The Lowdown On Dirty Donny
By Jeff Alexander
Dirty Donny remains a strong presence within kustom kulture thanks to his relentless dedication and versatility. Vibrant colors and imagery pay homage to the trailblazers, yet Donny elevates classic themes of hot rods and monsters to keep his work fresh while working to carve out new audiences. His work with Metallica, Aerosmith, and Stern Pinball has kustom kulture appearing outside the recurring parameters.
“I was never good in academics so I worked to create my own school, so to speak. I was always into music but really focused on the art and imagery. When I lived in Ottawa, I would work to create tape covers and posters for bands and I quickly learned, by working hard enough I could seriously grow,” reflected Donny.
Before the advent of the Internet and cell phones, Dirty Donny was strictly word-of-mouth. Each successful project begat another project, leading to the group Electric Frankenstein seeking his talents for record designs back in ‘95.
“Everything back then was all letters for correspondence or strictly word-of-mouth, taking ads out in magazines and ‘zines. It seems things are less personal now,” stated Donny.
After work opportunities decreased in Ottawa, Donny relocated to California in 2001, the birthplace of kustom kulture. Donny’s career continued flourishing while his passion for music-related art led to his biggest client; Metallica. Thrash Metal is not usually linked to kustom kulture but Donny proudly stated he was commissioned by guitarist Kirk Hammett. Hammett is endorsed by ESP and his signature models feature imagery of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein and other iconic monsters. Rolling Stone ranked Hammett #11 in their top 100 guitarists of all-time.
“I felt the people in California understood my work better. I felt I explored every available avenue in Canada but eventually, it was best to move. While working with Kirk, James Hetfield (singer & guitarist) randomly entered the room and just asked me if I was interested in doing original designs for his guitars. It was a really great feeling and another awesome opportunity,” said Donny.
Most diehard fans were unfamiliar with Hetfield’s love for classic hot rods, but Donny attests Hetfield is a longtime gearhead and passionate about the subculture.
“He’s been a gearhead for years and so it made sense to do guitar designs for him. Metallica is very particular with what they want and it was a long but fun process. I was working with them for 6 months and learned their producer, Bob Rock was also a gearhead and he was working on a ’55 Chevy project and wanted some artwork, so it was right back to work after finishing one project,” laughed Donny.
Amongst Donny’s projects for Metallica are full-on kustom pinball machines. Donny stated the intricacies of pinball machines require careful planning and perhaps deep pockets if an owner wants to restore a classic machine.
“I’ve been collecting pinball machines for years, which is a very expensive habit,” laughed Donny.
“Hetfield’s car club, Beatnik Car Club, wanted a kustom machine so obviously that project was very involved. The more I work on them the more I get to refine my skills. I look at the restoration process similar to working on a car; many things in motion that are demanding. I think the machines came out awesome and I enjoyed doing it.”
Much like Donny’s early career, word-of-mouth led to another major project. Gaming giant Stern Pinball was beginning the hunt for artists to design an Aerosmith pinball machine. Dirty Donny’s work on the Metallica game quickly grabbed the attention of Stern and coupled with Metallica’s personal recommendation, Dirty Donny was commissioned.
“For sure, that was another turning point for me. I had thought a lot about the history of pinball art when I worked on Metallica’s machines. I felt pinball was in a dark period in my opinion because a lot of the accompanying artwork felt bland and was Photoshopped. You did not see a lot of hand-drawn work. The Aerosmith project was also very demanding because I was not in direct contact with the group so I had to scour a lot of the provided style guides and cool original ‘70s photos. I was given a lot of creative license and I worked to make it cool, not cheesy,” laughed Donny.
Dirty Donny’s pinball machines are easily recognized thanks to his original, hand-drawn designs. His knowledge and passion for classic games has led to gaming convention appearances, ultimately benefitting kustom kulture as the art and lifestyle are presented to a new audience.
“I feel I’m very nostalgic. For me, the ‘70s and ‘80s era machines are the best. I’ve also been interested in vector monitors, which can be very expensive to restore. I live in the desert now, outside of LA and I was hunting for vintage games and found Tempest, very rare. It was sitting and rotting away on someone’s back porch. I traded some work to have it restored, which could have easily cost $1,000. Games come and go with trading or selling but there are some things I won’t part with, like my '69 Satellite; I won’t ever sell that,” affirmed Donny.
Donny’s Satellite resurrection received assistance from iconic rock poster designer, Frank Kozik. He reflected on the car’s restoration process.
“I began the project with a good friend in 2005. When I first moved to California, I knew I had to have a Mopar; I’ve always been a muscle car guy. We tore it down and I learned how to do some bodywork, it wasn’t my favorite thing but I was willing to learn. Frank helped me a lot, a great guy. I never thought I’d be able to own a car like that!”
As the subculture continues paying homage to its past, artists are continuing to embrace technology as a new platform for future self-promotion, even if it conflicts with the idea of preserving in-person comradery that’s so revered. For Dirty Donny, a kustom artist that still relies on word-of-mouth, his undertaking of creating original vlogs and video content for YouTube is certainly rife with irony.
“Oh, for sure,” he laughed. With no shortage of projects, Donny still remains focused on growing his video channel.
“We do a live show once a month, which is tons of fun. We also do interviews but overall, it hasn’t been easy. YouTube is hard to conquer, so to speak. It can feel like a thankless job but it’s certainly grown and I do a lot of tutorials, talk about travel. I’ve always been into video and editing so I’m working hard at it, it’s like learning another craft,” concluded Donny.