Shawn and Sage in downtown Las Vegas Arts District. July 2016. Photo by Ed Fuentes
This story first appeared in the October 2016 edition of DowntownZen, a publication no longer being produced. With the website now defunct, and no archive online I am reposting the saga of Shawn and Sara. They are still out there, in the streets, somewhere.
They are the first couple of Las Vegas street art and together are making a false name for themselves.
“YouKilledMeFirst”, sometimes known as Shawn Gatlin, and “There She Is Art”. sometimes known as Sage in Starzz and rarely known as Gina Gabriela Sage, could be credited with starting the Las Vegas wheat-paste movement. It is a direct pedigree from Melrose Avenue, a mecca for Los Angeles street art, and fits the experimental aura of Fremont East, while complementing the 18b Arts District goal to be a sophisticated creative environment. Their work came in just before the first murals of Life Is Beautiful were installed and helped street art shift away from just being about graffiti.
Their work complements each other as well. Gatlin uses tight graphic design with typography to satirize pop art and media. Sage’s portraits include fictitious females, or literary figures, made of broad strokes with urgent color.
“The biting and humorous work of YouKilledMeFirst along with the dark and somewhat haunting imagery of ThereSheIs both represent a grittiness that characterizes some of the most endearing qualities of street art,” says G. James Daichendt, a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University who authors books on street art. “From their traditional materials like wheat-pasting to their alternative views on the pop culture, this duo appears to revel and thrive in the grimy aesthetics of street culture. “
Together Sage and Gatlin works out those aesthetics in a small apartment. The living room opens to a sleeping area, and an art collection carefully curated around the space. In the separate kitchen a corner doubles as an art studio, and in the corner a table has a late-night diner mood, even in the morning. Over killer coffee, prepared by Sage, the couple held hands and talk about art.
Gatlin’s punk and head-banging character comes off as a musical comedy performance written with cheerful angst. Sage has a throaty laugh that starts with a quiet smile. Her eyes read your presence to mine any dark traits you may have, fodder that can go in her illustrations. They have long conversations about the state of the world, current events, other artists and their works and pop culture, all of which fuels the content of their work and that is when ideas bounce off each other like small talk charged with creative electricity.
After more chucking and chortling by Gatlin, the self-taught artist then changed his mood recalling how their relationship began with causal hellos on Friendster. They kept crossing paths in the Los Angeles music club scene, sometimes seeing each other perform. They saw each other more, began exchanging quips, began dating, and it blossomed.
Gatlin’s inspiration to concentrate on art came after realizing she was “the filler of his soul,” he says. “I’d be asking myself ‘What am I gonna do if I don’t make it [as a musician]?’ until I met Sage. Everything began changing.” Then he nods to Sage and talks about her work. “She taught me to be fearless,” he says. “And watching her paint is amazing.”
Sage smiles because she considers him the better artist and learned how to be “willing to find order in chaos, taking me away from academic thinking.” She was an art history major in San Francisco, just short one class credit to get the bachelor’s degree, despite loading up on studio art courses.
“But I didn’t really think about creating art until I met him,” she says, admitting that her focus was also music. “I may have the (academic) background, but the conceptual ideas comes from this guy.”
“I spend more time looking at my faults,” Sage adds. “You are held back by your own limits and that’s what drives you on. Now I think more of layout and working with text. All of his pieces are right out there.”
“And he gets more press,” she teases, even as her art gets online attention.
“She will have stuff with a lot of likes,” says Gatlin, “but no one knew who she was.” He then imitates the way she signs her work by squinting and making small circles with an imaginary Sharpie, his voice in a squeaky falsetto says “Because the name is really, really tiny.”
Sage’s moniker came from Melrose & Fairfax, a popular blog that used to document the LA street art scene. The writers began recognizing her style and eagerly posted new art by her. One time the post was simply a headline “There She Is.”
Gatlin’s YouKilledMeFirst series also started on Melrose, a reference to a climatic scene with Lung Leg in the Richard Kern no-wave cinema film from 1985. Since then, YouKilledMeFirst, the artist, has referred to Clockwork Orange, Las Vegas signage and theme park rides and brands himself as “YKMF: Wheat pasting Oracle.”
They keep thinking of ways to add to the Las Vegas street art scene. In a flurry, they run through other ideas. There are also themes to avoid, like anything with Las Vegas clichés (though Hunter S. Thompson and showgirls are on their radar). There may be short films to produce. Then there is one idea by Sage that is too dark even for Gatlin. They go back and forth on that for a while, and the discussion shows how their witty content isn’t by chance. Is this how a head-banging navel-gazing dude and goth-rock-chick are supposed to be? To produce a body of work that is dark sweetness living with charm?
They kill me.
ABOVE: Luis Varela Rico