Art Cars: American Folk Art You Can't Hang on the Wall

Jose Benavides’ vision of the Madonna appeared at Mesa Arts Center last fall. For many people visiting MAC for the “Guitars & Handlebars” season opening exhibit, she was a revelation: a 17-foot-long motorized sculpture on wheels, draped in a shroud of 500 license plates from 50 U.S. states (plus Mexico and Canada), held together by 3,600 rivets, and topped with a sculpted Styrofoam head that was painted silver with an old, cracking patina. She can be viewed full-on only from atop a very high ladder.

In other words, this is a car — but it's also conceptual art. Benavides is one of many people around the Valley creating notable "art cars" — vehicles that are modified to reflect the owner's personality or a particular theme. Modifications vary as much as the artists, or "cartists," as they're sometimes called. Some take existing vehicles and add to them or chop them up. Others build vehicles practically from scratch, fabricating everything around a vehicle chassis. The one thing all art cars have in common is that when they're done right, they draw attention — as both pieces of American folk art and quirky expressions of individuality and freedom.

Art cars have been around for decades, but a national community started to build around them in 1990s, thanks largely to events like Burning Man in Nevada (which encouraged the creation and display of "mutant vehicles"), the Houston Art Car Parade at the annual Orange Show in Texas, and Art Car Fest in San Francisco. The latter was co-founded by documentary filmmaker and art car enthusiast Harrod Blank. His most recent art car documentary, Automorphosis (2008), featured several Arizona artists, including Benavides. In 2005, Blank moved from Berkeley, California, to Douglas, Arizona, and decided to open a museum called Art Car World. The museum houses 20 art cars and is open by appointment only, but Blank hopes to open the museum to the public sometime next year.

The Scottsdale International Auto Museum, which opened several months ago, recently hosted an exhibit of cars designed and built by England-born Phoenix resident Richard Fletcher, known for his elaborate, extreme designs. The "Fletch-O-Rama" exhibit includes Fletcher's 28-foot-long "Pirate Surfmobile," a massively altered Cadillac Hearse complete with a pirate skull hood ornament bigger than the tires, tons of faux gold chrome pipes, and two tattered Jolly Roger flags mounted on top.

It's people like Benavides, Blank, and Fletcher who've helped make Arizona a notable place for art car culture. But it's not just the cars that fascinate onlookers; their creators are compelling, too. For Blank, art cars are a literal show on the road, especially when their makers drive them everywhere.

"The daily driver car takes it to a new level, because the driver becomes the performer," Blank says. "It ties the person to the vehicle. When you go to the store, you come out, and there's tons of people standing around, and they have questions, and you're part of the show. People want to know what the guy who drives the giant crocodile head looks like."

The guy who drives the primer black, Mad Max-looking '88 Chevy Caprice with all the rusted gears and spikes welded to it looks like an old movie cowboy. With his tall, lanky gait, silver handlebar mustache, and cowboy hat, Maricopa Mel looks far more genteel than some of his art cars.

This car, the "Atomic Ride," was his first art car, now the namesake of them all, here at "Maricopa Mel's Atomic Rides" at his ranch-style home just off the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, past the cotton fields and along a long dirt road just beneath the mountains.

Though almost everyone who sees the black Caprice mentions the Mad Max aesthetic, Mel says the original concept was "this was going to be a man's car." He welded various tools onto the body (including wrenches that function as door knobs), affixed silver dagger decals to the back passenger windows, and set up bright lights atop the car. There's even a barbecue grill welded to the hood. "If I hit a cow, it's already cut into steaks," Mel jokes, pointing at all the jagged spikes protruding from the front of the car. "And I have a barbecue on the hood. I'm ready to grill."

On a recent visit, Maricopa Mel had seven art cars on his four-acre property in Maricopa, where he's lived for 18 years since moving from Las Vegas. In addition to the original Atomic Ride, there's also the "Commander Car," a former Washington state police patrol car with all sorts of strange things glued to it, including some googly eyes and towel racks. There's a motorcycle exhaust on the trunk for decoration, plus a pair of silver slippers in a clear box on top of the car. The siren works. Mel bought the car from a gay man who'd glued sperm patterns down the sides. Most of the sperm fell off in the Arizona sun and Mel removed the others, but aside from that, he says he hasn't made a lot of changes. But because he takes this car to shows where a lot of kids see it, he also did remove the bumper sticker that read, "It takes balls to be gay."

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea