The Art of Reno

Midtown Fish and BeeReno is known as many things to many people. To some, the Biggest Little City is the gateway to Lake Tahoe and Burning Man, while others consider it to be an up-and-coming technology hub that boasts Tesla, Switch, and an ever-growing list of industry leaders as residents. Spend an afternoon in the heart of the community, though, and you’ll discover what those who call Reno home already know – the city is emerging as a public art mecca. 

More than 175 murals, sculptures, and other art works can be found in downtown Reno and the Midtown District, with new pieces popping up literally overnight at times. The City of Reno has long been a supporter of these efforts, embracing the opportunity to make art accessible for everyone while simultaneously reducing blight and illegal tagging. 

“Art is part of our culture and our identity,” said Geralda Miller, member of the Reno Arts and Culture Commission and co-owner of Art Spot Reno, a company that supports local arts and businesses by integrating them into the community. “We have a higher quality of life because of the city’s commitment to make these things part of our everyday experience.” 

Started in 2013, Miller and co-owner Eric Brooks began Art Spot Reno with a mission to develop a more organized way for locals and tourists to view and learn about the city’s murals and public art. Visitors to their website will find a comprehensive arts events calendar, a searchable artist registry, and maps that pinpoint the current locations of Reno public art works. Perfect for solo or group exploration, these pieces have been organized into three distinct paths – the Midtown Mural Tour, the Playa Art Trail, and the Downtown Reno Mural and Public Art Tour

“These tours offer a glimpse into the contemporary art going on outside of museums and galleries,” said Brooks. “They are culture in action.” 

Midtown Mural Tour Playa Park Starway and Electric Dandelions

Reno’s Midtown District is home to boutique shops, five-star dining, and more than 80 murals painted by local, national, and international artists. The city is privileged to have major pieces on display from Nanook, Garrison Buxton, Andrea LaHue (aka Random Act), Labrona, and NDA, as well as Erik Burke/OverUnder and Joe C. Rock. Burke and Rock, who both currently live in Reno, have numerous murals throughout Midtown and downtown. Burke’s works are often signed “OU,” with his age at the time he painted each piece. Rock likes to incorporate crowns and the phrase “Freshness Guaranteed” into his art when he can. 

While many of Midtown’s murals are visible from main streets, even more are tucked in alleyways and hidden in unlikely spots. The Art Spot Reno map can help guide you to them, or you can join a docent for group tours every second Saturday of the month for $10 per person. Tours are taken at a leisurely pace over roughly two hours, and knowledgeable guides provide stories and insight that make the art even more enjoyable. Every month, the Midtown Mural Tour alternates between a north route and south route, as there are too many pieces in just this neighborhood to be seen in a single afternoon. 

“There is a certain point, just after we have turned the halfway point on the south route, where the realization starts to set in – there is so much art to look at in such a small stretch of town,” said Miller. “I love that look.” 

Folks are encouraged to take the Midtown Mural Tour over and over again, as murals come and go more often than one would believe. Permission is all that makes a public mural legal or illegal, and it is up to the owners of each building or property to decide if a current mural stays, gets replaced with a new piece, or is covered up by plain paint. 

Whether you follow the Midtown Mural Tour with a guide or not, there is one particular piece Miller recommends everyone stop and see. Painted by Burke and Rock along the back wall of Junkee Clothing Exchange is “nevada,” an impressive mural that captures Nevada’s history through more than a dozen portraits of state icons. Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Sarah Winnemucca, and more will be waiting for you.

The Playa Art Trail gets its name from Burning Man, the world’s largest venue for interactive art installations held annually in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Made up of dry lake beds, this locale is also known as the playa, the Spanish word for “beach.” 

“Reno is high on the cool factor because of its proximity to Burning Man…and the City of Reno was forward thinking enough to start purchasing major pieces of art coming back from the festival,” said Miller. “The Playa Art Trail allows locals and visitors to see the scope, scale, and detail of some of the work that goes to Burning Man.” 

Unlike the Midtown Mural Tour, art seekers will want to travel by vehicle to visit all the Playa Art Trail sculptures. More than a dozen pieces are spread throughout the city and its neighboring suburbs, with the majority of the installations located in downtown Reno. The large-scale public art pieces are still accessible by foot, though, so it is recommended that visitors park and spend a few minutes with each work. 

A newer addition to the Playa Art Trail is the Reno Playa Art Park, a temporary, outdoor collection of even more Burning Man works organized by The Gateway Project. A self-guided audio tour is available for the park’s pieces and artists, which invites guests to call and press a corresponding number on their cell phones to learn more about each installation. While the sculptures are not fully indestructible, adults and children are encouraged to interact with the pieces. Guests can sit, walk through or underneath, and play inside almost all the works on display. 

Following the Playa Art Trail will allow you to fully experience the beauty of the Biggest Little City, taking you into parks, neighborhoods, and local museums. Make sure you venture into Sparks and peek inside The Generator, a 34,000 square-foot maker space where many Burning Man sculptures have come to life. You may even get to see this year’s playa pieces before they hit the road. 

Believe SignDowntown Reno Mural and Public Art Tour 

The iconic and historic Reno Arch isn’t the only piece of art to see in downtown Reno. Much like Midtown, the city center contains a growing number of murals from highly respected artists who come from Reno, the U.S., and abroad. You can’t help but encounter one of the more than 40 public art works when you are downtown, as they are often large-scale and hard to miss. The murals are also done in a wide range of styles, including graffiti lettering, illustration, landscapes, and realism portraits. Here, too, permission to paint murals on buildings and walls is key – make sure you photograph your favorites as there are no guarantees any mural will be here on your next visit. 

The Downtown Reno Mural and Public Art Tour is a self-guided one, but docent tours can be arranged for groups of six or more at the same $10 per person rate as the Midtown Mural Tour. Not to worry, though, as the Art Spot Reno map provides stellar instructions for how to navigate the city blocks and find each mural. Along the way, keep an eye out for red and yellow Art Spot Reno flags on business doors or windows. These note that a variety of local art can be found inside for your viewing pleasure. 

Outside of the tour, it is easy to see that downtown Reno has embraced public art. During Artown, a month-long arts-themed festival, Circus Circus Reno Hotel and Casino annually holds a Mural Marathon Competition where qualifying artists from around the country paint an original 14-foot-high by almost 20-foot-wide mural on the side of the property in just 24 hours. This year’s challenge takes place July 15-16, 2017, and all the murals stay up until the following year’s event. The City of Reno also routinely holds Calls for Artists to submit painting designs to cover signal boxes, helping to beautify their locations. 

A newer art celebration in the heart of the Biggest Little City is the Reno Sculpture Fest, a three-day event that takes over Virginia Street with more than 30 larger-than-life sculptures. A collaboration between Reno Art Works, Fresh Bakin’, and a long list of contributors, volunteers, and supporters, the family-friendly festival is free to attend and always worth checking out. This year’s Sculpture Fest took place May 12-14, 2017.  

For Miller and Brooks, the more public art that makes its home in this community, the better it is for everyone who lives, works, and plays here. 

“Reno is an arts destination, and we have so much more coming on the horizon,” said Brooks. “Be a part of the fun and creativity that makes Reno a fantastic place to be.” 

Art and Photography Credits: 

“Lahontan Cutthroat Trout” by Louis Masau
“Starway” by Deborah Davies
“Electronic Dandelions” by Abram Santa Cruz
“Believe” by Jeff Schomberg and Laura Kimpton

All photos by Lisa Cassidy

Correction: The photography credits for Lisa Cassidy were erroneously left out from the print version of this article. Our sincere apologies to Ms. Cassidy for the error.