“Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth, Robert Williams and Others” opened at the Laguna Art Museum in July 1993. The show proved to be pivotal to the movement, illustrating Southern California custom-car culture's influential reach throughout the 1940s and beyond.
Do-it-yourself is a ubiquitous philosophy in the proto-punk world. From art to automobiles as art, lowbrow art—while once seen as counterculture, defiant, anti-museum and underground—has saturated our everyday. “Kustom Kulture” served well beyond its purpose, not only helping to label and spur the movement as a whole, but also acting as impetus to future DIY generations and artists.
Now, 20 years later, curators (and artists with their own DIY ethic) C.R. Stecyk III and Paul Frank, along with lead organizer Greg Escalante, present “Kustom Kulture II,” which will grace the Huntington Beach Art Center starting this Saturday. And the purpose is the same as the original: document, display, inspire.
“Good to see you, my friend,” Escalante says, reaching out to Frank, who had just arrived. The lanky Stecyk is also there, and the three men stand in a checkerboard-floored garage attached to a wire warehouse somewhere in Santa Ana. Curios, collectibles and rarities—hula girls and Rat Fink figures, plus Ed Roth surf helmets—occupy every available surface of the room. It's a shrine to the automobile, serving as a protective hull for everything from a red Porsche 356 A Speedster cabriolet to multiple hot rods to the collection's crown jewel: the Surfite, a tiny, sunshine-yellow buggy carrying a matching surfboard. It was built from scratch in 1964 by artist/pinstriper/custom-car designer Roth, but looks as though it could stand in as a prototype beach mobile even today—and it'll be the centerpiece of “Kustom Kulture II.”
“When I look back at that first show, I couldn't believe how good it was,” explains Escalante. “And no one could ever do a show that high of quality again due to the fact that prices of the art are so much higher now. . . . The idea of this show wasn't to do a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It is a tribute to the 20-year anniversary, but it's also an update and expansion.”
“Kustom Kulture II,” Escalante explains, will feature important, overlooked artists such as Basil Wolverton, George Barris, Don Ed Hardy, Hudson Marquez (creator of Cadillac Ranch), Phil Garner and Margaret Keane. “To sum it up,” Escalante continues, “this show fills in some gaps, expands the range of examination and illustrates how far the movement has come.”
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COOP, LA-BASED HOT-ROD ARTIST: “I was in the original 'Kustom Kulture' show—I had one of my first large paintings, one 4-foot-by-8-foot piece, hanging next to the ZZ Top 'Eliminator' hot rod. Pretty good for a 24-year-old kid. . . . The impact of that first 'Kustom Kulture' show was huge. It was the first time the visual style of California surf/hot-rod culture was placed in a fine-art context. Soon after, Juxtapoz magazine started, and things really exploded. . . . My new painting in 'Kustom Kulture II' is part of a series of memento mori paintings that I’ve been doing. It is a hand-painted halftone image of a chrome skull on a black field of stenciled black skulls. Most of this doesn’t come across in the photo—it really needs to be seen in person.”
ROBERT WILLIAMS, PAINTER, CARTOONIST AND CO-FOUNDER OF JUXTAPOZ MAGAZINE: “[The original 'Kustom Kulture'] was a front to get into a legitimate museum venue, to slip in a whole bunch of underground artists and get them exposure in a proper setting. And Greg Escalante and Craig Stecyk were the first, really, to do this. This show was an enormous success. . . . Since then, this thing has exploded all over the United States, Europe and Japan. There’s a magazine called Juxtapoz that me and Greg started, and Stecyk was part of it. And Juxtapoz was a pathetic little art magazine, and its first sales were in the black. It immediately started selling. About six or seven years ago, Juxtapoz became one of the top-selling art magazines in the world. In the world. This little shitty magazine all of a sudden had a giant audience all over. Juxtapoz blew a big hole in the wall—it freed lots of young people. So between 1993 and 2013, there’s been such a growth in alternative art and expression.”
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Escalante, 58, grew up in Los Alamitos, the second oldest of six remarkably successful siblings, including Vandals bassist Joe. He's wearing brown loafers with white crew socks and a red-white-and-blue Hang-Ten zip-up with matching straw fedora. He speaks with a slight adenoidal twinge and stands apart from the group gathered that morning at the warehouse of car collector and business owner Rick Rawlins. The crackling sizzle of welding provides the soundtrack to the day's conversations.
