A term that encompasses two forms of roadside art that developed in the United States during the 20th Century.
The first form of muffler men is sculpture made out of used automotive mufflers and other automotive parts. Welded together to form gangly human and other animal shapes, these whimsical pieces of folk art are often placed in front of automotive shops and gas stations. Lately, these types of muffler men have made their way into art galleries as they have experienced a rebirth as a highly celebrated form of folk art. In step with legions of bored auto mechanics, folk art revivalists, galleries, and devotees of outsider art, academics have turned their lenses on these muffler men as studies in material culture.1
The second form of muffler man is folk art writ large and mass-produced. Developed in the 1960s by a Californian company called International Fiberglass, these types of muffler man tower at heights of 18 to 25 feet (roughly 5.48 to 7.62 meters). International Fiberglass produced several different models of giant man statues. They all used one basic mold; facial modification and the addition of new chests and hats allowed the company to offer Paul Bunyans, country bumpkins (who look suspiciously like Alfred E. Neuman), cowboys and Indians, and of course, large repairmen holding gigantic mufflers.
The company had some minor competitors, but International Fiberglass' works were by far the most widely distributed. Currently, they are the most widely recognized and share a few common traits: 1) a creepy, emotionless stare, 2) arms by their sides with muscular forearms extended at 90 degree angles, and 3) right palms facing up and left palms facing the ground.2
This company produced thousands of muffler men between the years of 1962 and 1975, finally breaking the molds in 1976.3 Overcoming storms, vandals, and changing local ordinances, many of the statues remain standing along roadways in the United States. Over the decades these muffler men have developed into a dynamic form of art as owners have modified and personalized their giants, creating new varieties in the forms of soldiers, spacemen, and questionable Mexicans. This practice of personalizing a mass-market commodity has been viewed by some as a symbol of the human spirit and individuality co-opting and overcoming monoculture.4
Overanalyzed? Perhaps, but to savvy students of pop art and modern folkways and to dedicated shunpikers across North America, the creativity, humor, and eccentricity displayed by both major forms of muffler man certainly are traits to glorify.
- See: Timothy Corrigan Correll and Patrick Arthur Polk, Muffler Men, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, Mississippi, 2000).
- http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues00/oct00/mufflermen.html, (last verified 14 May 2002).
- http://www.roadsideamerica.com/muffler/origin3.html, (last verified 14 May 2002).
- http://reason.com/0002/artifact.shtml, (last verified 14 May 2002).
Photographs of the two major forms of muffler men can be found here:
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