What is art? The story of Ralph the Art Car

What is art?

It’s one of those questions without a correct answer. Some think of art as the creation of beauty. Some choose to define art as something that reveals a hidden truth. Then there are those who believe art is a beat up car with cacti planted in it.

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This story begins in 2007.

Planet K, a south-Texas based chain of counterculture and smoke shops, has just opened their newest location in San Marcos. Keeping with Planet K tradition, there’s an Oldsmobile 88 that’s been junked; the engine and tires removed, and the fluids drained. People stand by with sledgehammers and paint.

They bang up the car for charity and then let local artists spruce the thing up, covering it in paintings of Texas State University’s Old Main building, peace signs, and an image of the infamous Ralph the Swimming Pig from the old Aquarena Springs amusement park that once existed in San Marcos.

It was because of this painting that the car took on the nickname “Ralph.”


Ralph the Art Car

Ralph became the Planet K San Marcos mascot. People came just to check it out, but it didn’t take long until it caught the city’s attention and the city wasn’t as impressed by the artwork. Instead, the city considered Ralph a “junk vehicle” and threatened to charge a $200-a-day fine until the car was removed.

The Assistant City Attorney Andy Quitner at the time explained that a junk vehicle couldn’t be “on your yard or in front of your business or really anywhere else in the public eye.” The ordinance that Quitner was referencing says that, “A junked vehicle that is located in a place where it is visible from a public place,… is detrimental to the safety and welfare of the general public, tends to reduce the value of private property, invites vandalism… is a public nuisance.”

So here is where the conflict began

One side says art, the other says public nuisance.

Joe Ptak, the manager of the Planet K where Ralph was christened, was at the forefront of bringing Ralph out of exile. Ptak has been on the questionable side of the law for a large portion of his life. Throughout the 90’s Ptak ran KIND Radio, a pirate radio station used as a platform to promote the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, out of the garage of his San Marcos home. He’s been behind the organization of countless protests and demonstrations and is currently working on introducing a bill into Texas Legislation decriminalizing personal amounts of marijuana. Ptak and lawyer Paul Velte prepared for a January court date by researching First Amendment issues raised by the case.

Andy Quitner, who was now the prosecutor in the case, expressed he didn’t want to establish a precedent that if you painted a junked car it wouldn’t have to be removed. Velte responded by stating he did not want the government to dictate what was or wasn’t art.

Fast forward. Planet K would lose its original court case, and Quitner successfully argued that Ralph was a public nuisance and in fact not art. But it didn’t end there. Planet K founder and CEO Michael Kleinman filed for an injunction and the case was turned over by the city to the feds.

Yes, Ralph’s case was going federal.

Except it didn’t.

A federal judge instead granted the city’s motion to dismiss Kleinman’s appeal that Ralph was protected by the First Amendment. U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks felt that Ralph was not the message, just a manner in which the statement is expressed, not the statement itself, and therefore not protected.

However, the 5th Circuit also examined language in the Supreme Court’s 1995 decision in Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Group of Boston. In Hurley, the Court said the First Amendment often protects expression that doesn’t convey a particular message, such as the paintings of Jackson Pollock, the music of Arnold Schonberg, or Jabberwocky verse of Lewis Carroll. But the 5th Circuit decided the Supreme Court’s decision refers solely to great works of art.

Did the 5th Circuit just admit that Ralph was art? They said that Ralph wasn’t protected by the Hurley decision because it wasn’t great art, but they didn’t outright say Ralph wasn’t art.

 The petition

Planet K drafted a petition to help bring Ralph back home. The petition, rather than being geared towards gaining support for Ralph specifically, sought to amend the city ordinance covering junk vehicles. The city clerk said the petition didn’t get enough signatures to put the issues before voters.

Ptak said the city wasn’t happy with the wording of the petition. They said it could be interpreted as allowing any private citizen to display an art car on their property. It’s since been re-worded and Ptak and Planet K are seeking more signatures.

According to Ptak, Ralph’s return to San Marcos is  on the horizon and he anticipates Ralph will be back home within the year. He complained that one big roadblock in Ralph’s return is scheduling a meeting with several city officials to sign some documents, but they always seem to be unable to meet at the same time, meaning Ptak’s documents cannot get signed.

Ptak, who now has been appointed to the San Marcos Arts Commission board remains optimistic.

Read more about my visit to Ralph.


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