By Brian Feinzimer
By Charles Lam
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Joel Beers
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"I consider [Paul Frank] an incarnation of 'Big Daddy' Roth," Escalante shares. Frank is standing just a few feet away admiring a forest-green Shelby Cobra, just out of earshot. "'Big Daddy' Roth was this independent spirit with this Rat Fink thing that turned into T-shirts and this whole Warhol-like Factory of art, T-shirts and products that he sold to kids who finally had an alternative to Mickey Mouse."
Rat Fink, the atomic-green, beer-bellied, bulgy-eyed mascot that emerged from the mind of Roth is just one cartoon whose existence helped whittle the counterculture identity of Orange County. Frank's creation, the wide-mouthed Julius the Monkey, is another.
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The former Costa Mesa resident thinks he's 45, but "I don't know. I don't like to think about that. Here's a cliché: Age is just a number. 'Cause I haven't quite grown up yet—I'm still trying to grow up." He hasn't been affiliated with Julius or Paul Frank Industries since November 2005 and is now heading a new company called Park La Fun, featuring a fresh cast of captivating animal characters. Frank appears a little shy—"Interviews make me forget words," he admits with a small smile—but not unlike Stecyk, he is loquacious when discussing Kustom Kulture and its influence on his own work.
Frank, who had just begun learning how to sew, had attended the original "Kustom Kulture" show and was inspired by the "Road Warriors: A Panel Discussion" featuring contributors Ed Roth, Robert Williams, Gilbert Lujan and professor Temma Kramer. As Escalante describes, Frank "sopped it up like a sponge."
OC WEEKLY: So your animal characters—were they inspired by the fact that this little green rat was running around when you were a kid?
PAUL FRANK: Yeah! I have a company called Park La Fun—all of my characters are even more inspired by Ed Roth, I think, than ever—there's just something . . . [trails off] the teeth. There's something cool, like a sarcasm. I love to always incorporate teeth into my characters when I can, and I really get that from Roth—a sense of humor, a little mischievous. [Gestures to a Rat Fink figure over on a table] Like, look at Rat Fink! He's like, "Hee hee hee" [taps fingers together]; you don't know what he's up to!
I'm just really inspired by the school of "just do it," you know? Just figure it out yourself. You want to do something, and so you do it. You ask questions, and you try. I think that's the underlying theme of the whole Kustom Kulture. I don't recall a lot of these artists going to a traditional art school, at least not most of them. But they just did it because they want to and because they have a passion for it—and I really think that's the best way to learn.
Don't get me wrong: Education is important, and you should know the rules before you break them. What else is good is that you work with your limitations, too. Ed Roth, even though he was an amazing artist, knew that there were other guys who could draw better, so he would ask them for help, and the end result came out better because he had that team of other people such as Robert Williams, Rick Griffin—and those people went on, of course, to do amazing art themselves.
Another reason why I think Roth is my hero is that he was the first guy to really make T-shirts. I wasn't around then, but my dad said maybe little boys had baby clothes with a turtle or something, but nobody else really wore a shirt [with] a graphic as a design. I think we owe Roth a lot because he started that, and I think it's even more important that he was airbrushing those things first, one at a time. That, in itself, is a major contribution to what we have now, where everybody has a logo . . . everybody has a design. But he kinda pioneered that, really.
Did you grow up in Orange County?
I grew up in Huntington Beach, and live in Pasadena now.
[Pauses] I thought about something on the way over here. Vans is our major sponsor, and it's Kustom Kulture. In the late '70s, we used to go to the Vans store in Santa Ana, and I would order my Vans custom. . . . They had a swatchbook, and you could pick out, like, red, gray, blue, and nobody was really doing that, and it was cool that you could do that! It's kind of a neat full circle. There's something just interesting about growing up in Huntington Beach, and you know, I feel like we were always a little bit ahead [of] our cousins in Whittier. Somehow, in the beach community, things move faster.
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SUSAN ANDERSON: "We had a lot of fun, but it was actually a serious show. . . . We were very focused on developing scholarship on California art history. This was decades before Pacific Standard Time or other regional institutions jumped on board with that mission. 'Kustom Kulture'was a look at a phenomenon that has greatly contributed to the art in the state—it has drawn on popular culture at least since the 1930s. So, the show was designed to look at how contemporary artists such as Judy Chicago, Mike Kelley or Billy Al Bengston, who had in some way immersed themselves in car culture, reflected that culture back. It was a show that highlighted the crossover between contemporary art and popular culture, trying to give equal weight to both. (The tribute show at Huntington Beach Art Center does not attempt that; it is really more a celebration of popular culture.) . . . I think the exhibition helped to jumpstart a greater interest in regional art and culture within the museum world, although the show was somewhat misunderstood at the time. Walter Hopps, the renowned curator who understood the importance of this crossover in California art, made a point of visiting the show twice. Exhibitions such as 'Beautiful Loser,' which focused on the contribution of street culture to contemporary art, are part of the legacy of 'Kustom Kulture,' which, in retrospect, was really rather a humble show considering the outcome."