Customizing Graffiti

When I rolled into a Soho parking lot last summer, the richly colored painting on the shed caught my eye right away—I nearly clipped a parked car in my distraction. For a long moment, I thought I was looking at a genuine piece of street art: a cartoonish image of the hot new Dodge Magnum station wagon (fig. 1). With their high slab sides and tiny looking “greenhouses” the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum have both drawn comparisons to cartoon cars. They resemble work by customizers who exaggerate the shapes of cars by chopping or lowering roofs and apparently stretching bodies by lowering them over the wheels.

The murals had been commissioned by an ad agency for the car company. Global Hue (fig. 2), the Chrysler Group's “multicultural” agency based in Michigan, hired street artists to paint grafitti like versions of the vehicle in various cities.

The person on the street seeing such murals was, of course, likely to get the impression that the street artists chose the subject themselves, lending street cred to the car. Two or three of the murals, which are fading away or being painted over, were painted in Atlanta (Fig. 3), Houston (Fig. 4), Chicago (Fig. 5), New York (Fig. 6), and Los Angeles (Fig. 7). The Manhattan murals were painted by Tats Cru, an outfit that has cleverly combined painting memorial murals for inner-city victims of violence with other ads for the likes of Coca Cola.

The murals may not be authentic street art, but they are at least more authentic than the recent Chrysler print advertising that depicts the Chrysler 300C in company of scantily clad female models (Fig. 9). These are accompanied by African American men dressed in the double breasted suits and Bosalino hats favored in the 1970s by Walt “Clyde” Frazier of the New York Knicks—a look that frankly can only be called the “pimp”. “Respect” reads the ad copy. From Ford's earlier wild posting of illegal posters to gain street cred, car makers have moved to more imaginative promotional efforts that try not to look like advertising. Scion, Toyota's youth brand, hired “urban” artists to customize scale models and panels of Scion automobiles and shipped a show of art and the cars themselves to galleries around the country. These included the well known grafitti artist Futura and Mister Cartoon, tattooist to Eminem and other stars.

Last year, Nissan set up several “event” sculptures, surrealist “vignettes,” including a sculpture of a “hot” Maxima, ostensibly searing walls and melting parking meters. In 2003, Nissan ran an ad campaign including street posters showing its Altima model covered with what appeared to be graffiti coming from a group that listed its website. But ElectricMoyo.com turned out to have been created by Nissan itself, despite a note expressing thanks to the company: “much respect to Nissan for allowing us to use their billboards.”

There's that word again—respect, which does not seem to be directed at the intelligence of the consumer. Much of the street graphics the car companies offer is about as authentic as the wood grain on their dashboards—and it fades as quickly as the old fake wood station wagons of the 1970s. The SoHo mural is already gone.

About the Author: Phil Patton is the author of many books, including Autodesign International, Made in USA, Open Road and Dreamland. He writes regularly on automobile design for The New York Times and has been a contributing editor to I.D., Wired and Esquire. He teaches in the MFA Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts and has served as a curator for several museum shows, among them the Museum of Modern Art’s “Different Roads: Automobiles for a New Century.”