Language Barrier

In 1993 I was doing murals in the main building of the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth, Minnesota. The building featured a café with a deck overlooking the small valley in which the Zoo was nestled. They wanted a mural on either side of the two serving windows in a back wall, and they wanted a mural of a wildlife preserve in India. …

When I first saw elevations of the wall in question, I pointed out to the Zoo that Indian wildlife preserves do not contain walk doors and windows. Collectively we decided to disguise each serving window as the back door of a tour bus.

The walk door represented straight lines with 90-degree angles – very hard to disguise in an illusion of nature. I suggested we disguise the vertical lines as posts holding up a sign about the preserve on the upper half of the door.

The Zoo did a great job of building out the backs of the buses in three dimensions with real reflectors and tail lights above the bumper.

I painted the buses to look rusted, dented, and dusty. Across the back of each bus was the name Bansari Safari Company. I added roof racks filled with rustic baggage and added a few species-appropriate monkeys, one of them trying on a pith helmet, another trying to get into the gas cap. When I painted the windows in the back of each bus, I created the illusion of the interior continuing up to the driver’s seat.

Painted buses by Paul Barker of Googleplex in the Safari Cafe at Lake Superior Zoo

Disguising the walk door was easy except that one of the posts had a doorknob on it and the other had a pair of hinges. We found a photo of a sign outside an Indian preserve in a language none of us could identify. Was it Sanskrit, or perhaps Urdu? It was in a strange loopy alphabet, so with childlike trust we copied it exactly, assuming it said something appropriate. Then we made jokes about what it might actually say.

No sooner had I finished it than a FedEx driver arrived at the front doors with a stack of boxes. He wore a FedEx uniform, had a long, black beard and a tight turban tied around his hair, so we knew he was Sikh.

As he was getting a signature I walked up and asked, “Excuse me, are you from India?”

“Pakistan, actually,” he said.

“Do you read Sanskrit or Urdu?”

“No, why do you ask?”

“We have a sign we can’t translate. Would you have a look at it?”

“Of course,” he said, and walked over to where the group was admiring my sign. Everyone waited in hopeful anticipation as he studied the sign. When he tilted his head to one side, I thought it was not a propitious indication.

“Can you read it?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “I’m sorry, it doesn’t say anything.”

“Well, thank you for trying,” I said.

His face lit up suddenly. “Wait a minute. May I borrow your brush?”

I handed him a cup of black paint with the brush sticking out of it. He wiped the excess off on the edge of the cup, made one graceful stroke in the middle of the sign, and stepped back with a smile.

“It’s Hindi,” he said, “in Devanagari script. Now it says, ‘Please don’t bother the animals.'”

He handed me the cup and walked away from the group of open-mouthed Zoo staff and one slack-jawed muralist.

Turns out details really matter.