On a cool, overcast Memorial Day Monday, I join Mark Alston-Follansbee as he’s repainting the exterior of his Toyota Camry in the driveway of his Waltham home. Over the years, his cars have been painted with suns and eyeballs, flames and waves, flowers and peace signs, hot-air balloons, a winking sun, a giant orange octopus. His art car has become a landmark around Somerville—where he’s executive director of the Somerville Homeless Coalition.
As we paint, Alston-Follansbee tells me he got drafted into the military after he was kicked out of college around 1966. He was told he’d end up in the infantry for two years, but if he enlisted for a third year he could get a better posting. He enlisted to be a military journalist.
“Six months later I was there [in the Vietnam war]. I would jump out of helicopters and write stories. It was all bullshit for the Army,” Alston-Follansbee says. “I’d write a story in an hour and then [go] to the beach and get stoned. It was really schizophrenic.”
“I got back from Vietnam in 1968, and my grandmother died and I got a little money, and I bought a Volkswagen bus. It had a sunburst painted on the front and pot plants all around the sides,” Alston-Follansbee says. That was his first art car. “We drove that car from New York to San Francisco and sold it for four one-way plane tickets to Maui” and some additional, um, considerations.
“I hid in the woods for six years in Maui. I was pretty fucked up. Couldn’t relate to people. Couldn’t trust anybody. Slowly, slowly, slowly started integrating back into society. I ended up here for all the wrong reasons. I started talking to people on the street and learned a lot of them were veterans. I got pissed off. So I started volunteering with the homeless. The first place that asked me to come in was the city of Cambridge. I volunteered for nine months, then I went to work for them. I’ve been doing that ever since.”
“I didn’t have a car for years,” Alston-Follansbee goes on. “About 10 years ago, I stopped drinking and drugging, so I thought I could have some further expression with my car because I didn’t have to worry about being pulled over now. The funny thing is people say, ‘Do you get pulled over because you have this weird-looking car?’ But I’ve never gotten pulled over.”
That first car was also a Camry. “It was a 1993, I think. I loved that car. It got to be 276,000 miles and the air conditioning went out, and when I took it to my guy who’d kept it running for years he said all the hoses had disintegrated because of old age.”
So Alston-Follansbee passed that car on to a friend and about four years ago got a 2002 Camry with 176,000 miles on it.
“I’ve always loved street art, and I always thought cars were stupid and people had too much identity with their cars,” Alston-Follansbee says. “So I’m sort of like fuck you, let’s have some fun instead of being serious.”
He usually has friends help him repaint the car once a year. When I arrive, the Camry is surrounded by a plastic drop cloth, brushes, and cans of Rust-Oleum paint in shades of red, black, blue, white, and yellow. “I have some colors I want, but no real theme,” he explains. He repaints the face on the red hood. I paint a bee and flowers over last year’s shooting stars and an eyeball on the driver’s side. He says, “I like eyeballs. See the world.”
Alston-Follansbee says, “I’m retiring June 30. I’ve been working with homeless people for 30 years. I’m 71. I need less stress in my life. More fun, less stress.”
The Tibetan letter A was painted repeatedly on the passenger side in last year’s rendition. “It’s the first letter in the Tibetan alphabet and it’s sort of the primordial sound. I usually have something from the Buddha on the back.” Currently the rear bumper reads: “Life is a big dream.”
The quotes from the Buddha serve as “a little inspiration. And a lot of times some people don’t like it or they don’t get it. The one before this was ‘Nothing is real,’” Alston-Follansbee says. “This one is going to be, I don’t remember the exact words, ‘Peace comes from within.’ It’s my attempt to find peace and harmony in myself. Still struggling to find it. And wishing it in our world. Because God knows there’s not enough of it.”