Public art remains a powerful force for the Madison community

A check-in on 10 murals in Madison: New, renewed, vandalized and those bearing a purposeful message.
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Photo courtesy of Sharon Kilfoy
Michael Owen's "LOVE" mural on Williamson Street

In June 2020, Ray Mawst’s “This Too Shall Pass” mural on Monona Drive graced our cover with bright colors and a message of hope. Summer that year felt like a tumultuous and fiery tumble into the great unknown: It marked the third hottest summer on Wisconsin record bringing little relief to the racial unrest and protests for Black lives that convened in downtown Madison almost daily. Not to mention, the pandemic still held the upper hand, with uncertainty and fear looming large in the minds of many.

Mawst intended “to spread some optimism during dark times” with his mural. He is featured among 19 Madison voices of resilience in our June 2020 issue. The inclusion of an artist among the voices of journalists, front-line workers, political and nonprofit leaders and educators was a conscious choice. Art and public art, in particular, play an important role in our community, especially in times of unrest, uncertainty and division. Art unites.

From that same piece, we hear the voice of Madison artist Jenie Gao urging that “a crisis is an opportunity for correction.” That is, to increase public funding opportunities and representation in the arts now that we can recognize, in unprecedented times, how integral art is to our livelihood. Since experiencing art had nearly been taken away with safer-at-home protocols, the mural proved an even more valuable mode of artistic expression in summer 2020. If not just for the messages of hope, resilience and justice they spread on Madison’s State Street in response to George Floyd’s murder, murals could be experienced from the safety of our windows, from our yards, our cars and our sidewalk.

Murals have withstood the summer of 2020, still popping up in more frequency all over Madison. The desire for public art hasn’t slowed any, and Madison artists and the public alike continue to fight for better arts funding. We’ve rounded up a snapshot of murals in Madison today, featuring mural projects that are new and restored, those that carry a purpose and shed light on public arts funding and, sadly, one that suffered vandalism.

Iconic LOVE mural on Williamson Street gets a fresh coat of paint
The building owners at 924 Williamson St., the site of I/O Arcade Bar, invited Baltimore-based artist Michael Owen to return to Madison for a touch-up of his “LOVE” mural. Originally installed in 2014, the mural was painted on the side of what was then Plan B, a popular gay nightclub on Madison’s eastside. Timely to the message of the “LOVE” mural, 2014 was also the year that same-sex marriage was officially recognized in Wisconsin. Owen painted 20 LOVE murals throughout Baltimore before adding a few more in a handful of cities around the country. It took him three days to restore the mural, taking touch-ups in a slightly different direction that stays faithful to the original display. Ultimately, Owen intended the mural design to create connection for the community. Read more by clicking here


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Tipocracia mural at new Northstreet Collective on Madison’s eastside
At the site of the new Northstreet Collective — a collaboration between Bloom Bake Shop, Youngblood Beer Co. and Café Domestique — in Madison’s Eken Park neighborhood, a colorful new mural debuted in early November. Henrique Nardi is an artist and lecturer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who shares his mural designs and passion for typography under the name Tipocracia. Nardi closely documented the process of creating the mural on his Instagram account, where the mural comes to life from early projector sketches on the building to the final colorful touches. Although colder weather threatened the completion of the mural project before winter, unseasonably warm weather and a crew of volunteers helped finish the painting on time. The finished mural is set against a background of sky blue with a person biking through a rolling green landscape and cacti, another person “shooting the duck” on roller skates and a graphic font treatment of the phrase “Hey Neighbor!”

The Wisconsin Institute for Discovery’s new interactive art and science mural
The new mural at the Discovery Building on campus is more than meets the eye. From a distance, it appears to be a colorful mural featuring scientists at work. Up close, more details begin to surface, including a series of QR codes that link to information about the 12 real scientists depicted in the mural. There are even links to anonymous people who represent the many scientists that have historically been excluded from history books. “Landscape of Discovery” was created by Wisconsin artists Alicia Rheal, Sharon Tang and Amy Zaremba in partnership with the Illuminating Discovery’s Science to Street Art initiative at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, the Morgridge Institute for Research and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation in an effort to inspire more people to engage with science. Scientists featured in the mural are Wisconsinites, many of whom are current or emeritus professors at UW–Madison. Read more by clicking here


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Five-story mural at former site of Ella’s Deli
As of May, a new five-story mural looms over East Washington Avenue from the former site of Ella’s Deli. Now an affordable apartment complex and commercial space, Ella’s Apartments received a colorful treatment from Madison artist Bill Rebholz. The project took nearly the entire month of May; Rebholz and friend Eddie Perrote painted the mural from a lift. This 3,400-square-foot, multi-story mural features colorful birds, flowers, animals and people interspersed between rows of windows, and a spire that nods to Ella’s Deli’s carousel. As cookie-cutter apartment complexes rise around Madison and the surrounding area at rapid pace, the mural on Ella’s Apartments is a breath of fresh, one-of-a-kind air. Read more by clicking here


