What the kids don't know about the racist alcoholic genius behind Von Dutch.
By Theo Douglas
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.
"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.
Others saw dollar signs when they looked back at Von Dutch's storied, troubled life, and his one-of-a-kind artworks, and that's where the trouble started.
A decade after Dutch's death, the duplicators are now in arbitration in Los Angeles Superior Court, where they hope to figure out once and for all who has the rights to reproduce certain of Von Dutch's works. Like many things that get out of hand, it all began with one man. He thought Dutch's signature and maybe a flying eyeball or two would look good on the back of a work shirt.
"When I was about 16 or so I saw an article about Von Dutch in the paper, and I was fascinated," said Long Beach concert promoter and clothing designer Ed Boswell. "It was actually just because, because he smoked pot … drank beer in lieu of food and never had a Social Security number, and did whatever he wanted and was a legendary guy. That sounded cool to me."
With licensing from Dutch's two daughters in hand, Boswell says, he formed a company to produce clothing—T-shirts, jeans, even underwear—with Dutch's most famous doodles on them. But, classically underfunded, he wound up bringing in surf clothing entrepreneur Michael Cassel. Boswell claims Cassel forced him out and took over the clothing line with his brother Donald. Boswell has retained the services of an attorney to help sort out his end of the matter.
"Not true. Not true. That's how I got to the estate. That's Ed [Boswell]'s only connection," said Michael Cassel, who claims he had the idea to produce sportswear with an industrial look, officially formed Von Dutch Originals in 1999 and opened its main store on Melrose Avenue in 1999. Low on dough, Cassel says, he brought in current Von Dutch CEO Tonny Sorensen, reportedly also a champion kick-boxer, as one of several other minority investors. Cassel said Sorensen wound up buying out other minority investors to become a 51 percent shareholder in the company—and forcing Mike Cassel out.
"When it got to the point where he had enough money, that's where he leveraged me out," Cassel said. Now funded by a battery of investors he said includes Guess, Cassel wants the judge to agree that he still owns 49 percent of the company—and that either he or Sorensen should buy the other out. Representatives of Von Dutch Originals in Los Angeles declined repeated requests for an interview.
What comes next is hard to say.
"The company already has a retail store on Melrose [Avenue] and a franchise in Beverly Hills, so they're definitely rolling in the Benjamins," said Figueroa, the ApparelNews writer, adding that lawsuits could hurt the label.
Popular fashion is littered with spectacular flameouts, and while no one's saying it yet, the minute something new comes along, Von Dutch could become just yesterday's trend—this millennium's version of Tommy Bahama, Sisely, Benetton, Ocean Pacific or Lightning Bolt. The label has long been blacklisted by traditional hot rodders.
"I feel like the guy that rubbed the lamp, that got the genie out," Boswell said. "And then the genie got turned into a whore."
Already there are like-minded folk selling copycat shirts reading "Von Bitch" and "Von Suck." The people behind Von Suck, and its website, www.vonsuck.com, hope their shirts show the world how lame they think Von Dutch Originals is.
"Von Dutch is pretty much finished as an artist," said Von Suck webmaster Slutty Stan, who declined to give his last name. "It's like Picasso being known for furniture.''
Mike Cassel said Von Dutch is lucky he came along when he did.
"Everything cool gets packaged and sold to somebody," Cassel said. "If I make some money out of it, and his daughters make some money out of it, I think that's the American way. If somebody does that to me after I die, I'd be honored."
Honored? Well, if he were, those closest to him say he'd have a interesting way of showing it.
"If he was alive," Williams said, "he'd walk in there with a pistol and shoot those people."