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Milwaukee's Urban Art Scene Expands with 'Black Cat Alley'

Make way for Milwaukee's Black Cat Alley.

During the first three weeks of September, muralists will turn an east side alley into a permanent outdoor arts destination.  

The alley was the site of weeds, rocks, and graffiti, which the business owners whose buildings bordered it were painting over with brown paint. Jim Plaisted, executive director for the East Side Business Improvement District, called it "one of the more horrible places to be, from vagrancy to graffiti to garbage.”

Art professor Tim Decker, who teaches at UWM's Kenilworth location, saw his students cutting through the alley, says organizer Stacey Williams-Ng.  The two hatched a plan for an urban arts makeover. The business owners got on board.

The alley has been repaved, and European street artist MTO has already painted the alley's first work, a giant frog. 

Credit Maayan Silver
Parking checker Michael Williams, Jr. in front of MTO's piece on Kenilworth.

Parking checker Michael Williams, Jr. had noticed the frog on the side of the Oriental Theater.  “It’s interesting. I’m just trying to make out exactly what it represents, not just the frog itself, but the moustache, the top hat, the exclamation point, the stuff shooting out of the hat," he queried. "It has some symbolism to it, but it's not clear what the symbolism is. I'm kinda curious about that, yeah!”

In addition to MTO, ten local and national muralists have been chosen. Williams Ng says that it's been exciting to see how the alley landscape has influenced the artists as they conceive their mural ideas. 

Credit Maayan Silver
(L to R): Stefaney Maloney, Jim Plaisted and Stacey Williams-Ng, who all had a hand in setting up Black Cat Alley, by the fire escape shadows.

"One of our artists has chosen to be beneath the fire escapes," Williams Ng explained. "The light comes through the fire escape and makes these stripey shadows onto the wall and the floor, which he’s actually going to incorporate into his work."

In that same vein, local artist Tia Richardson was attracted to a particular spot in the alley because, "it was the only space where there was green and plants growing already. Weeds and things." Organizers will be planting perennials to grow in that spot.

Credit Maayan Silver

Richardson has already sketched out portions of her mural in white paint and says, "this is only the second time I’m able to paint on raw brick outside, and I’m responding to it. It’s like a relationship. I’m just really feelin’ it.

Plaisted wants visitors to have the same positive feeling about the alley as a whole. “We hope that this is something you have to come see both as a neighborhood person or as a region wide person or even a person coming from another city and you’ve heard about this street art alley on the east side,” he says.

Parking checker Williams Jr. says he’s all for building up neighborhood trouble spots. “That would be nice," he assesses, "because the city within itself, truth be told, in light of everything that’s going on, we need more positive input. And if art is the stepping stone or the launching pad to make that happen, I’m all for it.”

Organizers would like to program the alley over time to host musical events, weddings – or even offer tours. Oh, and the name - "Black Cat Alley," it’s a tribute to the Panthers of UWM. 

The muralists will paint between September 5-17, 2016 with a grand opening on September 18, 2016.  

Formerly Milwaukee-based artist Jeremy Novy added some of his signature "koi fish."

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