Whether he believes it or not, Escalante is largely responsible for leading the charge for the recognition of lowbrow—a term he actually doesn't approve of—even acting as catalyst for the first “Kustom Kulture” show after introducing artist Robert Williams to key Laguna Art Museum staffers. Escalante trades bonds by day (“Because I couldn't see how you could make money in art, but if you could make money some other way, you could buy art”) and co-founded Juxtapoz magazine in 1994, which virtually defined underground contemporary art at large, ushering it into the commercial mainstream.
OC WEEKLY: Was Kustom Kulture always considered part of the lowbrow art world?
GREG ESCALANTE: Kustom Kulture didn't exist till the [first] “Kustom Kulture” show. . . . So what Laguna [Art Museum] was doing was a show to define and validate this new movement, and the show was named “Kustom Kulture” by curator Susan Anderson.
So Anderson coined the term Kustom Kulture? Was Laguna Art Museum the first to acknowledge the movement?
Yes, she did, but almost no one knows it. Laguna wasn't only the first museum to acknowledge the movement—it should also get credit for creating it! It was weird because, at that time, people used to denounce the museum as behind the Orange Curtain and that nothing any good could come out of a sleepy beach museum that was the oldest cultural institution in Southern California. So basically, while hip LA was sleeping, Laguna blew it out of the water and started the art movement of the century.
Do you remember when you first started getting into art?
This issue of Thrasher magazine came out in about 1987, and Robert Williams was on the cover. And it just blew my mind, the artwork, because I had never seen anything like that. It was like Salvador Dalí had grown up in Southern California, with all his skill and ability, but with a whole different thing he was trying to express. . . .
When I looked through the whole article, I saw a painting that was more amazing than the next painting. I noticed the guy who took the photos for the paintings [was someone] I had met before, and it was this guy right here [gestures to Stecyk]. The guy who had introduced me to Stecyk was Bolton Colburn, who worked at Laguna Art Museum, and so I called up Bolton and I said, “Do you know how much these paintings go for?”
And so what he did instead, he called me back and was like, “Here's Robert Williams' phone number,” and I just go, “Whoa.” [Laughs] Because I was all intimidated, the paintings were so freaky, I just thought, “Man, whoever made these things can just be weirder than I can deal with.”
You were scared of him?
Yeah! So it was one of those things that sits on your desk for two or three weeks, and finally, you get in the right mood, and you go, “Okay, I'll call him,” and so I call him, and he just seems like a great guy and invites me out to see his paintings that are going out to his next show. . . . We go out to lunch, and it was just one of the greatest art-experience field trips.
What was the name of that first Robert Williams painting you purchased?
Okay, Williams paintings have, like, a whole paragraph for each name, but it's The Boy Eating a Half-Rat.
Can you describe it?
It's a . . . [pauses to gather his words] Cubist background with all these shacks and things like a city and lighting and dark, and it's got a cartoonish guy with a really weird-looking face, and he's got a half-rat by the tail, with guts hanging out of it, and he's about to eat it. And then, around the border, it's got this third element that's just a flat design, and it's this weird cartoon creature that's not . . . like an animal or anything, just kind of a, you know, anthropomorphized silhouette, and it's jumping over a candlestick. And finally, in the last frame, the candlestick gets it, and then it burns up. [Laughs heartily] So that was on the cover of Thrasher. And that was the first painting I bought.
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BILLY GIBBONS, ZZ TOP: “The first actual 'Kustom Kulture' installation in Laguna is what got the ball rolling, bringing focus toward the importance of what—up until then—were not considered legitimate art forms. Following the overwhelming acceptance of the many aspects and substance of what Kustom Kulture embraces, it has gained an unparalleled measure of global appreciation. . . . As far as the guitar loaned for this exhibit, it’s evidence of the strong impact California brought to the fore. Hot rodding and the West Coast surf scene and, of course, a Fender Jaguar model guitar, complete with a machine-turned scratchplate and 'Rick Surfboards' sticker, still stands as an iconic, personal pathos of everyday living.”
