Los Angeles and Las Vegas share a kinship that goes beyond the obvious. Sure, Vegas is frequented by Angelenos for family vacays and wild bachelor parties, and the music festival circuit (EDC, Punk Rock Bowling, Viva Las Vegas — all of which are thrown by SoCal-based promoters) beckons Angelenos on a regular basis. But right now, the very fabric of Vegas is in many ways being embellished, if not shaped, by L.A. figures on a daily basis. Tal Cooperman is one such figure bringing L.A. flavor to L.V. The Palms Hotel & Casino just unveiled new eateries, bars and clubs and a decidedly new pop and street art–driven aesthetic during EDC weekend, and Cooperman’s role as creative director is central to the makeover, which he promises will entail much more in the next year. L.A. Weekly sat down with the Israel-born, Agoura Hills–bred visionary inside the Palm’s newest hot spot, the Damien Hirst–designed Unknown Bar, to talk about his influence on street art and streetwear, music, hospitality, the City of Angels, the City of Sin and what he’s doing to make these cultures collide.
“I got into graffiti when I was 13 years old,” says Cooperman, a life-long skateboarder, at the grand unveiling of Unknown, which features Hirst's famous dot designs and a striking segmented shark installation from the artist's "Natural History" series. ‘I had sketchbooks and felt very much connected to that world. My aunt, who is an artist, took me to the Pavillion [a graffiti yard in Venice, CA. recently replicated in the 'Beyond the Streets' art show] and it was the first time I ever saw good graffiti. Fast-forward to 16 years old, I started interning for a company called Gypsies and Thieves based in downtown L.A. The crew I idolized were the guys doing the graphic design.”
Cooperman helped GAT’s Luis Antonio in any way he could, from design input to setting up booths for trade shows, but it was his people skills and friendships that ultimately proved most valuable. He got his best longtime pal involved in GAT, too — Aaron Levant would go on to found the Agenda Trade Show and later, ComplexCon. After GAT, Cooperman moved to San Diego to work for Tribal Streetwear; he says it was there that he started to discover the power of product placement, developing his own sort of organic marketing via friends in bands and word-of-mouth on artists who’d be blowing up. He sent boxes of product to up-and-comers, including Linkin Park, who hit the charts and touring circuit hard soon after, wearing Tribal's products and introducing Cooperman to other bands to whom he would, in turn, give merch. In a fun yet focused way, Cooperman was using musicians as influencers early on, but he was doing it without an official title and as more of a stylist. Bands such as My Chemical Romance, Atreyu and Avenged Sevenfold all wore Cooperman-approved brands onstage and in photo shoots.
"These bands were like my family," he recalls. "I was touring the world with them, having a great time, but literally making zero dollars. I didn't care. All these guys were coming to my house and they knew my dad. Platinum record plaques started coming to my house. I was happy."
But soon, Cooperman's old pal Levant sought to put his boy's skills to work in a very targeted way: facilitating meetings that would change the face of action sports. After meetings with Nike and Hurley (which Nike purchased), a plan was made to put the leading sportswear tradeshow, ASR, out of business. Levant moved his Agenda tradeshow to Orange County and the pair relocated there. After Hurley and Nike moved to Agenda, pretty much everyone else followed suit
Soon after, Cooperman and Levant started a new company with Benji and Joel Madden of Good Charlotte, called DCMA. The Madden brothers happened to be dating Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie at the time, and the exposure the brand received via paparazzi pics took what Cooperman was already doing with product placement to a whole new level, with the young Hollywood crowd — including Brody Jenner and the cast of MTV's The Hills — basically providing free advertising. Cooperman's high-profile friendships and relationships with innovative companies were a precursor to today's social media and swag culture, in which brand campaigns are often driven by courting celebrities and influencers.
Cooperman's next venture was RESQWATER, a hangover-curing beverage; after some success with that product, his partner asked him to move out to Vegas to expand the brand. That was almost five years ago. RESQWATER grew and ended up in every hotel in Vegas, but the mover and shaker was bored.
Cooperman had worked with L.A. clubs and promoters in the past, but it wasn't until Brian Affronti from Drai's nightclub asked him to come on as creative director and director of marketing that his gift for making connections began to shape the Vegas club scene in a notable way. "We definitely shook the cage in Vegas," says Cooperman, who hired street artists to do the club flyers and posted high-quality recap videos from the club the same night on social media. After a very successful stint at Drai's, he got a call to work with the Palms about a year ago.
When the Palms first opened in 2001, it was the hippest hotel in Vegas. It had a presence on TV via The Real World: Las Vegas (the cast lived there); Inked, the A&E show about BMX-er/Pink beau Carey Hart's tattoo shop; and even its own short-lived, Jenny McCarthy–hosted program called Party at the Palms on E!. Owner George Maloof was as high-profile as they come and the casino's nightclub, Rain, VIP-friendly lounges Ghostbar and the Hef-approved Playboy Club, and music venue the Pearl made it a Hollywood hub in Vegas. The Palm was rivaled only by the Hard Rock when it came to attracting the younger Vegas visitor demo (21-39).
