THE HISTORY OF THE RAT ROD, PART V: Kustom Kulture

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We can’t talk about the history of the Rat Rod movement without talking about the touring exhibit that made it possible.

In 1993, Craig Stecyk –– the writer and photographer who basically introduced the world to the Venice Beach Dog Town and Z-Boys with his Skateboarder magazine articles in the Seventies –– curated an exhibit at the Laguna Art Museum entitled “Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Robert Williams & Others.”

The exhibit, for the first time, brought the work of the original Low Brow artists to light in a legitimate gallery setting. Looking back from the end of the first decade of the new millenium, it seems crazy to think that pinstripers and Rat Fink and custom paint guys and poster artists didn’t get gallery play. But in the early Nineties, Ed Roth and Von Dutch and other artists of car culture had been virtually forgotten. Hell, ‘car culture’ wasn’t even a common term yet. Von Franco, long-time Low Brow artist/hotrodder/friend, remembers seeing Ed Roth selling t-shirts out of the back of his mini-truck at car shows in the Eighties. A far cry from his coronation since his passing in 2001.

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So, the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, CA put on a show about the hotrodder artists who lived and flourished in the Southern California custom car scene in the Fifties and Sixties. Sounds about right, no? But here’s the really important thing about the show C.R. Stecyk III curated: it traveled. It traveled across the country -– from Seattle to Baltimore. And it BLEW MINDS wherever it stopped. See, car culture does one thing very, very well: it talks to itself. Insular. Get it? It looks in on itself and doesn’t do a very good job of finding new recruits. If “Kustom Kulture” was put on at the venerable Petersen Automotive Museum in L.A., it wouldn’t have changed the world the way it actually did. But by influencing art students and museum patrons and the average shmoe all over the country, Von Dutch, Big Daddy, Robert Williams, The Pizz, Anthony Ausgang, Alan Forbes and a host of others became cultural icons. Sure, they had been making art for decades, but the outside world didn’t really know it.

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“Kustom Kulture,” the show, set the stage for Kustom Kulture, the movement. Finally, the art, music, styles, trends, fashion and cars created in and influenced by what had happened in post-war American popular automotive culture had a name. And a rallying cry. And the Rat Rod movement came directly from it. It can be argued that the retro car clubs, rockabilly revival, tiki culture, mid-century influenced trends, the short-lived “Lounge” movement of the mid-Nineties, off-shore American car culture and Rat Rods all found support in this seminal show. And they all influenced each other in one way or another to create the thriving car culture we enjoy today (we just can’t call it culture with a K, though).

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“Kustom Kulture” jazzed people to pick up an airbrush or a striping brush or a welder or a dolly and hammer for the first time –– for better and sometimes for a definite worse. But that’s OK. The point is that this movement is accessible to everyone, not just for the professional car customizers and artists. Ron Turner and his Last Gasp publishing house put out the show’s catalogue as a must-have collectible book and it’s on the shelf of just about any self-respecting car guy these days. Because of this show, there are just as many art books on that shelf these days as there are carb rebuilding manuals.

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The DNA of Stecyk and the original members of “Kustom Kulture” is in the makeup of the Rat Rod movement. We wouldn’t have what we have today without that show in 1993. Even though we begrudgingly have to include Von Dutch trucker hats in that statement. Hey, sometimes things just go horribly wrong –– even with the best intentions.

Images courtesy “Kustom Kulture,” Ron Turner, Last Gasp

14 Responses to “THE HISTORY OF THE RAT ROD, PART V: Kustom Kulture”

  1. econobiker says:

    Someone finally recognized this custom form as art not just as car mechanic-ing and put it into the art museums exposing it to more folks than before. While the artsy people had accepted street graffiti etc as art years prior to this, the custom culture guys had gone unnoticed since their work is less in your face and tended to hide in garages and not have government entities complaining about it or painting over it.

  2. Church says:

    This was an amazing show to see in person. A real eye opening experience for an art nerd like myself. The limited hard cover book is hard as f*#& to find, but well worth it.

  3. STONER says:

    Couldn’t agree more with both of you! Personally, I got to see the show at the Maryland Institute College Of Art in Baltimore when it passed through town. It was at that point I understood the connection between art and the cars I loved.

    And Coby –- I got the hardback!

  4. Church says:

    do you have the Art Chantry silk screen poster as well?

  5. [...] full of the people who’ve been influenced by the spirit of the original “Kustom Kulture” show back in ‘93 to pick up a camera, brush, torch, pen, spray can or whatever, this looks to be a [...]

  6. [...] helped bring the roots music back to the American youth and the American kids’ rediscovery of Kustom Kulture brought the cars and the art back to Europe. [View with [...]

  7. [...] we don’t mean ‘kulture.’ Kulture was first widely used back in 1993 when the Kustom Kulture exhibit toured the country and dropped an A-bomb on the hot rod scene of the era. But by 2011, [...]

  8. [...] we don’t mean ‘kulture.’ Kulture was first widely used back in 1993 when the Kustom Kulture exhibit toured the country and dropped an A-bomb on the hot rod scene of the era. But by 2011, [...]

  9. grant says:

    got my copy signed by Ed Roth (along with a photo taken of us in ’96 when i was barley 16…my copy is heavily worn and one of my prized possessions

  10. flash says:

    Stoner I remember you coming up to Boston to check out the show at the ICA, and hanging out with you across the street at Bukowski’s…also met Robert, Suzanne, and Coop there…good times! Glad to see you carrying on the torch with Autocult. – Tony aka Flash

  11. Design says:

    Design…

    [...]THE HISTORY OF THE RAT ROD, PART V: Kustom Kulture « Autoculture[...]…

  12. [...] and not always Art in America. This art show with its theme of art modding is an incarnation of Kustom Kulture. Kim Deakins work, Carol John’s work, and Chris Parry’s “Death comes a [...]

  13. [...] talk about the Kustom Kulture show (at the Laguna Art Museum) in ’93. It’s a show that people still talk about.  At the [...]

  14. [...] art and some other shit that sounded like something we shouldn’t miss. Turns out, it was the Kustom Kulture show that was traveling across the country and it BLEW. OUR. [...]

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