Von Dutch is definitely not alive, but his influence is very much alive and is more prominent now than when he was perfecting his craft during the late '40s and early '50s. Dutch lived and worked in the hotbed of Southern California's modified automobile and motorcycle scene. At that time, the areas in and around Maywood, Lynwood, and Compton were home to the Barris Brothers, Von Dutch, the Chrisman & Sons Garage, Dean Jeffries, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, and George Cerny, to name a few. This area was responsible for the large spark created by fine art colliding with the mechanical world. As a result, there was an outpouring of fast hot rods, beautifully customized cars, and outrageous "weirdo" art. Ignited, this groundbreaking, rebellious scene spread like wildfire through teenage America and later the world, leaving a permanent impression.
I was born in the mid-'60s when this scene was petering out and factory musclecars were becoming the norm. I have been aware of Von Dutch since I was a youngster growing up in a hot-rodded, artistic family. I looked up to people like Von Dutch and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth because they were both mechanical and artistic. Both were boisterous, larger-than-life characters. Big Daddy Roth's life is easier to grasp because he combined creativity, showmanship, and self-promotion and was able to effectively capitalize on his talents and wanted financial gain. Von Dutch, on the other hand, was mainly concerned with his work, didn't care about money, and can be explained as a complicated genius who lived his life as he wanted, never bending to anyone's rules. Intrigued by these two figures, I studied up on them as much as possible throughout my life. I managed to interview Roth in 1999 for the first issue of Hot Rod Deluxe right before he passed away. Ironically, Dutch left the earth a few months before the groundbreaking Kustom Kulture show opened in Laguna Beach in 1993. I had met Dutch on numerous occasions, but mainly when I was a kid. Admittedly, I was terrified to strike up any kind of conversation with him because I had heard so many things about his erratic behavior.
By fate or a stroke of luck, I got wrapped up into co-curating the first retrospective of Von Dutch's work with my employers at the time, Al Q and Jeff Smith of Tornado Design. We teamed up with the Copro/Nason Art Gallery and put together the first retrospective of Von Dutch's work at California State University, Northridge, in 2002. It was then that my knowledge of hot rods, kustom cars, and art came together. I first thought the show would be impossible to organize because most Von Dutch collectors are very private with their prized possessions. The Brucker brothers had the single biggest collection, and we got their blessing with the help of Greg Escalante. Many trips were made out to the Brucker compound in Santa Paula to photograph, find, and document all things Dutch. Next, we had to go to many smaller collections to fill in the gaps, and, most importantly, we had a big job ahead of us gaining trust from leery lenders.
One thing I really felt strongly about was finding a good example of Dutch's pinstriping on a car. My dad's T was my first thought since it still wears its original Von Dutch 'stripe job from 1966. Although it is an amazing example, it is all straight lines and does not illustrate Von Dutch's creation-free-form abstract pinstriping. This was a big challenge because hot rods and custom cars continually got updated and the pinstriping was often sanded off and lost forever. Through my friends Jim Aust and Lynn Bird, I located a Deuce three-window that Dutch flamed and 'striped in '71. I was hoping for something from the '50s, but John Goad's hot rod had a paint job that had been perfectly preserved from Dutch's Calabasas years.
Finding and getting Goad's coupe in the show was one of the smaller and simpler tasks of curating the show. Every step of the process was like climbing up an endless mountain, continuing on only because of how intriguing the reward would hopefully be. During the months we were preparing for the exhibit, we were also planning to produce and publish a show catalog that would be available at the gallery. The task of putting the show together and doing our normal day jobs became too overwhelming, so we decided to photograph the show and put together a more comprehensive book when the show came down with all the new information and items that began to fall out of the woodwork.
After much success and having record numbers attend the California State University, Northridge, show, the exhibit moved in part to the Grand Central Art Center in Fullerton, California, for a couple months. Now it was time to get back to the book. It sounds simple, but it would take hours for me to explain what happened next. In a nutshell, one of the biggest collectors changed their mind and didn't really want their collection showcased in our book. It was unknown who really had the rights of the name and logo "Von Dutch," so we continued plugging away at the project while trying to figure out many legal issues that were foreign to us. James Caviola lent us invaluable knowledge of legal issues concerning the use of art and photography laws, and encouraged us to press on with our project. After the exhibit, we became the "go-to guys" for Von Dutch stuff and received numerous calls, e-mails, and leads from friends and associates of Dutch.
Now we were on the right track to start interviewing, photographing, and scanning all needed parts of the book. One problem was that we continued to get more info than imaginable and decided not to limit our content. We were on a mission to completely document a person's life that was a winding path without navigation signs or directions. That's when I realized the reason there wasn't much concrete information published on Dutch at the time-the task at hand was almost impossible to figure out. After many interviews, locating photos, and getting the needed blessings to publish, we finally went to press after four years of work. The result is the most complete guide to the father of what is now known as Kustom Kuture. If you haven't picked up a copy of "The Art of Von Dutch," please check it out. It fills many gaps in hot rod history and definitively explains the life path of the inventor of modern pinstriping.