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High times for Atlanta lowbrow

Southern culture goes beyond the skids

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While the car clubs have grown from zero to three or four clubs over the past decade, the burlesque scene has witnessed a more roller-coaster history. Some troupes spring out of others, which then disband. Lowbrow/pop-surrealist art events have brought packed crowds at the Gallery at East Atlanta Tattoo since Dirk Hays started them last fall. The Atlanta Rollergirls roller-derby league, in its fourth season, has enjoyed sold-out crowds and appears headed for bigger things.

Individually, they offer something for everyone, whether it's the participants or their audience as they pay homage to their respective forms of anachronistic culture.

"Part of the reason why Atlanta has such a diverse lowbrow scene is everyone's really well-networked," says Sadie Hawkins, 32, who formed Blast-Off with Barb Hays after they met in the now-defunct Doll Squad. "Also, the people here are very well-rounded. It's not like 'I'm a rockabilly guy!' People are more open to exploring different things here."

Barb Hays and Hawkins met in the city's growing vintage-scooter scene. They recruited another vintage-scooter rider, Dickie Van Dyke, who as a drag king adds to the troupe's neo-vaudevillian tone. In less than two years, their crowds of about 200 have outgrown the cozy confines of the Alcove Gallery in Avondale Estates. They often collaborate with another burlesque upstart, Syrens of the South.

Dames Aflame clearly is the most traditional and, it should be noted, boasts the more classic burlesque figures among its members. Which is what makes watching Blast-Off and the sometimes plus-sized Syrens of the South such a wonderful complement to the Dames' more overt sexiness.

"We're all just average joes with average bodies," says Barb Hays, 43. "The sexiness comes with the total confidence in what you're doing." In the recent Go West! show at Alcove, Hays happily danced around in her Little Bo Peep costume. As the crowd howled with approval, she sang "I Wanna Be Loved By You" while sodomizing a small black-sheep blow-up doll with her staff.

While Hays is excited about the troupe's growing popularity, she worries about it becoming too successful.

"Now we're thinking about maybe we should do them more often, but there's a fine line," she says. "I want to keep the momentum going, but it will drive us nuts if we do too much. I'm not in this to make this a business. There's something to that DIY, 'Our Gang,' let's-put-on-a-show kind of feel to what we do."

Dirk Hays has grown weary from the tattoo-shop competition that has challenged the shop he opened six years ago, so he focuses more on his own lowbrow paintings and gallery. The creative outlet has been a relief for him, and he gets more feedback via the Internet and his gallery openings. "More and more people are coming by to check out the show," says Dirk, 49.

The same can be said for the Rollergirls, who after three years moved from the All American Skating Center in Stone Mountain to the Yaarab Shrine Temple's gym on Ponce de Leon. The league features such teams as the Toxic Shocks and Apocalypstix and equally pun-loving players such as Hollywood stunt double Skate Outta Compton.

The league also has sold out every bout this summer, averaging about 800 in attendance – with a waiting list for tickets. Organizers believe they'll last another year at the Temple.

"We've already outgrown this venue," says Hot Legs Hooligan, the league marketing director and co-founder. "Our sisters in Raleigh skate in front of at least 1,500 a month. We don't ever want to stop it from being a DIY thing, but we need to create a bigger space for 2010."

Josh Mills has nurtured a growing custom-car scene with similar mixed feelings. The Virginia native had only recently returned to the Southeast from Southern California, which already had a hip car-culture scene. He noticed custom-car owners in Atlanta were mostly middle-aged men, with no generation coming up behind them. Some of the older guys would spend as much as $100,000 to trick out their rides, he says, adding that the emphasis on pricey features seemed to trivialize the notion of a custom-designed car.

In 1999, at the first Drive-Invasion, Mills and a handful of others launched what would become the Dixie Fried Car Show. Ten cars showed up.

Now Atlanta's spawned more car clubs, including Mills' own Road Kings, the Odd Rods and the Road Devils. At this year's Drive-Invasion, as many as 200 vintage cars are expected from Atlanta and around the Southeast.

"It's exploded," says the 34-year-old Mills, who points to the Internet as one factor. "EBay has made it so much easier to get the parts for older cars."

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