Downtown’s New Voting Rights Mural
Shepard Fairey completes 7,400-square-foot mural on Colby Abbot Building.
Fairey, famous for his Hope image of then-candidate Barack Obama, painted the mural with his Obey Giant team.
The central image in the mural is of an African American male at a 1960s protest looking skyward surrounded by artwork provided by the Wisconsin artists. The central figure was captured by photographer Steve Schapiro, who documented civil rights protests in the 1960s. “As I looked through his numerous beautiful and powerful photos, we discussed the possibility of collaborating on the spot,” wrote Fairey in describing the inspiration behind the piece and his first meeting with Schapiro.
“There were a lot of great artists whose work I reviewed, but I selected the artists whose work I thought could translate harmoniously in the style of my mural while still retaining recognizable connection to the individual artists in a way they felt good about,” Fairey said via email. “One of the main reasons I wanted to work with other artists is because I believe that a lot of the social justice issues need to be tackled with allyship and solidarity, but also because I think local perspectives need to be elevated for the sake of the evolution of the local community.”
The 7,400-square-foot mural is intended to last for years past the election. It is best viewed from the area around N. Milwaukee St. and E. Wells St., particularly atop two nearby parking structures.
The piece took four days to paint, and Fairey and his team drew plenty of onlookers over the course of the weekend as they hung from the side of the building.
Fairey, with local support from Wallpapered City, Black Box Fund and Patti Keating Kahn, proposed a mural dubbed “Voting Rights Are Human Rights” on the south side of Keating Kahn’s Railway Exchange Building, 229 E. Wisconsin Ave., to be painted in time for the Democratic National Convention in August.
But the Historic Preservation Commission rejected the mural, explicitly because the commission had not advanced guidelines to allow such a piece. A letter, submitted by 130 people, objected to Fairey, a nationally-known artist, getting the private commission over a local artist of color. The historic commissioners said they couldn’t consider the letter, and one of the commission staffers said they didn’t remember a letter with so many signatories.
Fairey told Urban Milwaukee he was drawn to the city because of the DNC and the state’s role as a battleground state. He hopes the piece spurs conversation. “To me the role it should play is stimulating the conversation around an issue that people might be uninterested in or intimidated by otherwise,” he said.
The mural is a marker in the restoration of the 135-year-old Colby Abbot Building. The building, home to Urban Milwaukee along with dozens of other organizations, suffered a massive fire on June 7th.
Urban Milwaukee’s office was a complete loss as a result of smoke and water damage, as was the organization’s sister business, Urban Milwaukee: The Store. Almost all tenants are now back in the building.