Russia’s Airbrushed Car Scene Is Out Of Control

Russia’s Airbrushed Car Scene Is Out Of Control
Photo: Misha Lanin

You’re driving down the road. Suddenly, a Toyota RAV4 pulls up beside you. Sprayed on its focus group-derived curves is a chihuahua, posing gracefully before a waterfall.

You ask yourself: “Is this an aesthetic?”

“Am I getting flexed on right now?”

You turn the corner and soon come across a full-size Dodge Ram pickup, parked at an angle. On its driver’s-side door, you see a mural of Chuck Norris leaning on a saddle. And that saddle is saddled on the bed of a different pickup truck.

Photo: Misha Lanin

At this point, you have even more questions and few answers. But one thing is clear: whether or not you’re getting flexed on, there’s something more going on here.

Editor’s Note: This story was reported at the start of 2020, right before the quarantine began. That explains the lack of masks, if you were curious.

In America, we have bumper stickers. They’re an invaluable component of our bustling civil society. Throughout the Eisenhower interstates, our rear bumpers fuel a never-ending conversation in which everyone is screaming and no one is listening. But, regardless if your child is an “honour student,” or if you have a political view that can be condensed down to a small rectangle, bumper stickers are always removable. The commitment to them is only as strong as the glue that keeps them stuck.

In Russia, you’ll find a very different kind of vehicle personalisation. One that is, by definition, very permanent — and one that has mystified me for the 15-plus years that I’ve been coming to this country. This year, I’ve finally decided to see for myself what this is all about.

So I welcome you inside Russia’s airbrushed car scene. No, this is nothing like plasti-dip. And, no, the paint isn’t removable.

These, Dear Readers, are the face tattoos of the automotive world.

I’m at an automotive repair shop on the eastern outskirts of St. Petersburg. There’s an assortment of BMWs strung out on lifts. A few guys in dark blue overalls, up to their shoulders in grease, operate on the broken Bavarian machines. At a glance, nothing besides routine wrenching seems to be going on here. But at the edge of the shop, past a pair of swinging doors, I come across a canvas fixed on a metal stand. And behind that canvas sits Marina Oleinikova.

A prolific airbrush artist based in St. Petersburg, Marina doesn’t work in some loft or repurposed warehouse with red-brick walls. Instead, Marina rents out the paint booth at this BMW shop for several hours a day. Against the wail of impact guns and clunking hydraulic lifts, you’ll hear her airbrush emitting soft, sporadic wooshes, like the vegetable sprinklers at Stop ‘N Shop.

“Today, I’m not painting a car. But I do have this portrait due on Thursday,” Marina says, referring to her work-in-progress: a middle-aged man depicted as Count Dracula in thorough detail. “His wife ordered this as a birthday gift for him,” she tells me, closely examining the canvas for imperfections.

The portrait, no larger than a coffee table, would take Marina days to complete. Far more often, Marina works on a much larger type of canvas — a Honda CR-V, for instance.

To say this kind of artwork is tedious would be a tremendous understatement. Marina’s customers often expect a hyper-realistic, almost photographic end product. If it’s a landscape, it’ll have beams of sunlight illuminating razor-thin blades of grass. If it’s Minions, expect disturbingly life-like formations of rubber yellow flesh.

“Aerography is not cheap, to say the least,” Marina said. “Last fall we did an entire Dodge Ram, covering all the panels except for the roof, and it cost the customer nearly 300,000 rubles (about $5,683).”

That’s far from the most expensive rate around. At the higher end, prices easily lurch above ten grand. Then there’s always the reckless backyard amateurs, loaded up on YouTube tutorials and AliExpress airbrush kits, willing to spray your car on the cheap. Marina likes to think that she’s somewhere in the middle — professional but not prohibitively expensive.

Marina has been doing this for just over a decade. In that time, Russia has gone through considerable economic ups and downs. Even so, demand for Marina’s services has remained pretty consistent. “During the crisis of 2014,” when the ruble tumbled dramatically, “we thought we were done for. But people kept coming to us.” (“Us” being Marina and her long-time parter, Yulia Shehirina.)

Since there’s no official “Register of Airbrushed Vehicles in the Russian Federation,” it’s impossible to say how many of these masterpieces are rolling around. But I can give you a rough idea based on years of driving around St. Petersburg, Moscow (occasionally), and elsewhere in the country: You’ll see airbrushed cars in Russia about as often as you would PT Cruisers in the lead up to, and maybe a little bit after, the Great Recession. By no means did PT Cruisers ever make up a very large chunk of the automotive pool in the US. Still, everybody knew about them. Even people who didn’t know what “a Chrysler” was knew the PT Cruiser. It was a car that punched way above its weight in terms of public awareness. And the same can be said about airbrushed cars in Russia. You may not see one in every single parking lot, but you sure as hell will notice when one is there.

