With a penchant for luxury jewellery, oversized gold watches and expensive houses in London, the Russian appetite for conspicuous consumption is well known. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their choice of cars, where there’s a particular fondness for brands such as BMW, Mercedez Benz and Bugatti. But why stop there? Last month, a Russian student posted a photo of her Swarovski crystal-encrusted Merc outside a swanky London hotel on Instagram with the message: “I’m not an Arab guy LOL”. Although an extreme example, the pimped-out motor is indicative of a wider trend for car art. From stencilled images of fluffy kittens to floral displays, jungle sunsets to jet planes, and winged horses to weapons, when it comes to car aerography, Russians have got it covered.
For around £1,000 you can have your bonnet and doors jazzed up with flames. For £5,000, you can ask for a likeness of your favourite big cat. Spend £25,000 or more and you can drive off in a car that resembles a lump of gold bullion. The technologies and tools available mean that you can even create 3D and holographic effects so that your favourite anime character can be seen in all her full, and often pornographic, glory.
Although car aerography is not unique to Russia — it’s also popular in the US — it’s only in Russia that such customisation is considered akin to art collecting. It’s not uncommon for Russians to deck out their cars and then put them in garages for safekeeping.
Car aerography emerged in Russia in the early Noughties as a kitsch reflection on the new class of super-rich. That was the decade of Fabergé egg collecting, of debauchery in the Swiss Alps and of gilded Mercs. It was then that the king of Russo-Soviet bling, Denis Simachev, designed his own tongue-in-cheek range of glittering vehicles, from a gold-plated Porsche to a Khokloma print-covered Ducati motorbike. The Byzantine gold-and-red design known as Khokloma has thus journeyed from adorning the pages of medieval manuscripts and traditional wooden pots crafted by 17th-century monks to the backs of iPhones and the blinged-out cars of the nouveau riche.
Khlokloma was not the only traditional design to appear on cars, with the twee blue-and-white gzhel style, usually used on ceramics, making it onto a bonnet or two as well. It was both an interesting expression of patriotic sentiment, albeit in an ironic way, as well as a demonstration of a specific type of wealth. Car art fans tend to be wealthy but they are not quite in the high-net worth category; those individuals prefer more understated supercars and Savile Row suits in conservative colours.
As long as newly affluent Russians continue to appear, so too will the number of cars featuring women or wolves, speaking volumes about their owners’ ambitions, desires and fantasies
Each September in Moscow, the National Festival of Aerography, an annual event since 2010, puts some of the most ostentatious cars on show. There’s even a prize — a gold aerograph, the airbrush used for car art — for the best design as judged by a panel of luminaries from the Russian art world. As light-hearted as the art is, the panel is serious. Previous judges have included Sergey Popoff, the owner of pop/off/art gallery in Moscow.
The festival in Moscow is not the only event, with smaller gatherings across Russia and a growing number of participants each year. It’s hard to see the trend spreading across Europe but, for Russians at least, making a statement has value in itself. As long as newly affluent Russians continue to appear, so too will the cars featuring women or wolves, speaking volumes about their owners’ ambitions, desires and fantasies.