The Daily Heller: Mural in a Stadium—Wall Art or Wallpaper?

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When is a mural a mural? Frank Viva—proprietor of Viva & Co., an independent branding and design agency in Toronto; cover artist for The New Yorker; and author of a New York Times 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Book selection—should be able to answer that.

He created a biggie for the UBS Arena, a $1.5 billion multipurpose facility located at Belmont Park in Elmont, NY. Opened on Nov. 19, it is home to the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders, having replaced the Nassau Coliseum.

Although he is not a hockey fanatic, this mural looms large in literal and figurative terms for him, and for me raises some questions about the nature of murals.

Here he discusses the nuances of this high-impact wall of art and design.

This is an expansive mural. What were your marching orders? And pardon the pun (but I’m proud of it): What is the goal?
There are three separate murals, each with a theme. The first one I tackled was the food mural, or “market mural,” which is positioned above the food concession stand at the UBS Arena. After a false start or two, we ran with the theme “from Manhattan to Montauk”—a sort of food journey with sidewalk pizza slices at one end and a boardwalk oyster shucker at the other. The artist’s or musician’s mural was the second one. I was provided with quotes and short biographies of 10 or so musicians that got their start in New York. These include Lou Reed, LL Cool J and Lady Gaga. Visually, I was trying to convey the fact that New York has inspired young musicians from diverse backgrounds for many generations. The third and largest of the three murals was titled “The Road to Victory” and celebrates the many athletes (mostly from Long Island) that have won worldwide recognition in their sport.

Are you an Islanders fan?
Much to my father’s dismay (a big hockey fan), I have never really taken much interest in team sports, though I think he would have been proud that I did these murals for the Islanders’ new home. I do enjoy riding my bike.

Can you tell me about the story you are telling?
While the broad themes were pretty clear from the start, I was interested in finding littler stories within each mural that could be told by depicting moments in time and place. Examples include a saxophonist attracting a small audience under a bridge in Central Park, or finding the original typography used for the Cotton Club in Harlem where Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington played to white-only audiences. The challenge was finding a way to stitch it all together while ensuring the text was properly sequenced and adhered to a clear hierarchy.

How do you think an audience responds to public murals? Is like background noise and they just take it for granted? Or is there some deeper connection?
For many or most, I’m sure they see these murals as decoration or wallpaper at best, and noise at worst. I hope that a young artist or designer might be inspired by the text, the color palette or the typography and composition. As for a deeper connection, perhaps that mustard, not ketchup, belongs on hotdogs?

Have you done other mural projects? And was this exceptionally special?
I have done a few over the years, not many. I was told that these were meant to be permanent, though they are just digital outputs of some kind, so they’re easy to replace. I enjoyed working on them and was pretty much left to my own devices. I’m pleased with the results.

Come to think of it, you are based in Canada—born and bred in the hockey heartland. Wouldn’t you be more apt to do a Maple Leafs mural than the Islanders?
I’m apt to do almost anything for a client that is nice to work with, pays well and offers some creative latitude. This one did.