In Las Vegas, artists, businesses, and the city worked together to create joy during lockdown

Over the last several weeks, Creative Exchange has been highlighting artists responding practically to the COVID-19 pandemic with creative solutions to this unprecedented problem. If you know of an artist or organization doing creative work in direct response to this crisis, drop us a line at You can also view all of our COVID-19-related coverage here.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered cities all over the world, media outlets have published haunting photos of the world’s most popular tourist destinations completely bereft of people—the empty streets of Paris, the empty plazas of Rome, the flashing lights of Times Square illuminating empty sidewalks. These are real-life images plucked straight out of a post-apocalyptic movie; destinations typically swarming with bodies rendered ghost towns overnight.

As a Las Vegas resident, it was the sight of the empty Las Vegas Strip that made my stomach drop: the hulking hotel towers completely black, the sidewalks and streets abandoned. The pulsating neon—one of the most recognizable and iconic symbols of all things escapist and American (for better and worse)—turned off. The traffic on the iconic Las Vegas Boulevard, the world’s most-visited tourist attraction, reduced to curious cyclists. All of it dark and empty.

In a place where sensory overload is so thoroughly enshrined and excess so shamelessly celebrated, to see it all just turned “off”—walking the Strip on a Friday night hearing nothing but the sounds of crickets chirping—drove home the stark reality of the COVID-19 crisis in a chilling way.

Mural by Recycled Propaganda.

But Las Vegas isn’t just the Strip, as locals are wont to remind out-of-towners. In Downtown Las Vegas, there has been a new energy building over the last decade—since the Great Recession, really. That youthful, hopeful energy is driven by extremely dedicated and enthusiastic business owners, elected leaders, and residents, and has manifested in scores of new independently-owned businesses opening in long-vacant storefronts and new mixed-use and residential buildings to accommodate all the people flocking downtown to be part of the excitement.

To see all of these thriving businesses, many of them less than a year or two old, shut down and boarded up was heartbreaking.

Derek Stonebarger thought so, too. The owner of ReBAR, a popular bar-slash-thrift shop in the Downtown Las Vegas 18b Arts District, was one of the first business owners downtown to choose to close his doors and board up, before the state governor’s stay-at-home orders made it mandatory. Seeing his once fun, funky storefront covered in plywood was such a bleak visual symbol of the horror happening around the world that he decided to brighten it up.

Mural by James Henninger.

“We all work so hard for our small businesses and they were so beautiful, but now they’re hideous,” he recalls thinking. “So for a few hundred dollars I got the first artist going.” That artist painted a mural paying homage to the cult classic movie The Big Lebowski, with an image of “The Dude” and the words “The Dude Abides,” along with a sign on the door that read, “All alcohol, valuables, and toilet paper have been removed”—a joke, Stonebarger says, but also true.

People loved it. Other businesses on Main Street started calling him about having their own murals done. Stonebarger got in touch with Geneva Marquez, the art project director for his sister property Davy’s @ ReBAR who has been helping him organize and curate events at the bar and co-organize the art walk on Main Street. He worked with her to start hiring artists to paint murals for the other businesses. “Then it really spread; artists started coming up out of the woodwork asking to do some,” he said.

Mural by Mila May.

“He had a little money for a budget to help with supplies, so we invited whoever wanted to come out and beautify our city to come on out,” Marquez says. “Then Retro Vegas contacted us and gave us a nice budget to start off with and we were able to gather 10 more artists to paint their murals. As these businesses were contacting us, we were getting a little bit of money for supplies and to help these artists out a little during this time.”

Soon the City of Las Vegas took notice. Coucilwoman Olivia Diaz, who represents Ward 3 (which includes vibrant downtown neighborhoods like the Arts District and Fremont East), worked with other members of city council as well as the city manager and the economic development department to develop a grant program to reimburse business owners up to $2,000 to board up their businesses and hire Las Vegas artists to add some “color” to the boards.

Mural by Recycled Propaganda.

