Milwaukee’s Black Cat Alley

Milwaukee-area residents are very familiar with and rightfully proud of the Oriental Theatre, a gorgeous movie palace built in 1927 whose clearly dated name is shared by three other U.S. theaters.

Milwaukee artist Jenny Jo Kristan’s colorful mural

But there are two things about “The Oriental” (as it’s locally known) of which very few people are aware. One is that it’s the only theater known to have an entirely East Indian theme.

The Oriental Theatre’s ornate East Indian-style lobby, courtesy of Marquette University. Found within the theater’s 2 minaret towers are 3 stained glass chandeliers, 6 huge Buddhas, 8 porcelain lions, and more elephants than you could ever begin to count.

The other is the subject of this post, which features the alley directly behind the theater. It’s understandable if folks heading to the Oriental, Ma Fischer’s (open since 1947) and other well-known North Avenue destinations for many years weren’t aware of this alley. Not only is it quite new, but it’s nearly hidden in plain sight.

Here’s a video that I uploaded to Facebook; it captures about half of the amazing block-long project.

Black Cat Alley opened in September 2016; 14 murals were installed in just 2 weeks. For decades, this was an unusually dark, quiet alley, especially given its location amidst all the activity along North Avenue. Avoided for decades by nearly all except criminals, it was in every way the darkest spot in a rapidly gentrifying area.

East Side Business Improvement District owns the alley, and they teamed with Milwaukee-based Wallpapered City to create the largest open-air mural gallery in the city. $50,000 in fundraising, along with two dozen corporate sponsors and news coverage from every major media outlet, helped bring the beautiful project to fruition.

Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design student Renee Aless Martinez created this fascinating installation from wheat paste

Before you enter the alley from its south side along E Kenilworth Place, you’re greeted by a stunning 60-foot-wide “glitch frog” by MTO, the highly mysterious creator of some of Europe’s most iconic murals. MTO was born in France and lived in Berlin from 2006-2013, but his name (believed at one time to be Mateo) and location have been a secret ever since. So, it was quite the honor when, two months before the opening of Black Cat Alley, MTO created his first-ever self-portrait (as well as his first-ever full-color mural) on the Oriental Theatre’s the south façade.

Black Cat Alley’s southern entrance is just to the right of this image. Even when you’re standing at the alley’s entrance, the beauty and sheer scale of the art is not readily apparent. The south portal still faces some viewing, cleanup and wayfinding challenges, but it is likely to improve by summer.

Even to a keen art and street observer, the giant frog doesn’t yet appear to have any connection with Black Cat Alley. In fact, it’s still incredibly easy to miss the colorful alley starting 50 feet to its east even when staring up at the frog. The south portal still has some specific challenges that are being addressed.

Nearly all of the 15 (and counting) other Black Cat Alley muralists are either from Milwaukee or have studied at Milwaukee’s Institute of Art & Design or UWM’s Peck School of the Arts.

The tallest mural in Black Cat Alley is around 30 feet tall

Having grown up in Milwaukee, it was almost impossible to believe the alley’s transformation, even during bleak January conditions.

I immediately saw why local civic leader (and my uncle) John Jansen put this alley high on his list of places to show me. While taking in the amazing scene, we saw a magazine-style photoshoot occurring in what had previously been an unimaginable location for such an event.

Uncle John and I had a great time exploring the transformative alley. He is standing in front of UWM student Ian McGibbon’s playful mural. Directly ahead of John is a combined painting and print of a beer mug and Catz Brewery building by Brandon Mingal.

Black Cat Alley’s name was inspired by the mascot of UW-Milwaukee, whose teams are the Panthers. The alley is across the street from the Kenilworth Square location of UWM’s Peck School of the Arts, so the alley forms a natural continuation from the school and the Kenilworth Square apartments where many art students live. The building (pictured below) is, coincidentally, where my dad used to pick up and return his UWM fleet cars in the 1970s and 80s; I still vividly remember how unpleasant the block was in those days.

Kenilworth Square, marked by the ARTS sign. Its alley is directly across the street from Black Cat Alley, whose idea was born in this building.

It was at this very location where art professor Tim Decker noticed his students cutting through the dark, dangerous alley after class. Soon afterward, he and Black Cat Alley program director Stacey Williams-Ng envisioned breathing new life into the corridor. Their great idea led to the creation of a beautiful new cultural destination.

Formerly Milwaukee-based artist Jeremy Novy added some of his signature “koi fish.”

One of my very favorite things to see in the middle of a dense urban area is a community-centered, art-filled, car-free passageway such as Black Cat Alley; it embodies the spirit of what I try to capture in this blog. I hope that other neighborhoods are inspired to create similar places!

2010 Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design graduate John Kowalczyk painted this mural

Black Cat Alley is not without controversy, though. Adam Stoner created one of the largest murals in the alley; it depicts a black man wearing prison clothing. It’s intended to highlight Milwaukee’s incarceration rate of black men, which is said to be the highest in the nation. But the mural lacks context, which only adds to its controversy.

Stoner is hoping that the mural reminds people that this image should never be seen as normal or acceptable. He also wants his art to start a conversation, and on that front, he has definitely succeeded.

Artist Adam Stoner’s controversial painting of a black man in a prison uniform.

Many other cities are expanding their outdoor mural installations. Chicago’s impressive public art program has added nearly *10 linear miles* of new murals in the past decade or so.

I might end up creating several posts of fascinating mural-filled (as well as graffiti-filled) alleys I’ve seen in North America and Europe. Some can be discovered online, but, as always, I’ll describe them in much more detail than could otherwise be found.

One such place is Toronto’s quarter-mile-long “Graffiti Alley.” It starts on Portland Street, so it’s right up my alley. 🙂

Uncle John and I couldn’t get enough of the alley’s transformation

Black Cat Alley exemplifies the huge difference to a community that can result from creative inspiration applied to a single block. My favorite part, even beyond the art itself, is that this increasingly vibrant neighborhood has a beautiful new *car-free* passageway to explore and enjoy. May we create many more such urban thoroughfares!

Butterfly stencil by Jeremy Novy
Milwaukee abstract artist Jeff Redmon’s “Flyboy”


2 thoughts on “Milwaukee’s Black Cat Alley”

  1. Fascinating story, Tim. It was only a week or less before you arrived in town that I heard about this. But I knew right away it was something you had to see!

    1. I can’t thank you enough for showing me wonderful Black Cat Alley! I had a great time doing a bunch of subsequent research about the project, and everything I read was super impressive and heartwarming! The turnaround in this space was the true definition of a 180. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *