July 31, 1989 12:00 PM

For Gary Siebel, it began with a whim. Two years ago, tired of looking at the rusting Chevy Impala that had been sitting in his neighbor’s driveway, he decided to trade his VCR for the car. Then he started painting. On the car’s body he created a map of the world in shades of green, brown and black. On the roof he built a city out of wooden blocks. “After I’d paint a section, I’d take the car out,” says Siebel, 36, a cabdriver and wood-carver. “I could tell right away by people’s reactions if I was on the right track.”

Siebel’s finished product, which took a year to complete, is now Seattle’s most talked about masterpiece-on-wheels—and that’s saying something. Over the past 20 years, the city’s active art community has taken to the streets, appropriating the car as its canvas. Cruising the highways are mobile animals, comicbook heroes, fish and psychedelic collages by the dozen, all overshadowing their standard-issue, monochromatic brethren. Why this outburst of ’60s-style auto-expressionism in the staid late-’80s? “It’s sort of a bad art market here in Seattle,” suggests Doug Fast, a marketing-firm art director whose 1974 Saab glows with yellow, red and purple psychedelia. “Artists are venting their frustration.”

Steve Walker, co-founder of Seattle’s New Museum of Hysteria and Indecision (a collection of unconventional artworks), agrees. “In New York or L.A. artists work for fame and fortune,” he says. “In Seattle the economic opportunities are few, so their work is whatever they want it to be.” Walker, 38, who drives a ’69 Plymouth emblazoned with orange, blue, yellow and green “urban camouflage,” has painted several cars since the ’60s. Recently he began offering the service for a $100 fee, and he claims to have plenty of customers, though he concedes his work isn’t for everyone. “Most car owners choose to be anonymous,” he says. “People who paint their cars want to make a statement.”

Often that statement is political—sort of. Doug Fast says he is driven to decorate automobiles because “cars are American sacred cows, and I want to put a wrench in that notion.” His public, he has found, appreciates the impulse: He often finds laudatory notes on his windshield and packages of food on his car seat. But he has his detractors as well, and they tend to upset him. “They’re mostly University of Washington fraternity and sorority types, who are very conservative these days,” he says. “They give me these looks like ‘Are you out of your mind?’ And I’m 43—they’re the ones who should be doing it. Sometimes I can understand why Abbie Hoffman killed himself.”

Poet Vera Detour takes her car art less seriously. She and some friends painted her ’65 Plymouth Barracuda with song lyrics one day because they “had spring fever.” Later, Detour, 38, transformed the car into a replica of its aquatic namesake because “it’s a barracuda and I’m a literal person.” But she too admits to political motives. “People are too serious about yuppie values,” she says. “It’s better to invest yourself in your vehicle than your money.”

There are auto embellishers, of course, who make no claims to art or social significance. Steve LaRose, 24, a theater-set designer, decided to liven up his 1977 Chevy Impala after his friend Ed Fotheringham swathed his Honda Civic in Astroturf. “It was one big fuzzy car—I guess he wanted people to look at him,” says LaRose. “But I got tired of people looking at Ed so I painted my own car.” He chose a comicbook motif (Superman, Batman, Swamp Thing), and has no illusions that his car will ever land in a museum. “It isn’t an art piece,” he says. “It’s just pure fun.”

That, most car artists agree, is the bottom line. “You get great, genuine reactions from people,” says Siebel. “It’s fun to make them laugh.” But there is a caveat. “You have to drive very carefully in a painted car,” cautions Steve Walker. “There’s no way the police are going to miss you.”

—Susan Reed, Joni H. Blackman in Seattle

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