Rick Harris is one of the best pinstripers working today. He can production stripe factory cars, He’s striped custom electric guitars for Gibson, he’s hand lettered and striped NASCAR race cars, and more. Over 2 years in the Gibson factory he striped over 1000 custom Les Paul guitars. Back in the 90s when the American car companies had a big problem with delaminating paint, he was one of the guys who would come in and repaint the pinstripes on the new warranty paint jobs.
Hand painted pinstripes have been part of cars, since before the horseless carriage became horseless. Back in the day carriages had accent stripes around the edges of the panels, a contrasting color stripe applied along the edge of the wooden wheel, and a long thing strip on each spoke. Stage coaches, being the shuttle bus of their day, were larger with more panels to paint, and often were also lettered with the name of the stage line as a promotional tool.
Of course when the first powered horseless carriages were built they followed the convention of the other carriage builders of the day. Ford’s iconic Model T had hand striped panels, and striped wheels and spokes, even though they were being built on the thoroughly modern, recently invented, assembly line. In fact, with all the mechanical efficiencies built into the system, the pinstripe painter may have been the slowest, most skilled worker on the line.
Until the early 1950s, pinstriping when used was applied and followed the edges of the car’s body work, or accented the style lines. Then Ken Howard, better known as Von Dutch, took it a step beyond accents. Von Dutch added flourishes in the corners, or in the center of the trunk around the keyhole, or elsewhere, working totally freehand. His designs became the thing to have if you were building a custom at the time, and he added stripes to thousands of cars, motorcycles and anything else you can think of.
Shortly before he died, and before the fashion clothing company bought the rights to his name, the art community embraced the outsider folk art of Von Dutch’s work and now original Von Dutch stripes can make something much more valuable than you would imagine. He was also an eccentric genius, machining his own guns from scratch, and even building the entire replica car used in the Steve McQueen movie “The Reivers”, legend has it, from memory of having seen one once. The “flying eyeball” symbol he created (or maybe Dean Jeffries, or Ed Roth created, people like to argue over it) is still beloved and copied by hot rod and custom painter everywhere.
Kenny “Von Dutch” Howard taught many other people his style of striping, because it became so popular there was a lot more work then he could handle, even just in Southern California. One of those painter was “Shakey” Jake, who was just a kid at the time. The son of a minister, he rebelled by riding his bike over to Von Dutch’s studio after school to hang out with the less holy crowd, and watch and learn how to paint. He started striping on his own in 1956 and taught Rick in the early 1970s. Based out of Costa Mesa, CA in Orange County, he painted hundreds if not thousands of cars over the years, many of which are still cruising. Sadly he died at just 52, long before retirement age.
One of the traditions that “Shakey” Jake taught Rick Harris is to always sign your work. If you have a car or bike that was painted by Jake, you should be able to find a signature somewhere. Von Dutch also signed most of his custom jobs. It might not be easy to find though, as Jake told Rick, the signature should never be so big that it can’t be covered by a dime.
Another early striper who learned from Von Dutch, and actually helped him develop his signature style, was Dean Jeffries. Many early George Barris custom cars, and 1950s Indy race cars were striped and lettered by Jeffries, as he lived in the same area as Barris, Von Dutch, and Troy Ruttman a top Indianapolis 500 racer. James Dean’s Porsche, which many people think was painted by Von Dutch, was actually lettered and painted by Dean Jeffries while he was the “house painter” at the George Barris custom shop.
Now there are pinstripers all over the country and all over the world. Some are young, tattooed, hot rod guys who revel in the history and tradition of Dutch and Jeffries and the like. Some are just old school sign painters who grew up hand lettering cars, trucks and signage for commercial clients and love the chance to do the more creative aspects when they get a chance. Jeff Styles is one we’ve featured here on the Eastwood Blog before, who works out of Arizona. Ask around at your local cruise night and you will likely find 2 or 3 guys locally who can put custom touches on nearly anything. Pinstriping takes so few tools that many of them will set up shop and stripe right there at the car show.
Rick also teaches the next generation, with several classes and workshops every year where he will teach you the basics of traditional pinstriping. You can find all the latest info about them at his website http://rickharrispinstriping.com/Harris%20Classes.html