Described as a visionary, the man born into this world as Kenneth Robert Howard, became a legend and founding father of the kustom kulture. He could have been Ken, Kenny, or Rob, but instead became Von Dutch, but often went by other pseudonyms like J.L. Bachs – which he said was short for Joe Lunch Box.
Legend has it that Howard adopted the Von Dutch nickname hoping that people caught the reference as “stubborn as a Dutchman.” Not realizing that the Von prefix was not Dutch but rather German, when used that particle before the surname.
His father was a well-known sign painter in Los Angeles, which makes perfect sense that the younger Howard would follow in the family’s artistic painting work. While still in his teens, Von Dutch, who was working as a mechanic, would take home motorcycles from his employer’s shop and apply some pinstriping, simply for the sake of art. At the time, pinstripe was a dead art form. Motorcycles were the only vehicles being pinstriped, and that was just as a way to cleverly cover scratches, chips and dings in the paint.
It wasn’t long before motorcycle owners began to seek out the young pinstriper, and the shop owner realized the value in having the artist do pinstriping instead of turning a wrench. This launched his career as a pinstriper and helped solidify his reputation as a true artist and the Godfather of modern pinstriping. His colorful way of personalizing cars and other objects became highly valued as a personal piece of work that was unique to the owner.
The art created by the pinstriper transcended from simple pinstriping to complicated brush work on the inside and outside of vehicles. Examples of his work are displayed in the book The Art Of Von Dutch. Fascinating reading and mind blowing displays of art created by this incredibly talented man.
Von Dutch was a complicated and independent man that lived according to his own standards. According to the Von Dutch brand website: “The money code that Von Dutch lived by was simply stated in a quote from a 1965 article and reads “I make a point of staying right at the edge of poverty. I don’t have a pair of pants without a hole in them, and the only pair of boots I have are on my feet. I don’t mess around with unnecessary stuff, so I don’t need much money. I believe it’s meant to be that way. There’s a ‘struggle’ you have to go through, and if you make a lot of money it doesn’t make the ‘struggle’ go away. It just makes it more complicated. If you keep poor, the struggle is simple“.
There have been so many stories and legends about Von Dutch that it is difficult to know what was real and what was manufactured. The parts of his story that can be verified do point out a real struggle that existed in the man. The same kind of struggle that tortured Michelangelo or Van Gogh. It seems that all great artists are plagued with demons.
While Von Dutch continued to create pinstripes and designs that broke new territory with each stroke, he distanced himself from people more and more. Seemingly looking for answers to questions that were never asked, the artist turned to alcohol for relief. Von Dutch’s lifelong alcoholism led to major medical issues later in life. He died on September 19, 1992 from alcohol-related complications. After his death, Howard’s daughters sold the “Von Dutch” name and Kenny Howard’ legend is now an American multinational brand.
There have been persistent stories of Howard’s troubled nature, most notable of those when friend and fellow artist Robert Williams said in 2004 that Von Dutch was “quite a racist; didn’t like anybody. He had all the trappings of being a neo-Nazi. He could not tolerate black people.” Others quickly came to Von Dutch’s defense pointing out that he wasn’t racist at all. They claimed that he was simply anti-social and didn’t like anyone.
Whether Von Dutch was or wasn’t social is not really as important as the art he left behind after his passing. People that have never heard the name, or recognize pieces of the art as his, have all seen his flying eyeball logo at bare minimum.
He was also an avid gunsmith and knife maker. He is credited for making a shortened version of a Winchester Model 1892 carbine that he called the “Mare’s Leg” that was used by pal Steve McQueen in the TV series Wanted Dead Of Alive.