Incentive program beautifies a shuttered city while giving Las Vegas artists a needed boost
They say that in tough times, the resilient turn lemons into lemonade. Well, amid the COVID-19 shut-downs, Las Vegas artists have turned plywood into canvases.
Like much of the country, businesses in the city of Las Vegas locked their doors, turned off their lights, and boarded up their windows. But many didn’t stop there.
Derek Stonebarger, owner of ReBar in the Las Vegas Arts District, boarded up the tavern’s doors and windows. But something felt off. In a video interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Stonebarger said the bland plywood just didn’t fit the usually vibrant arts district. So he partnered with local artists to paint colorful murals with upbeat messages on the boards.
“We’re down here today trying to put some color in this dark part of our life,” Stonebarger said.
The idea prompted Las Vegas’ city government to take swift action to further the idea. The city quickly launched an incentive program that provided businesses grants of up to $2,000 for the boarding up buildings. The one caveat? Art needed to cover the facade.
Jerry Misko, one of the artists who painted murals on the boarded-up buildings, said he was pleasantly surprised that the city came up with an incentive program that helped brick-and-mortar businesses and self-employed artists.
“I was impressed and honestly surprised,” he told Artistic Fuel. “Mostly surprised at the speed in which they made that program happen.”
Artists hit hard
A glance at Misko’s artwork tells you he was born and raised in the city of lights. His work is colorful and electric. He’s painted about 20 murals throughout the Vegas area, and many of them seem to give off a glow similar to neon lights.
But Misko says it took him decades of working side gigs before he could work as an artist full time. He worked as a life guard, as a graphic designer, and at a wine bar — all while taking any freelance opportunities that came along. In 2002, he landed a commission to paint a 10-foot-by-10- foot mural in Saks Fifth Avenue along the Strip.
“I quit my real job and I was like, ‘oh no, what did I do?’ And then that big Saks Fifth Avenue job came,” Misko said. “It was my first corporate gig. When you have that external validation, from there it’s easier to get future work. From that point on, I’ve done two to three big projects each year.”
Misko’s portfolio includes paintings and murals commissioned by the City of Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, MTV, and Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. He’s been recognized multiple times by local press, earning the honor of “Best Local Artist” by both Las Vegas CityLife and Las Vegas Weekly magazine.
Misko had big projects lined up in March that would bring in half of what he made all of last year. But every one of them was either canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus.
He points out that self-employed artists have been hit especially hard by the global pandemic. “We’re freelancers. That’s not the kind of worker that gets helped when shit hits the fan.”
So Las Vegas’ mural incentive program was a much-needed boost. As Misko put it, “It kept the wolves from the door.”
‘We’re going to be back’
Las Vegas’ mural incentive program amid the pandemic has become a win-win for businesses, passersby and artists. While it’s meant experienced artists are creating large-scale murals for a reduced rate, Misko says he’s happy to do it.
“It created an environment where some commerce was happening — between local shops and contractors who put up the boards, and then artists who painted the murals,” he said.
And it’s certainly kept him busy. He painted seven murals for five clients, including restaurants, bars and a hotel. He dedicated his time and talents to businesses he wants to survive these trying times, including Lotus of Siam, a favorite among locals.
Some of his murals showcase Misko’s iconic neon electric vibe, with images of flowers and birds, and several read “Vegas Strong.”
“This whole movement created little pops of hope. And a real feeling that we’re really just putting a pause on things as opposed to a destruction of business,” he said. “We’re not this desolate shanty town. We’re going to be back.”
Las Vegas is moving into Phase 2 of reopening this week. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak recently announced that casinos will reopen on June 4.
As businesses begin to remove the boards from their doors and windows, the murals that have adorned them will not be lost. Many businesses are creating permanent displays for the murals inside their restaurant or shop.
And Stonebarger has said the plan is to host an art show in which the murals can be sold. Money raised will help Las Vegas residents who have been laid off or seen a cut in pay because of the pandemic.
Follow the mural project, and others in Las Vegas Arts District, at 18b.org.
More Artistic Fuel:
Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.