PART I: The forbidden art in Madison


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 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 I of IV.

Walk around the city of Madison. Take a look at its walls. Most of them are plain. Look at State Street. It’s full of businesses and simple walls. You can barely see street art here. Continue walking until you get to the Capitol Square and you won’t find any overt street art. It’s subtle. It’s in small stickers or almost hidden tags.

It is not getting into your face, but it is there. It is almost hidden, but you can find it cramped up in the East side at Cottage Grove Road on the walls of the street art store Momentum Art Tech or throughout Williamson Street’s walls.

You have to carefully look for it because you’re in a city that historically has aesthetically forbidden street art. According to Karin Wolf, Madison’s Arts Program Administrator in the city’s Planning Community and Economic Development department, this is because of the existing zoning codes.

“Street art is one of the things that has been aesthetically forbidden historically in Madison. The aesthetic is very much coming out from a different cultural perspective,” Wolf said. “[It’s also] because the zoning codes have been set up to prohibit that. It’s cutting off an entire visual art form from the ability to be expressed.”

The visual culture Madison has been missing out for a long time that is now legally rising around the city. | Elizabeth Lang | MAD STREET ART |

That ability for street artists to express themselves is innately linked to a democracy, which for Wolf this translates as a person’s right of expression that cannot be stopped.

“You can’t stop people. You can try. You can clamp a lot, but they will come back. It’s our birthright to express ourselves, to critique and make meaning together,” Wolf said.

Those voices in Madison’s street art are not overtly or explicitly shown on the city’s walls through dissent or subversive messages. It’s shown through an aesthetic that shows itself as “cute” in contemporary art, which is the description that Mel Becker Solomon, the curator at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA), gives to the city’s street art.

“When I am on campus or on Willy Street I see some [street art], but it’s often like: Oh, there’s a cute Corgi. It’s very cute and pleasant and there are murals that are beautiful,” Becker said. “There are more big murals, but those are commissioned and not just people out on the street putting stuff up out late at night.”

The Love mural behind the wall of Prism in Williamson street is the example of the “cute” street art in Madison. | Elizabeth Lang | MAD STREET ART |

This “cute” street art, often portrayed through murals, also have a political stance for Wolf, even if it’s just aesthetically pleasing and beautiful.

“I think it’s just as political to decide that you want to make a beautiful mural of a bunch of roses on the side of a building in your neighborhood if your neighborhood lacks beauty. I think that’s a political statement. Just to add beauty to a space,” Wolf said.

That beautifying effect is present in Madison’s neighborhoods through murals as community art projects created by the Dane Arts Mural Arts (DAMA) program. According to Emida Roller, DAMA’s Executive Director, it is depicted with murals that engage social artists with at-risk youth populations that understand that somebody cares enough about their neighborhoods.

Emida Roller
Emida Roller is the Dane Arts Mural Arts (DAMA) program’s current Executive Director. | Elizabeth Lang | MAD STREET ART |

“It just says to the neighborhood: ‘Somebody cares enough for me to change this to lift our spirits. Somebody cares enough to hear what we have to say and listen to us and do something about it with us,” Roller said.

And that caring for the city’s neighborhoods and communities translates into Madison trying a little tenderness with the forbidden street art.

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DAMA murals around Madison

VIDEO: Watch DAMA’s recent mural done at the Hawthorne Tunnel located under East Washington Avenue at Wright Street.

To try a little a tenderness of Madison’s MAD STREET ART read Part II of IV.