Arriving at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas last Wednesday evening, my friend and designated driver Ted Madsen told me to keep my eyes open for something cool in the parking garage. He was referring to a high-tech system of red and green lights that show which parking spots are unoccupied. The system was impressive, except that the sensors don’t always recognize compact cars, which must be rather rare in Nevada. But after we parked the Infiniti and began walking to the elevators on our way to the Vesper Bar, I spied something much cooler. The walls of the garage were adorned with murals by graffiti artist Retna.
It was one of several sublime moments in Las Vegas, which I was visiting to fête the launch of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey – a smooth, honey-flavored bourbon that’s great as a chilled shot – at the nearby MGM Grand. The moment I saw the walls, I literally stopped in my tracks and said words to the effect of “Oh my god, that’s Retna!”
Retna, for those who haven’t seen his work in galleries or read my BlackBook profile on the man, is a Los Angeles-based graffiti artist who produces paintings, sculptures, and large-scale murals that incorporate stylistic elements of Arabic and Hebrew writing, Asian calligraphy, the Old English style of gang tagging, and Incan and Egyptian hieroglyphics. There’s something truly engaging about his work, as though it imparts a very clear message through its characters – which don’t actually represent any language. And, apparently, it’s amazingly well suited for large, utilitarian spaces like the garage beneath the most exciting new hotel on the Strip.
In part, I suppose I was pleased with myself for recognizing his work. But I’m far more impressed that somebody at the Cosmopolitan was prescient enough to hire Retna to do the murals. Whoever was ultimately responsible for the commission deserves a major pat on the back. More than 99% of the people who see the murals will have no idea who painted them, but that hardly matters. They represent contemporary art at its finest, the polar opposite of the oversized Grecian urns and clown paintings that pass as art in some of the resorts. With the Retna murals, even if you don’t quite know what you’re looking at, you know you’re seeing something real.
Better still, the Cosmopolitan doesn’t even make a big deal about it. The only mention of it on its website is a news release about its Wallworks series. (I regret that I missed the works by Shepard Fairey, Kenny Scharf, and Shinique Smith.) With Retna’s murals, the Cosmopolitan achieves something so many resorts in Las Vegas aspire to but rarely attain: class.