Once almost a dead art, pinstriping continues to leave its distinctive mark on vehicles today.
Artistic, intrinsic, individualistic and utterly cool, pinstriping – also known as “line art” – has been in vogue for centuries.
Horse-drawn carriages were often adorned with simple, decorative painted lines. The accenting easily transitioned to horseless carriages. Although automakers ceased factory-applied striping before WWII, new car dealers found that personalized, hand-painted line art, crests and initials remained a popular after-sale moneymaker. Many dealerships still offer this service.
Historians believe auto racers adapted “nose art” and flames from decorative designs on combat aircraft, a trend that accelerated in the years following the war and coincided with the meteoric rise of hot rodding and customizing.
Herb Martinez, author of the best-seller Guide to Pinstriping, says, “… just as hot rod culture evolved as an antidote to the conformity of the ’50s, pinstriping became one of the cornerstones of Kustom Kulture, really the visual expression of alienation and rebellion.”
Iconoclasts like the irrepressible Kenneth Francis Howard, better known as Von Dutch, along with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Tommy “The Greek” Hrones and Dean Jeffries, pioneered the pinstriper’s art. Countless imitators have followed.
Von Dutch, a tortured, talented soul whose boundless – if not a bit weird – take on creativity initially manifested itself in striping, initiated and inspired the craze. Although it originated in Southern California, pinstriping spread like wildfire across the country and around the world thanks to exposure in magazines like Hot Rod and Rod & Custom. Von Dutch once said that pinstriping originated because “we were just trying to cover up the grinder marks after a car was dechromed.” Perhaps that’s true, but striping quickly took on a life and breadth of its own.
There were never any defined pinstriping rules. The striper’s challenge is to paint each side of a design as close to a mirror image as possible. With intense concentration, the best stripers can create a seemingly unbroken, perfect line with an eerily consistent width.
Pinstriping kits, brushes and paints sold via mail order were popularly purchased, but most neophytes found they didn’t have the keen eye, the rock-steady hand or the creative bent to be a true “line doctor.” So they sought out the best professional they could afford, and usually left the design up to the artist of choice. Curiously, Von Dutch, a habitual smoker and heavy drinker, was reportedly at his best late at night when he was at least mildly inebriated.
Over half a century ago, when Dutch first plied his trade on hot rods, custom cars, motorcycles and everything from guitar cases and helmets, the first thing many guys did was have their completed car striped, or “Dutched,” as the expression went.
With a resurgence of interest in the ’50s as the definitive custom car period, pinstriping has returned with a vengeance – as if it ever went completely away. There are stripers at every major car gathering, intently applying their lines, seemingly unaware of admiring crowds that gather to comment, speculate and critique their work.
Dean Jeffries is the only one of the four major pioneers left alive. He no longer stripes, but a mob of talented newcomers, like Alan Johnson, “Dirty” Donnie Gillies, Herb Martinez, Steve Kafka, Skratch, Tom “Itchy” Otis, Jimmy C and many others have literally taken up the brush.
Kafka, a Phoenix-based striper, has traveled with the Pinstriping Legends Tour. One of five artists who decorated Ed Roth’s coffin, Kafka is not a fan of pin lines (long horizontal lines down the side of a car). He prefers more intricate designs and flames.
“Pinstriping isn’t just for the hot rod, custom car and motorcycle communities,” Kafka says. “I do pickups, PT Cruisers, Hummer s, whatever customers want.” Kafka has worked at shows all over the country. His videos and starter kits have encouraged many young, would-be stripers.
Eastwood (eastwoodco.com) offers many of Kafka’s essential products, including his Pinstriping Accessory Kit, Detail Brush Set and “Welcome to my World” instructional DVD, among other things. The site also offers several products from Beugler, plus stencils and color match cards.
Rather leave it to the professionals? Go to pinstriper.com or attend a nearby hot rod car show. Choosing a striper is like selecting a tattoo artist. You’ll want to see what he or she has done and talk to his or her clients. Good stripers will try to understand what you’d like, but most prefer to create what they think is right. Once you’ve bought your stripes, clearcoats aren’t necessary. Keep the lines well protected and looking fresh with a high-quality wax.
“I’ve been involved in just about every art form,” Kafka says, “and pinstriping is the most gratifying. Unlike an art gallery, with pinstriping you get to meet the clients, you get an expensive canvas to work on, you experience the clients’ gratitude; they shower you with $100 bills, and then they become your agents. Plus a gallery takes half your money.”
Even Von Dutch would probably agree.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Fall 2007 issue of Hagerty magazine.