M. Terry / SFVS

(left) Sylmar artist Chino Vega displays examples of lowrider art that can be placed on everyday items, not just cars. (right) Brothers Lolo and Chino Vega stand before their award-winning lowrider car “Orgullo Mexicano.

The lowrider vehicle, born and conceived in Chicano barrios of Los Angeles during the mid-to-late 1940s, is as much a California symbol as the palm tree. But besides the wired wheels, lower chassis and hydraulic systems, the customized paintwork and designs can make them works of art.

The art, and its inspiration, can extend beyond cars and trucks.

Alejandro “Chino” Vega, 45, a Sylmar resident, built and customized a 1979 Monte Carlo with his brother Lolo Vega in 2001. It is one of the most recognized lowrider vehicles in its class. The car, known as “Orgullo Mexicano” — Mexican Pride — has appeared in shows across the country and has also been displayed in artistic venues like the fabled Louvre Museum in Paris, and the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

Vega is returning to the Petersen Museum tonight, June 29. But this time the artwork is not his car. Instead, Vega, Lolo and fellow San Fernando Valley resident Yeli Dias, will be joined by other lowrider artists Alberto Herrera, Hernan D’aloia, Danny D, Bugs, El Sid, Stefanie, Gerald Mendez, Adrian Felix, Brian Ferre, Alberto de Alba, and Marvin Shivnarain for a gala reception celebrating an exhibit of their work on everything from cell phone covers to skateboards.

 The exhibit, entitled “The High Art of Riding Low: Ranflas, Corazón E Inspiración,” is to show how lowrider art can appear on every day items and be appreciated as an art form. The group art is in a low-tier aesthetic.

The exhibit will be open to the public on July 1. 

“They wanted lowrider art on different items,” said Vega, of the Petersen Museum invite. “Sometimes when you’re painting, you just want to make something different and available for somebody else. And we like to have [thea artwork] available for everybody.”

Some of the items on display include a multi-colored barbecue pit with a baby’s face, painted by Felix; a 1940s trash can painted by Lolo in tangerine and lime green with added metal flakes; a 1940s ice chest painted by Ferre in five shades of green; and a multi-colored flask painted by Mendez.

“This is all lowrider customized art,” Vega said. “You can make one color several colors. The more layers you put on, the darker the color gets.” 

Vega, who operates a customized shop in Sylmar, is thrilled by the attention and the respect being shown to lowrider art, which features incredibly detailed designs often against vibrant colors.

“It’s the first time they’ve allowed us to put this [type of] art here. If it was just cars, you might allow one family to put in a car. They’ve allowed me to put in 13 painters. We got together, and put in different art pieces. The last time we were there, it was about seven cars. But now it’s more items, and an opportunity for more people to be a part of it.”

Lowrider artistry was the furthest thing from Vega’s mind when he came to Pacoima from Mexico as a teenager in the 1980s. But one day he spotted a candy apple red Cadillac going down the street. “It was driven by a man named Tito, he’s still around here,” Vega said. “It stood out, and I wanted to find out what it was. I didn’t know it was a lowrider.”

Vega didn’t realize it immediately, but his life’s direction had just changed.

He eventually purchased a 1964 Impala to fix up. It was the first car he custom painted — “teal, with a white top.” A friend suggested he put 13-inch wheels on it, a size favored by lowrider car owners. Vega didn’t draw the connection at first, but figured it out, and then figured out how to install hydraulics that could raise and lower the car. He soon became immersed in the lowrider culture.

He and Lolo opened their shop. In the beginning they made “hoppers,” installing hydraulic and suspension systems that enabled a car to “hop” nearly a foot off the ground. They would take customized models to lowrider car shows in and out of California, and their names spread quickly.

“In California, the lowriders, we all know each other,” Vega said. “You go out of state, and if they’ve seen your picture in a magazine one time, you’re famous. People always want to take a picture.”

The building and customizing of “Orgullo Mexicano” was another game-changer for Vega. The car has won more than 100 trophies and been a Lowrider Magazine “Car of the Year” selectee three different times. And it’s also helped Vega develop a strong business locally for customized paint jobs and design work for cars and trucks.

It is painstaking work that demands incredible attention to detail. One job, depending on the paint color, the amount of customizing and intricacy of the detailing pinstriping, or silver and gold leafing, can take months.

“To make a solid paint with no designs is harder than a custom paint,” Vega said “Because with custom paint you have designs. If something happens to one of the designs you can put another one on — you can get away with any mistake you made. If you’re painting a solid color, there can be no mistakes. Even if a little dirt goes under it, you have to repaint the whole thing.”

The Petersen Museum exhibit should bring renewed attention and added respect for lowrider art.

For someone with no knowledge of the cars or the culture before he came to the Valley, Vega said he considers himself to be extremely lucky.

“There’s been so many things that have happened since we started,” he said. “I never imagined having items in a museum. I was blessed to be in the Louvre Museum. And to be in the Petersen Museum, the biggest auto museum in the world, is really big.”