C.R. STECYK III: “The Reverend Billy F. Gibbons and I grew up at different outposts, separated by the desert, some mountains and having the Mother Road, Route 66, being kinda in between. I was situated at the highway’s terminus, where the pavement trailed into the briney deep. Billy’s digs were in Houston, down toward the gulf. Surfing, cars and music are things that continue to motivate both of us. . . . Our inexpugnable destiny was forged by Dale Velzy when the hot-rodding surfboard shaper suggested we formally interact. Velzy rode with the Booze Fighters and piloted a Barris chopped Merc back in the ’50s. I ended up being the documentarian for the creation of Cadzilla, the groundbreaking custom ’48 Cadillac commissioned by Gibbons. It was designed by Larry Erickson and crafted at Boyd Coddington’s Stanton atelier. Hot Rods By Boyd had a mural painted by Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth on the exterior. . . . Billy was a big supporter of Kustom Kulture, generously shipping out the Eliminator Coupe for the original exhibition. The Eliminator was the most recognizable car of the period, and it is still widely seen on MTV in ZZ Top’s cinematic trilogy. Gibbons also dispatched Pete Chapouris, the originator of the California Kid ’34 Ford coupe, to install the vehicle for us. In 1974, the California Kid was the star car of a movie featuring Martin Sheen, Vic Morrow and Nick Nolte. . . . Other commonalities include my cousin Dana Rodgers having been Miss Texas and Rick Rubin, another longtime mutual friend who produced ZZ Top’s last album. Mike Ness of Black Kat Customs recently cut heads with the Rev at the House of Blues. Ness also was kind enough to appear in Fin, a recent video piece that I made. Social Distortion also performed the piece’s score. . . . 'Kustom Kulture II' features Billy’s 1965 Fender Jaguar guitar, which is adorned with a Rick Surfboards logo, custom engine turned pick guard, onboard circuit boosting and an electronic microammeter. Gibbons used the axe on the ZZ Top album Tejas.”
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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.
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.”
GREG ESCALANTE: “The Munsters’ coach! We all grew up with it, and now we can see it in person during this exhibition. George Barris was a Hollywood car-creating master, creating the icons we all loved from the Bat Mobile to the Monster T to the Cargoyle and so many more.”
RICK RAWLINS, OWNER OF THE SURFITE, WHO RESTORED THE VEHICLE TO PRISTINE CONDITION WITH THE GUIDANCE OF ED ROTH: “When I was a kid, my dad’s shop was around the corner from Ed Roth’s, so I’d go every once in a while to see him. I built the model, the little Revell model kit of [the Surfite], and I was fascinated by it. It was my favorite one I ever built. . . . So I was up at a body shop in Las Vegas, looking for a little Bugatti, and on the wall of the shop, this surfboard was hanging—and I ask, 'Hey, what’s the deal with that surfboard—is it for sale?' . . . And they say, 'Ahh, it goes with some kind of crazy car.' . . . [Pause] Ding, ding, ding, ding! . . . It was great. It was meant to be—I’d asked around for many years: 'Oh, who ended up with the Surfite?' . . . [Roth] wasn’t real interested in the past; he didn’t really want to spend a lot of time [talking] about the past. He was always thinking about the next thing he was going to build. But he really did appreciate the fact that we brought the Surfite back to what it was.”
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“[C.R. Stecyk III] pretty much knows everything,” Escalante says. Escalante's smiling as he says it, but you get the feeling he's not really joking.
Celebrated artist, journalist, archivist and Juxtapoz co-founder Stecyk, 63, seems as though he's a pretty serious guy with a gruff exterior—but once you get him started on, well, everything, his eyes brighten and he exudes knowledge, spouting facts and history and information . . . all before breakfast. Stecyk famously founded Jeff Ho Surfboards and Zephyr Productions in Santa Monica, meticulously documenting the tale of the Z-Boys in a series of articles for SkateBoarder Magazine, spreading the gospel of the Zephyr team throughout youth culture and beyond. He is also an artist in residence for Hurley's open-studio program.
OC WEEKLY: Was there an effort to keep “Kustom Kulture II” in Orange County?
