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A newcomer’s view of street art in Madison

Journalist Elizabeth Lang questions the politics of the city’s “forbidden and tender” murals.

Journalist Elizabeth Lang questions the politics of the city’s “forbidden and tender” murals.

Elizabeth Lang wrote extensively about street art for an English-language newspaper in her native Costa Rica, The Tico Times, but developed a whole different perspective on country’s street-art scene after she began a graduate journalism program at UW-Madison last fall. As Lang started exploring Madison, she realized that she wasn’t seeing anywhere near as much street art as she was used to.

“I’ve lived in Costa Rica all my life until the past [five] months. I thought that we didn’t have street art in Costa Rica, but now it’s like…there is street art, and lots of it, and it’s very political,” Lang says. The perspective Lang brings to street art in Madison also helps to illustrate why representation is so important in journalism in the United States. “In my program (the Professional MA program at the SJMC) I’m the only Latina,” Lang points out.

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So Lang dug into the Madison art community, following her curiosity to murals around the city and talking with artists, street-art instigator James Gubbins of Momentum Art Tech, and people who work in the arts in a more official capacity, like City of Madison Arts Administrator Karin Wolf and Madison Museum of Contemporary Art curator Mel Becker Solomon. What she discovered wasn’t that Madison lacked street art, but that most of our street art takes place in a highly mediated context, one where local government and business are often funding and sanctioning the work. There is good old-fashioned, illegal street art in Madison, but it’s way less visible than sanctioned public-art projects that draw on street art’s traditions and aesthetics.

If street art is supposed to be free and spontaneous and “done in a manner where it’s really not asked for,” as Lang puts it, does this erode the spirit of street art? 

These questions, a lot of reporting, and Lang’s interest in creating immersive online journalism culminated in Mad Street Art, a website that tells the story through a four-part written series (available in both English and Spanish), a video, and an interactive map. “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,” Lang writes in the introductions to each of the site’s four written pieces.  

“I’ve always been very interested in art and its social focus and how it responds to the political, economic, and social systems of a nation,” Lang says. In Costa Rica, Lang wrote often about incredibly ambitious street artists. She grew used to seeing graffiti that took overt political stands, offering a swift response to scandals and movements in the country. 

While back in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, over the holidays, Lang sent me photos of dozens of examples: Stencils calling out former Costa Rican president Óscar Arias, who was accused of sexual assault in 2019, as “violador,” or “rapist.” A mural that declares “Juntas somos mas fuertes,” or “together we are stronger,” in a celebration of solidarity among women and perhaps a reference to the anti-femicide movements at work in Costa Rica and across Latin America. A hasty scrawl of “piña = muerte” or “pineapple = death,” a protest against the unsavory environmental and labor practices of pineapple plantations in Costa Rica. (Photos in the slideshow below, all by Lang.)

In Madison, one might see the occasional sidewalk-chalk scrawl calling out Robin Vos, or murals celebrating social and ethnic diversity, but there just isn’t the same critical mass of street art bluntly calling out Madison’s social and economic disparities  or the abuses of state-level politicians.

“I wasn’t finding dissent in the street art here… I was thinking, where is the angst?” Lang recalls. Three words recur throughout the Mad Street Art project: “Tender,” “forbidden,” and “cute.” The first is a play on a mural on the 1100 block of Willy Street that honors Otis Redding (who died in a 1967 plane crash on Lake Monona) and his song “Try A Little Tenderness.” It’s clearly also a reference to the warm colors and optimistic sentiments that dominate Madison’s street-art-inspired public art pieces. More importantly, the adjective refers to the role that young artists and volunteers, including students from Madison public schools and teenagers incarcerated at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center, play in creating public-art projects like Madison Mural Alley, and that’s a big part of what makes this art political even when the politics aren’t completely obvious.

“Most of the street art here is tender because of the social causes behind it,” Lang says. “It’s people working with vulnerable populations, youth-at-risk populations… I came to the conclusion that even though the political message is not explicitly there, it is political behind all that, because first of all it’s approved by the city government, which is a political entity, and they’re using the government’s money, and they’re helping other parts of the city that are in need. It’s political, but not on the walls, just in the process behind it.”

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Street art is “forbidden” in the sense that graffiti is illegal, but also because artists who want to stay on the law’s good side have to jump through a lot of hoops.

“When I talked to James Gubbins, he has street art very ingrained in himself, so he knows what’s illegal street art and what’s legal street art, and he’s now to the point where he’s become an entrepreneur and is using the legal side of it, but he says that it can be discouraging for other artists getting into this because they have to get so many permissions,” Lang says. “The city government is very strict about it. It has to go through different commissions, and it can be a very tedious process.”

The “cute” part came directly from MMoCA’s Mel Becker Solomon, quoted in Mad Street Art’s first written installment:

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.”

While questioning the politics and structures that shape Madison’s approach to street art, Lang also chronicles a rich community of artists gradually transforming the cityscape, from Gubbins to veteran muralist Sharon Kilfoy to Brazilian-born graphic designer and UW-Madison lecturer Henrique Nardi. Lang also pointed out to me that even the simple act of creating a mural in a neighborhood where people are struggling with poverty and other systemic injustices can represent a political stance. In the fourth chapter of Mad Street Art, Lang concludes that the “forbidden” and “tender” work she’s found here is “seeking an instant of humanity in the two unequal Madisons in Wisconsin.”

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