Three writers reflect on the civic murals that tell us the story of Las Vegas — in food, visual funk, and artful history
The Tattoos of a Living Past
Murals are a city’s tattoos. Unexpected, sexy, rebellious. In Downtown Las Vegas they give soul to featureless buildings that otherwise lack it. They bring to our public realm a shot of exuberant artistry.
But when murals depict history, trouble can brew. History is dry and linear and pedantic. Something to be learned and quizzed on. Murals that depict history can often feel like yearbook pictures, dutifully snapshotting the past but also creatively empty.
But what about historical murals in a town with, you know, no history? Now it gets intriguing. While the geological layers of the Mojave are profound in their expression of the long and epic sweep of historical time, Las Vegas’ history is compressed and contrived. We can’t compete with history, so we don’t try. We’re not interested in facts and dates. We’re interested in mood and image. These days we’ve condensed our history down to one phrase, Old Vegas, the catch-all metaphor for analog glamour.
We sweep stuff into history and we don’t look back — except if there’s a party involved. In 2005, the city commissioned 180 permanent and temporary murals to mark its centennial. One of the still-standing murals is “Everyone’s a Scientist,” Brian Porray’s Japanese anime-inspired digital re-creation of the 1995 implosion of the Landmark. Splashy and upbeat, the mural, on the Winchester Cultural Center, celebrates how Las Vegas generally views the past — not mourning what is gone, but celebrating what is to come.
But there is history in this town that’s not so grandiose but is, in its way, more remarkable. Robert Beckmann’s five-panel mural of historical events in Henderson might strike you as a dry subject, but only until you realize that you’re looking at American history, too. His mural depicts Henderson’s World War II ties: the bomb casings made at the Basic Magnesium plant and the women, such as “Magnesium Maggie,” who helped build them. It depicts Rosie Lee Williams, the first resident of Carver Park, a neighborhood for black Hendersonians who also worked at Basic. It depicts Henderson’s growth. Many of the debates of contemporary America are right here. The past is still present.
A littler farther up the street, an inexplicable mural covers the whole side of a 7-Eleven. On it, a Paiute tribesman stands on a ridge and surveys a pristine Las Vegas Valley; below, his family goes about its day-to-day life, gathering food, making fire, contemplating … who knows? Maybe an unimaginable future of neon lights and 7-Elevens.
In another city, any other city, you might catch this image in the diorama at the natural history museum, along with a description about the habits and ways of the Paiute people. Here, what history we have gets upended, brought to the streets, tapping you on the shoulder in the most surprising place. Drive north down Water Street and take in a similar sweeping view, and consider all that we have gained in the ensuing years, and all that we have lost.
Sometimes the placement of the mural tells as much of a story as the mural itself. When the F Street underpass was closed in 2008 during the reconstruction of I-15, residents of the historic Westside rose up in protest; the closure was a literal segregation of their community from downtown.
Eventually F Street was reopened, and 12 murals were commissioned to celebrate the accomplishments of the Westside, including legendary entertainers who passed through; the legacy of the Moulin Rouge; local civil rights leaders such as Lubertha Johnson and Charles Kellar; and the 1960 meeting to desegregate Las Vegas Strip casinos — and ultimately, Las Vegas itself.
Yet there’s a kind of double history here. The murals tell a story of hope and progress. But their placement reminds us that history doesn’t relinquish its grasp on us so easily. These murals are located in the shadows of an underpass that is traveled more by the homeless looking to beat the heat than by locals or visitors. It’s a gloomy, depressing place, a reminder that the Westside is still a segregated place, caught out of time.
Last fall, on the otherwise anonymous intersection of Westcliff Drive and Antelope Way, muralist Kitos Lucero gathered five artists to paint a mural commemorating victims of the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting. The artists worked more than 17 hours to paint graffiti-style hearts with the names of all 58 victims.
This simple and heartfelt expression of solidarity and grief reminds us that history is always alive. Don’t view it with white gloves. It’s happening now. It demands we mark its passage, so that we may find a place in its long train and know ourselves; and so that others, when we are gone, may find us here and perhaps better know themselves.
The Visual Appetizers that Whet Our Sense of Place
At New York’s King Cole Bar & Restaurant, Maxfield Parrish’s witty yet romanticized fairytale court has overseen eight decades of martini-sipping sophisticates from behind the bar. In Santa Monica, the Beastie Boys swing their gold chains and Kurt Cobain scarfs a slice on the walls of Rock ’n Pies Pizza Company. From fine art adorning fine dining establishments to the spray-can style of a pizza joint, murals have been a part of many restaurants, and Las Vegas is rife with them.
