By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Aug 04, 2020 at 1:03 PM

On Monday, the City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission voted 5-0 (with one abstention) to deny the application of Wallpapered City to have artist Shepard Fairey paint a large mural in support of voting rights on the side of the Railway Exchange Building at 229 E. Wisconsin Ave.

The effect, says mural organizer and local artist Stacey Williams-Ng, could be chilling for local artists.

Fairey is the creator of the recognizable Obama "HOPE" campaign image.

The 1899 building, one of the city’s first skyscrapers, is designated as historic by the city, and any exterior changes require permission from the HPC.

Because she owns the Railway Exchange Building, committee member Patti Keating-Kahn abstained from the vote.

When the Fairey mural became public in early July, a letter signed by more than 100 community members was sent to the committee, saying, "We find it troubling that our city’s arts institutions and funders would consider giving resources to a problematic white male artist who purports to represent BIPOC people, but has not reached out to Milwaukee’s BIPOC artists."

In a Facebook post on Saturday, Wallpapered City called those concerns, "very important and wholly justified," adding that they were, however, "cloaked in misunderstanding and assumptions about the nature of the project, and the artist."

Others opposed it based on plagiarism claims leveled against the artist, on the basis that it has a political message and on the size of the mural.

The HPC said it was concerned about painting the mural on unpainted brick and is working on guidelines for this type of artwork on masonry. Those guidelines are not yet complete, leading the members to deny the request on those grounds, to avoid creating a potential precedent.

However, Williams-Ng calls the decision, "an overreach, (because) there is currently no ordinance in place to allow the HPC explicit control over murals on historical buildings."

In advance of the meeting, the committee said it would not discuss or rule on the content of the mural and urged commenters to avoid that subject.

Williams-Ng of Wallpapered City – the public art group that created Black Cat Alley and has worked with West Allis, Wauwatosa and other municipalities to create many area murals – said that Fairey had planned to collaborate with a local photographer on the project.

"The art that was leaked (was) included as the proposed design," she said before the HPC vote, referring to an image that Fairey created for a poster using a photograph taken during the Civil Rights movement.

"However, this widespread poster already in circulation by the artist has only ever been a starting point for the final design, which will be customized for Milwaukee. Shepard Fairey wants to work with a local photographer who is shooting marches here, in order to collaborate on the best imagery for highlighting this time in our history.

"To do this, Shepard wants to collaborate with local organization who would be well-equipped to effectively get this message of voting rights across. These relationships have not yet been solidified because the necessary approvals for the mural project have not been finalized. Once that happens, we'll kick into high gear."

Now, the project is effectively dead, but the issue is not, according to Williams-Ng.

"My primary goal now is to persuade ImagineMKE to throw their full effort toward an Arts Action Alert in the interest of defending art in Milwaukee and fighting against censorship," she says.

"This is not something that will affect Shepard Fairey – he’s on to the next thing. But it’s going to seriously censor our Milwaukee artists."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.