Tommy The Greek
A tribute to Tommy Hrones, irrepressible master of the striping arts.
By Michael Dobrin
"Tommy the Greek has had more influence on the pinstriping art than anyone, including Von Dutch."
So says shadow master and graphics guru Art Himsl. There are a thousand and one stories about Tommy Hrones. Some of them are actually true, and some of them can even be printed here. Himsl has one of his own.
"Years ago, in the late '50s, I was striping a car at the Oakland Roadster Show and, man, was I having trouble layin' a straight line. It was running late and I was getting nervous. A crowd had gathered behind me and I could hear one voice, "Hey kid, hav'n a hard time? Can't hold that line?"
"Finally, after about 10 minutes I'd had enough and turned and handed the brush to the agitator. It was Tommy. Zip. Zip. The job was done! He says, "Here's my card, kid."
"He was the first and the best with scallops and those teardrops. In the early days, if you wanted your car done right you took it to the Greek. Heck, God himself went to the Greek."
Bay Area painter & striper, Herb Martinez was a little kid buzzing around Oakland's Seminary district on his bike when he spotted a place that seemed perennially stacked up with "neat cars." The garage became a requisite stop, then a hangout where young Herb watched a small, flamboyant striper at work.
"He was an absolute master, and fast. There was "wham-bam" ritual about his work. He'd open a can of Veco lacquer with an ice pick, step back, fire the ice pick into the wall...Ping!..set up like a rocket, stripe the car, bait and antagonize the customers, and finish up the job.
"One time, he and Von Dutch met at the Oakland Roadster Show. One thing led to another and soon the two of them were out there striping and painting the curb all along 10th Street."
Martinez is one of many stripers whose career was profoundly influenced by the Greek.
"If it hadn't been for Tommy allowing me to hang around his shop, I'd never have continued striping the way I have. Heck, I'm still doing teardrops after 38 years, and that's a tribute to him. In my estimation there are three great ones who guided the striping arts. Tommy the Greek, St. John Morton and Red Lee."
Another Northern Californian who learned by watching the Greek at work is Cary Greenwood of Castro Valley.
"I'd just started dabbling with striping in high school. That was in the mid-'50s. I'd heard about this real famous striper, a real painter, who had a shop on Foothill.
"I started hanging out there, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, just watching. It was amazing how easily he did it. I learned how to turn a corner with a striping brush from him. I never dared ask, but just saw how he smoothly turned the brush going 'round a curve.
"There was always something going on when Tommy was there. I remember one time a beautiful young lady walked in and Tommy, he was a real motorcycle nut in those days, says, `Wait here, don't go away." He hops on his bike, zooms out the door, comes back a few minutes later, lays the bike over in a perfect slide, dismounts and hands the young woman a bouquet of flowers, all in one flourish."
Greenwood laughingly remembers that after he opened his own shop, Tommy would send him work. Real clinkers! Like one guy who wanted a candyapple red job. Greenwood was enthusiastic until he saw the car: four different wheels, two mismatched fenders, and an owner with no bucks.
"Tommy's the guy," Greenwood says. "He's been overlooked because of the Von Dutch mystique. Nobody ever striped any straighter than Tommy the Greek."
In the early 1920s, America's fledgling motor car repair and service industries almost demanded that its practitioners learn their trade in a labor intensive apprentice system. It was not unlike the system used in European coachwork and livery houses. Training, if there was such a concept, often began in a grease pit, and sometimes continued there for years, with the trainee serving as a jack-of-all-trades raw laborer.
Hrones, now 83, remembers those days so long ago.
Tommy is the eldest son of eight children born of Greek immigrants who settled in the Oakland, Calif., enclave of Emeryville just after the great fire and earthquake of '06. He went to work at his uncle's auto paint shop on Oakland's Broadway Auto Row in 1925.
"Yeah, we'd work all day in the grease pit; freezing, wet and cold in the winter and hotter than hell in the summer," says Tommy. "My job was to pull wooden wheels, rub out the spokes with pumice stone and then varnish each wheel prior to painting.
"We'd rub out the car bodies with gunny sacks and then wax and polish 'em up. I could fix mechanical stuff too, but I preferred the painting, mainly the striping. My uncle John wasn't too good at that part. He'd shake, so they'd let me lay in the lines. "And almost every car made in America then was striped in some manner or another."
About this time, Tommy met a traveling striper and painter in Oakland, a Danish immigrant named Neils Hoegsberg.
