A Revival of Kustom Kulture in California
By Phil Patton
Reblogged from: http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com
What do you call the powerful concoction of imagery formed by tattoo art, surf culture, cartoons and hot rods? You call it Kustom Kulture. Fashioned from the tastes and stylistic innovations of ’50s greasers and ’60s hot rodders, Kustom Kulture has continued to evolve, receiving input from other fringe groups along the way: lowriders, punks, bikers, scooterboys and so on.
The Laguna Art Museum hosted a now-famous Kustom Kulture show in 1993, and 20 years later, the name and the theme have reappeared at the Huntington Beach Art Center as Kustom Kulture II. Naturally, one of the key pieces on display is the George Barris Munster Koach – the crazy custom car from the 1960s television sitcom, “The Munsters.”
In the time since the first show, Kustom Kulture has spread. It inspired Robert Williams and Greg Esclante to found the influential Juxtapoz magazine. Von Dutch (whose real name was Kenny Howard) and Don Ed Hardy have become globally licensed fashion icons. Crazy Southern California-inspired tattoo and graffiti art and hot rod culture have permeated America’s broader consciousness.
In many ways the first Kustom Kulture show echoed a 1992 show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles with the dubious title, “Helter Skelter.” With a name that recalled the heinous exploits of the Manson family, “Helter Skelter,” the art show, is now viewed as a hallmark in establishing Southern California’s independence and originality in the modern art world.
In 1993, Kustom Kulture played a similar role for more popular arts. The curators of the revival include both veterans of the first show – C.R. Stecyk and Mr. Escalante, owner of Copro Gallery in Santa Monica – and younger figures such as Paul Frank Sunich, the designer who attended the first show as a young artist and is now best known for his Julius the Monkey cartoon character. Mr. Stecyk was a character in the 2001 SoCal skateboarding documentary, “Dogtown and Z-Boys.”
The central figures in Kustom Kulture II include Hollywood car customizerGeorge Barris, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Von Dutch, the master of pinstriping and painting. Work by Mr. Hardy, the tattoo king, and Rick Griffin, father of the spray-painted eyeball image, are displayed in the show along with guitars by Billy Gibbons. Mr. Roth’s Rat Fink figures, which will also be displayed, began as a rebellious response to the clean-cut, Mickey Mouse world of early 1960s suburban America.
Among vehicular imagery present in the show is Mr. Roth’s bright yellow Surfite – a catoonish, surfboard-equipped beach car based upon an Austin Mini Cooper chassis, it made an appearance in “Beach Blanket Bingo.” Like many of his designs, the Surfite was available as a plastic model kit. Then there is Mr. Barris’ long, black Munster Koach, decked with Gothic upholstery and carriage lamps, its gleaming open headers and intake runners shooting up into the air like the legs of a pair of dead chrome spiders.
For all the plastic model kits and toy Rat Finks Mr. Roth sold, he found his most lucrative business in spray painting and signing T-shirts. The final chapters of his life played out quietly. He joined the Church of Latter Day Saints and retired in Utah, where he died in 2001.
Von Dutch died in 1992, the year before the show that did so much to make him famous, and several years before clever licensing and celebrity product placement with the likes of Justin Timberlake led to the appearance of the Von Dutch signature on the noggins of millions of people who had no idea who he was.
Mr. Barris – creator of the hearse-inspired drag racer as well as the original Batmobile, among others – is still with us, as is Mr. Hardy.
Kustom Kulture II, which expands upon the pop culture considerations of its predecessor, opened July 13, to coincide with Vans’ 10-day US Open of Surfingat Huntington Beach Pier. The show runs until Aug. 31.
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 23, 2013
An earlier version of this post misidentified the Munster Koach. It is not known as Drag-u-la.