It started in the ‘30s. Car lovers modified their rides, making them their own. They weren’t custom, they were “kustom”—the word itself tweaked and individualized. Kustom would soon become about much more than just hot rods. By the ‘60s, with its roots in Southern California, “Kustom Kulture” became a term used to describe vehicles, artworks, hairstyles, and fashions. This stuff was decidedly lowbrow, i.e., it had an underground vibe. Moms and Dads did not approve. Another way to think of it might be DIY. There was the establishment, there was the formal way to get where you want to go. And then there was the self-taught, the “learn three chords and start a band.”
Examples of things that fall under the Kustom Kulture umbrella (or at least relate it) include greasers, drag racers, low riders, mod, punk, rockabilly, psychobilly, tattoos, The Munsters, pinstriping, etc. There was a big emphasis on personalization, making things solely one’s own. Kustom Kulture held a certain street cred/cool quotient for a long time, but was never embraced or formally acknowledged by the mainstream. That changed in ’93 when the Laguna Art Museum presented “Kustom Kulture,” an exhibition that showed how car culture drove the Southern California art scene before the end of the Vietnam War.
“It was a way of showing a bunch of art that was related to custom cars, but also some surfboards, some skateboards, all this pulp, sort of unrecognized art in the museum world—stuff that the artist Robert Williams was into, which led to Von Dutch and Ed (Big Daddy) Roth,” says Greg Escalante, co-founder of Juxtapoz art magazine. “There were also Finish Fetish artists like Billy Al Bengston and Peter Alexander who always said that the slick surface of the hot rods and their nice paint jobs, and surfboards with the resin, always influenced their artwork. The artwork had a lot of hooks, and storytelling, and cartoons, and all these things that the high art world used as influences but never recognized as real art. It got great reviews. It broke almost every attendance record they had at the museum. It created a ripple effect. It kicked the door open.”
They seem like two disparate worlds: a hot rod thundering down hard pavement, a surfboard streaking across bending water. But there’s plenty of overlap. Hot rodders were countercultural. So were surfers. Hot rodders took great pride in their ride. So did surfers. Hot rods were fully kustomized. So were surfboards.
In celebration of Kustom Kulture, in honor of making things your own, Birdwell introduces a way to make your Birdies yours, a custom patch and button option.