By Royal Brevvaxling Special to Published Apr 13, 2012 at 3:03 PM

Since 1996, 22 hand-painted signs have gone up throughout Walker's Point and surrounding neighborhoods that promoted La Perla as well as Milwaukee's "Latin quarter." Some of the signs are painted on wood and mounted on the sides of Milwaukee buildings and others are painted directly on the Cream City bricks.

"The more people liked our signs, the more signs we wanted to put up, especially because they did what art is supposed to do, got people to talking, seeing things differently and even thinking this neighborhood is pretty cool," says JoAnne Anton, co-owner of La Perla, 734 S. 5th St.

Many of the signs were painted by Craig Pete, formerly a waiter at La Perla and several other Milwaukee restaurants, who has been showing his work in the Milwaukee art scene since the early '90s.

Several of the signs feature circus-art elements while others are more art deco. Anton says that some paintings are the painter's rendition of what La Perla is all about but all the early ones with Pete were collaboratively developed with a specific design in mind.

Anton attributes an "artistic eye" and the sign project generally to her husband, La Perla co-owner Nick Anton.

"He collects lots of samples with certain looks. Always different. Always bold. Craig helped refine and make the design our own take on the circus-art concept," says Anton.

Pete's art, which is often described as "circus side show" thematically, works well with folksy motifs from Mexican popular culture. In fact, Pete's other paintings include elements such as Dia de los Muertos-inspired skulls to portraits of the great masked wrestlers of the Mexican lucha libre professional wrestling tradition.

One of Pete's lucha libre paintings is in the Timo Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St. (ground floor of the Marshall Building).

Timothy Meyerring, owner of Timo and of Pete's wrestler painting, says it's rumored that Pete has quit painting to focus on furniture making or restoration. Pete could not be reached to comment for this article.

"While he was a good waiter, his true calling and passion was art. The guy has enormous talent and spirit," says Anton.

After Pete, other people approached La Perla, both friends of the owners and customers who helped beautify and continue promoting the Walker's Point neighborhood with more signs. Of the original 22 signs there are roughly 10 remaining. But newer signs that promote La Perla more directly have appeared around the neighborhood.

These newer signs are on black backgrounds with the restaurant's name, address and a pepper or two. A double-pepper-shaped heart symbol also appears on billboards for La Perla.

Anton believes that building-art, like the La Perla signs, is more prominent in other cities and Milwaukee is missing out with its restrictive sign ordinances and permit processes for advertising.

The idea of seeing buildings as art, that the character of buildings individually and collectively accounts for how feelings of community get structured, even if the buildings themselves may sometimes need a facelift, registers with Anton.

"These buildings are such an important part of our neighborhood and frankly, a hugely underutilized marketing commodity for property owners and the city of Milwaukee, too. Optimizing off- and on-premise signs for revenue is just one component. Signs are also tools for neighborhood beautification, if not revitalization," says Anton.

The signs are part of the Antons' commitment to Milwaukee overall. "We've been around since 1995, firmly committed to Walker's Point and to the city of Milwaukee. We've rejected constant offers to open up out in the 'burbs," she says.

The building art has been and remains effective in getting the word out about La Perla. But, moreover, people have associated the signs with the neighborhood and this positive impact has not gone unnoticed nor has the creativity of its artists been unappreciated.

Yet, La Perla's advertising has shifted somewhat. From the aforementioned simpler signs with black backgrounds that line the walls around gas station pumps to the large billboard facing north off I-43 with its double-pepper heart, La Perla is more and more off the walls.

"We added one to two (hand-painted, building) signs each year, sometimes more, until we pretty much ran out of ideas, location and paint," says Anton. "So, La Perla doesn't just use buildings anymore, we have circus art canvas inside our restaurant and we have also gone digital, as in billboards."

La Perla, which expanded four times since opening in 1995, recently added fire pits to its cabanas and rooftop patio. La Perla also recently upgraded the tequila in its house margaritas and added more products from Milwaukee producers like Stone Creek Coffee and Purple Door Ice Cream.

"We're looking forward to soon being able to purchase cheeses made right down the street at the new Clock Shadow Creamery," says Anton.

Anton says that, to keep up with "growing ridership," La Perla added a second mechanical chili pepper "bull" in its tequila bar. (This is good news since, in this author's opinion, riding the pepper at La Perla is a Milwaukee rite of passage.) 

"Our signs continue to welcome people to Walker's Point, some directly, others indirectly, but all of them tell passersby we care about our community. My new favorite sign isn't one for La Perla at all – it is our 'Heart of the Latin Quarter' sign that we hung on the corner of 5th and National. Nothing wrong with having this added identity and helping bring even more people down to our area," says Anton.

Royal Brevvaxling Special to
Royal Brevväxling is a writer, educator and visual artist. As a photo essayist, he also likes to tell stories with pictures. In his writing, Royal focuses on the people who make Milwaukee an inviting, interesting and inspiring place to live.

Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.