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Using his own jazzed-up jalopy as a sort of mobile bulletin board, Blank eventually received tips on more than four dozen other artmobiles scattered about the country. If there's any commonality to the creators of these rolling canvases (outside of the obvious, deep-seated need to turn their cars into the automotive equivalent of most people's refrigerator doors), it's the firm belief that there's a lot more to auto artistry than suction-cupping a Garfield doll to the window of the family sedan or plastering a "MY KID CAN BEAT UP YOUR HONOR STUDENT" sticker on the back bumper. Blank recently documented 42 of these incredible cars and drivers in a companion coffee-table book that bears the same name as his movie. Blank spotlights a cross section of humanity that might have been plucked out of a DMV line in some alternative dimension. He chats with the unassuming New Orleans housewife who, had she not chosen to meticulously glue thousands of Mardi Gras beads to a '74 Gremlin, might well have been the biggest overachiever in her local crafts class. In Houston, he hooks up with a topless dancer who festooned her '79 Ford station wagon with plastic fruit to protest the lowly role of women in the arts community. In California, a recovering alcoholic reveals that every time he feels like having a drink, he simply affixes another horse figurine to the stable of 1,400 that already adorns his "Coltmobile." And in Amarillo, a widower whose wife was killed in a grisly traffic accident (the vehicle she was driving was pulled under an 18-wheeler) explains how he keeps her memory alive by driving around in a 1960 Corvair appliqu‚d with his late spouse's jewelry.
Although there appear to be few common threads running through these tales, Blank sees art cars as personalities on wheels. "If someone is expressing something that they like--even if it means they're putting trolls all over their cars--that says something about themselves," he says. "It says, 'I like trolls.' And I think that's healthy myself. The more that people begin to reveal and share, the better--you can find people you want to get to know faster."
If this sounds like your speed, Blank suggests that you head for Houston, a city whose annual Roadside Attractions parade actually encourages this sort of automotive outrageousness. Outside Texas, however, you're pretty much on a journey without a map; Blank discovered that there's little geographic clustering of these custom-car commandos. "Considering what a big car culture it has, Los Angeles has surprisingly few of these cars," notes the 32-year-old Blank, son of famed documentary filmmaker Les Blank. "Oddly, there's nothing in Detroit, either. Seattle has a few, and so does Portland, Oregon. As far as I know, Phoenix doesn't have many art cars, either." But awareness and appreciation of this little-documented art form is slowly coming up to speed. Thanks to Wild Wheels' recent debut on home video, as well as a current Honda commercial featuring several vehicles celebrated in the film (including the grass-covered car and another with a model of the Seattle skyline on its roof), new tips are already filtering in.
In fact, Harrod Blank has received so many leads, he's already prepping for a Wild Wheels sequel by completing a second art-car himself. Aptly titled "Camera Van," the vehicle is covered with more than 1,700 cameras donated by a couple of thrift stores--including 36 working slide viewers and 52 cameras that flash or light up. Straying into Allen Funt's territory, Blank has hooked up ten cameras to a control panel on the dashboard, allowing him to take candid snapshots of unsuspecting bystanders looking at the van.
"For years, with my bug, I'd see all these beautiful reactions," says Blank. "People's mouths dropping open, smiling or just totally baffled looks. I'd always wanted to capture that on film, but the minute they'd see the camera, the reaction would immediately change. Now, with my Camera Van, I can catch them in the act."
If Phoenix's low-key Gary Metzler and his minifleet of Hieronymous Boschmobiles represent the purist end of the art-car spectrum, you'll find the creator of Tucson's "Penny Van" revved up and rarin' to go at the other end. Did someone say "photo op"?
"See, I'm the kind of guy who likes to get things done yesterday," says 44-year-old Steve Baker, a former male stripper who now ekes out a living as the Old Pueblo's self-styled "Penny Man." "I'm ready for the big time!"
The hyperbolic Baker's proposed vehicle for success? The 1969 van he's encrusted with 90,526 pennies. And not just any pennies, either. All of the coins affixed to the van predate 1982, the year the U.S. stopped issuing all-copper pennies. But that's getting ahead of a story that starts several years and many pounds of loose change ago.
Bothered by arthritis in his left shoulder, Baker decided to go the folk-remedy route, and fashioned a wristband out of copper pennies. No longer plagued by the painful joint condition, Baker claims his novel jewelry turned out to be just what the doctor ordered--and more. "Everyone went crazy over that bracelet!" he remembers. "Suddenly, I was meeting more people than I knew what to do with. I thought, 'Wow, I'll make a body bracelet--a penny shirt!' After that, I did penny earrings, G-strings, a dime bikini--all sorts of stuff." Eventually realizing that he'd pretty much exhausted the sartorial potential of pocket change (but not before his 32-pound, all-penny jumpsuit was immortalized in the 1990 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records), Baker drastically upped the ante. Eighteen months later, he finished gluing more than $900 worth of pennies to a Ford Econoline Super Van, a ubiquitous vehicle that can generally be found in the parking lots at large public events or tourist attractions in the greater Tucson area. A fitness enthusiast, he's even driven the van to various marathons around the country, where he always runs wearing a penny vest.