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Kustom Kulture in SoCal: Twenty Years of Fun

"A White-Knuckle Ride for Lucky St. Christopher", "Snuff Fink" and "Cowboys and Amoebas" by Robert Williams

In Southern California, the influence of surf, skate, and car culture is hard to escape. The beach cities of Orange County are heavily drawn to their roads and waves -- custom cars roll by, bikini-clad beach bums hold longboards. Huntington Beach, in particular, is a west coast surf mecca; for the past 54 years, it's been home to the annual U.S. Open of Surfing, drawing thousands of eager spectators.

These beach towns are also the birthplace of "Kustom Kulture," an aesthetic movement that channels the distinct look and flavor of SoCal surf, car, and motorcycle culture. Kustom art captures a fun, lowbrow style: tattoos, cartoon and poster art, red hot flames on the hood of a shiny custom car, tough pin-up girls lounging on Harley Davidsons. It's also imaginative -- cartoons show Rat Fink, a popular icon in Kustom art, driving a vintage convertible, his eyes wildly bulging from their sockets.

Chances are, you've heard the names Von Dutch, C.R. Stecyck, and Paul Frank. These California icons were the pioneers of the Kustom movement; they helped bring this culture to the mainstream masses and influenced dozens of other artists and designers with their fresh artistic style.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Kustom art's first official exhibition: "Kustom Kulture." Originally held at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, the exhibition (fully titled, "Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth, Robert Williams & Others") brought so many people in through the museum doors that it nearly broke the museum's record for attendance.

C.R. Stecyk and Kevin Bradley (Church of Type) with the first Kustom Kulture II poster for the exhibition.

Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed

This 1993 exhibition was seen as a breakthrough, introducing edgy, fun, and unique art into the museum, leading the art world in a new aesthetic direction. "Kustom Kulture" helped birth a slew of art publications, including "Juxtapoz Magazine," "Hi-Fructose Magazine," and "BL!SSS Magazine." It also helped pave the way for other noteworthy lowbrow exhibitions, like Don Ed Hardy's "Eye Tattooed America," OCMA's "Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art And Street Culture," MOCA's "Art in the Streets," and MoMA's Tim Burton retrospective.

"Kustom Kulture" exhibition, Laguna Art Museum, 1993.

"Kustom Kulture" exhibition, Laguna Art Museum, 1993.

"Chevy Man" by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.

The Huntington Beach Art Center has joined forces with some of "Kustom Kulture's" original organizers to bring an evolved 20th anniversary exhibition to life -- called "Kustom Kulture II". This new tribute exhibition aims to expand upon the notion of Kustom Kulture art, taking a deeper look at the designers involved and the influences that helped shape the genre. It also features many works that were not recognized in the 1993 exhibition. Now, both older and newer artists are featured side by side, giving a more well-rounded retrospective of the Kustom movement as a whole. The new exhibition also gives recognition to the impact that surfing and surf-related art had on Southern California.

"I don't think we've had enough fun," said Huntington Beach Art Center Executive Director Kate Hoffman. "This was for me an opportunity to break out of that, have fun with art, [and] bring in something that was notable 20 years ago. This pop Kustom Kulture expands generations. I wanted to bring the youngest generation into the Art Center through this exhibit, and still have the older generations getting joyful and excited about it -- as it was part of their lives."

Kustom painting by Bruce Gossett.

"Kustom Kulture II" is curated by surf historian C.R. Stecyk, a conceptual artist whose work has been shown in the Smithsonian, MOCA and the Laguna Art Museum. Stecyk is also known for his work on the acclaimed 2001 skate documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys." Co-curating the exhibition is artist and designer Paul Frank, creator of Julius the Monkey and Park La Fun, a new clothing and accessories brand based in L.A. Frank is joined by Greg Escalante, co-founder of "Juxtapoz" and one of the organizers of the original 1993 exhibition of "Kustom Kulture."

Pain Is Universal (Rat Fink) skateboard by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, c. 1960s. | Photo: C.R. Stecyk.

According to Escalante, the Kustom Kulture movement, although rooted in the classic car styles of the fifties and sixties, has evolved and flourished across each generation, eventually making a name for itself in contemporary fine art. "A lot of people think Kustom Kulture art is all about the custom car or hot rod," he says, "and it's a lot about that... But then when you hit [Robert] Williams -- [he] is the guy who took it into the fine art world. He is the guy more than any of the other guys that influenced the mainstream art world and all his peers that were with him, like Don Ed Hardy."

