Growing up in the area of Las Vegas known as the “Naked City,” Dan Tinker watched as the guys with the flashy cars were always the ones to get the girls. Many of them were drug dealers, but Tinker didn’t want to go that route, so he began painting his friends’ lowriders and mini trucks at age 15 as a way to get closer to the customized rides—and perhaps to some females, as well. That passion eventually evolved into a career, with Tinker quitting his job as a union painter five years ago to establish Devious Designs, which specializes in custom paint and body work.
“I always wanted nice things when I was young, so I just worked hard and got them,” Tinker says. “Everybody wants a toy, I guess.”
Tinker’s shop is just one of many in the Valley dedicated to the craft of high-end automobile and motorcycle restoration and customization. It is a component of the greater “kustom kulture,” dedicated not only to vehicles but also to the art, fashion, hairstyles, music and attitudes associated with the freewheeling lifestyle.
It is not an environment for those who simply view their vehicles as a means of transportation. The diehards of the kustom kulture see their rides as personal statements—motorized trophies that tell the world who they are and what they’re about.
“It’s like looking at a piece of art,” says Cristian Sosa, a car builder at Count’s Kustoms. “With the hot-rod lifestyle, I like that a lot of the stuff is handmade. It’s craftsmanship; it’s something that almost doesn’t exist anymore. You don’t see a lot of things that people actually put their hands on anymore.”
Sosa, 28, began working in local auto shops when he was 16, sweeping floors just to soak up the atmosphere and learn everything he could about the industry. He began working at Count’s when he was 19, and now is a master craftsman, doing everything but upholstery and painting when it comes to refurbishing classic vehicles.
“You had kids who wanted to be firefighters or cops or doctors,” he says. “This is what I wanted to be when I was a little kid. I always knew I wanted to build hot rods.”
Sosa pointed out a 1957 Chevy that was being prepared inside Count’s paint shop as an example of the joy he gets from his work. That job took six months of 12-hour workdays.
“This thing was just a shell,” he says. “When it came to us, it was in pieces. Anybody who would have looked at this thing would have thought it was scrap. … It’s nice to be able to bring something back that would have been thrown away.”
Such work doesn’t come cheap. One of Tinker’s customers spent about $200,000 on his truck, and Tinker has poured $100,000 of his own cash into a motorcycle, continually upgrading it with new parts or features. “It all depends on the amount of money people want to spend,” he says. “It’s unlimited. … For me, it’s a moving billboard; it’s like a business card.”
There are even different subcultures that make up the greater kustom kulture, including street rods, vintage cars, muscle cars, drag cars, off-road vehicles, motorcycles, boats and personal watercraft. If it can be customized, you can bet that someone is putting their personal stamp on it. Tinker has even done custom work on model airplanes. And while many people think of customized vehicles as a pursuit for older, affluent males, Tinker says there’s a wide range of classifications for those of all age and income levels.
“The younger crowd usually has newer cars, mini trucks, stuff with air ride [suspension],” Tinker says. “Motorcycles probably cover both. Harleys sometimes are more of an older crowd, while sport bikes are more of a younger crowd.”
Though there’s big money in customizing vehicles, Tinker says he makes most of his income through paint and repair work, especially with the recession limiting what many people are able or willing to spend. For those who do elect to make the financial commitment, though, pouring thousands of dollars into a vehicle is not a monetary investment, but an emotional one.
“If you’re into show cars, you don’t get your money back out of it,” Tinker says. “When you get into the customizing, you lose more than half your money when you go to sell it. It’s just an act of love for people; they’ve always wanted it, and they finally have the money. It’s people’s dreams and passions.”