MotoCantina: To kick things off, how about a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Von Banjo: I’m Jeremy Rushing “Von Banjo” and I guess I’m a bit of a redneck renaissance man…haha. I’ve done many different things in this life. Everything from auto paint and body, knife making, window tinting, wood working and turning, building and repairing instruments, graphic design, this list goes on man…Now I’m mainly pinstriping a lot of bikes and helmets. I’m a part of the Biltwell Custom Helmet Artist Program, so I paint a lot of Biltwells and I really dig those guys and their helmets.
It’s about doing something cool, original or different. That’s art… remaking the same shit is manufacturing.
MotoCantina: What was your first motorcycle?
Von Banjo: My first motorcycle was a little Honda Z50 when I was about 10 or 11. I wanna say it was around an 80-85 model. The ones with the adjustable bars you know? I wish I still had that little fucker man. Damn it was awesome. That brings back some memories.
MotoCantina: When did you start Backwoods Banjos, and what were some of the obstacles you had to overcome to get where you are today?
Von Banjo: I started building banjos around ’09 I guess. I’ve always played music and was into art. When I was kid I was offered a scholarship to some fancy art school, but turned it down because I wanted to ride skateboards and drink 40s with my homeboys. Then some dudes turned me on to the Grateful Dead and I saw them for the first time in 94… and it was on. I left home a year or so later at age 16 or so. Going to concerts, hopping trains, hitchhiking around the country, living in the woods with hippies. Now when I say hippies, I’m talking about true blue road hippies not the fucking douchebag in Birkenstocks and a tie dyed Dave Matthews shirt bagging groceries at your local Whole Foods.
I did that shit for years. It was a blast. I’ve been everywhere, man. I wish I had a fuckin’ bike then. After a few wrong turns I knew it was time to get my shit together. I knew I wanted to be an artist or make something. But at that time being an “artist” meant you were either a waiter or a tattooer. Neither really interested me. I can’t deal with fucking squares. So I went back home to Mississippi and went to Auto Body and Paint Tech School to learn to paint and customize cars and bikes. I grew up around car and bike guys and recognized the artistic side of it and thought I could do something I love and make a living at it.
Eventually I went to work for a couple of the best custom car builders in my area, Ray Orr and Corey Reynolds. After awhile I got pissed off with the whole custom car scene. Used to be a dude couldn’t afford the hot new late model Camaro or whatever so he could go out to the junk yard, a few bucks and some blood, sweat and gears and have a cool ass ride…old school. Now with all these TV shows and shit, you can’t do that anymore. Now they want more for some old clapped out rust bucket sitting in some farmers field than they do for the new late model shit. And now you’ve even got the big car companies getting in on the action too. They’re building all the new shit to look like the old shit. But on both sides of the fence everything is the same copy cat cookie cutter look-alike bullshit. Roth, Dutch, Jeffries and all those dudes were fucking artists man.
That’s how I measure success, not in dollar bills.
To make a long story longer… I just said “fuck it” and quit. Then I decided I wanted a banjo. So I went and bought a drill press and a bandsaw and set up shop in the garage. Made a few, sold them, bought more tools, bought even more tools, moved to a bigger shop, sold a few more, bought more tools, moved again to a bigger shop and also started doing repairs on all instruments and building guitars too. I’ve built and sold about 35 instruments total and repaired or refurbished a ton of them. People seem to dig them. I developed my own banjo design based on an old Gibson design from the 20s. Longer neck, bigger pot… louder. Like a V8 banjo..ha. There are some professional musicians out there playing and recording with my stuff. That means the fucking world to me. That’s how I measure success, not in dollar bills.
MotoCantina: Tell us a little about how you went from being a well known banjo builder to pinstriping bikes.
Von Banjo: Back when I was in auto body school I went to work for the teacher at his shop. He saw I was a hard worker and eager to learn. One day he sees me drawing a ratfink or something and next day comes in with a can of 1 Shot black and a green wrap Mack Brush. He tells me when you have spare time go out back and get one of those old car hoods and practice pinstriping. I had no idea what I was doing but I gave it hell, and that’s how I learned through trial and error. After I left the car business and started the luthier work I pretty much stopped striping. Every once in awhile I’d do some on an instrument or something, but I was rockin’ and rolling with the banjo business. Getting some notoriety in a few magazines and doing custom jobs for studios and stuff. Playing music gigs around the south east. Then along comes my homeboy Whit Huffman and opens a motorcycle shop in my hometown. He’s a solid car and bike mechanic and our families go back. He had already worked in a few shops and had a small shop at his house he built a couple really cool bikes in and he wanted to go bigger. So he opens Mockingbird Motorworks. He needed a painter so in typical fashion I turned on a dime and quit building banjos. Built a small paint booth next to my shop and started painting and striping again. I’ll still build a banjo and I do repair work on instruments regularly, but right now I’m more focused on the painting.
MotoCantina: Your pinstriping is amazing. What kind of products would you say are key to your results?
Von Banjo: Thanks for the kind words man, I truly appreciate it. I’m old school. I use the same stuff the old dudes used. 1Shot Lettering Enamel and Mack Brushes from the Mack Brush Company. I use a series 10 blue wrap size 1 for most of my pinstriping, Mack lettering brushes for lettering and sign painting and Tidwells for a lot of the graphic work.
I like to do bold fat lines with simple design work, and the striping goes over the fucking clear…to me that’s old school. Pinstriping doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to look cool. I traveled out west for a stint, this is where I first got a look at this style of pinstriping and really dug the hell out of it. Like the old pinstriper saying goes “if you wanted it perfect you should have bought a fucking sticker.”
MotoCantina:What were your biggest influences to getting where you are?
