Fifty strangers were lined up to spray paint my car.
The car, my heavily modified and long suffering Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, was served up like a sacrifice on the curb of a closed down street in the middle of Nashville. The headlights were taped over so that the car couldn’t see what was about to happen. A tarp was spread beneath its tires to catch the blood. On the concrete were a dozen rattle-cans of paint in several shades of taste the rainbow.
I delivered instructions to the waiting strangers. No proper nouns, brands, or hashtags. Express yourself, not someone else. Promise me with this tag to be yourself loudly and strangely. Don’t get paint on my exhaust.
They okay went. Pedestrians stopped to stare as the painters crouched by the wheels and leaned over the spoiler and climbed on the hood. Paint misted and dribbled and smeared. The best of it was Technicolor graffiti. The worst of it was sort of chunky.
After they were done, my friends and I peeled off the tape and paper. I wadded up the tarp and stuffed it in my trunk next to the subwoofer. Chucked the rattle cans on top of that. The inside of the car smelled like it had earned a label warning of cancer, but I got behind the wheel anyway. I had a seven-hour drive home and time waits for no one. As I headed out of town, a man in the lane adjacent rolled down his window, his eyes on the still-wet paint.
“That’s fucked up,” he told me. He said it that way where it might have been a good thing, depending on what one’s feelings were on being fucked up.
It wasn’t the worst thing I had ever visited upon this car, though.
I hit it up with Plasti-dip and some stencils not long after I got it. I later let some of my readers Plasti-dip it outside a church in Kansas City. I rubbed and peeled that off with gasoline and found that readers hadn’t just Plasti-dipped it, they’d Sharpie-d it, and that shit doesn’t come off. I designed a wrap to cover the crappy paint. I dipped the rims, I tinted the lights, I swapped the engine, I drove it off-road, I set it on fire—were it not for all that it’d be a perfect Craigslist buy. A 60,000 mile single-owner car with all maintenance records available. This crowd-sourced paint job was not the ugliest thing, just the most recent.
I thought people would hate it.
That was the idea, actually. The entire thing was supposed to be a concrete thought exercise on the enduring joys of being yourself even if other people just didn’t get it. In my experience, it was not difficult to create a hateable automotive aesthetic. Compared to other products we consume, automobiles have an incredibly narrow band of customization. Clothing, handbags, and backpacks come in every color and print and shape. Couches come in every texture and pattern. You can get a socially acceptable butter dish painted in Celtic knots or shaped like a pig. Light fixtures range from austere to Beetlejuice.
But there are few floral Volkswagens or polka-dotted Nissans. Automotive culture tells us that Porsche seats can be tartan, but Porsches themselves cannot. Manufacturers offer cars in a range of solid colors, with neutrals winning all popularity contests. Patterns are generally limited to a series of traditional stripes. Interiors come in a paucity of colors, sometimes with options for tasteful pin-striping or inserts. Rims come standard in all the same colors as Olympic medals and sometimes, if you’re feeling a little sith, black. Spoiler options tend to be yes or no.
There are, of course, an enormous number of aftermarket things one can do to customize a car. From vinyl wraps to bumper stickers, custom interiors to custom fabricated body panels, every part of a car can be altered by an owner willing to undertake such a task. Fluttering headlight eyelashes can blink whimsy at strangers while opaque rear window decals shout your love of Aerosmith to anyone who pulls up too close behind you. Custom paint is expensive, but Sharpies are cheap. Really, you can do anything.
But most Americans don’t. Seventy-six percent of cars in the U.S. are black, white, silver, or gray. There are a variety of financial reasons for this — you can’t mess with a car you lease, and if you intend to resell quickly, customization only hurts you — but finances aren’t what are keeping the majority of vehicles looking stock. There’s this quote about how the average U.S. consumer spends $2,000 in customization or options in the first year of purchase, but practically that just translates to nicer rims, not tiger stripes. Outside of car culture, we mostly buy it in gray and keep it that way.
We have a very narrow definition of what is socially acceptable for a car’s appearance. Do anything outside that, and be prepared for raised eyebrows or outright derision. I knew all this before I painted my car. I just didn’t know why it was true. Why is mainstream America so bold in our other aesthetic choices and so meek in our automotive ones?
