FROM USA TODAY---Art Cars Find a Land on the
Posted 9/15/2003 7:00 PM, By Marco R. della Cava
BERKELEY, Calif To shock folks in this famously zany town "Berzerkley" is but one popular nickname you really have to put your heart and soul into it.
Consider this recent exchange: "Money for pot," one teen begs. "Grow
your own!" an older hippie shouts. The two then scream at each other
for the next five minutes while pedestrians saunter blissfully by. (Related item: Listen as six proud owners and creators describe their
So it is no small matter that when Harrod Blank cruises University Avenue, heads swivel with Exorcist speed.
Students, tourists and bankers alike suddenly look like cartoon characters,
eyeballs bulging, tongues wagging and necks craning to
get a gander at Blank's outrageous art car, an aging Volkswagen bug called "Pico de Gallo."
It boasts dozens of working musical instruments bolted to its sheet metal,
a rooftop performance platform and military-issue speaker
blaring mariachi music. At stoplights, people instinctively reach out and bang his drums or tinkle his fender-mounted electric keyboard.
This isn't your father's Volkswagen. This isn't anybody's Volkswagen but Blank's.
And that's just the point of art cars, which are enjoying
growing popularity thanks to festivals hosted by cities such as Baltimore, Minneapolis, Houston and, Sept. 25-28, San Francisco.
"Look around at the homogenized cars on the streets today. Heck, you won't
even see a bumper sticker on them," says Blank, 41, the de facto
art car king. He has produced art car books and documentaries (Wild Wheels) as well as festivals (the Bay Area's upcoming ArtCar Fest)
since turning his first VW bug into a reggae-pumping machine (dubbed "Oh My God!" from the reactions it got) in college.
"Cars today are status symbols," says Blank, son of independent filmmaker Les Blank. "Art cars are anti-status symbols."
And they are mainstream enough to have warranted their own exhibit last spring at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
When the cars pulled in, "they got more attention than a bunch of Ferraris
and Duesenbergs," curator Leslie Kendall says. "These are
populist cars in every sense. You don't have to be a connoisseur to appreciate them."
Or build them. Sarah Ovenall of Durham, N.C., spent less than $1,000 festooning
her 1991 Mazda 626 called "Underwater Mah Jongg"
with game tiles, beads and plastic fish.
"It's my only car, so it goes everywhere," says the graphic artist,
who exhibited her car at Baltimore's parade. "Some people like making
statements with their cars, but for me it's just about seeing people smile wherever I go."
About 100,000 are expected in Houston in May for the Orange Show Foundation parade, the granddaddy of art car events with 250 cars from around the USA.
"Most people who do this are self-taught," organizer Kim Stoilis says. "They're just everyday folks (making) cars into works of art."
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