Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Controversy Over Historic Building’s Mural

Mitchell Street mural sparks debate. Is a mural just paint? Should it be removed?

By - Oct 29th, 2019 11:43 am
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"Growth" by Mauricio Ramirez. Image from the City of Milwaukee.

“Growth” by Mauricio Ramirez. Image from the City of Milwaukee.

The city’s Historic Preservation Commission finds itself grappling with what to do with a growing issue – the proliferation of murals.

A new mural by artist Mauricio Ramirez on the S. 12th St. facade of a two-story, historically-designated building at 1202 W. Historic Mitchell St. has forced the issue. Entitled “Growth,” the mural was completed in late July.

Commission staffers Carlen Hatala and Tim Askin recommend that masonry never be directly painted. “Paint has the significant potential to do damage to the structure,” said Hatala. “It perpetuates a repainting cycle and a cost. It was never meant to be painted.”

Hatala and Askin said future guidelines should promote demountable murals, that is murals that are painted on a removable paneling.

At the commission’s October meeting, Hatala recommended denying retroactive approval for Ramirez’s mural. A key issue before the commission is whether the building’s 12th Street facade was painted before the Historic Mitchell Street district was created in 1986 or painted later without commission approval.

Given that the wall had been painted before the recent mural was created, Commissioner and Alderman Robert Bauman said requiring the mural’s removal was akin to requiring the property owner to simply let the paint flake off or pay to remove it, even if they acquired the property after it was painted.

“That’s an absurd position. You understand that?” asked Bauman rhetorically.

“If they’re allowed to paint the wall with one kind of paint, what’s the difference if they paint a mural?” asked Bauman. “I don’t know if I see the difference. Paint is paint.” Commissioner Patti Keating Kahn echoed his comments later in the meeting.

City records show the building as unpainted from its construction in 1923 through 1980, but no photos were found for when the building was painted. The wall originally contained a decorative brick pattern.

Shlomo Shertok acquired the building in 2005, by which point photo evidence shows the first floor as having been painted. Alderman Jose G. Perez said he knows the wall, a frequent target of graffiti, has been painted for a long time.

“Maybe in a concession in exchange for this the owner restores the second story windows,” said Hatala “The building has had neglect and a number of code violations.”

But Shertok said he wouldn’t be able to fund the repairs without city assistance.

Ramirez proposed the mural to Shertok and painted it for free. “I think Historic Mitchell Street is something that people should be proud of,” said Ramirez. He said he primed the surface with a vapor-permeable primer.

“This is a tough call for staff,” said Hatala.

How did the mural even end up before the commission? Historic Mitchell Street Business Improvement District executive director Nancy Bush reported it. Many of the commission’s enforcement actions rely on reports from citizens. But Bush wasn’t present at the meeting and the matter was complicated when it was revealed that the business district board took a vote in favor of the mural.

Commissioner and UW-Milwaukee architecture professor Matt Jarosz moved to hold the matter to a future meeting so they could hear from Bush.

Perez said he would introduce legislation to provide guidelines for murals on historic properties. “I see this as pretty awesome art in the neighborhood,” said the alderman of Ramirez’s murals.

Those looking to see more of Ramirez’s work can spot his new 5,000-square-foot mural from N. 6th St. near W. Wisconsin Ave. That mural, painted for Community Advocates, was unveiled last week. And the utility boxes on Wisconsin Ave. through Downtown were painted by Ramirez in 2017. He has also painted a number of other murals across the city which can be readily identified by Ramirez’s heavy use of geometric shapes.

Photos

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Related Legislation: File 190672

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