When Las Vegas street artist Izaac Zevalking was growing up just a couple of hours outside of Banksy’s hometown of Bristol in the U.K., he knew that the now prolific artist was dabbling in the emerging medium of public street art.
Now Zevalking and Banksy are in the same area again. And while, for many, Banksy’s works represent critical takes on zeitgeist issues such as consumerism and surveillance, Zevalking thinks the new “Banksy: Genius or Vandal?” exhibit on the Strip represents a cultural shift in how Las Vegas thinks about art.
The collection of 70 pieces by Banksy, a street artist who garnered worldwide attention last year when his “Girl With Balloon” sold for $1.37 million and then self-destructed at a Sotheby’s auction, is making its U.S. debut on view on the Las Vegas Strip.
“It’s a good omen for Las Vegas,” says Zevalking, who works under the pseudonym Recycled Propaganda. “It represents the cultural revolution that the city is experiencing. And at a corporate level, they’re realizing that art is something that can generate tourism — and money.”
Over 1 million visitors have viewed the touring exhibition during previous runs in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Madrid, Lisbon and Hong Kong.
While Banksy’s “Smiley Coppers Panel 1” can be found at Greene St. Kitchen at the Palms, and a mobile garden of his made an appearance at 2015’s Life is Beautiful festival, “Genius or Vandal?” is the largest body of his work to hit Las Vegas.
“It’s an experiment for both the gallery and Fashion Show because typically you wouldn’t expect an art gallery here,” says Christoph Rahofer, president and CEO of EMS Entertainment, the company behind the exhibit. “It’s an interesting opportunity because Fashion Show has a high percentage of tourists coming in.”
“Genius or Vandal?” got its start with Rahofer’s friend, Alexander Nachkeviya, who had contacts with private collectors and Lilley Fine Art, a small art museum in the U.K.
After selecting Las Vegas as the exhibit’s newest location, EMS Entertainment, which is also behind “CSI: The Experience” at MGM Grand, opened Immersion Vegas to house the 12,000 square-foot exhibition.
“Las Vegas as a market is interesting. It’s redefining itself all the time,” Rahofer says. “We’re trying to give it an artistic twist to see how we can attract people from all over the country.”
Like many exhibits that feature Banksy’s work, “Genius or Vandal?” includes pieces owned by collectors, and is not affiliated with the anonymous artist.
Original works in the gallery include the 700-pound “Stop Esso” mural on a brick wall; a work called “Rose Trap,” which Banksy originally stenciled on a wall in Bristol; and an authentic — and intact — print of the famous “Girl With Balloon.”
As Banksy’s identity is unknown, the burden of verifying the authenticity of the artworks has fallen on the exhibit.
“They come with authenticity certificates, and with an appraisal from insurance companies,” Rahofer says. “Then certainly the curator verifies the authenticity.”
In addition to several prints and original works, the exhibit also features multimedia pieces such as a video loop that showcases the artist’s large-scale undertakings, an interactive installation that confronts visitors with the prevalence of surveillance cameras, and an imagined peek into Banksy’s studio.
Las Vegas resident Janelle Ozawa seeks out Banksy art whenever she travels, and has spotted pieces in Park City, Utah, and the U.K.
“There’s a wit behind his statements. He’s thinking through it,” she says. “But it’s real simple and clear messaging. A child can understand it.”
Arthur Goldstruck runs a street art Instagram account from his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, and made a point to visit the gallery while in town.
“He has an aggressive anti-materialism that’s very appealing,” Goldstruck says. “It’s iconic the way he created a new aesthetic in street art.”
A cultural shift
Growing up in England, Zevalking saw Banksy as one of a community of artists using public spaces to comment on issues and problems that affect real people.
“His work is anti-capitalist, anti-corporation and specifically anti-fine art. The gallery has a gift shop. He’d (expletive) hate it,” he says. “I still really want to go.”
The artist also says that the exhibit wouldn’t succeed here if not for the cultural shift in Las Vegas’ art scene.
“It reflects that Las Vegas is more open and accepting of art. We’ve developed a pride around it, and that local energy contributed to that opportunity for them,” he says.
The first-of-its-kind exhibit will remain open at Fashion Show through April.
If you go
What: Banksy: Genius or Vandal?
Where: Immersion Vegas inside Fashion Show
When: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $29 adults, $15 children 11 and under