The recent announcement that Donald Trump's Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City is undergoing a $250 million renovation
is being greeted with ? well, not much of anything, really. I mean, you don't care one way or the other.
As it happens, though, I met an interesting person there once, back when Trump's "Seventeen Acres of Pure Pleasure" was about to open for the first time. His name was Pema Wangyal, and he was a sacred painter from Tibet.
"This is Brahma!" he cried, pointing at a floating emperor with four faces and four arms who was riding a flying goose in the Buffet Room. "A very magical Hindu god!"
Wangyal had a thick ponytail and an unruffled attitude; he was calm even when he was hollering. There was a lot of hammering and hubbub just then because opening day was approaching, and the room was still a mess, but fortunately the murals were almost finished. Wangyal pointed out panels of sloe-eyed kings and lovers, ministers and hawks, flocks of pelicans ("a symbol of fertility"). These were replications, he explained, of 16th and 17th century designs of the Raiput, or southern Indian, style...
I interrupted to ask the obvious question: Didn't he find it strange to be working in a casino?
Having once meditated for five months on the interdependence of cause and effect, he replied, very little surprised him. "Besides, I visualize everything as not strange," he said. "I visualize it as beautiful. Transform everything into heaven ? that's Buddhist teaching. If I say ugly, ugly, that's going to bang in my mind. After two days, I'll drop my brush and take off."
A buzzsaw started up. Eeeennnnnhh. "You hear that?" Wangyal inquired, unnecessarily. "I visualize that as a beautiful instrument."
Half a dozen painters were at work in the Buffet Room and elsewhere around the Taj, but Wangyal was the expert, the only Eastern artist on the project. "I paint my own way mostly," he said. "Share my knowledge." To solve a recent squabble ? everyone had wanted to paint figures, not backgrounds ? he had gone back to doing spiraling vines and clusters of flowers. "That's ok. I bring no ego to this."
Something about this project had to bother him. How about the delusional color scheme? How about all the strobing acrylics he'd had to use here? "Casino logic," he said, and shrugged.
Wangyal had been reared a Buddhist in a tiny, ice-crusted village near the Nepalese border. "My family all were artists. Father, grandfather, great grandfather..." Wangyal himself specialized in Tibetan t'hanka, or scroll, paintings ("portable, good for nomads"). T'hankas, he explained, often depict scenes from the life of Buddha, or mandalas; the colors are created from ground-up minerals, including lapis lazuli, malachite, rubies and gold.
He baffled his relatives by leaving town in his late teens. Why the wanderlust? "Karma," he said. Soon he was painting murals in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, at the monastery of the Swyambunath. Otherwise known as the Monkey Temple, it is famous for its hundreds of frisky baboons.
"The monkeys were my best friends," he said. "I would take a mirror and move light around. They would try to catch it. There's a hole in the center of the temple too, which sometimes would fill with rain. The monkeys would swim and splash. Leap from trees. It was so beautiful."
Wangyal led the way out of the Buffet Room headed toward the elevator, chatting through a punishing fire alarm test ? wheep wheep wheep ? that had others standing with fists clamped to their ears. "Those monkeys would jump on people," he said. "Especially Westerners."
On the floor below was the coffee shop, also decorated with vivid murals. There was a 17th century prostitute on horseback approaching a luminous palace. A prince in a gazebo being fanned by a slave. "He's using a peacock feather," said Wangyal. "Removes all negativity." He indicated sprays of lotus leaves he had painted, remarking that lotus leaves should ordinarily be done in a variety of colors. "But they said several colors would take too long, cost too much. So I condensed." They were all blue.
With the Taj job ending, I asked what he would do next. "Whatever God gives," Wangyal said. "Come. You must see whole Taj, from outside." Heading toward the exit, we passed the Oasis Pub, which he and other artists had also painted with traditional Indian filigree, this time in raspberry and blue to match the rug. Some columns and arches had been left white. "They say, 'Stop, enough, it looks ok,'" he said. "Looks bad." He pushed through a door into a dank wind.
Standing with our backs to the ocean, we contemplated the Taj's seventy domes and minarets (sixty-six more than its namesake). Wangyal pointed out the raucous candy striping on different domes, the expanses of pink.
"Tacky," he said finally. "But kind of interesting."