If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a 100-foot-high mural must be worth at least 10,000. What about 15 of those murals, some spanning the side of an entire building? Combined, the walls of downtown Las Vegas have a lot to say.
Nearly every block is graced by some large-scale painting, ranging from abstract patterns to an ultra-realistic lizard. It’s harder to miss one of the many murals than to find one, though most are within the area between Third and Ninth streets and Stewart and Carson avenues. Scrawled in the corner of some are the words “Life is Beautiful,” referring to the annual fall music, arts and culinary festival that returns this weekend. Others are not branded, but are nonetheless a product of the festival and its lineup of artists, curated by the arts collective JustKids, from around the world.
Since the first Life is Beautiful festival in 2013, the murals have proliferated, gaining a certain level of renown.
“There’s a lot of places where people are now walking and doing little art tours,” Ryan Doherty, chief experience officer for Life is Beautiful, says. They’re hoping to develop an app that visitors can use for self-guided walking tours.
Though artists did paint most of the current murals during the Life is Beautiful festival, public art in the city isn’t a recent idea. The city of Las Vegas commissioned the first mural in 1976.
“It creates a sense of place. Art really allows for a community to embrace itself and embrace the art as a communty that cares,” says Brian “Paco” Alvarez, the arts comissioner for Ward 3, which includes downtown.
When Life is Beautiful takes over downtown Friday through Sunday, five murals will be painted over — Sush Machida and Tim Bavington’s “Fish’n’Chips,” Bikismo’s “Chrome Fish,” The Fat Jew’s “This Is So Us,” the unnamed mural by Bicicleta Sem Freio and a portion of Vhils’ “Scratching the Surface Series” — and 10 new murals, some of which are in development, will cover walls both within the festival footprint and outside of it. Las Vegans are going to have some walking to do.
Painted for Life is Beautiful 2013, Zio Ziegler’s “The Clash of Civilizations” at the vacant Town Lodge Motel on Seventh Street spans a distance fitting for its inspiration. Prior to coming to Las Vegas for the festival, Ziegler had been reading “The Story of Civilization” by Will Durant, and he connected the way societies rise and fall and rise again to the revitalization efforts in downtown Las Vegas.
“There is a cycle of civilization that takes place, and I think we’re seeing almost a rebirth of downtown Vegas, so I wanted to pay homage to that while tying it to a deeper historical context,” Ziegler says.
That’s a goal he has for much of his art: capturing the present moment of a place while contextualizing it within history. “The intention here,” Ziegler says, “is creating works that have some sort of degree of resonance with the society around them.”
Joaquin Lamar Hailey — painting under the name Chor Boogie — does not consider his work street art, and it definitely isn’t graffiti. Though he does identify his artistic roots in spray paint culture, he instead calls his murals “modern hieroglyphics,” or a visual way of communicating a story.
For his Life is Beautiful 2015 mural, “Jackpot … love is a gamble … Winning,”cq Hailey painted black Xs and Os across the back wall of the vacant Town Lodge Motel on Seventh between Stewart and Ogden, broken only by two eyes on a strip of color.
He was “pretty much running with the theme of Life is Beautiful, basically because that’s a part of life being beautiful, is hugs and kisses,” Hailey says.
The depiction of eyes is a reoccurring theme in Hailey’s murals worldwide; they represent “the eyes of that city. That city visually looking back at you and you’re looking back at the city.”
Barcelona-based artist Ruben Sanchez pays homage to Vegas’ most famous literary appearance, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” in his Life is Beautiful 2015 mural. The painting, at Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, remakes Hunter S. Thompson’s image in Sanchez’s cubist style using warm, Mediterranean-inspired colors.
He settled on the counterculture icon because Thompson’s psychedelic tendencies matched the psychedelic twist that appears in Sanchez’s own work. Though for the most part Sanchez received overwhelmingly positive responses to his mural, some disliked branding Vegas with Thompson’s image and reputation.
“In my opinion, it’s not about drugs,” Sanchez says. “If you read the book, it’s like the whole experience, the colors, the lights, the casinos, the everything, it’s what Vegas is about.”
