Steve Kafka – Pinstriping Legend
By Jeff Alexander
“I’ve lived an interesting life," laughed artist Steve Kafka. As an innovative pinstriper, Kafka has earned a successful career spanning over four decades. He reflects on his early years with fondness and still laughs at the happenstance surrounding his pinstriping profession, ultimately leading to enduring friendships with legendary artists like Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth and the creation of his own signature art brushes.
Kafka earned well-deserved accolades for purchasing and restoring Von Dutch’s personal 1953 GM bus in 2003. The arduous restoration took over 10 years.
“I want to give this supposed dying art form a leg up as best I can because I have nothing but respect for it. I think of the Von Dutch bus project as another way of getting people involved and preserving and elevating the art form,” he stated.
Originally aspiring to be a medical illustrator after graduating college in 1969, Kafka instead earned a prestigious art director position with Pot Shops. Hailing from Massachusetts, the area was not known for kustom kulture let alone pinstriping, but Kafka maintained his deep passion for moto culture.
“I was an art director for Pot Shops; for 23 stores. It ultimately ended badly but my artwork was still on their web site from 50 years ago! I was very aware of Ed Roth and used to draw his monsters back in high school. I loved hot rods and motorcycles, but there really weren’t any pinstripers around that I was aware of. Moving ahead, I was selling Fords for a living locally and began working on building myself a ’55 F100 with a 351 Cleveland motor. I wanted flames painted on but was getting outrageous quotes for the job. I started looking around for other artists,” reflected Kafka.
Invoking the DIY spirit with his extensive art prowess, Kafka completed his project and happenstance set in during an evening meal in Framingham in ’74, a meal that put him on the path to professional pinstriping.
“A guy pulled up and was looking at my truck and asked me if I was a striper. I said no because I just considered myself an artist and only met one pinstriper at that time. Where I got art supplies, they didn’t have anything like a Mack Brush and of course, I was using the wrong paint because at that time I didn’t know any better. He asked me what I was using for paint and he laughed, ended up shoving a can of 1 Shot Brilliant Blue at me. The guy turned out to be Bruce Geof, a well-known sign painter and artist. He handed me his card, which nobody did at that time because that would mean competition for them,” laughed Kafka.
Kafka remarked “I am outspoken about mentoring because I think it’s rewarding. Back then, there weren’t many artists around me to show me things. I’ve done countless pinstriping shows where I always made sure to ask the kids if this was something they were interested in and sometimes I’d see their eyes light up! It’s a great feeling.”
Kafka honed his pinstriping skills before heading for Arizona sun in ’78. “I’m a motorcycle guy after all. I just got tired of the weather in Massachusetts, made it real difficult to enjoy the passion of riding.” Before departing, Kafka made his mark at the local Commonwealth Pier Show.
“I finished my ’69 Harley XLCH Sportster. It had a hand tooled leather seat, engraved motor; beautiful paint job. My friends saw it and went nuts and wanted me to enter it. I didn’t expect to win but I rode it. I remember these guys were remarking how it probably didn’t run and how it had a dummy motor or whatever. Turned out, the same guys that were talking ended up having to present me a trophy for best in show. It was a nice feeling,” laughed Kafka.
Leaving behind the daunting Massachusetts winters for Arizona sun, Kafka made it a point to participate in countless hot rod and bike shows, dazzling onlookers with his trademark scroll patterns and sharp line work. According to Kafka, he did 35 shows a year for “Almost 18 years.”
“I was working a show in Lake Havasu in ’78 or ‘79 at a big car event with my friend, Diego Juarez. Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth was there with Bob Spina and they were filming. They had asked what brush I was using to achieve all this and I said it was a Mack, they just shook their heads because they didn't believe it. Diego gave Roth my card and when I got home I had a message from Roth. Now, people used to play tricks on each other back then so I called the number back and Roth answered, I didn’t believe it was him, ‘Baloney!’ so I hung up; he called right back and kept saying don’t hang up. He asked me about attending a Rat Fink Reunion Show in Bakersfield,” recalled Kafka.
Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth is often credited as one of the founding fathers of kustom kulture and Kafka fondly remembers him as a larger-than-life man who always made time for kids and fans.
“Ed was very personable. The Bakersfield show was for charity, raising money for the Shriners Burn Center for Kids that helped children for a burn center, which also helped with all sorts of medical issues children suffered from, they do great work. I was flattered to be invited by Roth and was honored when I saw he put me on the flyer, I had no idea. So many famous and respected artists were at these events, including Von Dutch,” recalled Kafka.
