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Los Angeles

Car Painter Earned His Stripes

Exhibit: Campus show honors Von Dutch, whose work attracted a cult following.

September 02, 2002|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Today, the stripes that emphasize an automobile's shape are made of stick-on tape.

But in the 1950s and '60s, an ill-tempered Southern Californian with an outlaw imagination pinstriped original designs by hand and turned pinstriping into an art form.

This week, the first solo art show devoted to that car-culture pioneer--the late Von Dutch--opens on the Cal State Northridge campus. The irascible Dutch would have hated the show, or any exhibition honoring him, his admirers say.

One of a trio of high-impact, lowbrow artists--along with Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and Robert Williams--Von Dutch was a master machinist, as well as a creative artist, said Al Quattrocchi, 42, whose Tornado Design acted as curator for the show with the Copro-Nason Gallery of Los Angeles.

"I don't think he was a trained artist, but his dad was an artist, a craftsman, and Dutch had the hand skills," said Quattrocchi.

The co-curator compares Dutch with Leonardo da Vinci, another artist-tinkerer with great hand skills who built original machines. In addition to the idiosyncratic vehicles Dutch constructed from spare parts, he also built a steam-powered TV set and a coin-operated guillotine.

"He had a Ford engine in his garage that he would fire up to sharpen pencils," Quattrocchi said.

Born near Watts in 1929, Dutch, whose given name was Kenneth Howard, was the son of a popular sign painter. His father, Wally Howard, pinstriped flower carts at the Farmers Market and created the famous Western Exterminator logo--a top-hatted man hiding his mallet from the feisty rodent at his feet.

Smitten with motorcycles, young Howard showed a precocious gift as both mechanic and painter. He renamed himself Von Dutch because it had a memorable Prussian ring to it. He created a logo for himself--a bloodshot eyeball with wings.

So original and mesmerizing was his pinstriping--often featuring caricatures inspired by the client--that soon people were lining up, cash in hand, to have their cars and motorcycles "Dutched." In the 1950s he charged $10 an hour.

Titled "Von Dutch: An American Original," the show opens Tuesday and continues through Oct. 5 in the art galleries on the Northridge campus.

Billed as "the most comprehensive collection of original works by Von Dutch ever assembled," the exhibit includes auto bodies ablaze with his signature painted flames, a pinstriped child's rocking chair, handmade guns and knives, macabre paintings, his hybrid "Kenford" truck, comics-inspired signs and a hand-painted hi-fi console.

Dutch, who died in 1992 at 63, was a link between the on-the-road ethos of the Beats and the counterculture of the 1960s and '70s, especially the art of Zap and other underground comics. A blue-collar icon, he won a new generation of fans when Vin Diesel wore a Von Dutch shirt in the 2001 street-racer movie "The Fast and the Furious."

Like the 1993 group show titled "Kustom Kulture" at the Laguna Art Museum, which included Von Dutch work, the new exhibit is full of testosterone and references to the car culture born in Southern California just as surfer culture was.

Although not as well-known as "Big Daddy" Roth, whose Rat Fink--the anti-Mickey Mouse cartoon character--sold 1 million T-shirts, Dutch has always had collectors. The actor Nicolas Cage is one of them now.

Much of the material in the show came from Jim and Danny Brucker, who hired Dutch to work on their collection of movie cars in the 1970s

Dutch was always a curmudgeon and serious beer drinker and did not become less so as he grew older.

According to a friend and fellow artist, Bob Burns, Dutch lived, until his death, in a locked compound in Santa Paula near the Bruckers' cars, "mostly running everyone off, especially those wearing any kind of uniform or carrying a clipboard." He once shot at a visitor because the visitor was from Cleveland, recalled Burns, who described Dutch as "really eccentric-amundo!"

"Everybody who knew him, or who even spent five minutes with him, has some crazy tale," said Aaron Kahan, 35, a designer at Tornado and the nephew of Robert Williams. His father's car was pinstriped in 1966 by Dutch.

Dutch antagonized many of his former friends. Kahan said he heard a classic Dutch tale from John Parker, who worked for legendary motorcycle restorer Bud Ekins, as Dutch had.

Once when Ekins was away, the story goes, Dutch got into Ekins' garage and made a mess. Parker tried to eliminate any evidence of Dutch's unwanted visit, but Ekins knew instantly on his return that Dutch had been there.

The reason? Ekins fed a large number of stray cats, and the condition of the cats gave Dutch away.

"Dutch had trimmed all the whiskers off the cats to make striping brushes," Kahan explained.

People who knew the Kustom Kulture artists say Dutch wasn't the self-promoter that some others were, nor did he seem to care about money. Although he would have hated the term, his attitude toward art and money was downright romantic.

In 1965, Dutch told a magazine writer, "There's a 'struggle' you have to go through, and if you make a lot of money it doesn't make the 'struggle' go away. It just makes it more complicated. If you keep poor, the struggle is simple."

As for his work: In the year he died, Dutch lettered a sign, which is in the Northridge show, urging viewers to "use any of my stuff you want to. Nothing is original. Everything is in the subconscious, we just 'tap' it sometimes and think we have originated something."

As to copyrights and patents, Dutch said, they "are mostly an ego trip."

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