“Artists make art for a range of reasons, and they’re all valid,” says Obey Giant artist Shepard Fairey. Two new colossal murals on the Plaza Hotel & Casino’s main tower, one by Fairey and the other a work by D*Face, embody that statement. They couldn’t be more different in their intention: one, a political message stimulating consciousness and empathy; the other embracing playful—albeit dark—storytelling and escapism. Both are meant to stir curiosity, by prodding you to dig for symbolic meaning and create your own backstory. At the very least, they take daily commuters and drunken tourists out of their monotonous and hedonistic trances for a fleeting moment, asking them to spare a glance at such massive undertakings that, simply, look really fucking cool.
The project was a collaboration with the Plaza, Life Is Beautiful festival and JustKids, the international street-art curators responsible for bringing work by prominent artists such as Zio Ziegler and Bezt to Downtown Las Vegas since 2013. Fairey and D*Face each spent a week staying and working at the Downtown hotel with their crews and a whole slew of paint cans to bring Las Vegans some new additions to the city’s outdoor gallery. The end result are two pieces of art that have undoubtedly changed Downtown’s look.
Shepard Fairey | A Peaceful Purpose
When millions participated January 21 for the international Women’s March, one symbol stood out: Fairey’s depiction of a Muslim woman wearing an American-flag hijab, an image carried by hundreds of pussy hat–wearing protesters on homemade signs.
The striking illustration was part of the “We the People” series displaying the diversity of America. A week after the historic demonstration, Fairey arrived in Las Vegas to transform the Plaza’s 21-story canvas.
Lady Luck must have been smiling down on Las Vegas to get a mural by the celebrated artist at such a time in his career. The installation marks the third piece he has created in town—he’s also painted a mural on the Emergency Arts building and provided work in The Cosmopolitan parking garage. Fairey is best known for his iconic Obama “Hope” poster, and brought a similar sentiment back with his “We the People” works.
In the same spirit as the unifying, optimistic message behind those well-known projects is the new addition at the Plaza, a towering black, red and white creation that has altered the cityscape. Titled “Cultivate Harmony,” the mural displays Fairey’s Andre the Giant image surrounded by a flower with a peace sign in the top-left corner. Beneath it is an eye with a teardrop enveloping the world. “The idea is harmony with each other and harmony with the planet, because both are important for civilization and for life to go on,” Fairey says.
Fairey’s goal was to create something that represented an aesthetic and philosophy that he was proud of, but would not ignite a pitchfork-wielding mob to come after him and hotel management. A considerate gesture, since Fairey’s roots as a street artist have produced more antagonistic, provocative work—something we’re bound to see more of with the Trump administration, such as with his recent “Obey With Caution” piece commenting on willful ignorance and arrogance.
“This is uncharted territory,” he says of Trump’s USA. “I just didn’t think that there were enough people with judgment that was that poor. I felt like I got suckerpunched by America. There is plenty for me to make art about.”
And while some of his creations seem blatant with messages meant to provoke thought and action, the 46-year-old artist has discovered new ways to be adversarial with his work. He calls his “We the People” works bulletproof from Fox News. “If you say that you don’t like the idea of being greater than fear, or defending dignity or protecting each other, you just revealed that you’re a bigot,” he says. “I love that idea.”
The same concept applies to the Plaza mural’s sound message of harmony. “These ideas are hard to argue with unless you are really just someone with a reactionary and a hostile side, so, yeah, in my old age, I take the high road sometimes.”
D*Face | A Twisted Tale
If there was an official artist of Downtown Las Vegas, it should be D*Face. His Plaza mural is now the British artist’s fifth in town, after creating one on El Cortez Cabana Suites building, another one a block south of it and the gun shooting the word “peace” on the Western Hotel, which covered up his previous “Viva Lost Vegas” work.
“This is kind of crazy that I’ve got four murals within a couple of blocks [of] each other,” he says. Although Los Angeles is home to the most D*Face murals, Downtown has the largest in scale.
Moments after finishing the work at the Plaza, D*Face was still uncertain of its name. “Well, today, it’s currently called either ‘Behind Closed Doors’ or ‘Death’s Door,’’’ he says. The mural shows a frightened Lichtenstein-style woman peering through a cracked door, which is being pulled back by a skeletal left hand.
D*Face ingeniously used the wall jutting out from the Plaza to his advantage by making that section of the mural the door itself, avoiding the alignment challenge that comes with uneven surfaces and creating a sweet 3-D effect. His idea was to tell a story about what happens in mysterious hotel rooms. “A lot of characters are always passing through; you’re never really sure what’s been before you,” he says.
D*Face’s favorite fable created from the image is about a woman who came to Las Vegas with her husband and her lover. She went out to the desert to murder her hubby and left him to rot in the Mojave Desert dirt. When she came to the hotel to meet her Romeo, guess who was waiting? Not Romeo.
D*Face is known for works commenting on visual consumption. His pieces offer respite from the constant bombardment of advertising and ubiquitous corporate imagery on a second-by-second basis. “The overall feeling was to try to introduce something to the public that was an alternative to advertising, because all you get is advertising forced upon you. There is no choice in that,” he says “ When I walk down the street, I don’t choose to see that billboard, I’m just confronted with it.”
His work jolts the viewer’s brain function, from purely consuming the visual to inventing a narrative. You have to come up with the image’s story, from only hints of it shown to you, which can be a bit of challenge in the golden age of streaming services. If you’re not up for the challenge, just enjoy.
“Life is hard enough as it is without you trying to force things down people’s throats with your imagery. ‘Oh, here’s another thing I’m going to tell you not to do. Don’t drink Coke. Don’t eat McDonald’s. Don’t vote Trump. Whatever. OK, cool, I get it,” he says. “But maybe it’s just nice to have a cool-looking picture. … I’m trying to give people a little smile now and then.”
What a gift. Quick—somebody give this man another wall!
The Plaza, originally Union Plaza, was built in the early ’70s. As is the case with most older Las Vegas casinos, people have deep love for the hotel’s bygone times and classic look. One may think the Plaza’s addition of two large-scale contemporary artworks would run the risk of taking away from the place’s old-school charm—but like reincarnations of vintage fashion, the pieces take the casino into modernity while maintaining its nostalgia.
“They are bringing something funky and new to Downtown, but [they] don’t take away from the iconic history and look of the Plaza,” says CEO Jonathan Jossel. He adds that the new additions are less about what the casino represents and more about what Downtown represents, as “Cultivate Harmony” and “Behind Closed Doors” connect the hotel to the rest of the muraled walls in our colorful city that is gaining quite a reputation for its street art.