There are 209 million licensed drivers in America with 11.5 million new vehicles purchased each year. Of the 62 million registered vehicles in the U.S., there is a handful of vehicles that are more than cars -- they're artworks.
Known as ArtCars, these automobiles have been sanded down and stripped of paint, status and resell value. They're drilled into, covered with 270 pounds of brass masks, 2,750 vintage Kodak cameras, or dancing lobsters.
And then there's a gigantic hamburger with wheels.
For many people, the American dream means the opportunity to amass riches and edge closer to the 1 percent. But for German immigrant Harry Sperl, he had just one pursuit: to build "The Hamburger."
Sperl's dream took over a year to build and $100,000 to create. It's the most expensive burger in the U.S. and the only one that can be driven.
The 1987 Harley Davidson has a top bun that mechanically lifts from the rest of the burger, like a door, so that Sperl can nestle inside his quirky contraption. The bun then automatically lowers, so that Sperl fits snugly inside the center of the cheeseburger, with green pickles as handlebars to steer and a coke cup serving as his speedometer.
"A lot of people ask me 'Why hamburgers?' A lot of things that I do in my life have no meaning, no sense. And that's what I like: to confuse people," says Sperl, more commonly referred to as Hamburger Harry. "It keeps me alive to do unusual things."
Like Sperl, individuals tucked away in the crevices of Daytona, FL, Niland, CA, and Tucson, AZ use their vehicles as their medium for creative expression, unaware that there were others like them or that their seemingly obscure expression would grow into a nationwide ArtCar movement.
Others like Harrod Blank.
"When I was 16 years old, I got my first car, a 65' VW all white bug. I thought it was so boring and it didn't represent me at all. I had to do something about it," says Blank. It began with a rooster painted on the door. "I was shocked to see how quickly the car itself established my identity." Then Blank began to glue knick-knacks on his dashboard, which quickly ate up the ceiling and the windshields until he had a little mobile shrine with pictures of his grandma and his mother, earrings an ex-girlfriend gave him, a pregnancy test, and other oddities.
"I didn't know of anybody else that was making ArtCars. I was in a vacuum, but it just so happened a lot of people were in a vacuum doing their own thing in the 80s," says Blank. "We were coming at the tail end of the hippie generation entering the rebellious individualism of 80s generation. They are these people spread out across the country that, for myriad of reasons, decided to decorate their cars."
One of those people was Michael Mikel, the leader of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, and one of the integral founders of Burning Man. When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989 at 5:04 p.m., a brick wall collapsed onto the back of a '78 Olds Cutlass Supreme, smashing its rear. Michael Mikel saw the car, bought it, and "drove it around just like that," calling it the "504 PM" and showcasing it at Burning Man as one of the first mutant ArtCars in 1991.
As Blank continued to find more and more ArtCartists hidden in the nooks and crannies of America, he thought, "Well gosh, these people are so interesting and their ArtCars are so amazing, I should document them and make a movie."
In 1991, Blank produced a 64-minute documentary titled, "Wild Wheels" and took his film on the road.
Somewhere else in America back in the 80s, Philo Northrup got his first car, a Chevy Vega. "It was a real piece of junk," says Northrup. "The automobile, especially in America, is a reflection of your identity, like your clothing. And I just didn't feel like a Chevy Vega kind of a guy. In 1983, animal print imagery was in the air like Ska music," he says. So he painted zebra stripes on the Chevy and bolted on a pair of deer antlers.
"I was AMAZED by the reactions I received. Pretty much all positive and it wasn't long before I resolved that all my future vehicles would be ArtCars," he says.
After making two more art mobiles, Northrup ended up in Los Angeles, working at an art museum when somebody said to him, "Hey man, are you going to go watch that ArtCar movie in Santa Monica?"
"I thought, 'How come nobody ever tells me anything?!' I've been making ArtCars for over a decade by then and I never heard that term before." That's when Northrup went to the showing of "Wild Wheels" and met Blank in 1992.
The two became instant friends and began collaborating on several ArtCar caravans, or road parades, through the southwest. They searched out other ArtCar enthusiasts throughout the country and fostered a car artist community, now 500 cars strong, that consists of an eclectic assortment of people like the Penny Man, who drives a van covered in 90,526 copper pennies, and Elmer Fleming, aka the Spoon Man, who drives a spoon-embellished Chevy pick-up truck.
"I've been the Spoon Man for years. There are a lot of people that play the spoons, and I'll tell you something, I don't claim to be the best, but I bet you one thing: nobody has as much fun playing the spoons as I do," says Fleming.
Not only is he one of the best spoon players in the south, he also has a Spoon Man theme song, spoon-covered overalls, and, of course, a spoon-covered ArtCar.
"What I do may not look normal to some people, but when I look around and see most people doing things, they don't look normal to me. So I reckon it takes all kinds to make the world go around, and so I reckon I'm just about as normal as anybody," he says. "Now and then I might see somebody that says, 'What'd you mess up that pretty truck for?' I say, 'Well it's the only thing I have my name on, so I'm going to go 'mess it up' if I want to, if that's what you want to call it.' But I don't call it messed up. I enjoy my own truck. And most people that see it enjoy it, too."
To further celebrate and promote the unique artistry of their fellow ArtCar enthusiasts, Northrup and Blank decided California needed its own ArtCar Festival to feature the many elaborately embellished vehicles in the golden state. The festival first opened in 1997 with ArtCar exhibits, "Mile-long Caravan" parades, and intrastate caravans down the Pacific coast.
Through the festival, Blank realized there were so many more ArtCars that deserved recognition that he's since devoted his life to highlight these artists and propel the hobby into a global movement. He published three books, including "Art Cars" in 2007, and produced another documentary in 2009 called "Auto-Morphosis," which won six film festival awards. Blank is currently in Beijing showcasing the film at the iDocs Film Festival on behalf of the U.S. State Department's American Documentary Showcase. And if the books, films and festivals aren't enough, try visiting the soon-to-be-open ArtCar World, an ArtCar-centric museum that Blank is creating in Arizona.
It's safe to say that what began as a unique form of self-expression has consumed a majority of these two men's lives. And they are not alone.
"The greatest thing I learned from ArtCars is that making art and participating in art is a basic human need. It's why we painted caves 50,000 years ago that separated us from the Neanderthals," says Northrup. "It's creativity with just a little bit of madness. It's a core need and it's not fed enough. ArtCars show up in places where there wouldn't be art otherwise. And I think it's because we sneak up on people that they get so excited. No self-consciousness, no threshold to cross, no barrier to go through."
Blank agrees saying, "You can take your art to the people, and you don't need to be accepted into a show or a gallery or a museum – you reach your audience just by going to Safeway. Our ArtCar is an underrated vehicle, no pun intended, for getting something out into the world."
"ArtCars are fundamental and electric -- and that, I think, is the key: Integrating art into the normal world," says Northrup