Whether as the plot of a Hollywood film, or as a piece of local news content with uplifting attributes, we are all inevitability drawn to rags to riches stories. They remind us that one day a person can be driftless, and the very next they can be anchored to one of the most ambitious hotel renovations in modern memory. Such is the case for the creative director of the Palms Casino Resort, Tal Cooperman, who spent many nights sleeping in his car, before reshaping the hotel narrative using his years as a graffiti writer and his knack for connecting people.
"It looked like Gotham City," Cooperman cracks of the aesthetics of the Palms before the renovations began. "We had a Hooters. There was a Hooters in here!"
The idea was rather simple; transform the hotel. While on paper that seems rather straightforward, the execution wasn't so easy. Cooperman and his team had to orchestrate a delicate dance between the hundreds of workers pounding away on a daily basis, and the hotel guests who thought their $80 a night rate was simply a "right time, right place" kind of deal.
"Imagine going to our check in and listening to somebody, 'I didn't sign up for this. I never knew I was going to be woken up at 6:00 in the morning by hammers, and tractors, and cranes, and people screaming on my floor,'" Cooperman says.
Conceptually, there was at least a starting point. Palms owners, Frank Fertitta III and Lorenzo Fertitta, were established art collectors. The plan was to build out a small bar experience that centered on a work they owned from Damien Hirst; The Unknown (Explored, Explained, Exploded) from 1999 which showcases a 13-foot tiger shark that sits in three segments of steel and glass tanks and preserved in formaldehyde.
As Cooperman listened, he heard about their interest in other contemporary artists like RETNA and REVOK. When the Fertittas asked if he was aware of their work, Cooperman thought it was a joke. To the Palms owners, they were contemporary masters. For Cooperman, they were some of his best friends in the entire world.
"They're like, 'What?' I was like, 'Look, guys, if you want to talk about this type of art, I have my master's in it. [I'm] blue chip when it comes to the street art community, I have literally been raised by the most cultured guys in this camp.'"
Whereas it's hard to imagine a place like Las Vegas — steeped in a tradition that went from wise guys to Mickey Mouse — ever accepting the legitimacy of graffiti, Cooperman went to work outlining how the 850-room property (small compared to other venues that hold at least 3,000) would look with art from various mediums informing the narrative. From something as minuscule as a piece of tile in a steakhouse to what would eventually become the most expensive hotel suite in the world, The Palms opted to go for a form of extravagance that felt in stark contrast to what others had succeeded with.
But of course, the average joe is never going to be able to spend a night in Hirst's $100,000 Empathy Suite and be able to interact with the shark, the butterflies in the massage room, the drug paraphernalia encased under the bar, and the other pieces of art which collectively are estimated to be worth $10 million.
Cooperman rightfully agrees and doesn't try to put an artful spin on the price tag. Instead, he says that the nightly rate is actually much lower than what Palms executives initially wanted to charge. They are going after a specific person. Whereas in a gambling context they might refer to this person as a "whale," Cooperman says that the Empathy Suite has been created for a new form of high-roller whose sense of culture extends beyond what is in his wallet.
"In my head, I'm like I want everyone to see this room, right?" Cooperman says. "I don't want them to see just photos. For me, the right person is going to see that room with that number. It has to be that number. It can't be any lower because I want to scare all the people that are going to just take advantage of that room and turn it upside down, because that's how Vegas is believe it or not. Some people just don't care. Money doesn't even mean anything to them. $100 grand a night, that kind of scares you. It definitely gets you. When I say 'scare,' I'm more saying we're trying to get the right person to actually want to enjoy that room and actually live in a museum for two nights, because you're never going to get as close to Damien's work or especially that amount of work as at our hotel."
Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Cooperman acknowledges that people from other properties have been keeping close watch on what The Palms has been doing. One can't help but think that a KAWS-themed room or a Takashi Murakami suite is not out of the realm of possibility. But for Cooperman, being able to accomplish the over-the-top extravagance of the Empathy Suite — while also working with lesser known artists on smaller elements that appear inside "regular rooms" — suggests a genuine warmth you rarely get in Las Vegas.