This article has been republished with permission from the South Florida News Service.
Little Haiti artist Serge Toussaint’s latest mural is for and about his home, but according to him, it’s also for those who threaten to hurt it.
The three-part mural, “Smile Lil’ Haiti,” is meant to serve as a beacon of pride for the community and a warning to developers who want to wipe out its culture.
Its first part features a cameraman wearing a Haitian flag T-shirt recording onlookers on a beach. Flanking him are words written in red. “Smile,” it says on one side. “Lil’ Haiti is Watching,” it says on the other.
The message is meant as a sharp warning.
“We are watching you guys, what you all are doing to our little hood,” he said.
The next two parts depict aspects of Haiti’s history—its flag; words from “La Dessalinienne,” Haiti’s national anthem; the year it declared independence from France (1804); Citadelle Laferrière, a Haitian fortress designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO; and, standing tall in front of it, Henri Christophe, Haiti’s first and only king.
Columns separating the sections read “Little Haiti Welcome” in black and white and portray clenched, shackled fists with the words “Libre” and “Fiertee” written below them, which Toussaint said mean “free” and “proud.”
Many Haitian children are unaware of Haiti’s accomplishments and rich history. Toussaint said he wants to teach them and those who visit the area.
Toussaint received permission to paint the mural at Artchips Condominium by its owners, including Argentinean sculptor Carolina Sardi. Her husband, Dominican film producer Jaime Piña, said he sees a constant flow of visitors taking selfies with the mural.
“Those in the community are proud to see their history represented,” he said.
But despite being given permission, Toussaint said he was threatened with arrest for trespassing. Other landowners, he said, threatened to paint over his artwork. As a result, he temporarily stopped painting the mural in December 2017, just before Art Basel.
In January, with the help of Haitian Women of Miami Executive Director Marleine Bastien, he was granted written permission to finish his work from the Padilla family, who own the adjacent land.
Bastien, who is planning a ceremony to honor the mural, said that as sea levels rise and affect less elevated areas in Miami, land in Little Haiti has become more valuable. Developers are encroaching on the area, she said, and attempting to erase its culture.
“We hope this beautiful mural will be preserved, and we hope that people from all over the world will see a proud people,” she said.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Toussaint began painting as a child. He moved to New York City when he was 12.
In 1994, while in his early 30s, he visited Miami and fell in love with the weather. One day, he asked for permission to paint a mural at his uncle’s business. The positive response he received led to another, then another and so on.
One week before he was scheduled to return to New York, he made more than $500 and stirred up interest from other local businesses seeking his services.
He got as far as boarding the Greyhound bus that would take him back to New York, but he hopped off just before it departed. He left his father, sister and luggage behind, returned to Little Haiti and made it his home.
“I always wanted to be a muralist, and I always wanted to make money for what I’m doing,” he said. “God put me in the right place to start my career.”
In 2008, the City of Miami commissioned him to paint “Dream of the Century,” but the mural became mired in controversy. Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, had to be removed from the work, which featured Martin Luther King Jr., because it was considered an endorsement.
The attention only resulted in more recognition for the piece and its artist.
His most famous mural, “The Dream Team,” was painted in Wynwood and featured the Miami Heat championship team. It’s since been torn down.
Rumors that it earned him more than $500,000, a Lamborghini from LeBron James and a championship ring from Miami Heat President Pat Riley are unfounded, he said. He did, however, earn publicity, courtside seats and bragging rights over his wife, who’d reprimanded him for painting the mural for free.
“I [called] my wife, ‘You see? I told you everything is not about money,’” he said. “Sometimes you’ve got to do something for free that’s worth more than money.”
Toussaint said he does not set out to be political but believes there is still a political message in his murals. With Little Haiti becoming increasingly gentrified, he said he feels obligated to fight for its survival.
“You can’t take people away from their own little community and put yours in there,” he said.
Abraham Metellus, manager of the Little Haiti Cultural Complex, said he considers Toussaint a local legend and vital to the community.
“Serge enables Haitians to be proud of our heritage,” said the lifelong resident of Little Haiti. “He elevates and promotes Haitian culture.”