Art Cars

Oh my God! by Harrod Blank

From the Art Cars series — one man’s obsession with America's mobile masterpieces

Photographs by Harrod Blank

ARIZONA — In 1977 I was a freshman at Santa Cruz High School, a place where the kind of car you had, if you even had a car, was a big deal. I really wanted a Mustang but all I could afford was a $600 white 1965 VW Beetle. Embarrassed to drive it, I painted a rooster on the passenger’s door — I was raising exotic poultry at the time. My popularity rose quickly after that, so I was encouraged to keep decorating. I covered the entire car in objects until it became known as “Oh My God!” — the number one response from people who see it. 

What I like most about riding an art car is seeing people totally blown away. They can’t believe what’s before their eyes. For years I tried to take pictures of their reactions, but as soon as they saw a camera, they would act differently. Then I had a dream about a car covered in cameras, and the next day I woke up and thought, “I’m going to do a camera van”. It took me two years to figure out how to make it. It has more than 2,500 cameras on it, ten of them functioning film cameras, and it really works — it takes pictures! It’s like I’m on a spaceship and everywhere I go people are staring at me. I have the time of my life driving around taking pictures of people’s expressions as they see it. 

I’ve spent my life documenting art-car culture. I’ve made a calendar, two books and two documentary feature films on the subject. In 2005, having three art cars of my own as well as a few collected from friends, I was having trouble finding parking. I opened up a museum in Douglas, Arizona, called Art Car World. We now have 21 cars on show. It’s still under construction, but when the building is finished there will be a replica of “Oh My God!” on the top with a beacon of green light and a hot tub inside.

When I was photographing art cars, I always focused on individuality. It wasn’t just the art car that was of interest; really it was the person who created it. The product is this mobile, 

Circuit Board Truck by Doc Atomic

From the Art Cars series — one man’s obsession with America's mobile masterpieces

Photographs by Harrod Blank

NEW MEXICO — When you drive an art car every day for 30-plus years you kind of forget that it’s different; it’s just your goddamn car. So when you go to buy a quart of milk one morning, feeling a bit hungover, and you come out of the store to find a very happy, emotionally-elevated crowd around your vehicle — it’s a pain in the ass, but you make their day and damn if it doesn’t make yours too. 

I view art cars as an artistic protest against the materialistic, consumer-oriented society we live in. Quite simply, the automobile is a consumer product that rapidly loses value from the moment it is purchased. You, as an individual, never lose value. 

The joy that it brings to people who cannot themselves “art car”, for whatever reason, is quite simply amazing. Most folks really seem to need an excuse to lighten up. I guess my car and I have become that excuse. My car means something to me, but it sure means something to a lot of other people and I never expected that. My car and I have a wonderful ability to bring a smile in the most unexpected circumstances. My car doesn’t do it; I don’t do it. But somehow together we pull that off.

In the early Nineties I had a truck called Home on the Strange that was painted the exact same colour and material as my house, stuccoed and tiled inside and out, with a living cactus garden in the bed of the truck. I was driving back from the art car parade in Houston, crossing back into New Mexico, when I found myself being trailed by a police car. Although I was driving home totally sober, I had a cooler full of beer and whisky next to me in the cab for my arrival home. 

When I was pulled over, it turned out the officer — who happened to be the sheriff — had stopped me for transporting indigenous plants across state lines without a licence! He ended up escorting me 75 miles to the next county — illegal plants, alcohol and all — to make sure there was no trouble.

Cork Truck by Jan Elftmann

From the Art Cars series — one man’s obsession with America's mobile masterpieces

Photographs by Harrod Blank

MINNESOTA — A friend in Houston, Texas, invited my husband and me to visit during the annual Art Car weekend. I was blown away and starstruck. As an artist I couldn’t believe I had never thought of the car as my canvas before. 

I decided I had to make an art car, but with what? My husband, Dave, reminded me about the bags and bags of corks I had in the attic that I’d saved from the restaurants I worked in while I was at art school. 

