“You’re going to do 58 cat portraits in three days?” That was the question muralist and tattoo-shop owner Austin Spencer asked when artist Casey Weldon arrived to paint at Level Up, MGM Grand’s new interactive gaming lounge. Spencer was hired to coordinate a team of 13 artists to complete 16 murals in 10 days. “When the doors opened, I was still picking up paint off the floor, and some of the walls were still wet,” Spencer says.
If you’re familiar with the Las Vegas tattoo scene, then you may know Spencer as the owner of Studio 21 Tattoo Gallery. But recently, when he’s not tattooing, Spencer’s been returning to his street-art roots. For the Level Up project, he decided to hire mostly local artists to paint the 12,000-square-foot bar and lounge featuring everything from pool to Giant Pac-Man. (Only Weldon came from out of town, but even he used to live here.) “It became evident very quickly that the walls and numerous pillars provided blank canvases for artists to create something spectacular and befitting of the space,” says James Algate, vice president of entertainment for Hakkasan Group.
“I always enjoy working on projects like this, but I felt especially honored to be in the company of so many other awesome artists. … I’d love to see more spots like this popping up around town.” –JW Caldwell
The Level Up design team gave the crew free reign. “They were not looking for painters to apply a predetermined graphic. They wanted the artists to bring their own unique styles to life on the walls,” says Das Frank, a tattoo artist at Studio 21 who Spencer brought onboard.
Ultimately, it was up to Spencer to coordinate, inspire and avert disaster. He submitted proposed renderings from each of the artists to the design team. At first, the team wasn’t convinced that Weldon’s cats would be the right fit, but once painting started, executives were texting Spencer pictures of cats in hopes of having them featured. “They’d ask, ‘Do you think he can fit this one in for my daughter?’” Spencer says.
Other experimental motifs, like Earl Funk’s possessed doughnuts, were Spencer’s brainstorm. According to Spencer, Funk was hesitant: “I pitched him the idea and he was like, ‘Why would I want to paint doughnuts?’ and I said, ‘Because doughnuts are awesome.’”
Spencer also helped less experienced artists supersize their work. Kristina Collantes has created graphics for The New Yorker and The Flaming Lips, but she had never worked on a mural. Spencer advised her to keep things simple and use a limited color palette for her trippy skeleton-and-bees motif. Another illustrator new to murals was Tyson Taumaoe. Spencer brought him in when another artist backed out at the last minute.
“I’ve been dying to paint large scale, and when Austin asked if I wanted to do this mural project, my brain lit up. We put in some 13-hour days up there. … I want to do more so bad. It motivated [me] to paint larger for myself.” –Mike Biggs
Spencer hired Kiwi Burt, an artist he discovered on Instagram, to help Taumaoe with his black-and-white cowgirl caricature. When a photo booth arrived, Burt was able to make his mark. “I wanted Kiwi to be able to do some of his own things, and the photobooth was ugly as can be. So we stripped all the stickers off it and he went to town,” Spencer says.
The lineup features plenty of experienced artists as well. Spencer Olsen, a regular exhibitor at art shows, employed a forced-perspective technique for his “We Gettin’ Wavy” pillar. Las Vegas urban artist Snipt used wheatpaste, a common adhesive for street art, on his pillar featuring a giant guy in Kiss face paint. And full-time illustrator KD Matheson came in and knocked out his tiki pillar with ease, according to Spencer.
“… They were not looking for painters to apply a predetermined graphic that went through a corporate approval process, but rather they wanted the artists to bring their own unique styles to life on the walls of Level Up. It gives it an energy not found easily in most casinos.” –Das Frank
Even with pros, it was a supreme balancing act both logistically and artistically. Artists whose works are more detailed, such as Travis Jackson, were assigned smaller spaces because Spencer knew their pieces would take longer to complete. When considering the composition as a whole, Spencer strove for contrast. A black-and-white classic tattoo pillar by Studio 21’s J. Swarm and a Hawaiian-print T. Rex by painter JW Caldwell were positioned as counterpoints to Spencer’s “loud and obnoxious” (his words) work, which was a collaboration with Studio 21 artist Mike Biggs.
“We put in some 13-hour days, and it was amazing how well Austin and I worked together,” Biggs says.
“At the end of the day, we were artists who delivered results just having fun, and someone somewhere actually paid us for it. And there’s something to be said about that. Everybody wins.” –Tyson Tamaou
The artists share stories about late nights and early mornings, but they also talk about how inspiring it was to work alongside peers.
“There are local artists here that are super-talented, so I was excited about giving them the recognition that they deserve,” Spencer says. When you visit Level Up, it feels good to know these are Vegas’ colors. It feels good for Spencer, too: “Now I am motivated to paint the world.”