Street art speaks to people. It’s a character in a city. It livens up a public space or provokes discussions because of its innate subversive nature of dissent. In Madison street art is only merely rising. It’s a movement making its way to the city’s walls through aesthetically pleasing pieces with no political content, but with very social causes behind it. Because of that this is MAD STREET ART: a four-part story explaining how Madison’s street art responds to its politics.
Here is the story of Madison’s street art. Part II of IV.
Madison is trying a little tenderness with “cute” messages in its forbidden street art. The city’s government has historically prohibited street art because of its dissent in questioning power by freely painting walls without asking for permission. At the same time the government is supporting the “cute” street art by financing projects, mostly murals, in order to control what goes up on walls.
The controlled walls are tender street art murals resulting from different artistic projects with a strong social practice, according to Karin Wolf, Madison’s Arts Program Administrator in the city’s Planning Community and Economic Development department.
“We are using social practice artists to go in [the neighborhoods] and do projects. When social practice artists work, their job is to get response,” Wolf said. “An example might be that an artist has a dinner party for a hundred people, asks the question: if you could change one thing about this neighborhood, what would it be? It’s how we get the information from the people.”
In that way, the government gets an idea of what the neighborhoods’ needs are and approve artistic projects to get financed. Within these social practice projects, the Madison Arts Commission has financed The Bubbler’s Madison Mural Alley, the Momentum Arts Urban Festival, and several of DAMA’s community art murals.
The Bubbler’s Madison Mural Alley project is the creation of five murals as a result of an alliance between the Madison Public Library and the Madison Arts Commission. It initially originated from the Darbo-Worthington Planning process and incorporated the collaboration between artists and local teenagers.
The themes varied for each mural. The Brazilian artist, graphic designer and UW-Madison professor Henrique Nardi was one of the street artists who collaborated with teenagers from the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center. He invited over Brazilian artists and friends Flavia Zimbardi and Caetano Calomino to collaborate with the mural.
It was in 2018 that Nardi carried out the Better Together mural, which was his second mural in Madison with a strong lettering element. He had previously done another mural in 2016 at Williamson Street as an homage to Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness song.
However, the Better Together mural brought various challenges to Nardi while executing the collaboration with the teenagers.
“Those children where not easily available as some children would be in a community. They were locked in. I had very little time to talk to them,” Nardi said. “When you look at the results, they were not as inspiring as they could be. There was nothing like: oh, lets do it again. That was it. We only had this one shot and we didn’t have enough students interested.”
Those difficulties made the project challenging and the mural ended up being more of an independent work for the artists compared to the other murals from Madison Mural Alley. Yet, he always tries a little tenderness with street art as a way to give back to society what he has learned.
That tenderness is also present in the rest of the artists who collaborated with the Madison Mural Alley project. Such is the case of Guatemalan artist Richie Morales who’s Canto a Madison (Song to Madison) mural was done in collaboration with the Dane County Juvenile Court Shelter Home teenagers.
For him, the task was easier because he carried out a one-month workshop with the teenagers where they discussed how they felt about Madison.
“We spoke about Madison. What they liked the most about their city and how they felt about it. They’d give me their ideas and some would talk about the concerts, summer or the flowers’ smell, birds and the environments they live in,” Morales said.
Besides that, Morales connected with the teenagers in a manner in which he felt and perceived they were lacking love.
“You just notice that. I noticed it in the moment I said: goodbye. We’re done with the project. It was as if they didn’t want to say goodbye,” Morales said. “Some even left, but I understood it was not because they didn’t want to say goodbye. I just thought: how many times in their lives has this happened to them?”
That just made Morales to connect on a stronger level with the teenagers and dedicate a mural through a “pictorial song” to Madison. He tried a little tenderness as well as Pete Hodapp, a Minneapolis artist based in Viroqua who created the East Side of Madison mural with the teenagers from Capital High School.
In his case he created a mural that depicts women working in sewing machines. His concept of creating this type of art with the teenagers is for them to learn about equality.
“It’s important for them to be thinking about equality. We talked about that a little bit in different forms,” Hodapp said. “We talked about the people working in these sewing machine factories, but also on that mural there are the Indian burial mounds. That’s just a different form of equality of being treated fairly.”
Continuing with the line of trying a little tenderness through different artists and murals, Detroit based printer Amos Paul Kennedy also participated in the Madison Mural Alley project by collaborating with teenagers from the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood.
They squeezed the lemons out of the mural as they came up with the concept from Kennedy’s written and spoken word workshops with the teenagers.
“That was from one of the poems that a young man had written at a workshop. It’s that you have to put forth effort to get things out of it and to get something out,” Kennedy said.
And through that effort Kennedy noticed that the mural had an impact.
“By virtue of doing it, it had an impact, but the quality of the impact I think it was very positive. I can’t say that it was life changing,” Kennedy said.
Through that impact the Madison Mural Alley project tried a little tenderness in Madison’s street art that seeks to chase a human moment.
To chase that human in Madison’s MAD STREET ART read Part III of IV.