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Even those who admire Von Dutch don't call him a nice guy. No, they use words like bitter and racist and violent. They describe someone who was jaded young and spent much of his life hiding from the world. His name was a reflection of that, the very symbol of his obstinacy, anger and distrust of the world.
So is it ironic or just cruel that his name wound up co-opted by what Mencken called the booboisie, stitched onto hats and baby doll T-shirts worn by an army of pretty girls like Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani and Ashton Kutcher? Is Von Dutch doomed, as one admirer put it, "to be forever remembered for his name in 4-inch letters on someone's ass"?
He was Von Dutch, uh-huh, that guy, that name. He was one of hot rodding's wise men, up there on a stinky, toxic lacquer cloud with painter George Barris, the late customizer Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and artist and hot rodder Robert Williams.
Starting in the 1950s, Von Dutch reinvented automotive pinstriping, turning each paint job into a painting, doing way-out takes on woodland creatures and scenes of the day—then making up stories to explain them. He was a superb craftsman who made his own knives, guns and motorized roller skates.
He's most famous for two images that, while perhaps not wholly original, have sent art aficionados and marketing whizzes to the auction blocks. One is the stylized version of the nickname he adopted for himself, Von Dutch. Some say it bears an interesting resemblance to the Norton motorcycle logo, but virtually everyone agrees on its significance. The other is the flying eyeball, Von Dutch once said originated, sans wings, with the Macedonian and Egyptian cultures 5,000 years ago.
Von Dutch created these symbols, personified them, and popularized them as emblems of the underground. Now, as the culmination of a process that began with Dutch's death at age 63 in 1992, they've been licensed by his heirs, and are being sold by Los Angeles-based Von Dutch Originals on T-shirts, $145 jeans, jackets, tank-tops and $50 trucker hats. Within the next year, the company plans to diversify into eyewear and watches, aimed again at the celebrity clientele.
People like KTTV Fox 11's Jillian Barberie and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy fashion stylist Carson Kressley began wearing the stuff earlier this year—probably around the time it began arriving free in the mail—and the line is rapidly becoming the province of über-cool teens and twentysomethings. Spears reportedly wore a Von Dutch trucker hat in lieu of a veil for her recent trip down the aisle.
"It's part of that whole white-trash fashion trend, with wife-beater shirts and trucker hats, which was perpetuated by celebrities like Fred Durst and Britney Spears," said fashion writer Claudia Figueroa of ApparelNews.net, who has watched the company boom during the past year. "Most girls walking down the street wearing a Von Dutch hat couldn't tell you where the logo comes from, but if you ask any automotive enthusiast, chances are they'll have some knowledge of the man behind the brand."
Thanks to fashion borrowing from history—again—there's a huge schism between those who venerate Von Dutch and those who worship the new.
A host of latter-day hot rodders, car customizers and rockabilly rebels blame Von Dutch Originals for the big sell-out of someone claimed by the underground, and the craven commercialization of the man's images.
"The most sullied I've ever heard anybody's name," said Burbank automotive artist Keith Weesner.
Yet clothing designers, industry folk and pop culture sponges see this as just another example of a symbol being reinvented—like when Tom Ford went to work for Gucci, or when Burberry revved up its trademark plaid a few years back.
The debate is not just pop-cultural criticism, it's a battle for control of Von Dutch's valuable images. The battle is wending its way through arbitration in Los Angeles Superior Court, and could have significant consequences for Von Dutch Originals, a million-dollar clothing-industry darling of a company built on a name.
"If Von Dutch only knew, oh, he'd kill 'em," said Skratch, who builds and paints '50s-style hot rods and custom cars. "To know that a Russian Jew stole the name from his daughter, he'd flip. Oh yeah, full-on."
His name was Kenneth Howard, and he was born in 1929, the year the stock market crashed. He was the son of the sign painter who is said to have created the Western Exterminator logo that shows a man in sunglasses, top hat and frock coat, bent over with his finger wagging, as if to reason with the rodent at his feet. Behind his back he holds a huge mallet, should reason fail.
According to art and pop culture authority Craig Stecyk, Kenneth inherited his dad's sign-painting box and talent. He was painting and lettering professionally by age 10, gave birth to the flying eyeball—and earned his famous nickname for being "as stubborn as a Dutchman."
Attending Compton High School, Dutch began striping, first motorcycles and then other vehicles. Like so many other gifted iconoclasts emerging in the 1940s and 1950s, Von Dutch was feeding some insatiable appetite in American culture, a desire for liberation and personal expression then (and now) at war with the emerging all-powerful corporate state, the hierarchical, gray-flannel industrial order, the one-size-fits-all Levittowns springing up around decaying urban centers. He gave a kind of humanity to a world of machines.