If a food is identified with a specific place, that often sets the theme. Broadway Pizzeria is one of the few spots in town that meets with my snotty New Yorker approval — and, indeed, part of what drew me was its wraparound mural of New York City. No, the Statue of Liberty and Yankee Stadium aren’t neighbors and the Brooklyn Bridge doesn’t rise out of the middle of Times Square as depicted here, but, still, it spoke to me: It said the white pie would evoke the same tasty nostalgia as a Patrick Ewing highlight clip. Harrie’s Bagelmania also uses a New York scene to underline the authenticity of its bagels — rightfully so, I might add, the painted brownstones of the Lower East Side in the background, and the affectionate-yet-aggro lady behind the counter handing over your pumpernickel bagel with chive cream cheese.
The Palm Steakhouse originated on Second Avenue in New York City, where local cartoonists scrawled its walls with caricatures of Gotham luminaries such as John Travolta and King Kong that were as essential to its success as its Gigi salad or surf ’n’ turf (more, probably). The Las Vegas version opened at Caesars Palace in 1994 and is fittingly adorned with a grinning Rod Stewart, a belting Donny Osmond, and Carlos Santana in full guitar face. (Good thing, too, since some clown painted over the Manhattan originals during a renovation in 2015.) Metro Pizza spread its geographical reach with a depiction of the entire U.S., from San Francisco’s cable car to Maine’s lobster.
Sometimes the place depicted on a dining room’s walls is more of a state of mind than a series of recognizable landmarks. At Dona Maria’s Tamales, the walls are alive with scenes of dancers flourishing ruffled petticoats and rainbow scarves, families laying out celebratory feasts. Bouquets of sunflowers bloom above a kitchen pass-through, beaming down as a plate of tamales slides its way to a waiting table.
A few blocks away, the murals at the Hard Hat Lounge stand in noir contrast to Dona Maria’s sunny dia. Created in 1962 by a patron looking to cover his bar tab, it’s a seamy, shadow-saturated depiction of men in shirtsleeves playing cards, drinking liquor, ogling babes — fitting for a spot where you can get yourself a Jameson on the rocks, plate of barbecue, and video poker. Somewhere in between are the murals that adorn the interior and exterior of Jammyland, figures of DJs in porkpie hats, shimmying rude girls, blaring horns and booming speakers that seem to be in perpetual motion to the bar-restaurant’s ska-reggae soundtrack.
Sometimes, a single motif illustrates how different both cooking and painting styles can be, as in the octopus that pops up all over town. In its position as the official mascot of steampunks, one writhes across the ceiling of Rx Boiler Room in black-and-white chalkboard style amid alchemic symbols and scraps of verse. A few miles down the Strip, a purple-and-turquoise cephalopod crushes a surfboard in its tentacles on the walls of Bajamar Tacos — seafood so fresh it could eat you, served in the surfer’s favorite format. At Paid in Full, the resident octopus dons a knit cap and shakes a spray can at a tattooed geisha, a visual representation of the restaurant’s edgy take on Japanese street food, while Other Mama’s eight-armed creature twirls across the wall alongside whales and mermaids appropriate to a raw bar.
There’s another recurring motif that is distinctly Las Vegas: The Hunter S. Thompson/Ralph Steadman/Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas tribute. Weed-inspired sandwich joint Cheba Hut evokes both its general purpose and specific location (in Sin City, next to a dispensary) with its alien-themed take: A Hawaiian-shirted and hatted little green man tearing across the desert in a red convertible, ignoring a trio of extraterrestrial hitchhikers. There’s another local HST homage where Las Vegas Boulevard meets Fremont Street, as well as an excerpt from the book’s text calligraphed onto the wall at Foxfire in the SLS. Even as far away as Berlin or Amsterdam, Barstow or Louisville, you can find walls filled with enormous, bug-eyed images of Hunter in Vegas.
But across our own city, the visuals are as diverse as the menus, from the lesson in Chicano history adorning Pepe’s Tacos on Boulder Highway, to the Benjamin Franklin holding a cheddar-dripping Philly on the Pop’s Cheesesteaks drive-thru, to the script-scribbled walls adding boho cachet to breakfast at Eat. After all, your eyes have an appetite, too.
Lissa Townsend Rodgers
Love, Luck, and the Many Meanings of Las Vegas
In Las Vegas, the sign out front has always been more important than the building itself. The bigger, bolder, and gaudier, the better. The product being sold — gambling, eating, a night’s sleep — is always very clear, direct. This is what the classic text Learning From Las Vegas referred to as the “vulgar extravaganza” of signage fronting modest buildings that evolved in conjunction with highway culture.
Downtown, it’s been a different story since the Life is Beautiful festival arrived in 2013, initiating its yearly barrage of exciting new murals and inspiring the renovated Plaza casino to do the same. On and around Fremont Street, we are witnessing a shift toward abstraction: As murals go up on motels and casinos, often with no link to the building’s function, straightforward signage competes for attention with more cerebral, less didactic messaging, in which the viewer is asked to think through what she is consuming. Las Vegas is making serious progress in becoming an outdoor museum.
