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THE DEVIL IN PINSTRIPES THEIR CANVAS IS A CAR. THEIR PRIDE IS ON THE LINE. WHEN THE LETTERHEADS MEET THE STICKERHEADS, SOMETIMES THERE'S HELL TO PAY

It probably started 20,000 or 30,000 years ago when some guy sitting in a cave staring at his cudgel had the bright idea to decorate the boring-looking thing. A few festive stripes painted on the club in leftover beet juice with a brush fashioned from little tuft of rodent hair tied to a stick, and voila! The art of pinstriping was born.

As civilization progressed, this notion of decorating objects with stripes became something of a mania. Everybody got into the act -- the ancient Minoans, the Greeks, the Etruscans, the Romans. The nomadic Scythians couldn't commit to settling down in one spot (the Greeks thought they were hopeless barbarians) but they could do a mean pinstripe. Medieval monks were obsessive pinstripers, and any king worth his salt had a league of pinstripers who'd embellish everything from the royal coach down to the sovereign's favorite snuffbox with all sorts of glorious cursive lines.

With the advent of stripped-down modern design in our own century, pinstriping went through a brief dark age. Fancy carriages of old might require decorative flourishes, but not the sleek forms of the modern automobile.

An automobile body man by the name of Von Dutch kept pinstriping from going the way of the horse. As pinstripers tell it, sometime in the mid-'40s, Von Dutch, a perfectionist, was working on a car and noticed some slight chafing under the paint around the hood ornament that bothered him. To hide the blemish he added a couple of gracefully curved lines. That simple act launched contemporary pinstriping.

Ron Brent, one of Buffalo's more artful pinstripers, sees modern pinstriping as a form of contemporary hieroglyphics, a kind of secret code that gives the owner of a pinstriped motorcycle or car a special identity. For Brent, it's not just a matter of decoration. There's something spiritual about the art form.

"Not to sound too Zen-y about it, but I see a profound relationship between the brush and the spirit. From your mind and your spirit to your hand, to the brush, to the surface -- it's all connected."

It wasn't always so for Brent. A couple of years back he was running a busy one-man shop on Military Road and the pressure was getting to him. By then the computer had changed the field of pinstriping and auto graphics generally, as shops began cranking out vinyl stick-on stripes and designs of all sorts.

"It's hard to be an artist and to see technology zooming by you," Brent says. "Life is becoming a facsimile of real life. Creativity does not well forth when you are all stressed out."

About a year ago Brent became a Buddhist. While it wasn't exactly Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Striping, it did change him around. As he says, it made his art -- not to mention his life -- "flow."

Nowadays he's happily working out of a smaller space on Vulcan Street. He got some recent national recognition when a bike he striped appeared in Hot Bike magazine (see the Gusto cover). Earlier he had won first prize in a contest run by Sign Business magazine.

But more satisfying than the awards is working with his customers. "They're nervous because their whole identity hinges on the design. It seems what bikers want is something that stands out in a crowd." Brent, who has been riding motorcycles since he was 15, tries to steer customers in a more personal direction, toward a design that is something more than the facile crowd-pleaser.

"You can't go through life trying to make everybody happy," he says.

As for vinyl signs, Brent see them locked in a dull mercantile world far from the real art of the striper. "Without throwing stones -- bless 'em all -- vinyl has no soul."

Brent got his start when he met Jim Prohaska, a pinstriper and sign painter who has been in the business since the late '60s. Brent describes Prohaska as "a super-personable guy who put up with a bunch of my annoying questions." In the old days this kind of generous mentoring was unheard of.

Prohaska was a medic in Vietnam, and when he came out he planned to study to be a physical therapist. But fate interceded when he ran into a striper by the name of Corky Hibbard. He was practically a solo act in Buffalo and was not particularly willing to share the secrets of the trade. In those days a sign painter would rather burn his sign kit than pass on his methods to the young guys coming up -- and Prohaska knows of one old-timer who did just that right before he died.

"They wouldn't share a thing," Prohaska says. "In fact, they would give you the wrong information and then laugh when you screwed up."

Prohaska persisted. Soon he was doing cartoons while Hibbard did his striping. By 1972 he had mastered striping and was in business for himself full time.

"Now we try to help each other," Prohaska says from his large shop on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Wheatfield. "I always felt it was a God-given talent and I should share it. I never imagined that there wouldn't be enough work to go around for everybody."

Prohaska, a multitalented painter who can do everything from gold leaf and pinstriping to illustrative graphics and restoration, is not particularly feeling the pinch. But some "letterheads" -- those who continue to use paint -- feel it from the "stickerheads" of the computer/vinyl set.

"Some of stickerheads are killing people with low prices," Prohaska says. "And the work is terrible."

Recently, however, the computer has entered the mix at the Prohaska shop. Prohaska's daughter, Jamie Wasik, returned from studying art at Art Institute of Pittsburgh and Buffalo State College and persuaded him of the efficiency of vinyl as a supplement to -- not a usurper of -- the brush.

"I knew nothing about computers. I was looking for the dipstick. But when we went into vinyl it wasn't to compete with the vinyl people, but to do quicker, but not necessarily cheaper, work."

His daughter, who now works in the shop, sees the problem with a lot of the people who have jumped into the vinyl sign business: "The fact is, they don't have a good fundamental drawing and design background, and it shows."

