The battle over “Raw Love”

By - Jul 21st, 2010 04:00 am
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Mural in progress. Photo by Erik Aldrich

Alderman Bob Donovan strikes again, this time directing his rage at a mural painted on the side of a building on the city’s near south side during TRUE Skool’s 5th Annual Street Party last Saturday. The party included demonstrations of “graffiti art,” one of the genres of artistic expression taught by the program.

Monday morning Donovan was alerted to the mural by the 2nd district police captain and immediately called a press conference. Standing in front of the garage where the mural was (now painted over)  he publicly berated the school for glorifying graffiti and for encouraging vandals to tag the neighborhood. Donovan serves on the city’s anti-graffiti policy committee and is chairman of the public safety committee.

“I don’t want any of their murals in my district,” Donovan yelled at TRUE Skool representatives.

The mural was not displayed in Donovan’s district, but instead was in the adjoining district of Ald. Jim Witkowiak, who has been silent on the issue.

Donovan also described TRUE Skool as an alternative school which is using “precious grants and resources to ‘educate’ young people on how to create graffiti. In my opinion this outfit is nothing more than a front for propagating and endorsing graffiti.”

Since then it’s been the talk of the town, from the 10 o’clock news to the squawkers on the AM dial, as the debate has raged over whether the mural is art or vandalism.

Art is in the eye of the beholder, and obviously this piece of work does not fall under Donovan’s definition. He described the piece as “crap” and “garbage,” adding that the property owner agreed with that assessment. Others have weighed in referring to the mural as “obscene,” “pornography,” and “trash.”

According to TRUE Skool Executive Director Sarah Patterson, they received permission from the owner of the building. (Building owner Robert Smith could not be reached for comment.) She explained that he originally wanted the kids to paint a commercial message on the building, but she discouraged him due to the signage ordinances in place in the city. Instead he allowed them to paint the “Raw Love” mural at the center of the firestorm.

Photo by Erik Aldrich

The mural title “RAW LOVE”, spelled backwards is “EVOL WAR”, the artists’ depiction of the struggles between good and evil that take place in our communities.

Patterson explained that the mission of TRUE Skool, which stands for Truth in Reality Urban Education, is to use cultural arts to educate and empower youth from different backgrounds and cultures to become leaders for positive social change in their communities. She added that the mission is met by using conflict resolution, creativity, self-expression, non-violence, youth organizing, community activism and community service projects.

The program is often used by Milwaukee municipal judges when sentencing taggers to community service or restitution, who then work with the organization to clean up and restore graffiti-ridden neighborhoods and redirect their artistic vision to legal outlets.

In addition to “graffiti art,” TRUE Skool offers urban art classes in canvass, stencils, print-screening, clothing design/marketing, music production/DJ classes, community murals and breakdancing.

“I just think it is ridiculous when young people in the community see our aldermen go on TV irate…when they try to do something positive and are being called criminals and vandals,” said Patterson, who said Donovan attended the group’s block party last year and had no problem with the mural painting on S. Cesar Chavez Drive.

2009 TRUE Skool mural at corner of Chavez Dr. and Washington St. Photo provided by TRUE Skool

That mural is much more traditional in scope, depicting Chavez Drive, lettuce fields and Central American ruins in the background with famous Hispanic leaders in portraiture.

“It is really sad – we still have those who view art as not valuable,” she said. “Our goal is to get kids off the streets. He [Donovan] needs to be willing to listen the young people in his district. This is not graffiti, this is about creating solutions with our young people.”

The students were angered by the display and Patterson said it has made them more determined to fight for their right to express themselves in a legal, controlled way.

TRUE Skool also has plans to create a more permanent community mural at S. 3rd and W. Bruce St. in the coming weeks. Information about the mural was included in fliers the group distributed in the neighborhood and was discussed at the June 30 meeting of the Walker’s Point Association, which gave the group its support, Patterson said.

Another member of the city’s anti-graffiti policy committee is also a board member at TRUE Skool. He said in a letter that Donovan and others have placed the organization in their cross-hairs.

“This organization is one the few remaining youth serving agencies in the city that effectively works with young people charged with vandalism and redirects their skills in a manner that is productive for themselves and the community. I along with every member of TRUE Skool’s board and staff are committed to deterring illegal vandalism throughout our community. Unfortunately, TRUE Skool’s work continues to be met with disdain by several key members of (the anti-graffiti) group.”

But was this a case of one man’s opinion? Does TRUE Skool foster artistic expression or is it creating a new generation of vandals?

Some of TCD’s visual art contributors weigh in.


TRUE Skool: A True View
Visual Arts Contributor and arts educator Kat Murrell

Paint on a wall is not a bad thing.  To automatically assume that this unfortunately temporary work is graffiti equates it with thoughtless and destructive vandalism.  It denigrates the skill, vision, and collaborative effort that went into this project.  Suggesting this work is no better than tagging stops far short of seeing it for what it is; it’s a mural.

But really, is the problem simply a matter of some paint on a wall?  Or are there insinuations about style and culture at the crux of this debate?  If the circumstances were different, say the image was a copy of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, or Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, one has to wonder if it would instead be hailed as a clever achievement.  The artists of the TRUESkool mural haven’t replicated the acceptable past; they provoke consideration of our contemporary present.

