March 15, 2007
Portsmouth, Rhode Island
41 ° 37.25 north
071 ° 16.12 west

Exhibits from Ithakas Collection of Cruising Wall Art

By Douglas Bernon

Taking photos is one of the pleasant pastimes of cruising. We all want to chronicle our voyage and travels with images from our wanderings. Before Bernadette and I departed on our cruising adventures, back in 2000, a good friend of our’s, who is a professional photographer, gave us a bit of advice. He said to concentrate on one theme while we’re traveling from place to place. Then, seeking out that theme will give our photography a focus. He said that he concentrated on churches during his circumnavigation, and the resulting collection of his photography had a breadth that I admired. I thought about it, and decided it was a great idea. I decided to concentrate on wall art.

Since our last log, in which I included a few of my photos, a number of readers wrote in to say that they, too, are fans of wall art, and that they carry with them a small digital camera so that when their fancy is tickled, they’re ready to shoot. Whether in a car or walking somewhere, if there’s a particular sign that calls out to them, they can add it to their collection.

In response to their emails and requests we’ve put together a small collection of representative wall art from our cruise. These pictures were taken in different countries. Each photo is labeled with a short explanation. For this mini-exhibit, we’ve grouped them into eight categories. You an click on the picture that’s next to each category and that will take you to the photos in that group.

From the Sea

Because for six years we spent most of our time at islands and at towns along coastlines, it’s not surprising that we collected more wall art of fish and sea creatures than just about anything else. We’ve only included a few here, but they are among our favorites.

Click on this photo for more wall art from the sea.

Political leaders

Like politicians everywhere, being seen as serious is part of the game, and frequently we came to islands in the San Blas Islands where a local Kuna saihla (the village chief) had been memorialized in some splendid portrait that hung in the local community meeting house, the Congresso. Invariably the image conveyed a feeling of strained gravitas. In many of the portraits we saw (and a number were clearly rendered by the same artist), the officials dressed formally and tended to resemble stereotypic1940s cinema mobsters.

Click on this photo for more wall art of Political Leaders.

Every Kuna chieftain that we met spent a good portion of his day resting in the chief’s hammock located in the Congresso or Chicha hut. He (always a he) conducted his business from a reclined position. When we wanted to take their photographs, generally they were happy to oblige but somehow understood they would look more official standing up than reclined. Several would rush back their own hut to put on pants or a clean shirt and sometimes a tie, as well.

Guys and Girls on Walls

We saw an awful lot of wall art that depicted a man or woman doing all sorts of things—frequently without their clothes on—and only occasionally did we find images of couples doing something together.

Click on this photo for more wall art of couples together.

This cheerful couple live on the outside wall off a bar in Encinitas, California.

Media Stars

One artist in particular, his work unidentified by name, is now lost because the building on which he painted these tributes has been torn down. The images of Elvis, Frank, Sammy, Dean, Desi, Lucy, Fred and Ethel were all on an outside wall at a wonderful Cuban restaurant in Miami that has fallen victim to gentrification.

Click on this photo for more wall art of media stars.

Elvis was part of a collection on the back wall of a parking lot at my favorite Cuban restaurant in Miami. There are always silly and unsubstantiated rumors that Elvis is dead, but I believe none of them. The King Lives.

Mechanical Concerns and Supplies

Throughout the Third World there are incredibly creative and skilled tradesmen who can cobble anything together from bubble gum and chicken wire; their training is generally hands-on from fellow workers, and their abilities are second to none. However, often as not, they are not men who can read manuals or signs, and frequently the stores that supply them will attract their attention and business with practical ads—paintings on the wall—that indicate what’s available within.

Click on this photo for more wall art of mechanical supplies.

In Cartagena, Colombia, I found that walking through the industrial and working sections of the city and visiting with the tradesmen was one of my great joys. Unlike the States—especially at boatyards—when you go in to see a tradesman about a problem, instead of sucking air, shaking his head and saying something to the effect of: “Jeez, this is going to be expensive and we probably can’t actually fix it. You better replace it with a new one,” the attitude is the opposite. “Sure we can do it.” And almost always they can. I’ll take the can-do attitude of the workers at foreign boatyards over the vast majority of high-priced yards in the U.S. any day.

Professional Medical Services

Not unlike the increasing onslaught of advertisements we see on television in the States for dental services, plastic surgery, and all manner of heaven-knows-what-else, entrepreneurial medical professionals in the Third World also want to attract people -- some who can read and some who can not. In fact there often was far greater charm and sincerity in the hand-painted signs for doctors’ offices and dental clinics than in the slick videos we are subjected to in the industrialized world.

Click on this photo for more wall art advertising professional medical services.

On the outside wall of a dental clinic in the highlands of Guatemala was this depiction of their practice. I always thought the dentures and their carrying system resembled some form of dinosaur.

Restaurants and Menus

While we loved eating anywhere the menu was painted on the wall, we discovered quickly that just because the menu indicates a certain fare, there is no reason to believe that the offering is current or accurate. We often found in backwater cafes that the walls were decorated by local artists with food paintings or with animals that may or may not have had anything to do with the restaurant at all.

Click on this photo for more wall art about Restaurants and Menus.

At this small restaurant on Tigre Island in the San Blas Islands, the wall menu hinted at what might be available. We were able to identify the fish, the fruits, the plantains, the vegetables and the meat, but neither Bernadette nor I could figure out what the green glob was in the middle. It didn’t matter, though, because this restaurant was totally out of fish, meat, plantains, and fruit. They were long on eggs, potatoes, onions and bread, so that, of course, is what we had.

Signs of Wisdom

Public art, especially when its purpose is not commercial, generally has a whimsy and emotional vitality that is refreshing on any street. Sometimes political signs and humorous, wishful thinking offer up the finest signs of all.

Click on this photo for more Signs of Wisdom

Sitting on a curb and watching the King Mango Strut Parade, an annual event in Miami, this man was making his own political and personal plea.

Bernadette and Douglas will continue the Log of Ithaka for the next few months as they adjust to land life. It is their intention, then, to bring the log to a conclusion. Now that they are back in the U.S., any groups or corporations interested in booking them for slide shows and talks can reach them at