On the Road with the Art Car Tsar
an interview with harrod blank
Dan McKinney, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, spent a sunny July morning in Berkeley, California with filmmaker and photographer Harrod Blank. While tooling about town in Oh My God!, Harrod's 1965 art car, they discussed the art car revolution, how it feels to be constantly on display, and art car romance.
[and be sure to check out Drive-By Shootings, a collection of Harrod's candid cameravan photography]
photo dennis woodruff
you are what you drive
dan: What do you think Americans' relationship to their car is?
harrod: You are what you drive, to an extent. I think people are crazy to brand themselves with Dodge, Toyota, Mitsubishi. I don't understand it—to buy into and embrace the branding of America by these corporate automakers is insane.
"I think people are crazy to brand themselves with Dodge, Toyota, Mitsubishi."
I really can't relate to people who drive normal cars. I do have a van, a normal mini-van, ironically, and I can get in that thing and get from point A to point B with nothing in between and just go. That's nice to have—it's reliable and it'll do the job, but I almost feel that it's a social responsibility to drive an art car and provide some color and entertainment to people.
a boy and his bug
dan: What was the beginning of the art car scene?
harrod: It was very innocent—it's not like I planned everything....
When I was sixteen I got a 1965 VW Bug, and, having grown up the Santa Cruz mountains, that type of car wasn't going to work for me. It was too boring; it was plain and ugly. I was just going with an intuition that my car was ugly and I was going to do something about it.
dan: Was there something about the landscape or the people that influenced you?
harrod: I basically grew up as a civilized wild child because from the age of six until seventeen, the closest neighbors we had were five miles away. So you can imagine, instead of playing with other boys and girls, I was playing with chickens, pine trees, and creeks. So when I got into high school, I even brought chickens to school with me. I couldn't drive a car like everyone else did. I wanted my car to say something about me and my values, that I wasn't like everybody else.
"I wanted my car to say something about me and my values, that I wasn't like everybody else."
So I took a milk crate and started spray-painting the bottom of it like a stencil all over the car, then I put the planet on there. Then that car crashed and I started another VW, and I started putting florescent colors and reggae scene colors—red, gold, green, and black. I was really into reggae music then. I put a chicken on one door and a portrait of Bob Marley on the other door and it started to grow. As I changed and developed, the car changed and the values of the car changed.
on the road in oh my god!
dan: How does it feel to have your whole world on display for everyone to look at? Is it ever uncomfortable?
harrod: Yeah, sure. I'm always riding this fine line of whether I want to be this revealing or not. I always come around to that it's better to do this. As a responsibility to society. Sometimes I feel like I'd like to just get a cup of coffee and not contend with being looked at, inspected. And I never thought that I might be driving an art car this long. I'm thirty-eight years old, but I keep thinking that it's doing something good. I can't abandon itůmaybe I never will. Shit, maybe I'll be seventy and still driving the same car. I've been driving it for twenty years now.
dan: So it's like being in a parade, right?
harrod: Kind of...but people aren't clapping. People are looking and interpreting what they see. See like that guy there, he's like jeez, look at that weirdo. And then you have people like this, that are not even going to look, not going to acknowledge that it exists. You know why? Because then he'd have to stop and think about it.
dan: This is so fun, we're like superstars.
harrod: Well, kind of. I'm anesthetized to it now because this is my life.
crowing roosters, burnt barbies, and copulating alligators:
a jungian look at oh my god!
dan: I thought that we could talk a little bit about the car and the paraphernalia that you've attached, what inspired it.
harrod: I'm into symbols. Everything on the car is there for the color or the way that it attracts people's eye. The car is a combination of values and mockery of values and fun and festivity and zaniness.
The World Globe hood ornament is a symbol of the universality of what I'm trying to do. The Santa Claus is a symbol of giving. The food on the front bumper is to feed people, and the chickens, the dead chickens, are really more of a comical deal. I've got a poem here written to an ex-girlfriend.
Symbol of my path, the rooster—it announces itself to the world as alive. That's kind of what I'm doing with this car and what art cars do.