Iconic Milwaukee buildings and boxcars of a train make up the background of the mural.  In the foreground, a hazmat-suited person looms large, wearing a mask with alien-like eyes.  The suit, the hazardous warning symbol in the center, and weapon signal danger; they make sense of the twisted pile of rusted pointy metal, drawn with angles so sharp that maybe they have confused some viewers as graffiti tags.

Milwaukee is remaking its industrial past into a new, and even gentrified, future.  But, this landscape still exists in the folds of Walker’s Point.  Empty fields are unseen except by passing trains; industrial leftovers lie among the grasses.  What are the ramifications of these liminal spaces, and their possibilities?  These are important things to reckon with.  This mural asks us to do that.

This controversy once again shows the power of images, so why not embrace it?  Art can start dialogues and foster connections between people and their own community.  An ongoing program of temporary or permanent mural painting could give even more incentive to visit restaurants and businesses in an area.  It’s a shame to cover up the potential of images and ideas, hiding them away under a wash of nondescript, non-confrontational beige paint.

Art vs. Graffiti: An Absurd Argument
Arts writer and former publisher of ART Muscle Judith Ann Moriarty

It seems beyond absurd that we’re being asked to differentiate between “art and graffiti.” We can’t even agree on what art is.

Let me give you some background on this. Step back fifteen years to the Walker’s Point area where I purchased a Victorian storefront located on National Avenue. Covering the entire brick face of the west side was an atrocious mural totally out of keeping with building. When I had the building lovingly painted, I had the awful thing painted over. The former owners of the property apparently liked it. I did not. But it was perfectly legal.

A few years later I worked in a building on 10th & National, adjacent to the (then) home of Walkers Point Center for the Arts. There was a big flap when some young persons from the ‘hood were arrested for illegal graffiti. One of them was a participant in the WPCA art program. That all blew over and since that time, a decade ago, the local media replays this tired old tale: what is art and what is graffiti? I should mention that the son of a friend of mine actually went to jail for a few years for running amuck with his graffiti.

To show you just how absurd this whole flap is, perhaps I need to point out that somewhere down the line, should we come to accept graffiti as art, then won’t we need to decide what is “good” graffiti and what is “bad?” Reminder: we can’t agree on what art is.

Think about it.


The Cold, Hard Truth via TRUE Skool
Artist, contributor and owner of Merge Gallery Valerie J. Christell

Did TRUE Skool provide juveniles with the technical knowledge to deface property with self-centered conversations understandable only to their friends?  No. Did it teach them how to evade discovery of their dastardly deeds under cover of night?  No.

And, no, these students did not create an Andrew Wyeth-esque depiction of Christina’s World, either. But what they created in the harsh light of day was a cold, hard truth; a social statement about their 21st century world, one which can be scary. Symbols of global issues in the mural say it all:  you can’t hide from it as it touches communities as small as Milwaukee.

Their statement was about community and global issues–presenting a reality about conflict that many pretend doesn’t exist.  The bio hazard symbol front and center with with the gas-masked figure on the right and the plume of smoke on the left speak to results of contemporary weapons that can only too easily be used to destroy every living being in any city, even our own.

These young people engaged in a conversation about something bigger than themselves. So does anyone still want to call this damaging to the community?

0 thoughts on “The battle over “Raw Love””

  1. Anonymous says:

    Welll…speaking purely as a passerby and expatriate Milwaukean who grew up on the South Side and therefore knows this neighborhood intimately (or used to…), I recognize this mural as a powerful statement about being literally and psychologically trapped in a toxic ghetto, a place ready to “blow up” at any time, where sometimes it might feel like there may never be any escape…and people desperately need positive outlets to express these frustrations—I say that more property owners should volunteer wall space for “sanctioned” artwork such as this, which would also help redirect gang-related tagging activity. TrueSkool should commended for their efforts and “Fightin” Bob Donovan should be publicly reprimanded in some way for his negative grandstanding….it is even more appalling that this isn’t even in his own district! Wm. J. Krupinski—Jefferson WI

  2. Anonymous says:

    Nice murals but not good if it’s causing an explosion of tagging nearby.

    Giving kids an artful outlet for their passion is good, but the real truth in reality is that urban education needs to be about skills that give you the freedom and mobility to do what most people with college degrees do: get jobs they like here or (more likely) somewhere else.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’m not crazy about this mural, but my subjective judgment about its artistic merits matter just as much as Bob Donovan’s, i.e., absolutely zero. And Donovan is flat-out, objectively wrong to label it graffiti. The key difference between “graffiti” and “art” is PERMISSION. If the building owner gave permission, it’s art; if not, it’s visual pollution and a direct affront to the owner and the community. Graffiti should be prosecuted as both a property and environmental crime. It’s deliberate and purely narcissistic, too, not a byproduct of something useful, so taggers and graffitists are in some ways worse people than the most egregious corporate polluters. But TrueSKOOL isn’t among them.

    Is Donovan’s the same district as old “Fightin’ Bob” Anderson’s? Is he drinking water or inhaling smoke from the same pipe? He’s sure cut from the same cloth – a habitually wrong, attention-seeking, blowhard crank who somehow found his way into office.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I want to know how diffrent this is versus the concrete art work at the Marquette interchange or the pieces of art from the old whale wall for the Milwaukee Museum? Or when we use to have ad’s painted on the sides of building promoting beer,cars. cigarettes, and many other things in Milwaukee’s history. Is it proper for these young people to paint these items with-out the owners consent no how ever if the owner want’s this type of art he should be allowed to have it. But if it was done as vandilism it should be removed and the vandles arrested restitution paid to the business owner.

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