Von Banjo: Like I said I grew up around car and motorcycle guys so I was always around it. My grandfather and my uncle were huge influences. Like Von Dutch said “it’s genetics that make us like similar things”. He was way ahead of his fucking time man. Anyways my uncle was a pretty good airbrusher and one hell of mechanic. We had drag cars, VWs and a bunch of hotrods. I had other uncles that built VW trikes, one owned a body shop, one’s a damn fine wood worker. Some of my great grandparents were bluegrass musicans, fiddle makers, moonshiners… So there’s your fucking genetics right there! I’ve also always been a huge fan of Von Dutch… he’s known for his pinstriping but he did so much more. I mean he fucking invented kustom kulture… a true original.
MotoCantina: Do you have any suggestions for our readers who may be interested in trying their hand at laying down some paint lines?
Von Banjo: Like a wise old man once told me “it’s like fuckin’ or fightin’… ain’t but one way to learn” Get some 1Shot, a Mack and some thinner and keep doing it until you get it. There are lots of books and materials out there now to teach you. The best way is to go find a pinstriper. Most of us are pretty cool about passing on the tradition. The hardest part is getting the mix right and you do that by feel and that just takes time to learn. It’s one of those things you have to do everyday or you’ll never get it.
MotoCantina: We like to think of our forum as a dive bar where people can sit around and talk bikes over a beer. Do you have a favorite dive bar or story you could share?
Von Banjo: Haha… I’ve got a bunch of those but yeah one definetly stands out. I used to have a buddy that had a bar in Memphis with a music venue next door. We were passing through and he would let us drink on the cheap, I was maybe 18 at the time.
Well they shut the bar down because the band playing next door rented it out to party after their gig. I won’t name the band but they were big in the 90s, back when bands fucking partied. Not like now where they are all straight edge vegans that do an hour set so they can be in bed by 9:15 and up by 6 a.m. for pilates.
But the owner was a homeboy and let a few of us stay and hang out. So the band comes in, they bring in some of Memphis’ finest titty talent, and lock the fucking doors. Out comes the Coke and the Valiums and the titties and shit got crazy. We were slamming boiler makers and dancing on the bar, weird shit was going on in the dark corners… sex, drugs and rock n’ roll man. I’m an 18 year old dirty looking road kid and there’s all this shit going on. I’m high as a Georgia pine and I feel like I just hit the fucking lottery. I’m having a good ol’ time with what I thought was one of the strippers they brought in the backroom. Wrong! In walks her husband from the band and he’s pissed and wasted and screaming he’s gonna kill me. So here I am with my pants around my ankles and he’s going for this little purse gun he’s got in his leather pants. I barley get my pants up before he starts shooting up the place. I’m running, everybody is screaming and fucked up and doesn’t know what’s going on. Luckily he was so high he couldn’t hit shit, and I made it to the bathroom locked the door and bailed out the fucking window and spent the night on a roof top in downtown Memphis. Haha… good times… that wasn’t the first time I was shot at and probably won’t be the last!
MotoCantina: What are your thoughts on where the motorcycle industry is currently at and what the future looks like for grass roots businesses/events?
Von Banjo: That’s a tricky one. In a lot of ways it’s the same story with the hotrods. A guy that couldn’t afford a new bike could build some old shit and make it cool for very little because nobody wanted that shit. Now it’s the opposite. 20 Gs for a clapped out panhead with the same 6 month wait 10 grand Mexican blanket metal flake job everybody else has got… and the goddamn thing still won’t kick over!
And the big makers are paying attention too. Like the new 72 and 48. On top of that, you have the big wheel baggers and these huge shops that just pull shit off the wall. Everybody wants something different but it all comes out the same.
That’s where the small shops are killing them. Remember all those theme bike TV shows? Where are they now? Who the fuck cares? Because when it becomes about the money and popularity you’ve already killed the fucking thing. It’s about doing something cool, original or different. That’s art… remaking the same shit is manufacturing. I look at bikes and old cars as art. It’s everything wrapped into one. Mechanics, science, paint, sculpture… then riding the thing is like an extension of your cock, man! That’s the passion the small shop guys like me have. I mean we all got bills but at the end of the day we just wanna do what we love and make cool shit. But it’s hard for the little guy to do that when the money guys roll in and swoop up the cool shit and drive the prices up. Thanks to companies like Biltwell I’m able to afford quality helmets to paint in my small backyard shop for folks who want a one of a kind custom old school style helmet. They get it man. Some people follow trends, some people are trend setters…. since the dawn of fucking time. So who the fuck knows man, we’ll see.
MotoCantina: What is the strangest thing you have ever been asked to pinstripe?
Von Banjo: Titties!! Which I did gladly!!
MotoCantina: Do you have any parting words? Shout outs? Thanks? Words of advice?
Von Banjo: I think anybody can do anything. It just takes patience and respect for the process. Do the research. Pick up a fucking book. I meet builders, painters and pinstripers all the time who’ve never heard of Von Dutch or the Barris Brothers or Denver Mullins… it’s embarrassing and a fucking shame. My sort of break through moment was when I stopped trying to do what I thought people would dig and would sell and started just doing whatever I thought was cool. Don’t censor or water yourself down… turn it up to fucking 11! I started painting helmets when my buddies couldn’t find certain types, then when you could find them people wouldn’t paint them because they weren’t legal, or they wouldn’t paint certain content. Like rebel flags or bolts. So I said “Fuck it! I’ll do it”, and that’s what I get the most requests for. I’ve even got my girl Southern Trouble helping me paint helmets now, we make a great team. At the end of the day I’m just grateful to be able to carry on this old school traditional art form. It ain’t all choppers and chicas but I don’t measure success in dollar bills. Friends, family, meeting new folks and making people happy with custom one off pieces in a plastic copy cat world, is worth more than the money… and I might like to party a little too! Vivalacantina!