Automotive history involves so much more than the development of powerful engines, advanced suspension systems, aerodynamics, and state-of-the-art technology. While those may be the bigger talking points that get the most attention, it’s actually the little moments—the nuances—that give this rich history its context (as well as its staying power) with enthusiasts. One such ‘little moment’ within the diverse and exciting timeline of the automotive industry, is the art of pinstriping.
The (Very) Old Art of Pinstriping
We’re all familiar with pinstriping: the thin application of paint (or special tape) onto a surface to enhance that object’s lines or to create a freestanding decoration. But did you know the art of pinstriping has existed in some format for centuries—actually, millenia—seeing popularity among ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Native Americans, and tribal cultures of the South Pacific? While it’s safe to assume that back then it was considered something more like ‘decorative line art,’ the concept is much the same. For as long as people have owned things, they’ve felt the need to customize them.
Fast forward a few thousand years and we begin to see the art of pinstriping develop into a craft befitting the Industrial Revolution. The technique progressed from the simple decoration of furniture, vases, and musical instruments to more complex designs and even promotional use, as seen on wagons, railway cars, billboards, and hand-lettered signs. Beyond that, it quickly caught on as a way of enhancing body lines of carriages, farm equipment, and early automobiles. In fact, both horseless carriages and the Ford Model T used hand pinstriping on panels, wheels, and spokes, despite one claiming to be the thoroughly modern improvement over the other.
Boomers Made It Cool
So, how does this little art history lesson play into modern car culture? How else? The classic rides of the 1950s and ‘60s, of course.
The mid-twentieth century defines some of the most impressive and lasting moments within the chronology of American auto history. And it’s easy to see why. Post-WWII car culture was able to reach its peak as rations ended allowing production to ramp up, and consumers were able to spend more freely. America began its famed ‘love affair’ with the automobile, and automakers were all too happy to mass produce vehicles in a seemingly endless array of shapes and sizes. And contributing to this culture of cool, was the rise of hot rods and customization.
As a car became an extension of the person driving it, the desire to personalize it grew. And what better way than through the art of pinstriping? Legends like Tommy “The Greek” Hrones, Dean Jeffries, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, and the infamous Von Dutch launched a shift in trends. Moving beyond accent work, these pioneers added intricate designs and flourishes to hoods, trunks, side panels, around keyholes and fins—wherever the designs took them. And what’s more, everything was done freehand.
“During the whole custom car movement of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s: if you built a hot rod, it had stripes on it,” says modern pinstriper Andy Kawahara, in a short documentary on the art of pinstriping. He also points out that, unfortunately, “people slowly moved away from that. They started going to a more clean design–everything shaved, one color monochromatic paint schemes. Anyone who stayed true to the custom still used it, but it died out.”
Times, They Are a ’Changin’
As technological advancements grew, styles and trends changed, and America’s love for the automobile went cold, the popularity of pinstriping began to fade. Those rooted in the world of hot rodding and kustom kulture have continued to hold a torch for the art of pinstriping, but ask the average car owner and you’re likely to get a puzzled expression. “It’s a dying art,” says Doug Humble, a pinstripe artist of Iowa City, Iowa. In an interview about some challenging work he’s done on antique farm equipment, he laments that “you see a lot of vinyl these days … I think decals will ultimately replace hand-striping.” Kawahara agrees, saying that “the vinyl industry has killed business for sign painters, pinstripers. Every ad that you see now … it’s all vinyl.”
That’s not to say that the art of pinstriping has officially thrown in the towel, though. (After all, these guys themselves are making a living off it.) Modern pinstripers may be less in demand these days, but through the benefit of technology, they are more connected and organized than ever before. These artists can share techniques and inspiration, meet at car events, and keep the enthusiasm around the art going strong. And with social platforms like Facebook and Instagram, they can reach an audience much more diverse than that of their pinstriping forefathers.
The Future Belongs to the Young
As the automobile moves from a symbol of freedom to one of utility, the art of pinstriping faces new challenges. But while much of today’s youth has shown a disinterest in vehicle ownership and car customization, the general desire for personalization has not gone away with the generation gap. Those raised in an era of social media and flashy marketing understand more than anyone the finesse of curating a personal brand. Furthermore, Millennials and Gen Z’ers have shown that they are just as willing to spend money on small biz artisans as they are on multi-million dollar brands—as long as it adds to their unique image.
There’s been some nervous chatter about the rise of self-driving technology and what this will do to the automotive industry. (It will be more than a ‘little moment’ on the timeline, that’s for sure.) But, we’re not entirely sold on it generating a downfall of car culture. And as for pinstriping? We have a sneaking suspicion that the art is merely on the cusp of a renaissance. Patiently waiting in the wings for some social media influencer to announce it as the ‘must-have’ decoration for some product we’ve yet considered worth personalizing.
Interested in seeing more pinstriping? So are we! Check back in a few weeks as we break down some truly impressive build examples of this dying art! In the meantime, dig up some old pinstriping Polaroids to share with us in the comments section below.