Photo: Marina Oleinikova & Yulia Shehirina

Most of Marina’s clients are “individuals over 40 with disposable income,” but that’s an extremely broad demographic. Otherwise, there isn’t necessarily much in common between them.

See, Russia’s airbrushed car scene isn’t really a scene. Sure, you can associate Subaru WRX people with vaping and Cadillac DHS owners with Ensure, but there’s no way to stereotype owners of airbrushed cars.  And if you imagine them to always be as eccentric as they make their cars look, you’d probably be wrong.

“I have customers who come to me with no idea what to airbrush onto their cars,” Marina admits. “They’ll say: ‘I definitely don’t want animals.’ So then we offer a landscape. Then a movie theme. And usually [they] end up choosing something neutral.” As crazy as this might sound, these are types of clients who airbrush their cars for explicitly practical reasons.

It turns out that the primary reason Russians airbrush their cars is for theft-prevention. “Airbrushed cars are instantly recognisable to bystanders and security cameras.” And so the artwork functions as a psychological deterrent to thieves. “The key,” Marina notes, “is for the artwork to cover the rear fenders of the car,” which are the hardest, if not impossible to remove.

This makes sense. If you’re a car thief and, in an ocean of forgettable crossovers, you choose the one car with the fucking Ice Age squirrel on it, maybe you should pick a new crime.

Theft-prevention aside, others take the opportunity to deeply personalise their rides.

There’s the client who went with the Lemur pair for her Cadillac XT-whatever.

Solid choice. I’d seen this car around St. Petersburg many times in the past. So I ask Marina what’s the inspiration behind them. “She just really likes lemurs,” Marina says.

“Seriously, she just really likes lemurs.”

“One time, this lady came whose car was attempted stolen two or three times. And she was sick of [worrying about her car getting stolen]. So she said: ‘I want mushrooms on my car.’ — Fair enough, mushroom picking is a vastly popular tradition in Russia — “But not just any mushrooms. I want a detailed portrait of the mushrooms that I picked personally.’ So she brought us a picture of her mushrooms and we painted them on her fenders.”

The more popular themes, like big cats and angry looking bears, are somewhat expected. They’re mean looking. They’re the airbrushed equivalent of angry headlights on a Jeep. But there’s something genuinely incredible about waking up one morning, and saying to yourself: “That’s it. I’m getting these mushrooms permanently sprayed directly onto my Renault Duster. MUSHROOMS THAT I PICKED MYSELF MOTHERFUCKERS!”

Which brings me back to the opening question: was that Chihuahua, standing gracefully before a waterfall, sprayed onto the side of Toyota RAV4, a flex? 

The short answer is: yes. Marina describes her services as “premium class.” This means that, in the public eye, airbrushed artwork on a car is “considered very expensive.” So, besides helping to prevent car theft, that Chihuahua is a not-so-subtle: wink, wink, I’ve got dough to spend on my paint job.

The longer answer digs a bit deeper into the realities of car ownership in contemporary Russia. After all, this is where one’s car is the foremost signifier of wealth — and, with that, status. Sure, in America too, wealthier people tend to drive expensive cars; but there are notable exceptions. I’m sure that in Greenwich, Connecticut you can find a seven-figure-salary lawyer who still drives their beat-up 1997 Volvo just because they don’t give a shit. In Russia’s status-oriented car culture, however, there is no “stealth wealth.” Here, you’ll actually find the exact opposite: long lines of Range Rovers and BMW Gran Turismos parked outside cramped Soviet apartment blocs.

So why not make that Beemer stand out with several thousand dollars of movie squirrels eloping in a forest?

Marina decked out her own Honda Fit based on Masamune Shirow’s manga series, Ghost in the Shell. Though Marina isn’t that into anime, she thought the theme was a good fit — pun intended — for her Honda. Indeed, Marina’s Fit is a right-hand-drive model, imported directly from Japan. No surprise since, in Russia — Siberia in particular — you’ll see tons of pure JDM driving on the wrong side of the road.

Photo: Misha Lanin

Marina’s previous Fit had a style of its own as well, based on the anime Hellsing.

Lastly, Marina tells about one particularly unusual customer:

“This one time, somebody called and asked me for a ‘frightening tiger.’ So I asked them, ‘frightening how?’”

— Frighteningly ugly.

“Turns out, this customer had lost a bet.” Marina says.