All photos by Chase Stevens unless otherwise noted.
Las Vegas is nothing if not an aesthetic overload. But for the thousands attending last weekend's Life is Beautiful Festival, the visual spectacle was less about neon casino signs and more about giant meerkats, an undead Snoopy and an enormous octopus bursting out of an abandoned motel.
Those were among the dozens of murals and installations that took over Life is Beautiful's sprawling 15-city-block footprint in downtown Las Vegas, created as part of the festival's ambitious arts program.
While most events claiming to be "music and art festivals" are limited to a couple of sculptures for high kids to gawk at, Life is Beautiful is the real deal. Its robust arts lineup features work from dozens of local artists and international names like Banksy and D*Face, who were invited to use the site as their literal canvas to create original works, many of which are left up year-round as an evolving part of the city's developing urban core.
When Life is Beautiful debuted three years ago, downtown Las Vegas was on the cusp of a period of rapid development as the city sought to redefine itself in the wake of the economic downturn. The area was pocked with vacant lots and run-down motels, the bones of old casinos with blank walls begging for public art. Some of that still remains, but thanks in part to the festival art program curated by Charlotte Dutoit of the art collective JustKids, the buildings of downtown's Fremont East corridor now offer a glimpse into Las Vegas' new sense of civic identity.
The project, called Rise Above, takes inspiration from Miami’s Wynwood District, which hosts the international Art Basel festival each year and is the city's art and gallery hub. Thanks to Las Vegas' relative lack of development, the festival site has the advantage of allowing many more permanent or long-term works on display.
“Miami has a great [street art] scene, but what’s weird about the Wynwood area is that after Art Basel is over, it all goes away," said English street artist D*Face, who has participated in the Life is Beautiful street art project for all three years. "Literally, the day after it’s like a ghost town.”
By contrast, Life is Beautiful has literally changed the face of downtown Las Vegas, which now doubles as an open-air art gallery.
Dutoit selects an international crew of artists to jet into town in the weeks leading up to the festival, with many works improvised or inspired by what the artists observe on site.
“First, I choose artists I like. Then, I try to choose artists that are the right fit for the festival,” Dutoit said. “Some artists I love, but they are a bit too dark. Even if they’re amazing, it’s just not the right place.”
Though the festival has worked extensively with local artists on the temporary exhibits featured inside the aptly-named Art Motel exhibit, others have criticized the mural and street art program for not doing enough to embrace local artists. Still, many credit the project for helping push the downtown art scene forward.
This year’s street art line up, which comes in addition to the more than three dozen different exhibitors featured in the festival's motel-turned-gallery space, includes 13 exhibitors (both teams and individuals) representing nine countries. We toured the new art transforming the streets of Las Vegas' downtown and spoke to some of the artists about the works. Check them out below.
"Meerkats" - Bordalo II
One of the most eye-catching pieces from this year’s crop of artists came from Bordalo II, who was kicked out of art school in his native Portugal.
“They wanted you to be around at the school all the time," the 27-year-old said. "The other students would just go and smoke pot and drink. I didn’t want to do that. I liked doing my art and going to campus when I needed to. It just proved to me that art school is not the right way to go.”
For Life is Beautiful, the artist raided local scrap and junk yards for materials.
Photo couresty JustKids
“This is one of the most impressive pieces, because of the process,” Dutoit said. “He was literally in a mountain of trash picking out things that appear random, but he can visualize [what it will become].”
The piece, part of his Big Trash Animals series, depicts five meerkats on the side of a turquoise colored bus.
“For the series, the idea is to create the animals, the victims of pollution and trash, out of the very things that are killing them off,” Bordalo said.
"Peace Maker," "Goodbye Kitty" and "Undead Snoopy" - D*Face
For his first two years contributing to Life is Beautiful, D*Face crafted large-scale works in his trademark comic book-style panels depicting human characters with skeleton faces. An additional mural reading “Viva Lost Vegas" became particularly popular with locals, striking a chord with champions of the long-overlooked downtown area. A separate installation at last year's festival accidentally damaged the work, so Dutoit asked D*Face create a new work on the same wall. The result: “Peace Maker,” a black and gold revolver shooting out metallic script reading “Peace.”
Photo courtesy JustKids
In addition to the new mural, D*Face drew on the skateboard art that inspired him growing up to create two three-story-high inflatables parodying chilhood cartoon characters as zombies.
Photo courtesy JustKids
"Eagles and Rabbit Under the Moon" - Ana Marietta
Ana Maria Ortiz is a Puerto Rico-born artist based out of Houston, Texas whose melancholy animal and humanoid forms are influenced by the animal sciences she studied in school. She returned to Life is Beautiful this year for a second go after painting a mural in 2013 that still resides at the corner of Fremont East and Sixth Street. The new piece reflects Marietta’s distinct painterly style while also taking on a larger scale than her previous work.