But I found that the reactions to my Evo’s new chaotic livery surprised me. Unlike all of my previous playful experimentations, people mostly . . . liked it. Some people seemed to really like it. At a certain point, it seems one passes through an ugly-event-horizon and reaches a new place of funky charm, like those dogs with extremely flat faces but nice smiles. At some point you break the rules so thoroughly they just don’t apply.
I was not committing a fashion faux pas. I was wearing a rabbit suit to work. The first is awkward for everyone. The second is odd but fun—to watch, not to try. People were delighted that I’d let the Evo be benevolently vandalized, but they were not about to start shaking paint cans for their own vehicles.
“This car is so you,” one of my friends told me. He said it in that way where it might have been a good thing, depending on what one’s feelings were on me being me. He followed up with sentences I would soon grow used to hearing: “I love it. But I wouldn’t drive it. No one would forget it.”
That was the point.
It put me in mind of an early review of the Ford Focus RS. The review expounded upon the car’s nimble handling, its sprightly pickup, how fun it was to drive. In the comments, however, dozens of commenters said that the car sounded great, but that it looked too memorable for them to be interested.
That neon blue paint, that aggressive aero kit—if they parked the RS in their in-laws’ driveway, they said, the neighbors would never forget. If they passed someone in traffic, drivers would remember. If they parked in front of a store, people would note the car there. Better, the comments concluded, to get a sleeper. Something anonymous and fast that could pass through the world unseen, something that didn’t tell people anything about you. Something quiet. Preferably in black, white, silver, or gray.
The spray-painted Evo was the opposite of quiet. What’s the opposite of a sleeper? Awake?
I was fascinated. Wanting to know if it was just a car-culture thing, I asked my followers on social media if they would drive a spray-painted car. Hundreds of replies poured in.
Nearly all of them were variations on a theme: Even if they thought the car was incredibly cool, they didn’t want the attention an unusual car would generate. They didn’t want to be judged. They didn’t want to be scrutinized. They didn’t want to be engaged. More than anything, they didn’t want to be looked at, period.
It was fine for me to wear the rabbit suit to work, but they would stick with business casual, thanks. If you do something unusual, people will notice you everywhere you go.
Well, they’re not wrong.
* * *
“Cool paint job, bro.” Another gas station, another admirer. The man fit his hand into the spray-painted handprint on the fender, and then he observed, “But you can never cut anybody off.”
But I can. The paint job doesn’t keep me from driving like an asshole. It just makes sure everyone remembers it.
In this car, my sins aren’t hidden. Nothing really is, actually. You’ll remember seeing my car in the Walmart parking lot. You can tell it was me parked in the emergency department lot. You saw me tidily parallel park just a few minutes ago. Yes, that was me pulled over by a cop on the turnpike. Yes, it was also me lost downtown, circling the block four times. Yes, it was me you remembered from that race years ago. Yes, I’m that author with the spray-painted car. Yes, you’ve seen me around. That’s me, that’s me, that’s me.
In the spray-painted Evo, I can’t operate in anonymity on the road, but is it possible that maybe I shouldn’t? The old-fashioned highway now has a lot in common with the information super-highway: it’s populated by faceless automotive avatars who can perform without consequences.
Driving a wildly painted car is like using my real name on the internet.
Is it uncomfortable?
Yeah. Sometimes it is. Honesty and transparency can be searing. But it’s also real.
I don’t live in a bubble. The cars around me aren’t a collection of license plates and order numbers and anonymous feedback surveys. I live in society, surrounded by real people with real lives. It’s an odd shared cultural construct that we’ve decided to pretend as if we are no longer interacting with individuals, and that by operating in privacy—in anonymity—the ripples we make never touch any other shore. I’m a part of a whole. I can’t forget that when I’m driving my graffiti monstrosity. Everyone sees me—the good and the bad.
I’m glad for my spray-paint accountability.
I wonder what it would be like if our highways were a bit more personalized. Would you still hang in the left lane, distracted by a podcast, if you couldn’t forget that the Honda behind you contained a real woman with her own schedule? Would you still refuse to let that man in the Saturn merge if you were both standing side by side instead of anonymous and invisible in your automotive robot suits? Would you drive differently if your real name was spray painted across your trunk lid?
I think you would, because I know I do.
If you want to join me, I’ve got a trunk full of rattle-cans and a gentle-used tarp.
Maggie Stiefvater is a novelist, musician, car enthusiast and occasional rally driver based in Virginia.