Note: This is a reprint from a defunct magazine. However, as this never really appeared online, I thought it would be fun to share from my archives. This is the definitive article on Low Brow Art and tattoo culture in its modern origins. It takes months of research to envelop myself in this world fully. There are sources and further reading at the bottom. Enjoy!
Lowbrow Art is a pop art movement from a foundational perspective. It created the insane artwork that powered the social movement of the 60s and 70s. It's the basis of modern tattoo styles, and rightly so; the foundations of contemporary tattooing are within the foundations of Lowbrow art. The whimsical worlds of Escher (a contemporary) and Tim Burton can all thank Lowbrow art for their beginning and their widespread acceptance. Lowbrow art represented a time when we needed to go mad and have women flying on pizzas and monsters racing in a 36 Ford. Lowbrow art is all around you if you know what to look for and if you look with the right eyes. It's in fashion, postmodern art, street art, and the very pages of this magazine.
Pop surrealism/Lowbrow Art is a post-surrealist movement that uses shape and line to create sarcastic exaggeration (basically, that is fancy art world talk for making it look cool as shit). Low Brow art style translates into tattoos and car decals easily. You'd also find it in the H.S. sketchbooks of a particular generation (I'm looking at our creative director when I write that). Pop surrealism was perfect because it blended the exaggerations of surrealism (remember those melting clocks?) and the pop culture nature of modernism that intersected the pop art of Warhol and Jackson Pollack with the raw nature of what was happening on the streets and, in certain neighbourhoods. While modernism was exploding in the rarified art worlds of New York in elite galleries, Lowbrow art was happening around the roads in SoCal, making it new, raw, unrestrained, unstructured, and uniquely counter-culture. Just as Impressionism was the perfect underground response to romantic realism, pop surrealism was just what modernity and surrealism needed at the time. It had a very political message at a time when it seemed like the world was about to explode. As an aesthetic, the open vulnerability of a bubble, the sense of line, shape, exaggeration, perspective, and content of Lowbrow art allow the canvas not to bore us with concepts and high-minded ideas that need three glasses of bitter red wine to decipher but tells us a story about the world around us.
American culture after WWII was repressed, to say the least; no sooner were the troops coming home than the repressed desires of America were already bubbling to the surface. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and other beat authors, drawing on the bohemian culture of the 1920s, set up a new kind of American ethos that led to new types of art. It was underground, Western-focused art that would eventually become what we now know as Lowbrow art. Low Brow Art has had a hard time in the art world, and I'm not surprised. However, thanks to the advent of street art, graffiti, urban art, and "ignorant art" thanks to Basquiat and many others,
Lowbrow art has finally been able to break into the rarified world of museums like the Whitney in New York City and the Museum of Modern Art. Usually, curators of major galleries find new artists and raise them, and then magazines begin their critique of the art. Lowbrow art is, by its very populist, blue-collar nature, accessible. It wasn't considered art or worthy of critique until Robert Williams founded the legendary art journal Juxtapoz. Juxtapoz focused more on the art itself instead of the writing. Lowbrow art was made to be experienced on cars at a race track or on a motorcycle at a clubhouse, not just written about in a magazine with a circulation smaller than the weekly five-dime newspaper your grandma reads.
To understand Lowbrow Art and why your tattoo looks the way it does now (depending on the style), you have to understand a little bit about the culture that created modern tattoo culture and the art that inspires every page in this publication. The exaggerated lines and figures and the cartoony in which it's drawn lend themselves to telling a story; much like comic book art, the form was removed.
If you've explored the fashion options in a certain style, you might be familiar with Von Dutch. Von Dutch isn't just a collection of cool t-shirts; he was a real man and the nascent father of Lowbrow art through his construction of exciting automobiles and unique art that broke the mould. Although Von Dutch would never attain the fame and notoriety of a certain student, his work's influence is felt to this day. Who was that student, you ask? Ed Big Daddy Roth, of course. No discussion of Lowbrow Art can be complete without him.
