Vegas Voices is a weekly series highlighting notable Las Vegans.
For Troy James, the city is his canvas.
While his first foray into public art was graffiti writing in Los Angeles, he now teaches at the Art Institute of Las Vegas and creates commissioned murals, most recently at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
James, who goes by Tiki Jay One, says he’s been an artist since Day One.
In the ’80s, he discovered L.A.’s skateboard culture and, with it, graffiti, instantly finding appeal in the public setting. Rather than sequester himself in a private studio, he learned to embrace the quick opinions of the public and the transparency of an uncurated urban gallery.
He refined his technique at Otis College of Art and Design. Last year, he received his master’s degree at Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
For James, there’s a fine line between expression of art and respect for public property. It’s something he says he tries to impress upon his students.
“I won’t paint someone’s house,” James says. “But the gray box by the highway? Oh, that’s mine. Taxpayers pay for it. I pay taxes. It belongs to us. My freedom of expression is to say I don’t like that gray box. It’s someone else’s free speech to cover it up.”
While he endeavors to make his mark with ephemeral works, his commissioned works are wholly by the book.
He’s completed a large-scale mural at GameWorks that features video game characters. He donated a mural of a young pirate to The Shade Tree of Las Vegas. And his murals decorate the walls of businesses that owners have given him permission to paint.
Last week, he worked to create five murals in the Block 16 Urban Food Hall at The Cosmopolitan, a big step for a local street artist.
Where did inspiration for the tiki aesthetic come from?
Graffiti usually is about your name. A lot of us are called graffiti writers. I always consider myself a graffiti writer first, urban artist second. I used to go by TJ and my friend told me I should go by Tiki Jay since I did tiki head.
The Easter Island head says a lot about me. They’re kind of looking down their nose, but still rooted deeply in the earth. They weather all storms and the whole idea is to last. I try to do that with my art in an urban environment.
When the Las Vegas Strip has so much heavily produced art, how does street art stand out?
Street art is a fine art in its own right. It’s a new movement like impressionism, surrealism, modernism. It’s got its own signature and technique. The material being used is different than any other material artists use. Most artists use a brush to touch a canvas. This is more like in the field of Jackson Pollock. He never touched the canvas, he dripped his paint. Street artists never touch the canvas with the spray paint. I feel working in public like that you’re open to critique and criticism from the general public. I feel that ruggedness comes out in the work we’re creating.
Why is there value in street art?
I was once told by a professor at Otis College, “the work you do is noble work. You risk your life, freedom, limbs to go create your art in a public arena.” For me, it’s about nobility of going and doing something. It’s about love and expression.
When it comes to people who don’t understand what we’re doing, a lot of people didn’t understand what was happening with art. It took education, awareness and history for people to catch up. This is a new movement.
Why is it worth it to put yourself in dangerous situations in pursuit of art?
Why do people climb El Capitan? Why do big wave surfers head to the ocean with 30-foot waves? It’s part of the adrenaline that happens. It’s about feeling alive. Those moments I’m writing on the wall, nothing but freedom. This is my freedom of speech and making a mark. Everyone wants to leave their mark. This is how I do it.
How are artists like you shaping the burgeoning Arts District?
Artists like me are either going to make or break this place. We need to start respecting what’s going on here or we’re going to be banned. There won’t be any opportunity to do any kind of painting. A lot of shop owners have been very open-minded about letting us paint their walls and buildings. But they want to see art. Even though tagging is a part of graffiti, they want to see less graffiti and more art. It’s up to us to create murals. If we want our art to live here, we need to have more respect for people who own businesses and property here in the city.
Contact Janna Karel at email@example.com. Follow @jannainprogress on Twitter.
More about Troy James
Always in your refrigerator?
I’m a bachelor so beer and condiments.
Where do you always take visitors?
Lake Mead. So many people visit the Strip but Lake Mead and Valley of Fire have such rich histories.
“The Odyssey.” The Greeks’ stories and parables still apply to us.
What TV show are you currently binging?
“Love and Robots.” It’s so good.
I’m a basset hound. They’re loyal, stubborn and loving.