Mike Hammond: the Muffler Man

Alissa Antilla, Staff Reporter

Stepping into Melody Muffler, an unexpected collision of an automotive shop and art gallery, is like entering a whole new world. This world is a culmination of disparate elements of artist, musician and automotive repairman, all talents of Walla Walla native Mike Hammond.

‘Building art’: cars and creations

Hammond arrived in Walla Walla 35 years ago and bought the Melody Muffler on 9th Avenue. While he brought with him his experiences gleaned from working at another Melody Muffler shop in Lewiston, Idaho, Hammond has made his Walla Walla shop his own. Prior to living in Lewiston, Hammond was a sponsored motorcycle racer in Culdesac, Idaho. While Hammond moved around the Northwest, his passion for working with cars, driven by his childhood experiences, never left him.

“I’ve always been adventurous growing up … [I] raced motorcycles, and I was kind of the wild child in school in my little town that I grew up in,” Hammond said.

When Hammond became a Walla Walla resident, he participated in local demolition derbies and raced dirt track cars. He worked his way up to racing asphalt cars in Hermiston and the Tri-Cities, where he won several competitions.

Now Hammond flips cars inside out, extracting car parts and revamping them into new creations.

“Some of it’s kind of funky,” Hammond said.

He described his process as building art rather than making it.

“I think I picked it up from my dad,” Hammond said. “Just putting things together … I see a pile of scrap iron, and I visualize different things in that iron that looks like something, and I just go from there.”

Hammond carries on the family legacy in more ways than one. His father owned an automotive shop similar to Melody Muffler where he frequently welded, cut torches and constructed things. Hammond himself began building dune buggies (a vehicle designed for use on sand) at age 16.

Hammond’s building escalated from dune buggies to artistic creations as he started getting more creative with his visualizations.

“I’ve got art all the way from Mexico to Canada … it started out as kind of a funsie thing … funsie art and funsie yard art and that type of stuff and then we started getting a little more detailed and a little more elaborate with it,” Hammond said.

Hammond’s career itself escalated when Timothy Corrigan Correll, a folklorist who researches material behavior and folk belief hailing from UC Berkeley, and Patrick Arthur Polk, the museum scientist and archivist for the UCLA Folklore and Mythology Archives, passed through Walla Walla. The pair interviewed Hammond about his art, took photographs of his work and purchased four of Hammond’s pieces for their mythology and folklore programs.

Eventually, Hammond and his art was featured in Correll and Polk’s book “Muffler Men,” published by the Mississippi Press of the University of California at Berkeley. The book analyzes the impact of roadside creations, particularly those made out of car parts, like Hammond’s, as symbolic icons for culture as well as for individual and group identity.

“Muffler Men” posits that while these remnants-of-cars creations serve as signposts for businesses, the pieces also serve as ways to spice up the roadside and interact with the community that surrounds them.

Hammond’s art, which is scattered throughout Walla Walla, exhibits both of these characteristics. For the Walla Walla Public Library, Hammond crafted a sculpture of a little boy reading. Hammond created a tree with a bird nest made from iron for the old Walla Walla Motor Supply on 1st and Main at Land Title Plaza. He fashioned a little tin man drinking olive oil for the olive oil shop D’Olivo.

“I like it when [my art] goes somewhere and it’s being used or displayed in someone’s yard or a business,” Hammond said.

The rising popularity of Hammond’s art attracted the attention of “Children’s Highlights,” an international company that produces children’s educational books and magazines. His art went on to be featured in a segment in one of their books.

Hammond’s eminence branched out from “Children’s Highlights” and spread quickly to newspapers and TV news.

“I kept going, you know what, I can’t buy advertising this good,” Hammond said. “So I just kept doing more sculptures and putting them out in the parking lot of Melody Muffler, and people just kept coming out and buying it.”

Things just kept falling into place for Hammond. After Hammond’s pieces appeared at a folk art festival in Sacramento, Hammond received calls from representatives for news anchor Peter Jennings, Jay Leno and “National Geographic.”

While Hammond did not appear on the shows of Peter Jennings or Jay Leno, “National Geographic” flew a crew out to Walla Walla and featured his artwork in the May 2000 issue of their magazine.

Hammond requested a copy of the magazine for each of his relatives. When the representative asked him which countries he would like the magazine from, the extent of National Geographic’s distribution hit Mike for the first time.

