By on September 28, 2012

In the ’72 Dodge Tradesman Junkyard Find earlier this week, I referred to the iconic custom-van airbrush mural with “jousting knights battling Aztec kings in a zebra herd at the Mars Base.” All of those elements were seen on the flanks of plenty of Chevy Vans and Econolines back in the 1970s (though you didn’t often see more than one per mural), and— now that we’ve got the benefit of nearly 40 years of hindsight— we can think about what could be done today with the art form of the custom van.
Unfortunately, my custom-van project is a window-equipped Dodge Sportsman, so I can’t get any serious airbrush work done to it (I will get plenty of pinstriping, of course). If I ever get a windowless “molester van,” however, I think I’d go for a mural combining science-fiction and low-rider-style Aztec motifs, complete with gold leaf on the helmets of the astronauts/Aztec warriors, all done in super-pneumatic pinball-machine-backglass style. How about you?

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47 Comments on “Question: What Subject Matter Will Go On Your Custom Van’s Airbrush Mural?...”

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    One that I once saw near San Antonio, TX was of a horse-mounted, rifle-carrying cowboy staring into the desert horizon, which then morphed into the jungles of Vietnam, complete with Hueys shooting down VietCongs.

  • avatar

    The “Kidnapper” airbrush is hilarious and made me laugh. As a criminal lawyer, I could only imagine the field day a prosecutor could make of this in trying one of my clients for sexual assault, exploitation, or indecent act.

  • avatar

    Unicorns and rainbows are always in style. Maybe work Merlin into it.

  • avatar
    Vance Torino

    Channeling a red state anti-Portlandia: “Put a wolf on it!”

  • avatar

    Mike Watt driving an Econoline

  • avatar

    Car murals were popular in my hometown for too many years. You’d even see newer vans with native american and wolf murals back when I was in middle school. The one I’ll always remember wasn’t found on a van, but on the hood of an orange C3 vette. It was of a viking/conan the barbarian type standing proudly with a giant sword. Above our hero was the word “Terminator”. Pure class.

  • avatar

    I saw a van in LA that had a unicorn, flying saucers, a wizard and lots of disco graphics. It was a vinyl wrap I think. The technology for van graphics are much more advanced than they used to be. But airbrush is just cooler.

  • avatar

    I think the key is to recognize your audience. Are you going to be lurking near schools? In the suburbs? Are you going to hang around near dog-friendly areas?

    Each of these warrants a different mural. But the sky’s the limit.

  • avatar

    Recently (while in traffic) I spotted a clean white Astro cargo van that I think was the beginning of someone’s project. The van was covered in a mural on which the paint looked pretty fresh. The wrap around mural was nothing but lusciously done tropical plants in a “modern graffiti” style. Nothing else on the van was custom. (BTW cargo vans are common here but purely as tradesman vehicles and conversion vans are not uncommon because of the large distance between towns and the wide open spaces. I have a teacher whose daily driver is a late model GMC van done up in luxurious conversion van style with a 27 in LCD TV in it.)

    What would be on my mural?

    Senoritas, senoritas everywhere…

  • avatar

    I actually wanted a custom-painted van for about 15 – 20 minutes about 34 years ago.

    Mine wouldn’t have an air-brushed mural, per se, but be done up in a railroad-themed EMD F unit passenger locomotive in Warbonnet livery of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railway.

    Of course, it would be a short-wheelbase Chevy van with portholes added for effect.

    Years later at a custom car show, some guy had his long-wheelbase Chevy van done up in Union Pacific Railway passenger livery complete with Leslie air horns! That thing was LOUD, too…especially indoors!

    Of course, I was jealous…

  • avatar

    Oh easy. The cover for Dio’s album Last in Line

    Bad friggin ass.

  • avatar

    You could paint a theme based on the move “A Clockwork Orange” and include some musical references and a nod to Beethoven and call it the “Ludwig Van” as the movie’s protagonist, Alex refered to Beethoven by that name.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    I wonder if there is something…some guitar or fancy pair of shoes, perhaps… which we could trade to Baruth in exchange for allowing the fetching Ms. Vodka McBigbra to pose….oh, say, in the slave girl garb which Carrie Fisher wore to such great effect in “Return of the Jedi”….while my airbrush artist friend immortalizes her on the passenger side of a Chevy Shorty?