But the city changed a lot over the years and other casinos sought to snag this market, spending millions of dollars on bigger, bolder nightclubs, art-driven decor, celebrity chef–driven restaurants and slick advertising campaigns that touted the town's escapist mystique (the tagline "What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas" became a badge of honor in some respects).
Compared with newer players such as the Cosmopolitan and bigger ones like the Wynn, the Palms lost a lot of its shine over the years, and the banks that took ownership after Maloof didn't seem to care. The rocker crowd's renewed interest in the "old" Vegas Strip probably didn't help. Downtown's renaissance touts new bars and clubs that transcend the touristy Fremont Street Experience (another L.A. figure, Big Daddy Carlos, and his venues Backstage Bar & Billiards and Fremont Country Club, had a lot to do with that shift).
When Station Casinos' Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta purchased the Palms two years ago, they planned a $620 million renovation to bring it back; getting Cooperman on board for creative was part of their plan. Phase one of the revamp was revealed a couple weekends ago at a preview party with the theme From Dust to Gold. Along with the unveiling of the Unknown Bar, we got to see the swanky new steakhouse Scotch 80 Prime, a cocktail lounge called Apex (J. Cole performed an intimate set for the opening), the redesigned Pearl concert theater and more. A new 29,000-square-foot nightclub and a 73,000-square-foot pool club (set to open next spring) were in construction mode.
The Fertitta brothers were already big art collectors and the Hirst shark (titled The Unknown — Explored, Explained, Exploded) comes from their personal collection, as do many of the new pieces at the Palms. Cooperman spent the past year helping curate the property's art collection, which includes work by icons such as Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Takashi Murakami alongside street fare from KAWS, Dustin Yellin, Eric Haze, Crash and L.A. fave Scott Hove (whose yummy caked-out bathroom stall outside of Scotch 80 Prime may be our favorite work).
Clearly, Cooperman's street-art background and irreverent point of view is a huge influence on the Palms' new vibe. "At first I was kind of everywhere. They brought me in for marketing. And then I started being in a bunch of meetings," he says. "Everyone has art in their hotels, but our art is more for the younger generation, for younger people who know the artists."
Cooperman's old crew in L.A., known as the Seventh Letter, played a part in his ability to bring street art to Sin City, he emphasizes. "Casey Eklips, the founder, has been like a father to me and my brother," he says. "So I kind of have a Rolodex to call any street artist on the planet, and they'll pick up the phone because Casey helped raise me."
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Though the art is meant to be enjoyed and to create atmosphere, Cooperman acknowledges that "self-marketing" is part of the plan, too. "We have 800-plus rooms. In Vegas every hotel has about 3,000 rooms and we don't want to have that. I was thinking about how to get the word out," says the guy basically made an entire career of getting the word out. "I was thinking about the new generation of influencers," he adds. "And I think that as much as we hate saying the word 'Instagrammable' and a lot of us hate social media, I love it. I stayed hip to it and Instagram has done a beautiful job — it's going to be around for a very long time. So my goal with these moments that we're creating was to have people speak about our hotel."
Indeed, much of the Palms' art seems selfie-ready, providing colorful backgrounds for photo-sharing that recall L.A.'s pop-up experiences such as Happy Place. The cloudscape and "Wish You Were Here" neon work behind the front desk is a perfect example. It features a collaborative piece by L.A. artist Keegan Gibbs and Berlin-based American light artist Olivia Steele.
Revolving street and pop art, new restaurants (NYC's popular Vandals is on the way, as is a Bobby Flay concept) and big music "gets" with booking partner Live Nation (L.A.-based Blink-182 are in the midst of their first residency at Pearl and the venue will host Janelle Monáe on June 26, Alice Cooper in August and Korn and Zac Brown Band in September). The next phase at Palms will feature a new pool being constructed as we speak, which Cooperman promises will be the most distinctive day club Vegas has ever seen. And more big — and little — things are in the works.
"John Gray [Palms' president] and I and our team, we're creating a new brand here, a real brand. Everything from the napkins to the snacks to intimacy kits in the rooms designed by street-art duo DabsMyla. We're involved in every little detail," Cooperman enthuses. "We want to change it up here all the time. The art is going to change, too. It'll be nonstop. This bar [Unknown] will be the heartbeat of the property and stay like this for a very long time, but everything else around the property is going to evolve and revolve. I want people to come here and say, 'holy shit!' I want people to leave this place and be like, 'I cannot wait to see what's next for the Palms. I cannot wait to see what they're going to come up with.'"