"He was the best," Tommy recalls. "Always smoked a pipe. Came around the shops with a little box holding his cans and brushes. He did it all freehand. He wanted me to be his partner, but I decided to stay with painting."
(Hoegsberg's incredible handiwork can be seen today in the Cowell Hall of California History at the Oakland Museum of California. His gold leaf, swirl and scroll embellishments adorn a monstrous horse-drawn pumper engine, one that saw service in the 1906 fire and earthquake.)
It was the cars, striping, painting, and a penchant for the social ramble that kept Tommy the Greek ahead of the pack. By 1929, he'd scalloped a Model A roadster in blue metallic with pink striping accents. He'd already developed a signature, the Hrones hashmarks, teardrops and arrows, that served as final dashboard, fender or trunk lid flourishes.
The Greek's skill was enough to keep him busy during the Depression years. "I'd make anywhere from a buck and a half to three dollars per car. I was fast and could do a bunch in one day, but sometimes I'd only get six bits for each job."
Tommy owned and sold dozens of cars in the '30s. He claims to have owned over 75 cars in his life, mostly Caddy sedans. That doesn't even take into account the endless stream of Indian, Triumph and Harley-Davidson motorcycles he's owned.
His penchant for expressive styling eventually led to experimentation with early customs. In 1937, he restyled a '36 Ford Phaeton by removing the running boards, adding a DuVal windshield, molding off the door handles, adding fender skirts and bobbing the trailing edge of the front fenders, a la contemporary Caddy-LaSalle styling.
In '44 and '45, he completed an all-black '40 Merc convertible with molded-in seamless fenders, sunken taillights and a recessed license plate bracket, gleaming moondisc hubcaps, Appleton spots and a Carson top. The Hrones' list of projects is almost immeasurable.
"If your car wasn't done by me, you weren't nothing. I did five White fire engines that went to England during the war. I did airplanes, race cars, Jim Hurtibise's Indy car in purple and silver. I did the jet jobs for Dago (the late race car innovator Romeo Palamides). Stanley Dollar's "Hawaii Kai" hydroplane. More boats, kitchens, motorcycles, dragsters, commercial trucks, helmets...even toilet seats."
There are endless Tommy "oops" stories. Like the time he was called in at the 11th hour to finish up Jim McLennan's '34 Ford pickup truck for the Oakland Roadster Show in the '50s.
McLennan, a burly, energetic San Francisco Irishman who was president of the seminal hot rod racing club, The Pacers, and owner of Champion Speed Shop, had a reputation as a deft organizer, but one with a short fuse. Tommy, who's remained a dear friend of McLennan's to this day, recalled the incident.
"Yeah, they brought this truck in here about midnight and I started 'workin' on it when...oops!...all of the sudden I ran the line down the middle of the door." McLennan went ballistic! "Pretty (deleted) funny. We work our (deleted) off on the car all night long, and he runs the line right down the middle of the door. So what now, Mr. Maestro?"
Tommy, always ready with needle and bait says, "Gosh, what do we do now? I guess she'll just have to go to Oakland like this." Before Big Jim's fuse popped, Tommy stepped up, wiped away the line and zipped the job together. The maestro had total control of the situation the whole time. And he makes it seem so simple.
"You've got to get the brush filled the right way, not like water, but thin to medium, so it covers. But the real trick is to cut the edges, to come back and pick up the line nice and neat, real thin, real fine, almost the same color as the car, but so it brings out the color, adds to it," he says.
Tommy closed his last working shop in Oakland in December of 1994. Active and healthy to this day, he keeps busy with a daily round of golf, small restoration and painting projects, and his animal feeding routine.
The Greek has always had a soft spot for animals, particularly those that have a tough life as strays in the city. He regularly tends a route for his pigeons, cats and dogs.
Complex, feisty and charged with a mercurial temperament, Tommy Hrones was and is an artist whose influence is immeasurable. His singular dedication to his art is probably best captured by long-time friend Tyler Hoare. Hoare serves as chronicler in-residence for West Coast Kustom's Cruisin' newsletter and is the creator of a precious series of artfully illustrated monographs about the stars of the customizing world.
"Being a sculptor, I understand that the 15
minutes of fame is the easy part. The rest is the hard part. The artist
always has to have faith, even when no one else seemingly cares. Tommy
has always known who he is and what he's doing. He's a Picasso...with
the same personality as Picasso."
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