The Dirty Car Artist

Scott Wade was dubbed “Lord of the Dust” at an event in Istanbul, Turkey, and “the da Vinci of Dust” by the National Enquirer.

Like many others with families to support and mortgages to pay, Scott Wade works full-time in an office cubicle, glued to his computer screen for a majority of daylight hours.

But in his other life, cars are his art and dirt is his palette.

Wade began doodling in filthy car windows as a way to relieve the stresses of his 9-to-5 job as a graphical user interface designer. He discovered a new meaning of “screen time” — one that involved intricate designs on windshields and 10-foot-tall storefront windows. A hobby that began on small-town dirt roads in Texas evolved into the viral phenomenon of Dirty Car Art, bringing Wade to Lisbon, Istanbul, and London. But his toolkit remains simple: brushes and vegetable oil.

“[My artwork] challenges our perceptions of what’s beautiful,” Wade explains in earnest. “It takes what we think of as an eyesore, and flips that on its head.” But like sidewalk chalk art and sand sculptures at the beach, impermanence comes with the territory. His masterpieces only last until the next rain.

Age: 53
Graduated from: Texas State University, BFA in commercial art
In the business for: 9 years
Based in: Wimberley, Texas (about 30 minutes from Austin)
Previous jobs: Arts and crafts instructor; freelance designer; drummer

The dusty roads in Texas must make for ideal dirty car conditions. I used to live on a long dirt road, and the blend of limestone dust and gravel and clay resulted in a fine white dust that coated the rear window. My first 50 or 60 creations were on cars that got naturally dirty just from driving up and down that road, building up successive layers baked on by heat and humidity.

And now? I don’t live on that dirt road anymore, and I’m doing a lot more creations for events. So I had to figure out a way to make a car dirty that wasn’t. I ordered Fuller’s Earth substitute — the same thing that makes dust clouds in the movies — and made it stick to the windows with a thin coat of vegetable oil. But I still love working on real dirty cars; they look much more three-dimensional. I miss those old days.

Wade creates original drawings as well as representations of recognizable art, such as Girl with a Pearl Earring.

What sparked your realization that a dirty rear window makes the perfect canvas? If you’re a fairly curious person, you can’t resist playing on a dirty car window, even if it’s just a smiley face or a “wash me.” It’s an impermanent canvas, so you’re free to play with it.

It probably helped that you majored in art. I think I picked up drawing from my dad; he was a really good amateur cartoonist. Living on a mile and a half of dirt roads, we never washed our car, so I’d always doodle in the windows. Then, one day, I used my fingernail and a popsicle stick to do some cross-hatching. And then I went inside to get my brushes, and realized that I’d found a real medium.

Your toolkit: A chisel-point rubber paint shaper tool, which acts like a pencil; different-sized fan brushes; and large brushes for the background. I do lot of work in Adobe Photoshop to figure out my designs, but the dirt is forgiving.

Do you carry the brushes with you for unsuspecting dirty cars? Sometimes, actually. That would be a great candid camera TV show: I could hang out at movie theaters, and when a really dirty car pulls up, draw in their windows. Since they’re at a movie theater, you know they’ll be gone for at least an hour or so.

Your first drawing: A reproduction of the Mona Lisa with van Gogh’s Starry Night in the background. I sent it to some friends via email, and bloggers began linking to it. Then I got a call from the National Enquirer.

And then your work went viral. Did that surprise you? Who would have thought people like looking at dirty pictures on the Internet? [Laughs.] I did receive some serious flack for a portrait of my daughter, which looked like she was being abducted. It was supposed to be funny, but it turned out creepy.

Your dream dirt drawing: I want to do a portrait using someone’s cremated ashes on the windows of a hearse. It would be weird, but also compelling.


Best part of your job: Most artists are isolated in their studios, but I’m creating artwork while people look on and talk to me. It took awhile to get used to, but I really enjoy that aspect.

Most challenging part of your job: Dealing with the business side of things, which I think a lot of artists can relate to. The medium itself is also very challenging. Dirt is not uniform, and the results are never what I totally expect.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? A dirty car is typically an ugly thing. But when people see that dirt can be turned into beautiful art, it really challenges their perceptions.

Best reaction to telling a stranger about your line of work: I always get a cocked eyebrow. I can tell they’re thinking, Oh, it’s probably just some little doodles. Then I show my representation of the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, and they’re totally floored.

Do you wear protective gear to avoid breathing in dirt and dust? I might wear a paper mask, depending on the wind’s direction. When drawing on storefront windows, I wear goggles and a respirator.

You mentioned the medium’s impermanence. How do you justify putting so much effort into something that the rain will wash off in seconds? It’s a lesson in letting go, in understanding that life is just a series of moments passing by. If you try to hang on to something, it causes grief and heartache. If you can just be happy you had the experience, it frees you up.

One of Wade’s most recent works: The Marx Brothers. His creations can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 6 hours.

Fee per job: I charge by the day, not by the car. My corporate rate is $3,500/day, especially overseas. My nonprofit rate ranges from $650/day to $1,200/day.

When you tell your daughter to clean her dirty room, does she argue it’s just “art”? I don’t think she’s ever used that argument, and I’m not going to mention it to her.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
There are a lot of people who have made careers out of doing something special in their medium, like Julian Beever’s 3D pavement drawings. Be unique in the way you do art: that’s what gets attention. This type of work can be very rewarding and enriching. Click here for a full gallery of Scott Wade’s work.

Impressed by dirty car art? For more artsy No Joe Schmos, meet the glassblower and the pop-up paper engineer. 

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The Pooper Scooper

Cara Brown, co-founder of Dirty Work, keeps her iPhone with her on the job to snap photos of hilarious things she finds in the dog poop.

