"Vanadu," "Finnjet" and the others in this year's show reflect the diversity of the art car genre, which has its roots in customized hot rods in the 1950s and brightly painted vans driven by hippies in the '60s.

The concept got wider attention after the launch of the Houston Art Car Parade in 1986 — it remains a big event, with 270 entries at the 2013 parade in May — and the Art Car Museum, also in Houston.

"It's a sub-genre of art that has the ability to be more and, occasionally, is more," Kachadourian said. "There are artists with no training, who just want to make a personal statement when they go down the road, and academy- or museum-oriented artists who use the cars to address cultural issues."

Whatever the inspiration or message, art cars have clearly found a niche at Artscape.

"Art cars are friendly," Kachadourian said. "People think, 'I could do that. I wouldn't, but I could.' They can envision how their boring car could be radicalized."

Not everyone sees the beauty in art cars.

"I do get lectured by blue-haired ladies from time to time, who tell me, 'You have ruined this Mercedes,' " Hieronimus said.

Mostly, though, a smile is the reaction from Artscape visitors.

"I think the crowds really relate to such a common object, the household car, being transformed in surprising ways," said Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum, where the art cars will gather Saturday morning for a parade across town to the Art Car Show site.

"I think that the success of the art cars at Artscape is because everybody has a vehicle. And if you have an old clunker, through the miracle of Bondo and paint and imagination, you can make it the car of your dreams. I think that's why they have such enduring popularity."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Artscape runs 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday in and around Mount Vernon and Station North. Most of the local art is showcased on Charles Street between Mount Royal and North Avenue. The Wells Fargo Main Stage is at 1400 Cathedral St. The Art Car Parade is scheduled to move through Artscape about 11 a.m. Saturday and proceed to the Art Car Show location at 1700 N. Charles St.

Admission is free. Call 410-752-8632 or go to artscape.org.