An (un)Holy Trinity of Custom Culture: Von Dutch, Ed Roth and Indian Larry- Part 1

"According to Von Dutch, the flying eyeball originated with the Macedonian and Egyptian cultures about 5000 years ago. It was a symbol meaning "the eye in the sky knows all and sees all", or something like that. Dutch got a hold of this symbol and modified it into the flyin'eyeball we know of today. He always believed in reincarnation, and the eyeball, somehow, was tied to that."

Part 1: Kenneth R. Howard (September 7, 1929–September 19, 1992), aka Von Dutch.

Born in 1929 as Kenneth Howard, Von Dutch developed pin striping as an art form for motorcycles and hot rods. He took the nickname from his stubbornness (“stubborn as a Dutchman”), and he's been described as "...the quintessential cliche romantic artist; selfish inside his own vision, alienating family, friends and customers alike. Part romantic, part beatnik, part general pain in the ass, ...a racist and prima donna. He managed to irritate almost everyone who admired him—and in the best aesthetic mode, somehow made them admire him more in the process." (Bob Burns)

Howard's father had done some striping on bikes but worked mostly as a sign painter. In 1944 Von Dutch was "the gunk boy" in George Beerup's So-Cal motorcycle shop when he took a bike home, painted it and striped it with his father's brushes. When he brought the bike back Beerup refused to believe he had done the striping himself: striping was pretty much a dead art in the 40's. Dutch got the brushes and did another job, and Beerup recognized the talent. He took Dutch off mechanical work and put him on paint, and for the next decade he "built a reputation he didn't want".

The Von Dutch "Mare's Leg" Winchester .44/40

"I'm a mechanic first. If I had my way, I'd be a gunsmith, but there isn't enough of that kind of work to make a living. I like to make things out of metal, because metal is forever. When you paint something, how long does it last? A few years, and then it's gone."

For several years, Dutch worked at nothing but motorcycle painting and striping: moving from shop to shop, "saturating each area". By the mid fifties he still hadn't touched a car, but he'd painted and striped thousands of bikes.

"Striping cars started as a gag when I was working Al Titus' motorcycle shop down in Lynwood" Dutch said. The "gag" quickly turned to a full time gig. He was working with George Barris of Barris Kustoms in 1955 when he was approached by "The Crazy Arab's Competition Body Shop" in LA and for the next three years he worked at it until "it nearly drove me out of my mind."

Like a true artist, Von Dutch was renowned for his attitude: in an interview with Hot Rod Magazine March 1977 he tells about a guy visiting his shop "bugging" him to stripe his car- he put cobwebs and spiders all over it. Another customer who tried to pressure him into a quick job got one that wouldn't dry: Dutch had mixed a load of oil into the paint.

In Hot Rod Magazine April 1989 Pat Ganahl tells the story of a fire truck Von Dutch was hired to stripe for a station in Arizona: pissed at the classic design they requested, he opted to deliver a custom flame job instead. The conservative city fathers were reportedly not amused.

Yet another story tells of a car Dutch had pinstriped with different designs on each side. When the customer brought the car back, Von Dutch responded "Who can see both sides of your car at the same time? This way you get two different designs on your car for the price of one".

Nonetheless, rodders all over the country had already heard of him and cars started coming in from as far away as the East Coast to get striped. Moreover, when a car owner showed up he didn't tell Dutch what he wanted: he just told him how much time he was willing to purchase. The designs were up to Dutch, and some of them were "as wild and far out as his eccentric imagination". By the time Von Dutch quit striping around 1958 he had hundreds of imitators, and when people went to a local body shop to inquire about striping they didn't ask if the paint guys knew how to stripe, they asked if the paint guys knew how to "Von Dutch."

Well into the '60s the thin twisted lines based on Dutch's striping worked their way into all kinds of visual media from print ads to television. Cigarette ads, TV cartoons and popular sitcoms all soon had some "crazy line art" incorporated into their campaigns, and most of it was straight off a Von Dutch layout. 

Despite all of this, Dutch never made any significant money from striping. By all accounts he had little use for fame and fortune:

"I make a point of staying right at the bridge of poverty. I don't have a pair of pants without a hole in them, and the only pair of boots I own are the ones I have on. I don't have anything else to put on my feet. I don't spend money on unnecessary stuff, so i don't have to have a lot of money. I don't need it. I keep as poor as I can and just get along. I like that. I believe that's the way it's meant to be. 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...That's why I never overcharged anybody, or made this thing commercial. You can't do good work if you're thinking about the money angle all the time. To me the work is important; that's number one."

In the early '60s a woman gave Dutch a Long Beach city bus for payment on some work he had done for her. He set up living quarters at the rear and converted the remainder of the vehicle to a machine shop. Friends claim that the floor was usually covered with cigarette butts, beer cans and metal shavings. "Back in the sleeping quarters was a TV and about 150 manuals on all sorts of machinery, motorcycles, and guns. He had a photographic mind, so all the words in these books, were in his head. He could dictate verbatim, paragraph by paragraph, any part on any subject in these manuals.....and give you the page number, too. I asked him once why he bothered to keep the books, since he had them all memorized word for word. He said "I like to look at the pictures!" (Bob Burns)
The bus is currently owned by Steve Kafka of Kafka Kool Ties and is undergoing restoration.

Von Dutch's custom machine lathe from the bus

In the end he was still drinking heavy, living between the bus and a museum called "Movie World; Cars of the Stars and Planes of Fame" in Buena Park, CA. He had reportedly become paranoid -not very surprising-  but still spent considerable time engraving knives and guns and occasionally painting cars. His bad habits eventually caught up with him and he developed a stomach abscess. According to Bob Burns "He didn't like doctors, but towards the end, the pain got so bad, he finally saw a doctor. By then it was too late." Von Dutch died on September 19, 1992 leaving two daughters, very few worldly possessions and a style that fully permeates the Hot Rod / Chopper art, culture and industry.

 “I knew Von Dutch,” one hot rod buff said, shaking his head. “I saw him drunk every day.” (Bob Burns)

The art world eventually found its way to hot rod / biker culture through artists like Robert Williams, who worked with Ed Roth before turning his talents to canvas. In 1993 a show called “Kustom Kulture” at the Laguna Museum of Art helped kickstart the process of Von Dutch’s rediscovery by the wider public.

Ironically, his daughters quickly sold the rights to reproduce their father’s imagery to a company now called "Von Dutch Originals" which suddenly opened a store on Melrose selling shirts, hats, jeans and thongs and launched a marketing campaign paraded by the likes of Paris Hilton and Justin Timberlake. By 2003, the company was reportedly doing some $33 million in sales. Von Dutch had become exploitable.

But before the "...cheesy clothing and accessories line that threatens to destroy his cred forever" turned the name into a mere logo, there was the original spitting, spinning, twisted Kenny Howard– better known as the "Real" Von Dutch.
R.I.P., and rest assured that nobody who knows anything is gonna forget your work for a long, long time.

The Von Dutch "KenFord"- his everyday ride. Custom '47 Kenworth cab on a modified '56 Ford pickup frame.
Part II: Ed Roth
Part III: Indian Larry

The Ad Nauseum marketing of Von Dutch; Phil Patton: AIGA August 04 2004
Kenny Howard Pt. II | The Master Painter, Striper & Custom Fabricator also Known as Von Dutch: The Selvedge Yard, November 2009
The Life And Times Of Von Dutch by Bob Burns
The Von Dutch KenFord

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