It is just before dusk and I am outside a house in the Mission ringing the doorbell. I am buzzed in, and at the top of the stairs, standing in a living room strewn with toys, is the man I have come to meet, Eric Staller.
He’s a gray fox, wearing Ray-Bans, a long-sleeved shirt with ruler print, and purple jeans.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he asks, gliding across the floor in his black socks. I professionally answer, “Yes, a glass of water.” He comes back with a bottle of prosecco instead. He pops it open, pours out two flutes, and sets the tone for what is to be a night of celebration.
I should reverse this ride and tell you how this whole scene came about. Last year, I was standing on the curb outside an art opening at Electric Works and all of a sudden a Volkswagen Beetle affixed with thousands of lights pulled up in front of the gallery. Everyone’s face lit up with instant joy. A dashing couple emerged from the car, made a quick round, and then as mysteriously as they had arrived, they vanished. I made a small wish on a star that I’d see the duo again.
Then, last month I saw a different, but thematically similar, vehicle cruising down Valencia Street. This time it was a black Fiat with bowling pins shooting in and out of the side of the car. Inside was the couple from the “Lightmobile.” When I spotted that same Fiat parked on the street a few days later, I left a note that read, “Who are you guys and what are you up to?” The next morning I received an email that began, “Congratulations, Anisse, you have spotted one of my urban UFOs,” which is how our correspondence began, landing my terrestrial being on Eric Staller’s couch drinking prosecco.
As we sit and sip, Eric tells me about how he had an illustrious career as an artist, and how his urban UFOs have found him a wider audience than the traditional gallery route. “There’s an element of anarchy in my work. It’s an intervention. People have no choice. This thing comes wheeling around the corner while you’re walking your dog. When I drive by in one of these, faces turn, the whole place is wondering what it is, and by the time they figure it out, I’m gone. That’s the UFO quality.”
While we’re chatting, in walks his beautiful, svelte wife Sietske with their young ginger-haired daughter. Eric wants Sietske to change into her all-leopard outfit. “The photographer is going to be here any minute,” he says, so Sietske starts putting on leopard tights, a leopard coat, and she holds up an extra pair of leopard tights to me and says, “Do you have short legs?” I’m five foot eight. They start laughing; it’s a rollicking time, and I realize I’m completely lost inside of their artistic bubble.
When Gene the photographer shows up, he takes a family portrait of the trio in front of the bowling pin Fiat, which Eric calls “Big Bang Theory.” This is not your average picture-over-the-fireplace portrait.
After we’re done, Eric and I set off in the Fiat. I cram my “short legs” into the back of the tiny car and we start driving. He wants to go to places where we’ll see a crowd’s reactions. First stop: Revolution Cafe. When we pull up in front, all heads turn in sync. A bunch of stony guys crowd around the car and ask the seasonal question, “Dude, is this for Burning Man?” Eric replies jokingly, “You’re the first person to ask me that!” He walks away from the car and as we enter the café, says, “I like to step away from it, so people don’t attach it to me. I want to watch them react to it.”
Eric doesn’t like to linger in one place too long. He just wants to give people a flash of wonder. So after only a few minutes we get back on the road. Crouched in the back of an urban UFO, I feel like I’m the envy of every person we drive away from. I wave to the crowd through the vintage glass window like I’m a star in a French New Wave film, and I get a small inkling of what it’s like to be a celebrity.
The sun has finally gone to bed, so it’s time to trade out the Fiat for the Lightmobile, which is parked in a secret garage. When Eric reverses out of the driveway, and with the flip of a switch turns on a cascade of 1,600 lights, my heart goes aflutter. It took him five months to install the light system on this UFO. “Once upon a time there was a guy that needed to put 1,600 lightbulbs on a car. It’s like my own parade.” We start the parade, putt-putting through the streets. Everywhere we go adults are rendered childlike, reduced to simple lines of joy: “That is so tight!” “Whoa – that’s ridiculous!” “Sweet!”
An eight-year-old boy exclaims, “I want him to do my mom’s car like that!” His two-year-old sister points at the car and utters one of her newly formed words, “Yeahhhh.”
Eric moved to San Francisco with his wife and child a year and a half ago from Amsterdam. “I always feel like some sort of extraterrestrial invading some place, especially when arriving in a new town. No one has seen [an urban UFO] yet, and it just galvanizes people.”
In the backseat of the Lightmobile, I feel like I’m inside of a pinball machine watching the lights wave over my face, down my arms, and along the street outside. People raise their iPhones in instinctual photographic mode. They’re pointing, waving, and smiling, and I realize it’s been a while since I’ve seen grown adults smile at me everywhere I go. It’s amazing to watch the way the Lightmobile seems to unlock what’s always been with them. “It forces people to have a childlike response. That’s my job.”
I ask Eric what keeps him making art. “I’m really out to blow my own mind. If I can blow my own mind, I can blow anyone’s mind.” And it’s working – everywhere we go we’re blowing minds. People are so distracted by the UFO that bikes swerve and pedestrians stop mid-crosswalk. I can picture the headlines now: Mission Hipster Riding Fixie with No Helmet Killed by Urban UFO.
Two ladies on the corner wave their scarves at us like we’re the Beatles! It’s true – this is Beetlemania! A group of people at the bus stop waiting for the 22 Fillmore starts clapping. In a moment of perfect irony, a cop driving by shouts out his window, “Your headlights!”
Eric flips on his headlights, two unnecessary bulbs in the grand scheme of things. After we’ve exhausted the Mission, he asks, “Where should we go now? I used to go to Times Square but that’s too far…”
We decide on the Castro Theatre because there are always people around and it’s all lit up. We pull up in front of the theater, park, and walk away so the Lightmobile can attract its own attention. Eric and I get a slice of pizza across the street from where we watch the crowd, and he says, “I dare people not to react.”
As a group of grown men crowd around the Beetle, I walk up to one who says, “Anything that’s different or fun to look at makes our lives better.”
Back in the car, Eric talks about what it’s been like to drive the Lightmobile these past few years. “ The number of faces I’ve gotten to look into is amazing. I took it out for 100 nights in a row in New York once, driving all of Manhattan to the toughest parts of Brooklyn, lighting up faces everywhere. There were evenings when I’d get back and my jaw would be aching from smiling so much.”
After we’ve spent the night driving the streets, lighting up faces, and stoking imaginations, we park the Lightmobile in the garage and begin walking back through the dark streets to his house where I’ve parked my car. We’re talking about art and life, and then his cell phone rings. It’s Sietske asking when he’ll be back. Their daughter is refusing to go to sleep and it’s 10 at night.
Eric tells her, “I’m a few blocks away.” He hangs up the phone and turns to me, “Our daughter doesn’t want to go to sleep. Life is just too exciting.”
You can find more of Eric Staller's work at ericstaller.com. He can be spotted several times a week in the Big Bang Theory at Four Barrel on Valencia street. He's got a seven person Conference Bike that can be rented out in the Mission. When the bike is out on the weekends, if there's an open seat, feel free to jump on. The Lightmobile cruises the town weekend evenings. Like any UFO, when and where they can be spotted is up to chance.