Remembering Sonny DePalma

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Artist Sonny DePalma died last week.  You may not recognize the name, but you definitely know his work.  DePalma developed a unique style of painting and a cast of characters that have become a central part of custom culture, both for bikes and cars.  There is a certain visual style and attitude that we simply take for granted as part of garage culture, which we’ve seen in magazines, tattoos, custom paint jobs, and scribbles on the back of notebooks.  DePalma was one of the brilliant weirdos who created this visual langauge.

DePalma’s illustrations are ugly, complex, exuberant, wild, funny, and endlessly engaging.  They are distinctive and quirky.  They subvert everything they encounter, whether it’s turning a pin-up girl into a Bride of Frankenstein, airbrushed space aliens, or the ultimate subversionist character, Rat Fink.

What is so great about Rat Fink is how it starts with square culture’s stereotypes about hot-rodders and stomps on the accelerator.  It embraces and exaggerates what people think of as unsavory.  It delights in distortion.  Rather than try to rehabilitate the image, he takes it farther off the edge.

There is something about DePalma’s leering, drooling, bloodshot creatures.  They’re somehow loveable, even as they are repulsive.

This is not high art; he was not the greatest artistic genius of our age.  He was a talented, self-taught guy who created his own unique visual world, and it resonated with a lot of us.  Part Mad Magazine, part R. Crumb, part One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s a strange cocktail.  Our culture is richer for it.  We need more cats like Sonny DePalma.

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