Earning His Stripes
Auto painter Rick Harris helps preserve a dying art
By Katie Neal
It’s not hard to tell which house on the quiet suburban Nashville street belongs to Rick Harris. In a sea of subdued hues, his mailbox is painted with brightly colored flames.
“I stripe anything that will hold still long enough,” he says, with a laugh.
“Striping” is short for “pinstriping,” a form of custom automotive painting in which an artist uses a tiny brush to freehand pin-thin lines and swirls of decoration — or “tattoos for vehicles,” as Harris calls them.
This Friday, like most, Harris is doing work for a private client, which can be anyone from a large trucking company to a private automotive enthusiast. He’s hunched over an all-black Harley, holding his brush in his left hand and a rag in his right, so he can quickly wipe up any mistakes or change the design while he’s working.
“It’s like doodling,” he says. “I just make it up as I go along.”
The motorcycle’s owner, Terry Fox, watches as Harris completes a design in just minutes. “He’s a master,” Fox says. And Monday through Thursday, you’ll find Harris in the classroom at Nashville Auto-Diesel College (NADC), teaching students in the collision repair program how to do custom painting.
“I’m trying to pass pinstriping on to as many of my kids as possible,” he says. “A lot of the true talents in our industry are dying and taking all their skills and knowledge with them.”
He’s popular among his students, who often bring in guitars or other objects for him to stripe, or ask him to design a tattoo for them. He holds friendly competitions in class and sometimes springs for expensive paint for projects.
If students show interest in striping as a career, Harris is thrilled to work with them one-on-one.
“Pinstriping is very tedious — they either get it or they don’t,” he says. “But the ones who do, when the light goes on in their head, it’s pretty cool.”
An artist known as Von Dutch (born Kenneth Howard) is credited with starting the trend of striping vehicles in the 1950s and inspiring a generation of painters, among them Harris’ mentor, Shaky Jake (Chuck Babbitt). Harris — dubbed “Tricky Ricky” — started pinstriping himself at age 21, after a stint in the Navy.
“I wanted to buy a Z-28 Camaro, but my dad would only co-sign for a navy blue Volkswagen Beetle,” he says.
To up the cool factor, he consulted a local custom painter about adding a white pinstripe. The painter said he had no time to do it himself, but he’d show Harris how and where to get his supplies. (“I’ve often wondered if he regretted that, because I became his biggest competitor,” Harris says.) Pleased with his work, Harris showed off the car at the dealership and was asked to paint another car on the spot. Later, he was hired as a full-time painter in the body shop where he striped an average of 13 cars a day for more than a year.
After being self-employed for 24 years, Harris leapt at the chance to teach at NADC two years ago. “It’s very rewarding,” he says. “One of my students ended up at one of the top rod shops in the nation — that felt pretty good.”
Though he relishes the chance to hand his passion down to the next generation, that doesn’t mean Harris plans to retire anytime soon.
“As you get older, you do the things that mean more to you,” he says. “And it’s still exciting for me to pick up a striping brush.”