Vegas: A City of Contradictions

Street artist, Chor Boogie created the above piece for Vegas’ annual ‘Life is Beautiful’ art festival. The festival produces hundreds of works that invigorate the landscape of Downtown Las Vegas, many of which live beyond festival weekend.


Las Vegas brings to mind flashy lights, decadent food, and drunken frat boys roaming the streets. However, there is a side to Vegas that many travellers to the area may be surprised to encounter. The art district in downtown Vegas is exploding, with artists from around the world swooping in and making their mark on everything from hotels to abandoned homes. Art galleries are popping up in areas that were once riddled with crime and drugs, however there is the sense of the ever-dreaded gentrification of a low-income neighborhood taking place. High rise apartment complexes shadow homes and businesses from a generation ago. Specialty coffee shops filled with students and the upper class intermingle with bail bonds offices.

Las Vegas is a city of contradictions. Sitting in the middle of a barren desert landscape, the city looms like the exercise in excess that it is. It’s an adult amusement park designed for people to take refuge in a vice-filled fantasy land. From prostitution to gambling, to extravagant circus shows and buffet spreads of unbelievable proportion, Vegas is all about achieving the American dream the easy way: Some money slapped down on a poker table or a few coins thrown in a slot can, theoretically, make a person millions. And if it doesn’t, guests have the opportunity to (if only for a weekend) bask in the light of a more x-rated Disneyland luxury. In Vegas, with its internationally themed hotels and shimmery high-rises, the world is right where you want it: poolside.

But in 2009, a once booming city became an economic hellhole. In addition to excess, Vegas was symbolic of the American dream in a way far more simplistic: It supposedly offered a steady stream of well-paying, working class jobs. There were constant opportunities not only for performers, but for construction workers, hotel housekeepers, and waitresses. And they paid well. While these jobs were typically considered ones in which people could barely scrape by, the ones in Vegas allowed people to own a home, to travel, to pay their children’s college tuition. Las Vegas, to many, was not just a way to spend a debauchery-filled weekend. It was a way to make the leap to the middle class.

But, as we all know, 2009 showed the American Dream for what it really was: unstable. And it was especially unstable in Vegas, where the dream of owning a home was so set in those who migrated there for precisely that opportunity that they were the perfect targets for the predatory loans that nearly shut our economic system down. And while gambling is considered a “recession proof” practice because of its addictive nature, high-priced meals and luxury hotel rooms are not. And that’s the problem with Vegas – it wanted to make gambling something far more extravagant than what it actually was.

And if you wander into downtown Vegas, the contradiction continues. Brilliantly colored murals are painted over once abandoned buildings. In 2013 the art district set up a street art festival called ‘Life is Beautiful,’ with the goal of placing Vegas on the map as a street art destination. The endeavor proved successful, leading to the genesis of ‘street art tours,’ an app that guides people through the mural covered streets. This year, Life Is Beautiful will have an interactive art experience once again. The festival will bring back the popular Art Motel installation. It will be reimagined by Santa Fe art collective Meow Wolf. The gallery will display work by Matt Skiba, Mark Ryden, Shag, Tara McPherson, Shepard Fairey, Brandon Boyd, and more.

For Vegas, this movement can be a form of reconstruction as envisioned by those who actually live there. In large part, Vegas was a city of the servers and the served. There were tourists and the people who had jobs revolving around them. Now though, street art is saying that Vegas is more than an oversized and overpriced Dave & Busters. Vegas is a city filled with complexity, a place in which creativity brims outside of the strip.

Further Readings

A Vegas street art blog that tracks street art as it pops up throughout the city.

A collection of murals, installations and immersive environments, the Life is Beautiful art program produces hundreds of works that invigorate the landscape of Downtown Las Vegas, many of which live beyond festival weekend.


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