Signs of the (Disappearing) Times

Vegas Vernacular captures the past as we build the future

No matter where you live, the locals—usually natives with two or more generations of roots—feel proprietary about their city. They are usually the ones spearheading preservation efforts and recognizing those quirky little treasures that make local life … local.

Las Vegas being Las Vegas, though, a share of self-awareness has always come from outsiders. Las Vegans were proud of the hotels of the Strip in the 1960s, but it took three Philadelphia-based architects—Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour—to produce the seminal book Learning From Las Vegas and make the case that the architecture of the Strip was the antidote to boring, functional modernist style that was then in fashion.

Don’t get me wrong—locals liked the way the Strip looked. It just took a trio of outsiders to articulate exactly why Las Vegas had something to teach the world. And, at the end of the day, while we built those postmodern icons, we’ve also blown most of them up.

Which is why it’s interesting to see what new arrivals to Las Vegas notice the most. Slots in convenience stores? Franchise pawnshops? Tap water that’s somewhere north of 11 on the Mohs’ scale?

For Bryan McCormick and Mark Johnson, something different stood out: the hand-painted signs found on many downtown businesses.

Those signs—created by prolific but mostly anonymous painters strictly as works for hire—have a certain homey charm. Sometimes mid-century modern, sometimes Western colloquial, they are authentically Vegas. And, McCormick and Johnson discovered after seeing a few signs whitewashed over, they were in danger of disappearing.

Johnson, inspired by Clive Piercy’s Pretty Vacant: The Los Angeles Dingbat Observed, decided that those signs deserved cataloging. Piercy’s 448-page opus is an homage to the idiosyncratic typefaces found on the hundreds of dingbats, or simple apartment buildings, that provide a big share of Angeleno visual culture. Why not, Johnson and McCormick wondered, do the same for the signs in downtown Las Vegas?

And the way that they set about doing this says much about the kind of crowd-sourced public service that’s reshaping Las Vegas. Needing help, they approached Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project, which had already brought in photographer Geoff Ellis to document pre-Zappos 89101. Ellis helped put together a team of volunteers to photograph and collect info about the signs. Thus was born Vegas Vernacular, which has, to date, documented about 65 percent of the signs in the downtown area.

All of this material isn’t going to sit in boxes at the Nevada State Museum or brighten up municipal buildings. Instead, it’s going on a website,, and will be the focus of concurrent shows at three downtown art galleries starting Oct. 4. It’s strictly nonprofit and community minded—thanks to a Creative Commons license, anyone who’s interested in putting together a project drawing on the painstaking work Vegas Vernacular has done will be able to so. It’s refreshing to see a few dozen Las Vegans pitching in for an egoless (photographers are given only collective credit for their work) civic project that, ultimately, will benefit everyone.

What makes this cloud-computing-era community barn-raising even more fascinating is that many new arrivals have been drawn to Vegas Vernacular. Enticed to Las Vegas by the prospect of remaking the desert metropolis, one of the first civic projects they’re embracing is one that seeks to preserve the native culture from the crush of redevelopment that they’re bringing with them.

You get the sense that Las Vegas is folding in on itself. The self-sufficiency, to say nothing of the self-respect, of a tourist town is always a tenuous thing. This was one of the things that the late UNLV history professor Hal Rothman understood and articulated better than anyone who writes about tourism. His Devil’s Bargains (the Las Vegas chapters of which are some of the best stuff ever written about the city) had the thesis that tourism was precisely that sort of eponymous deal: For every dollar that’s pumped into the local economy and job created, there’s something, somewhere lost.

For more than a half-century, we’ve been fine with that. But this is different. It’s not tourists who are trying to get a bite of authentic Vegas while their very presence changes it forever. It’s the locals.

Which leaves the city in a strange predicament. Downtown redevelopment has been the cornerstone of city policy for the past three mayors; state governments worked to diversify the economy since before Grant Sawyer was governor (for those doing the math at home, he was first elected in 1958). Perhaps we as a community have been so set on rebuilding and refocusing that we haven’t asked ourselves exactly what bargain we’re striking.

In this case, it seems straightforward. One arm of the Downtown Project is setting off a shock wave of growth, and the charming hand-painted signs that most of us haven’t given a second glance could be the collateral damage. But since the signs are recognized as local treasures, another arm of the Downtown Project is documenting them before they’re gone. It’s the Vegas analog of Alan Lomax recording folk songs on the Mississippi Delta.

Here’s the twist: These signs will be far more visible than ever. The artists are getting recognition, aficionados get to enjoy them, and a crop of new Las Vegans gets to participate in a community project and bring to light a heretofore neglected local craft.

Still, it’s worth asking as downtown Las Vegas transforms: What other bargains are in the offing?

  • vanhellslinger

    And also the invisible signs we don’t hear or see much like as follows:


    A Short Treatise on Body Odors and the Poker Room or Discriminating Against the Elderly, Obese, and Unattractive at the Card Table

    This is an issue where the accused doesn’t get to confront his accusers and consequently if it appears to be a questionable account then the casino bears the brunt by losing a good customer to possibly two in collusion that are fly-by-nights.

