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Lowrider for Life

Marcos Gaitan tried to get out, but his love of the auto kept pulling him back in

By William Dean Hinton

YOU MIGHT SAY Marco Gaitan was born to be a lowrider. His mother and father's honeymoon vehicle, after all, was a '56 Chevy, decked out with a red and white, tuck and roll interior, chrome running pipes and a back end that nearly scraped the ground. In kindergarten he drew treehouses and choppers. When he had his tonsils removed, his family brought him hot-rodder magazines. He learned to drive in his older brother's '64 Impala, which had a back end that nearly dragged the ground but a front end tilted so high in the air Gaitan could see only by looking 20 feet down the road.

By the time he hit high school, Gaitan, who turns 42 in August, had customized an Olds Starfire, a lowrider in every sense except no hydraulics, which make cars tilt and bounce. He cruised Story and King with other lowriders, hanging out in parking lots, going through girlfriends and watching the never-ending drama between police and Chicano youths. Years later, when watching the Rodney King beating on television, he reacted like many people in minority communities. "I thought, somebody finally got caught on tape," Gaitan says. "It was nothing new to me." Gaitan can remember youths handcuffed to their cars and fighting between police and Chicanos.

By college, Gaitan was ready to move on, thinking he had to ditch the lowrider scene if he wanted to be part of respectable society. He traded the Starfire for tuition money. Pursuing his other passion, painting, Gaitan noticed that his childhood kept catching up with him. "I kept coming back to cars," he says.

Eventually, he painted scores of lowriders on canvas—red cars, green cars with flames on their front ends, cars with their front ends lowered to the ground. The paintings found their way into galleries, where they sold for just enough money to keep Gaitan from starving. "People would buy an 8-foot painting for $40," he recalls.

Gaitan soured on the starving-artist routine, saying gallery shows were too stuffy, too political, too stacked against the artist in favor of gallery owners. "The art world wasn't real to me," he says.

Today Gaitan is an artist for hire, a muralist who travels across the country painting walls in homes with whatever image a homeowner can dream up: Dr. Seuss, a Sammy Sosa jersey draped over a door handle, children playing at the playground.

He still devotes time to traveling to see lowrider shows as much as possible. When Los Angeles allowed the first major lowrider show in seven years, Gaitan traveled to the Coliseum to see it. When he was in Phoenix recently on business, he caught up to a pack of lowriders hired for a wedding to get the news of the day. They told him that that Arizona city had recently passed an ordinance making it easy for cops to confiscate lowrider cars.

Gaitan missed the lowriding scene so much that he recently decided to rebuild a '66 Impala he bought seven years ago. He's also ready to pass the torch to the next generation. When he wants to soothe the ill temper of his brother's 2-year-old, Little Marty, he hands him a car magazine. "It's a genetic thing," Gaitan explains.

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From the June 9-15, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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