Got a mailbox up here for people to leave me responses. On the television set, up on top of the car, we have sex and violence on TV. You've got the Barbie doll with the soldier coming from between her legs, and advertising which is represented by the Pillsbury Dough Boy, and the skull in the middle, which is really the centerpiece of the whole thing, which means if you watch too much TV you're pretty much dead.
dan: I noticed that some of the things are singed.
harrod: They get that way from the weather and the sun. What's amazing about the sun is that it gives Barbie cancer. Every so often I'll replace Barbie with a new Barbie because it gets so disgusting.
I put these religious icons on the car, not because I'm religious, but because they're praying for the fate of man and they light up at night, light up all the flowers. The goose counteracts that and makes the whole thing ridiculous. Then we have the rainbow of false security here.
dan: Are those alligators making love?
harrod: Yes, on the back of the car. It's a statement about overpopulation. It kind of disturbs some people because everything is having sex and having lots and lots of babies.
"What's amazing about the sun is that it gives Barbie cancer. Every so often I'll replace Barbie with a new Barbie because it gets so disgusting."
dan: Maybe you could talk about what's on the dashboard.
harrod: The key interior object on the dash would be a silver rooster that I got in France and a nude 1950's woman made from bronze. Then there are some other roosters and a ballerina stuck in some sushi next to the wasabi and a duck and a Peruvian boat full of fruit and a silver high-heeled shoe and Jesus without his arms and angels and a Buddha.
This little guy rubbing a magic lantern, I stepped on that in Germany and almost really hurt my foot, then put it in here.
dan: This is such a multitude of stuff here, a whole universe. What do you think people's reaction is when they sit here for the first time?
harrod: I think that most people don't really like this much clutter.
By the way Oh My God! is called Oh My God! because that's usually what people say when they see it.
on meeting women: the man behind the machine
how to pick up chicks in an art car
dan: Have you met a lot of ladies with the car?
harrod: I have had one girlfriend where the car was the genesis of the relationship. But I've got to say that I'm very surprised that it hasn't encouraged more. I think it's because of our conditioning, that women are conditioned to want a man who has a certain amount of security in his life. A creative man is just not that encouraged in our society.
"A creative man is just not that encouraged in our society."
I know that I'm a great guy and I don't get it, but I'm not going to go get a red Porsche so that I can meet women because then I'm not going to identify with their other values. It's an interesting paradox. Now the camera van has attracted more women because that thing has more power....
dan: You don't mean power under the hood?
harrod: (laughing) Power in the sense that it's covered with cameras and it's a little ominous and dark. Women are attracted to that more. In the camera car, it's more like the "man behind the machine" type of thing, like the mad scientist. It's more mysterious.
dan: The Oh My God! car is like Loony Toons, and the camera car is like James Bond?
harrod: Yes. You hit it on the head there. James Bond, they really like the James Bond stuff.
dan: Was there ever a time when the woman wouldn't accept the car and that was the end of the relationship?
harrod: In Alabama I was dating this woman and went out with her a couple of times. When she discovered that I had this car, that was it. There was not one word more spoken. It was over.
dan: But you're sure it was the car?
harrod: I'm positive. Because I was meeting her someplace, and when she saw the car her eyes got real big, she turned to the driver and said, "Go, go, go!" And they just left me in the dust.
the art car tsar
dan: Tell me about your national outreach effort.
harrod: When I made the film, Wild Wheels, I thought that it would be important to make an appearance in person. So, I actually drove Oh My God! to every city the movie played in.
I haven't made any money. I'm destitute really, but I do have the satisfaction that I've done something positive, I've had an influence.
People are starting to do art cars all across the country right now. The last two years, it's almost doubled. My mailing list has 600 people on it.
dan: How do you encourage people who are just getting started?
harrod: When people are just starting out and want to make an art car, I tell them to visualize the car as a canvas. That's the most important thing. Once you visualize it as a canvas, the freer you are to do what you want, but if you see it as a car, you're going to be inhibited—oh, I don't think I should cover that logo, or I don't think I should dent it or screw holes in it. You need to dive into it and take a gamble and create what you really want to create.
dan: Are you finding yourself becoming a celebrity?
harrod: No. Yeah, I guess. They used to call me the art car guru, now they call me the art car tsar.
I guess I'm a symbol of the energy that it's about. I was thinking about designing a T-shirt with a big star and this car in the center. I believe it's revolutionary in the automotive world and in the art world and in society.
Your audience is changing all the time. I love taking this to all different kinds of neighborhoods, seeing the reactions. This is art for the public. Everyone can enjoy this.