    After playing poker for almost 4 months on a daily basis I was told by one of the Venetian poker room managers that I had a body odor. He suggested that I go home and shower then come back.

    Now I had showered twice that day and was wearing freshly washed clothes no more than 4 hours on and I usually shower 3 times a day and always use deodorant and after shave so I know my body odor wasn’t any different than from the last four months there. Nobody complained during the last 4 months so what happened?

    There are a couple kinds of offensive body odors that I perceive as a serious issue in a poker game. One is the smell of someone that hasn’t bathed in several days usually found in the numerous homeless people found on the Las Vegas strip begging for change. The second is the smell of someone that has evacuated his/her bowels and or excessive bowel gas. Other than those two any other smell is common place.

    I have noticed many times that a person sitting next to me in a poker game has some kind of bad smell. Usually it it bad breath or a sweaty smell commonly found on guys that have been playing for several hours. I have never complained to management about any of them because these are common normal bad smells and here is the main reason;

    We are not really “playing” a game in poker. Many players are trying to work at earning money. Most of the regular players are seriously working at winning money and care little about a minor body odor. Every time we play the amount brought to the table multiplies by the number of days we play at any casino. For example; If I played at the Venetian three months straight and brought $1,000 dollars each time then I brought $90,000 dollars in action to that casino.


    Now I am offended by the poker room managers action and consider it bad business to throw anybody out for minor things. Well not really but for all practical money reasons here is why I say that. Now I may take my “business” to another casino. Just how many other people are going to be thrown out for minor body odors and I say that because after I left the Venetian I walked to the Bellagio and played poker there for approximately an hour and while playing entered the subject of having sweated walking to the casino and then asked if my odor was bad. Both players to my left and right didn’t notice any offensive odor or didn’t acknowledge any and if they did kept it to themselves.

    I have noticed that several of the younger players appear to be using amphetamines or some other drugs used to elevate their senses. Remember Stu Unger who used excessively to win and this appears to be quite common in Vegas so my next question is; Since I can only recall two players leaving the table that were sitting at my side of the table and one was heavily tattooed and young the other was also younger did the manager consider that their sense of smell was paranoid by amphetamine abuse? I say paranoid but mean their senses are convoluted by the drugs they use.

    Then there is the issue of “other” biases. Disgruntled losers will eye up a player as being a hard nut to beat or easy and I know this because I too won’t or prefer not to play at a table with a few regulars. If a poker room manger is not on top of his own game of managing he can become a “tool” to use against good players that have a little bad breath then over time that room loses business.

    The Bottom Line: Minor body odors should not be the responsibility of poker room managers in cash games, tournaments are different. Players with ultra sensitive noses should change tables and only when all the players or a larger number than one or two players complain then intercede. Late night players are more prone to odor and it is less likely that sensitive tourist players are on site and management should be conservative after midnight. Some working poker players are vindictive and possibly under the influence of “uppers” that have been proven to affect sensory perception and the complaints should reflect some consideration. The extremes that one can go with a subject ambiguous by nature, we all smell to some degree and even tobacco smokers will be targeted as a “stinky cigarette smell” one can only wonder if the game of poker will endure. Poker is now to be considered a game of sissy’s that can’t stand the sweaty smell of men with “locker room” and straight from work to the game the lack luster by smell and the farm workers who will occasionally have arrived in old jeans and cowboy hats reminiscent of days of old and the backbone of true grit poker player. The end result is a body odor police, a witch hunt for the slightest provocation and the end of a great game because we all have some kind of body odor. Michael Wax may have had a serious bad smell but now with new laws/rules started by WSOP every petty body odor complaint will be honored as legit because management isn’t about to sniff around people on their own.

    A Few Points to Ponder;

    After a few hours of play and broke even I started home and thought about stopping at the Venetian for a couple more hours. Instead I went home as I didn’t want to get tagged by the Odor Nazis. So they lost another customer and in the long run they will lose many more.

    Is body odor obsession targeting the elderly, obese, and less attractive people? The metaphor “old fart” may exacerbate preconceived bias, stereotypes against any group of people that already has experienced enough cultural prejudice. “Enough”! This is an issue that may need to be resolved in a court room and I suspect the only solution now is to have smoking poker tables that can also accommodate the elderly, obese, and less attractive people. Kinda what poker used to be!

    Imagine this is Super Bowl Sunday and you have been invited into your favorite winning teams locker for a celebration party would you let their smelly sweaty bodies dissuade you from attending? My guess is “not” you will overlook a bad odor for that and doesn’t that make you a hypocrite if you agree in football but not in poker?

    Many people playing poker are using some kind of stimulants, amphetamines, hallucinogenic, hyper caffeinated beverages, etc. and all of them have the propensity to exacerbate bacteria growth that cause body odor and combined with the ambiguous nature of smell one can perpetuate the bias that all poker players are stinky people.

    Lastly, the player with a marginal body odor that is a loose player and is losing a lot of money will have his bad smell overlooked and ignored while conversely a tight player with a medium smell may be complained against because he isn’t losing money and the other factors, age, weight, and appearance will be factored in by someone that may see the advantage of having a new player in the game.



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