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As We See It

Documenting Downtown imagery before it’s too late

Vegas Vernacular Project steps up its game plan

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Documenting images like this mural at Williams Costume Co. is the goal of the Vegas Vernacular Project.

Earlier this year Bryan McCormick and Mark Johnson were discussing the value and intrigue of Las Vegas's hand-painted and illuminated signage—not necessarily the famous and well photographed signs that grab the limelight here in town, but the small business murals and typography on storefronts and stand-alone buildings lining Downtown streets. The signs weave together the narrative of the community and its history, whether its Johnny Tocco's Boxing Gym, Galaxy Foam (which recently moved to the north side of the valley) or the font marking a furniture store that's been around for years.

Inspired by Clive Pierce's book, Pretty Vacant: The Los Angeles Dingbat Observed, which highlights and documents the architectural features of Los Angeles apartment buildings, McCormick and Johnson decided to use a similar approach of documentation with Las Vegas signs. They added it to their list of things to do, something they'd get around to when they were caught up on other projects.

Problem is, in ever-changing Las Vegas, things disappear overnight. What was there yesterday is now covered up. And with all the Downtown revitalization taking place, they realized these signs and murals would likely continue to disappear and at an accelerated rate.

This colorful graffiti-style mural at First Street and Coolidge Avenue disappeared in 2009.

This colorful graffiti-style mural at First Street and Coolidge Avenue disappeared in 2009.

So they moved the project to the forefront, brought Geoffrey Ellis on board, and after mapping 42 zones in the city to document, they started canvassing for volunteers. It was far too big an endeavor for three people to do in a tight time constraint.

The Vegas Vernacular Project now involves at least 25 volunteer photographers and has taken an office space inside the Plaza hotel. McCormick says they expect to have 50 or 60 people, including writers and researchers, involved once the project is at its peak.

This isn't a commercial endeavor. The focus is entirely archival.

"What we're trying to put together right now is a repository, create an
archive where people can come back and do research," McCormick says. "It seems like every boom that’s happened in the last 40 years has bypassed the Downtown area. Now Downtown is the focal point. These signs are an endangered species to a certain degree and we've only got one
shot."

That explains why they're detailing as much about the signs as possible. For example, El Sombrero restaurant's documentation includes photographs all of the images and wording and detailed shots of each individual letter in the sign. Illuminated signs are being photographed in the day and at night and each part of sequential lighting is captured at each stage.

There are no plans for any type of exhibit. Right now the objective is strictly documentation. A website featuring some of the archive's images is planned for fall.

"It's very organic," McCormick says. "Some people have completed what they could and now we’re onto a new crop of people. It's going to be huge. There will likely be
thousands of photographs by the time we are done."

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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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