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Willy Street West dedicates a new mural
The west branch of Willy Street Co-op on 6825 University Avenue in Middleton recently dedicated a member-voted mural. Willy Street West employees selected a number of concepts and co-op members were given the opportunity to cast votes. The chosen theme “Local and Native Species” graces the east wall of the grocery store with a vibrant depiction of the “Three Sisters” (corn, beans and squash), morel mushrooms, pollinators, flowers and leafy greens. Dane Arts Mural Arts or DAMA designed the mural in collaboration with Willy Street West. DAMA is a local nonprofit that aims to create beautiful visuals and collaborative art in Dane County neighborhoods. Community members joined the organization to help paint the mural. Read more by clicking here

Madison Metro Transit’s Public Art Project Mural competition
Madison’s Metro Transit Maintenance Facility on the corner of East Washington Avenue and South Ingersoll Street will showcase a mural by a local artist. In May, the Madison Arts Commission selected four entries as finalists, including Actual Size Artworks (Gail Simpson and Aristotle Georgiades), Deborah Aschheim, Vito DiBari and Jenie Gao. The Madison Arts Commission is “an 11-member citizen commission appointed by the mayor to advise the city about matters of arts and culture.” The commission accepted feedback from the public into July and voted on the selected mural in October; they’re set to contract with an artist in the next few weeks. The Metro Transit Maintenance Facility’s mural will be the first public art project to receive funding from Madison’s Percent for the Art Ordinance that designates funding for public art and design in the city’s major public work projects.

Locked ballot boxes transformed into public art with a message
This summer, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled to end voting by absentee ballot boxes, citing that they violated state law. Ballot boxes were widely used during the 2020 presidential election to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at polling places. More than a dozen were set up in Madison that year. With cries of voter fraud from the right, Republican lawmakers mobilized to disenfranchise the absentee voting process. Absentee ballot boxes around Madison have been locked but remain standing, although they no longer bear the colors of Madison’s flag. Rather, they’ve been painted black and covered in artwork by the internationally renowned artist Jenny Holzer, including a quote by Sojourner Truth: “Truth is powerful and will prevail.” The front of the boxes now bear instructions for other legal voting options. Alternative voting methods, like absentee ballot boxes and mail-in ballots, enfranchise more voters by making the right more accessible to homebound, disabled, elderly and ill people. Read more by clicking here

Rainbow street crossing comes to Capitol Square and State Street
In early September, community leaders and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway cut the ribbon to dedicate a rainbow crosswalk at the convergence of State Street and Capitol Square. The purpose of the street art is to signal a more inclusive Madison to members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Friends of Madison Arts Commission, or FoMAC, raised funds for the installation, likely the first of more to come if more funds can be collected. According to the city’s website, FoMAC is “a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization established in 2020 to support the Madison Arts Commission’s efforts to encourage artistic activities and initiate cultural programs that integrate, support and advance arts and culture as an essential part of life in Madison.” The crosswalk features the Progress Pride Flag pointing toward the Capitol. Read more by clicking here


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Local artist selects transient medium for graphic murals
The artist behind Triangulador, Liubov Szwako, brings colorful, graphic murals to Madison buildings, but his work also pops up in unexpected places. Mattresses, box springs and scrap wood waiting to be hauled away on the curb are a more transient medium for the artist, which allows him to practice a “right here, right now mentality” knowing that the art will be discarded “no matter how good or bad the design might be.” It’s creating for the sake of creating — and it also provides a legal loophole for graffiti and a well-ventilated environment for producing with spray paint. Szwako says that he isn’t trying to convey any particular message with his street art, rather he paints because he enjoys it. “When I paint, it is not to see how good I am or where my paintings are going to end up. When I paint, it is about how it makes me feel.”

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“The Machine” after vandalism was cleaned up. (Photo by Emma Waldinger)

Mural with an anti-racist message vandalized at the corners of Monroe Street and Harrison Street
Simone Lawrence’s “The Machine” at the intersection of Monroe and Harrison streets was vandalized in June 2022. The mural was originally commissioned in fall 2021 by a group of Dudgeon-Monroe neighbors responding to a batch of racist fliers posted in the neighborhood. Along the side of Neuhauser Pharmacy, a scene depicts children of color in line waiting to choose their future “from a vending machine with grim options, such as prison, police brutality and poverty.” The vandal painted the words “HATE ART” across the mural, which Dudgeon-Monroe neighbors attempted to clean up, however there are still traces of the painted phrase. Lawrence had already moved away from Madison at the time that the mural was vandalized. Her intention with the piece was to inspire people to think about racism and anti-racism.

Emma Waldinger is associate editor at Madison Magazine.

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