Cars as Art

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“LB1” by Freddy Leal

An art car is a motor-driven vehicle which a car artist alters in such a way as to suit his own aesthetic. In other words, the artist either adds or subtracts materials of his own choosing to or from the factory model or he may renovate an earlier model to revive a beauty and style that once was. The result is a vehicle which conveys new meaning through design, mechanical or structural changes, renovation, and/or the addition of new images, symbols or collage elements.

–from The Art Car Manifesto by James Harithas

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“Anglerfish” by Harold Banks

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Mercedes Benz art car by Ryan Groendyk

It seems to be human nature to want to personalize or individualize our belongings to mark them as ours and utilize them in defining us as a person.  It is no surprise, therefore, that this tendency extends to our vehicles.  

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“Further” by the Merry Pranksters

Depending on where we live and how often we drive, many of us are satisfied to find a car that suits our everyday needs.  Others, who see the car as an extension of themselves, feel the need to personalize the interior and exterior to create a means of transport that reflects their individuality, or even functions as a form of art.  Art cars are not a new idea and there are versions of artistically conceived vehicles found all over the world.  Many countries such as Pakistan, the Philippines, and Haiti use brightly painted and intricately decorated buses as forms of public transportation, while other locations such as Columbia are known for their colorful oxcarts.  Some people in Japan have created extensively decorated and modified trucks, known as Dekotora or Art Trucks, which have spawned movies and video games.   

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“Fruitmobile” by Jackie Harris

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While the majority of Art Cars seem to be found in America, they are not limited to one location or incarnation.  Although today there are museums and parades honoring these unusual creations, the art car is merely one type of vehicle in the evolution of vehicle modification and presentation which has existed in some form or another since cars were first invented.  

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BMW painted by Jeff Koons

Some of the earliest “art cars” were hot rods.  The term hot rod first became popular in the 1930s and 40s and usually refers to old, classic American cars which have been modified to obtain greater speed for street races.   The goal in car personalization during this time was to create a lighter version of the car with a bigger engine.  As time passed, and car companies began to manufacture “muscle cars” which could outperform hot rods without any engine modifications, hot rod owners began to focus on the car’s exterior appearance.  Today, hot rods are typically older model cars which have been rebuilt and extensively refurbished either using original parts or new ones to give the car an idealized appearance.

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1932 Ford

Another category of art cars which evolved from hot rods are custom cars.  Custom cars are distinct from hot rods in that they can be altered to improve performance or to create a different physical appearance.  In addition, it is not only pre-WWII model cars which are customized, as modified vehicle models from the 1950s fall into this category as well.  

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1949 Ford George Barris Street Rod

An offshoot of custom cars is the low-rider.  First conceived around the time of WWII, the exact origin of the low-rider is uncertain.  Utilizing cars of the same time period, a low-rider is defined as a vehicle which has been modified to ride lower to the ground than its original design specifications dictated.  Early low riders were created by filling the trunk of the automobile with sandbags as the excess weight caused the car to sit lower than it should.   Soon, car owners realized that they could achieve the same effect through alterations made to the car’s hydraulics system.  

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1959 Ford Thunderbird

While early low riders were observed in both Mexico and southern California, they first gained popularity within the Chicano community in America and their purpose was to add an emphasis to the slow cruising that was a popular pastime for young people in post-WWII America.  

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1959 Chevrolet Impala Convertible Low-rider

An integral part of the low-rider creation is the customization of the car’s exterior and interior appearance.  Elaborate paint jobs, custom interiors and extensive accessories define the low-rider appearance, and early low riders provided a means of expression for the Latino culture.   As James Harithas says, “low-riders communicate the cultural vitality of the barrio and at the same time, express personal ingenuity and artistry.”  Today, in addition to their symbolic value in the Latino culture and community, low-riders are utilized as a standard characteristic of African-American rap culture and extensively modified low-rider vehicles are representative of a certain level of success within this subculture.  In addition, the modification of vehicles into low-riders is not limited to specific years and models of cars, as many car manufacturers now regularly offer low-profile designs of contemporary automobiles.

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Art Car featured in the Houston Art Car museum

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“Noggin del Fuego II” by Brian “Visker” Mahanay

All of these incarnations of vehicles can be described as art cars as they are all interconnected and depict artistic methods of automobile personalization.  However, while hot rods, custom cars and low-riders may form the ancestry of modern art cars, many art cars of today take their inspiration from numerous sources.    As Donna Tennant says in her essay, “Art Car: Icon of Our Time,” “The art car is the quirkiest, most creative, and most difficult to categorize of all types of cars. Art cars borrow from fine art, folk art, outsider art, street art, advertising, the automobile industry, current trends, religion, science, politics, literature, sex, architecture, design, photography, the landscape, and nearly anything else you can think of.”    These varied influences also mean that art cars are one of the most interesting and innovative forms of artistic personal expression that can be viewed today. 

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Wrought Iron Volkswagen Beetle

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”Have a Ball!” by Bill Ludlam

While art cars are a very public means of self expression, they are also a source of easily accessible public art.  Some cars are created to make statements on social issues or to depict personal experiences and perspectives.  Others simply exist to draw attention and notice.  Art cars come in a variety of forms and most of them are created around a theme.  They include cars that have been painted, had objects affixed to them, or have been modified through the addition of sculptural creations or the removal of parts of the car itself.   Some art cars even have an interactive component which invites participation in the art, while others are created to convey a message to viewers of these moving art forms.

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Pico de Gallo” by Harrod Blank

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“Red Stiletto” by David Crow

Many creators of art cars are not artists, and thus many believe that art cars have their roots in folk art or naïve art which is characterized by its lack of technical skill in the depiction of traditional and cultural scenes of life.  The current creation of art cars may also be an extension of assemblage art which is an outgrowth of Cubism and Dadaism and involves the transformation of found objects and trash into art.   This theory is also easily supported by the number of art cars created in this manner.  In this vein, art cars can be viewed as making a statement on our unrestrained consumerism and focus on materialism.  At the other end of the spectrum, car artists could be attempting to glorify the mundane and inject meaning into everyday objects that are typically thrown away.  

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Big Banana car by Steve Braithwaite

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1984 Camero art car

Regardless of their reason for creation or the materials used, most art car artists take a light-hearted approach to the potential meaning and symbolism behind their creations.  As drivers of these vehicles, they become part of the art and many embrace this role through the wearing of costumes and interactions with curious bystanders.  By taking their art on the streets and to the viewers; they are making an active statement with their demand that this art be viewed and considered.  

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“Camera Van” by Harrod Blank

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“Book Tank” by Raul Lemesoff

Art cars represent an intriguing point in the evolution of the relationship between owners and their cars.  In bygone days, a car represented freedom and people loved their cars as they were viewed as an extension of oneself.  Today, owning a car is considered more of a necessity than an asset and people’s relationships with their cars have diminished in meaning.  In our age of consumerism and conformist behavior, creating an art car is a way to recapture that feeling of freedom. Art car creators are taking a stand against uniformity and mass production and declaring themselves to be individuals amongst the masses.  This is an inspiring reason for the creation of art, and as such, it is a movement that is sure to evolve and continue. 

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Art Bug painted by Ghulam Sarwar

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“Mondrian Mobile” by Emily Duffy

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Volkswagen Beetle covered in glass beads in Huichol style

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Mad Cad” by Larry Fuente

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