The making of a Los Angeles lowriding car club plaque

by Benjamin L. Landry
0 comment

This story is part of Image issue 10, “Clarity,” a living document of how L.A. radiates in its way. Read the full issue here.

In the world of lowriding, a car club plaque serves as a sacred language.

Los Angeles lowriding car club plaque

The name of your club, usually cast in bronze, flying in the front or back of your ’75 Cadillac or ’64 Impala, is shorthand for your morals, values, aesthetic taste, work ethic, and willingness to sacrifice. To the casual onlooker, a lowrider plaque is merely another shiny accessory on an already mind-blowing piece of machinery — an appreciated extra, like the gold nameplate all your cousins wore in the ’90s. But for those in the culture, it’s everything. Guidelines vary from club to club; one must adhere to get a plaque and keep it. These codes of conduct extend beyond what shape your car is in (though that’s a crucial part) to your character. The reason: When you fly a plaque, you’re flexing your family — it’s not just about you anymore. Plaques are a way to show respect and gain it simultaneously.

The making of a lowrider plaque is an art form in itself. Clubs carefully select fonts, designs, and sizes to stand out. Plaque makers turn this vision into something tangible through a finely honed craft. “You’re customizing it to reflect how you view yourself in the world,” says Denise Sandoval, a professor of Chicano/studies at Cal State Northridge specializing in lowrider culture and Chicano cultural histories.

For this feature, we talked to the true fans of the culture — club members, artists, plaque makers, photographers, and scholars — about the meaning behind car club plaques and what it feels like when they hit the light just right. And for good measure, we tapped lowrider stalwart, tattoo artist and designer Jesse Jaramillo to make an original plaque for their new club, Prophets, which David Lopez of Bedsled Kustoms then crafted. “The nature of the work that I do with my tattooing, my design, is giving respect to the foundation laid before,” Jaramillo says. “I want that same thing to be applied to my lowriding. I would also love [Prophets] to be the dawn of a new age of what a lowrider club can look like, who’s invited — all the girls, gays, and them, all of us.”

Jaramillo: “Like many things in Chicano culture, [plaques] followed this idea of pride. It connected you to your community.”

(Merrick Morton / For The Times)

Jesse Jaramillo, tattoo artist, designer, and founding member of Prophets car club: For my family, our car was the first outward expression of the culture that we represent. You’d unashamedly drive it around town and flaunt that. Like, these are the things we live in.

Like many things in Chicano culture, [plaques] followed this idea of pride. It connected you to your community. It was one of those things that, depending on which one you saw, you knew what those people were about. You knew how they built their cars, and you just knew they did the damn thing to have that plaque.

Alejandro Perez, half of the Perez Bros., fine artists who depict lowrider culture in their work: I feel like a lowrider plaque carries a great sense of pride, but also it’s a form of validation. Every car club has its standards for a lowrider to be able to join. One puts many hours of hard work and effort into getting their lowrider looking beautiful and just right. Once their lowrider is complete and they can join a club and get their plaque, it is validation that all the hard work paid off.

Denise Sandoval, professor of Chicano/studies at Cal State Northridge, curator, and scholar on lowrider culture and Chicano cultural histories: People don’t realize that when you join a club, you’re not automatically given a plaque. Most car clubs have the infrastructure — a president, vice president, sergeant of arms, and secretary. They are the ones that determine if your car is ready to have the plaque. The car is the owner’s canvas of creative expression, identity, and beauty that they want to put out in the world. But then, when you’re in a club, your car also represents your club, there from an aesthetic standpoint or the reputation of the club. Not just yourself but your car club.

David Lopez, plaque maker at Bedsled Kustoms, founder of Relics car club: The plaque is sacred. It’s something sacred to these clubs, and they earned them. To get a plaque, clubs set their standards up. Whether it’s time with the club, building the car, or how much effort you put into helping others, it’s an earned piece. And it’s cool to be a part of that. I’ve helped new clubs get their name started. In one of the clubs that came in, I gave them their plaques, and they said, “Man, it’s almost like getting baptized.”

