“I feel that the public reaction to graffiti or street art has always been a struggle between shock and surprise,” says William Shea, a Las Vegas-based photographer, writer and artist who has just co-authored a book on the subject with landscape and street art photographer Patrick Lai. Simply titled Street Art Las Vegas, the book mixes images by big names such as Shepard Fairey, Tristan Eaton, D*face and Retna with pieces by anonymous artists making art in the area.
The book arrives five years after Shea and Lai published Fade to Gray, a photo documentary about the Las Vegas street art and graffiti scene. According to Shea, much has changed in that time.
“The first thing I can be sure of is that the diversity of art has greatly increased,” he says. “Back in 2012, when we started taking photographs, we noticed a pattern in the Arts District that limited the space to only a handful of artists or crews. It was very common to photograph the same artist or crew over and over again and never get tired of it. When I think back on it today, I’m amazed at how small of an area we had to work with.… [Since then], a lot of the styles have changed, and there are new players in the game.” As such, Street Art Las Vegas looks to be reflective of the art in the area today. “[It’s] true to the environment we are working in,” says Shea.
“Las Vegas wasn’t always blessed with the diverse collection of street art that we have today,” Shea continues. “Anyone who has lived here for the past 20 years clearly remembers a time when there was absolutely no street art to be found, other than what was considered to be illegal.” For Shea, the shift towards people viewing street art as a legitimate art form is largely down to the success of artists like Banksy, coupled with a change in public attitudes toward street art at a local level.
The photographs were taken over a 14-month period, and in that time, the pair shot around 200 pieces ranging from basic street ‘tagging’ to large-scale murals. “We wanted to be as diverse as possible,” says Shea, “so there was a lot of care taken when we selected images for the book, making sure not to favour one artist over another.” One of the trickiest things was for the authors to try and move away from their own personal tastes, so they limited themselves to only including images that were painted on legal walls, and had them randomly selected by a third party. Images were then sorted by location and identified as best they could be. They also included images from Life is Beautiful, an annual music and arts event. According to Shea, the festival, which started in 2013, is “credited with the layout and curation of the murals that we see downtown to this day”.
The design of the book aims to give the reader the sense of being in amongst the artworks it features. Images are presented to fill the page and occasionally bleed off them. “Early on, I decided to use more than the normal number of fonts that you would expect to see in the average book,” says Shea, who designed most of the publication except for the cover. “I figured that if I was going to break the rules of design, I might as well try to go all the way with it, so I went with a nine-point serif font for the main text, I replaced the page numbers with an ultra-fine sans serif, and even added a display font named Asphalt for the table of contents and introduction page.”
The most striking and positive thing for the authors in putting the book together was documenting the change from many people seeing street art in a residential neighbourhood as an “absurd idea” to something that should be embraced and celebrated. “We are actually seeing the evolution of an art form in progress. We are even seeing a split with the terminology. Some of the artists today will only associate themselves with the term street art, while abandoning the idea of labelling their art as graffiti due to its negative stereotypes and past,” says Shea. “Nowadays, the question on the minds of most people is, ‘how are we going to preserve and curate new art for the future?'”
Street Art Las Vegas by William Shea and Patrick Lai is published on 12 April by Smallworks Press