"The red carpet looks sad and dirty," someone says shortly before midnight at the Aruba Hotel, where ARTrageous party goers have been trickling in and out since 6 p.m. The 12-hour art party, a fundraiser for the Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada, has another six hours to go, and burlesque performer Cha Cha Velour is taking the stage.
The drum circle has finished. Body painting ensues. DJ Ladyfingers spins. Cirque du Soleil performers are on their way, and random dancing breaks out. Madonna's "Get Into the Groove" echoes the 1980s, an era of "gay cancer" AIDS headlines, the death and gay life of Rock Hudson, President Ronald Reagan's indifference toward the epidemic, and the groups of angry activists who took to the streets using Silence = Death as their motto.
Someone has painted those words, and a pink triangle, on a canvas community mural being painted by guests at ARTrageous. Covered with queer slogans, iconography and hieroglyphics, it will be hung in the community center.
"I put a star because I tattoo stars on my body, so it's like leaving my mark," says Bernice Blas, who moved to Las Vegas more than a year ago and volunteers at the center. "I wanted to leave something that was mine. Everybody is leaving something that represents them. It's kind of like saying, 'We're here all together.'"
Paintings, photographs, drawings and digital works hang in a juried exhibit in the entryway. Some directly reference gay love, including work by 38-year-old photographer Bobby Townsend, whose portraits (taken by Ninon Nguyen) show Townsend being tattooed with a red ribbon and January 22, 2010—the date he was diagnosed HIV-positive. It's his way of handling the news and telling others what life "in a positive way" is like, he says. "This is saying, 'I've accepted it in my life, even though it's very difficult.' The first two months are the worst ever. You feel alone. You feel you have nobody."
He pauses, then adds, "The saying on the tattoo is 'Love Life.' Because you don't know when it's going to end."
In the other room, the dance party continues.