So the Cork Truck was born: a 1987 Mazda B2200 covered with 10,000 wine and champagne corks That would be a bottle a day for 27 years! That’s the top question people ask me. The second is: “Does it float?” 

The science side of me got interested in the story of cork. The material comes from the bark of the cork oak tree that only grows around the Mediterranean and lives to be 200-300 years old. Cork doesn’t absorb moisture, doesn’t burn, and its best quality is that when it is compressed it returns to its original shape. We are going to Portugal to see the cork trees for my 60th birthday.

I’ve driven the Cork Truck all over the country, but my favourite memory is pulling up to a stop light in Minneapolis as a large woman was crossing the street. She stretched out her arms and gave Corky a huge hug and yelled: “I love this car!” Then she blew me a kiss and carried on down the road.

Fortune-Telling Lion by Gretchen Baer

From the Art Cars series — one man’s obsession with America's mobile masterpieces

Photographs by Harrod Blank

ARIZONA — I spent two wild years of my life before the mast of a home-built dragon-shaped art raft that I built with my ex-husband. We lived year-round off-anchor, without mooring or docking, between Provincetown and New York City. Our adventure ranged from magical to Moby Dick-scary. We had no phone or way to contact people, and our dinghy motor was 10hp and temperamental. When the raft, and the marriage, ended up on the rocks, I returned to dry land. 

I created the Great Fortune-Telling Lion car as a totem of my personal strength after the break-up. Having returned to Martha’s Vineyard after two years at sea with what turned out to be a rafting cult — who knew that even existed! — making this almost life-size lion brought back my strength. I painted the car with images I considered lucky and glued the lion on the roof. I made the eyes light up so it could see my future, my good fortune — which, by the way, has so far turned out to be fantastic! 

Other than a trip across country, the Great Fortune-Telling Lion was a daily driving car, but it brought me to a new home and new beginnings. I drove it back to Bisbee, Arizona, where I have called home ever since. 

Leopard Bernstein by Kelly Lyles

From the Art Cars series — one man's obsession with America's mobile masterpieces

Photographs by Harrod Blank

WASHINGTON — I started with a 1979 Ford Pinto that was frequently the butt of jokes because of an unfortunate exploding gas tank issue. I had to do something to negate the embarrassment of driving one, so I had it commercially painted like a spotted pony (it never occurred to me to paint it myself, even though I was in art school). The dealership assumed I was kidding, wanting a $1,200 paint job on a $500 car, but they gave me a half-price discount. When I picked it up they had marked WHOA on the brake, GIDDY-UP on the gas pedal, and the gears were labelled STABLE for park, TROT for first and GALLOP for second. I drove it for ten years. In the interim someone gifted me Harrod Blank’s art-car book and the rest is history. I attended my first art car show in Portland in the early Nineties and found my tribe.

Next came the “Zoobaru”, a Subaru station wagon that my former boyfriend and I painted like a snow leopard and named Leopard Bernstein. I began adding 3D critters inside and out — plastic lions, tigers, cheetahs and leopards — until there were about 700 of them. Ears were welded on and a friend gave me a fabric tail — cartists (art car artists) bring each other care packages of whatever it is we collect.

You can’t be in a bad mood — or rather, stay in a bad mood — driving an art car. When a housemate borrowed my car, she mused: “I always forget about allowing that extra 20 minutes to answer questions.”

Plaidmobile by Tim McNally

From the Art Cars series — one man's obsession with America's mobile masterpieces

Photographs by Harrod Blank

NEW YORK — I wanted to see if I painted my car plaid — it needed a lick of paint anyway — if I could get it registered under that colour. It was really just a joke. It took three years of sending paperwork to the Department of Motor Vehicles, but eventually the change was made from “red” to “plaid” on my registration. 

