The Undercurrent: Courts have a record of junking ‘art cars’

Photo courtesy of Planet K

Photo courtesy of Planet K

The hullaballoo over whether the painted VW Beetle parked in the sideyard of The Junkyard Dog is an “art car” or an illegal “junk vehicle” isn’t the first time a car-planter has created such a furor.

In 2010 a similar issue that began in San Marcos went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That controversy started when the Planet K shop in that Hill County town hired two artists to turn a wrecked Oldsmobile 88 into a brightly painted planter filled with cacti. The idea was to make a statement about the evils of auto pollution.

“Make Love, Not War” was painted on the side. So was a peace sign and a picture of Ralph, the famous diving pig at San Marcos’ Aquarena Springs.” In fact, the car was nicknamed “Ralph.”

The quirky

car had no tires and a sawed-off roof. Its engine had been drained of fluid. It clearly wasn’t going anywhere.

City enforcement officers in November 2007 ticketed Planet K and the company’s founder, Michael Kleinman, contested the fines. He argued that the vehicle made a “philosophical statement” and amounted to artistic expression that was protected under the First Amendment.

The case then went to the San Marcos municipal court judge, who in 2008 ordered Planet K to remove the vehicle. The city finally hauled it to a junkyard.

Kleinman and the artists appealed to a U.S. district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which both upheld the municipal court ruling. Chief Judge Edith Jones wrote that the artists’ work was “secondary” and that its public display was subject to “reasonable government regulation.”

State law as well as local ordinances in San Marcos, Glen Rose and other cities have rules against junk vehicles for safety and health reasons. In Glen Rose, the owners of The Junkyard Dog, can appeal to the municipal court. But municipal court judges don’t have a strong track record of going against state law.

Kleinman, though, wasn’t going to accept defeat. He disputed that “Ralph” was a “vehicle” and contended he was fighting for free speech. He appealed the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling to the Supreme Court.

When the case reached the nation’s highest court in October 2010, however, the justices refused to review it.

But that’s not the end of the story. The painted cactus car was relocated to an Austin Planet K store – “featuring the best selection of imported cigarettes, pipes, vaporizers, incense, underground books, erotica & more,” according to its website — on Stassney Lane.

Last May the company launched a “Help Bring Ralph the Cactus Car Back to Planet K San Marcos” drive as the San Marcos City Council discussed revising the city ordinance covering junk vehicles. A petition also was circulated to amend the ordinance and bring Ralph back to San Marcos.

Earlier this month the city clerk in San Marcos said the petition did not get the required number of signatures to put the issue before voters and change the ordinance.

I spoke with a worker at the Planet K Austin store today. Not only is the San Marcos Planet K car still parked in front of the business, but so is the art car that the Austin store already had.

Presumably, the vehicles are part of the movement to “Keep Austin Weird,” as the bumper stickers say. So far no one from the City of Austin has tried to get either vehicle declared as “junk” or force them to be removed.

 Kathryn Jones is editor of the Glen Rose Current. 

2 Responses to The Undercurrent: Courts have a record of junking ‘art cars’

  1. Larry P. Smith Reply

    February 7, 2013 at 8:01 am

    Seems it never ends.Your reference to the “Bug”as a “parked” car reminded me of my earlier comment regarding its history. It was “placed”,not “parked”
    as in parking a car. The site was selected and prepared with a stone foundation and border after which,it was carefully removed from its parade float conveyance and “plced” for public display and enjoyment.
    I make this distinction only to counter the claim regarding the state law. Definations can be tricky!
    One might want to look up the defination of “junk”.
    I did!
    Anyway,the court hearing will be a “defining” moment. Pun intended!

    • Kathryn Reply

      February 9, 2013 at 5:12 pm

      Larry, thank you for correcting me. You’re right: it’s not “parked,” it’s placed or positioned. I’ll make sure to distinguish that from here one. Thanks so much for your comments!
      Best,
      Kathryn

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