Prohaska sees another problem that makes stick-on decals suspect: Buffalo's ingrained work ethic.

"Buffalo is a tough sell," he says. "Customers like to see drops of blood around the vehicle to see that you really worked on it."

Mike Howard, owner of Custom Graphics & Restyling on Vulcan Street, is up-front about the differences between vinyl and paint. Computer-generated vinyl signs are a product of technology, not art. It takes skill to design in the computer and assemble the final sign. "There's a little knack to it, but as far as hand-painting or artist-type thing, you just don't need that." He took art in high school, and that helps with layout and font choice. After all, a sign has to have visual panache to succeed. "It's what they say in the business is 'giving it eyes.' You have a 'plain-Janer' and you 'give it eyes.' "

Howard began 14 years ago working out of a van striping cars in vinyl on used car lots. He says he is among the first -- if not the first -- to introduce auto graphics to Buffalo. He can sell a customer a graphic kit or design an exclusive decal.

"I never look at vinyl as a cheaper way to do this," he says. "If a sign painter gets $100, I should get $100. I have to pay for my technology. I hope my fellow sign painters and pinstripers feel the same way. If we start cutting throats, everybody suffers. With vinyl you can still have pride of the trade."

Bob Benzing, a paint pinstriper from Clarence, says the trouble is that there are simply too many stripers in Buffalo. "Here in Buffalo with its poor economy there are a handful of good stripers, and tons who are doing it only for the money. The attitude today is, it's good enough. And the majority of customers don't have the discernment. Old stripers tell me that we're striping for the same price they were getting 25 years ago."

Benzing says it doesn't take an earth tremor to throw a stripe job off. "You can't have any chocolate or coffee," he says. "You don't notice it, but it shows in the work."

Benzing was an automotive parts salesmen 10 years ago and hated working for someone else. He taught himself striping and one day walked in and quit. He has been on his own ever since.

Stan Cymbrowski (aka "The Old Hippie") runs Grumpy's Paint Shack from his house in West Seneca. He says he almost didn't make it as a sign painter because he was left-handed. He wanted to study sign painting in high school, but his counselor told him they wouldn't let him in because the whole craft was oriented to right-handers. He eventually hooked up with a local sign painter and learned the trade on his own.

"I striped my first car in 1962," he recalls. OK, it was his father's car, but it was enough to get the word around, and soon he was in business. "I used to do names on the side of cars for 50 cents a name. People used to like to have names on the front of cars -- they only had one license plate in those days -- and I must have done thousands of them."

Cymbrowski made the national press in 1972 when a car he had lettered performed the "Astro-spiral," billed as the "ultimate stunt," and appeared in a spread in Life magazine. "The lettering," says Cymbrowski, "had to be upside-down on one side so that it could be read as it went through the air."

John Lamont, of Castle Banner and Sign, says he's "one of those techno-freaks." He's a rock musician who invents electronic devices for his music. He has never been near a paintbrush, but the computer stuff comes naturally to him. Like all vinyl sign makers, Lamont's designs are done in the computer and then cut by a plotter/cutter machine operated by the computer. And he's really cranking them out these days.

"I'm busier than a one-armed octopus with hives," he says. He does a lot of banner work, logos and graphics for trucks and autos. He also has a product line of comic decals called Car-Tat-Toons. He patches these together in the computer from famous cartoon characters or hires an artist to draw something original for him.

Besides being a master of what he calls the art of "fontology" (letter style choice), he says he knows "the psychology of sign painting" thoroughly.

"A lot of sign guys are somewhat sensitive," he says. "Some don't want to put on someone else's graphics. It doesn't bother me. On that job I'm the installer. Custom graphics is customizing to the customer's needs. Graphics all has to do with vanity and egotism. You're catering to a person's vanity."

He says he has all the respect in the world for "paintheads." "I've seen the whole transition from paint to vinyl. It caused a lot of disruption with the paint guys. The car dealers resisted vinyl at first, but when they realized it came off, they went for it. A heat gun and a good fingernail and you can take it off. "

But then again, Lamont thinks that an artist who stays strictly with paint is something of a dinosaur. "If you don't go for the vinyl/computerized system, then you are behind the time. You aren't going with the flow."

It turns out that some of the "sign guys" aren't guys at all. Mary Rose Vater owns Sign Art in Lake View, where she says 90 percent of her work is vinyl. "Sometimes as a woman I have to prove myself," she says. Vicki Stapleton, owner of The Original Vinyl Graphics, says some of her customers have asked her right out, "Where's the guy?"

But both women say gender is ultimately no problem. The problem is the cutthroat tactics of some businesses.

Stapleton left commercial art and print advertising because she found it saturated and cutthroat. Seven years later, she says the sign business is saturated and cutthroat. She gets around it by working the high end of the business. "I'm not doing down and dirty, chop and slop," she says. She would rather do fewer jobs of higher quality.

Vater says the sign business is in a state of flux. "So many people are jumping in," she says. "Those out there who don't have the basic design principles are not going to make it. It will take a while, but it will stabilize."

What comes out may not be the fine art of the pinstripe of old. And it may not always be that spiritual affair that Brent hopes it will be.

But then, as Brent himself says, "Who says everything has to be pure, anyway?"

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