Lowriders emerged in the Chicano communities of Southern California during the late ’40s and spread throughout the Southwest. Outsiders sometimes make the unfair assumption that lowriders and cruising represent antisocial behavior, associating them with drugs, violence, gangs and other wayward societal misfortunes. But those who've tracked the history of lowriders see it as an art form with important societal implications: There are parallels between cruising lowriders and the paseo which was a practice in Mexican villages wherein unmarried men and women walked in opposite directions, checking each other out. The elaborately decorated lowrider is also seen as a 20th century translation of the elaborately decorated Moorish horse in Spain.
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no more all-American art form than the lowrider,” says Andrew Connors, senior curator at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, who gives lectures around the country on lowrider culture. “One of the most important roles lowriders play in society is with an affirmation that it's OK for me not to be just like you; a real affirmation that different is great and that I am not necessarily part of the big homogenized culture, that I am an independent individual."
Lowriders, according to Connors, represent broad creative skill, where the artist/mechanic takes the classic American car and employs sculpture, painting, upholstery, light, sound and motion to express a unique cultural heritage that is shared in families and communities and passed down through generations. “There is a real desire on people’s part to find some real authenticity in contemporary culture; creativity rooted in a heritage that is genuine, that isn’t tainted with other people’s agendas.”
Lowriders achieve that real authenticity, Connors says, and have for about 50 years while other art forms have come and gone. “Art forms that have developed from a standard concept of chopping have really boomed.” He also says there are artists who take the lowrider aesthetic and imagery and use it in other media. One artist in particular, Mexico City’s Ruben Ortiz-Torres, is touching on the avant-garde by creating transformer-like lowriders that almost completely come apart. He also makes lowriders from garden tools such as weedwackers and lawnmowers.
So despite having to contend with the increasing genericness of modern culture, and the slow fade of regional variations, the lowrider continues to grow stronger and more complex. People around the U.S. and the world, from as far away as Japan, have taken up the art form, ensuring that lowriders are here to stay.