Fifteen years ago, Cara Brown had a “movie moment” revelation: she would switch careers from computer consultant to dog-poop remover. Brown and her business partner, Erin Erman, shut down their stressful tech startup for a different kind of stress: figuring out how to scoop frozen poop without ruining clients’ lawns.

When the two women opened Dirty Work, they were the ones finding, scooping, and hauling away dog waste. Now, they employ four scoopers in order to focus on the business. The windows of Brown’s Toyota Tacoma are plastered with signs reading Got poop? We scoop! and Picking up where your dog left off. On any given day, she’s awake by 4 a.m. and out the door by 5:30 a.m. – and for the next 12 or 14 hours, she checks on the company’s pickup trucks, coordinates schedule changes, meets with prospective clients, and occasionally scoops (hey, a girl’s gotta stay grounded).

Dirty Work has managed to thrive in a down economy; Brown claims the pet sector is relatively recession-proof. “People will need [our services] until dogs start learning to use the toilet,” she says. Reliability is a tenet central to their business model: employees scoop in rain, sleet, and snow. They scoop from sweltering 100-degree weather to frigid 10-degree weather, when they chip away at piles of poop with long metal spades, which act like ice picks.

Age: 39
Based out of: Atlanta, GA
In the poop-scooping business for: 15 years
Graduated from: Georgia Institute of Technology; majored in industrial engineering
Previous jobs: Computer consultant

How did you arrive at the realization that scooping poop was a career path you wanted to pursue? My business partner Erin Erman and I started a computer consultant business when we were finishing school in 1996. After two years, we were miserable; being on call 24/7 was really stressful and exhausting. Then one day, Erin’s stepmother told us about a piece she read on someone who started a pooper-scooper business. We turned to each other, and it was like a movie moment. We were like, “Oh my gosh, that is such a terrific idea.”

Co-owner Erin Erman’s dog, Brady, in one of Dirty Work’s trucks.

I think it’s safe to say: that’s not a common reaction to scooping poop. We’re both huge animal people, and there were only a handful of pooper-scooper services in the United States and Canada at the time.

Amount of poop that Dirty Work scoops per week: Several McDonald’s-sized dumpsters full.

Lead me through the poop-scooping process. We use long metal spades and line pails with trash bags that can just slide off afterward. After double-bagging the poop, we spray it with a deodorizer and transport it in pickup trucks to a service that treats it properly. Then we disinfect everything.

How many clients do you service? Several hundred. We have some that I’ve served literally since our business opened 15 years ago. We cover a sheer swath of Greater Atlanta, including residences, apartments, town homes, and some hotels. In total, we drive thousands of miles per week.

What primarily drives people to hire you? [Our clients] are really busy, or they simply hate the idea of cleaning up the waste. Or perhaps it’s a wife and/or mother that tells us, “My husband and/or kids said they would do it, and now it’s piling up.”

Staff size: Four people in addition to Erin and myself. I’m really involved in the business side of things now, but I still do some of the scooping a few days per week. It’s a good way to keep a feel for how the business operates.

Welsh Corgi puppies are cute. Their poop is not. Photo: pbh2.com

Do you work in rain or shine? Yes – in all types of weather, with the exception of lightening, since we use metal tools. Rain and ice aren’t our friends, though. Frozen poop isn’t fun.

I can imagine, especially when the ground is frozen, too. It’s essentially like taking an ice pick to an ice cube, hacking away. But we’re careful not to take away any grass, since people are very meticulous about their lawns.

Have you found anything valuable in the poop? All kinds of dog toys, especially ones shaped like animals. Once, two beaded eyes from a dog toy were placed perfectly in a pile of poop, so it was as though the poop was staring up at me. I had to take a photo of that. Another time, a client had placed her diamond engagement ring on the counter while washing dishes, and her Labrador Retriever jumped up and swallowed it. You can imagine what we were looking for in the poop that week!

Did you find the ring? Yes. But I’m not sure what her cleaning process was for that.

What do you wear on the job? Rainboots or waterproof shoes, waterproof gloves, and a hat are staples.

No masks to fight the odor? We’re mostly immune to the odor, although it still hits you sometimes, especially when it’s hot and wet outside. Plus, masks are really hot on your face from the hot air you breathe out.

When you meet new people, how do they react when you tell them about your job? Well, people I’ve gotten back in touch with from high school or college thought I’d go on to medical school, so they are quite surprised at the twist. But overall, people are really positive. We like to call ourselves entremanures.

Best part of your job: The dogs.

Most challenging part of your job: Getting the word out about our services. From a scooping aspect, it’s the climate.

An ad for Dirty Work uses imagery of a dog on a toilet with the tagline Until then, call us.
Photo: DirtyWork.net

Do you foresee the day when your services become obsolete? Not until dogs start learning to use the toilet. But you never know – we never thought we’d have cars that drive themselves.

Average fee charged per yard: For a yard with one or two dogs, about $12.50 for weekly service. After paying for gas, insurance, licensing, truck maintenance, taxes, and payroll, it’s a very low profit. In five to ten years, though, I’d like to see the company grow by at least a fourth.

So you’re doing this largely out of love for dogs – not for the money. In a way, yeah.

Do you have pets of your own? Two cats and two dogs, all of which are adopted. Some frogs have also taken residence in my backyard this spring, along with some tadpoles and wild birds.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Do your research. Over the years, I have seen many people try to start businesses but fail because they don’t take it seriously. Don’t take shortcuts; be fair to your clients and employees. Scooping poop may not require hours of training required for jobs like plumbing and carpentry, but it’s still a business like any other.

Read about other animal-centric No Joe Schmos, like the CEO of Lincoln Park Zoo and the bull rider.

Would you pay $12.50 per week for a poop-free yard? Comment below.