    Nothing lofty about aliens or New Riders of the Purple Sage or vikings.

    Just good ‘ol American sex, drugs and rock and roll. Which is what these vans were all about back in the day, anyway.

    Hey, a man’s GOT to have dreams.

    • 0 avatar

      on the passenger side of a Chevy Shorty?

      Awwwwwwwww man, raise your hand if you miss short wheelbase full size vans! (Raises hand.)

      When I was in college I worked with a guy who owned a Chevy short wheelbase that had one big window on the drivers side and a window in each of the cargo doors and the curbside door. It was his work van an only carried 5 people with a rear bench but I thought it was the prefect size for a van. Forest green too, one of my favorite colors.

  • avatar

    My first thought is artwork in the style of The Church of John Coltrane ( ). But then keep the style going, adding Igor Stravinsky, Jimi Hendricks, Mozart, Hank Williams, Bo Diddley, then maybe James Joyce to confuse people on the theme and then, oh, say, Ana Vidovic, Norah Jones and Shakira as The Fates to both seem even more unstable and slightly increase the off chance that one of them would be interested enough to ask why I did such a thing, albeit probably through a lawyer.

  • avatar

    There’s the sub genre of pickup trucks with the back window graphics you get at Cabela’s or wherever… lots of white wolves, eagles, bucks with big racks, (wrong kind of rack IMHO, just sayin…) wildly idyllic forest scenes.

    I’m still trying to nail down my airbrush subject(s) but the truck will be “Vantastic” for sure!

    I really want some chromed side pipes too, even if they’re not hooked up. Actually, make SURE they’re not hooked up; I’ve never known a truck or Vette with side pipes that didn’t burn you no matter how well they were installed.

  • avatar

    What about Bowser on a surfboard, playing a double neck guitar with music notes coming out, winking over sunglasses, superimposed on a pot leaf, superimposed on a cross?

  • avatar

    This gem is mine.

    Complements my Volvo 244 nicely…

  • avatar

    I’m 32, and the last and only one I can think of was the van my friend and me found in the Pick your Part junkyard here in Edmonton about 10 or 12 years ago. (now it’s owned by Pick n Pull) We still talk about it sometimes.

    I don’t remember the make or model, but it had just a simple but very well done image of an ancient knight on horseback, staring out over the horizon, and the title of “Sir Vancelot” painted above. It was just incredible.

    The interior was all done up with very realistic-looking stone (styrofoam) walls, a nice shag carpet, carpeted dashboard and the “wood burning stove” was actually a mini-fridge. That’s all I rememebr but it brings back nice memories.

    Oh it must have been a GM product, since that’s the only area we hung around in at that time.

  • avatar

    In the mid-80’s, I worked at a country music radio station. We had an extended Chevy van with a tricked out interior and what were supposed to be airbrushed country stars on the sides: Willie, Waylon, etc. I am quite sure the station general manager got the artwork done in trade for beers at the Cowtown bar. The images all ended up looking like space aliens. Crystal Gayle’s face was particularly frightening.

    At one booze-infested music festival, I accidentally backed the van into a Jaguar. No damage, but I was accused of doing it intentionally. I didn’t argue much.

    • 0 avatar

      OK, Part 2: It’s all coming back to me through the haze…

      After leaving the country station, I worked for a more hipster rock station. The cheap-ass owner of that one brought in an old Dodge cargo van about the size of a small bus. I’m fairly certain he had been using it in his other “businesses” to move the remains of ex-enemies. The airbrushing was at least done properly on this one, but I was always accused of trying to park it on railroad tracks in an effort to acquire something that better fit the station’s image.

      Can’t blame a guy for trying…

  • avatar

    My mural will be a a picture of my van, and the mural-van’s mural will be a picture of the mural van, Down 3-4 levels until you have to be standing right beside the van to make out the last mural, which will feature 1 3/4″ of “The Aristocrats”-level debauchery.

    *edit” Googling “van mural” brought me here:

  • avatar

    A scene similar to the one depicted in the painting Battle of the Nile
    By English painter George Arnald.