Then, just a few months ago, Sanchez says he got the stamp of approval from the producer of the movie “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and Thompson’s ex-girlfriend, Laila Nebulsi, who described the mural as one of her favorite artistic depictions of the man.
One of the only local artists to have a large-scale mural in Downtown Las Vegas, Sush Machida’s piece on the side of the Emergency Arts building at Fremont and Sixth, titled “Fish’n’Chips,” combines a subject he’s painted since he was 6 years old — fish — with the quintessentially Vegas slot machines.
Painted for Life is Beautiful 2014, the mural’s bright colors and clean lines are consistent with Machida’s previous work. Though he’s painted multiple murals, he considers himself a contemporary artist versus a street artist.
“LA Times art critic David Pagel once described my art as ‘hyper stylized Japanese art,’” Machida says. “If you create art, then someone else will describe it for you.”
The mural is a collaboration between Machida and fellow local artist Tim Bavington, whose work features similarly bright colors and lines. He’s the man behind the recent Smith Center sculpture made up of colorful pipes. Theirs is one of five murals that will be painted over during this year’s Life is Beautiful festival.
British artist Dean Stockton, painting as “D*Face,” has become something of a mainstay on the Life is Beautiful arts lineup. Every year since the festival launched in 2013, he’s plastered another downtown wall with his work. First was the skeletal-faced man with a thought bubble reading, “I gave her my heart, and she left me for…” on the side of the Cabana Suites on Seventh Street and Ogden Avenue. Then, in 2014, he painted the anguished woman with the words “Love Forever” on the wall next to Place on Seventh. Last year saw the word “peace” painted in swirling metallic letters coming from the barrel of a gun on the Ninth Street side of the Western Hotel.
Presenting a somewhat melancholy message, Stockton’s first two murals in downtown Las Vegas in particular use pop-art themes and recall Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic style. He tries to revert to the pop-art movement’s initial goal to critique pop culture rather than celebrate it. His aim, then, is to reference life’s pains in his murals without being depressing, a style he’s dubbed “a-pop-calyptic.”
“For me, if (viewers) choose to look futher and closer, there’s a backstory to all my paintings,” Stockton says.
For Life is Beautiful 2015, Pixel Pancho branded one wall of the El Cortez at Seventh and Fremont streets with a pair of his signature robots. “The meaning,” he says, “is loving something really unhealthy for you.” Specifically, it represents humans’ deification of money.
The artist, based between Turin, Italy, and New York, tackles themes that go “against the system.”
His paintings often combine the natural with the mechanical, flowers with machinery, to show that “we (do) not own this planet, we are part (of it),” he says.
Bicicleta sem Freio
Brazilian artists Victor Rocha, Renato Reno and Douglas Pereira make up the collective known as Bicicleta sem Freio, or “bicycle without brakes.” Their vibrant work, often depicting people, covers two downtown Las Vegas walls and has been featured on the event posters for Life is Beautiful 2013 and 2015. In 2013, they also created 15 posters of bands from that year’s lineup, which plastered a wall at Seventh and Ogden.
Their distinctly tropical mural spans the side of The Market’s wall at Seventh and Fremont, while another, mostly incorporating primary colors, is on the side of the Las Vegas Motel on Seventh between Ogden and Stewart avenues.
Since getting their start designing posters for rock concerts and cultural events, Bicicleta sem Freio has created imagery for Nike, Absolut Vodka, Vans and Converse.
Ana Maria Ortiz
A Puerto Rican artist now based between Texas and Arkansas, Ana Maria Ortiz painted two very different murals for Life is Beautiful in 2013 and 2015. “Scratch and Win,” on the Commonwealth building on Seventh between Ogden and Stewart avenues, is a metal, birdlike figure with two spindly legs pointed downward. “Full Moon,” the second at Seventh and Ogden, is softer and features three white birds and a white rabbit under a full moon.
Ortiz doesn’t have a specific style, she says, “but I try to make you feel like imaginary creatures exist and are palpable to the touch.” Her work often depicts animals of various sorts, drawing on her bachelor’s degree in animal sciences.
“Sometimes my paintings are mere reflections of my own stories or feelings, but I love to hear what the spectators have to say, sometimes the stories they see are even more interesting,” Ortiz says.