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Is it still art with pasties?

Las Vegas is proving to be easily offended with the latest mural flap

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They have stars upon thars!
Photo: Steve Marcus

No nipples, no problem.

So says Clark County now that the nipples on murals painted outside the Erotic Heritage Museum on Industrial Boulevard have been covered with adhesive pasties.

The exposed nipples on portraits of women in the Ho-Down Mural Project violated a county sign code that bans (among other things) the showing of the areola of female breasts, the county says.

Museum curator Laura Henkel covered the nipples with pasties, but argues that the murals are urban art, not signs.

Is it still art with pasties?

That this is the third mural in recent years to offend a community that relies on its sexy image and sex industry for its well-being is head-scratchingly curious.

Yes, it’s true that when you get away from the Strip, the Valley neighborhoods mimic any other sprawling suburban community of the West, but our lifeblood is a tourism driven by sex, drinking and gambling. Without it, we wouldn’t be here, yet when an artist plays off of that, it gets ugly.

The outrage unleashed four years ago by members of the Las Vegas Centennial Committee over a mural by Los Angeles artist Alexis Smith made the statement that it’s okay to market sex in Southern Nevada for financial gain, but sexual dialogue in public art is not welcome.

Smith’s mural featured an upside-down rendition of the 18th-century Thomas Lawrence painting “Pinky,” covered with the inverted letter “A.” In that situation, the reference to adultery was the problem. This was while Las Vegas was riding on the popularity of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority’s “What happens here stays here” campaign.

Libby Lumpkin, former director of the Las Vegas Art Museum, told a tour group from the Americans for the Arts Conference that she heard the problem some had with the Smith mural was due to the fact that people in the community see art as an intellectual retreat from the hyper-sexualized world we live in. But art has never been a moral sanctuary. Art asks us to look at ourselves.

In the Arts District a resident complained about a topless rendition of an urban angel in the lotus position, painted by the artist Dray.

Murals of topless women risk contentious dialogue in many American cities, but in Las Vegas they're lightning bolts.

What sets the Ho-Down Mural Project apart from the Alexis Smith and Dray incidents is that the county was able to determine the Ho-Down murals to be signs for the neighboring Déjà Vu nude club, which owns the building that houses the Erotic Heritage Museum.

However, the men and women who painted the murals—Veks 3, Niki J. Sands, Paula McPhail, Vezun, KD Matheson, Joseph Watson and Dray— say they did so as a chance to introduce art to the area.

“The murals for the Erotic Heritage Museum represent Las Vegas culture, something that is unique as Las Vegas itself,” says Niki J Sands. “I donated my time and talent to be a part of that culture.”

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Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson joined the Las Vegas Sun in 1998 as a general assignment reporter. In 2003, she turned her focus ...

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