Why did fantasy van art become a thing?
December 9, 2012 5:43 AM   Subscribe

Fantasy van art, what and why? When I was little I remember seeing these conversion vans with Conan or Thor or whatever airbrushed on the outside and never thought much of it. Now, though, I am curious about what this phenomenon was all about.

I can totally understand if the explanation is something as simple as "fantasy van art is awesome." But I am curious about the culture at the time that made something like this become the thing to do. If anyone has any specific info I would appreciate it.
posted by Literaryhero to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
From the blue: All you need is Conan on the side and you're set for some serious cruising. Also from the blue: "If This Van's a-Rockin'."

Ooops, almost missed a third FPP: "Vanhacking."
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:00 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I dated a guy in the early 90's who had a van and one weekend he took me to a "Van-In" at some fairgrounds about an hour away. He was part of a van club, his was called the "Lost Souls" and there was this whole subculture of Van clubs. All the clubs circled their vans like wagons and we stayed for two nights. There were a few bands playing and some silly contests like wet tee shirts and also some van contests - nicest interior, best paint job, etc. There was a lot of alcohol and other substances and everyone was cool and fun.

Apparently they still have them.
posted by NoraCharles at 6:41 AM on December 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

In the early 70s, cool kids were reading The Lord of the Rings, Frank Frazzeta was illustrating various pulp fantasy and comic books, and him and Roger Dean were doing LP covers. You could find cheap copies of their stuff on head-shop posters and in Heavy Metal. The style was around, and seemed like a natural choice for a painting on the side, if you had a van and the resources for a complete conversion.
posted by Rash at 9:56 AM on December 9, 2012

My guess (as the daughter of someone who used to customize cars): Pinstriping had been very popular as a way of customizing hot rods and sports cars since the '50s. So maybe for the car culture of the '70s, the wider popular culture of the period (fantasy novels, ethnic pride movements, pop art, etc.) made putting a wizard or an Aztec maiden a natural outgrowth of that tradition, especially as a van requires a lot more surface area to be decorated. (I also wonder if there might have been changes in air brush technology in the 1970s -- say, the equipment got better, or became more affordable -- that would have been a part of it.)
posted by scody at 11:07 AM on December 9, 2012

scody has it -- the genesis was hot rod culture, which began in California, and that dovetailed neatly with surfer culture, and the panel van was ideal for surfers, both to carry one's boards and as ersatz camping equipment. The fantasy art aspect was then highly influenced by the counterculture/hippie movement with its affinity for things Tolkien and so forth who adopted the van and, notoriously, the VW microbus for their roaming ways.

A keystone figure in all this was Von Dutch^. This guy seems to have been influential in terms of opening up the technology.
posted by dhartung at 11:45 AM on December 9, 2012

scody and dhartung, that is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks.
posted by Literaryhero at 12:31 AM on December 10, 2012

You'll probably enjoy the entries in The Guide to United States Popular Culture:
* airbrush painting
* van art
posted by dhartung at 6:11 AM on December 10, 2012

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