I grew up in a van. Ok, maybe not literally, but vast portions of my childhood were spent windows-down-charging 60mph across the interstate of your choice, with the heater blazing to keep the old bucket from overheating. While it would be way more rad to pretend we were some epic family of rock gods racing to make Cleveland or bust, the fact is we were actually a typical, white, middle class family on vacation. There were no wizards or dragons majestically gracing the exterior walls of this thunder-ride. The back of the lug was full of dried food and camping gear, and the only road ballads we sand had to do with the wheels on some bus that no one in their right mind would want to ride.
The old van
One 1972 Ford Clubwagon 8-seater, original interior, Bose speakers, tape deck, and a 351 Windsor V8. Looking back now, I had no conceivable clue just how bitchin’ of a ride the old family van was, and I’d give just about anything to have her back as my own, to transform her into a super-boss chariot of volcanic, butt rock-fury destruction. It seems these iconic rides of the day have become the stuff of legends in today’s times, and some of the most intricate and outrageous custom paint jobs of the ages symbolizes and identify these glory hounds of the asphalt arteries of our nations freeways. In honor of what would be our old van’s fortieth birthday, I thought I would identify and take a closer look at the different genres of van art. As a graphic designer, I have true appreciation for the artists who are able to execute such fine works on such a non-typical canvas.
Probably the most recognizable and acknowledged form of van art is that which takes inspiration from science fiction and fantasy. You know the image: wizards and galactic warlords, space dinosaurs and Pegasus’ soaring across nebulas, crystal balls and magic lightning; these are the images we have come to love, and are potentially the most creative of the van art genre. Anything goes, and at the same time it is extremely original and often an entirely unique work of art. The images are purely from the owner or artists’ minds, and while they might spawn from external influences and mythoi, they are not characters or settings that copy pop-cultural icons, and still rely heavily on original imagination in order to come to life.
Did you really think I could casually refer to these in the prior paragraph without truly addressing the issue? Pop-culture vans—while arguably not as epic as the prior mentioned—are still pinnacle representatives of the van art world. These could include side murals of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movie scenes, to collages of Never Ending Story elements, to even include entire reproductions of vehicles like the Spider-van and Ninja Turtle bus. What is so great about these pieces of art is that, while the fantasy/sci-fi vans might not appeal to large groups of people, the pop-culture references in many of these vans can attract nearly anyone who ever had exposure to these elements in their lives. They are a uniting factor, and a bonding moment for anyone who comes across them.
Ignore the irony of a nature lover rolling down the highway at five miles per gallon, because these beasts are just as iconic to the art van scene as anything. Love the epic scene of a howling wolf in winter? Do you show your love by sporting this image on a tee-shirt you picked up at the thrift store? Well, now you can prove this love exponentially more by airbrushing it on the side of your hell-storm power ride. Why stop at just a howling wolf? Maybe have it howling at a cobra in the middle of a fire-desert. Other possible scenes include whales and sea otters, or lions resting on the savannah. What really makes these vans pop is they tend to always be extremely well done. While the effects of the prior two categories are sometimes enhanced by sloppy DIY owners with a spray can, the nature scenes are only appreciated when finely done—resulting in them being truly stunning works of art on an aesthetic level.
Some may argue this one, and to them I would say, “You have no class." The reason why this form of van art might not immediately be acknowledged is because for some reason, a lot of folks believe these vans came of the line looking as fly as they do. In reality, these retro-rainbow colored dream machines of our memories were painted this way after being purchased—making these vans some of the originals in the world of van art. Retro designed vans have become an icon for tee shirts, dorm room posters, and 70’s nostalgia. What is great about retro painted vans is they are still respected and revered as being unique on the road, but they don’t appear to jump out and aggressively grab you quite like the others. Designs on the vans are always unique in both color and pattern, and they rest more on the minimalistic end of the scale meaning they are likely to attract a wider spectrum of van fans.
Let me go ahead and say this: of the road beasts that roam the asphalt jungles on four rubber feet, the van is the one they all seek to mimic. Few things make a statement about personality more than a custom painted van-canvas. Hopefully, by understanding and appreciating the genres of these fine pieces of visual couture, you will have a better understanding and appreciation for the earth-scorching deities who command them. Next time you pull in to the pump—or draw up to a stoplight—and one of these finely ornamented instruments of cool pulls in beside you; throw a thumbs up their way, and let them know you appreciate the art they gracefully share with the rest of the mortal world.