Another look at the fascinating world of California Kustom Kulture, which describes the artwork, cars, and lifestyles of those who drove and built custom cars, mainly in southern California from the 1940′s on…
Art Chantry: the origins of southern California Kustom Kulture is generally traced back to von dutch (aka Kenneth Howard). He is generally credited for virtually inventing most of it: pin striping, flame jobs, monsters driving hot rods, van murals, air brushing t-shirts, etc. etc. etc. a lot of that seems to be true, but (like all mythology) every “great man” theory (the guy that academic historians always point to as the genius guy everybody else in the culture imitates and learns from) doesn’t really completely hold water even here.
while Von Dutch actually did popularize much of the imagery and styles and crafts that became the bedrock of kustom kulture, he did not innovate these things in a vacuum. pin-striping goes all the way back to roman times. graphics on tshirts finds it’s unfortunate origins as field wear for southern slaves (slave numbers stenciled on cheap cotton tops). Flame jobs came from WWII nose cone art. Von Dutch’s dad was a commercial artist and is credited for doing some rather well known pieces. so, Dutch was in many ways a product of his environment. It was his own dented genius and interpretation of what was around him that was so inspiring to generations that followed.
If you actually go back into what documentation exists for this early era of post-war southern California subculture development, you begin to see there were lot’s of “Von Dutch’s” around. for instance, there are ads in the back pages of extremely early hot rod magazines that advertise club jackets and plaques and tshirts and decals from the very beginning.
One of the first “big hits” of kustom kulture iconography was the “lady luck”. she was so popular that every driver at Indy seemed to have her decal on their car. Drivers wouldn’t race unless they had a little ‘lady luck’ with them. cute, funny and real.
Lady Luck decals were advertised way back at the very beginning of the scene in magazines like Hop Up and Hot Rod and Speed Times as early as the late 1940′s. It was always the same image – it varied little. they were sold mail order through a company called ‘Stylized Emblem’. It was run by a guy name of Robert “les” Lester. He may have been the very first southern California kustom kulture artist – and he seems to be totally forgotten.
“les” was a WW2 vet (natch) who came out of the service with skills in production art and silkscreen (all learned in the military.) the practice of battalion insignia and it’s application to military t-shirts was a perfect segue into the post war pop culture world of the sunshine state. He immediately began doing t-shirts, club plaques, and club jackets (sort of ‘letterman’ style jackets for car clubs, motorcycle clubs, etc.) insignia was created and then silk-screened onto the t-shirts and jackets (often the insignia were created as chenille patches, also created by stylized emblem in his shop.) He had a small staff of older women working ceaselessly as his shop expanded. He branched out into decals and checkered flags for the burgeoning hot rod culture. He began to advertise in the fan mags and (later) speed industry trade mags. Then his biz really took off.
One of early stock ‘insignia’ designs was his ‘Lady Luck’ image, patterned after classic nose cone and tattoo flash art. From there it was like an explosion and his business became extremely successful. To this day, you still see people using the Lady Luck on everything from racing decals to rock posters. He never seemed to copyright anything, so it has leeched into the public domain and has become a staple of kustom kulture iconography.
Another interesting things about “les’s” work is that his style of drawing was very primitive and simple and stylized. when you see his line work on lady luck or skulls or deuce coupes, it’s very identifiable.It really looks like his work.
Which brings me to a mystery of American popular culture – the Hell’s Angels logo. who designed that? It’s so famous and so classic and so protected that it’s origins have become the stuff of legend, shrouded in foggy mystery.
I read an interview with Angels main man and founder, Sonny Barger. When asked who did that logo, he said some old lady did it for them. old lady? a wife? a literally ‘old’ lady? judging from context,I think he actually meant and “older seamstress woman.”
Which brings me back to Robert ‘les’ Lester.His shop was full of ‘old ladies’ making chenille patches for club jackets. every motorcycle or hot rod club in southern California seemed to have jackets made by Les, often with insignia created by Les. Was the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club any different? Did they simply buy their ‘colors’ from les’ stylized emblem company like everybody else? Did Les design the Hell’s Angels logo?
