In recent posts we have featured modified trucks and buses from three different countries. These vehicles are obsessively decorated and customized with shapes, colors, textures, patterns and images. In their new condition they are impressive mobile works of art that capture the spirit of their home culture. Our blog posts so far have focused on the decorated trucks of Pakistan, the dekotora trucks of Japan, and the matatu buses of Kenya.
This post will wrap up the series and expand the scope of vehicles a bit. Today we focus on the art car movement in the United States.
People around the world have had a love affair with automobiles since the very first cars rolled off the assembly line in the early twentieth century. To many car owners the automobile is seen as a companion – almost a member of the family. With this attitude it makes perfect sense to customize a standard car and give it a unique personality.
Early examples of car owners modifying their vehicles for purely aesthetic purposes can be seen in the low-rider cars that came out of the Mexican-American barrios of post World War Two Los Angeles. The dragsters and hot rods of the 1950s were customized even more with extensive body work and paint jobs. Those vehicles were followed by the boldly painted and decorated Volkswagen buses popular with Hippies in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Art cars push the limits even more than these examples. With art cars everything about the vehicle’s appearance is fair game for reinvention and modification. Eccentric sculptural forms replace the sleek lines of the car’s original design. Obsessive collage and inventive paint jobs replace smooth and perfect industrial finishes. Some art cars have organic living surfaces while others feature entire collections of items you would never expect.
No one knows exactly when the first art car appeared. Most of the early ones were created by individuals who worked on their cars in isolation and for purely personal reasons. Early versions of art cars appeared in the 1980s in both Texas and California. Art car artist and documentary filmmaker, Harrod Blank, produced two of his films about art cars in the 1990s.
When the Burning Man festival started in the early 1990s, art cars were featured right from the beginning. After the festival moved from San Francisco to the Nevada desert everything about it got more extreme – including the art cars. Eventually some of the cars morphed into outrageous, large scale sculptures that just happened to move about on wheels.
In response to the influence of Burning Man, today’s art car aficionados divide the wide range of these cars into two sub-categories: Art cars and mutant vehicles. Art cars are street legal automobiles that have had their appearance modified. Mutant vehicles are the mobile sculptures that move about on wheels or tracks.
Today art cars are accepted and prized by the mainstream public. Houston hosts the oldest continuing art car celebration and parade in the country (29 years old in 2016). Berkeley, California and Seattle, Washington both have popular yearly celebrations and parades. When Libby Schaff was sworn in as Mayor of Oakland, California she arrived at the ceremony in the now famous “Golden Mean Snail Car” designed and built for Burning Man by Kyrsten Mate and Jon Sarriugarte.