"Chrome Fish" - Bikismo
The Puerto Rican artist is known for his hyper-realistic paintings and murals created entirely with spray paint. For Life is Beautiful, Bikismo painted a chrome fish above the Beat Coffeehouse at Fremont East and Sixth Street. His metallic animals and attention to texture have become hallmarks of his distinct style.
“In Miami last year, in Wynwood, he did the chrome puppy that people loved. It’s really interesting stuff,” Dutoit said.
"Robot Portrait" - Pixel Pancho
Italian artist Pixel Pancho is known for his sculptures and large murals, often done in earth tones and featuring vintage robot characters as his subjects. Near the entrance to the festival, on the side of the El Cortez parking garage, one of those robots is posed in a loving portrait with a woman wearing a flower crown. At first glance his companion looks human, but closer examination reveals gears behind a missing piece of her face. The piece took Pancho just two days to complete.
"Portal" - 1010
German street artist 1010 focuses on playing with perspective in the painted portals and optical illusions he crafts for his large-scale works. This spring's "Boulevard Périphérique," painted on the Paris beltway, was one of the largest street art projects ever created in the city. For Life is Beautiful, 1010 painted a trademark multicolored portal descending into darker colors toward a central abyss. 1010 braved the heat of Las Vegas in June to come paint the work downtown.
"Hunter S. Thompson" - Ruben Sanchez
Among the festival's most eye-catching and colorful works, this mural takes its inspiration directly from one of Las Vegas' most famous tales. Sanchez, a Spanish artists who is based out of Dubai, is known for painting where street art has never been seen before and seeking out atypical canvasses. His geometric graffiti murals are vibrant, colorful and a little surrealist.
Photo courtesy JustKids
"Bay Window" - SBAGLIATO
Italian for "wrong," the SBAGLIATO art collective plays with architectural design and optical illusion. For this year's Life is Beautiful, the artists pasted a decontextualized bay window on the side of a casino parking garage that, particularly at night, takes on a deceptive three-dimensional effect.
“They wheatpaste some architectural element on to buildings. One of them is an architect so they bring that approach to their art,” Dutoit said. “They like to add doors and windows.”
"Green Octopus" - Filthy Luker & Pedro Estrellas
These UK artists are known for the inflatable street installation that they'e been creating since the 90s. "Green Octopus" is the latest in their series of acclaimed “art attacks” featuring oversized tentacles, eyeballs and banana peels affixed to public places. The pair designed the eponymous creature to sprawl out from the windows and framework of an abandoned motel in Las Vegas' downtown, with its curled tentacles reaching out for fans reclining on the grass below.
Photo couresty JustKids
“Life is Beautiful” and “Last Chance” - Trevor Wheatley & Cosmo Dean
This Canadian duo is responsible for one of the most Instagrammed sights of the weekend, a living marquee of flowers and plants welcoming festivalgoers over the site's main thoroughfare. Its companion exhibit, “Last Chance,” offers commentary on the fleeting nature of the festival experience.
“Their concept is to work with words and phrases in installations,” often coupled with natural settings, Dutoit said.
"Shipping Containers" - Jason Woodside
New York City painter Jason Woodside produces kaleido scopic large-scale murals of bright geometric patterns, in this case adorning two of the shipping containers that have become a fixture of downtown's development. Woodside has done public works in Sydney, Paris, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and the Vegas shipping containers are a permanent installation.
Photo courtesy JustKids
"This is So Us" - The Fat Jew/Bikismo
Whatever the Fat Jew is—comedian, social media personality, actor, joke thief—he is not an artist. Even Dutoit agrees. “He’s not a muralist … but we made him a muralist,” she said. “He worked on the concept, and his idea is, if it’s not ridiculous and funny, I’m not doing it.”
Drawing on the Fat Jew’s own White Girl rosé, the mural shows a nude woman straddling a bottle of the stuff, with the words “this so us” above it. Bikismo painted the mural for him.
"Mobile Garden" - Banksy
The famous street artist sent one of his works from his 2013 New York City residency to be displayed at the festival. While the exterior looks like an average tagged-up white delivery truck, its contents reveal a secret garden of artificial plants, a waterfall and a rainbow. Considering the meteoric advances in indoor gardening we now have thanks to the marijuana industry, the piece might've been more poignant had the artist managed to create an actual living garden inside the truck. That said, the real issue was the lack of context from the NYC residency, when the work was situated an unexpected discovery in the city. As a roped-off truck with its own security line, we think one of the guards put it best: “This is worth $200,000?! I could’ve made this at Plant World.”
Tovin Lapan is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco and Las Vegas. His work has appeared in The Guardian US, Lucky Peach and San Francisco Magazine. Follow him on Twitter.