This is significant for a couple of reasons. For one, looking at murals is a daylight activity, which means Las Vegas has expanded its priorities from a nearly exclusive interest in its glittering nightscape. Buildings once construed as “secondary” to signs, especially during the day, now begin to matter, as murals splay across their sides, interacting with contours, clefts, and windows. For another, murals represent a shift away from changeable, disposable advertising art; rather than goods for sale, murals advertise culture and encourage contemplation — they’re an investment in architectural permanence. All while adding to Las Vegas’ emerging reputation as an artistic destination, as many of the artists, such as Shepard Fairey and D*Face, are celebrities.
Significantly, too: If you’re outside a building looking at its murals, you’re not inside losing money.
While Downtown’s murals can seem disparate, themes of love and luck surface in several, which links them to Las Vegas. The artist Lakwena’s “Ever After,” colorfully emblazoned on the back of the vacant Town Lodge Motel on Seventh Street, nods toward the many marital knots tied in Vegas chapels, with their hopes for happily ever after. In any other city, D*Face’s “Skeletal,” painted on the El Cortez Cabana Suites, might just be about lost love, but Las Vegas supplies the option that the subject was romancing luck. The morose figure sitting in front of a shot glass muses, “I gave her my heart, and she left me for … ,” inviting the viewer to fill in the blank. Who is she? Lady Luck? Or perhaps she is reclining across the way, in another D*Face mural proclaiming “Love Forever,” occupying the long side of Place on Seventh Street.
Meanwhile, Pixel Pancho’s mural on the El Cortez Casino parking structure portrays a marriage between a steampunk robot slot-machine and a mechanical woman crowned with roses. The shuttered eyes of the bride may allude to Fortuna, the goddess of luck, often represented as blind, making this a union between luck and gambling technology. Blind to outcomes, Lady Luck is as likely to bring bad as good.
Fairey’s roulette wheel-inspired mural on the Plaza provocatively mixes concepts of divine harmony and purity with gambling and luck. Its central emblem is the “Eye of Providence,” a symbol for an all-seeing eye of God. Placed within a casino context, it points toward the abundance of security cameras trained on guests. Tristan Eaton’s mural, on another side of the El Cortez parking structure, depicts a showgirl with her oversize headdress riddled with Vegas iconography, from chips to signs. The slogan “Fear No Fate” urges viewers, win or lose, to fearlessly confront the hand they are dealt.
Other works address Las Vegas itself, making use of the desert as a platform for social commentary. Invoking Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Alexis Diaz’s enormous snail, on the alley wall of the vacant Las Vegas Motel on Seventh, scooches through the desert sporting a cigarette-smoking skull in place of a shell; ravens nest in the skull top. The surreal quality of a snail even being in the desert comments on the improbability of Las Vegas itself.
To create “Frem,” taking up a side wall of the Las Vegas motel, the artist Vhils laced the wall with small deposits of gunpowder, which, when detonated, removed thin layers of plaster, creating the image yet leaving the wall intact, resulting in the look of a distressed film poster. In interviews, he explained the smooth plaster covers urban social conflicts beneath. We encounter layers again in Martin Whatson’s work, on a back corner of the El Cortez’ free parking structure. A hand pulls down the building’s “skin,” revealing a riot of colorful graffiti beneath. Around the corner a tagger is depicted in the process of adding to a wall covered in the same graffiti. The mural captures the idea of urban layers, which pass through numerous cycles of creation and cover-up.
Borondo’s anamorphic mural “Corner,” on a front corner of the El Cortez free parking, adopts the style of Rembrandt for its supersized portrait of a vulnerable, apostle-like figure — who might just as easily be a homeless person, normally overlooked on a street corner.
In her mural “Full Moon,” on another side of the Las Vegas Motel, Ana Maria Ortiz also comments on social tension, and brings aquatic animal life out of its place to the desert. In what may be a subtle commentary on xenophobia, a trio of seagulls nervously confronts an equally tense rabbit-squid, with fear and curiosity apparent on both sides. The tentacles lend a vaguely threatening quality. A spell is cast by the glowing moon and intense gaze of the marine rabbit. In the shimmering stillness there is a sense of a trap not-yet-sprung, momentarily deferred as prospects for trust are assessed. Or perhaps there is no trap, and this mistrust is an instinctive response to the exotic and unfamiliar — even though Las Vegas typically celebrates the exotic, strange, and magical.
Blinking lights and grandiose signs are by no means a thing of the past — and we don’t want them to be. However, these rich, complex murals have given locals and visitors a lot to think about, nudging us toward a more contemplative experience and greater awareness of our surroundings. At the very least, it makes for a good meander around Fremont Street after a meal.