Steve Breton wanted to make up with his daughter. So he adhered two 5-foot black vinyl dragons to the sides of her silver Dodge Neon.
Olive branch accepted.
Marie Levesque wanted to psych herself up ahead of a double mastectomy last year. She stuck a pink "Warrior" on the back of her black Jeep.
"It was like stating my intent, going into battle. It was almost like painting my war pony," said Levesque, 53, from Livermore Falls.
When she beat breast cancer, she added "Survivor."
Leo Jolin wanted cool. His first foray into customizing: Remaking his red Hyundai Accent into Lightning McQueen from "Cars." His next auto veered sentimental: Vinyl decals and a website address to highlight a friend-of-a-friend's charity, in honor of a teen who died when a speeding car ran a stop sign.
"For whatever reason, we're as a society becoming more in tune with graphics," said Erik Dickson of Erik Designs in Rumford. "It's people's own thumbprint on their vehicle. It's their personalization."
It's about standing out, making a statement, making it yours. And more people are.
He points to pop culture's influence, and the toy aisle.
"Every single one of (the toy cars) are full-blown graphics, crazy stuff," said Dickson. When he was a boy, you bought a blank model and painted something wild on yourself. "We've literally had in the past few weeks everyone from a 75-year-old man and wife with their new Ford Flex to an 18-year-old kid. The (design) for the older couple was one of the flashiest things to come out of here."
They wanted a red, white and blue theme with squiggles and stripes.
Dickson has customized teens' cars with corporate logos — Monster Energy, Fox Racing — and customized four-wheelers for a group of local people who off-road together.
The images are frequently vinyl appliques. Full body wraps run into the thousands of dollars. Take care of it and, design shops say, an application can last for years.
Cheryl McKeone decided it was good business to flower up the Scion used by Ann's Flower Shop of Auburn. She had one, three and a dozen roses applied to the back, with "How mad is she?" underneath.
"We get a lot of comments on that," said McKeone. "It's just good advertising. They know who you are, they know what you do."
Breton runs Decals Plus of Maine out of his Lewiston home. One trend he's spotted: "Nowadays it's go as extreme as they can, but as cheap as possible."
His daughter's ride was extreme. He's had customers say, "Use your imagination," said Breton. "Oh, no. I don't know if you like dragons or Betty Boop," he replies.
He added an "In Memory" line five years ago and seen more demand the last two years. The seven-inch vinyl stickers start at $5.
"I think it's more people seeing it on other people's cars. Whoever came up with it originally, I thank them very heartily," said Nancy Brown, owner of Sign Shack of Maine in Auburn. She's also fielding more "In Memory" orders. "When (the death) is so fresh, they're just looking for something to connect them with that person."
They've been so popular, Brown has considered approaching funeral homes about including them as a giveaway.
When he makes them, Breton said he tries not to notice particulars.
"If I put in the dates, when I start adding them up, 'Oh, it was a 4-year-old?' Those are heartbreaking," he said.
Libby Roy picked out an "In Loving Memory Of" vinyl applique for her late 8-month-old daughter, Emmy-Leigh Cole, along with a large blue ribbon reminder to "Never never never shake a baby." Her daughter was killed in 2007.
"I just don't want her name forgotten," said Roy, of Auburn.
Also in the back window of her Toyota Matrix: cheerleading stickers for her other daughters, 16 and 14, and a family of stick people: Roy, her teen daughters and a baby with wings and a halo. When Roy married this spring she added her new husband, a stick welder.
Jolin, 26, from Rumford, drove Lightning McQueen until it was totalled in an accident in May 2010. On his next car, a white 2000 Dodge Neon, he asked the Sign Store and Flag Center in Auburn to affix www.savespeed4thetrack.org and its logo in two spots to honor the deceased teen.
Jolin races cars and the teen came from a racing family.
"I've thought about doing a wrap to make it look like a rally car," said Jolin. His hesitation: That wrap may cost as much as the car's worth.
Vehicle manufacturers are getting more in tune with the customizing trend, according to Dickson. Trade magazines predict new cars will someday come with graphic options before they leave the factory, "much to my dismay," he said. "I want them to come here."