Art

Urban walls: writer Ed Fuentes talks Las Vegas street art

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Ed Fuentes about the public murals in the Art’s District on Saturday, April 25, 2015.
Photo: L.E. Baskow
Ed Fuentes about the public murals in the Art's District on Saturday, April 25, 2015.

Ed Fuentes about the public murals in the Art's District on Saturday, April 25, 2015.

Photographer and arts journalist Ed Fuentes had been chronicling LA’s downtown arts scene for several years. He’d written extensively about street art for public TV station KCET’s Departures project, and before that, the website viewfromaloft.org. In 2013—two years after moving to Las Vegas—he received an Andy Warhol Foundation grant to cover street in Las Vegas on his website, paintthisdesert.com. The grant has ended, but the designer with a background in advertising continues to document the evolving walls of the Las Vegas Valley.

We talk Las Vegas art with Fuentes who has lived among street art all his life, beginning in the Casa Blanca neighborhood of Riverside, California, an area he affectionately calls “my little barrio.”

On what makes effective street art: “Simplicity. How quick can you read the message—it’s just like a good logo, especially if you’re on a commute and get the repeated viewings. You can have details as a lot of backstory, but the overall composition has to have a connection. The Life Is Beautiful street art is a simple read, because you can look at it as a whole. If you walk up to it in person then you see the details, and it becomes a different kind of piece. Graffiti is not a simple read. It has so much detail and so much chaos, and it’s supposed to have chaos. It’s supposed to throw your sense off a little bit. It’s supposed to be an invasion.”

His interest in a wall on a warehouse at Coolidge and First Street in the Arts District:“This is probably the most authentic wall that’s going on with the street-art trend, because it’s a little bit of the Life Is Beautiful. It’s a lot of the wheat-paste artists, the stickers, the spontaneous art and not a lot of that older-style graffiti. In terms of street art on a global level, this is what’s getting all the interest. It’s whimsical, not hostile; it’s sort of playful, almost satirical, which fits in with really what Las Vegas is about.”

That wall’s evolution: “It’s a constant dialogue between street artists who are local and from out of the city. You have some people coming in from out of state. And because it’s really a wall that tolerates it, people are getting creative with it. And, if you notice, the taggers are not tolerated, which I think is great. It says a lot about how the city has the potential to really understand what this art means. They’re recognizing the difference between street art and a tag.”

Downtown Murals

Other interesting Las Vegas works: “The Life Is Beautiful street art brands the area as hip. They were just in a U.K. magazine, so it put Las Vegas on this larger street-art map. I think the graffiti stuff is interesting. The 100 Centennial murals are great. The city should keep them up. With the anniversary coming up, they should rededicate the ones that are still here. Don’t let them fade in the sun. This is a little legacy. You can’t let them just deteriorate or dispose of them when you think you’re done. Nobody is going to take your fine art seriously if you treat it like advertising. Maybe you can’t save all the murals. If you only have a budget to save 10 of these murals, pick ’em. That mural program was funded. Why waste the money?”

Why some fine artists look down on street artists: “Maybe because they’re not trained. Or the stuff looks too much like graphic design or illustration, but it’s not really that common. I find that less and less. But I think you could say the same thing the other way. There are street artists who don’t look very well upon people who will stick their art in a gallery. That goes back to Mexican muralism or the idea about art coming to the people, to the masses, and that gallery art is elitism.”

Life Is Beautiful Murals

What Las Vegas is missing in terms of street art: “Ethnic murals. You have a large Hawaiian population here; there should be a mural about them somewhere. You have North Las Vegas with a big Latino community. There’s probably a great place for a mural in Chinatown. You could have a great Mormon mural. You could have a mural about mining. You could come out with a really beautiful curated mural program. I would even be happy with a cool Rat Pack mural that’s not on the side of a souvenir stand. How could they not have done a Howard Hughes mural in Summerlin? Who’s the first librarian in town? That’s worth a mural.”

Public art programs: “The county does it better [than the city]. The county looks at what public art is, and they ask questions. They look into it. They realize they have an infrastructure. They work with designers ahead of time. They look at what other counties are doing.”

The art museum thing: “Nevada Museum of Art should have a Downtown component, a satellite down here. Why don’t they? They have a legacy of 84 years of collections.”

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