Jim Wilkins bought his van two and a half years ago, joined one van club, then formed one of his own. A few months ago he undertook to completely redecorate his vehicle, and now, inside San Diego’s Community Concourse, he’s grooming the big blue Chevy, like a showhorse, for competition.
When he decided to restyle his prized possession, Wilkins consulted Mark Lueck, a Santee painter who’s the most sought-after van artist in the county. “Originally, 1 just thought I wanted a name on it. Then he and I talked about it for a long time and 1 decided, well, maybe I’d have just a little paint. By the time I got to my appointment with him the only thing I’d decided is that I wanted a waterfall. I thought about it and thought, i haven’t seen a waterfall.’ Then all of a sudden the name (‘It’s the Water’) just popped into my head.”
Lueck’s design for Wilkins is elaborate, a multi-tiered gushing waterfall garnished by pine trees. “It gets to the point where it’s not a hobby anymore,” Wilkins effuses about his spruced-up vehicle. “It grows on you and you can’t be in it halfway.”
He searches for the words to communicate his passion. “It’s like a way of becoming famous. People know me by my van. I guess if you can’t be president, you gotta make a name for yourself somehow. For me, I do it with my van.”
Van art is an integral part of van culture, and though it keeps a relatively low profile, that aesthetic presence is now everywhere. Vans mass at specialty shows, where there’s intense competition among owners who’ve transformed their mobile boxes into castles. Van art even, occasionally, can be found in art museums. Usually, however, it is in motion amid the concrete: here one of the omnipresent desert sunsets cruises Mission Valley; there a seascape streaks north on Highway 5.
The scenes and designs which decorate vans also grace trucks and, more recently, cars (everything from Honda Civics to Ferraris, local painters say). In the jargon of the trade it’s all “trick painting,” and its popularity has been cyclical, going back almost to the birth of the car itself.
Black may have been the early car buyer’s only choice, but home improvements weren’t long in coming. Detailed landscapes painted in oils soon broke up the vehicular monotony, only to be superseded by more sophisticated body paints. When hot rods proliferated after the Second World War, the painting grew wilder and wilder until grotesque flames licked the sides of ordinary jalopies. In the late 50s, George Barris of Burbank introduced his “candy colors” (remember candy-apple red?). The steam went out of vehicle painting soon after that, however, and demand was slow throughout most of the 60s. It heated up again only six or seven years ago.
Today at least half a dozen automotive establishments in San Diego employ trick painters, and free-lance painters abound. So paint gets to the customer in a number of ways. Some folks take their plain vehicles to a custom painter an order a special job. Others buy the finished product directly from the dealer. Lone amateurs occasionally unleash their handiwork upon the highways, but the intricacies of auto painting make such home jobs a rarity.
Mark Lueck’s Custom Colors garage looks modest, but the tiny office is a miniature Louvre of van art. Hundreds of color pictures line the walls: Stripes, graphics, flames, murals, and more. It’s easy to see why people wait six weeks for an appointment with Lueck. His designs are the most imaginative in town. There’s a fantasy van with rocket wings, cruising along in outer space. Another panel features vans on the Coronado Bridge at night. The scenes reflect science fiction, record albums, great white sharks, and the lost city of Atlantis underwater.
Two Chicanos walk into the office, studying the snapshots, as though this place were an art gallery.
“I see this one all the time," one comments.
“You do mostly flames?" the other asks Lueck.
“Oh. we do flames, but we do other stuff too," comes the answer.
“Where’s this one, man?’ the first man inquires, pointing to a noteworthy graphic.
“! think he lives in Santee."
“Hey, 1 got a picture of a girl with butterfly wings and a waterfall. PAGE 16
How much you charge for that?"
Lueck says his prices have ranged from $140 up to $900, depending on the complexity of the job. A quiet, dark-haired young man, he fell into the work about six years ago, and he says he loves it so much “sometimes I almost would rather do the work for free, just for the pleasure I get from it.”
About half his customers know beforehand what they want. “Some order their vans like they go into McDonald’s. They want this cactus, this bird, this sunset, and so on.” With indecisive customers, Lueck is patient. “A lot of times I’ll try to sort out their personality. I ask for their hobbies. I can tell a lot from their reaction to the pictures on the wall."
Lueck quickly turns down the occasional request for obscene art, which usually comes from bikers. (“We wouldn’t want our name on that.") Otherwise, he recalls only one instance in which a customer’s wishes offended his sense of aesthetics. The client, a motorcycle dealer, fell in love with one of Lueck’s many Viking ships and ordered a combination of two elements. "He just thought it was great,” Lueck recalled, “but I almost hated doing it.” Swallowing hard, he delivered a chopper poised near a shoreline, the great Viking ship in the distance.
Morris Williams, a slick and good-looking salesman, wears a coating of self-assurance as thick as the urethane which covers his paint jobs. Williams manages Pioneer Van-Four Wheel Drive in La Mesa, which customizes vehicles mostly for dealers. He boasts that his well-sealed trick painting lasts forever; thus, base prices start at $350.
They soar to dizzying heights from there. The paint job on Williams’ demo truck would cost about $1,500, for example, and the manager proudly points out expensive details. This truck, a Ford Courier, virtually drips with paint; there’s so much paint on it you’d swear it should weight the body down. Wood-grain panels wrap about the body and landscape murals decorate both doors, but the piece de resistance is on the hood. There, a giant Mexican prospector leers at passersby while chewing an old cigar, his tired burro laden with twinkling bullion. In the distance, a World War II bomber soars, silhouetted against a glowing mountain sunset.
Williams himself doesn't paint the cars. Instead, he employs a stable of artists. The majority of them trained by air-brushing T-shirts, but Williams also keeps a brush-and-oils man on tap.' Despite his demo van, Williams insists his personal tastes are conservative. “I don’t like something that stands out,” he says. “I like earth-tone colors, not flashy stuff. I also won’t do flames, ’cause I think it’s a god-awful, ugly thing. 1 don’t even like to do too much mural work, ’cause it associates you too much with one group. Like if you paint a motorcycle or a hang-glider, someone’s got to come along who likes motorcycles." Too much individualism, in other words, might not sell.
Williams recalls the biggest dose of individualism he ever dealt out, to one self-proclaimed “Gary from Tulare." The customer ordered a diamond-tufted, blue-crushed velvet interior, then had his likeness painted on the tailgate, skiing down a hill, outfitted with goggles, a tennis racket, and other hobby accessories.-Usually, however, Williams’ minions crank out a steady stream of inoffensive stripe designs, calculated to appeal to the broadest audience.
“I talk to the kids and I try to keep on top of what’s happening,” Williams confides. Still, tastes in this business change as fast as odometer readings. They even vary from place to place, according to Williams, who says LA murals, for example, are much wilder. Though his aim is to mirror what the public wants, Williams insists the painting still is art.
“Certainly it’s an art form," he grins. “The guys I have working for me are really artists. A lot of people call them weird, but they’re sensitive. Most of them have had the artistic ability and background but they know nothing about automotive painting. So that’s what 1 have to teach ’em. You see, it’s very difficult to make an artist out of an automotive painter, but you can make an automotive painter out of an artist.”
A few years back, Steve Brezzo, assistant director for the Fine Arts Museum of San Diego, thought van art would be like the new Chicano murals, one of contemporary art’s waves of the future. “But after I looked at it for a while I realized there’s simply no social consciousness to it at all. It’s purely decorative," he asserts morosely.
Brezzo has written about the genre; he even staged a van art display when he was back in Connecticut. “For the most part, it’s kitsch, and that doesn’t mean there’s no aesthetic validity," he says. “But the mere fact that many of the painters are serious and enthusiastic doesn’t make it valid. In a lot of cases guys who make Kewpie dolls are serious too.”
Brezzo sounds torn. Disparaging van art won’t earn him any friends; yet he insists few serious art critics could take the whole thing seriously. “Look, it’s the most brutal form of chauvinism to say something is good just because it has an expert’s or a museum’s stamp of approval on it; but unfortunately, a lot of what the van artists are saying just isn’t much worth hearing. It lacks depth on every level. The visual literacy level is really low. It probably has the same future as the Big Daddy Roth T-shirts. Once you’ve seen a lot of it, it dies."
He speculates maybe van art will come of age when the architectural design of the van itself begins to change. He thinks of one group in LA which studied van art from the design side; they looked at “what you do with the shape of the cigar itself.” The group envisioned future vans shaped like penises going down the highway, or vans which look like arcs. “1 can see that, but why use a four-wheel vehicle as a canvas to paint a scene of the mountains? It makes very- little sense. It’s sophomoric."
Across town from Morris Williams and his polished assembly,
“You do mostly flames?”
“Oh, we do flames, but we do other stuff too.”
“Hey, I got a picture of a girl with butterfly wings and a waterfall. How much you charge for that?”
The Exciters toil in their sooty East San Diego yard on 34th Street. Owners Jim Wright and Rick Allert do the painting, along with a former auto mechanic whom everyone calls Whitey. Before January, the trio worked out of parking lots and the work is still fast and dirty. They pump out one to three vans per person per day.
They say 95 percent of their work is for dealers, and all of it gets done with spray paint and stencils, the fastest and least sophisticated painting technique. None of them was trained as an artist, though Whitey learned trick painting during its zenith in the 50s. Like his employers, Whitey looks like a mechanic, and he talks like a mechanic. He seems embarrassed discussing his work as art. Still, The Exciters’ eyes light up when they explain their craft.
Rick is the most outspoken. “Sometimes I’ll just stand there and look at a van for 45 minutes, trying to come up with an idea,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll see something out on the road that I like. Some things get asked for over and over again; when a van is hot, a dealer will ask for more. But it’s nice to do different designs, because then you have a feeling of accomplishment.”
The Exciters claim they’re seeing fewer murals these days and graphics are trending toward three-dimensional effects: bands wrapping around each other, and over and under various parts of the vehicle. Another frequently desired effect is to make a vehicle look like it’s in motion, although the van’s basic shape does tend to limit possibilities.
But Rick is puzzled a little about why people want the paint at all. “We wish we knew," he snorts. “Someone goes out and buys a new $9,000 car and you wonder why they’d want paint all over it."
No one recalls any official displays of van art in San Diego, but some people at the Junior Art Center in Los Angeles’s Barnsdall Park just staged an exhibit. Van art should expand its horizons, they believe, so they tried to explore the possibilities of what could be done. They presented pictures of contemporary vans, but they also encouraged kids to come up with novel van drawings. On a white van, they projected paintings by Mexican muralists, contemporary artists like Jasper Johns, classical painters like Leonardo and Michelangelo.
“The quality of a lot of van art is very good. Some of the people doing it are very talented," asserts center instructor Don Francis. “The problem is a lot of time the art falls into what you would see a la the velvet painting and the ships cruising out to sea. It’s like the gas station art and starving artists.”
Francis talks excitedly when he turns to the subject of Afghani painters who have carried vehicle painting to its heights. Their heavy-duty trucks look like ornamented gypsy vans. “The vans here have become very commercial now, and there’s a certain amount of safety taking over... but I think this thing is just in its embryo stage.”
Frank Pope is a van painter with a more flexible style than most, and a wistful grin steals across his face when he envisions the untried possibilities of his medium. “I really have to watch myself," he concedes, motioning to the waterfall scene he is now painting. “Like here. I’d like to stick this big toucan beak right in back of these trees, instead of in front where it ought to go. Once, 1 screwed up the perspective on purpose. I had great big animals and this little tiny house. People say to me, ‘Watch out, it’s not going to sell.’ And sometimes it doesn’t.”
Most of Pope’s works sell promptly, though. He works for Taylor Made Vans in Kearny Mesa, turning out 25 to 30 paint jobs a month. He’s produced cloying pink roses on one van, then drawn wild animals with clean, simple lines on the next, and then splashed lush tropical silhouettes over a third. A short, bearded man, he wears a blue-knit cap over longish hair as he paints, spinning out words like a fisherman casting out line.
“I spend so much time reading, looking for ideas, checking out the heavies. But you just can’t put a masterpiece on your van. Nobody wants a still life, fruits and vegetables. They want something that’s fun." Pope has given thought to why people like the decorated vans, and he talks about it with a humorous confidence.
“The paint makes it a fun thing, rather than a work horse. You know a highway's a mundane thing. It's a hassle to drive. But when you add the vans, it’s an art event. The van is a canvas. You can park in front of your home and decorate your landscape!”
Pope dreams of all his vans having impact, clarity. “We have a word for it: candy. It's gotta come out like it’s the best that’s ever been done. Just so neat that they really want ’em. You know, they don’t have to take paint. That's as optional as you can get. It's a lot more of an extra than air conditioning.”
Van painting is the best job he’s ever had, claims Pope, and he says it’s the best medium he’s ever worked with. Quick-drying, the auto paint allows the artist to work fast. “The only problem is that it’s smelly. It’s dirty. It’s explosive. It’s dangerous. You’re not sitting in a corner with a brush and oils, all neat."
Then Pope reflects, “I never much saw the point to painting something and just hanging it on someone's wall. I’ll paint something for myself and hang it on the wall, but I don’t understand why people would pay me for something like that. That’s the reason I started painting T-shirts. Who wants to put a $5 painting on their wall? But they’ll wear a $10 T-shirt. With a van, the impact is far greater. And you gotta remember it’s got wheels. You can take it to the grocery store. You can load hitchhikers in it. You can live in it. And it’s beautiful."