Whale of a Tail

I was doing murals for the Daytona Beach Marine Science Center in Florida in 2001. They had chosen a spot to lay out the prize whale skeleton, and they wanted the wall behind it to host a full-sized whale’s tail rising out of the ocean. It was an ideal location with one small problem: a red box with an emergency light, smack-dab in the center left half.

Whale mural hiding a red fire alarm box by Paul Barker of Googleplex

The local fire marshal would not even consider letting us move the box. Over the years, I’ve learned that fire marshals are very earnest and (generally) incapable of imagination. (I sometimes think that they have to be devoid of imagination to get the job.) You know what I mean? How could I disguise a small red box in the middle of a blue sky?

One of the young ladies on the Center staff had a brilliant idea.

“You know that red channel buoy we could see from the pier? Maybe . . . ”

I was directed through the brush, across the road, over some sand dunes, and out to the end of the pier with a borrowed pair of binoculars. There bobbed a bright red sphere with a frame tower on top and a light. It had the number 42 in big white letters emblazoned on it.

I made a sketch and went back to work. When the dripping whale tail was done, I added the frame tower below the emergency light and the big floating sphere with the number. It worked. Anyone not paying close attention would think the buoy was completely intentional. To add to the effect, I painted a large seagull perched on top of the red box and added some white droppings down the sides of the box.

My job often includes camouflaging unwanted elements (see Hidden Features or the Art of Camouflage), but it was one of those rare cases when these intrusions actually improved the finished product.