An Apprenticeship in Chicano Lowrider Vehicle Construction and Lowrider Sculpture
Text and Photos by Sherwood Chen, Associate Director and Apprenticeship Program Manager
La Puente-based lowrider artist Gilbert “Magu” Lujan—widely known as Magu—and Mario Trillo of Los Angeles are current participants in the Alliance’s Apprenticeship Program, focusing on lowrider vehicle construction and lowrider sculpture. The apprenticeship emphasized working together on each of their respective vehicles—including a 1954 Chevy truck, a 1950 Chevy, and the shell of a limousine—and as well as developing carrito-based mixed media paper-mâché sculptures (of which Magu has been celebrated). The two forms—automobile and paper-mâché car sculptures—are inseparable in their approach, and reflective of Magu’s holistic process as an artist.
While Trillo and Magu have developed a friendship and partnership in working together amongst a larger network of lowrider builders, artists, and technicians, the apprenticeship serves to focus on a more structured relationship between the two. Working on cars is typically an ongoing process with multiple concurrent projects, informally and regularly gathering networks of practitioners who share their respective expertise, brainstorming, and group labor focused on building and personalizing individual cars. Magu and Trillo meet frequently in groups and one-on-one, setting aside specific times—typically on Saturdays—to meet and work on assignments related to a given group member’s car.
These networks are often informal, intergenerational and pivot around a passion around lowrider cars. As Magu notes, “The love of lowriders is the glue.” These groups are also inclusive of what Magu describes as “the wannabes and the will-bes” demonstrating how important these groups are in transmitting lowrider traditions and aesthetics. Various projects Magu and Trillo are involved in occur in different places in the Southland, to their respective home garages, to scouring the Pomona Swap Meet in the pre-dawn chill for good finds and good deals on rare car parts
While Trillo and Magu work on multiple projects with both short- and long-term timelines, a central focus during their apprenticeship is exploring the seamless marriage between lowrider construction and sculptural and conceptual detail. Both Trillo and Magu approach the paper-mâché sculptures they design and craft as actual cars, prototypes of what can ultimately be realized as an operating vehicle. Conversely, Magu promotes the view that an automobile meets every criterion in what defines sculpture, despite his experience over time of institutions dismissing the notion of lowriders as art. One example which exemplifies Magu’s approach to cars and culture is the Limotzlan, which appears in Magu’s sculptural and illustrative renderings and is currently being re-imagined and built out from a fiberglass limousine shell. Magu defines the Limotzlan as a “cultural vehicle which speaks of urban life” and will serve as a parade vehicle rife with lowrider and Chicano/a iconography and potential green alternative fuel technology. “Lowriders in my life have manifested beyond car-building. Sociologically speaking, lowriders are about families, clubs, aggregates of people’s interests. The car is not only a cultural motif but spreads itself out, becomes more complex in relationship between car clubs, males, families, business. It goes into another world, doing it all in a flavor that is neither Mexican, gringo, Asian or Black… it is all of it, because that is the world we live in.”
As a lowrider artist, Magu wants to reflect the complexities and cultural exchange of life in 21st century California, both actual and utopic, “to transcend it all, to melt it together. To let people know that Chicanos eat Cheerios in the morning, burritos at lunch, and in the evening, adobo. Our worlds are not as singular and limited as people think. I think too often people want to put things conveniently in too small of a box. That’s why I weave in and out of a lot worlds. Lowriding has manifested itself into culture in a very broad way, in more ways than people understand.”
As an arts advocate in the 1960s, Magu helped to define Chicano art as the founder of Los Four. Los Four changed art history in 1974 by having the first Chicano art exhibition in Los Angeles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That landmark exhibit articulated a visual vocabulary expressing Chicano culture and contextualizing it as part of the larger “community movimiento.” Magu pushes and bleeds contemporaneous aesthetics acknowledging multiple influences and distinctions from one car culture to the next and developing a distinct aesthetic which has been defined as a “refined folkish 'rasquachiness.'” In one example of his work, he chose to represent flames made from chilies on a lowrider, riffing from the traditional flame motifs associated almost exclusively with hot rods. “When people saw the chili flame job on a lowrider, their first reaction was ‘Lowriders don’t have flame jobs.’ But because they were chili flames… it was okay to them.”
Defining lowrider culture and art, and articulating it to broader circles has been an important process for Magu, particularly in navigating and at times confounding both the fine arts and traditional arts fields. Initially beginning his career in the fine arts, working with classical European painting techniques and abstractions, Magu knew soon enough that these avenues were a poor fit for him. The forging of his aesthetic emerged from recognizing his own surroundings and art class assignments at East Los Angeles Community College: “I started to look around the neighborhood, and I saw things I loved—lowriders and gardens which were obvious private aesthetic statements. I asked around in the neighborhood whether people considered this art. Most didn’t. For most, being Chicano was not validated and didn’t mean anything to formal institutions. Ethnicity was at the core of my discovery of art, and core to my own experience… My decision to become a Chicano artist had nothing to do with me as much as about my culture. My focus considered the village rather than a personal style. My distinct look is just a by-product. I needed to talk about my experiences and to elevate them in people’s opinion… I discovered fantasy and surrealism. Dreams, hope, and aspiration were better places to direct my efforts. I thought it would be a better place to put dreams into environments, which resulted in Magulandia, not unlike what Disney did.” Magulandia, the imagined site which exemplifies the source of his Chicano/a-oriented art and car sculptures, was also the name of Magu’s former studio, a physical space which drew artists and car lovers alike.
