Milwaukee, WI – The “Mural of Peace” covers one side of the building on 6th and National, in the heart of Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood. The area has become one of the most recent targets in the newest wave of gentrification to hit the city, yet the mural sits like an old guardian, watching over the residents who were born here, children of the immigrants that built this area before developers started sticking their snout in. Renowned artist Reynaldo Hernandez painted the mural in the early nineties and sat with me to talk about his intended message when he painted it, how the Milwaukee art scene has changed, and why there is no scene he would rather be a part of.
Was there a specific moment that made you realize you wanted to be solely an artist for the rest of your life?
Reynaldo Hernandez: I was born and raised here in Milwaukee, which was even then known as a segregated city. My mother was Black and my father was Mexican. I didn’t think there was anything different about my upbringing until I went to school and kids made you realize what was what. My mother taught us to embrace all cultures. I was raised in the Southlawn housing projects with my older brother Ramon, and my younger sister Maria Elena and my younger brother Rico. My father was in the Navy and in the late 40’s fought in the Pacific theater in Guam. I was the resident artist of Southlawn, and my mom introduced me as a prodigy. In kindergarten, I received a scholarship to the Milwaukee Art Museum and I would draw the residents of Southlawn. I was also the school cartoonist and designed the Wildcats’ mascot when I was in middle school. Art is something I was doing before I could realize it was a passion. It was something that just came natural to me.
Did schools encourage your art?
RH: I went to Boy’s Tech which is now Milwaukee Technical High School, and you were allowed to choose a profession that was taught, such as aeronautics, carpentry and auto mechanics. They also had commercial art, which made me realize that I could possibly make a living off my art. We learned pen and ink and how to make screens, and my art teacher was someone who had worked in the field. He became a mentor to me.
What was your first job as an artist?
RH: I worked for TMJ4, the news station – I talked my way into the art department by showing them my portfolio. I worked in the film department, slicing and cutting film for the commercials.
What was the art scene like back in those days in 1970’s Milwaukee?
RH: Milwaukee was very segregated, even back then. Everyone pretty much stayed on their side of town. There was only one prominent muralist at the time, who was named Carlos Rosas. He was actually squatting in the Esperanza Unida building, had a studio there. The building was boarded up and he had to squeeze through a hole in the wall. (laughs) He painted for many restaurants and businesses, and I hung around with him. I became very interested in the Mexican muralist movement, particularly with painters like David Alfaro Siquieros. He had a message in all of his paintings, ones of social importance.
Was history a big part of your work?
RH: I had learned a lot of history from my mother as a child, but its significance didn’t really have an effect on me until I was older. 1968 was a big year for me in that sense – The riots in Detroit had happened earlier, Martin Luther King was shot, and most importantly, the fair housing marches were happening here in Milwaukee with Vel Phillips and James Groppi leading the way. My brother Ramon and I got involved, but mostly to document what was happening. It was interesting to see how businesses were writing “Soul Brother” on their windows out of fear that Black folk would loot their stores. There wasn’t much looting, however. It was an irrational fear.
Were you trying to promote a message of unity in your work?
RH: It was something that wasn’t intentional at the time. History was being made everywhere, the message was simply reflective of the time. Unfortunately, that same message is still around today.
The message of Reynaldo’s work resonates today, and it has woven its place in the collective tapestry of residents all over Milwaukee. The Peace mural overlooks the I-94, where ramps lead to every part of the city, staking itself as an unofficial flag of the city.