C.R. STECYK III: The Orange County component—Ed Roth lived in La Mirada, and this is where he settled the surfboard and the Surfite. If you look at this show and you look at the Surfite, there's a couple of conclusions you can draw in regards to Orange County in specificity. It's a fiberglass vehicle, and it's built largely with surf-related technology. Ed used to bodysurf at the Huntington Beach Pier when he was growing up, and he told me a number of stories about Huntington, and he was aware of Gordon Duane, who was Gordie of Gordie's Surfboards from there. Gordie was the principal surfboard builder in Orange County in that period. Ed built an all-terrain vehicle out of progressive material such as fiberglass, and the idea was that it would be a dedicated sport vehicle for surfing and you would haul your surfboard and you could drive anywhere.
He proceeded to build the vehicle and drive it through the surf and onto the sand in Beach Blanket Bingo, and everybody goes, “Okay, that was brilliant, eccentric behavior—how interesting.” But if you look at the market now, there's a whole class of all-terrain sports vehicles . . . and having a car with significant ground clearance that was lightweight and got good mileage and stuff is basically the template for what everybody else is building now. It's absolutely a brilliant, visionary breakthrough.
But Ed's fascination with surfing at the pier in Huntington where he observed it—and getting Gordie to shape the board, which is indeed the board that is in the car today—is pretty interesting. You can see that LIFE Magazine, you can see that Hollywood studios, all those people embraced [the Surfite] immediately because it was such an effective proposition. Very beguiling—Ed had a particular genius. Here's a guy who went up against all the automotive manufacturers in the world . . .
Was it considered art at the time?
Well, I always thought it was a form of art. I don't think the mainstream necessarily did. Perhaps the “Kustom Kulture” show on some level identified and made some statements, or you know, put the hypothesis out there that a lot of this could be art or at the very least culture. . . . I think art and culture are particularly synonymous. In the fine-art world, though, it was heresy to present such things.
I think Orange County is probably in a lot of ways more progressive in presenting youth culture than most places. And I think Huntington Beach is the epicenter of a lot of it. There's aspects of post-World War II development in the U.S. that you see in Orange County. LA was industrialized earlier and had a center, and it spread out. . . . You know, it made a lot of sense for Orange County to flourish. . . . I'd challenge you to name me another public, civic-owned gallery that is promoting a show of this magnitude and this orientation any place in the world. There aren't any people that are doing it I can think of. It's a very advanced proposition.
I don't think there are many institutions like the Huntington Beach Art Center that are getting support [or] even able to survive at this point. Major museums are closing because they can't find funding, and they can't find the market, and they can't figure out how to work. Yet we got a proposition with renegade art forms being presented in the middle of this explosion of athletics and art on the beach in Huntington and have a million people show up.
Why do you think Kustom Kulture is seemingly more popular than ever?
I think people want to communicate, and I think it's individual expression—I think people want personalized transportation forms that are somehow special or somehow different. Some [of those] involved become connoisseurs. Other people go to a dealership and order factory options—which, to a certain extent, are manifestations of, I guess, your dreams and aspirations and your comfort level and maybe wanting to be seen differently. You'd be . . . you know, the one guy who gets the purple interior in a Prius instead of the blue one.
Why does Rick Rawlins have a 13-bay garage inside an industrial building? That's a personal vision. He sees the logic in it and has to pursue that. Someone has to save these things; someone has to study this knowledge.
The OC automotive scene was always really vital—Boyd Coddington had a big impact on stuff. He worked at Disneyland and was an engineer, probably [most] famously on the People Mover. He was a pre-eminent custom-car builder. We used to have Orange County International Raceway; we used to have races down here. We used to have a lot of stuff going. . . .
How do you think “Kustom Kulture II” will differ from the first show?
Originally, we thought about including surfing because, logically, it had a lot to do with it: It developed in the same period; it used a lot of the same materials. Ed Roth's cars in particular were using surfing materials . . . and Ed was bringing aerospace materials, aircraft-building materials into automotive building, and he was aware of them through surfboard builders who were bringing the same materials—balsa and fiberglass, which came out of aircraft plants that were operating in the mid-'40s for the war.