Spend any length of time driving around Spain and sooner or later, you’ll come across a massive black silhouette of a bull, rearing up unexpectedly by the roadside.
There are more than 90 of them across the country. They’re enormous: most are 14 metres/43 feet high, and placed strategically on the skyline for maximum impact.
But why are they there? The simple answer is: brandy. And their origin is a very Spanish story.
Back in the 1950s, the Osborne company, one of the biggest brandy makers in Spain, decided they needed to beef up their advertising (pun very much intended). So they brought in an artist by the name of Manolo Prieto.
Manolo knew that the bull represented something special in Spanish culture. And his plan was advertising genius; to erect silhouettes of toros de lidia – huge fighting bulls – right next to main roads all over Spain, with the name of Osborne’s Veterano brandy tattooed right across the middle.
It was an instant success. The original wooden bulls were soon upgraded to harder-wearing metal and the rollout continued. At their peak, there were over 500 in Spain, quite a few in Mexico and even one, bizarrely, in Copenhagen.
But then came the first snag. In 1962, the rules changed. Advertising signs right next to the road were declared distracting for drivers (err…yes, that was kind of the point).
So all adverts – and there were plenty of them, not just Osborne’s bulls – had to be moved a minimum of 150 metres away from the roadside.
No problem, said Osborne – and doubled the size of their bulls, so they remained absolutely unmissable.
In 1988, a new law banned all roadside advertising. So Osborne just took the Veterano branding off the bulls, but left the silhouettes just where they were. After 30 years, everybody kind of knew what the bulls were advertising anyway.
Then in 1994 came another blow. The Reglamento General de Carreteras, Spain’s road authority, said they had to go. Full stop. For a while, it looked as if the Osborne bulls had met their matador.
But a backlash began. A lot of people wanted the bulls to stay. Nobody minded the removal of the thousands of adverts for other companies, which were a real roadside eyesore all over Spain. But the bulls had become a national icon.
In Osborne’s home patch, Andalusia, they were declared a ‘bien cultural’ – a cultural asset. Other regional governments, newspapers and the chattering classes joined in, and in 1994, the Congreso de los Diputados (the lower house of the Spanish Parliament) declared the bulls of “patrimonio cultural y artistico” (cultural and artistic heritage). Finally, in 1997, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.
And the decision was…yes, the bulls could stay. Minus the branding of course.
That made a lot of people very happy. The Osborne company was delighted – it still pays for the upkeep of the bulls, even though its brand name has long gone. And plenty of Spanish drivers were happy too.
Not everyone was, of course. There aren’t any Osborne bulls in Cataluña, for example – the Catalans don’t do bullfighting, and the Osborne bull is most definitely a fighting bull.
Some were defaced. In Mallorca, one bull suffered the indignity of having his horns removed. Another, in Extremadura, was turned into a cow.
I think the best re-working came in Santa Pola, near Alicante. Street artist Sam3, a kind of Spanish answer to Banksy, re-painted it in the style of Picasso’s immortal ‘Guernica’ as an anti-bullfighting protest.
His brilliant re-imagining actually became a tourist attraction in its own right; the local council tried vainly to keep it that way, but Osborne saw things differently, and the bull sadly went back to black.
By the way, if you were wondering how Osborne – a very English name – came to feature on a very Spanish brandy, the answer is – it was all started by a Brit.
Thomas Osborne came over to Cádiz from Exeter, in the south west of England, in 1772 and started shipping sherry back home. The brandy came later, and the Osborne company is still going strong, said to be the second oldest in Spain.
© Guy Pelham 2018