Emily Mills is talking with her hands.
“I took tons of pictures from the lead up to the Iraq war; all this great graffiti was going up. There was one on the corner of, I think, Lake Street and State. Where the Walgreens is. That wall just had a huge “Fuck the Government” spray-painted on it.”
“There was nothing artsy about it,” she acknowledges, “it was just spray painted words. But still, it was like, ‘Yeah, wow!’ You do tend to see more chalk or stencil or paint or anything like that when people feel like they’ve got to say something about what’s going on.”
And Mills would know. Creator of the blog Madison Street Art, she’s been documenting murals, stencils, posters, paint, and other artistic expressions on outdoor surfaces online since August 2008, and mentally since arriving in Madison in 2000. Though she’s not a street artist herself, Mills has developed a deep appreciation for the work and makes sporadic updates to the blog using user-submitted photographs and pictures she takes herself.
The blog started as an extension of her interest in the various forms of street art.
“I’ve always thought it just added a unique element of color and creativity, and it’s an interesting way of expressing an opinion in a city,” she says. “And I was always kind of annoyed that cities are so big on getting rid of it.”
And though Mills sympathizes with property owners who must pay to remove art from their walls due to city ordinances, she can’t help but add, “I look at a blank wall and I think, ‘There should be a mural on that!'”
The array of street art forms can be a little disarming for the uninitiated. The front page of Madison Street Art features work ranging from colorful posters of a friendly-looking robot to a massive high-contrast octopus painted under a bike tunnel on Johnson Street to a bus stop on State Street that was completely wrapped in yarn (a “Yarn Bomb”) to promote an event at the Open Art Studios in September.
There are also pictures from Mills’s recent trip to New York City. There, she said, she noticed more street art that was interesting solely for its imagery, whereas in Madison a higher proportion of art conveys some sort of political message.
While she said that difference is probably partly attributable to the sheer quantity of street art in NYC (“It was like everywhere I looked in some neighborhoods there was some sort of art,”) she also feels it’s a reflection of Madison’s unique social environment.
“We’re a very politically aware and active city, you know? Think about all the chalking that goes on around the campus area just announcing meetings or whenever some big event is happening.”
The click of a spray can is the next step in that progression: “I think with that mindset, instead of chalking, people just started putting it in paint.”
Mills carries many roles beyond Madison Street Art, which she views as sort of an important distraction; “a project of love.” There’s her political blog called “Emily’s Post” for the Isthmus, work to do on her second novel, her personal blog, “The Lost Albatross,” and two bands.
Plus, she’s a co-editor of Dane101, a collaborative website that collects news from all around the county. With so much on her plate, it’s sometimes difficult for her to track down new graffiti or posters, but by continuing to do so Emily makes an implicit endorsement of the art that she loves and of a vision of Madison beyond sunsets and sailboats.
And though it may be true that Madison’s environment is present in its street art, Emily is hopeful that it works the other way as well: that the culture and artistry of murals, stencils, posters and yarn bombs rubs off on Madison as well.
“I think it just reflects better on the city. I think it says good things about the city when you have open and welcoming murals and art in public spaces – the more the better.”
Emily believes the artists have something important to say; they too are talking with their hands.
Visit Madison Street Art at madstreetart.blogspot.com.