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Dive into the origins of Tampa International’s Phoebe the Flamingo with artist Matthew Mazzotta

It’s hard to miss the sculpture when catching a flight at TPA. We interviewed the man who created it.

Phoebe the flamingo is pictured from close range. There are blurry travelers walking behind her, indicating motion.

Originally called “HOME,” Phoebe is a welcome sight to many weary travelers.

Travelers at Tampa International Airport can’t help but notice the large pink friend in the main terminal. The 21-foot flamingo sculpture opened in August of 2022, and was affectionately named “Phoebe” after more than 65,000 people voted.

The man behind the artwork, Matthew Mazzotta, recently won two CODAawards (People’s Choice + Transportation) for the project originally titled “HOME.” We sat down with Mazzotta to learn more about his creative process, working in communities across the world, and the issues that drive him.

First of all, why a flamingo?

The airport approached me and gave me three prompts for a piece they wanted installed in that space: local flora or fauna, atmosphere, and sightlines.

After that, I was riding on a bus in Jamaica after leaving my cousin’s wedding. I looked out the window and I saw some egrets and thought “those are kind of cool birds.” Later on, I was looking at the project space from a chair at Tampa International, and thought “could an egret be in here?” Then I noticed there were flamingos everywhere around me.

I wanted to do it in a completely fresh way. That’s when I thought of putting us underwater and putting the story of the flamingo in full volume and making it very large. That’s why the ceiling is water and the bird is dipping its head down, meaning we are in its world.

A closeup of the flamingo from the front, showing the dappled light underneath. That helps the underwater feel.

The dappled light and shiny ceiling create an underwater effect.

Photo via Matthew Mazzota

Why is Phoebe so big?

It’s an attempt to put nature above man. I think that’s where we are in our society now. Nature has to re-enter the story and move us away from the human centric. So many things from climate change to destroyed habitats mean we have to pay more attention to the interconnected world. That’s why it’s important to bring this bird into the airport — a human space made possible by the inspiration of flight we took from the animal kingdom.

What do you think of the name Phoebe?

The airport asked if I was interested in naming the project, but I thought the people should decide. They ended up landing on Phoebe, which is inspired by the Latin name for flamingo.

Someone came up with the idea of the lovable object. Phoebe is something people identify with for the message it deals with, but there is also the cuteness factor and an attractive factor. I don’t think I’ve been around a project that has received this much love.

A young child hugs one of Phoebe's enormous feet. A TSA agent walks behind as airport activity resumes.

Phoebe has become a firm fan favorite among travelers at TPA.

You have done work across the world. How did you end up with such a global vision?

Being from a small town in upstate New York gave me an interest in other places. There was only so much I could be exposed to, so that built a fantasy in what else there could be in the world.

Seeing injustice on any scale has always struck me, and led me to the motto, “think globally, act locally.” Each community has its own problems, but can that same issue be addressed in other places too? Looking in from the outside can be an advantage because it gives locals the chance to experience a fresh perspective on their own community through a different set of eyes.

Check out Mazzotta’s website or his Instagram to keep up with his work.