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RALEIGH, North Carolina — A black-and-white photo portrait of Danny Trejo taken in 2007 by Estevan Oriol and displayed in CAM Raleigh’s main gallery reinforces the actor’s villainous persona. Trejo’s bare, tattooed chest and arms are slightly puffed out, as if he’s squaring up for a fight. His dark eyes are focused directly on Oriol’s lens and it appears as though he won’t let his guard down for a single moment. By Trejo’s side is his lowrider motorcycle; the shine of its custom chrome handlebars pierces through the print’s gray tones. Oriol’s lens suggests there’s more to the man than what his steely visage implies. In this photo, the chrome is not just a shiny distraction, it’s an invitation to the viewer to look deeper. Great portraits challenge viewers to venture beyond their first impressions to interrogate their own gaze, and specifically, what influences it.
We form biases based on the preconceived notions of others when encountering communities that are unfamiliar to our own. CAM Raleigh tackles this in its exploration of lowrider culture in ¡Viva Viclas! The Art of the Low Rider. The exhibition reunites the curatorial team behind 2017’s The High Art of Riding Low at the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA, but CAM’s show is unique in its focus on lowrider motorcycle culture. ¡Viva Viclas! features 10 custom Harley Davidson motorcycles that have been transformed into motorized works of art, featuring elaborately detailed paint jobs, murals, intricately engraved chrome, and custom leatherwork that represents generations of lowrider artistry originally popularized by Mexican-American and Black car enthusiasts in California and New Mexico during the 1950s.
During this time lowrider cars bucked the prevailing hot rod trends that prioritized speed, and instead owners dropped the physical profile of their vehicles low to the ground. Riding low also meant driving slow; this offered owners a prime opportunity to show off their car’s custom features. Creative expression became a conduit for cultural expression, and these unique cultural signifiers were critically important symbols of Chicano pride among riders during the rising tides of Civil Rights activism in the 1960s. Over the years, lowrider style was adapted to motorcycles, bicycles, and dress. It represented not just a style, but also a way of life.
The show invites visitors to look beyond the stunning Viclas and learn more about the culture through the origin stories of the motorcycles and the legendary artists and craftspeople behind lowrider style. Co-curator Denise Sandoval’s historical insight is paired with auto historian Ken Gross’s detailed technical commentary, providing a comprehensive introduction to Vicla culture that’s rooted in principles of pride, kinship, and respect.
Eleven artworks line the gallery walls and frame the motorcycles featured in the middle of the exhibition space; they also introduce the cultural themes that connect the Viclas to both the street and the white cube. For instance, Estevan Oriol’s photographic portraits are presented alongside a vibrant mural by El Moises that imagines Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo as tattooed riders with a tricked-out peacock-blue 1949 Chevy in “Love and Rockets” (2019); and OG Abel’s colorful rendition of Loteria in “Cartas” (2019) presents the classic card game of chance using iconography associated with Vicla culture. The painting embellishes the traditional La Calavera skull with two crossed pistons, while the La Mano (the hand of the rebel) holds a wrench. The rebel outlaw has become a favorite pop culture archetype, and since lowriders were the rebels among rebels, their distinctive style also made them easy targets for law enforcement who racially profiled drivers and riders. The weaponization of cultural expression persists to this day. Hollywood also reinforced ties between lowrider and gang and prison culture instead of exploring the Viclas as extensions of Mexican-American and Chicano heritage. What’s lost with the rebel narrative propagated by Hollywood and embraced by popular culture is the artistry and camaraderie that lies behind the creation of the bikes.
Sandoval offers a respectful nod to lowriding’s intersectional roots and its misunderstood history, while weaving together present-day stories of riders that push racial and gender boundaries among Harley Davidson collectors. The legendary tattoo artist Mister Cartoon, who created the ¡Viva Viclas! exhibition logo, once said that “lowriders are built, not bought.” The motorcycles in the show are compelling examples of the collective creativity that has influenced bike owners in fashioning their own art on wheels.
April Flores’s pristine white “Firmosa” is a stunning 2005 Fat Boy embellished with shiny polished chrome accents and white masks resembling those worn in The Phantom of the Opera. Lyrics from the Broadway classic’s sheet music are subtly painted onto the bike’s frame, while a long, braided, bejeweled cat of nine tails is seductively bound to one of the handlebars. Its presence on the motorcycle subverts the romantic sentimentalities in the other features of the Vicla and becomes a powerful reminder to viewers that Flores is every bit of the badass required to handle this powerful machine. In ¡Viva Viclas!, her bike is next to Kelly Hedgepeth’s metal flake, candy-coated, and pinstriped 2012 Road King called “Pretty in Pink.” The two Viclas stand out among the more traditional, hyper-masculine lowrider designs.
Behind each motorcycle is a collective of artists and craftspeople who collaborate on nearly every element of the bike’s design. Serafin Romero’s “In Honor of You” is an emotionally touching tribute to his family’s battles with cancer and illness. The candy-apple-red bike sports elaborately engraved chrome by Edgar Barba that frames painted murals by Abel Rocha featuring angels who act as guardians over those struggling with illness and developmental disorders. The religious iconography on the bike invites deeper conversations about life and death; in the show’s wall text Sandoval shares Romero’s thoughts on the emotional catharsis the bike offers those who come into contact with it: “The motorcycle allows people to connect to their loss of loved ones; the people are letting something out they have bottled up for so long, and when they share their stories with me, it means more to me than winning a trophy … If I can help you by listening, then that is my purpose in life.” The sentiment articulated through his Vicla embodies lowrider values that CAM Raleigh introduces at the beginning of the show: “heart, pride, brotherhood, respect, and family.” When I visited the exhibition I talked with Romero about his bike and its unique purpose, which led to a conversation about dementia and how it impacts caretakers and family members. The Vicla was an unexpected, important conduit for emotional connections that transcend the differences in our backgrounds and life experiences.
¡Viva Viclas! challenges the psychological barriers and physical borders we place between us, transforming them into important bridges of understanding. The show is a lively and vibrant introduction in Raleigh to Vicla culture that provides a vitally important space for broader conversations about art and inclusion.
¡Viva Viclas! The Art of the Lowrider Motorcycle continues at CAM Raleigh (409 West Martin St., Raleigh, North Carolina) through February 9. The exhibition is curated by Denise Sandoval and Ken Gross.