I’m 55 and work as a property caretaker and volunteer at a local animal shelter. I started on the Plaidmobile in 1995 and drove it for ten years. It’s been all over the US and to Canada at festivals, parades and shows. 

Now I have a new art car called the Cosmic Shark. It’s the anti-plaid car with a free-flowing, non-rigid design. When people ask me what it’s about, I say it’s about having fun. 

Yarn Car by Tim Klein

From the Art Cars series — one man's obsession with America's mobile masterpieces

Photographs by Harrod Blank

OREGON — I’ve always been a left-brained computer guy rather than an artist — I’m a mild-mannered software engineer — but my girlfriend painted with acrylics and she explained that acrylic paint is simply coloured liquid plastic. The next day, while taking a shortcut through the fabric section of a store, I happened to notice the words “100% acrylic” on the label of a skein of yarn. Something clicked in my brain and it occurred to me that yarn could be used as fuzzy paint. That night I dreamed I was driving a fuzzy car. The seed had been planted! 

Within a week, I had bought the biggest, flattest car I could find: a neglected 1967 Chrysler Imperial. I spent several months covering its surface with five miles of acrylic yarn, one strand at a time, in meticulous linear patterns. That was 14 years ago. I’ve had to strip and replace the worn-out coat three times.

I own two cars: the Yarn Car, and a plain black auto that’s so boring I call it the “Yawn Car”. On any given day, I decide whether to drive the Yarn Car or the Yawn Car, depending on whether I’m feeling outgoing enough to talk to inquisitive strangers. 

I wasn’t prepared for the effect the Yarn Car would have on the public. I drive it as a regular car, on road trips or to go to the grocery store, and it’s as if I’m in a parade every day. People are so taken aback at the sight of a yarn-covered car that they forget all shyness and instantly start talking to a stranger about it.

I’ve spoken with thousands of smiling, happy people who I never otherwise would have met. Over the years, the Yarn Car has been seen by millions of people in person at parades and shows and at random on the street, and by tens of millions in the press. I figure if just one out of every ten people who encounter the car gets a kick out of it, then my humble fuzzy creation must have brought several million smiles into the world so far.

Booga Car by Daniel Winkert

From the Art Cars series — one man's obsession with America's mobile masterpieces

Photographs by Harrod Blank

Booga By Daniel Winkert photo by Harrod Blank.jpg

I live in New Orleans, where I’m an architect with a wife and two kids. My art car Booga was a rethinking of Mardi Gras in the city, and especially how we deal with the enormous amount of waste that is collected after it takes place. 

The car is covered in Mardi Gras beads, many of which I collected right out of the gutter during or after the parades. I also spent hours harassing tourists on the street to give me their necklaces. I loved working on the car with friends – it was a collaboration of about eight people working together.

Booga was my daily driver for several years, but unfortunately it flooded in Hurricane Katrina and is no more. I still have a painted VW bus, but it’s not anything as special as Booga was. 

I first got into art cars by going to Burning Man in '98 and got interested in participatory art making. To be honest it was more of the festival as a whole than the art cars at the festival that got me interested.

My car, Booga, is about a rethinking of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, especially how we deal with the tremendous amount of waste that is collected during mardi gras. This was a way to reuse some of the enormous amounts of stuff that gets thrown away during mardi gras. I collected a lot of beads for the car right out of the gutter during and after parades. I also got beads from people on the street, and purchased some (when I needed particular colors) from an organization that raises money for developmentally disabled adults by repackaging and selling used beads.

Unfortunately, my car is no more, as it flooded in Hurricane Katrina. I drove it to Houston for the Art Car parade a couple of years in a row, as well as a couple of mardi gras parades. It was my daily driver for several years.

I am an architect in New Orleans, I now have a wife and two kids. I still have a painted VW bus, but its not anything as special as Booga was.

My favorite memories? Probably the art car parades in Houston, spending hours on the street harassing tourists to give me there beads for the car, and working on the car with friends (It was a collaboration of about 8 people working together).