Milwaukee's Street Art Movement

I think that we can collectively say that Milwaukee is a stunning city.

There is a rich history of architecture that spans from original landmarks from the birth of the city, to modern masterpieces such as the Quadracci Pavilion designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (I mean, watching those wings open…. what a beaut!). The views of Lake Michigan/the views from Lake Michigan, the landscape as you kayak down the Milwaukee River, the falling snow in wintertime and sunny, hot days on Bradford Beach (let’s be real, in how many cities do you get both of these things?!). But as I look around the city, I notice one piece of urban beauty that is missing – street art…for which the void is now filled. 

When I first heard about Black Cat Alley, I thought, “WHAT IS THIS”? As the resident crazy cat lady here at g.moxie, the name immediately caught my attention. But when I opened up their webpage and saw that a mural alley is being installed blocks from my home on the East Side I (figuratively) jumped for joy.

“Street art” and “graffiti” are generally thought of as interchangeable. We know that graffiti gets a bad rep – associated with vandalism and gangs. Milwaukee even has an “Anti-Graffiti Program” insuring that “graffiti is removed promptly” from buildings. Street art was born out of the idea of graffiti – a more modern version, curated by trained artists and using more than just a can (or two) of spray paint.

I took a trip out to South Dakota in the summer of 2015. My 13-hour drive took me through flat lands and led me to wild buffalo. Much to my surprise (because I definitely didn’t think I would find this on my way to look at giant heads of dead presidents), as we drove through Rapid City, SD, (with a population of 70,812 compared to Milwaukee’s 576,432) I found a similar attraction. How did a city so much smaller than Milwaukee already have this? Sure, we have the rotating words marked on Fink’s wall (remember all the hoopla surrounding “couples are boring and everyone knows it”?) and my everyday reminder to “Chose a Positive Thought” on my way to work in the Third Ward. But what I saw in South Dakota was a place that inspired me more than these words painted on cream city brick.

Art Alley, as they call it in the Mount Rushmore State, began as a public art project in 2005. As I wandered through Art Alley, I thought to myself how awe inspiring a mix of hundreds of artists work flowed together so well. The range of art varied so much, each with its own story to tell. It’s obvious that it was one of my favorite things to photograph on that trip just by looking at my Instagram feed. I’ve included a few shots below of some of my favorite works from there.

I quickly realized that this kind of artwork becomes a destination for out of town guests and residents alike. How many people had made a choice to stop at Art Alley to take in the view? How many artists had come to Art Alley to put their mark on a piece of ever-changing history? (Black Cat Alley differs on this – so don’t go installing your own artwork over the artists who put a lot of time into their works.)

Black Cat Alley is exactly what Milwaukee needs. Don’t get me wrong; a typical art gallery may house some nice artwork worth checking out, but this is so much more! I’ve been to the Louvre and trust me, having to stand behind a velvet rope and a group of 50+ people (at 5’2” I had to hold my camera over my head to take a picture) to see the itsy bitsy Mona Lisa isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. Black Cat Alley is public (FREE to see!), it's outside, it's open 24 hours, it’s LARGE, and it’s transforming a dark, unused alley into a work of art! It brings students, local and foreign artists, businesses and the community together.

Black Cat Alley is located in the alley between Ivanhoe Place and Kenilworth Avenue, just south of North Avenue (right behind the historical Oriental Theater). Those in charge of Black Cat Alley say this about choosing the East Side for this project:

The Black Cat Alley was born on the East Side of Milwaukee for a reason. The East Side neighborhood has a proud legacy of arts, music and community programming. We are a community unlike any other area in Milwaukee. You’ll find old school mixed in with new. We buzz with the energy and vitality of creatives-in-training, alongside longtime Eastsiders who make Milwaukee what it is today. We’re the bike hub between lakefront and river trails. This is where you’re going to leave your car while you get everything done and then some in just a few blocks. You’ll find art, film & theater in unexpected places on The East Side.

Over the last few weeks, the alley has been transformed. Goodbye to the days of plain brick and boringness. Hello to a colorful world of street art.

We stopped by to check out the finished works on the alley’s opening day over the weekend.

MTO, a contemporary French artist, put the first mark on Black Cat Alley by painting “Milwaukee’s BUG” - literally a giant frog with a spray paint can hat and mustache. Does it get any better than that? (I’ve come to learn that this work is the first full color and self-portrait of the artist.)

MTO was joined by 10 other artists to take over the alley. Here is some of the work below:

What’s so cool about this new installation is the mix of art styles. Walking down the alley for the first time you are not sure what to expect. But overall, my mind was just blown away. The alley is so colorful and full of life.

If you have visited Black Cat Alley already, what do you think? Are you excited that Milwaukee is finally taking a step towards the idea of incorporating street art into its world? I really hope other areas of the city see this and think, “This would be cool in my part of town. What can we do to make that happen?” The Milwaukee community put in so much time and worked together so well on this project, and I think it’s a great idea to keep it going. I know I personally would love to see every alley look this beautiful. Hats off to those who were the driving force behind Black Cat Alley along with all of the artists who were involved. I know we will enjoy its for many years to come.