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That Fire-Shooting Snail Car That Mayor Libby Schaaf Keeps Driving Around Oakland Is the Best Thing Ever
Scott Lucas | Photo: Courtesy Jon Sarriugarte | January 6, 2015
The inside story from one of the art car's creators.
The most important question about Oakland’s new mayor, Libby Schaaf, isn’t what she plans to do about policing. It isn't about the Coliseum or redevelopment or a thousand other issues. The most important question is: What is up with that fire-shooting snail car that she keeps driving around town? Because it is amazing.
You’ve seen it, right? Like we said, looks like a snail? Shoots fire? Is exactly the last thing you’d think you’d ever seen a major city politician tooling around in? The car first showed up during the campaign, and then at Schaaf’s victory speech the day after the election. Last night, Schaaf took a joyride around the Paramount Theater in it before she was sworn into office.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we here at San Francisco are obsessed. So, this morning, we spoke to one of its creators, Oakland artist Jon Sarriugarte, about the car, the mayor, and how the two came to become the greatest political alliance in the history of Oakland.
“I like her support of the arts. I like the simple things—like that she has email,” he says. For him, Schaaf is part of a cadre of Oakland leaders who are putting new technology to work in solving long-entrenched problems. Sarriugarte, a blacksmith whose work appears in the Restoration Hardware catalog and a long-time Burner, got to know Schaaf during the campaign when he invited her to speak to the West Oakland Commerce Association, which he is on the board of. “I loved her right off the bat,” he says, “and vice versa.”
After Sarriugarte held a few meet-and-greet fundraisers for the candidate, he wondered what else he could do to help with the election. For most people, that would be a yard sign or a weekend spent knocking on doors. For him, it was a snail car. “I showed up at one of the events, and Libby said to me, ‘where’s the snail car?’’” So Sarriugarte drove the car—a street legal modification of a 1966 VW bug he and some fellow artists built in 2008 named The Golden Mean—to campaign events to help attract crowds.
And then, at Schaaf's election-night party—after what Sarriugarte allows may have been a few drinks—Schaaf’s staff suggested the car show up for her victory speech the next morning. Sarriugarte woke up the next morning and dashed off an email wondering if they were serious. They were. “So I parked on the sidewalk and waited for the news crews. I said to Schaaf, 'you want fire, I’ll give you fire. You want a ride, I’ll give you a ride.'” After her speech, Schaaf jumped behind the wheel, made a few laps in a public park, and shot off a few blasts of flames, all with Sarriugarte whispering directions: Hit this button to make the snail shoot fire—you know, typical behind the scenes political stuff. The press ate it up.
Then, not sure what to do next, Schaaf drove off. Sarriugarte turned to Schaaf and asked, “Where are we going?” Schaaf thought for a moment, shrugged, and suggested they go to lunch. So the blacksmith and the mayor drove the fire-shooting snail car to the Lake Chalet restaurant, on Lake Merritt. The valet—wisely—declined to park it for them, but made room right in front. Sarriugarte laughs as he recounts the story. “We couldn’t believe how positive the press was.”
If there’s one thing any politician worth their snail juice knows, it’s to double down on positive press. So naturally, last night, The Golden Mean reappeared at Schaaf’s swearing-in. If you’ve ever seen a politician with a smile more natural than Schaaf’s in this photo from the Chronicle or this one from the Tribune, you’re lying.
It wasn’t all smiles, though. Protestors, concerned about police interaction with the black community, interrupted the ceremony with chanting. Before that, many of them swarmed the car when Sarriugarte pulled up in front of the theater. “I had one conversation with a woman about why it wasn’t okay to write the word ‘pig’ on it while three other people were trying to tape something else up,” he says. “A woman asked me to put up a Black Lives Matter sign and I said yes, but she yanked it away because she said she didn’t trust my politics,” he sighs. “I’m an artist. How can you not trust my politics?” But true to his Burning Man roots, Sarriugarte isn’t dwelling on the negative. “Last night felt like everybody was coming together. I’m willing grab a shovel and I’ll dig here. You dig there and we’ll meet in the middle.”
As Schaaf put it last night, “It’s hella time for Oakland.” Or at least hella time for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to get a flame-shooting snail car of his own.