Von Dutch: The Art, The Myth, The Legend
By Pat Gonahl, with a forward by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth
Pub: CarTech, 2005
Cover Price: $39.95
In Von Dutch: The Art, The Myth, The Legend, author Pat Ganahl takes us on a funhouse ride through the often confusing, always fascinating life of celebrated pinstripe artist, knife maker, gunsmith, and all around artist, Kenneth Howard. Or, as he’s more well known, Von Dutch.
To be fair, Ganahl warns us up front. There are many questions in the saga (for saga it is) of Von Dutch, and few answers. As Ganahl prepares to take us on a tour of Von Dutch’s life, from his childhood in LA, to the development of his talents, to the height of his fame and legend, even eventually, to his later (and last) years, he tells us up front that those answers we do get will often be contradictory at best. Nevertheless, it’s a ride not to be missed.
The uninitiated, (as I was when I began to read this work), may at this point be thinking, ‘Okay, but who is this Von Dutch, and why do I care?’ Good question. To put it simply, Von Dutch is the originator of modern pin striping. Cars, bikes, motorcycles, even cards, signs and boxes. At the height of his popularity in the late fifties and sixties, to have Von Dutch’s signature flowing, almost abstract freehand lines and images adorning a car or motorcycle was the finest thing a young hot-rodder could aspire to. Although his art and talent made him famous, it was his antics and outrageous claims that made him legend. For example, one oft-repeated claim by Von Dutch was that he was the youngest ever German U-Boat captain, and that his ship had sunk, and he was living in the US illegally. Another tells of him once spending ten straight days striping every surface of a car for an exhibition. It should say something about Von Dutch, that these are two of the tamer tales Ganahl relates in his book.
The main task Ganahl sets for himself then, is to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Von Dutch, a task made much more difficult by the fragility of memory over the years, not to mention the number of tales Von Dutch himself contributed to his legend. As it is, Ganahl does a masterful job of weaving together interviews, magazine articles, stories, and personal reminiscences into a more or less coherent account of Dutch’s life. Ganahl also musters an impressive array of photos, ranging from shots of vintage dragsters, to signage painted by Dutch, to pictures from magazine articles from that period, as well as many shots of his knives and guns. Sadly, given the impermanence of car paintwork, especially on race cars and hot rods, the most common canvas for Dutch’s work, very few samples still exist, so many of the photos show their age. Further, given Dutch’s notorious shunning of publicity during his career, little attention was paid to him in print.
The result of Ganahl’s efforts, all too often is a confusing landscape, as stories from different people repeatedly contradict each other, support each other, weave and intertwine, until they become the same story. It’s as if we are seeing the birth of a myth, step by step, a feeling that only grows as the story reaches its finale. And at last, Von Dutch’s end is as mysterious as his beginning, as his middle, as his whole life. In the end, Ganahl leaves us where we began, looking at a riddle. An enigma. A myth.
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