Ed Roth was into cars as much as any kid living in car-centric California in the 50s. As he was building interesting mobile works of art, first for fun and speed and later for futuristic design, he also used his painting and drawing skills to protest the "mickey mouse-ization" of culture and the new Disneyland theme park that had gone up in Anaheim. Rather than a squeaky clean "acceptable" image, Ed wanted something disturbing, satirical, funny, and little character of Rat Fink (a popular slang word for someone under-handed or dishonest at the time) was born. Complete with flies and the idea of bad odour, Rat Fink was the ultimate anti-Mickey Mouse. Don't you like the squeaky, you lean Disney, images of Mickey and friends? You can enjoy Rat Fink and his monster friends in their monster cars. Emblazoned on t-shirts and in car windows, they represented a culture worth being a part of rather than the dead, pre-packaged mainstream popular stuff fed to the masses. Much like 60's rock posters, it wasn't for you if you couldn't read or understand it. The confluence of monsters and cars made Ed's characters accessible and just as fun and marketable as the mainstream sewage pumped out of places like Disney.
Although the cultural influence of Rat Fink is still being felt (look around at your next street art show attached to a car club meetup), Ed Roth's major contributions to Lowbrow art and culture, in general, were in automotive works of art. His first genuinely custom car, which he built out of too many car parts to mention, had an aptly appropriate name: Outlaw. Now a museum queen in Pasadena, it was first a legendary custom car that used fibreglass as a principal material and then a buildable model for kids, which built Ed a brand and a fortune with the popular children's toy company Revell. Various clones of the car have also been made from the original moulds, and clone moulds have been created for collectors. The popularity of Ed's models and his odd characters in their even crazier cars manifested itself in children's cartoons like Hanna-Barbera's Wacky Races and the unique car that was created for the T.V. show, The Munster's. Custom cars and Kustom Kulture were having their moment, and Ed Roth took advantage of the opportunities and money his success afforded him and made some quite spectacular contributions in design through his cars and their fascinating names like Mysterion, Tweedy Pie, the Surfite, and Road Agent. Ed Roth is to blame for action figures, merchandise of almost everything, underground comic books like Zap and their modern off-spring, the popularity of custom cars with a generation of children, and the still popular Rat Fink reunions where people come together, show off their cars and indulge in merchandise of the iconic underground character.
Hot Rod Culture
Although racing was popular in the 1920s and sowed the seeds for NASCAR, the movement was cut short by the Great Depression and further shorted by World War II; this left young guys coming back from the war in 1945 and 1946 with a desire to be free of the military structure and exercise the freedom of survival. Detroit was just beginning to roll cars off the assembly line again in early 1946, but pre-war designs and design concepts dominated these cars. Used cars were hard to come by as well; many older cars had been melted down for the war effort, and that meant that if you wanted a car and you wanted it cheap, the newest automobile factory in town had just opened in your garage. These guys would go to the junk yards, find what parts were left, and start constructing. That might mean you had an Oldsmobile body, a Ford engine, a Chevy radiator, and some Kaiser seats. Nothing a little grinding, welding, and bolting couldn't solve. These original road warriors were custom, as the guy driving it had probably bolted together that collection of various parts himself with some help from his buddies. This DIY attitude was also present in the motorcycle world. A Harley might not be the most reliable road warrior, but you can bet that if it was a chopper and custom, the man riding it had built it and kept the necessary tools on him to fix whatever happened to him on the side of the road. Can you say that about a 20-something on a Kawasaki here in 2015? I don't think so! In the days after WWII, there were no crotch rockets to buy anyway, so if you wanted to ride a motorcycle, you had to want it enough to start building something yourself. This created not only a culture of customization that eventually would lead to sculpted, drivable works of art and an entire business (West Coast Customs of the popular T.V. show) but also would lead to a allowed self-reliant, swaggering masculinity that is at the beating heart of America.
