SPAIN'S OUTDOOR MATADOR, ANGEL HERNANDO: TORO, TORO, TORO

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When the going got tough, Angel Hernando went running with the bulls. In 1994, just as he and the Espana Abierta cultural association were promoting the artistic legacy of Spain's roadside "bullboards," the government ordered the removal of the giant icons. Seeing red, Hernando helped spark a popular uprising to save the Osborne brandy advertising icon that became synonymous with Spain.

Painters, poets, politicians -- and even, go figure, Greenpeace -- soon rose in defense of Spain's favorite lawn ornament cum de facto mascot. "It's an integral part of the Spanish landscape," says Hernando. "We think it's grown way beyond its original role as advertising."

A generation of 13-foot-tall wooden bulls could be seen from Spain's highways as early as 1957. A 1962 law pushing billboards 55 yards from roads spawned 500 bulls of a more impressive variety: giant silhouettes standing at 40 feet, with 3-millimeter thick galvanized steel plates weighing in at nearly four and a half tons, braced by 50 tons of concrete and steel.

The threat of extinction came with a 1989 highway advertising ban. To exempt its remaining toros, Osborne blacked its name from the silhouettes. But Spain's Ministry of Transportation would take no bull. In 1994, the government imposed a fine of nearly $10,000 for noncompliance. The company didn't back down. That same year, its appeals reached Spain's Supreme Court.

To drum up popular support, Espana Abierta combed Spain's bull-graced municipalities, urging local councils to protect their "cultural heritage." Andalusia's autonomous government soon legislated protection of the billboards on cultural grounds -- an honor once reserved for castles and cathedrals.

Osborne's bull isn't advertising's first incursion into national pop culture. After years of sharing motorways with the larger-than-life Michelin Man, Spaniards now call love handles "michelines." On the other end of the fitness spectrum, a blitzkrieg of yogurt spots has musclebound Iberians of the '90s referring to their "Danone body."

But when it comes to symbolizing Spain, those ads are calves' play. "When we went to the communities, everyone defended [the bulls], regardless of which party was in power," says Hernando. "Communities governed by leftist parties tended toward defense of the silhouette as a cultural-artistic element; whereas the right saw it as representing 'the nation'."

Spanish couples share, well, backseat affection below Osborne's vast silhouette. Some believe that making love in the shadow cast by the animal's mammalian protuberance, to borrow a phrase from Frank Zappa, bestowes special virility and fertility on the couple. The bullboards spark other creative acts, too. Artists like Wim Wenders and Keith Haring have used the icons in their work.

And the toro is also a culture spammer's bull's eye. Guerrilla artists treated a bull in Navarre to the transgender experience -- lipstick included. In another metaphoric castration of Iberian machismo, the black bull awoke to a coat of pink paint. A scene in Bigas Luna's film Jamon, Jamon has the bull's genitals severed to reiterate a young man's emotional emasculation.

This January, Spain's Supreme Court finally recognized the Osborne bulls as "part of the landscape." The decision reads, in part: "Though some may indirectly be reminded of the symbol of a commercial firm, the initial visual impact produced for most people is that of an attractive silhouette, which, more than inducing consumption, entertains the eye."

Osborne keeps up the herd for now, but there's ambiguous language in the ruling that doesn't guarantee long-term protection, Hernando cautions. The fight's not over yet; he and his fellow taurean messiahs will try to ensure that this now-protected advertising species survives long after its creators have gone to that

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