It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if Tom Kelly’s blood didn’t contain a hint of shimmer or pearlescence. The owner of the Bellflower, Calif.-based Kelly and Son the Crazy Painters, got a leg up on the competition by starting to stripe at the ripe old age of 13, when the craft became a teen craze in the 1950s.
Kelly was fortunate to be able to learn many of his skills from his grandfather. Today, he works with his son, Mitch, and he doesn’t mind admitting he hopes there’ll be another generation of the Kelly family in the shop some day. In the meantime, though, he still says there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing.
Tom Kelly is a Southern California boy, born and reared, which probably contributes some to his feelings about vehicles and their decoration. It’s a place he describes as being, “right where the cars belong.” As for the idea of doing that decoration, Kelly grew up with it, fueled by the example of his grandfather.
The older man, known by everyone as The Baron, started striping for Studebaker back when the product line was wagons and buggies. Later, he spent 25 years striping on the line for the Ford Motor Company.
“Back in the early ’50s, when striping started coming back — when Von Dutch started to do it — I got my grandfather talked into coming back and striping again,” Kelly explains.
Across the span of more than four decades, Kelly’s enthusiasm makes a great deal of sense. It was Von Dutch who brought the ideas of striping and car customizing to Southern California teens, a group Kelly fit at the time. And, he adds, there were probably no more than a handful of bona fide stripers in the country then, including The Baron.
Although Kelly laughingly laments he didn’t always get a lot of beach time, he did earn an advanced degree in striping while still in junior high and high school. “I’d get through school and he’d be waiting for me and away we went,” Kelly says. “We used to go around to the car lots and stripe about 10 cars a day. That’s back when they’d stripe the cars on the lot to make them custom and we’d charge $10 a car.”
Early on, Kelly says his grandfather used to do the outside striping, and he’d concentrate on some of interior things, as well as murals. He also started right off using an airbrush. “I think the very first job I did was with an airbrush,” he says. “I use it just like an extension of my finger; it’s just like using a pencil except you’re using an airbrush.” It’s probably little wonder that he adds, “I’ve been painting so long I can’t remember not painting.”
After finishing a high school career that Kelly says he completed mainly because of work he did for the school, rather than for his homework, he went into business with his grandfather as The Crazy Painters. Later,”Big Daddy” Ed Roth also helped expand the young man’s horizons as he also became one of The Crazy Painters, although Kelly describes himself as, “just kind of a third wheel,” to the two striping masters.
That situation lasted a little more than three years, and during that time Kelly also found himself working on another hot item of the time: Sweatshirts. “We did all the weird designs on sweatshirts with the airbrush,” he explains. “I used to do as many as 35-40 every day, and we sent them all over the United States and the world.”
After Roth decided to go his own way, Kelly remained working with his grandfather until the older man passed away in 1962. He then worked by himself until son Mitch joined the business 16 years ago.
Like the older Kelly, Tom says he didn’t have to twist his son’s arm to get him interested in the business. “He really wanted to do this,” says his father. “I made him work for somebody else to learn how to pull the hours, but I guess it didn’t work too well; he comes in late every day,” Kelly adds with a laugh. “But, this is all he ever wanted to do.
Today, Kelly and Son is made up of Tom and Mitch and two employees. Mitch Kelly focuses on doing custom and complete paint jobs, and what his father describes as, “the modern graphics.”
As for himself, Tom Kelly says he’s still doing pretty much what he started out doing 43 years ago: a mix of graphics, striping, murals and lettering. “Everything concerning the cars now they call graphics, but not a lot has changed except a little bit of the style,” he says. “We’ve done all the same things in the past: striping the dashes, the weird pictures, the scallops and the flames.”
That’s not to say Kelly finds everything the same. One thing he’s not especially happy with is the changes that have come over the years with paints. He says he misses the presence of some items that have been banned for health reasons, such as lead and some of the lacquers and toners.
On the other hand, “They do have some nice colors out now: the shimmering colors and the pearlescent colors, for example.” However, a great deal of Kelly’s custom work is done with 1 Shot®. He cites a Suburban that came through the door lately as an example.
“We did some mini-graphics on it and a lot of splatter paint,” Kelly explains. “We also did some airbrush blending along with the pinstriping, and I painted a little mural on the gas cap, too.”
The mini-murals actually date back to the 1950s when he was putting something similar on the gas caps of old cars. They’re an example of one of Kelly’s custom techniques, and one that doesn’t necessarily appear regularly. Or, as he puts it, “I keep it up every once in awhile when the spirit moves me.”
At least part of the technique is common to many school children: finger-painting. “The background is done by finger-painting — actually it’s done with my thumb,” Kelly says. “I smear the paint on and put in some clouds with my thumb, things like that. Then, I fill it in with the brush.”
Kelly’s work ranges from the serious to the whimsical, from cartoon characters to the strictly business-like. Kelly and Son also do their share of custom sign jobs, and while the senior member of the company professes to like both types of work, he takes a lot of satisfaction from being able to combine the two.
A good case in point is another recent job he did, which involved doing a package of striping and mini-graphics on a new truck, as well as including a variation on the owner’s business sign. “I’m able to do it all custom and neat-looking, so that it fits the vehicle, and it doesn’t just look like a sign board,” is how he explains it. “I like to think it looks like a nice three-piece suit where everything matches.”
ALWAYS AN ARTIST
Kelly believes he’s fortunate in that all of his business is basically from word-of-mouth, which means most of his customers are aware of the work he does and usually leave it up to him to create as he sees fit. “I’ve generally been lucky,” he says. “I can just about look at a person and they way they’re dressed and picture how far I can go with them, whether it’s real far out or real mild or real subtle.
When they leave it up to me, if I want to get creative I get creative.”
Although Kelly got into the business as a teenager, when custom cars were mainly a hot teenage item, his customer base has expanded and matured as he’s gotten older. And, because he’s been in the business so long, he’s become the striper for entire families of car owners.
“It goes all the way from the guy who pushes his car in to get a name on the window to the millionaire who leaves it with his chauffeur,” he says of his customers. “I’ve also got customers where I’m on their third generation;
I’ve done the grandfather’s work, the father’s work and now the kid’s work.” Such situations make him feel a little old, Kelly confesses, and he suspects with the younger set there’s some concern occasionally that he can come up with ideas they’re going to like.
“Mitch usually tells me if I’m on the right track — and I’m usually there,” he says. “But, I’ve been doing this so long and I’ve created so many styles — especially with lettering — that it’s not hard to come up with new things or different-looking things.” And, he adds, the bottom line for his customers is the same as it always has been: that they leave with smiles on their faces.
Kelly also believes there’s another component that’s helped keep him fresh creatively for so many years: the fact that he really likes his job. “There are a lot of people who go to work every day hating what they do, but I really enjoy what I’m doing,” he says. “I enjoy the people I talk to; everyone is different and every job is a brand new job.
I think God created me for this.” That may be why, asked to project into the future, Kelly says he can easily see himself working another 20 years or so. And, should he reach a point where he chooses to retire, he’ll keep on painting, a hobby that’s already gotten him into some art shows.
He may have plenty of history in automotive decoration, but it’s obvious Tom Kelly keeps looking to the future, and with good reason. Son Mitch has a son, also named Tom, and the senior Kelly says he wouldn’t mind at all adding another generation to The Crazy Painters.