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.
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.
“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).
“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.
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