Cars For Art's Sake
Postmodern canvases on wheels

Careful of the bowling pin on the right fender!" A girl is talking to the driver of a car called "The Duke." She's at ArtCar Fest '99, held last weekend in Berkeley, California. Sitting on the car's hood, the girl's shouting directions and stuffing a sandwich into her face. It seems that while some people like to hang fuzzy dice from their rearview mirror, others would rather just drive the fuzzy dice.

See also...
... by Karen Solomon
... in the Scope section
... from September 29, 1999

The Duke, which is plastered inside and out with art, crap, toys, flags, and cultural debris, is maneuvering around other Godzilla-sized vehicles so that an unfortunate unfestooned luxury sedan can exit the Shattuck Avenue public lot. "That's the last normal car we'll rescue," event organizer Philo Northrup says in disgust.

Art cars are not built for maneuverability, speed, or efficient gas mileage. They're built for, well, art. "The art car vibe is very honest," Northrup tells me. "It's art for art's sake."

Two large Berkeley parking lots are swarming with these graphic, sculptural, folk art masterpieces on wheels. Shapes range from the recognizable (if larger than life) toucans and caterpillars to visual monstrosities of the let's-glue-on-every-toy-from-the-thrift-store variety. There are blinking lights, spinning pinwheels, cars with liveable lofts on the roof, even a convertible converted to a mobile karaoke platform. If it can be lifted tire-high, you'll probably find it in the folds somewhere near the left taillight.

The art cars have shifted into park for the evening, but they're still hot under the hood (and feathers and spray paint) from a lengthy procession across the three bridges that connect the East Bay, San Francisco, and Marin. The third annual parade of 30 or so eye-catching motorized canvases was greeted all along the way by honks and waves. It went off without a hitch save for one vehicle's engine trouble and some tickets issued by police to members of the Cyberbuss community for riding on top of their bus.

Everywhere they went, the art cars brought joy. In the words of participant Playa Kitten, "We were driving through the Haight and made the cops smile, and we drove through poor neighborhoods and it made all these kids go nuts. They were so happy to see us."

It's true. Kids love art cars. They've been used as classroom projects in Houston, and Bay Area art car owners make frequent trips to children's hospitals and schools. During this festival, art cars visit three schools in El Cerrito.

Here, amid all the art weirdos and modern primitives, young moms and dads circulate with their children. It's easy to tell who's having the most fun. The art cars are very tactile -- the kids are excited to touch the indestructible fake fur, plastic jewels, musical instruments, and toys that cover the vehicles. Three-year-old Zoe Reik from Berkeley is enjoying the Bubble Man mobile as her father, Barry, beams. "I'm a serious classic car buff," Barry says, "and this is as far away from that as you can get. Real classic car collectors are too anal. This is more fun, and the people are a trip."

Karen Solomon is a freelance writer who absolutely refuses to get out of her pajamas in San Francisco. Isn't technology wonderful?