He added, “I was nervous at the show because it was being filmed and felt I had to knock their socks off! When Ed walked in I swear, people gave him a standing ovation, I never saw anything like that!”
Spina captured Kafka’s work on film, the unearthed footage appeared on Tales Of The Rat Fink, a 2006 documentary dedicated to Roth and his legacy.
“I actually didn’t know I was in that until several years later. Thinking back, Roth did so much for the art form. Whatever he was doing, he would always stop to shake your hand. He made sure to make time for people.”
Kafka maintained his busy show schedule for years, including being heavily involved with Rat Fink Reunion, even becoming an auctioneer for the event. Kafka continued his pinstriping career, adorning work with his trademark scroll designs, in spite of the perceived limitations of traditional pinstriping brushes. He reflected on the development of his first signature brush.
“I was working at Lake George’s Americade event. I just remember the frustration I had when I began using the Mack brush. Dave Macintyre, who worked for Dick Blick art supplies (Blick Art Materials) and also a pinstriper was going around asking us for feedback about brushes. We gave him the ins and outs. I had a lot of ideas for improvements and spoke with their senior VP of marketing.”
The final design became the 4901 Eclipse, which Kafka believed would be more user friendly than the currently available brushes, however, he had some reservations.
“I was a little reluctant at first because I didn’t want to get stuck with unsold stock but they were confident; used Japanese brush manufacturer Usui which are known for quality. I knew what I designed would work and I remember 700 were sold in one week,” stated Kafka.
In addition to being an artist trailblazer, Kafka could now take credit for refining the very tools of his trade. His stature in the art world rose considerably after purchasing Von Dutch’s 1953 GM TGH-3102 bus in 2003 from the initial auction winners at Barrett-Jackson. The event was not far from Kafka’s Arizona residence.
“I heard the bus had only sold for $46,000 after the original high bidder pulled out, it was re-listed and I was bummed about that price because of its historical value. I had received a phone call from the buyer asking me to come check it out and I was like ‘Do you know what you have there?!’ From my perspective it was the Holy Grail. They wanted me to verify the authenticity but I was never inside the bus back then but I was still very familiar with it. I asked them what their plans were. They were asking $200,000 which I thought was reasonable because a Von Dutch original tool box sold at an auction for more money,” stated Kafka.
He added, “My initial impressions, from all the legendary stories was that it would be a mess since Dutch had lived in it. It was a rat nest! I went with a digital camera and took pictures and filmed it. I showed my wife and told her what we bought, I had taken a second mortgage on our home and my wife said she was going to be sick. I was originally going to keep it for 6 months and sell it. I ended up working 40 hours a week for 10 years, leaving no stone unturned during the restoration. I had original photographs to go by and talked and worked with people that had been inside it. Dick Odette, a long-time friend provided a lot of insight and helped with the project.”
There were a lot of myths surrounding the origins of the bus, including that it was used for public transportation by Long Beach municipality as a transit bus. Kafka’s relentless dedication to the project had him tracing its origins to Douglas Aircraft.
“I found markings during the bodywork process that proved it once belonged to Douglas Aircraft and paperwork shows it was used to shuttle its employees on the aircraft manufacturer’s work site in Escondido, California. To capture how the bus was when Von Dutch owned it, I had original photographs to go by and talked and worked with people that had been inside it. I really wanted to create a feeling that he was still alive working and living in there.”
The restored bus was valued by veteran appraiser Rick Mclash but even that routine formality became an endeavor, taking up a lot of Kafka’s resources.
“He was recommended by several people and came back with a big dissertation on the bus and stated it was worth $4-6 million. My wife was thrilled. He gave me a caveat, stating it could be $10-15 million in the next five to ten years. Time passed and I wanted the appraisal formally updated. I couldn’t find Mclash anywhere so I hired a private investigator and he couldn’t find him. I finally learned Rick had died. Of course, this led to complications that I had to sort out.”
The bus finally debuted in 2013 at the Good Guy’s Southwest Nationals. Receiving rave reviews from Kafka’s peers as well as earning press recognition, Kafka could feel his work paying off. According to Kafka, the Von Dutch Corporation was interested in purchasing the bus and reportedly offered $4 million. He stated at that time the cheapest he could accept was over $5 million. The bus is still available.
“I didn’t do this only to reap benefits. It took over 11 years of my life. I would think about it at night, jotting down notes on what I would do next. Many people that knew Von Dutch told me they felt his presence when going inside the bus. I had a lot of artists thanking me for what I did for the art form. I think of it as another way of getting people involved and this was life affirming as much as art affirming. I want to give this supposed dying art form a leg up as best I can because I have nothing but respect for it.”