Thanks to a fad a few years ago, when his name was seemingly emblazoned on every hat and T-shirt available, many people think Von Dutch was a clothing designer.
Instead, he was a complicated character who helped popularize—some say originate—the art of pinstriping on hot rods and custom cars.
His real name was Kenny Howard, and he was born in the Los Angeles area in 1929. Almost nothing is known about him until the 1950s, since he preferred to stay mysterious as well as eccentric.
He was the son of a sign painter, plying his trade from the wooden paint box he inherited after his father’s death. He was also an accomplished gunsmith, knife maker, and motorcycle builder, as well as a pretty good flute player.
From the beginning
California was a hotbed of custom shops in the 1950s, and Howard generally made the rounds to do individual jobs, although he sometimes set up in their back rooms for weeks at a time. He initially striped motorcycles, which he preferred, before turning to cars.
Pinstriping wasn’t new. It was originally on carriages, and when horsepower replaced the horse, stripe painters worked in auto factories until carmakers discontinued it in the 1930s. But those stripes were relatively plain: straight lines on the hood and body, and on the wheel spokes.
Howard’s work was flowing lines and complicated patterns that accentuated hoods and trunks, that ran around the headlights and chrome, and that sometimes turned into full panels on the fenders and doors.
He also doesn’t seem to be the first to paint this way, but he soon became one of the best-known, mostly when cars bearing his work were shown at the 1954 Los Angeles Motorama car show, and then appeared in Hot Rod magazine.
A story specifically on him ran in February 1955, and later that year, the magazine featured him with the gasoline-powered roller skates he’d built (they worked fine until he hit a crack in the sidewalk, he later said), and with a drawing of the motorized pogo stick he was planning.
If anyone in the hot rod world didn’t know about him before, they certainly did now.
The drawing of Howard’s idea for a gasoline-powered Pogo Stick. Courtesy Von Dutch.
Although Howard primarily made his living from painting, he called himself a mechanic, and said he would have preferred to be a professional gunsmith. It’s said he was the first to airbrush designs on shirts and jackets, a style that would become immensely popular a decade later.
His signature design was a winged flying eyeball, along with his Von Dutch logo. (Why the odd name? It’s said that it’s because he was “stubborn as a Dutchman,” but no one seems to know for sure.)
It appears he only lent his name once, to a company that made Von Dutch-signed “Doll-Up Stripes” car decals. Although he’d raise his rates to scare away customers he didn’t like, Howard didn’t care about money.
In one magazine interview, he said that he “made a point of staying right at the edge of poverty,” boasting that all of his pants had holes in them, and that he only owned one pair of shoes. He saw life as a struggle that money only made harder.
He was a difficult man. If someone wanted a certain colour or design, he was just as likely to paint the opposite. He’d often stop halfway through a job, and sit down and tell strange stories for hours. Some of his best work was signed with fake names. An alcoholic, he was also racist and sexist.
While some simply accepted Howard for who he was, it could be quite an ordeal to get a Von Dutch paint job. In a couple of cases, he actually destroyed motorcycles that customers brought to him to stripe.
A group of hand-painted motorcycle parts done by Howard.
Life takes its toll
Car customization changes as frequently as fashion, and while Howard’s unique style was the hottest ticket in the mid to late 1950s, car builders moved on. In 1958, he stopped striping. It’s hard to find corroborating stories, even among his own accounts, so his claims that he then spent a couple of years painting gruesome depictions of corpses and selling them in beatnik bars may or may not be true (none of these pictures are known to exist today).
He was married and had two daughters, and sometime around 1960, he moved to Topanga Canyon, where he hung out primarily with bikers and, oddly, actor Steve McQueen. He painted canvases, a few of which survive, and produced beautiful folding knives, some of them original, and others bought and customized. He moved to Arizona, where his wife finally had enough of his drinking and left him. He returned to California.
He became a recluse, although magazine writers would occasionally track him down for “whatever happened to” stories—and some show that he was still fond of telling incredible tales with such a straight face that the reporters believed him.
One of his friends was custom car builder Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, who spent the early 1970s working for a movie-car business. When Roth left, Howard took the job. The business wound down in 1986, leaving a warehouse filled with cars and memorabilia. Howard stayed with it, living in the compound until his death in 1992.
So how is it that a man whose peak period lasted only some five years still casts such a shadow today? Part of it is that car fashion has come full circle, and the designs he created are appreciated once again. And as unpleasant as he could be, he was also immensely talented. A film exists of him lettering a hood backwards (so it would read properly in rear-view mirrors), completely freehand, without measuring, and perfectly spaced.
After his death, his daughters sold his name for the clothing line. And in 2006, the battered paint box left to him by his father sold at auction for $310,500. The man who hated money ended up generating wealth he could never have possibly imagined.