Friday, November 03, 2006

Pinstriping 101


No, this isn't a tutorial on how to pinstripe, there's plenty of better artists out there that are willing to show you how to do that. This is a history...hopefully a thorough history...of the modern day hot rod pinstripe. We are aware of the pinstripe in our society. We see it all the time...everyday....we see it on hot rods, motorcycles, even kids toys...models, etc. The recent PT Cruiser even had factory pinstriping and flame jobs.
What is this art and where did it come from? Why paint a thin line on a car or motorcycle, bicycle, truck, wagon, etc. and call it "kustom"? Why paint little designs and swirls on a perfectly good car and call it a hot rod?


You'll be surprised to find that this need to accent vehicles, actually started long before most of us were born. The tradition for decoration of objects goes waaaayy back, folks. Let's start with modern day.

Most hot rods and pinstriping is associated with the likes of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. Where Ed had his share of pinstriping, he was a facet of the art history (as far as pinstripes go). Early on in his career, (1955 or so) Ed had worked at Sears in the display department. After hours he'd pinstripe on the side for extra cash. The striping scene was happening and about to blow up. About that time, Ed was so successful he joined forces with old man "Baron" Crozier and Tom Kelly in a joint outfit called "Roth: the Crazy Painter".
These guys were laying stripes on a endless lineup of cars that were fueled by the custom craze that was hitting it's peak at that time (1958). Endless articles and books have been written about Ed...even a long over due movie has been made...Tales of the Rat Fink...so I won't get too deep into Ed's contribution to the custom scene. Suffice it to say, if Ed's personality hadn't been so "large" the custom scene might not have exploded.
That story's for another time.
So, if pinstripping was smoking by '55 when Roth was dressing mannequins in Sears, who was laying down those lines before him? The auto industry had been laying lines in their factories, but by 1938 they stopped. Everyone saw the accent line...or flourish..as antiquated and wasn't buying old looking vehicles. They wanted bold colors and body design. So why was the pinstripe seen as antiquated in the late 30's? Where'd the connection to the custom fad of the 50's happen? Just a minute...let's talk about the guy who re invented the modern day art form.

About this time (mid 1940's) a 15 year old kid by the name of Kenneth Howard started working at a motorcycle repair shop owned by George Beerup (Birop). Kenneth wanted nothing more than to fix on motorcycles and cars. He was a natural born mechanic and engineer.
(An engine design drawn by Dutch)

His father was well known then as a designer and sign painter in the suburb of Maywood, Cal. Wally Howard had the distinction of lettering and gold leafing the doors of Los Angles' City Hall. He taught his son, Kenny, to paint and letter in the traditional styles, even though later in life, Kenny admitted he never could gold leaf like his dad.
Somewhere in this part of history a nickname was given to Kenny. A nickname that reflected the feelings of his family and in turn, would change the face of art history. They called Kenny "Dutch" because of his ability to be as stubborn as a Dutchman. He wouldn't let anything go. He had a focus only a few of us could possibly understand. Being the Bohemian type, he parlayed his flying eyeball logo (which he took from ancient Macedonian and Egyptian cultures of 5000 years ago) and his new mantle "Von Dutch" and carved a niche for himself.
Like his dad, Dutch was a painter and he did several oils depicting the images in his head. Surreal images akin to Dali and the Renoirs.

But at the cycle shop, Kenny was a general clean up boy and go fer. He had some mechanical chores, but he swept up and tidied things up. At this time a cycle had come in that needed to be painted, but the others there didn't think young Kenny could handle this job. Dutch took his dad's paint box, and over night, laid old school stripes and accents on the bike. The next day, the entire shop was impressed and Dutch moved from mechanical to paint, a move he was not really happy with. Destiny handed him a brush and asked him to create an art form.
Dutch striped motorcycles for the next 10 years, moving from shop to shop. By the time he was at Al Titus' motorcycle shop in Linwood, the subject of striping a car came up...only as a joke. He laid down some lines and it looked pretty good. The laughing stopped. An artistic gap from the late 30's to the 50's was about to close.
The moment that Dutch made the art form happen, was when a fellow came in and asked to have some grinder scars painted out of his door. When the body shops grind out the metal, and the body putty wasn't done right, the grind marks...little crescent shapes..showed in the shiny finish. Dutch took a chance and painted crescent shaped lines on one side of the scar, covering the crescent shaped imperfection...then had to form another just like it to balance it out. In his head, these were musical type movements, and fortunately for us, Dutch hung out at a lot with the Kerouac set and jazz clubs. These paint strokes danced and bounced in all sorts of impressionistic pop art steps.

"All of a sudden, I had a free form design right in the middle of a large flat space. I liked it..from then on I developed it"
-Dutch

It was that simple. Von Dutch's career exploded and he was in demand. You didn't have a custom until you'd been "Dutched". Dutch even licensed water transfer decals for those who couldn't visit him in person.
By 1958, when Roth and the Baron were winding up, Dutch had had enough and was going nuts laying down stripes. He wanted to get back to the engineering side and wanted to leave pinstriping behind. There were plenty to carry on the tradition by this point...

So there you go...the modern pin stripe. This is where articles on pinstriping end..usually. Sit back.
Dutch had taken his father's style in his mind when he laid down those first straight lines in that motorcycle shop. Wally Howard had been lettering at the turn of the century and was using the popular styles from that time, even into the 40's. These were the heavy serif letters and accents seen on everyday items during the early 1900's....bank safes....furniture....wagons...
fire engines


...windows..doors to offices...saloons..etc. This style of bold or flourished lettering was a way for the common man to embellish his poor surroundings. There are many pieces of simple furniture from this time, that have simple flourishes and pinstriping on them. Hand carved flourishes and details was costly and therefore only for the rich.
This need to embellish the daily articles of the 1900's back tracks to the Ornament Revival of the 1800's with the Renaissance of the German Rococo styles and the style known as Colonial..
During the 1700's, the style Colonial, the motifs that became a Americana style, were derived from many of Europe's design sense. The Colonial style had part of it's own original look, which we see still evident in Washington, Philadelphia, our different capitals,etc... but a great deal was derived from the European styles like Queen Anne.
The flourishes that dominated some of these designs, were taken from French Rococo and used until 1760. One of the chief exponents of this look, and now famous for the name, was Chippendale's furniture and cabinetry.

(examples of Chippendale's floren style)

Pinstriping, not only get's part of it's design reasoning from Rococo, it also gets it line influence from these art movements of the 1700's. The actual need for designing our vehicles goes back as far as the Roman, and Egyptian periods, where chariots, clothing, etc, had borders and line work running the edges. This look, is in fact the great grand daddy of pinstriping, but the actual look of todays scrolling, darting, feathery flourishes, comes from the old man of design....Europe.

2 Comments:

Blogger Tohoscope said...

Great article. I need to track down that Rat Fink movie...
-danno!

7:14 AM  
Blogger Phillip said...

I was talking to my foreman at work the other night, and he told a story about going to the garage where his truck was having some work done(I don't remember the year this happened but I think the truck was from the 30's). He was talking to the garage owner, and he notice an extremely drunk Von Dutch sitting in the back, near the truck, on the verge of passing out. When he returned the next day, he discovered that Von had been painting on his truck all night long! (or most of the night, anyway.) Unsolicited pin-striping, courtesy of Dutch+wine!

1:16 AM  

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