The first time I met the artist Kenny Scharf, he vandalized my car, and I was totally fine with it.
It was the summer of 2013 and for the past five years I had been driving a Jeep Liberty that I inherited from my second stepmom. “Lady Liberty,” as I named her, was perfectly functional, zippy and bubbly. But, to be honest, she was basic as fuck, and hardly an accurate vehicular avatar for my personality. What’s more, she was red, a color a numerologist once specifically advised me to avoid.
It was an Instagram K-hole that led me to Scharf’s feed, where I became entranced by photo after photo from a project he called “Karbombz,” featuring psychedelic cartoon characters spraypainted across the side of every type of vehicle. His work was familiar to me from a mural he had painted on the West Hollywood Public Library, where I frequently went to write. After a little more research, I found out that he’d come up as a street artist in the 80s, palling around with Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. Chic.
I knew it was my destiny to have him paint my car.
I left the following comment underneath one of the photos, calibrated to be hopeful but not thirsty: “I have a Jeep Liberty that could use some attitude.” Within a matter of hours I was prompted to provide my email address. A few days later, Kenny himself contacted me to say he would be “happy to do my car” and gave me his assistant’s email so I could coordinate a time to come into his LA studio. I followed up and we set a date: August 7th, the day Lady Liberty’s life — and mine — would be forever changed.
My nerves started to set in as soon as I parked under a tarp outside of Kenny’s studio. I’d been so excited to have my car painted that I hadn’t bothered to ask about the logistics, but Kenny promptly put my anxiety to rest by asking me what colors and designs I liked.
I explained that my car was lacking an edge, and after some discussion, we decided that the driver’s side would feature an aggressive-looking, swoosh-like character he calls the “Yike Grr” (pronounced like “Nike” but with a Y), appropriately enough. A “Speedy Grr” — best described as a blob moving so fast that it creates the illusion of a body trailing behind it — would grace the passenger side. Both characters would be teal with purple accents. Once we were all set, Kenny offered me a bong rip, which I gladly accepted, and began the process of painting my car.
We stood under a tarp outside of his studio in the 90-plus-degree heat, while Kenny coated each side of the car with multiple layers of spray paint, added some colorful touches and accents, and topped everything off with a layer of finishing spray. It took less than an hour for Kenny to take my Jeep from basic to beyond.
Three years later, Lady Liberty still gives me joy every time I look at her. To say I’m obsessed is an understatement. However, from an outsider’s perspective, my car is a worthless, graffitied, 14-year-old Jeep Liberty. It’s missing a piece of the back fender. The air conditioning is broken. One of the back seats won’t lock into place, making it a total passenger safety hazard, and the car has recently developed a tendency to lurch forward unexpectedly when stopped. From a Blue Book perspective, it’s worth approximately $20 and a handshake. From my perspective, it’s the best thing I own.
It was this paradox that led me back to Kenny’s studio last month. Since I’d caught him in the early days of the Karbombz project, I wanted to circle back and hear how it had evolved over time. I was also curious as to the true value of my car. Had the sudden influx of Kenny Scharf cars on the road — and his current exhibition at UCLA’s Hammer Museum — made them some sort of hot new must-have art piece? Was my shitty Jeep bound for a future as a traveling exhibit, making pit stops in South Beach or the Hamptons while fashionable people sipped champagne and posed for event photographers?
“As you know, I have everyone sign something that says they won’t take pieces off and sell them,” Kenny tells me when I revisit his studio nearly three years later, immediately deflating my Art Basel fantasies. I didn’t remember this, but to be fair I was stoned at the time, so that’s probably why. “One of the things that’s important for me about Karbombz, and public art for me in general, is [it’s] something I do that I don’t want to have money attached. In general, the view is unless something is worth a lot of money it’s not really valuable as art. And I think that’s wrong. I think that some art doesn’t have a price tag, and it will force people to kind of confront the art itself and not the price tag attached to it.”
It’s impossible not to confront the art itself in Scharf’s studio. Once you’re there, you’re in his world; no object escapes the Kenny Scharf treatment, with his characters gracing everything from the office copy machine to a golf cart sitting in the corner. “I’ve always been into something I call customization, which is taking everyday objects and transforming them. Objects that you use, whether it be a telephone, a television, a blender, a car — they’re all appliances,” Scharf explains, using a fan-like brush to blend the edges of an orange swirl into the white background of a painting. “The Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians: the objects that they used for utility were decorated,” he continues. “They were art. By making art into your daily life, you’re enhancing your life and you’re bringing your life to an upper level.”
Of course, his practice extends beyond decorating everyday objects to sculpture, video, paintings and murals. I asked him how many Karbombz he’s done to date. He replies, “I think it’s in the 160s.” Scharf is everywhere. I ask him if there’s a goal number in his head. “I can’t stop until there’s no more cars.”
Fair enough, but what would an art dealer have to say about all this? I emailed some experts and found the general consensus seems to be that unless the car in question is vintage, a Karbombz painting does not significantly increase its worth. Though I’ve never had any intention of trying to take my car apart and sell it off panel by panel, I have to admit there have been times when I’ve fantasized about some wealthy Scharf fan becoming so obsessed with my car that they’d be willing to offer me a substantial amount of cash to take it off my hands. Perhaps it’s just a matter of keeping Lady Liberty alive and kicking for another 14 years and then cashing in when the time is right.
Or perhaps you can’t put a price on the universe pairing you with a like-minded individual who could give you the gift of changing the way you look at something. It strikes me now that maybe my car isn’t actually an expression of me, but rather an expression of Scharf. But that’s fine because I love it and will continue to love it as long as it’s mine. Plus, I can’t paint for shit, so this is the closest to “me” my car is ever gonna get.
“[Karbombz is] my rebellion against the given,” Scharf says in between soft, fluid brush strokes. “We’re are given these cars that look like this, but we don’t have to just accept [them]. I don’t like to accept whatever just because that’s the way it is. I can change tactically and visually, therefore changing my environment and other people’s too, and maybe inspire them to do the same.”