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TJ Auto Repair, Graffiti Alley and Critic At-Large

by David Lee on Aug 7, 2019
TJ Auto Repair, Graffiti Alley and Critic At-Large

Earlier today, we took our funders at the Northwestern Mutual Foundation on a tour of some of the work that we’ve been doing in the Greater Amani neighborhood. 

Our first stop was at TJ’s Auto on 29th and Fond du Lac to see the Home Wall of the Summer Sprays event we co-sponsored in June. Being able to see the graffiti mural in its entirety was pretty awesome. 

TJ, of the repair shop’s namesake, took a moment away from the car that he was re-building to visit with us. He shared how he had wanted to be an artist when he was young but art class turned into auto class and due to his auto repair work, his hands stopped working in that way. 

For TJ, to be able to donate his wall for the annual Summer Sprays event and to see how the community interacts with the mural gives him the opportunity to reconnect with his artistic side of him. 

“People always ask me, ‘What does it say?’ and I tell them, ‘If you stand there and look at it long enough, you’ll figure it out!’” he said.  

TJ went on to compare the experience of viewing the graffiti mural art to the experience viewing “million dollar paintings” at art galleries. 

This was the same sentiment that was expressed to me last week by a nationally renowned artist, art professor, and curator when she said that people expect to be told what paintings mean rather than participate in the back and forth between context and interpretation. 

That’s right: virtually the same thought came from a renowned artist, teacher, and curator who travels around the nation and the world for her visual art expertise and insights as did an auto repairman at 29th and Fond du Lac. 

Isn’t this, in some ways, the purest form of democracy? It's the people, their interactions, and thoughts, not the institutions, that create meaning and freedom. 

I'm just so tickled that these two beautiful Milwaukeeans, two people who have vastly different experiences and run in different social circles, shared similarly cogent and insightful views about art and the nature of interpretation. No matter who we are, perception is a gift that we all share. 

As we left, TJ told us about some of the custom car rebuild projects that he’s been working on. I told him that despite how he felt his career ended up, that there’s an art to rebuilding cars and sure, maybe he’s not running a traditional gallery, but he’s most certainly showing an annually rotating gallery of graffiti art on his north facing wall.  

The excellence surrounds us if we just choose to see it.

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