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Osborne bulls: The story behind Spain's iconic roadside silhouettes

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Osborne bulls: The story behind Spain's iconic roadside silhouettes
Photo: AFP
10:52 CET+01:00
If you have ever driven on a Spanish highway, you will have noticed the giant black bull silhouettes that seem to loom out of nowhere every now and again.

Maybe you didn't even question why they are there, because for you, as for many people, bulls are associated with Spanish culture – Flamenco, Tapas, Bullfighting! - and you just accepted them as part of the landscape. 

It may come as a surprise, then, that the huge concrete animals, originally erected in the 50s and 60s, were originally just billboards designed to advertise alcoholic beverages.

The Osborne bull first came to life in 1957, when Spanish artist Manuel Prieto – who later made a fortune thanks to this design – drew a preliminary sketch for the Osborne bodega which was looking for a symbol to advertise their most famous brandy, toro, which means bull in Spanish.

The original sketch by Manuel Prieto is still kept in the archives of the Osborne bodega. Photo:

Within a very short time, some 500 bulls were erected all over the country. They are between 6,5 m (toro grande) and 13,13 m (toro gigante) high.

Initially, they were made of wooden panels which were later replaced by metal. For about 30 years, you could not travel by car in Spain without reading the words “Osborne – Sherry & Brandy” against the background of a black bull's body.

The original Osborne ad. Photo: Depositphotos

In 1988, however, the Spanish government passed a law that banned all advertising at the side of highways, which should have automatically meant the demise of the Osborne bulls. 

However, Osborne came up with a compromise: They would paint over the letters promoting their company so that merely the bull shapes would remain.

Of course, by that time the symbol was already closely associated with the brand, making the letters more or less unnecessary.

The bulls were said to distract drivers and ought to be put down. Photo: Samuel Aranda/AFP

The compromise was accepted – until 1994, when there where new efforts to ban the bull. This provoked a public outrage and a campaign to save the symbol, which by now had become one of the icons of Spain.

Surveys showed some 75 percent of the population were in favour of keeping the bull shapes. For them, what had started off as a promotion of alcoholic beverages had become more: a symbol of their culture and national pride – something “typically Spanish”.

Spanish flag with Osborne bull. Photo: Samuel Aranda/AFP

And it was no longer associated exclusively with Osborne, as the drinks giant discovered in a 2005 court case.

Osborne had decided to sue several companies that had "expropriated" the symbol of the bull and printed it on t-shirts, hats, ashtrays - a variety of souvenirs that were then sold in tourist shops. 

But the bodega lost the case with judges ruling that the bull had been “converted into a national symbol that can be used without the company's permission and is artistic heritage that belongs to the Spanish peoples, integrated into the countryside.”

According to them, the image of the bull reminded people of “bullfights and the beauty of a strong animal". Therefore, everyone should be free to use it.

The bulls have become a popular motive for tourist souvenirs. Photo: Samuel Aranda/AFP

This same cannot be said of the name of the brand, Toro. In February, 2019, the European Court of Justice ruled in favour of Osborne, which had again sued for theft of intellectual property when a Bulgarian company wanted to name their brand “torro”.

The court decided that the phonetic resemblance with the Toro de Osborne might cause confusion about the relations between the companies.

Considering the symbolic value and the strong link to Spanish culture it is not surprising that in some autonomous regions, e.g. Catalonia and the Basque Country, the bulls are not exactly popular among groups that strive for political independence from Spain.

In 2007, members of the Catalan Brotherhood of the Black Flag spent several hours sawing the leg of a toro gigante on El Bruc, a hill close to Barcelona. In the end, they successfully brought down that last remaining Catalonian Osborne bull. There are even efforts to establish a Catalan version of the Osborne bull: el burro català, the Catalan donkey.

Still, you can find about 90 more all across Spain, most of which can stand in Andalucia and Valencia, the regions most closely associated with bull-fighting. The cultural significance shows itself e.g. in the fact that they have been often used and reinterpreted in artistic ways.

Osborne black bull painted with Spanish artist Pablo Picaso's piece "Guernica" in Santa Pola, southeastern Spain. Photo: Jose Jordan/AFP

Last, but not least, there is something else to be noted about the Osborne bulls. Some people say they owe much of their popularity to one curious detail – although the word detail would imply that we are talking about something small which we are certainly not.

But ask yourself: do you think it possible not to notice the rather dominant mono-testicle that decorates every single specimen? 

Penelope Cruz posing under an Osborne bull on the banner of Bigas Lunas "Jamón Jamón". Photo:

Watch the 1992 movie “Jamón, Jamón”, the first film that Spanish actors Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem shot together, in which a young couple makes love next to an Osborne bull, and we guarantee you will never look at the giant silhouette's in the same away again!


By Leslie Fried/The Local


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Rick north - 02 Mar 2019 13:43
Very interesting history article
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