Whether it’s clever, colorful or controversial, one thing’s for certain about public art in downtown Las Vegas: it’s flourishing. Alongside the booze, slot machines and strippers, culture is becoming a big lure for visitors to what’s often called Sin City.

A tall sign, reminiscent of a lollypop, stands beside a palm tree on a street in Las Vegas; the sign states: 18b Arts District.
A large sign welcomes visitors to the 18b Arts District, an 18-block-long corridor in downtown Las Vegas © Jay Jones / Lonely Planet

“People love to see a different side of Vegas,” said Don Contursi, founder of Lip Smacking Foodie Tours. His latest culinary experience takes people on a stroll through the city’s 18b Arts District, an 18-block-long corridor located between the towering Stratosphere and the Fremont Street Experience.

Art is soaring in this district, until recent years a gritty neighborhood avoided by tourists. As hip galleries and trendy restaurants replace garages and secondhand-furniture stores, sidewalks have been widened and new vehicular traffic patterns implemented.  

“If you look back 10 years, I think we’ve come a long way,” remarked local artist Luis Verela-Rico, whose Radial Symmetry sculpture sits near the intersection of South Commerce and South Main.

Luis Varela-Rico’s 'Radial Symmetry' sculpture at night; two large, circular forms, comprised of individual metal sheets, lean against one another on the sidewalk.
Luis Varela-Rico’s 'Radial Symmetry' sculpture was designed to depict baskets woven by Native Americans © City of Las Vegas

The stainless-steel sculpture represents an abstract collection of woven baskets crafted by the native Paiutes, but it’s been compared to everything from a Slinky to a UFO. The City of Las Vegas commissioned him to create the piece in 2018.

“It’s part of the fabric of the city’s identity,” he said of the growing volume of urban art.  

The works include a seemingly endless array of murals along streets and alleyways, primarily in the 18b Arts District and the Fremont East Entertainment District. Many were commissioned for Life is Beautiful, a large music and art festival held each September. 

By far the biggest murals are the three pieces that each climb 21 stories up walls of the Plaza Hotel & Casino, located at the western edge of the canopied Fremont St walkway. The murals were painted in 2017. 

A wide shot of a 21-story mural on the side of the Plaza Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas; it shows a colorful, comic-book-style image of a scared woman and a skeleton's hand opening a door.
A giant mural by British artist D’Face soars 21 stories up the side of the Plaza Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas © Plaza Hotel & Casino

Behind Closed Doors by British artist D’Face features an offbeat expression of hotel life, as if ripped from a comic book. Cultivate Harmony, a work by street artist Shepard Fairey, is intended to promote harmony and peace as the sustenance of the planet. Tribute to Cassius Marcellus by the Brooklyn-based Faile collaborative, faces Interstate 15 and can be seen by 200,000 motorists each day. 

“I was apprehensive, I was nervous about the character of the building and putting these things on them [but] it turned out to be a good decision,” said Jonathan Jossel, the hotel’s CEO. He noted that the oversized murals make the Plaza one of the most Instagrammed places in Las Vegas.

“A lot of people these days don’t go on holiday without thinking about, ‘Where do I go to take pictures?’” he observed. “We want people to come to downtown Las Vegas, to walk around, to explore the neighborhoods.”

Artist Aware adding the final touches to a huge purple and pink mural; it depicts what appears to be a woman swimming in a floaty gown.
Street artist Aware puts the finishing touches on his latest work on the side of the former Western Hotel © Jay Jones / Lonely Planet

Finding street art isn’t difficult. Search engines identify the addresses of various works. While both Fords and Ferraris can be seen cruising the streets of 18b, a car certainly isn’t necessary to see the sights. In fact, for many, part of the adventure is exploring the streets and alleys on foot and stumbling upon colorful gems.

Pedal power provides a great way to cover more ground without having to compete for precious parking spots. The Regional Transportation Commission’s Bike Share program has more than 200 bikes for rent at 21 downtown stations for as little as $5 a day. When they’re getting tired, riders can get a boost from the bikes’ electric motors.

Visitors can also get about on three-wheeled, electric scooters that are ridden on sidewalks. Trikke Las Vegas provides group tours of the arts district as well as independent rentals of the tricycles for grown-ups.

A night-time shot of a collection of neon signs; one is of a yellow duck and the others are colorful motel signs
Colorful electric signs have found new life among the exhibits at Vegas’ Neon Museum © Jay Jones

Situated on the northern fringe of downtown, a unique outdoor museum pays homage to one of the city’s first forms of artistic expression: neon signs.

In a city famous for imploding its resorts, the Neon Museum was founded to help save hundreds of iconic signs – from an Aladdin’s lamp to the 80ft-tall guitar that once soared above a Hard Rock Cafe. 

“It is an art form to create those signs. There aren’t that many people who know how to blow glass,” said the museum’s Dawn Merritt.

Folks fortunate enough to be in Vegas on the first Friday of the month can enjoy 18b in all its glory, as thousands of people wander into the array of galleries and chow down on eclectic offerings from food trucks. The First Friday festival features a different theme each month.

A large crowd fills a pedestrianized area lined with stalls at Las Vegas' First Friday Festival.
Visitors and locals gather in downtown Las Vegas the first Friday of each month for a themed celebration of the arts © City of Las Vegas

Friday evenings are particularly busy in the edgy Recycled Propaganda gallery, where visitors can be directed to the nearby alley in which owner Isaac Zevalking, a self-described “socio-political artist,” created a mural depicting immigration injustice. During 2019, he garnered international attention for the painting of Lady Liberty in handcuffs bent over the hood of a police car. 

Don Contursi’s guests get the chance to interact with Zevalking during Sunday foodie tours, which include tastings at three restaurants within easy walking distance of each other. Contursi considers cleverly-prepared food a form of art.

“The plate is their canvas,” he said of the chefs. 

Restaurateurs James Trees of Esther’s Kitchen and Allen Katz of Jammyland Cocktail Bar and Reggae Kitchen welcome guests during the foodie tours. Both are also big backers of the booming arts scene in the neighborhood.

“Gentrification doesn’t have to be evil,” Katz said of 18b. “It’s always going to be a bit of a wild child.”

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