Over thirty years later, Magu’s work remains infused with celebratory, ironic, and playful visual examples of Chicano/a culture, with emphases on lowrider culture, iconography and graffiti. During the course of his career, he has also promoted arts education and community organizing through his Mental Menudo forums—gatherings which evolved from Magulandia which promoted a conference for diverse artists to meet and exchange ideas “designed to advance by sharing ideas, or network and discuss the notion of a Chicano/a cultural aesthetic.”
It was during one of the many Mental Menudo sessions when Trillo first met Magu five years ago that the commonality blossomed. Their common interests in art, cars, and the active interest in representing cars as art brought them together to work on cars together. Trillo joined the apprenticeship to develop the artistic side of designing art cars and lowriders. With a background in cinema and filmmaking, Trillos also brought his seasoned mechanical, electrical, and welding experience to the apprenticeship and to all their mutually shared group projects.
Magu explains the importance of collective group effort: “To do a lowrider, I can’t do everything. Some guys have that skill, and they are very rare. If you were a diehard old-timer, you did what you did in your backyard, and the efforts were more modest and simple. Collectively, we have different experiences, different accounts, and when you listen to them, all of them tell you the whole picture.” Trillo adds: “It’s like—you can’t do it all yourself, so you need people to help you with different tasks.”
Their apprenticeship is part of a long-term collaboration and reflects the ways in which Magu has encouraged Trillo to build upon Trillo’s highly developed technical acumen. “Mario feels he has a lot to offer to the apprenticeship, his talent and skill, his tributaries of experience. And he does. He brings a lot of skills, knows how to work with his hands, and how to model and shape cars in traditional ways. What I believe I can offered to Mario are techniques, methods, and Fine Arts thinking. Since the time I have known him, I have attempted to influence his approach and his recognition that a car can be a work of art, it can be a sculpture first, that you can have the license to take a fender and extend it.
“When we talk, we talk cars. We talk cars and carburetors, but then there’s a philosophical aspect that I bring to Mario and the guys. Mobility. Understanding that there was a time when we walked everywhere. It is magic to get in a metal box with little plastic parts here and there and drive it somewhere. That’s gringo magic. Western civilization has given us that. Then I ask: could Mexican and Indian culture do that? No. They were on a different track. The insights you get from Mexican culture are distinctly different but valuable nonetheless. Chicano magic is about putting soul into it, a little salsa in it, a little wiggle in the walk.”
Both Magu and Trillo loved making things from an early age. For Magu, World War II model airplanes serving as an entrée to a lifelong love. “Those were the seeds,” Magu reflects, “They were adjunct experiences, but nonetheless it was putting something together, a building block.” As young men, Magu and Trillo, both, helped work on cars, carburetors and transmissions. The skills they each learned emerged naturally as informal apprenticeships under revolving leadership, dependent upon the owner of a specific car project. From front yards, to parking lots, swap meets, car shows and the front of Auto Zones, their individual learning, sharing, and growth occurred around, underneath, and inside the cars that they have worked on over the years.
Trillo’s work with Magu has been instrumental in strengthening his artistry and his design skills. “Magu has the aesthetics. I am learning how things flow, how you want someone to perceive things, how you involve someone in a piece so they see things differently, to wake their minds up. Aesthetics and design are what take you to another level, and that is what I am learning from Magu… the aesthetics, the learning how to be an artist, not just the mechanics.”
Working with his hands all his life through practices including machinery, metalwork, jewelry, and fabrication, Trillo has had a long history collecting and working with cars. “In my neighborhood there were people designing bicycles that were their own. I’ve been in love with cars since I was a kid. Even before I could drive I wanted a car. Then I got my first ticket when I was 14. I got stopped for driving without a license.”
“Guys like him (Mario), have cars all the time,” Magu confirms. “He is a hardcore advocate, who has begun to proselytize lowrider culture. He didn’t have the habit of promoting anything before, now I hear him selling it. Mario’s a teacher, and he’s got things to teach. His thinking and experience oftentimes is better than what I had in mind… I leave it to his expertise.”
Trillo embraces his work with Magu and how it pushes his design boundaries. Both want to keep their work firmly within lowrider traditions and forms while also stretching the idea of lowriders by coming up with new ideas. “Individually, every guy presents a personal statement,” Trillo comments, “The lowrider is also making a personal statement.” Magu echoes: “We’re focusing on the social, the aesthetics… a lowrider is also your ego, your emblem, your chariot, and each person adds a little flavor to it.”
“We don’t agree on everything, but that’s normal. We learn from each other,” Trillo says. One of Trillo’s long-term goals would be to develop a competitive rivalry with Magu, “to come up with something better, then to have him come up with something better,” for the sake of learning and excellence and, as Magu says, “of showing what you can do rather than competitive one-ups-man-ship.”
In light of it all, Magu feels that “we’ve got to hurry up” in passing on knowledge to others. As for the emerging generations of lowriders whom Magu tries to activate, “I tell young Chicanos that they can’t be a Chicano like me. They are a Chicano of another kind, but are Chicanada.”