- Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Mexican American Custom Cars by Ben Chappell
Lowrider Space is a pleasurable book to read, which will have both popular and scholarly appeal. It is an ethnography of a Mexican American subculture in Austin, [End Page 187] Texas, which celebrates lowrider cars. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the meticulous documentation of how lowriders are created. As the book explains, the suspension systems of these vehicles are modified, sometimes with hydraulics, so that the body of the vehicle is closer to the ground. The cars thus do not conform to conventional, factory-set aesthetics. Hydraulic suspension systems, operated by batteries, can sometimes be manipulated to make the cars “hop,” as part of cultural competitions. In addition to modifications of height, such vehicles are often painted in bright colors or adorned with imagery, outfitted with custom steering wheels, reupholstered with velvet or other luxurious fabric, and upgraded by adding new tire rims. At their most opulent, such cars are enhanced with “fountains, chandeliers, and increasingly, audio and video equipment … to suggest a moveable mansion” (77).
The book is significant as an ethnography of a US subculture, done by an American anthropologist. Rather than going to the “field” in a remote part of the world to study another culture, Chappell worked close to home. Theory is used in this book, but it is never heavy handed. The ideas of thinkers like Benedict Anderson, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Henri Lefebvre, and Karl Marx are thus occasionally invoked in the course of elucidating phenomena. It also attempts to analyze lowriding using the terminology of the people who participate in the subculture; significant portions of the book are quotes from people in the field. He also includes numerous photographs of these elaborately customized cars, some in black and white and others in color. He includes reproductions from Lowrider Magazine, photographs of model cars, and other examples of lowrider ephemera. He even includes maps of the city of Austin, as experienced by people in lowriders. This provides general insight into the aesthetics of these vehicles.
On a critical level, Chappell argues that lowriding is more than a “compensatory consumption” done “out of a context of deprivation” by people who can afford “nice cars” but not “mansions,” thus reinforcing masculinity and nationalism (16). He believes “that everyday lowriding is best understood as a material, space-making practice” (3). He argues that “Lowrider space is an assemblage of bodies, cars, and landscapes, and their sounds, colors, textures, and movements—a formation that emerges on some scale whenever lowrider style is on display” (9). People experience these cars via the spatial constraints of their bodies, as constructed spatial environments, as vehicles that cruise the space of streets. Chappell, indeed, dedicates a chapter to each of these types of space. The book is thus an example of a good, systematic analysis of spatial phenomena. The book ultimately explores the myriad ways that these cars can be experienced as spatial phenomena, and how such realities create a compelling visual culture.