Lowriders: a distinctively Californian subculture

“The High Art of Riding Low” was an exhibit of lowrider cars and art at L.A.’s Petersen Automotive Museum.

Even though the surfer has long been considered the quintessential Californian, neither surfing nor surf culture originated in the Golden State.

The lowrider, however, is a true California original. As the surfer is to Hawaii, so is the lowrider to Southern California.

A common misconception is that “lowrider” refers to a type of car. It doesn’t. A lowrider is the person who not only cruises the boulevards, but whose roots are in the distinctively Chicano car cruising culture of Los Angeles.

Lowriders were the laidback yang to the yin of the manic all-white surf-and-hotrod youth culture that was so successfully exploited by Hollywood in the mid 1900s. Immortalized in 1975 by the hit song by War, the original lowriders of the 1960s and ’70s were mostly Mexican-Americans from East L.A.

Lowriders back then had slicked back hair or perfectly coiffed bouffants. Today’s lowrider is more likely to be bald, goateed and tatted, as portrayed in the 2016 movie “Lowriders.” Gone too is the big-hair-and-black-eyeliner fashion sported by old-school lowrider girls.

Though styles have changed, the hallmark of lowriders was then and is now their elaborately customized lowered cars — often Chevy sedans designed to ride “low and slow” — with extravagant custom paint jobs, wire or mag wheels, highly polished chrome, and custom interiors.

Shunning speed, lowriders come out at night to put on a continuous slow-moving parade of spectacular customized cars, every caring detail paid for with the owner’s sweat. The intricate paint jobs and interiors, often inspired by Chicano themes, have made the cars works of art in their own right.

“It’s the way we are making our mark in the world,” Denise Sandoval, a professor of Chicano and Chicana studies at California State University, Northridge, recently told NBC News. “We’re using color, we’re using art, we’re using beauty to tell our stories, and to use these cars to talk about what it means to be American, from the Chicano experience,” Sandoval said.

“The High Art of Riding Low,” was an exhibit curated by Sandoval that ran through June 2018 at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. In addition to “several of the most amazingly customized cars you’ll ever see,” the exhibit also showed a “sampling of some of the Chicano fine art world’s best lowrider-inspired works.”

In other words, not only are the cars works of art themselves, but they also are a major theme of inspiration for other works, including painting, sculpture and other media.

It is then no wonder that lowriding has always been as much about cruising as it is about stopping and admiring the work of the owner, much like one would do at an art exhibit. It is about hanging out on the street and at popular night spots, seeing and being seen. Lowriding is something cool to do and be.

“It’s about taking your car out in a caravan and making sure that people see it out in public,” Ben Chappell, author of “Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Mexican American Custom Cars” said in an interview with the New York Times in 2012.

“A lot of time, it involves finding an empty parking lot late at night and just hanging out. It’s a chance to talk about the cars, but also discuss what’s going on in the community,” Chappell said.

Despite decades of attempts by police to crack down on lowriding in greater Los Angeles, these rolling art shows have continued on a number of major thoroughfares over the decades, and have seen a recent resurgence on Whittier Boulevard, the granddaddy of all cruise spots.

“It’s like a way of life for us,” Eli Garcia, a cruising event organizer in SoCal, told the L.A. Times in July. “It did die out for maybe 15 years or so,” he said. “We’ve started bringing it back …”

Even though it has historically been a primarily Mexican-American activity, kids of all races were always welcome to the party, and in recent years the lowrider culture has now gone multicultural and worldwide.

In “Lowriding Culture Goes Global,” New York Times writer Sophia Kercherdec documents the emergence of lowrider communities in places as far away as Tokyo, Japan, Jakarta, India and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Regardless of ethnic or socioeconomic background, love for and admiration of customized cars, as well as respect for their talented owners, seems to be what keeps bringing lowriders together for a night of cruising.

Story was updated Jan. 14, 2020.

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