von dutch and “disasterware”

von dutch and charles krafft….

by Art Chantry (art@artchantry.com):

This is the story of how i hooked up with von dutch. it’s also the story of how i met the legendary charles krafft. birds of a feather, two eccentric and fascinating artists following their own paths no matter where it leads them, even goofball territory.

The re-birth of my interest in von dutch started back in the early-mid 80′s. I was having a conversation with norman hathaway (another mad researcher of the arcane and seemingly lost artists of history). we were talking about signpainters (norman actually worked as a signpainter for a spell) and somehow von dutch’s name came up. I hadn’t thought about him since i was a kid in the 60′s.

That conversation began an in depth effort to find everything i could about him. it turns out that even though there is a lot written about von dutch, it was often in cryptic anecdotal form. his behavior was so eccentric and mysterious that he was the stuff of legend long before he was old enough to vote (not that he believed in such nonsense).

AC: i was once at a n xmas party and charlie showed up. he was sporting a big full bushy beard at the time. he had placed xmas lights in his beard and hidden a hand-held switch device in his pocket. so, as he stood there doing small cocktail chatter with folks, standing there sporting a corny bow tie and and nice sport coat and his trademark glasses and shiny bald head and full beard, he set the xmas lights on. they'd start blinking. everybody would just start to lose it and he'd just stand there like, "what's the matter. you ok? what's up?"

The legends have it that von dutch originated 1) pin striping, 2) flame jobs, 3) monsters driving hot rods, 4) illustrations on tshirts, 5) van murals, 6) choppers, 7) Kustom Kulture. it turns out that some of that stuff was actually true. some of it was exaggeration. all of it was “sorta true.”

Von Dutch was a remarkable innovator and in addition to all of those achievements (real or not) he was also an accomplished jazz flautist, fine artist (paintings utilizing autobody paint. picasso was a fan), gunsmith, bladesmith, hotrodder/customizer (a ‘scratch builder’), and machinist. He traveled extensively in his portable shop-in-a-van and worked his way across the world building elaborate guns and knives out of engine blocks and paintings signs, pin-stripping, murals, what-ya-want?

His work is squirreled away in nooks and crannies all over the united states by mad collectors, almost all of it completely undocumented. he tutored and mentored several generations of artists and stylists (like ed ‘big daddy’ roth). he even built elaborate dioramas including wax mannequins and grotesque scenery, often of infamous murderers in action. the man could be kooky.

In essence, the guy did it all and everything he did he popularized in a certain strata of american subculture. his legacy is surrounding us so pervasively that you might even say he invented the visual language of underground america. you MIGHT say that. the truth is that he is likely the quintessential american designer. never mind what the textbooks say, von dutch taught us the language we speak in most pop graphic design in america. no small feat.

Yet, the guy was an enigma. this started a personal fascination with Dutch. I began asking around about him, heard more oddball stories. at one time in the late 80′s, I had a small correspondence with the young David Carson (he was working on beach culture at the time and wanted me to do something for it. i was playing coy). we began a game of “20 questions̶

nd I asked him to identify a list of five american hipster artist dudes. von dutch was on the list. he wasn’t able to identify anybody on the list except dutch, whom he described as “a pin-stripper, wasn’t he?” so, dutch was famous enough for the surfer dude/hipster’s hip designer david carson to vaguely know, but not quite (at that early time). von dutch was famously unfamous.

One morning, sitting in my studio , I got a phone call from a guy identifying himself as “charlie krafft.” he said we had mutual friends (reliable people) and that he heard I was interested in von dutch. he said he could hook me up. He said he’d meet me at an old bar in downtown Seattle that used to be a speakeasy and later a drag bar (seattle used to have cool old places like that before they yuppified it). it was all very mysterious.

So, i met up with charlie krafft. it turns out he was also quite a legend in many circles. he was a Seattle painter of long standing and had a long involvement with american underground culture. he was a peripheral associate of the the Diggers and hung out with legendary counter cultural icons and noted crackpots (good stories). he had written extensively about his glue sniffing days (go figger.) he spent a lot of time researching and befriending lost iconic artist/cultural figures, thus his friendship with von dutch. he told me that he’d pave the way for me to correspond with the infamous recluse.

