At this year's Divali Nagar in Chaguanas, they were there–inflated air puppets, propelled by jets of air, dancing in front of the fireworks shops.
You can see them everywhere these days, popping up in gas stations and parties, at malls, festivals, and public events, the tall boys of advertising. In America, they've become ubiquitous since the 2000s.
Says radio producer Roman Mars: "Their wacky faces hover over us, and then fall down to meet us, and then rise up again. Their bodies flop. They flail. They are men. Men made of tubes. Tubes full of air."
They're joyous and wacky, or unbelievably tacky, depending on your tastes.
Mars noted in his radio podcast Episode 143: Inflatable men (posted December 2, 2014) that in the States, where inflatable men appear in virtually "every used car lot in America," several cities have actually now banned the tube guys as distracting visual clutter.
But Mars then went on to educate listeners about the fascinating origins of the tube guy. The original design concept, he said, was invented by our very own artist/masman Peter Minshall, at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
The air puppet design was subsequently patented by one of the collaborators in the design process, a Los Angeles-based Israeli artist named Doron Gazit, who, after the Olympic Games, got his patent approved in 2001 and started making money from it. It soon became a hugely successful medium for advertising.
Radio host Mars explained in his December 2 podcast:
"This became a point of tension between Gazit and Minshall; Minshall had been unaware of Gazit's intention to patent and monetise the inflatable figure.
"Gazit, for his part, says that he applied for a patent because he put a lot of research and development into making the 'fly guy' (as Gazit calls them), and he was already starting to see other people rip off his efforts."
The design idea may be 29 years old; but its migration from art to business has proved profitable: Gazit still licenses its use through his company Air Dimensional Designs. Among the companies using them is one which makes modern-day scarecrows called Air Rangers, extremely successful in scaring birds away from crops.
Peter Minshall recalled how the idea first came to him in a telephone interview with the T&T Guardian last week.
He said at the Atlanta Olympics, the design team members were experimenting with ideas for the opening ceremonies. Minshall thought one idea could be to use inflatable tubes abstractly, as a form of mobile screen, onto which images could be projected. But this experiment did not work.
The sight of all the vertical tubes, however, triggered other associations.
While sitting in the bleachers of the Atlanta Stadium, he began to sketch:
"I sketched two of the inflatable tubes and joined them at the waist, going into one tube which is the torso; divided them again at the top with the arms and a bit of a head...I saw two legs, two arms; I thought: My God, with a wind source, we could create a huge, incredible, undulating dancing figure."
He envisaged a stadium filled with these tall, swaying figures.
He made some working drawings and realised he needed technical help. So the design office contacted Doron Gazit to ask for assistance, as Gazit had experience in building some of his own experimental wind-tube creations.
"It was a humanoid picture motivated by breeze," said Minshall, who said the inflated men, which he called Tall Boys, were made according to his design idea.
The idea was then passed to Gazit to produce working prototypes. Minshall said he had no idea that Gazit had intentions to patent it.
It wasn't until he had returned to Trinidad, some six months later, that he got a call from a fellow designer to tell him Gazit was starting to manufacture the idea for profit.
"He should have called me up the moment he thought about doing that," said Minshall.
Today, Minshall is philosophical about what he sees as this almost 30-year-old "theft": life goes on, and he said he has long since focused his energies elsewhere.
Gazit's Fly Guys
Sam Dean has written his own creation story of the tube guy. In his Biography of An Inflatable Tube Guy–The Checkered Past and Lonely Future of Air Puppets, he gives an interesting account of the intense research done by Gazit.
While attending industrial design school in Jerusalem in the 1970s, Gazit had a side job selling balloon designs (animals, hats, etc) on the streets, wrote Dean.
When Gazit introduced balloons to the Bedouins, he saw their "whimsical, spirited" quality. Then later, while looking at the plastic-covered greenhouses on his father's farm, he got the idea of industrially producing inflatable tubes for large-format art. He developed 500-foot long floating air tubes, which he strung in trees, across desert landscapes, and into the waters of the Dead Sea, wrote Dean.
He later developed technology to inflate the tubes, and make them flame-retardant and UV-protected. He used thin versions for art works, to be inflated by wind in nature; and heavy-duty ones, inflated by blowers, for design events, wrote Dean. These tubes were all horizontal floaters.
The Olympic Committee knew of Gazit from past work he'd done at the 1984 Los Angeles games.
Gazit said, in the Roman Mars radio December 2 podcast, that the Minshall Tall Boys idea was a big engineering challenge for him, as he had to find a way to make them vertical, and he had to find the right motor to give the appropriate torque.
Eventually the Tall Boys came to life, looking much like present-day tube men, except for two things: the originals were bipedal; and they were enormous–30 to 60 feet high.
Gazit made the idea work, and he's done a lot of work with inflatables since those days.
Where they agree
Both Gazit and Minshall agree that the idea was Minshall's; and that Gazit turned the idea into reality. Where they disagree, the radio podcast says, is "whether it was cool for Gazit to get a patent on it without informing Minshall."
Regardless of this decades-old quarrel over intellectual property, Minshall still loves to see the children and grandchildren of his 1996 idea. He said to Roman Mars on the December 2 podcast: "Can you imagine how I feel when a friend is driving me...to our factory in Chaguaramas...and I see a sort of diminutive version of a Tall Boy dancing up a storm by a gas station...And I'm suddenly aware that they are dancing up...all over the planet. A part of me can't help but feel delight."
About the programme: Podcast–Episode 143: Inflatable Men: http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/inflatable-men/
About 99 per cent Invisible: The show is an innovative radio show-podcast about design and architecture, created by Roman Mars. It has a wide reach, with more than 30 million downloads, and claims to be one of the most popular podcasts in the world. It began as a collaborative project between San Francisco public radio station KALW and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.
The name is from a quote by Buckminster Fuller, who said, "Ninety-nine per cent of who you are is invisible and untouchable."
Each episode generally focuses on a single topic or specific example of design, often including interviews with architects, experts, or people who have been influenced by the design. As of 2014, 99% Invisible is in its fourth season. (Wikipedia)
Air Dimensional Designs Inc: www.airdd.com/