May 11, 2006

California car culture art goes mainstream at sale

By Gina Keating

LOS ANGELES - A famed collection of 1960s California "Kustom Kulture" art, inspired by hot rods and stored for decades in airplane hangars, will be sold on Saturday in what is considered the first auction of its kind.

Kustom Kulture, a term coined in the 1990s, describes the rebellious hot rod and motorcycle culture that began in the 1930s and hit its peak in 1960s California. It was popularized by movies like "The Wild One" with Marlon Brando (1953).

"Kustom Kulture is a derivation of hot rodding -- the transformation of automotive art from car to canvas to music," said Ian Kelleher, managing director of RM Auctions.

The art runs to skulls and crossbones and other images associated with death, airbrushed cars, motorcycle gear, extensive tattoos, exaggeratedly voluptuous women and monsters.

"It was something that the Everyman could relate to. A mechanically minded guy could build a hot rod," Kelleher said. "He could include himself in this movement -- the same movement that draws people to Bob's Big Boy on a Saturday night" to look at custom hot cars.

The works of several artists, including Von Dutch, hot rodder Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and cartoonist Robert Williams belongs to collector and hot rod aficionado Jimmy Brucker.

Brucker obtained many of the pieces during the 1970s, when he employed first Roth, then Von Dutch at his MovieWorld: Cars of the Stars museum in Buena Park, California.

Von Dutch, a reclusive drifter who lived in a bus and described himself as "the last free man," is best known for his iconic signature -- now popularized in a line of "white trash" fashion -- and his "flying eyeball" emblem, which he said he derived from ancient Macedonian and Egyptian cultures.

Roth created his depraved looking "Rat Fink" cartoon character as a foil to Mickey Mouse and the idealized vision of American culture that took hold after World War 2.

"His creations were meant to popularize the exact opposite of Disneyland and Mickey Mouse," Kelleher said. "What he was doing, in a sense, was creating a counter-culture movement."

Many of Roth's sketches, and those commissioned by his studio, featured taboo themes including Satan, bikers, and huge bulgy-eyed, broken-toothed monsters riding in souped-up cars with mottos like "Evil spelled backwards is Live."

The sale will be held at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.