When I first moved from San Francisco to Durham last August, I kept seeing a pickup truck with some sort of sculpture on its roof. For the first few sightings I thought the pickup to be what I knew in San Francisco as an “art car.” The third time I got a closer look. This was no art car. The “art” was actually a giant bug on top of a Terminix “termite busting” machine.

Soon, however, I’ll start seeing at least one more real art car around the Triangle. For The Independent‘s 20th anniversary celebration, publisher Sioux Watson has enlisted community artists to turn the company car–a 1983 Volvo station wagon (also celebrating its 20th anniversary as, well, a car)–into an art car. Through April 12, the car will make pit stops in various Triangle locations, where volunteer art directors will help residents create a community-crafted art car.

This may leave some wondering, what exactly is an art car?

Art cars define the epitome of two of the most quintessentially American ideals: individuality and the automobile. Like the Terminix truck, art cars have been visually modified on the outside and sometimes, on the inside. They’re kind of like fingerprints; each art car is an expression of individualism as unique as its owner.

Beyond a mere “No Blood for Oil” bumper sticker or college sweatshirt, art cars announce the owner’s unique relationship to the world around them. And sometimes that relationship involves an obsession with Santa Claus or a group of guys calling themselves BFH (Bastards from Hell) creating a medieval hot rod, complete with drivers clad in homemade suits of armor.

Noah Edmundson, a BFH member and a director of the Art Car Museum in Houston, Texas, says that art cars originated in 1902, just after the first Oldsmobile dealership came to Houston. The social elite there had already been decorating barges and wagons with crepe paper and flowers, and after World War I, the art car trend had sporadic moments throughout the Depression and the ’60s. The cars began sprouting up spontaneously all over the United States in the 1970’s and ’80s, going one–sometimes giant–step beyond the decorated psychedelic hippie van (think Scoob and Shag’s groovy “Mystery Machine”).

“In the early ’80s, art students were a little frustrated with getting their art shown. They started using their vehicles as signboards for their artwork,” Edmundson says. “It’s a way to get your work seen by the masses and not by the few art elite. It was more anti-gallery art for the people and not for the art elite.”

The museum gift store’s video, Wild Wheels, documents the last 15 years of the movement, and was produced by Harrod Blank, the son of documentary filmmaker Les Blank. The owner of the Camera Van–a 1972 Dodge van encrusted with over 2,500 old cameras–Harrod also wrote the book on the art car movement, Art Cars: The Cars, the Artists, the Obsession, and the Craft (Lark Books, 2002).

Blank’s art car projects have brought many a patron to the Art Car Museum. “He’s put out a lot of the word [about art cars],” says Edmundson. “A lot of ordinary people have seen his pictures and video and have decided, ‘Hey, that looks like fun.’”

Edmundson says all types of people–“corporate secretaries, goofy artists, college professors, even an engineer”–have decided to build their own art cars.

In the Triangle, perhaps the best known art cars belong to Toby Galinkin of Chapel Hill. Galinkin is one of a handful of art car owners in the Triangle that number (from a very informal survey), about three or four. As far as Galinkin knows, she spontaneously and individually decorated the first art car in the Triangle, in 1988. In homage to a friend of the family, who, as a practical joke, had glued a coffee cup to the roof above his driver’s side door, Galinkin started decorating her 1975 Plymouth Valiant with a coffee cup, adding hundreds of items along the way.

“I go to the thrift shop every day,” says Galinkin, a devoted collector since childhood. She’s since created four more art cars–including the Doll Car, the Nipple Car (covered in hundreds of baby bottle nipples), another hodgepodge, and her current art car–an ’87 Honda Accord with plastic giraffes, doll heads on the roof, and mannequins sitting in the back seat. One mannequin wears a skeleton mask. The other: Butthead.

One of Galinkin’s favorite parts of driving an art car is watching other people’s reactions.

“I laugh out loud at least once a day, just laughing at people’s reactions,” says Galinkin, who says she loves adding this sort of happiness to the world.

Though most people honk and point, or laugh, Galinkin says there are people who are offended by her cars. Some have mistaken the Doll Car–which is covered with whole and severed doll parts–for an anti-abortion statement. Others have left notes on her cars, telling her that the Lord can save her troubled soul.

A cross-cultural form of art car that is also seen in the Triangle is the Latino lowrider, the Mexican-American version of the art car. Thought to have taken off in the 1920s as a similar backlash to assembly-line autos, “lowrider” came to describe the driver as well as the car. “We consider them a part of the Art Car movement,” says Edmundson. “What they do to their cars is total art to us.” Edmundson has even taken a few pointers from lowriders, by redoing the nuts and bolts of his own car–the hydraulics and suspension, for example–and making it even less of a cookie-cutter, mass-produced vehicle.

Today, art cars have moved into the realm of the commercial. Like the Terminix truck I kept seeing, many companies now hire art car artists to decorate company cars as moving ads. Residents are also hiring professional art car artists, such as Tom Kennedy in San Francisco, to turn their vehicles into art cars. Surprisingly non-disgusted about this ironic twist of paid and corporate individualism, Edmundson is happy that some of these artists are now getting paid to do commercial work.

“Those art cars are usually being built on nice cars. [The owners] don’t have the talent or the expertise to build their own,” Edmundson says. Besides, this commercial work is about the only way for many art car artists to make a living, depending on the complexity of the car being commissioned.

Today, Galinkin–who hasn’t given up her day job–drives a relatively tame ’87 Honda Accord covered with her usual array of giraffes and dolls and a memorable bumper sticker she might advise those offended to take to heart: Kiss My Arts. EndBlock

In your neighborhood, North Carolina

The Independent Weekly has two more stops to make on our Progressive 20th Anniversary Art Car tour. Through Saturday, April 5, the car will be stationed in downtown Pittsboro. From April 5-12, The Courtyard at Peabody Place (next to Fowler’s Gourmet and Pop’s) in Durham will welcome the Indymobile. Residents are encouraged to bring an item to glue or rivet onto the car.

For more information call Sioux Watson 286-1972 or e-mail sioux@indyweek.com; or Gloria Mock 968-4244 or gloria@indyweek.com.

Art cars around the country:

If you want to see art cars beyond the Indymobile, Galinkin’s and the Terminix truck, you’ll need to venture out of the area. Here are several national locations:

Houston: It had to be the capital of something. Along with an art car museum, their art car parade shows off the hundreds of art cars in the Houston area, as well as the art car artists who come from all over the country, and the world. Attendance was over 300,000 people last year. This year the parade weekend is May 9 & 10.Art Car Museum, 140 Heights Boulevard, Houston, Texas; (713) 861-5526; wwwartcarmuseum.com. Orange Show parade and weekend: www.orangeshow.org

Los Angeles: Seems fitting that the town religiously devoted to driving would also house the Petersen Automotive Museum. On exhibit through May 26 is Wild Wheels: Art for the Road, featuring Harrod Blanks’ camera van and many others from Blanks’ books. 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 930-CARS; www.petersen.org

Indianapolis: You know art cars have made it when the Indianapolis 500 commissions artist Peter Max to create an art car. Throughout May of this year only, Indianapolis will display Art in Motion, where artists can decorate Indy 500 car replicas, as part of the city’s all-encompassing 500 Festival. www.500festival.com

Arcata, Calif.: The environmental version of art cars, the annual Memorial Day Kinetic Sculpture Race sees 50 groups from all over the world racing 40 miles down road, sand, and bay, on a bicycle-supported, people-powered sculpture. www.kineticsculpturerace.org