Kenny Howard: Von Dutch

Taken from the article ‘Make Me A Machine That Is A Piece Of Art’ by Tom Nolan, Los Angeles Times  ‘WEST’ magazine, May 24, 1970
Taken from the article ‘Make Me A Machine That Is A Piece Of Art’ by Tom Nolan, Los Angeles Times ‘WEST’ magazine, May 24, 1970

“There is a mad, surrealist quality to this person,” says a Playboy magazine editor who met him when Dutch appeared striping a naked girl in the movie, ‘You Are What You Eat’. “If he had been taken up and accepted by the New York art crowd, he would have received the same amount of mass-media exposure as Warhol. He preceded all those people. He made real pop art. I’m sure he created that whole California car ethic. He is in the Dadaist tradition.”

 

Kenny Howard at work
Kenny Howard at work

Kustom Kulture began with Kenny Howard ‘Von Dutch’. He began pinstriping motorcycles at the age of 16, and did thousands of them, then did a car for somebody a few years later as a joke, and that caught on as well. He became busier and busier, with people travelling from as far away as New York to get their vehicles ‘Dutched’. In the late-40’s as the demand increased, other people began pinstriping as well. It was about this time that Von Dutch moved more into the area of design and fabrication. He never quite gave up paint, although he stated many times that he intended to.

Poster for ‘The Reivers’
Poster for ‘The Reivers’

As with many famous and extraordinary people, the legends surrounding the life and works of Kenneth Howard, known to all as ‘Von Dutch’ , abound. It is quite probable that most of the stories are true. Without a doubt Von Dutch was a creative genius who turned his hand to many things. From his initial career as a mechanic, building and repairing vehicles, to applying paint to anything that would stay still, and making knives and firearms to playing the flute, he appears to have been a master of all trades. He was famous for making beautiful things out of discarded items, for example fashioning knife handles from old ivory piano keys, and making lamps or furnishings from rubbish, often salvaged from film sets he had worked on. He built the prototype of the ‘Easy Rider’ motorcycle famously ridden across America by Peter Fonda in the movie of the same name. He was a close friend of Steve McQueen, and built the ‘Winton Flyer’ motorcar for his movie ‘The Reivers’. He also appeared in McQueen’s film ‘You are What You Eat’ painting pinstripes on a naked girl.

Without a doubt Dutch was no businessman, he could be impatient and bad tempered and had no desire for the fortune or fame he could have very easily achieved. He stated once:

“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.”

Von Dutch holding one of his Custom Knives
Von Dutch holding one of his Custom Knives

It is often quoted statement about Von Dutch:

“Kenneth Howard was a truly brilliant and innovative pinstriper and engraver, a gifted artist, an eccentric and anti-social hermit, and a misunderstood genius.
Invite him into a crowded party, and he’d just as soon retreat to the tranquillity of the kitchen, where he’d pinstripe the fridge.”

I cannot find a name to credit this quote to, but Von Dutch holding one of his from what I have read and heard from people that knew custom designed knives him, I think that this sums up Kenneth Howard well.


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