'Milwaukee Takes It'
Off the Cuff with Wisconsin Avenue artist Mauricio Ramirez
On the corner of Sixth Street and Wisconsin Avenue, Mauricio Ramirez stands in the hot sun with two large crates of spray paint at his feet. He’s covering a utility box—once an industrial gray—with shaded triangles that will form an image of Vel Phillips when he is finished. The current Wisconsin Avenue artist in residence is a Chicago native, but spent childhood summers growing up in Milwaukee attending his cousins’ birthday parties. Now, Ramirez is transforming 10 utility boxes along Wisconsin Avenue to honor important icons and events in Milwaukee’s wide-spanning history. From the settling of Native American tribes to the days of Milwaukee founding father Byron Kilbourn and the 1960s fair housing marches, Ramirez renders eye-catching images that make Downtown prettier.
Learning about Milwaukee’s history, as well as exploring a bit of his own, has been an exciting experience for Ramirez. Of all the places he’s worked, “Milwaukee takes it,” Ramirez said.
What personal ties do you have to the city?
My mom passed away about two and a half years ago and I have this weird thought in my head that it’s kind of like she wanted me to come back and do research about where she grew up. We were really close but she rarely talked about Milwaukee because we were in Chicago, so I think this is a cool way to see what type of environment she grew up in and some of the things she got to experience.
How did you get on board with this project?
I was lucky enough to get selected for it. It was a dream come true because I’ve always wanted to live and work in Milwaukee so I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to do both. I’m literally just soaking it all in, doing all the Milwaukee stuff like Summerfest, Summer Solstice and getting my haircut at Mr. V’s.
You’ve done projects for big companies. Do you prefer corporate projects or working on street art like you’re doing for the city of Milwaukee?
Anything goes, really. At the end of the day I just want to create art, whether it be for corporate entities or fine art. I’m a worker first and an artist second, so I just really want to work.
What’s your history in doing art as work and how do you approach it as a career?
I’ve been doing it for a strong seven years. I was an English teacher/education major (in college) but started sneaking into art studios and secretly doing work there because I was always interested in painting and graffiti. It was really weird because these art teachers would see me and say, “Hey, you’re not a student here but you’re spending a ton of time here.”
I kind of approach it from the entrepreneurial standpoint as opposed to the traditional route where you go to school for it. I kind of just wanted to do it, present it to people and showcase it so I hustled it.
What does the Wisconsin Avenue project mean to you?
There are a lot of aspects to this project. It’s something professional to me to be able to showcase work to the public and have it relate directly to the public in that sense. And also, being a worker and learning the trade of painting and doing industrial painting on something metal that’s going to be outside, I take pride in that and I’m super enthusiastic about painting that.
What have you learned from living here so far?
The history, for sure. Just all the different projects, site-specific boxes I’ve done, learning a lot about the important figures that shaped Milwaukee to this day, starting from the Native Americans to Byron Kilbourn … I’m starting to understand a lot of the geographical landscape here that kind of dictates why people live in certain areas. It’s awesome.
A brief program and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the project will take place next Tuesday, July 11 at noon inside the lobby of 411 East Wisconsin Center (and then outside on the corner of Wisconsin and Jefferson) to celebrate the 10 finished murals.