The new art of cars allowedneighbours kids to show off without the dangers of street racing. The big bodies and tail fins of the 50s lent themselves as art galleries to the pinstriping, flames, and scalloping that would create the unique style of Kustom Kulture that makes a classic hot rod so timeless here in 2015. Hot Rod culture was particularly popular in the car-centric culture of southern California. You weren't a man if you didn't have a hot rod, and at that time, the driving age was 14, so high school kids could get in on the action. Cars represented freedom and a social status that could only be attained by having the hottest car in the high school parking lot. This was popularized in movies like Rebel Without a Cause and the many cheaply made hot rod movies that Hollywood studios churned out in the early 50s to get in on the trend of fast cars and faster young people. The artificial sexual tension on screen would foreshadow the coming sexual revolution, a revolution that would happen at 70 mph with large rear wheels.
If there was one thing people wanted after the war, it was cars. Americans were obsessed with cars and the freedom they represented. By 1950 Detroit obliged with millions of fresh new cars and new models with clear wind-screens (no center post as on older models), curvy lines, white-walled wheels, and big chrome grills. However, those cars were meant for the sedate squares who lived in the plastic-couched houses behind white picket fences ensconced in the suburbs and whose most pressing social obligation was a dinner with the neighbours and fetching the kids around. Most American production cars didn't even go over 70 mph until the mid-1950s. Highway speeds were a pedantic 55 or lower. If you wanted to go fast, you had to work for your speed, and that meant building something yourself and creating your own mobile story.
"A car is a story." Ed Roth
In these post-war decades, the story of America was changing in nearly every corner. 2nd wave feminism was beginning to breathe its first breaths; the civil rights movement in 1957 was off and running, the stalemate of the Korean war was over, and America was ready to settle into the luxury, civility, and stability of peacetime. Exciting new consumer goods were all over store shelves, and people were ready to live. As the social upheaval of the 1960s took hold, America had to live through the youth quake. Millions of young people (and their hot rod cars) were wearing new clothes made for them, driving fast in their cars (which lead to a crack down on hot rods due to a rash of accidents and death), and listening to exciting new rockabilly and rock and roll music. Young people were fleeing the constraints of home life and flexing their independent muscles on the roadways of America and in its malt shops, drive-in theatres, and beaches (if you were on a coast). The sexual revolution freed Americans from the previous constraints on sex and sexuality, and thanks to the birth control pill (and before some of the newer STIs), people were free to enjoy pleasurable sex with whomever they chose. For a brief moment, from 1959 to 1975, there was a chance for true freedom, and it was built on surf culture, new music, the spectacular cars of Ed Roth, the Pinstriping of Von Dutch, and the Japanese-inspired tattoos of Sailor Jerry.
But what happens when the underground becomes high art?
Robert Williams and High Art
Robert Williams (Mr. Badass) is best known for taking the creativity that was evident in the auto world of his former employer and mentor, Ed Roth and taking it to the fine art canvas. While he was going advertisements and t-shirt art for Ed, he started his productive oil painting career. Williams' work tells a story through the use of popular elements and cartoon exaggeration. He also looks for ways to insert his own counter-culture cartoon character: Cootchie Cootie. Robert Williams is also well known for his popular series of underground comics: Zap and the purveyor of underground and Lowbrow art: Juxtapoz, which still is at the cutting edge of new and exciting forms of art and expression.
At first glance, Williams' art can seem busy, complicated, and inaccessible. That is the charm. It invites us to go deeper and look closer in or even consider dimensions out of our experience. After breaking away from Ed Roth, Robert pursued his fine art career and struggled to make an impact until he was finally beginning to be shown in some of the fine art galleries of SoCal and the Bay Area. Robert Williams also had mentored many of the young underground and Lowbrow artists that have made the art form popular and, to some greater or lesser degree, acceptable. Although Robert Williams is deeply anti-establishment, many of his students were trained in fine art schools, the same schools that frowned upon his sarcastic and satirical work.
Art is rarely understood in the time in which it is made. Much like when Impressionism arrived in Paris in 1870s and reviled the well-heeled art patrons of the city, Lowbrow art needed the context of time to be really understood. By the 1990s, Williams was being shown in New York City galleries and eventually in the Whitney Museum Biennial. Like anything from the underground, eventually, the mainstream gets on board with effortless cool.
Why is it cool?
