Art Car

Department of Mutant Vehicles

An art car is a vehicle that has had its appearance modified as an act of personal artistic expression. Art cars are often driven and owned by their creators, who are sometimes referred to as ‘Cartists.’

Most car artists are ordinary people with no artistic training. Artists are largely self-taught and self funded, though some mainstream trained artists have also worked in the art car medium. Artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and others have designed BMW Art Cars, a project introduced by French racecar driver and auctioneer Hervé Poulain In 1975, and their work has been reflected in racing cars like the BMW V12 LMR.

There is some disagreement as to what precisely led to the growth of the art car subculture. It can be seen as a twining together of several influences – the hippie-themed VWs of the late 1960s, the lowrider, as well as a Merry Pranksters’ creation, the decorated school bus known as Further.

During the late 1960s, singer Janis Joplin had a psychedelically-painted Porsche 356 and John Lennon, a paisley Rolls Royce. Partly in imitation, the late 1960s/early 1970s counterculture featured many painted VW Buses (sometimes with a peace symbol in place of the giant VW logo) and customized vehicles (e.g. a customized 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood seen in the film ‘Escape from New York’). Likewise, as a way of evading The Muppet Movie’s main antagonist Doc Hopper, Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem paint up the borrowed 1951 ‘bullet-nose’ Studebaker Commander two-door owned by Fozzie Bear’s uncle in a psychedelic manner, for Fozzie and Kermit.

Artist Larry Fuente was among the first to take motorized appliqué to the limit with his ‘Mad Cad.’ Later, artists Jackie Harris and David Best contributed their works to the art car world. An art car community began to cohere in the 1990s, and the development of innovative art display venues such as Burning Man. One of the main forces behind this is filmmaker and art car artist Harrod Blank, who created the art car documentaries ‘Wild Wheels’ (1992), ‘Driving The Dream’ (1998), and ‘Automorphosis’ (2009). Blank also co-founded with Philo Northrup the U.S.’s second largest art car festival in the San Francisco Bay Area: ArtCar Fest.

In Houston, Texas, a New Year’s Eve event in 2010 called Gloworama had over 100 Illuminated entrants.

A well known early art car used for commercial advertisement was the Oscar Mayer Wienie Wagon—Later versions were known as the Wienermobile. These are bus-sized vehicles styled to appear as a hot dog on a bun. Commercial use of the art car has become popular in the 20th and continues into the 21st century. At the same time visionary applications, including cars transformed into religious shrines, continues to place visionary self-taught artists, student artists and corporate artists side by side on the road and at art car events.

Later themes have become more widely focused and more satirical or dark. One of the funniest and most inventive entries in recent memory titled ‘Student Driver’ featured a telephone pole laminated through one corner of the cabin; a leg with roller skate still attached projecting from one wheel well; and sundry jokey dents and marks of mayhem all over the vehicle.

Artistic style must be carefully dove tailed with the constraints of the law. However, the car artist who takes the time to read the rules is generally surprised at how free expression can be (in the United States at least). Although pulled over by police at times the car artist who is fluent in the law will find that the police are glad to be educated as they themselves often do not realize what is possible under the many law codes on the books.

Art cars have been featured at Burning Man since its inception but in recent years the festival has been forced to limit the number of vehicles on the playa. As such they have restricted the vehicles that are licensed to what they are now calling ‘mutant vehicles.’ There has been some confusion within the Burning Man and Art Car communities over these two terms, with some believing they are simply synonyms. According to art car artist and Art Car Fest organizer Philo Northrup, art cars are ‘street-legal vehicles that have been permanently transformed into mobile sculptures.’ According to the Burning Man DMV (‘Department of Mutant Vehicles’), Mutant Vehicles are ”art on wheels’: radically, stunningly, (usually) permanently, and safely modified motorized vehicles.’

Wasteland Weekend (which started out as a ‘Mad Max’ fan gathering but evolved into a more generally post-apocalyptic annual event, and features mutant vehicles based on those depicted in the ‘Mad Max’ sequels) might be considered by some to be a competitor to Burning Man (despite crossover among event attendees), in that rejected mutant vehicles which do not make the final cut with the DMV are usually the staple at Wasteland Weekend. Conversely, the more whimsical art cars that appear at home at Burning Man are frowned upon at Wasteland Weekend, where adherence to a more functional post-apocalyptic aesthetic is preferred.

While there is no clear line between where a car is called a custom car and an art car, in general art car has fewer stylistic guidelines and tends more towards folk art, whereas a custom car usually strives to stretch the rules of standard automotive design without breaking them. Lowriders and custom cars are often works of art in their own right and some art car parades and gatherings have allowed them as entrants over the years. Lowriders often sport elaborate paint jobs that clearly qualify as art, thus bridging the gap between the two cultures.


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