Rad Tollett: Art Car Fixation

I’m a Texan, by God.  And although there is plenty for us to be embarrassed about, we are rightfully proud of a few things.  Willie Nelson, for one. And chili. And guys in heels. And don’t forget art cars.

Yes, art cars.  They’re all over the place.  Houston has a museum, Amarillo has Cadillac Ranch and Austin has a parade that culminates in a party across the street from where I used to live.

I’ve always been fascinated by customization.  It seems all the rage these days thanks to the Internets. But for someone to so roundly reject the stories, images and symbols emblazoned onto their car only to personalize it with their own is a testament to the individualization of the Texas spirit. It’s branding…car instead of cow.

By 2004 I was ready to create my own but found it unnerving, confusing and almost sacrilegious to strip any car – in this case a Jeep – of it’s original meaning.  Just the thought of it seemed equal to raising my middle finger, only I didn’t know who or what it was directed towards.

Rather than dive in head first I dipped a toe and chose the most temporary of automotive mediums: the bumper sticker.  And to mess with anyone who sought out deeper meaning, I used stickers from every possible political viewpoint.  The final product look pretty badass, if I do say so myself, but I never felt compelled to turn the Jeep into something entirely new.  Jeeps don’t have good art car “lines”. They’re clunky. I needed a smooth and clean slate. That came in the form of a decade old, champaign gold, three-hubcapped Camry valued at $500. It needed love. It needed rebranding.

Conveniently, I had a gallon of exterior latex in the garage.  Semi-gloss. After a moment of hesitation, I flipped on the belt sander and got to work on the body panels.  Hours later, and with two coats I had my canvas but felt a strange sense of disloyalty to some greater than myself.  Maybe just ad guys get this sense…not sure.  I’m sure the Colombians and Indians who paint their buses would think I’m a nutter.  But this is America, damnit.  We treat our cars like Gollom treats his precious.

At this point I was in need of inspiration. Gluing junk to the hood was out…too much hassle. Then one night I noticed something ironic: the United Nations doesn’t have global brand standards. It’s almost as if their fleet-ordering process includes rounding up a few dozen white cars wherever they’re deployed, some hack finds a brush and some baby blue and…boom!  UN vehicles.

Unlike the Jeep, the cops noticed this one.  So did the papers.  It was only a matter of weeks before international news bureaus were calling me to ask why I did it.  I never gave a straight answer because there were so many to start with.  It’s my response to the “war” in Iraq.  It’s my postmodern non-place on wheels.  Blah blah blah…I realized it’s much easier to simply go with the story sold to you (e.g., Volvo stands for safety and Toyota for reliability) than to make your own stance.

But the whole experience did give me a laugh.  The United Nations went as far to inform my friend at the American-Statesman that, although they discovered it is legal to impersonate a UN official on American soil, my use of their logo was copyright infringement and I would receive a cease and desist order if they ever found me.

They didn’t, and eventually I grew tired of “UNcar” and migrated back to bumper sticker art.  Enter Mayamobile. It was a safe alternative to it’s politically-charged predecessor (and I could finally drive out of my liberal Austin oasis without fear of being shot by rednecks).

Landing in Richmond in 2007 meant it was time for a change.  This is NASCAR country, and I needed racing stripes.  I was also inspired by Dwight Schrute.  But I got lazy or, what’s more likely, the two toddlers in my home didn’t match up with late nights cutting into vinyl paper with X-ACTO knives.  I defaulted to a few stencils and pints of gaudy color.

More recently I’ve handed over the creative reigns to my daughters.  Their first request was, not surprisingly, a unicorn.  Perfect.

So there you have it. In line with the rest of my parenting – teaching them the value of Tabasco on eggs, stressing the importance of referencing one’s butt as a tuchus, using tickle torture as an effective form of discipline, etc. – I’m teaching my girls to take some ownership over the brands in their lives.  And I’m not alone.

It used to be our ability to customize was constrained by mass production. Most material possessions were built in one size to fit all.  But as technology becomes faster and cheaper, consumers will be able to customize what they buy to better express who they are.  It’s still largely foreign territory, but I’d like to think we’re entering a world where we define brands as much as they define us. No middle finger necessary.

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