Individuality is deep in the seeds of this artistic movement. The same individuality that built the custom cars on the roadways in the 50s bled through to the art movement that sprung from it. The deep-seated cool factor not only comes from it's ethos of individual freedom and libertarian ideals but also as a revolt from pre-packaged processed culture (Rat Fink). Although modernism, in its simplicity and abstract concepts, created the banner for the counter-culture of the 60s, Lowbrow was what really informed the movement of culture that was in the air in California. If people are free, why should they fight in foreign wars they had no say in starting, like Vietnam? Why should the people submit to what they are told to do, wear, say, drive, or do with their lives? Kustom Kulture wasn't just cars it was a lifestyle, it was a way of being and, to certain people in power, a very dangerous way of being that had to be stopped. By 1975, generally speaking, it was, but a shooting at Kent State couldn't stop brilliant art from being created and informing the modern tattoo culture that we all now enjoy.
Lowbrow Art and the Runway
Lowbrow art also created the screenprinted t-shirt that is now one of the main ways tattoo culture articulate it's artistic vision. Thanks to people like Lowbrow Art Company and Black Market Art Company, the unique tattoo culture, and motif is now a major player in the burgeoning world of street fashion. Ed Roth started to screen print car and motorcycle club logos on white t-shirts so that the guys could wear them in the hot summers of SoCal. Kustom Kulture fashion that manifests itself in designers like Black Market Art and Lowbrow Art was the beginning of the casual attitude towards fashion that stood in stark contrast to the formal clothing of "squares" of the 50s and 60s. While the squares wore suits and gown, these guys were sporting leather jackets, white t-shirts with designs, and denim, which, while not new, was only worn for work. Denim went from the work day to the fashion runway thanks to this underground movement. Even the clothes represented freedom and liberating from the structured control of the post-war environment.
Lowbrow art in it's modern form
It's taken some exciting new forms in it's more modern conceptions. Trendy art like Dia de los Muertos grew out of the Lowbrow art movement, and like Lowbrow, it's center, Denver, is in the West and has a distinctly latin and southwest flavor that is being slowly welcomed by the mainstream art world. If you look on Tumblr for Lowbrow art, you will find willowly and delicate figures with smooth lines and complex scenes, if a bit less complicated than older works and certainly more digital. Despite a change in style, Lowbrow is still informing art; it's still telling a story and sending a message to which we can all relate.
Lowbrow Art and Your Tattoo
In the dark ages, before the modern advent of tattoo culture, tattoos were something sailors, and old military men had. Millions of young men had gotten tattoos going to or coming from a war theatre in World War II. The body art was a statement, a reminder of life, love, and the pursuit of happiness, which included the "good time girls" (read: prostitutes) that plied the oldest profession near the military installations of the American war effort.
Modern tattooing has come a long way, and the modern styles have Lowbrow art it, thank for things like complex shading, use of color, and the 3D effect. With a decent tattoo, you're collecting, in your own private gallery, a sample of one of the greatest counter-cultural movements in art. Although modern abstract art may be uninviting to the average viewer, Lowbrow art's cartoonish and outlandish styles lead to the eclectic pieces that decorate fine tattoo collectors. Although getting a tattoo has become very democratic, especially if you're under 35, it is still a quiet underground act of protest because you are modifying what you're Mom created for you. It is indeed the ultimate form of customization and an innate protest against the bland mainstream culture but against nature itself. Your body wasn't yours until you made unlike anyone else's, with the gift of ink from your tattoo artist.
My hope for Lowbrow art is that the modern obsession with mid-century design and textures might yield a resurgence of this style in the mainstream. But that doesn't mean that Lowbrow art isn't all around us. Fiberglass wouldn't become more common in production cars until the 90s, but thanks to the artistry of Ed Roth, we had already seen the possibilities of the mouldable material. The wonderful fiberglass cars of Ed Roth led not only to Detroit taking cars in a new and exciting direction in the 1960s but is evident even now in the side swept and moulded bumpers and body styles that dominate modern cars and modern modified cars.
However, just because culture has changed and certain things have come and gone does not mean that a story isn't being told. That's the beauty of this underground movement. It's still cool, still relevant, and all around you if you can look for it.
Sources and Further Reading
Comic book artist: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Panter
Sailor Jerry : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sailor_Jerry