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If These Walls Could Argue

Photo illustration by Brent Holmes

Last month, when someone affixed vinyl masks to a Downtown mural of Oscar and Carolyn Goodman, there was no question what it was about. The slogans on the masks — “Get back to work … Or die trying” — were a satirical message not too far from Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s own words in her infamous CNN interview with Anderson Cooper. The artist is still at large. 

I have many questions, and they have nothing to do with the message. The message is clear. The message is strong. The message can be debated, but because of the vinyl’s temporary nature, the familiar echo of “But what about the property damage?” cannot derail all other possible conversations about the piece. Especially not when the patrons of the original mural and adjacent business owners have no problem with either the addition or the message. No, any critics must debate the message. 

Nor am I interested in who did it, or whether the adjacent businesses are enjoying the publicity.

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What I do want to know is, is there room in this city for more art we talk about because of its message? Not its price tag, not as an Instagram backdrop, not when it's destroyed by an errant motorist, but because of its message. Are there walls in Las Vegas for political public art? Can they exist in the current market? 

A mural must be sanctioned by a patron before it’s commissioned, obviously. But then it follows, in order for an artist to be commissioned, they must be sanctioned. An artist does not have free reign. All a coffee shop Downtown really wants is something pretty and inoffensive. Imagine if the mural “Joe Downtown” by Ukrainian duo Interesni Kazki — a sly image about gambling emblazoned on the side of the Emergency Arts building above the old Beat coffeehouse — was not painted over in 2013 for being too “negative.” 

Pretty and inoffensive is what our city and county governments want from a mural, too. Now, imagine a strong mural program sanctioned by the city government, the way Mexico City, after the 1910 revolution, commissioned work to unify and heal a community by coaxing out public feelings in order to form a strong local identity. Is there a wall in this city for public art within  this exchange? Or do artists have to pull a Keith Harring and paint “Crack is Wack” and ask for forgiveness later? A mural, by the way, that was “independently executed” (on a handball court, in 1986) but later maintained by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, which supported the message.

Any of these examples would connect with the artform’s main noncommercial tradition: communities seeking a way to express their frustrations and fears and pride on their walls. Street art was not born in a vacuum. It was not originally a way to add “edge,” it  was the edge. It was the raw expression of city dwellers living in a time and place in which their leaders turned a blind eye to their struggles. This seems even more urgent given not only the pandemic and the damaged economy, but the social-justice movements that have sprung up since the Goodman mural was masked, protests that have underscored just how much some communities have to say.

To quote the late great local journalist and artist Ed Fuentes, “At some point you have to decide: Is it the creative people or the marketing people who decide what can happen Downtown?” 

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