  • avatar
    its me Dave

    I always thought a Trans Am screaming chicken would make a rad van mural.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    my favorite is this.

  • avatar

    It would have to be this On the side of a Citroen Berlingo.

  • avatar

    I first painted my 65 Ford Orange. Then had a pot pipe done in gold leaf, with smoke rolling above the pipe, and the words, “Dazed and Confused” in the smoke.
    Later changed the color to bright red. Had a belly band painted around the front down the sided past the doors. The belly band was burn’t tangerine pearl, that faded to the outsided of the band to red , pinstriped in black. Once it got past the doors, the belly band broke into flames of pearl red and orange. With the word “BURN”, at the end .
    Then changed to a 74 Dodge in root beer brown. It came with a murel of sunrise in the mountains. So I had “Wayward Son” added to the sunrise.
    If I could do it again today. Another 74 Dodge “short wheel base of course”. In Black, lowered, S/S Crager rims, side pipes, north cal wing, tinted windows. And of couse “No Portholes”. I’m thinking the scean from Indpendence day where the white house blows up. And in the mix of the explosin I’d have “VAN-GINA” painted on it. Damn good times.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    I will commission Futaba Jun to create more illustrations furthering the story in his Wings of Destiny collection. Failing that, Buichi Terasawa’s exquisite portrayals of the human body in his Cobra universe would be a fitting adornment to the gloss black sides of a panel van. If I come up short in either of those endeavours, there’s always Nobuyuki Takagi’s or Naoto Tenhiro’s depictions of sweetness and light. For domestic artists, I could do a lot worse than a detailed Bonescape from the hands of Jeff Smith, or perhaps a properly antisocial Milk & Cheese portrayal from Evan Dorkin (Onward . . . To Mayhem!). On the F&SF front, a detailed spacewreck scene along the lines of Colin Hay, Angus McKie or Tony Roberts would add an air of mystery, or just recreate the Rodney Matthews cover art for Nazareth’s No Mean City album, with added tech updates of fiber optics to illuminate the rising moon and lit windows in the background cityscape; the opposite side would be covered with the tech and characters of Lavender Castle.

    Argh, I have too many ideas for that container; perhaps Lela Dowling and Ken Macklin could get together once again to illustrate an Official Running Away Van for the Weasel Patrol.

    • 0 avatar


      Also you don’t think to *mention* Berserk? It’s what a 70’s Barbarian airbrusher would hallucinate after overexposure to lacquer paint.

      • 0 avatar
        Felis Concolor

        That particular style didn’t appeal to me, and a Berserk illustration would be complicated by the need to continually increase the size of the protagonist’s blade. Ack, more triggers have been tripped; I’m digging through the memory banks for more outstanding landscape fodder. El-Hazard’s lush world would make for an excellent backdrop, and the cityscapes in Clamp’s X provided a dramatic stage for the cutest gang war ever animated. BGC’s Megatokyo was the real star of the animated series, and a Cyber Formula scene would be sufficiently flashy yet still unrecognizable to 99% of westerners.

  • avatar
    Mr Nosy

    Coco Chanel is quoted as saying “Elegance Is Refusal”.However,being born poor,she never refused anything.Diana Vreeland though,took that & ran with it.But this is full size van murals ,so what do they know? Anyways,you mentioned backglass vignettes,well why not use the windows,instead of the body,for, dare I call them,Muralees? I’ll throw a few ideas out-How’s about Thomas Kincaide meets Raymond Pettibone? Since the autopsy,we all know the profound impact Valium had on Mr.Kincaide’s artistic vision.It could be combined to take a bit of the edge off those uptight & stingy,Pettibone/Ginn Bros(From what I’ve heard.). Or perhaps an erotic twist on the mural friendly style of Socialist Realism? A little bit Alberto Vargas,a little bit Tom of Finland.Add a little street style and it’ll be Lil’Kim Jong Illin’ meets Fat Joe Stalin. $,quarter,quarter,nickel-Peace,etc.

  • avatar

    The first thing that popped into my mind was this:

    (Actually, Brandon Bird is a rich vein for people looking for the right image.)

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