Cummings was known only by his middle name, James. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, he ran a shop, an old-time gas station, called The House of Kustom Kolors in Victoria Square, north of Toronto. He painted hot-rod bodies and motorcycle parts, and developed a method of sculpting using Bondo, a 3M auto-body repair product. Many of his clients came from the general public. Some were famous, like the Toronto Maple Leaf Brian “Spinner” Spencer. Others were members of outlaw motorcycle clubs like Satan’s Choice, Para Dice Riders and The Vagabonds.
“I was always amazed. I was a very successful artist selling to a most unorthodox and appreciative market who brought me their canvases to paint on,” says James.
Because of “innovation and creativity, fueled by inspiration and artistic experimentation,” James quickly became the go-to artist for club members looking to turn their motorcycles into something to feel proud of.
He shows me a book of photographs: “The jewellery they had was their bikes.” One photograph is of four motorcycle parts—a pair of fenders and two halves of a gas tank. Each piece has thin, red, curving flames on a black ground. Airbrushed onto one fender is the back of a beefy devil with his arms raised. The two halves of the tank each portray a maniacally smiling devil. But his clients did not commission frightening imagery exclusively. Like Warhol with his Marilyns and Mick Jaggers, or custom car creator Ed Roth with his Rat Fink—an anti-Mickey Mouse—James was comfortable recontextualizing and reinterpreting figures from popular culture. One bright yellow tank has an image of the Cookie Monster smoking a joint. A pink tank features Charlie Brown holding the front forks of a chopper and Snoopy with a leather helmet and mirrored aviator sunglasses. “Imagine you’re pulled up at a light, your kids in the back seat, and this pulls up next to you,” says James. Another photograph shows a bloodshot eye staring up and forward from between a pair of curving ridges on a molded gas tank. Hand-painted pinstripes accent each ridge or double back on themselves to create abstract designs.
With Bondo as his medium, James also added sculpted skulls, portraits, hands and spiders to the vehicles he customized. “The paint and body work I did was completely self taught. The Bondo I used to smooth out the body parts and repair damage became something I used to sculpt almost by accident. At the Toronto shows, no one had ever seen this technique.” James keeps three gas tanks he customized, each for his 1955 Triumph Tiger T110. One tank has a field of variegated gold leaf with a brush-painted image of an eagle displayed, a welding torch in one talon and a paintbrush in another. On another gas tank, which James calls “The Mongol,” he sculpted a glaring red face with a long beard and mustache and a top ponytail bound by a band with five red gems. The man—who reminds me of the bikers described in Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels (1966)—seems to have set his eyes on something that he strongly desires and that he will acquire by any means necessary. Behind the head is a pearl background—accented with multi-coloured mandalas and drops of paint—bordered by curving fields of purple metal-flake. Cream pinstripes gently curl through the purple.
Before opening The House of Kustom Kolors, James used the then-new magic marker pens to put names on a few of his friends’ cars in his South Burnaby, BC, high-school parking lot. Crowds of students would gather to watch. James felt alienated from his high-school art class, “because the teacher did not want anyone to step outside of the parameters of the things taught. Instead of recognizing creativity, the teacher saw only someone challenging control.” In 1963, his parents bought him a bus ticket to Toronto. For six months he worked with his uncle, “learning how to be a sign painter,” then got a job in Levy’s Sign Shop on Eglinton Avenue, where he “started lettering stock cars for the CNE racing crowd.” He rented an ancient Willowdale garage shared with another young hot-rod eccentric. James tells me of his first time painting metal-flake and the lesson it taught him: “People ask, ‘How do you know you’re good?’ When you can fix your own mistakes.”
In addition to custom work, James did much of the repairs on tanks and fenders at the time for the Toronto BMW dealer. “I was even sent to California to deal with a huge custom chopper American motorcycle accessory dealer by a Toronto dealer because of my standing in the customizing world.”
I ask James how he became connected with the outlaw motorcycle clubs. “I saw the Vagabonds one time. I thought, ‘Wow, look at that.’ I went and turned around on Yonge Street. They were going into a burger place. I looked at all the motorcycles thinking, ‘Oh, this is kind of a situation,’ but I remember saying to somebody, ‘Hey, is that your bike?’ I pointed at the paintwork on it. I said, ‘I can do this stuff.’”
In his personal collection, James has a German stahlhelm—steel helmet—that he has painted with red and blue-green metal-flake complexly overlaid with pinstripes and transparent shapes. On the helmet’s left side, the pinstripe lines form the outlines of an iron cross. It is a reminder of the popularity of German military imagery in custom motorcycle culture.
In 1975, James moved back to British Columbia, added the name Doc, and expanded his portfolio to include airbrushed murals on vans. Now he decorates and deals antiques, does pinstriping, car and truck lettering and sign painting, all under the name Doc James’ West Coast Colors.
As we flip through his photo albums, James tells me what interpersonal skills helped him work for some of his more dangerous clients. “I actually got phoned one time, because of my style, my ways of thinking cautiously. Two clubs were warring. One of the clubs phoned me and asked me to be a mediator. I thought, I can’t do that. I’m too neutral. I wanna stay neutral. I’m just an artist.”
Lee Sheppard is a writer and secondary school teacher in Toronto. He is also an editor of Pilot Pocket Book, an illustrated literary magazine.
Metal-flake and nitrocellulose lacquer paint
Diameter between 60 and 68 cm
Photograph: Lee Sheppard