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Boston's Famed Rainbow Tank Inspires Admiration, Scorn

Listen Listen to Phillip Martin's report on the faces some people see in the giant painting on Boston's waterfront.

Rainbow Tank in Boston

The Rainbow Tank on Boston's industrial waterfront.
Photo: KeySpan Energy Delivery

Nov. 3, 2001 -- In the industrial zone along Boston’s waterfront, one massive liquefied natural gas tank stands out like no other. The Rainbow Tank, as it’s called, is wrapped with five huge swaths of color: orange, vermilion, yellow, blue and purple.

In 1971, as war raged in Vietnam, former nun and graphic artist Corita Kent began painting the tank. The Rainbow Tank, she said, was an expression of peace.

Kent, who died in 1986, is best known as the designer of the Love postage stamp. Created in the 1960s, the stamp with four colorful block letters was a U.S. Postal Service favorite for decades.

NPR’s Philip Martin reports that around Boston, the Rainbow Tank has been the focus of both admiration and scorn. Some have found images ranging from America's enemies to cartoon characters hidden in the abstract form.

"I've heard Fred Flintstone, but I don't see Osama bin Laden, definitely not."

Christina Matthews a student at the nearby University of Massachusetts

Paul Vulimere, eating breakfast at a restaurant near the tank, is absolutely sure he sees the profile of the Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh etched in the blue stripe.

But artist Cecilia Rossi, visiting Boston from Cape Cod, says she just sees a face in the red stripe. “There's a mustache, nose, and eyes,” she says.

Mike Connors, spokesman for tank owner KeySpan Energy Delivery, says “I prefer to think of this series of stripes as sort of the Rorschach test of whatever the popular psyche is at the time."

Over the last 30 years, people have seen everybody from local gangster Whitey Bulger to Saddam Hussein, he said. “Recently, we're hearing in a joking kind of fashion that they're finding Osama bin Laden in the stripes. And he's certainly the devil incarnate of the times here in the United States.”

Christina Matthews, a student at the nearby University of Massachusetts, says over the years she's heard rumors about the profile in the Rainbow. “I've heard Fred Flintstone, but I don't see Osama bin Laden, definitely not."

Osama or no, since Sept. 11, police have beefed up security around the Rainbow Tank. It’s not so much because of what people think they see in the painting, but because of the threat of terrorism. Now guards protect the largest copyrighted art object in the world.

Other Resources

• The home page for KeySpan Energy, which now owns the tank once owned by Boston Gas, and the KeySpan Energy Foundation.

• Links to examples of work by artist Corita Kent on the Internet.

• Rainbow Tank myths on Hidden Boston.com.