On Tuesday, which would have been Eddie Van Halen’s 66th birthday, a giant mural of the guitar hero titled “Long Live the King” was unveiled outside the Guitar Center’s flagship store on Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Rendered by Los Angeles artist Robert Vargas, the mural depicts Eddie, with the Van Halen logo and his signature “Frankenstrat” guitar in tow, at 17 feet tall and 105 feet long, covering the entirety of the store’s outer wall at its rear entrance. Actor-director Bradley Cooper, TV host George Lopez and Jesse Hughes (of Eagles of Death Metal), were just a few who safely stopped in to see the curtain drop to unveil the finished mural.
“There’s a sentimentality when we think about having his mural on our wall because to a lot of us, he was a local guy. He was a sweetheart, a smile, a father,” explains Jean-Claude Escudie, category manager of Guitar Center Platinum. “When it came to his music, it seemed like he came from another planet, but as a human he was extremely relatable. When we see that mural, I think it warms our hearts.”
What an incredible honor it is to see Pop immortalized in such a beautiful way. pic.twitter.com/BdfwevCnJC
— Wolf Van Halen (@WolfVanHalen) January 27, 2021
The mural isn’t Guitar Center’s only nod to Eddie, who died in October after a long battle with cancer. His handprints are the centerpiece and main attraction of Guitar Center’s iconic RockWalk outside the store, along with several of his prized instruments and other memorabilia on display behind glass.
“This is Hollywood — Sunset Strip, where the band made a name for themselves. I wanted to be able to celebrate that,” says Los Angeles artist Robert Vargas, who completed the piece in less than two weeks. “They were famous all around the world, but this is home. If there was going to be an Eddie Van Halen mural that was going to go up here, I definitely had to be the one to do it. I wanted to do it bigger and larger than life, just like Eddie was.” Vargas marched into Guitar Center, made a pitch that was probably very similar to the one above, and here it is.
One of the most remarkable things about Van Halen’s career is that, after releasing just one album, the group’s 1978 debut, he was already being considered one of the top players in the game, and he quickly joined the pantheon of all-time greats. He literally changed the game for rock guitarists. “There was a point in history where people were tiring of the glamorous, indulgent, hard rock bands where you had these endless 20-minute guitar solos,” Escudie says. “There was a quick pivot toward punk rock and minimalism in music. The music that Van Halen was making had that sort of punk rock ethos without the minimalism. They had very hard-hitting, fast, powerful punk-type songs, but with this extraordinary musicianship. He reinvigorated the guitar as the lead instrument.”
According to Vargas, the design came together in a heartbeat. “When you look at him and watch him play, when he would raise the guitar up like that, it’s just such an iconic pose for him. It means he’s in the zone. He’s just flying.” He also added subtle details, like the necklace Eddie wore in the 1980/1981 era and the logo behind him that would often be shown in that same time period.
Vargas, who cranked up the Van Halen catalog as he worked, has a personal connection to the band. “Van Halen is my favorite rock band, my first concert, my first record,” he explains, “so for me it wasn’t an artist-for-hire situation. It was really just a fan of the music and someone who understands the nuances of it all. It was important for me to also open up the process for the fans to come in and be a part of it.”
Vargas would go live on Instagram so that people from all over the world could watch him work, and of course some locals would stop by to sing along as he painted. Vargas recalled meeting Van Halen and talking about their shared approach to the creative process, which is being in the moment. “That was pretty cool to have that creative dialogue,” he says.
That “in the moment” approach has Vargas painting all of his murals outside the realm of the average mural artist. “Typically, an artist that paints at this scale would have a team of people working with them, and would use grids and projectors in a kind of paint-by-numbers situation,” says the muralist. “My process has always been one that’s completely freehand – no grids, no projections, no stencils. All brushwork, so none of it is aerosol.”
Vargas was determined to celebrate Eddie’s legacy and honor him as “someone who was more than just a guitar player, but an innovator and an inspiration.”