If you compare styles, I’d have to guess that, yes, he did. It looks exactly like his work. So, I’m guessing Les was the dude. Fascinating, eh?
Robert ‘les’ Lester’s work was possibly the earliest a popular expression of what became a classic American style. Without his skills and ingenuity, the world of Kustom may never have found a voice (later in Dutch and Roth and everybody else) outside of the small subcultures of WW2 vets. From lady luck to Hells Angels, we need to recognize the nearly forgotten Robert ‘les’ Lester, the once and future king of kustom. ’nuff said.
Charles Krafft:sharing Von Dutch’s given name doesn’t present the same risks it once did. It wasn’t so long ago that another eager acolyte who tried it, hot-rod historian Pat Ganahl, lived in mortal fear of the man afterward. Besides being the inventor of custom pinstriping, Von Dutch was a gifted gunsmith and knifemaker who took a reckless delight in brandishing his handiwork around pesky sycophants. Exacerbated by years of alcoholism, the unpredictability of his behavior could pose real problems for anyone within range who breached the parameters of the myth Kenny Howard had spent a lifetime living out…. Read More:http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_n3_v32/ai_14875077/pg_2/?tag=content;col1
…By the end of the decade, a full-blown car-painting craze was underway. Flame jobs, spider-web wheel wells, flying-eyeball body panels, and baroque pinstripes (having a car “Dutched”) rapidly entered the iconography of the American highway as merchandisers stepped in with mass-produced decal versions of Von Dutch designs to keep up with the demand. Enter Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, the deft self-promoter at the center of Tom Wolfe’s 1965 bestseller about California customizers, The Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.
Portrayed in Time magazine as the “supply sergeant to Hell’s Angels,” Ed Roth tilted the trend for hot-rod graphics even farther toward the defiantly tasteless with the sweeping array of popular “Rat Fink” T-shirts and gimcracks he pitched at car shows and in the back pages of car mags and comics. While Roth signed deals with toy manufacturers and the novelty companies that would make him a household name in the ’60s, Von Dutch turned his back on the “Monster Art” motherlode and took up the nomadic, low-profile life of a machine-age gypsy: “I used to get all over [Roth's] case for being so commercial, but you see, his sons were as big as him so he had to keep his nose on the grindstone just to feed them. He’s an honest man.”…
…When I finally made contact with the Howard Hughes of hotrodding, in the summer of 1992, the ’50s-era golden hepcat was a toothless, cranky piece of local color living out of a trailer in Santa Paula, California, where he was the overseer of a vast array of antique automobiles and aircraft owned by a collector named Jim Brucker. Peterson’s, the publisher of most of the country’s monthly car mags, had been recycling the dated material in their Von Dutch file for over thirty years, so I wasn’t prepared for the time-ravaged troll who greeted me at this “Cars of the Stars and Planes of Fame” museum-cum-warehouse compound outside town. The Von Dutch legend has a life of its own, but the man who lived it had been aged beyond recognition by alcoholism. The years of maintenance drinking that had gone hand in hand with his dazzling productivity finally killed him a few months after our meeting. Throughout the decades between his early rise to national prominence and his final years he never stopped impressing everyone who met him with his polymorphic ingenuity and complete disregard for convention….
…He lived in a humbleness bordering on squalor, with no phone or bank account, surrounded by the internal combustion machines he’d always preferred over people. In a copiously illustrated letter that turned out to be his final word to me on his retrospective, he wrote,
I used to sell paintings in a place in Hermosa Beach. One day
when I showed up the owner said, “That gal is interested in that
one but wants to know what it means.” Actually it meant noth-
ing but I made up a big story then and she took it! All that sort
of thing is why I don’t like to be called an artist. When I build a
motor vehicle-gun-knife or other mechanical thing they are a re-
ality if they work good. There is no bullshit that will make them
work if they don’t. Read More:http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_n3_v32/ai_14875077/pg_2/?tag=content;col1