If you attended the Willy Street Fair warm-up last Saturday afternoon, you might have noticed a familiar scene unfolding on the east side of Mother Fool's Coffeehouse. Armed with ladders and spray cans, Don Wettach, Rob Foster and Billy McCoy were updating the coffee shop's graffiti mural project -- a rotating graffiti wall space open to any interested artist. It's a temporary art project that's become a near-east side fixture.
What was distinctive about this latest mural was that it celebrated the fifth anniversary of the project.
Mother Fool's owner Jon Hain is happy that the coffee shop can provide the wall space that lets graffiti artists do their thing legally. After receiving city approval for the project in the autumn of 2001, Hain and co-owner Stephanie Rearick handed the reins of running the wall over to Don Wettach, the Madison artist who helped kick-start the project and painted the first mural.
Wettach oversees a rotating crew of artists responsible for painting most of the murals. There is a central group of three artists, along with others who contribute on a less regular basis. "We have a pretty small graffiti art base in Madison, and we all pretty much know each other," Wettach says.
He also manages the schedule for the mural rotation, which varies from season to season. There is a new mural per month from January through March, a biweekly rotation from April through the end of September, one mural for October, and finally a single mural for the final two months of the year.
Hain and Rearick do not pre-approve the designs. "We don't have any sense of what is going to be there," says Hain. There are only four restrictions: No nudity, no violent images, no commercial images, and no profanity: "As long as those conditions are met, we don't care what's there."
Wettach explains his role in launching the project: "When I first started, I was just a graffiti artist. It was a selfish thing. I wanted a place I could paint and not be busted. The whole thing was for me and my friends to be able to do graffiti in an open environment. In the last five years, though, I've become more of an artist."
Operating as The Lowbrow Boutique, Wettach's work now includes custom murals, tattoos, illustrations, and other graphic design works. "If I don't know it, I try to learn it," he says. Wettach is also working on a coffee table book compiling photos of the fifty or so murals that have been painted on Mother Fool's wall. He's always soliciting more photos of the mural: "Tons of people tell me they take pictures of it. I just need to compile them."
The centerpiece of the five-year anniversary mural is a birthday cake, accompanied by a swirling multicolored backdrop and an exclamation celebrating five years of free art.
"We were quite pleased to see that because it hadn't really registered that it had been five years," says Hain.
There's also a figure in the lower right-hand corner that should be familiar to anybody who remembers the first mural that was painted on the wall, on Sept. 22, 2001. "If you look there in the lower right-hand corner, you'll see the Statue of Liberty figure," Hain explains. "That was the very first image, right after 9/11, after our unveiling of the graffiti wall."
Wettach says that interest in the mural project continues to grow, particularly in terms of interested artists finding the mural through its MySpace profile. "I try to get other people contributing as much as I can," Wettach explains. More interest has been coming from other cities, too: "There's a couple of cats from Milwaukee who want to get on it," along with more artists from Chicago.
"I honestly didn't think the city would allow us to do it for five years," Wettach concludes. "I'm definitely looking forward to another five. The neighborhood is awesome. That's why I like painting murals around the Willy Street Fair. When I'm doing the anniversary paintings, the whole neighborhood comes out in support. It's cool."