“The Business Protection Program was born from acknowledging that we didn’t know how long these businesses would be closed but we could at least offer some financial support, and also incentive to keep some of the character and artistic elements that downtown is known for, other than just seeing brown boards, during this trying time,” says Diaz.

This grant program was available to all downtown businesses within the “Redevelopment Areas,” including commercial corridors like the Arts District and Fremont East. All businesses had to do to apply for the reimbursement funds was fill out the paperwork and provide their receipts for the materials and labor, and then the city would verify that the work was done. Since the program launched, 38 businesses have requested reimbursement from the city, amounting to $55,000 in support.

Mural by Brent Holmes.

“We’ve been able to provide support and create a new bright spot during this whole pandemic,” Diaz says, and she’s absolutely right—as word spread that new murals were appearing all throughout the Arts District and along Fremont Street, locals started coming out to see them. These areas became a cheery destination for folks otherwise confined to their homes, as images of the temporary murals popped up all over social media and local, then national, news. The murals became a source of joy during an otherwise dark time—it was exciting to see an artist working on their mural one day, then return a few days later to see the finished work along with half a dozen other new murals that weren’t there before.

“The best thing about it is it’s beautiful down there now,” says Stonebarger. “We wanted everybody to know there’s a safe little tourist destination down there now where you can look at this beautiful artwork. Some of it is done in oil so you’ve got these 20-foot oil paintings; it’s amazing.”

All artwork by Geneva Marquez.

He calls the temporary mural installations lining Main Street “The Boardwalk”—board + walk—and even pivoted his bar Davy’s to a temporary new business concept called Boardwalk Liquors, a “drive-through bodega” selling beer, wine, pizza, pantry staples, and hard-to-find items like gloves, masks, and yes, even toilet paper. Marquez created all the new signage and artwork out front, which includes a “boat” in “water.”

“When you walk down Main Street it’s mural after mural; it’s just awesome. And these artists are giving quality fine art on these boards,” she says. “It took a lot of leadership in the beginning making sure the artists practiced safe distancing and that they had water and supplies, but I was glad to be out there for hours walking down Main Street checking on them. Initially we didn’t want to get shut down so I had to oversee everything, but it’s community, it’s what I do; that’s why Derek and I work together. The main purpose of this was for our artists to shine and to keep the Arts District alive.”

Mural by Recycled Propaganda.

In the Arts District alone, Marquez says, there were at least 40 artists involved in the creation of dozens of murals. When she was organizing the artists herself, she also tried to use this as an opportunity to give newer artists who don’t already have murals all over town a chance to shine and create their first public mural. She also saw artists getting their kids involved, and students from the Las Vegas Academy of Arts helping out.

Over on Fremont Street, nearby but separate from the Arts District, other artists and organizations were involved with painting murals, often contacted by business owners directly. The ISI (Industry Supporting Industry) Group, a local organization responsible for hundreds of art installations in Las Vegas, was asked to paint multiple projects for the Downtown Project’s locations along Fremont Street.

Mural by Fedup & Doctor Ziso, curated by The ISI Group.

“We saw it as an opportunity to shine some positivity in the desolate streets that we all used to enjoy for nights out and events,” says Dana Anderson, co-founder of the ISI Group. “Downtown Fremont is where our collective began and we have almost a decade of history there, so we definitely wanted to do something positive for the area and remind people that we remain Vegas Strong, before and after this ordeal.”

As Las Vegas has slowly started to reopen, the boards are already coming down. Marquez and Stonebarger both discussed plans to auction off the boards once they are removed to raise funds to for the artists who created these works, many of them at a deeply discounted rate, as well as give back to other artistic causes.

Mural by King Ruck.

“We’re putting Las Vegas artists on the map again showing that we’re still here, and we hope to come back to have First Friday again and do art walks again so people can still enjoy art downtown,” Marquez says. “This has been a chance for us to get out of our studios during this time. This is a place where we can still thrive and share our art with the community. As artists, we’re small businesses too, and we can’t be in our studios right now. We want to show people we’re still here despite what’s going on. We’re still here.”

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.