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Last Dog Standing

St. Barbara, Demonic Mermaids, and the Tourism Industry Collide


Thursday, August 29, 2013

WHINING AND SNARLING: My favorite nonissue now roiling the local waters involves the pseudo new logo for the entity that until last week was known as the Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission, which purports to depict the actual real-life St. Barbara, the namesake of our city and county. Much froth and fulmination has greeted the new logo ​— ​particularly on the Santa Barbara View website, whose cranky, curmudgeonly habitués seem disproportionately inclined to wake up with their underwear in a crisp, starchy bundle. No less a personage than Santa Barbara City Councilmember Dale Francisco ​— ​the council’s reigning conservative in chief now rumored to be contemplating a run against Lois Capps for Congress in 2014 ​— ​weighed in on the matter. So, too, did first-time city council candidates Jason Nelson and Lesley Wiscomb.

Angry Poodle

The uproar started shortly after the Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission ​— ​which spends gobs of money (much of it public in origin) every year exhorting people from out of town to visit Santa Barbara, spend lavishly, and then go home ​— ​hosted a coming-out party for its new streamlined name, Visit Santa Barbara, which indeed is both easier to remember and to say. Accompanying the new name was a new logo, which depicted a magenta-ish sketch of what appeared to be a mermaid figure, hips and breasts being suggested but not shown. Stylistically, it calls to mind the vaguely paganistic New Agey women’s self-empowerment book covers that were popular in the 1980s. Others have complained the logo looks like something you’d see stenciled on a Starbucks coffee cup. Or as one prominent art critic asked in response to the new design, “How do you tell someone they have an ugly baby?”

The uproar arose only because the press release issued by Visit Santa Barbara stated that the mermaid figure “now incorporates” the story of St. Barbara, who they erroneously claimed, “stood watch over Santa Barbara shores and was known as a protector of ships.” All this, of course, qualifies as a classic Santa Barbara tempest in a teapot. But myths matter, especially when they involve religion and saints after whom towns are named. If you’re going to exploit them for commercial purpose, you’d best be precise. Whether Saint Barbara was real or conjured remains the subject of intense debate within ecclesiastical circles, but back in the day, she was immensely and intensely popular. St. Barbara was the go-to saint to whom you prayed when imminent doom was breathing down your neck and closure was not something you could reasonably expect to achieve. According to lore, Barbara was an exceptionally hot babe who lived in Syria about 1,900 years ago and whose father locked her up in a tower when he was away on frequent business trips. During one such absence, Barbara converted to Christianity, which she signified by having a third window (denoting the Holy Trinity) installed in the tower, then undergoing a remodel. Upon his return, Barbara’s father freaked, Christianity being terminally out of favor with the Roman authorities upon whose good graces his business depended. Barbara’s father resolved the matter by dragging his daughter up the nearest hillside and either chopping her head off or bashing her brains in. Either way, not pretty. God, at that point, got mad and zapped dad with a lightning bolt, rendering his body a steaming pile of ashes. Because of this, Barbara is considered the patron saint of architects, artillerymen, and those who maintained the gunpowder supplies for military ships.

Over the centuries, artists have taken some liberties with St. Barbara, but almost always, she is shown with a three-windowed tower in the background. But until now, she has never been depicted with a fishy mermaid tail. The folks at Visit Santa Barbara have sought to explain away the hubbub, stating that the image was never meant to be taken “literally,” adding that it was meant somehow to express “the spirit” of St. Barbara. And the new image, they pointed out, is only a slight modification of a similar image that has been used without fuss for eight years. True enough. But for those previous eight years, they had the good sense not to suggest any connection ​— ​literal or figurative ​— ​with the martyred saint.

Council candidates Wiscomb and Nelson have sought to seize the day, questioning just how much city money was spent on the logo redesign ​— ​less than $10,000, we are told. Likewise, they’ve demanded to know why more of that money is not spent banging the tourist gong on behalf of the Sunday arts and craft show that for the past 50 years has been taking place along Cabrillo Boulevard. Pretty boring, right? But Francisco, as always, can be counted on to provide the unexpected wrinkle. In his brief note to the View, he observed the story of St. Barbara was no “barrel of laughs” and expressed confusion as to how it connects “with anything that would attract people to Santa Barbara as it is today.” Like many, Francisco said the logo looked more like a mermaid, and then tossed a lit-and-loaded rhetorical Molotov cocktail by adding, “Historically, mermaids were demonic, but that association has been largely lost.” Demonic mermaids? Here in Santa Barbara? Who knew? Are mermaids “demonic” because they’re vaguely related to sirens, the mythological beauties who lured sailors to their deaths? Maybe, but it turns out mermaids are equally related to manatees, perhaps the least demonic creature found in any ocean. Or is it because they’re kind of sexy if you find tuna-fish tartare a turn-on? Perhaps Francisco was thinking of Save the Mermaids, the group of eco-minded activists in miniskirts who successfully lobbied City Hall to enact a plastic-bag ban despite Dale’s all-encompassing skepticism over anything he can ​— ​and often does ​— ​belittle as “well-intentioned.” In that case, the mermaids, thankfully, prevailed. But then, they had the good sense to leave St. Barbara out of it.

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