Painted Koi Fish Have Been 'Swimming' On Milwaukee's Sidewalks For Over A Decade

Jul 13, 2018

If you do much walking through Milwaukee neighborhoods, say in the Historic Third Ward or Bay View, you’ve probably stumbled across vibrant schools of fish painted on the sidewalks.

They're koi, the large decorative fish some people keep in outdoor ponds.

I spotted a few of the paintings on the East Side, where several clusters of koi are depicted in orange, black and white patterns. 

Koi in Black Cat Alley.
Credit Teran Powell

A few Bubbler Talk listeners have asked about the paintings. So I tracked down street artist and former Milwaukee resident Jeremy Novy.

He says he became fascinated with koi when he was in art school, and spent time studying in China. So when Novy returned to Milwaukee, he decided to paint the fish.

The Oak Leaf Bike Trail was his first canvas.

“At North & Oakland when you sit there and wait for the buses, you’re actually looking down on a kind of sub train track that they’ve now turned into a bike trail. So I felt that if you’re standing there and looking down, you would normally see a river down there. Using the bike trail concrete I stenciled koi fish, 75 of them actually the first time, so that it looks like a river of koi at that intersection,” Novy explains.

He started the koi paintings here more than a decade ago. Today, you can find them in front of local businesses and swimming around city blocks.

“I really find that street art and public art is a very important tool in a lot of ways, and I think that it’s something that is important for someone like myself just to go out and be interventional and take charge of trying to beautify the world in a different way," he shares.

Novy now lives in Los Angeles, but he came back to Milwaukee to paint koi -- and butterflies -- at Black Cat Alley, near the Oriental Theatre on Milwaukee's east side.

Jeremy Novy's Monarch Butterfly mural in Black Cat Alley.
Credit Teran Powell / 1993

It's an outdoor art space, which features 17 murals by 18 artists.

LISTEN: Milwaukee's Urban Art Scene Expands with 'Black Cat Alley'

Stacey Williams-ng manages Black Cat Alley and says, “When we started Black Cat Alley we knew about the fish, but we just knew that he was an artist that had since left Milwaukee. So basically, he and I started to talk and we decided that we would have him come here in June 2016, which again Black Cat Alley was installed the way you see it now in September of that year, so nothing was here, and we invited him to come in and do an initial mural and that’s what the monarch butterflies are.”

Williams-ng walked me through the space, describing some of the artwork.

Novy's koi fish art at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Credit Courtesy of Jeremy Novy

She also shared thoughts about Novy’s fish: “I’ve seen him and heard him say many times that koi fish are like an ancient symbol of change. You know, they bring about change and good luck, and that resonates with him and I think it resonates with our community. So they’re not just charming, they really have this deeper symbolic value."

People in other communities also can see Novy’s koi. In the last decade, he's painted the fish in places like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Toronto -- even Hawaii.

He says he hopes every time someone sees the koi, they appreciate the colorful artwork, stop for a minute and smile. So, when you catch sight of the fish swimming up Milwaukee streets, take a moment to do just that.

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