Since “National Geographic,” Hammond says that he has been getting emails from all over the world. Consequently, his prices went up.

“I figured that it’s art now,” Hammond said.

Hammond’s work has glossed the pages of the book “Washington Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities & Other Offbeat Stuff” by Harriett Baskas and various magazines.

“People will be traveling across the U.S. and they’ll make it a point to come to Walla Walla and see my muffler shop and get their pictures taken with my art,” Hammond said.

People even commission Hammond to do artwork for them, such as memorials or tributes for deceased spouses or pets. He mentions that anatomy and proportions are the hardest part of his work–which is understandable, considering that he is fashioning car parts to resemble humans and animals.

Whitman commissioned Hammond to build a piece of art for the landing of the staircase that leads to the second floor of Reid Campus Center. Hammond created a fisherman fishing for a book of knowledge.

“I wanted to do something that related to the educational part of it … and so my concept was that [when] you’re at Whitman, you’re putting in a lot of effort to acquire knowledge … but sometimes the knowledge is there within reach, but you can’t really grasp it or it’s difficult to grasp and sometimes slips away,” Hammond said.

It is clear that Hammond feels strongly about his artwork.

“I feel really blessed and lucky, that’s how I feel. I have the facility here, that lets me do this stuff. And the materials. I can’t keep up with how many ideas [there are] in my head of what to do and what I could do,” Hammond said. “So yeah, I just feel really blessed.”

From “Heavy Metal” to Music

Hammond describes his artwork as “heavy metal” because of its weight and material. However, this title also connects with both his music and his shop, Melody Muffler.

Since moving to Walla Walla, Hammond has revived his passion for music which began in his time in Idaho. He plays the drums in his three-member blues band “Iguana Hat” under the moniker “Maniac Mike.” They play at local clubs and bars, festivals and weddings. Notable gigs include the county fair, the Onion Festival and the Balloon Stampede.

“Playing … just playing … I love playing,” Hammond said.

His favorite part of playing, though, is the reaction of the audience.

“I love it when the crowd responds. That’s your reward for playing in the band … when the crowd responds,” Hammond said.

While Hammond relishes playing for his adult audiences, he gets the most fulfillment out of working with a different crowd: children.

As a 15 year member and current president of the Walla Walla Blues Society, Hammond leads the group’s efforts, in collaboration with the Walla Walla Symphony, to provide instruments for kids who can’t afford them.

“People … have instruments in their closets that they played when they were in high school and [they’ve] just been sitting there for years,” Hammond said.

When people donate an instrument to the Blues Society, they receive a tax deduction, adding to the incentive. The Blues Society refurbishes the instruments and then passes them on to kids in need.

“[The kids] sign a little contract … they get to keep it as long as they use it. If Grandma and Grandpa buys them a new one or something, then that instrument comes back to us so we can refurbish it and get it out [to more kids],” Hammond said.

Additionally, Hammond has been involved for the past five years in a youth rock camp run by Blues Society and Walla Walla Symphony. 75-100 kids ages 12-18 attend camp for a week, completely free of charge, including meals. The Blues Society and Symphony supply instructors who aim to instill a passion for music in the kids.

The kids eventually form their own bands and put on a concert at a local park at the end of the week. However, sometimes the bands last longer than a week.

“Some of those bands now have grown up and have been booked up at regular events and other places … that’s a pat on the back and that makes you feel good,” Hammond said.

Even if kids don’t end up making it big, the camp changes lives.

Hammond mentioned that there have been kids at the alternative high school that were teetering on the edge of getting into trouble or joining a gang. He says that some of those kids come back to him years later and admit that they acted up in the name of attention, but having all eyes on them when they played gave them just the attention they needed so they could focus on improving their grades and staying out of trouble.

“That’s a kid you saved from, you know, being in jail, or drugs, or dead, or whatever … and so that’s really gratifying … that’s something that you go, ‘Yeah, that was worth doing,’” Hammond said.

There is no question that Hammond positively impacts lives. He even started a website, free of charge, for any band to spread their names and promote gigs. Because of Hammond, new bands have the potential to achieve recognition and, most importantly, the opportunity to play for an audience.

“It’s really a feel-good thing,” Hammond said.

Check out the Walla Walla Blues Society’s work at wwbs.org, Hammond’s free site for bands at wallawallamusic.com, his band at iguanahat.com and his entire profile at mikehammond.com.