'' said Paulette Greene, an owner of Greene Dreams Shoe Repair, where Obama T-shirts fluttered on display outside. ``What's the big deal?''