Strange Americana: Why Is There a 75-Foot-Tall Statue of Elon Musk in Tulsa Oklahoma?
For your daily dose of Strange America, check out the 5th largest statue in the United States. We know what you’re thinking and yes, that is Elon Musk's face plastered on it. If you find yourself in Tulsa, Oklahoma, you can ogle at the 75-foot-tall statue of the Tesla founder that straddles the horizon.
While Musk has his fans, few would go as far as building a giant statue of him. The inventor also has no clear connection to Oklahoma by himself. So... what happened?
Enter ... Big Oil?
You probably wouldn’t expect the oil industry to be behind a giant sculpture of one of the leading developers of electric cars. Nonetheless, the statue was built by the International Petroleum Exposition in 1966 — five years before Musk was even born. Known as the Golden Driller, it was a callback to two temporary statues created for previous expos, one in 1953 and the other in 1959.
The sculpture is the largest freestanding statue in the world and the fifth-largest overall in the United States. An inscription at the statue’s base 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."
Tulsa has a tradition of periodically redecorating the Golden Driller for local celebrations, including a Santa hat for Christmas and a kilt in honor of the Oklahoma Scottish Festival. On May 20th, 2020 the statue's face was changed to resemble Musk’s. The belt-buckle was also switched from "Tulsa" to "Tesla," and a Tesla logo was added to the chest.
Dress to Impress
The Golden Driller’s latest wardrobe change is part of an effort to convince Musk to open a new factory in Tulsa. Such a move would bring jobs and fame to the city, so everyone from the mayor to ordinary citizens contributed to the push to win over the company, with two groups, Tesla Owners Club of Oklahoma and Tulsa for Tesla, leading the way.
In the event that Tulsa is chosen for the new plant, Mayor G.T. Bynum has promised to "buy local" and equip the city's police force with Tesla Cybertrucks. He also met with Musk himself at the undisclosed site where Tesla is considering building the factory over the Fourth of July weekend. Afterward, Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce Sean Kouplen told reporters, "It was very important to [Musk] to see the actual physical site. Get a feel for it and drive it. Get some familiarity with Tulsa."
How Far Will Cities Go to Woo Corporations?
This is far from the first time a city has done something like this in order to persuade a company to bring its business there. In 2017, many cities — including Tulsa — did whatever they could to attract the attention of Jeff Bezos after Amazon announced it was searching for a city to host a second headquarters.
What did those efforts look like? New York City's landmarks were lit in "Amazon orange," while Mayor Sly James of Kansas City, Missouri bought 1000 items from Amazon and left 5-star reviews for all of them. Not to be outdone, Stonecrest, Georgia Mayor Jason Lary offered to give the corporation 345 acres to create the new town of Amazon, Georgia with Jeff Bezos as mayor.
Tesla’s Supporters and Detractors
Elon Musk and Tesla have won praise for their successful business model and for producing some of the most advanced electrical vehicles (EV) on the road today. Elon Musk himself has numerous fans who admire his determination and ingenuity. However, Musk and Tesla also have their share of critics who are likely less enamored with the Golden Driller’s new look.
Worker rights and safety continue to be a thorny issue for Tesla. Some workers have complained of long work hours in unsafe conditions, with Jose Moran, an employee at Tesla’s Fremont, California factory, admitting, "I often feel like I am working for a company of the future under working conditions of the past." When Moran and other workers attempted to unionize for safer conditions, Tesla took actions to stop them that a judge later ruled to be illegal under the National Labor Relations Act.
Similarly, Tesla drew criticism for reopening early during the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility that it may have fired employees for refusing to return to work due to coronavirus fears. According to one employee who was reportedly fired, Nayo Miller, "The company, Elon included, they don’t really care about the health and well-being of the employees. The manufacturing of the vehicles supersedes our safety."
Critics have also pointed out that Tesla vehicles are less environmentally sound than they seem. Even so, there’s no denying that Tesla and Musk remain a force to be reckoned with in the automotive world. Whatever the future may hold, Tesla’s factories — and the cities where they call home — will have a big role in building the vehicles of tomorrow.