The first call goes straight to voice mail. A generic fembot—you know her, she narrates most default phone greetings in her halting but pleasant Hillary Clinton alto—informs me that the number I’m trying to reach is not available at this time and invites me to leave a message at the tone. I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the number I’m trying to reach belongs to the anonymous street artist Alec Monopoly, a man whose real name is unknown to all but his closest confidantes. He routinely hides his face whenever he appears in public—which is often these days, considering that he’s one of the hottest young properties in the art world and the heir apparent to Banksy, with pieces hanging in Miley Cyrus’ house, on Justin Bieber’s red carpet and on gallery walls attached to multimillion-dollar price tags. Why should his voice be any less mysterious than the rest of him?
But on the next try it rings, and Alec amiably apologizes for missing the first call. He has a good excuse: He was busy painting a giant egg for an Easter-themed charity hunt sponsored by Fabergé. The three-dimensional shape makes for a challenging canvas, he admits, but after more than a decade of scaling walls and climbing billboards, he’s not really fazed. Monopoly is a man who thrives on adventure.
To that end, in January, Monopoly entered into a yearlong residency at Wynn Las Vegas, in which he’ll appear at Encore Beach Club, Surrender, Tryst and XS on select dates to create pieces live amid the revelers. Unlike traditional DJ residencies, Alec’s ongoing collaboration with the nightlife properties is much more artistic and freewheeling. He works with the Wynn team to choose meaningful dates for him to attend and participate on the fly, to keep an open-ended feeling of creativity. And while it might not seem like painting in a nightclub packed to capacity and thumping with high-decibel beats would be anything like silently tagging an abandoned building in the middle of the night, Monopoly sees the experiences as strikingly similar.
“On the streets, I’m stressed,” he explains. “I’m really on edge: I’m worried about the police; I know I have to be fast. In a club, I’m nervous because I’m worried that I’ll mess up, or that I’ll trip and fall.” (Monopoly works on a platform next to the DJ booth.) He draws off that panic to feed his creative energy—and the vibe doesn’t hurt, either. “I’ve been going to XS for years,” he adds. “It’s my favorite club in the world.” All works Monopoly does live are either pre-sold, destroyed or put at auction for charity.
“The audience is in total awe while watching him work,” says Wynn nightlife impresario Jesse Waits, who first met Monopoly at Sundance when they collaborated on a pop-up event, and was immediately blown away by his talent. “We were lucky to develop a relationship with him at such an early point in his career. He is a true component of pop culture, and I’m convinced this is just the beginning of a hugely successful career and overall influence in the scene itself.”
A decade ago, Monopoly could never have foreseen being up on these kinds of literal and figurative pedestals. Back then he was just another teen in New York City, trying to emulate idols such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, tagging walls and dodging cops. But when the 2008 economic crisis hit, he found inspiration in the Wall Street bigwigs falling from grace in the public eye. “I started painting Bernie Madoff, surrounded by Monopoly money,” he says. “And then I realized that Madoff was just like the Monopoly Man. So I started painting him instead, putting him everywhere around the city.” The combination of Monopoly’s studied skill (he learned photorealistic painting techniques under the tutelage of his artist mother), ubiquitous tagging of “Uncle Pennybags” and smart social commentary made him stand out from New York’s hordes of street artists.
Since then, he’s had a meteoric rise, with two acclaimed gallery shows, an exhibition at Art Basel Miami Beach and high-profile collaborations with Paramount Pictures, Madonna, Diplo and Avicii. Monopoly could easily afford to spend the rest of his life painting canvasses in sunny studios, but that wouldn’t make him happy. “My true passion,” he says, more than once, “is graffiti.” By which he means real graffiti: the illegal kind.
Monopoly still hits the streets whenever he can, and is often given walls to paint by cities eager to be marked by his unique, geometric signature (the “E” in Alec is made up of three stacked lines, a nod to Basquiat; the “C” is topped with Haring-esque movement marks), but the thrill of unsanctioned street art that hooked him as a kid is what he seeks out most.
Monopoly only does illegal work in what he calls “positive places”—abandoned structures or sites that have already been tagged by other artists—and rarely in “clean” cities such as Las Vegas that tend to scrub public graffiti before it dries. But he still worries constantly about the police, which is just one of the reasons he’s always photographed with a bandana tied just below his eyes like a dapper Old West bandit. He was arrested a lot when he was young, and doesn’t think he’ll get special treatment just because he’s famous now. “If anything,” he says, “they probably want to make an example out of me.”
Although Uncle Pennybags has somewhat ironically made him very wealthy, Monopoly imagines that there will come a day when he lays his namesake character to rest. Many other pop icons, from Twiggy to Robert De Niro to Jack Nicholson, show up repeatedly in his work, and since his fount of inspiration is American culture itself, the possibilities seem endless. “Honestly, I started Mr. Monopoly in response to what was going on [in the economy],” he says. “I never thought it would still be relevant six years later.” His own snowballing relevance, too, is a subject that continues to surprise him. “In my mind,” he laughs, “I’m a nobody just doing my thing.”
Art for a Cause
In addition to rubbing elbows with A-list celebrities and commandeering five-deck yachts for Art Basel blowouts, Alec Monopoly lives up to the “sensitive artist” cliché by partnering with charities —remember that Fabergé egg?—every chance his schedule allows. On May 2, Monopoly will create a live piece at Hi: Healthy Indulgence, a collaborative event between Wynn’s Jesse Waits and Sean Christie, and Larry Ruvo of Keep Memory Alive and the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.