David Lopez of Bedsled Kustoms crafted the Prophets plaque. Lopez is the founder of the Relics car club.

(Gustavo Soriano / For The Times)

Estevan Oriol, photographer, director, and founding member of Pegasus car club: I’m with a club called Pegasus — this year is our 10th anniversary. I was with a car club for 20 years before called Lifestyle. [Around 20 members broke off from Lifestyle to form a new club with Pegasus.] We made a vow never to be from another club, so we did the nomad, outlaw crew thing with people from the same club, but we never again put up another plaque on our car out of respect for our forefathers. Plaques are like putting your family name on a lowrider. They call it club hopping when you go from club to club.

What I had to go through to get a plaque with [Lifestyle] was to get the three highest guys to approve my car. Everybody had seen my car for months, and I had been hanging around, staying late, and going to the guys’ houses to help work on some of their vehicles. They saw the car and were like, OK, that part is cool, now let’s get to know this guy because each person is carrying around the club on their shoulders. You don’t want a guy who gets drunk at a party, starts talking s— and then says the car club name and gets beat up. You want people who know how to handle themselves and act.

“The shine is the cherry on top,” says Hocutt, Prophets co-founder and president.

(Gustavo Soriano / For The Times)

David Lopez: Once they get their logo figured out, I like to tell them, All right, so how big do you want to go? You base it on the size of the cars and the windows; you also want it to be legible. You want to read it, see that shape, and know that name. You’re giving everybody their stamp, you know?

Once you get the logo, you transfer that into the wood and carve out the pattern — cutting wood like you’re doing a puzzle. The design goes into a sandbox, leaving the impression of the sand (the sand is packed tight, by the way). That’s when the metal is heated up and poured into the mold, like candle wax. When it comes out, it comes out raw and gets all the drills, files, and sanders. After all that, you go and polish up the piece.

Mark Hocutt, custom car painter, president, and founding member of Prophets car club: Most plaques are generally made of brass, and brass stains very, very easily. If there’s a stain on your plaque, it’s like spitting in your grandma’s face. It’s one of the worst things you can do. When I was in my previous club, I cleaned my plaque every time I went out. It takes an hour, hour and a half to clean it. And then it’s the dedication, the dedication that you have for your club. You want to represent the best way that you can.

Hocutt looks through the window of his ‘73 Chevy El Camino, “Electric Funeral.”

(Merrick Morton/For The Times)

David Lopez: When I make a plaque, it’s like putting future relics into the world. It’s a piece that somebody’s going to collect or somebody’s going to cherish, and somebody’s going to have on their wall. Sometimes plaques have even been buried with members of their clubs. They’re special, and to be a part of that is always an honor.

Estevan Oriol: When you put the plaque on your car, you’re like, “F—, man.” You feel like you made it. Another milestone, another achievement in your life. A car club with reputation, history, and culture — you know, there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears invested into that plaque.

Jacqueline Valenzuela, fine artist, hand-painted custom car muralist, founding member of Prophets: It’s a big deal to have one in my car. Depending on what kind of club it is, you know what type of person has that plaque. They’re like telltale signs. I’m proving that my car was good enough to get a plaque or that I was taken seriously.

“They’re like telltale signs,” Valenzuela says about plaques.

(Merrick Morton / For The Times)

Valenzuela’s ’75 Cadillac, “La Playgirl.”

(Merrick Morton / For The Times)

Denise Sandoval: When you see the plaque, there’s greater politics at play that people are unaware of. When you think about the oldest Chicano car clubs in L.A. — the Duke’s, the Imperials, and some of the longest-lasting African American clubs, like the Individuals and the Professionals — these names represent regalness and elegance. These names elevate us; they’re our way of setting a standard. In this sense, we might be working-class and poor (and I’m talking about the ’60s and the ’70s), but there was a sense of royalty like these cars were our chariot.

Related Posts