Pump Boat Typography

by Kiko Matsing

Batangas, 2002

I recently made a visit to Estancia, Iloilo–my mother’s hometown. I had not been there in almost 10 years. It is a thriving village on the northeastern tip of Panay Island, facing the rich fishing grounds of the Visayan Sea. A little tin sign would greet you as you pull in: “Welcome to the Alaska of the Philippines.”

The shore used to be just behind my grandparent’s house. The town has since reclaimed the area, and filled it with earth. Now a bustling port operates there, built with Japanese aid money. Market stalls had moved in, and with them, the constant drone of tricycles and the late night racket of karaoke bars.

But I don’t miss having a backyard sea shore. Over the years it had become foul from relentless dumping of municipal waste. And with the same recklessness, the townsfolk exploited the sea, which has sadly become a boneyard of corals.

Port of Estancia

Sea food packed in ice, ready to ship to Manila

On this visit, one thing particularly interested me: the typographic styles with which they named pump boats, those motorized sea vessels used for fishing and conveyance. The basic form of these boats come standard, essentially a canoe with double bamboo outriggers. Enormous flamboyant character is thus invested in the typography of their names, not unlike decals on a Manila jeepney or a Daytona race car.

Pump boats with double bamboo outriggers

Here we see hot rod motifs like blazing orange flames. (This was actually from a separate trip to Busuanga Island, Palawan.) I like how the “A” on the right is turned into a comet.

It is also common to add place names to herald the boat’s home harbor. On the left, we also see shark-fin designs cleverly painted just above the water. I don’t know if the choice of those muted shades of black, green, and yellow were intentional or that the paint pigments had bleached from sun and salt water, but the artist shows a keen eye for subtle color combinations.

This boat displays the official logo of an exclusive resort built by a Marcos crony in the 1970s. It has since been abandoned and left in disarray like a gold rush ghost town. It’s interesting that the design appropriates the style of ocean waves in Japanese prints.

Another typical design makes use of sea-creature iconography, of which these two are gorgeous examples. The swordfish on the left is stylized like those in Greek back-figure pottery, while the right deftly portrays a cuttle-fish, another commonly recurring figure in that likewise seafaring culture from antiquity. I don’t know how much these folk artists are steeped in classical art, but it is interesting how the same motifs and gestures animate the imagination.

Finally, the typography itself recalls those of its more famous cousin, the Manila jeepney, that derives accordingly from the typographic style of Old West circus and rodeo playbills.

Jeepney Circus Playbill
Left: Old West-styled jeepney with Gothic Tuscan typeface popular in America during the mid-19th century; right: vintage circus playbill showing Clarendon (“Camp Road, Leeds”), Italienne (“The Royal Circus Company”), and Tuscan (“Trained Herd of Elephants”) typefaces. (cf. American Type Design and Designers by David Consuegra)

The jeepney is of course the iconic cultural product of the American occupation of the Philippines, when surplus jeeps from WWII were divested by the locals of their military fatigues and dressed up in flashy tranny sequins. What better way to advertise the goods than with Can-Can flair.

Vintage Jeepney Moulin Rouge
Left: Vintage jeepney from Ajuy, Iloilo with Gothic Tuscan typeface;
right: Can-Can poster from Paris with the same typeface

Old West Typefaces

Pump boats, however, have not crossed over fully into camp territory. Whereas the jeepney has been used effectively as part of the campy mise en scène in that proto-indie film Perfumed Nightmare (Mabangong Bangungot) by Kidlat Tahimik.

While their typography are not as ornate as the ornamental types in playbills, they retain the fat, block-like serifs of the slab-serif family (Wikipedia), and other design flourishes such as shadowing and the two-color scheme, where the top-half is differently colored from the bottom half, which gives an effect of three-dimensionality (i.e., as if embossed, bevelled).

These features are retained even as the typography moves away from Old West styles to more urban graffiti.

We must also remember that these pump boat names are hand-painted mimics of letters that were originally typeset and printed mechanically. Thus, the unevenness of lines and proportions, the mixing-in of cursive scripts with block types, gives them a certain leniency–the charming imprecision of the hand-made look. This same easygoing temperament that accommodates a syncretism of styles seems to permeate most Filipino folk traditions.


Overturned Pump Boat
“Reborn,” after typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan)

Since my visit, the most powerful typhoon in living memory hit the Philippines, and Estancia was one of the worst hit towns. My parents and brother were there during the height of the typhoon and fortunately survived. Our house there also remained intact, with minor damage. But most of Estancia was destroyed, including most of the fishing boats from which the local population derive their livelihood.

Our family is organizing relief efforts in order to help restore this source of livelihood, and are raising funds to help build fishing boats for the local fisherfolk. If you are so inclined to help, please contact me at flimpted@gmail.com or visit Bangon Estancia at Facebook.


My cousin on the ground posted pictures of the boat-building and the beneficiaries who received the first batch of boats. I have re-posted the pictures here.