The steampunk aesthetic transports spaceships and other fantastical vehicles to pre-Victorian times when steam power was used to generate movement. Think: the flying locomotive in the far-fetched wild-West hybrid Back to the Future III, where Doc Brown and his love interest, Clara, travel from year to year with their two boys, Jules and Verne, named after the French writer who pioneered science-fiction writing. The European Space Agency even named its first ATV (automated transfer vehicle) Jules Verne in 2002. And, Verne’s literature continues to inspire modern-day space cadets, like Jones, who sees the potential in discarded, mechanical scraps to become collectible works of art.
“I’m getting younger every day by doing this,” Jones says of building the mini-sculptures, a process he compares to the joy of piecing together Legos as a kid.
Other influences from Jones’ childhood include comic books, like the sci-fi adventure Flash Gordon that was first published in 1934. In 1935, the superhero’s story was adapted as a 25-episode radio series, The Amazing Planetary Adventures of Flash Gordon. Jones’ father introduced him to the futuristic adventures featured in Golden Age radio broadcasts—and, Jones says, the two other hobbies that contribute to his art: junk collecting and tinkering.
“I make goods out of everything from old buffalo heads to antique radios,” he says. “Junk and mechanical cast-offs that I find at flea markets, like my dad used to, become space ships, robots and ray-guns, mostly.”
“Tinkerbots” wasn’t an intentional name for his creations. When the artist—who finally launched a proper website this year (blasterpunk.com)—joined the photo-sharing website Flickr in 2008 to spread his art, he needed to come up with a username, and “Tinkerbots” was available. The catchy title for the hand-crafted robots stuck, and now, when you Google it, his work populates the top hits.
The Tinkerbots peak at around 2 feet in size, with many figures smaller than that. Depending on the venue, they also range in price; for the past five years, Jones’ work has sold out at the Comic-Con art show, where he prices items to be affordable collectors’ pieces. “I never thought people would collect something I made,” he says.
Instead of December, when most of the workforce takes a holiday, Jones reserves his two-week vacation for July, when costumed comic-book and pop-culture junkies invade Downtown for the annual convention. He’s attended it every year since 1977, when his father took him for the first time as a sixth grader, and Jones continues the tradition by taking his own kids each year. You’ll find Jones and his Tinkerbots at the Sales Pavilion inside the Convention Center this July 11 through 15.
Jones’ automotive creations are whimsical versions of “rat rods”—exaggerations of the classic hot rods of the ’40s and ’50s. This work crosses over into steampunk’s sub-genre, dieselpunk, which is inspired by world wars, streamlined technology and even the art and jazz music from the 1930s through the 1950s. The idea is to repurpose mechanical cast-offs from this time period into artwork that is a zeitgeist of the era.
So, just how does Jones create these intricate sculptures out of junk?
“It usually starts with one piece that I think, This could be a face [of a robot], and then I find more pieces to build around it,” he says. “The cars don’t always appear drivable, because there isn’t always a clear place to sit. In that sense, they’re very whimsical.”
Jones’ work is on view through Sept. 30 in the San Diego Automotive Museum’s steampunk exhibit and through June 24 in his most recent show at the Oceanside Museum of Art, Zeitgeist: Dieselpunk Tinkerbots by Dan Jones.
You can meet him at OMA’s Art After Dark: Cruisin’ Culture event from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, June 22. Tickets are $30 for non-members and include a night of artistic sensory overload—from stations where guests can build their own mini-cars out of found objects; performance art, including a fashion show; live jazz and surf rock by The Red Fox Tails; and local artist Scott Saw’s Vixen Photography photo-booth. Light appetizers are also included, as well as a hosted bar and a chance to mingle with the contributing artists.