Charlie also showed me some art pieces he’d created concerning von dutch. among many of charlie krafft’s activities was the organization fraternal order called “the mystic sons of morris graves” a group of northwest artists using the inspiration (sometimes negatively) as a return to realism (at least, i THINK that was their turn. it was all so mysterious…). it was through this quasi-organization that he approached von dutch, who dug it immediately and became associated with krafft through the like-minded interests. It began a correspondence between them, so charles made stamps for the postage (there is a long tradition of mail/art and stamp/art in the northwest). the image i’ve posted is a sheet of some of those stamps charlie krafft gave me. it depicts one of dutch’s favorite and famous pin-stripe images, i believe called “harvey”. how come von dutch doesn’t have a stamp in his honor?

I attempted to contact dutch through the mail. it worked (with krafft’s referral) and i began writing back and forth to dutch – which proved not easy. to begin with, you had to address him through a pseudonym (J.L.Bachs – “joe lunch box” playing of johann sebastian bach). You mailed it to an outlaw biker bar in los angeles where von dutch drank. when the mail for dutch arrived, the bartender would take it outside (even if dutch was seated directly in front of him) and place it on the seat of his motorcycle under his famous chrome nazi helmet (with the baby nipple on top and dutch’d famous ‘flying eyeball’ welded on the front). Dutch would pick up his mail there. everybody left his bike alone out of intense respect. crazy but true. most of dutch’s habits were like that.

Half the time i couldn’t fully understand the letters i received from him. he talked in a cryptic manner with private references to stories i wasn’t privy to. it was almost like that episode on star trek where Picard is trapped on a planet attempting to communicate with a species that talked in metaphor. somehow we made it work. we corresponded erratically for several years (i eventually gave the correspondence to charlie kraft)

Eventually i dared to hire him to illustrate a cover of the rocket. It was a big effort on both ends, but i finally got the artwork from him. what he sent was a comic strip (horizontal for a vertical format.) that was so outrageously nasty at that it actually managed to be offensive to every conceivable ethnic, religious, sexual minority you could imagine – all packed into about eight tidy frames. then he dared me to print it. not bad. It was the only image the rocket ever censored outright. we ran it inside as part of charles krafft’s “no art” column (he was writing for the rocket by this time)

AC:i dug around and found a scan of that latter image that von dutch sent to replace the rejected cover image (the one we instead ran inside). as far as i know, this is the first time this has ever been seen publicly. i no longer have the images here. i gave them all to charlie after dutch died. seemed like he should have them. however, i did save the envelopes that dutch sent his letters in. they were always decorated with the coolest, most mysterious little drawings....

I wrote him back a terse letter and then gave him another chance. the deadline came and went and the issue went out to press with another illustration on the cover (by ed fotheringham, who came to the rescue at the last minute). the next day i got an envelope containing a nifty little image of a crucified santa claus. we could have run that – if we had gotten it earlier. i’ll try to find that image and post it in a bit.

A short time after that, von dutch died. charlie krafft suggested I killed him. didn’t know what to say. thanks? the timing WAS sorta scary.

charlie krafft went on to unusual fame and (dare i say?) a certain amount of fortune. he had begun applying images to plates (through those little mail order businesses that would “put your child’s drawing on dishes”). he covered the plates with images of famous explosions and accidents and called them “disasterware™”. they were a hit and he began to create and expand on the concept.

Eventually he found international recognition for his work with beautiful “delft style” covered china weaponry – full size ak-47′s, hand grenades, bombs, pistols, etc. shocking beautiful work (there is a nice monograph out there documenting his work). charles krafft finally found himself a famous CERAMICIST (of all things) and giving lectures to international audiences about his work in (again, of all things) delft.

That last time i saw him was on an airplane. he was headed to Europe on some speaking gig, but was making a detour through England to visit Aleister Crowley’s manor, Boleskin House, situated on the shores of loch ness (now famously owned by jimmy page of led zeppelin). it seems fame hadn’t spoiled him. he’ll always be charles krafft.

Related Posts

This entry was posted in Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion, Modern Arts/Craft and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>