He's a car-culture artist at a crossroad

Baltimore Sun

SITTING in a cluttered auto shop in a sleepy southern Pennsylvania farm town, 45-year-old artist Robert Schroeder confessed that he's worried about groupies finding him.

They want to give the mild-mannered automotive detailing artist their demo CDs. They want autographs. They want concert tickets.

Don't ask him, he says -- he's just the pinstriper for the famed New Jersey band Bon Jovi.

"The chicks flip out," Schroeder said. He recalled the time he took cars that he detailed for the band to a show in Churchville: "[The band] told me, 'There's gonna be groupies here that's going to try and steal the tags.' Sure enough, later that night, these chicks from Jersey are jumping over the rope, taking pictures, one's laying on the car...."

Obie O'Brien, the band's longtime producer and sound engineer, said he's dragging Schroeder into the limelight "whether he likes it or not."

"He's as good as I've seen, but he's never gotten the recognition," O'Brien said. "He's sort of like a beatnik. You could transplant him to 1960 and he'd be right at home. Money is truly secondary to him." He added: "I think he's got a very distinctive style; we need to enhance that and bring it to the forefront and make it his trademark."

O'Brien wants to provide Schroeder with the seed money and connections to create a line of clothing for car aficionados. If successful, Schroeder would essentially be following the path of his hero, Kenny "Von Dutch" Howard, an underground legend known as one of the fathers of the 1960s custom-car craze.

Howard's signature was painted flames and freestyle pinstriping used to accentuate a car's curves and lines. People traveled from across the country to have him decorate their cars and motorcycles. The style was influential to many young car fans such as Schroeder who were captivated by the style in magazines and on rock album covers.

Eight years after Howard's death in 1992, his symbols and style became synonymous with a line of clothing aimed at hot-rod enthusiasts -- and soon after became popular with a different crowd. When stars such as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher began wearing "Von Dutch" shirts and hats, blue-collar car collectors were turned off.

And that's where O'Brien sees a void.

Following Howard's path, however, is almost what did Schroeder in.

Growing up in Pylesville, Schroeder said he was captivated by cars and automotive art. He idolized Von Dutch, who famously rejected his notoriety and lived on the edge of poverty.

At age 30, Schroeder quit his steady job at a color-chart factory to pursue pinstriping and was determined to live a life of poverty and suffering for his art.

"I'd do a job for a six-pack of beer, and all I'd wake up with was a hangover," Schroeder said. His income hovered below $4,000 a year, and he was hospitalized several times because he was not eating enough.

Schroeder's first job with any link to the Bon Jovi band was for O'Brien. And it was no small task -- pinstriping the '32 Ford Deuce Coupe that frontman Jon Bon Jovi had given him for Christmas. Schroeder did the job right in front of him.

When he was finished, he asked for his fee -- $40. "I said, 'What are you, nuts?' " recalled O'Brien.

That was five years ago, and while O'Brien continued to toss projects his way, Schroeder mostly kept at a distance from the tight-knit band.

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Poised to take off

THINGS changed this year. Before a show at Fort Monmouth, N.J., O'Brien summoned Schroeder to decorate a drum set backstage.

He's since painted guitars, effects pedals and equipment for technicians. You can even watch Jon Bon Jovi climb out of a custom car decorated by Schroeder in the music video "Who Says You Can't Go Home," airing on Country Music Television.

On a recent weeknight, Schroeder traveled to O'Brien's home, north of Rising Sun, to discuss decorating options for a '34 Ford three-window coupe that O'Brien had purchased for Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora. Schroeder shuffled through a variety of whimsical designs for O'Brien to consider -- a guitar built around the speaker on the door, a whammy bar for a handle.

But those features will be for others to execute. Schroeder has become an artistic director of sorts for these wild hot-rod projects, conjuring up designs and researching the experts in those areas who will actually execute them.

"I've got a whole ton of people, but I'm narrowing it down to one guy," he told O'Brien. Soon he would be meeting with rockabilly star Brian Setzer for a future project.

"He's an artist. He respects the lines of the car and how it's made. There's something about that that's very important," said Sambora, who met with Schroeder last month to discuss how his car could be customized.

Schroeder says he charges the band the same as anyone else -- $40 for a quick design or as much as $2,000 for a larger project.

Aaron Kahan, a Los Angeles graphic designer who is preparing to release a book on Von Dutch, said Schroeder's fees are "decent," but the referrals he's getting are priceless. "Once guys start working for someone who's well known, they'll keep dishing them work, which is good," Kahan said.

For his career to truly take off, O'Brien is convinced Schroeder needs to escape his rural hometown -- something Schroeder seems to be warming up to. (He's already been called a sellout back home and is irritated by customers who dismiss his unique designs as a paint job.)

After all, Bon Jovi sings about staying true to your roots, but the band didn't get famous by restricting itself to South Jersey.

"He's so talented, but unfortunately he's in an area where he's this beatnik guy and he's got people coming to him to get a mural done and saying, 'I'll give ya $10,' " O'Brien said.

Schroeder conceded: "I love the art I do, but that doesn't pay the mortgage or put gas in the car."

The reluctant Schroeder seems at least willing to go along for the ride.

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