By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
By Andrew Galvin
By R. Scott Moxley
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By R. Scott Moxley
"He was a zany beatnik artist that gave birth to this eccentric form of decorating machinery. He had a flattop [haircut] with fenders, and he looked like he was a cool dude, and he played the flute and he fit in a place where he was really needed," said artist Robert Williams. Williams met Dutch in the 1960s while working at Ed Roth Studios, home of the Rat Fink character design, in Maywood. Williams traces Dutch's MO back to the 19th century.
"You take a Comanche Indian or Apache Indian, and they get themselves a rifle. They're left with the stigma that this is an item manufactured by a superior culture," said Williams, who studies other cultures closely as they intersect with his own work. "They get buckskin, tack it, shrink it, wrap it around the [gun] stock. That makes it their own, and that gives it an Indian soul. That's what Von Dutch did to machinery. He would take it and give it this personal touch."
Von Dutch was as talented as he was prolific, becoming the first person to airbrush monsters on clothing, turning out eerie, surrealistic paintings, building and etching expensive knives and rare vintage guns, and striping hundreds of hot rods over the years.
He's remembered today for that body of work, but also for the larger-than-life persona he fashioned—the drinking, carousing pinstriper who did as he pleased. Much of that image was real, and according to those who knew him, it included a serious dark side.
"He was quite a racist; didn't like anybody. He had all the trappings of being a neo-Nazi. He could not tolerate black people," said Williams, whose friendship with Dutch cooled over time, but never ended. "But I had some wonderful times with him. When you caught him in a good mood he was really wonderful to talk to. But he would slip into these loud violent periods that were just horrible."
That edge wormed its way into his work. In one 1965 painting, Dutch faded in the words "Fuck You," visible if you look long enough.
Pinstriper Franco Costanza, a.k.a. Von Franco, remembers Dutch grudgingly striping a guy's glossy, beautiful '34 Ford—and painting a tiny, perfect ladybug on one pillar, just to annoy the owner. When the man found the ladybug, he demanded Dutch take it off.
"So [Dutch] says, 'Okay, I'll take it off,'" recalls Franco, a burly, jovial man with a jet-black pompadour and goatee. "He takes this hammer and just smashes the ladybug, just ruins this guy's paint job and tells him to get the fuck out of there."
Writer Ken Gross, in The Rodder's Journal, a quarterly car mag, tells the tale of one kid who drove his car to the West Coast just so Dutch could stripe it. On the glove compartment door, Dutch drew a caveman in a diaper, holding a headless, bloody cat, an atrocity the owner masked with cardboard whenever he dated, but felt compelled to preserve as art.
Von Dutch distrusted people and was paranoid in public. Williams said Dutch would "park right at the edge, so that if something happened he could get out. He had a gun on him within a minute's reach."
In the late 1960s, Dutch, allegedly driving drunk, wrecked a car carrying his then-pregnant wife. She lost the baby and Dutch wound up living in various places in Arizona for several years to avoid prosecution for manslaughter. By the early 1970s, things had cooled off and he returned to California, specifically Orange County, where he found a patron in collector extraordinaire James Brucker, who employed Dutch at his Movie World Cars of the Stars museum in Buena Park, and purchased numerous pieces of his work. Dutch would live on Brucker's property, first in Buena Park, later in Santa Paula—in a converted Long Beach city bus—until his death.
"He was tremendously talented," Brucker remembers. But "he would drink and it was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He'd be a nice guy in the morning and then in the afternoon he would drink and it was like a split personality or something."
Williams remembers hanging out with Dutch once outside Cars of the Stars, talking about nothing in particular, when Dutch went off on a tangent and pointedly asked Williams how long he thought Dutch could hold off an angry mob if he were on the roof of a building with a machine gun. A letter written not too long before his death in 1992, when he was in the hospital, and heavily medicated, reportedly closed with "Heil Hitler."
Somehow (inevitably?) this helped make Dutch cool. When he died he was on the verge of a mass rediscovery by Generation-Xers who found a palatable nonconformist conformity in the cult of the flying eyeball—exposed in all its greasy glory by the seminal 1993 Laguna Art Museum show "Kustom Kulture."
Besides coining the term "kustom culture," and applying it to the artier aspects of the rod and custom lifestyle, the show featured a bunch of vintage Dutchery, including a dashboard he pinstriped for the classic kustom Mercury, the Hirohata Merc.