If you want to see the unhinged subconscious of America, just look to its bumpers.
In fact, simply Google “bumper stickers” and see what you find. Not “obnoxious bumper stickers,” or “vulgar bumper stickers” or “I can’t believe someone would buy this bumper sticker what the hell is wrong with them.”
Just plain “bumper stickers.”
One of the first-page results will be for Redbubble, promoting such apparently top-selling gems as “I Hate My Ex-Wife” (the words floating on an American flag backdrop), or “I Don’t Believe In Helen Keller” (I’ve been pondering this one for the entire day and still don’t have a decent explanation).
What is it, exactly, that prompts people to loudly advertise their creepiest impulses on their car? In my own neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, there’s definitely a dude with a window decal specifying his policy for hitchhikers: “Ass or Grass. No Free Rides.”
There are several categories of bumper (or rear-window) sticker we’re Used To Seeing By Now, and those sort of fade into the background—they’re so cliched that you don’t really notice them anymore.
That includes things like:
- Stick-figure families
- Brags about your honor student, or how your kid beat up someone else’s honor student
- Political campaign stickers, including pathetically faded ones for candidates who lost 6+ years ago
- Favorite bands; travel destinations; military affiliations; general pop culture content
- Wholesome family stuff (e.g. “Nana’s My Name, Spoiling’s My Game”)
- Innocuous slogans about peace, co-existence, random acts of kindness, or Hate Having No Home Here
When I was in college, I drove a shabby Volvo station wagon whose rear bumper was festooned with an embarrassing bumper sticker urging strangers to “KILL YOUR TELEVISION.” Now, at the age of 41, I drive a two-decade old Honda Civic with a car seat in the back and two small stickers adorning my vehicle: one of Elmo, and one of Aussie cartoon sensation Bluey. There’s something almost too neat about this evolution, but it’s true.
My mom, in suburban New Jersey, represents another facet of bumper sticker life. Her stickers—which are actually less permanent vinyl magnet things rather than adhesives—tend to call out her love of cats, awareness of autism, support for Ukraine.
In some respects, I like bumper stickers—less for what they say to the world, more for what they say about your relationship with your own car. While I love my Honda Civic for what it provides (mobility, a chance to escape the city, a way to get the baby to nap between 2:30 and 4:30pm) I also love the fact that it’s…kinda a piece of shit.
If someone were to ding my fender in a hit-and-run I’d be miffed, but I wouldn’t spend any money to have it fixed. Slapping a cheap sticker on the back of the car generally underscores this attitude: This car is a tool, not a precious work of art.
Of course, some people let this attitude metastisize into an eyesore. We’ve all seen That One Guy’s Car in our neighborhood—its entire rear end plastered with dozens of wackadoo stickers, collaged together into one queasy, screaming billboard.
What really fascinates me, though, are the drivers who fit into a small subset:
- A single, lonely bumper sticker on their car; and
- That sticker says something weird as hell.
I’ve said before that a good rule when it comes to bumper stickers is: Don’t stick anything on your car that you wouldn’t want to get as a tattoo. (I’m breaking my own rule, of course, since I’m not about to run out and get Elmo tattooed on my neck.)
But in many ways, tattoos—while much more permanent—are much more discrete than bumper stickers. You can’t really miss a bumper sticker, it’s just RIGHT THERE whether you’re parked or driving, shouting its message to every who passes by. Tattoos, on the other hand, might be tucked away; they might be personal or strange, but seeing them in the first place requires a certain intimacy.
Bumper stickers, on the other hand, are about as public as you can get. It’s more akin to slapping a slew of aggressive or bizarre statements on a laptop you use in a coffee shop.
For some bumper sticker lovers, of course, the aggression is the point. I’m thinking of a particular Jeep I’ve spotted near my hometown, with its jarring mix of lunatic-fringe stickers (an American flag with the stars replaced by assault rifles) and cutesy mom-stuff (“Life Is Good,” an outline of pink beach sandals).
The good news? Unlike tattoos, however, removing a bumper sticker that’s outlived its welcome doesn’t require expensive lasers. All you need is a little time, elbow grease… and a bottle of the aptly-named Goof Off.