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Al Black, one of the last living original Florida Highwaymen artists, completed a Highwaymen mural in Gainesville over the last week of August in 2022. The mural was supported by 352 Walls/Gainesville Urban Art Initiative and is located at 602 N. Main St.
352 Walls project manager Raquel Vallejo got the idea to pursue Black as a muralist after seeing Florida Highwaymen art for sale at the antique mall near her home in Micanopy according to the Gainesville Sun.
Black’s background could be the subject of a movie. As a Florida Highwaymen hustling paintings in the 60s and 70s to avoid field labor, Black wasn’t much of an artist, but he was a good salesman. A damn good salesman. The best salesman of the Highwaymen. He learned art by touching up Highwaymen paintings from other members of the group that were dinged or smudged from being packed up wet for sale in the back of his car.
In the 1990s, he became romantically involved with a married white woman. This was taboo in Deep South Florida even then. Black took a drug possession rap for the woman in order to protect her reputation and keep their relationship secret. This story was retold to me on my “Welcome to Florida” podcast by Kelvin Hair, son of original Florida Highwaymen artist Alfred Hair, and someone who has traveled thousands of miles selling paintings with Al Black.
Black was an addict when he went to prison in 1997. He served over 10 years. An absurdly long sentence for possession likely resulting from his race. The stretch may have saved his life, however. He cleaned up and began painting murals across the prisons in Florida. By the time he got out in the late 2000s, he’d done more than 100.
His Florida Highwaymen mural in Gainesville is 8-by-32-feet, painted on moveable panels should relocation be necessary. Black was assisted by regional muralist/graphic artist Fabian Sanchez.
The mission of 352 Walls, 352 being the Gainesville area code, is to position the college town, home to University of Florida, as a vibrant cultural destination while stimulating urban renewal, fostering cultural tourism and economic development, beautifying the urban landscape, boosting community pride, and serving as a platform for urban art studies. Al Black’s Highwaymen mural in Gainesville seems to check all of those boxes.