In a dystopian bid to lure Tesla’s Cybertruck Gigafactory to Tulsa, the Oklahoma state monument—a seven-story, 22-ton statue of an oil worker called The Golden Driller—has been redesigned as an effigy of Elon Musk. The likeness of X Æ A-12’s multibillionaire father, now called The Driller ‘Golden Elon,’ is one of the largest free-standing statues in the U.S.
“Tulsa is a city that doesn’t stifle entrepreneurs - we revere them!” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum wrote on Facebook, prompting an onslaught of enraged replies. “Golden @elonmusk is now the 6th-tallest statue in the United States. #TulsaforTesla @Tesla.”
The gargantuan statue, unveiled earlier this week at a community event and on Bynum’s social media, now features a red Tesla logo painted on its chest. The Driller’s 48-foot belt, which once read “TULSA,” was changed to read “TESLA.” If you squint, the statue’s head now looks like a low-budget YouTube cartoon of Musk. “I was told onsite it was an ‘Elon Musk Face Skin,’” one worker wrote on Facebook. “It went on like a fruit roll-up.”
“It’s this weird, ghostly, white mask-like thing,” said Lucas Wrench, a 28-year-old Tulsa Artist Fellow, who runs an arts space called OK #1. “It sort of looks like if you FaceSwapped with some creature. I just couldn’t believe it. I’m shocked at how transparent it is—the kind of a symbol they created in putting this enormous billionaire, literally a giant towering billionaire in Tulsa—the lack of self-awareness. They’re groveling.”
The redesign was spearheaded by a “community-led group” called Tulsa For Tesla, in coordination with the Tulsa County Fairgrounds, a spokesperson for Bynum told The Daily Beast. The group has no online profile, although there is a Facebook page for a group called “Tulsa 4 Tesla,” which was started May 17 and boasts 104 followers as of Friday. The administrator of that page told The Daily Beast they had not organized the redesign, but simply wanted Musk to move there. “I had no idea [the other Tulsa For Tesla] existed until a few days ago,” the Tulsa 4 Tesla administrator wrote. “I would have thought they would have [a Facebook] page. When I named this one I looked [for others], even using ‘4’ instead of ‘For’ Tulsa.”
“The City did not coordinate the Driller Golden Elon,” the mayor’s spokesperson wrote. “Mayor Bynum spoke at the community-led event earlier this week.” Still, Bynum has made similar suggestions to redesign city structures in Musk’s image. Earlier this week, reported by CBS News, Bynum posted an image of a Tesla Cybertruck sporting the Tulsa Police logo on Instagram, suggesting police officers would use the pixelated, sci-fi-looking monstrosities if the factory came to town.
“The Golden Driller is something that’s commonly decorated for special events and holidays,” said Sydney Smith, a 22-year-old from Tulsa, who now studies at the Kansas City Art Institute. “Sometimes they paint it to look like wacky stuff, but painting it to paint like the face of Elon Musk is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. It’s asking a billionaire to come in and just bring his billionaire status to our town.”
The Golden Driller has undergone makeovers in the past. The first iteration was constructed in 1952 for the International Petroleum Exposition, an annual trade fair in Tulsa. At the time, the belt buckle read “MID-CONTINENT,” after the company that commissioned it, The Mid-Continent Supply Company of Fort Worth. In 1959, after the statue attracted attention, the company built a second for that year’s expo, before donating it to the Tulsa County Fairgrounds Trust Authority. In 1966, the Trust had it installed permanently by the Tulsa Expo Center, to commemorate the city as the “Oil Capital of the World.” When the state adopted it as its official monument in 1979, they changed the massive buckle to read “TULSA.”
At the base of the statue, which “wears” a size-112 hard hat and size-393DDD shoes, an inscription reads, “The Golden Driller, a symbol of the International Petroleum Exposition. Dedicated to the men of the petroleum industry who by their vision and daring have created from God’s abundance a better life for mankind.”
The redesign reorients a city literally nicknamed the “Oil Capital of the World” toward green energy, at least symbolically. Some residents are riled for precisely that reason. “What a fantastic use of tax dollars!! 🙄 ,” a Facebook user named Stacy Spohn Bay wrote. “Tulsa was built on oil, not electric/solar power. How degrading, desperate and embarrassing to see this.”
Progressives like Smith aren’t sure how far the gesture goes. “Sure, they’re making efforts to make a sustainable vehicle, but it’s not necessarily something that’s affordable,” she said. “It’s more of a status symbol and a way for a billionaire to make billions of dollars than something that’s going to actually make a positive contribution to the environment, especially in a place like Tulsa that’s surrounded by refineries.”
“Our mayor, G.T. Bynum, I think he gets a lot of credit for being this sensible Republican,” Wrench added. “Yeah, we’re an oil town, but he’s not afraid of clean energy. I think maybe, that is where this started. But they ignored the fact that Elon is just an insanely hated billionaire and that is by the far the dominant symbol that comes across to most people.”
Wrench plans to host a talk next Thursday called The Colossus of Musk, with Art History Professor Bill Anthes and Rome Prize Winner Classics Professor Michelle Berenfeld, both of Pitzer College, about the history of mega sculptures and what the “Golden Elon” means from an art perspective.
The race to determine Tesla’s new home came after Musk sued Alameda County in California, demanding to reopen his plant in Fremont, in flagrant violation of the state’s stay-at-home order. On Twitter, Musk announced plans to move Tesla’s “HQ and future programs to Texas/Nevada immediately.”
“While we love the idea of Tesla’s Cybertruck plant moving to Tulsa, which would provide good paying jobs for Oklahoma families, move our state towards clean energy, and transition TPD to green vehicles, we have concerns pertaining to the fair treatment of workers,” Tulsa activist publication The Progressive Report told The Daily Beast. “Led by Musk, Tesla committed several violations to the US National Labour Relations Act in 2017 & 2018. Knowing Tesla’s history of violating workers’ rights, it’s important we keep a watchful eye on them, especially if they decide to reside in T-Town.”
According to Electrek, Tesla plans to announce their new factory’s site as soon as this month, and by July at the latest.
“Maybe there’s some benefit by bringing some jobs to Tulsa,” Smith said, “But at the same time—outside of any opinions I have about Telsa or Elon Musk—a lot of times big corporations will propose bringing a headquarters to Tulsa, and it will go to another city like Austin. The gentrification that comes to cities that used to have a similar vibe to Tulsa has the impact of raising the rent and raising the property taxes for the people that live there and call that place home.”