Artists Shawn Gatlin and Gina Gabriela Sage revel in the grimy aesthetics of downtown’s street culture
They are the first couple of Las Vegas street art and together are making a false name for themselves.
“You Killed Me First,” sometimes known as Shawn Gatlin, 45, and “There She Is,” 39, 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’s goal to be a sophisticated creative environment. Their work came in just before the first murals of Life Is Beautiful 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 You Killed Me First along with the dark and somewhat haunting imagery of There She Is 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.”
Sage and Gatlin work 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 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 coffee, prepared by Sage, the couple holds 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 smile. Her eyes read your presence to mine any dark traits you may have, fodder that can go into 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 fuel the content of their work.
After more chucking and chortling by Gatlin, the self-taught artist changed his mood, recalling how their relationship began with causal hellos on Friendster. They kept crossing paths in the Los Angeles music club scene. 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 going to 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 credits him with teaching her 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 one credit short of getting a 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 she, too, focused on music. “I may have the (academic) background, but the conceptual ideas come from this guy.”
Sage’s moniker came from Melrose and Fairfax, a popular blog that used to document the L.A. 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 You Killed Me First series also started on Melrose, a reference to a climatic scene in the Richard Kern no-wave film from 1985. Since then, You Killed Me First, the artist, has referred to Clockwork Orange, Las Vegas signage and theme park rides while branding himself as YKMF: Wheat Pasting Oracle.
Moving to Las Vegas in 2013 allowed them to have a new start in a less expensive city. Besides lower rent, the blank walls called out to them.
Today they are still thinking of ways to add to the Las Vegas street-art scene. In a flurry, they run through ideas. There are also themes to avoid, like anything with Vegas clichés (though Hunter S. Thompson and showgirls are on their radar). There may be short films to produce. Then there is one idea from Sage that is too dark even for Gatlin. They go back and forth on that for a while. 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.
Ed Fuentes is a writer and artist focused on the public art sphere of murals and street art. As a recipient of a 2013 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant he began publishing paintthisdesert.com to cover Las Vegas and has written about L.A. for KCET and Hyperallergic.