By Doug Hissom Special to Published Jan 16, 2009 at 5:15 AM

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Milwaukee Ald. Tony Zielinski continues to tag graffiti artists as public enemy No. 1. But at least one member of a city committee says his latest plan blurs the line between murals, graffiti and freedom of expression.

Zielinski is proposing an ordinance that would require any mural artist to apply for a permit and pay $75 in order to paint the side of a building. It would be "a mechanism to check these murals and make sure they're properly maintained" he said last week at the city's Zoning Code Technical Committee, which considers proposed ordinances concerning buildings and such.

But when committee member Stuart Mukamal -- an assistant city attorney -- pointed out that some of the language may step on First Amendment freedom of expression protections Zielinski slammed his brief case closed and stormed out of the meeting. He said he thought that the legal language issues had already been worked out in the city attorney's office and thought it too much of a delay to hash them out at the meeting. "Why would I want to discuss this now?" he yelled while leaving the room.

Mukamal said graffiti is subjective and that the proposal doesn't precisely clarify the difference between a mural and graffiti. He also said it must prove that murals and graffiti affect public's health, safety and welfare. He added that murals, considered non-commercial speech, have a higher standard of protection than, say, billboards, which are commercial speech and easier to regulate.

According to the proposed ordinance: "the Common Council finds that the objects depicted in some murals may cause distraction of motorists and lead to unsafe traffic conditions."Mukamal added that murals, considered non-commercial speech, have a higher standard of protection than, say, billboards, which are commercial speech and easier to regulate.

Another argument against elaborate murals is that they attract taggers who tag the paintings or will tag areas around the mural. Zielinski also says murals in the city are not being well-maintained.

Opponents to the ordinance included neighborhood organizers who put together mural projects in alleys that had been subject to repeated tagging, such as Sura Furaj, who organized the Riverwest "Art in the Alleys" project. Such effort give young people an additional artistic outlet.

"City leaders have a legitimate interest in fighting graffiti that property owners don't want on their homes and businesses, but murals -- approved by the property owners in advance -- are completely different," opined School Board member Jennifer Morales. "People living in the United States have a right to freedom of expression that does not harm others. Public art is an essential element of human creative expression, from the ancient cave paintings in Lascaux (in France) to last year's Riverwest Art in the Alleys project."

No mention of the proposed ordinance was made at this week's Anti-Graffiti Committee meeting, chaired by Zielinski.

In fact, city officials said tagging was down this year. Reports were heard that 10 taggers were arrested after people called the city's anti-graffiti tip line. Milwaukee's Municipal Court reports that arrests for graffiti in 2008 were about half that of 2007. Most cases concern graffiti paraphernalia, said the court's Kristine Hinrichs.

Plan B Works: Far-sighted thinking has worked out in the end. When Cardinal Capital Management wanted to build a housing complex for the mentally ill in an environmental corridor and on parkland on the South Side of Milwaukee, the developers were rebuffed not once, but twice. Both times company representatives argued that there was nowhere else in the city they could afford to build the project.

Nonetheless, aldermen sided with environmentalists and the local alderman, Zielinski, who opposed the plan, saying there were plenty of city lots available for such a project.

The developer was rejected twice for trying to build on parkland. Months later, Cardinal Capital was back with a similar proposal for another South Side site. This time no parkland was involved and their plan is to put the project on a vacant lot at 1537 W. National Ave.

The city has agreed to sell Cardinal Capital the lot for $3,600. The city acquired the lot in a tax foreclosure move.

Cardinal plans to build a $6.1 million building with 34 housing units run by Our Space, Inc. Cardinal hooked up with Our Space in its previous, failed effort. The project, called Oakton Manor, will be financed mostly through federal housing tax credits. After the closing, Cardinal will have nine months to finish the project.

Suspensions by the Numbers: Some interesting figures from the Milwaukee Public School system's touting that suspensions were down one-third for the first half of this school year compared to last year:

  • Three K3 kindergartners suspensions were issued; 68 K4 suspensions were ordered and 163 K5 kids were suspended at one time or another.
  • Ninth graders topped the suspension list with 6,512 told to stay home.
  • 12th graders came in sixth place in total suspensions.

Taking into account suspensions of five days or more:

  • Three K5 kindergartners were suspended.
  • Six first graders were told to stay at home.
  • Eleven second graders were suspended.
  • Topping the list of five-day suspensions were ninth graders, with 356 suspensions.
  • Second in suspensions were 10th graders, at 211.
  • Twelfth graders, perhaps eyeing the fact that they can graduate and get out of the system, had only 96 five-plus-day suspensions, which was even lower than seventh graders, who found 151 suspensions. Twelfth graders came in with the sixth most suspensions compared to other traditional grade suspensions,.
  • The biggest leap came from sixth grade to seventh grade, where 66 sixth graders were suspended and 151 seventh graders suspended. Perhaps the leap reflects the fact that students are moving from being the elders of elementary schools to the youngest of the middle schools.

There were 24,386 suspensions for the first half of this year compared with 33,098 issued last year. MPS notes that the number of suspensions could include kids that had more than one suspension.

Doug Hissom Special to
Doug Hissom has covered local and state politics for 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper.

An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe.

He lives in Bay View.