Curators Escalante, Stecyck, and Frank are experts on the evolution of Kustom Kulture and its lineage of styles, submovements, and artists -- a growth that's relative to many different genres of art and design. Collectively, they aimed to explore different things in the memoriam exhibition, avoiding artwork that had been shown in the original exhibit, or artwork that was too similar. The pieces they eventually chose were created by nearly 60 different artists, including Basil Wolverton, Stanislav Szukalski, and Margaret Keane -- artists that often aren't given enough recognition for their influence in the lowbrow pop movement.

Much like in street art, the Kustom Kulture art scene is very male-centric. Despite this, Margaret Keane has made a name for herself, thanks to her quirky portraits, which usually feature her signature giant eyes. Keane has become a fixture in popular art culture, and many fellow artists now reference her work. Some of her well-known collectors throughout the years have included: actresses Joan Crawford and Natalie Wood, whom she painted portraits of; filmmaker Tim Burton, who is currently directing a film about Keane; and animator Craig McCracken, whose Powerpuff Girls were inspired by Keane's doe-eyed subjects. In the 1960s and '70s, her work was extremely popular, even though there was a large period of time where Keane's artwork was sold under the name of her husband, Walter Keane.

"[Keane] had nothing to do with hot rod culture," says Escalante, "but she was this lady who influenced so much of art, just like the Kustom Kulture guys, the hot rod guys. She is totally the underdog. In the art world, all the art guys totally looked down on her. Even the Kustom Kulture world -- a lot of them think she's awful; they don't like the artists who are influenced by her. But so many of the Kustom Kulture artists [use her as inspiration], like Frank Kozick and [Chris] 'Coop' [Cooper] -- that's when I first saw artists being influenced by her."

"Jesus Lizard" series, "Big Eye Hitler" and "Charles Manson," 1992. By Frank Kozik.

Artist Frank Kozick shows his Keane influence in his Jesus Lizard series, with his Big Eye Hitler and Charles Manson from 1992. Margaret Keane is one of very few women to make an impression on this movement that traditionally has roots in male-dominated sports and hobbies, making her all the more significant as a female artist.

"[Some of these artists] had never been recognized as who they are," says Escalante. "So we wanted to go and say 'Hey, here are these guys who are taking from that never got the credit' -- and they're artists too; we want to give them credit."

In the 20 years that have passed since 1993's exhibition, the knowledge and interest in this artistic culture has only grown stronger. Many different generations can now identify with these artists, artworks, cars, and characters. "It's a fun genre to get familiar with," says Hoffman. "It's a joy to see kids respond to the characters that 50 year olds also are responding to -- you know, Rat Fink, etcetera." She hopes the new exhibition will reach deeply within more eager minds and hearts, creating new appreciators of Kustom art.

"Origin of a Sub-Species" by C.R. Stecyk, "Kustom Kulture- Von Dutch, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Robert Williams and Others," C.R. Siecyk, Guest Curator, with Bolton Colburn.

"Rat Fink" by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.

"Memento Mori (Atomized)" by Chris "Coop" Cooper, 2012. Acrylic, enamel & spraypaint on canvas.

As a part of this exhibition -- and in tow with Huntington Beach culture -- there will be custom surf-themed installations, motorcycles, and rat rods by Von Dutch, Paul Frank, and Brett Barris (son of George Barris, the creator of the Batmobile, "the Dukes of Hazzard's" General Lee, and "Back to Future's" DeLorean, among others). There will also be a star-studded panel discussion on August 24, featuring Don Ed Hardy, Paul Frank, and many more greats of the genre.

The Kustom Kulture of SoCal is a unique existence, and has been an integral part of the regional art scene for decades -- but it truly isn't talked about enough. Luckily, Rat Fink and the Huntington Beach Art Center are always here to remind us.

"Kustom Kulture II" opens at the Huntington Beach Art Center on July 13 and runs through August 31.

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Top Image: "A White-Knuckle Ride for Lucky St. Christopher," "Snuff Fink," and "Cowboys and Amoebas" by Robert Williams.

About the Author

Evan is the Editor in Chief of Inland Empire Weekly, Culture Magazine, and Rogue Art Research & Writing (RARW).
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