Whatever Happened to Von Dutch?


ongoing obsession with Von Dutch – a true character of the post war speed scene

Kenny ‘Von Dutch’ Howard, small scale, multi talented craftsman working out of makeshift, jerry rigged workshops becomes ‘vondutch.com’ a million dollar multi- national fashion brand. He hated us all. And we love the myth he created.

It’s the dream of many a modern ‘maker’ in his authentically tatty, oil stained work pod in Williamsberg/Portland/Walthamstow. Though no doubt most of our crafty brethren would like to complete the transition in their own lifetime before retiring to the fields of far Hackney.

Kenny Howard didn’t. Born 1929, he died of alcohol related problems in 1992. It was his daughters who turned his legacy as the father of ‘Kustom Kulture’ into a major brand.Once lit his light shone bright, but only for a brief window in the mainstream media and consciousness of the USA and beyond. In the early 1950s we start to see Von Dutch appear on the custom radar doing fine hand pin-line work on bikes and cars in various LA garages and shops. By the mid 50s he’s in the magazines and in demand.

This is where Von Dutch hits the start button on his Warhol fame stopwatch and becomes a touchpoint for the custom scene and the newly emerging hot rod culture that is sweeping through post-war California. His art, his designs and his style became central to the movement that started with 50s greasers and the more ‘glamourous’ end of the hot rod scene and that moved through 60s drag racers and 70s low riders and beyond.

But by 1958 Von Dutch was already tiring of the scene. He told a contemporary magazine it was all ‘too much of the same thing’ and around 1960 he’s shifted himself and his operation into the artist and hippy enclave of Topanga Canyon and into relative obscurity, leaving behind a twisted web of stories of a talented but problematic drunk.

He briefly entered the mainstream media again in 1970 when West Magazine – The LA Times Sunday Supplement- commissioned writer Tom Nolan and photographer Richard Koch to track him down. The premise: there was talk that Von Dutch was dead…They found him very much alive and Koch spent every Sunday for a month hanging with and photographing the multi talented, beer swilling, crafter in Calabasas where he was surrounded by his family and what Koch terms as his worshipers. In his resulting and enlightening book ‘Sundays with Von Dutch’ he remembers the place and experience as: “Kinda like church… but with beer, grease, and paint instead of wafers, water, and wine.”

Contrary to many of the preferred stories of a ranting maniac he found an easy going and happy guy who was relaxed with his work, surroundings and company. Albeit fully loaded on booze most of the time.

So who was really behind the stories and legends and can we distill Kenny Howard from his alter ego Von Dutch? No, not easily at least. Before his appearance on the custom scene in the early 50s what little we know of him comes down in often contradictory folk tales of a track star, high school drop out, conscript, drifter, outlaw, gunsmith, artist and engineer.

Untangling the reality is all the harder for his undoubted talent as a drunken narrator of his own exploits. A real life Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, Kenny Howard spun his own Keyser Soze style myth in the form of his Von Dutch alter ego. What we do know about this son of a signwriter from the real objects he left behind was that he was a talented designer, artist, gunsmith, knifemaker and all round creator who weaved his own unique style into the world around him, whether on a car, a knife or an LA café wall. It became a style that others wanted to copy, emulate and eventually buy and so one which was has been bought, copyrighted and commercialised in a way that he no doubt would have seen as bullshit.

Another siting of MR Howard came with this long lost article (we found it on inspirational Blog The Selvedge Yard). “Von Dutch is Still Alive and Living in Arizona.” There are a bunch of quotes from Von Dutch himself – and written by his good friend, Bob Burns for the March ’72 issue of Road Rider magazine.

Whatever happened to Von Dutch, what we’re left with is a character akin to the talented boozer in Kristofferson’s ‘Pilgrim’. A poet, a pusher and a problem when stoned for sure. And certainly still very much:

‘… a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction’