To make their automobiles really stand out, they are having them spray-painted -- with designs ranging from sharks and tigers to scenes from their favorite movies.
Wearing scruffy overalls and a pair of goggles, a Moscow artist applies the finishing touches to a baby crocodile emerging from its shell on the trunk of a Lexus.
The roof of the car has been transformed into a mother crocodile guarding her eggs. Every centimeter of the car has been custom painted in loving detail.
It is the work of Ilnur Mansurov, a man considered to be a master of the art of auto airbrushing.
"Of course it's art. It's work -- when you spend a lot of time on something, you use your experience, your talent. It's just that's it's technical -- it's a more technical process when you are working on cars," Mansurov says. "I'm happy that so many people see my work, that the cars themselves drive around town like an exhibition, and people are always seeing my work."
Airbrushing, or aerography, as Mansurov prefers to call it, is big business in Moscow. Ten years ago, the most ubiquitous cars on the capital's streets were Russian-built Ladas and Volgas. Today, Muscovites prefer to drive foreign cars and you're less likely to see a rusty Zaporozhets at the traffic light than a line of shiny Audis and BMWs.
The average wage in Russia remains at around just $5,000 a year. But Russia's rich are astoundingly rich and, Mansurov says, they aren't afraid to spend their money.
"There are lot of people who have earned money quickly. They don't have the sort of conservatism that they have in, say, Great Britain," Mansurov says. "I doubt very much they would paint anything onto a Rolls Royce -- even Big Ben! But here, they're ready to do that. For them their cars are their hobby, their joy, their free time. Maybe part of it is that people remember how it used to be, life was difficult, dull back then. Now, if they've got the opportunity, they try to live life to the full."
Mansurov's creations don't come cheap. For $1,500 you can get your hood painted, for $3,000 he'll do one side of the car. But if you want the entire vehicle transformed from a modest, say, Chrysler PT Cruiser, into one of the scenes from "Pirates of the Caribbean," that will set you back upward of $15,000.
A closer look at Mansurov's work (courtesy photo)Mansurov is discreet about his clients. He says many of the cars he has painted belong to pop stars and actors and, possibly, some politicians. But he does let slip that the governor of a region to the south of Moscow recently had his Hummer chauffer-driven to Ilnur's studio, where it was painted with a sunset over the ocean, with flapping seagulls on the roof.
In addition to cars, he has applied his airbrush to two private jets and a yacht.
"And I did a big plane, a Yak-42, which has a height of seven meters. That was hard work because I had to keep running up and down four flights of stairs, dragging my equipment with me," Mansurov says. "On the tail I painted flying geese against the backdrop of a setting sun."
New Direction For Cars
On the other side of Moscow, Vadim Nikulin and Yury Tsarkov run the 4Friends airbrushing studio. They charge a little less than Mansurov -- an entire car costs just $5,000 to spray -- and they specialize in cartoon characters and science fiction. Tsarkov remembers some of the most difficult designs he's been asked to paint.
"We had one client with a Subaru who wanted a robot smashing its way out of the hood," Tsarkov says. "He was very demanding. But after we'd finished, the owner of the car jumped for joy and even left the artist extra money for his work and took him out for a round of drinks."
One of 4Friends' clients is Yaroslav, an insurance salesman, who is having his car spray-painted with smoke and flames.
Airbrushing cars "is a new direction for us," Yaroslav says. "It's as though people want to stand out in the crowd. Yes [sighs], maybe it's a sort of Russian mentality -- to have something that's bigger and better than anyone else's."