Some places come and go, while some places become icons. Mandatory Milwaukee is all about the latter. Join us as we revisit beloved and well-worn local staples with fresh eyes, and explore how they might figure in the city’s future.

Times are tough. Milwaukeeans are currently suffering under a draconian “Stay At Home But Here Are 8,000 Businesses That Are Open Anyway And Feel Free To Walk Your Dog And Go Golfing” quarantine order. There’s no end in sight (May 26). What could someone do if they were, say, wandering around the East Side and looking for an artistic respite from all the madness? (After freely getting takeout from a dozen nearby restaurants, of course.)

Enter Black Cat Alley. No, seriously: enter Black Cat Alley. Let’s step inside and take a look!

Since opening in September 2016, Black Cat Alley has been a colorful, popular, and weirdly controversial addition to the ever-changing East Side. The private two-block alley stretches from Ivanhoe Place on the north (between Sip & Purr Cat Cafe and Potbelly Sandwich Shop) to Kenilworth Boulevard on the south (between AXE MKE and Merge). What is it? It’s an outdoor art gallery stuffed with 21 murals by 24 artists “from all over the globe.” Why is it Mandatory Milwaukee material? Because it’s littered with much more than commissioned murals.

But first some history. The Black Cat Alley website recounts the art-alley’s “humble beginnings”:

The Black Cat Alley is an outdoor art gallery located in a private alley on the East Side. This unique street art destination was developed by a group of community members and artists back in 2015-2016 in partnership with Wallpapered City LLC, and sponsored by the East Side BID. It now contains 21 murals by 24 artists from Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Columbus and even Berlin.

Those humble beginnings had plenty of high-profile troubles, too. Here’s an excerpt from our own 2019 piece on local art controversies:

Adam Stoner’s “Devontay,” which depicted a black man in an orange prison jumpsuit, immediately came under fire for its subject matter and for the color of its artist (white). Stoner saw the piece as a comment on “how we as white people disfigure the humanity of our black and brown brothers and sisters by projecting certain qualities onto them.” But some critics saw the image as another “aggression,” and said they were “overwhelmed with disappointment at witnessing another black body ‘displayed’ as socially ‘undesirable’ no matter what the intent.”

One year later, the mural made news again when it was used as a backdrop for a wildly inappropriate Milwaukee Magazine fashion shoot. A few months later, it was vandalized. A few days later, it was removed completely. These days, the wall is covered by a piece from busy local muralist Emma Daisy Gertel.

Here’s Stoner’s mural as it originally appeared:

Here’s what the wall looks like today:

And here’s what the wall looked like for a brief time between murals:

Which brings us to why Black Cat Alley remains so interesting today. The site may now shy away from any overt social or political statements, but the natural alley-ness of the alley gives it plenty of natural flavor. Mixed in with the sanctioned murals are oodles of unsanctioned pieces, ranging from graffiti tags and stickers to more ambitious works of spontaneous creation. In some places, it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins:

Yes, Black Cat Alley is often stuffed with folks staging both professional and amateur photo shoots (we’ve accidentally stumbled into a few…interesting ones ourselves), and yes, the occasional parties held there are tons of fun, but make no mistake: this is still a relatively grimy and scuffed-up alley. A dumpster behind a colorful fence is still a dumpster. A spray painted mattress at the south end of the alley is still, well…

There’s a strange equilibrium to be found in Black Cat Alley, a near-perfect tension between BID-sponsored acceptability and “life finds a way” grunginess. Too much of either could throw things out of whack.

Put simply, Black Cat Alley is thankfully nice…

…but (again, thankfully), it’s not too nice.