By Dylan Deprey
It is not everyday to open the blinds and find a giant neon frog tattooed on the of the building across the street. Well on Milwaukeeâ€™s Eastside, there is much more where that came from. Whether itâ€™s a giant beer mug, a contemplating prison inmate the size of a building, or a memorial to an albino deer, the Black Cat Alley has it.
The once ominous alleyway between Kenilworth Blvd and Ivanhoe St., bordered by Farwell Avenue and Prospect Avenue, has taken the phrase â€śa fresh coat of paintâ€ť to new heights.
The project began as an idea back in 2014, when UWM Professor Tim Dekker came to local artist Stacey Williams-Ng to brighten alleyway, which was frequently used, by students, staff and the community to cut through.
â€śThis was the deepest, darkest alley you could think of. So, this was a no-brainer,â€ť said Jim Plaisted, Executive Director of the East Side Business Improvement District (BID). The East Side BID is a quasi-governmental organization created by property owners to manage, promote and staff commercial areas located within the East North Avenue Business Neighborhood.
The East Side BID is one of Black Cat Alleyâ€™s many sponsors.
Plaisted noted that the Alley was an interesting case because it was technically not owned by the city, but instead on private property. He offered a round of applause to the apartment complexes and local businesses that gave the go-ahead for the project.
Artists worked tirelessly the week prior to the Black Cat Alleyâ€™s grand opening, on September 18 as part of Doors Open Milwaukee.
Over 100 artists applied and 16 were chosen, including six assistants. The list of artists ranged from professionals to students and locals to out-of-country visitors. Some were mural aficionados while others, like the versatile Milwaukee native Brandon Minga, was his first outdoor mural.
â€śArt is my trade and profession,â€ť Minga said. â€śIâ€™ve done smaller murals but I wanted to go larger and go a step bigger, and this was my opportunity to do so.â€ť
His mural is the giant beer can located near the center of the alley intertwined within a fire escape.
John Kowalczyk is a Chicago native and Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design graduate. He wanted to use this opportunity to get out of his studio and connect with different people and communities.
â€śI am a big believer in the power of art,â€ť Kowalczyk said. â€śI think transforming any underutilized space is a good idea, and with art itâ€™s even better.â€ť
Kowalczykâ€™s mural is homage to the late Merlin the Beloved Buck, a celebrated albino deer living in Holyhill, WI, which was hit by a car in January 2016.
The 14 murals cover around 11,000 sq. ft. worth of art. With that much art that meant a lot of paint. Williams-Ng applauded the long lists of sponsors including the recently opened Village Paint and Hardware, who donated $3,000 worth of paint plus anything from scaffolding to tape measures.
Williams-Ng said that sponsors and donations came from all across Milwaukee including James Hyland, the Roundyâ€™s Vice President of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs. During the grand opening, he said that he wanted to be a sponsor because businesses were meant to be part of the community and not just within it.
â€śArt is infrastructure of the mind, itâ€™s a culmination of creativity and imagination,â€ť Hyland said.
As Ald. Nik Kovac cut the ribbon suspended on a piece of scaffolding, the Black Cat Alley was ceremoniously christened. William Ng and Dekker said to expect new murals added yearly to the project.
After raising $40,000 and working over 7,000 hours in an 18-month span, the once grimey alleyway once littered in garbage and pizza boxes has transformed into a walkway littered in amazing artwork.
â€śAn investment in art is a wise investment, and investment in the community is an even wiser investment,â€ť Hyland said.