Saturday, 31 May 2008 10:00

Late Custom Chopper Artist Honored with Airbrushed Memorial Tank

Written by Rich Evans

When I decided to add a custom motorcycle department to my medieval-themed shop, the first name that came to mind was Johnny Chop. What I liked immediately about him was his reputation for being an actual craftsman and not just a builder. He already had ties to Huntington Beach, so  it seemed like a good idea to at least approach him to get his thoughts. Once we met and ironed out some details, Johnny moved his bikes to the shop and joined our Huntington Beach Bodyworks crew.

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    With my love and knowledge of hotrods and his love and know-how of custom motorcycles, it seemed like the beginning of a fruitful partnership. However, less than a year later in March 2006, suddenly and unexpectedly Johnny passed away at the age of 34.
    What I remember about Johnny, besides never being without his bulldog Louie, is how genuinely respectful he was of everyone. It didn’t matter if you where the owner of a multi-million dollar company or if you swept the floors of the shop, you were always treated with kindness and respect. That’s probably what I liked the most so I’ll end there with my trip down memory lane.
    Shortly after Johnny’s passing, his mother Barbara Vasco visited our shop. After seeing one of Johnny’s chopper tanks, she asked me if I could create a memorial piece out of Johnny’s tank. To grant Johnny’s last wishes, she wanted his custom tank painted in his memory and his remains placed in it.
    Since I had planned to create a memorial for Johnny myself, it was easy to say yes. I immediately began brainstorming ideas for the memorial tank. Ms. Vasco told me she always liked the way her son looked in photographs, so we decided to have our exceptional air brush artist Kiwi Terry do a portrait of Johnny on one side of the tank and a scene of Johnny hammering out a fender on the other side with a silhouette of one of his bikes.
    A prevalent theme in Johnny’s work was an old school rose theme. They were usually gold or silver leaf, bordered with pinstripes all around which required a skilled striper to render.
    This called for Bob Iverson’s talents in one of the oldest arts of the custom auto scene, so I recruited him for the team.

Creating a masterpiece
I spent a good couple of days prepping and sculpting the tank, sculpting a little razor fin for the spine of the tank. It’s a style I’ve seen before in Johnny’s bikes. I started out as usual, by setting up the tank on a stand and then feeling it out to find the most obvious high and low spots. There were just a couple on the top, so I used my ping hammer to initially smooth them out.
    Next I broke out the grinder with some 36 grit and ground everything down. I applied the Duraglass and then went to town.
    Rich tip: This takes a little practice, but I try to start sanding when the Duraglass is hard, but just before it’s rock hard. After that, it takes a lot more work.
    Using a block and black guide coat in between sanding grits, I came in with 36 grit, then 80 grit to remove the 36 grit scratches, and then finally 150 grit. A few coats of PolyPrimer were applied and I repeated my sanding and guide coat techniques from the Duraglass stage.


    Now that the tank has been sculpted nice and smooth, it goes into the paint booth for three coats of black basecoat, followed by a couple coats of red pearl to help the metal flake punch out.
    After the red pearl base was laid down, I came in with a nice wet coat of inner clear transparent basecoat. In order for the flake to lay down flat, it has to be sprayed immediately following a wet coat of clear. The wetness of the clear and the flake gun itself are what makes a proper flake job.
    Rich tip: A big mistake that the beginner painter makes when first trying out metal flake is to mix the flake in with the clear and spray it through a paint gun, making the flake stand on its edge rather than lay down flat. This makes for a very rough and unattractive finish, so invest in a flake gun and follow the proper steps.
    Another important thing to remember when applying the wet clear coat preceeding the flake coat is to make it wet, but not too wet. Continue with the equipment cleaning stage immediately following the flake gun, just as you would normally. So prep both guns before beginning and have them both ready to grab at the same time.
    Lastly, after you have sprayed your flake and have put down your flake gun, let the inner clear set just enough so you can very carefully push down any flakes that may have not landed perfectly flat. I’m assuming that you know to always wear Microflex gloves when painting.
    To prepare the tank for Terry and Bob to render the artwork on the tank, I applied three coats of inner clear and the last coats of clear and let everything cure. I then carefully color sanded with 800-grit to flatten it out.

Freehand airbrushing
Terry began by masking of the outline of Johnny’s face on the left side of the tank and then based it white. He then came back in with his flesh tone colors and freehanded the portrait of Johnny Chop.
    Kiwi Terry uses a technique called sequential masking to paint his portraits from darkest to lightest. He tries to lay a down a very faint image of the darkest points of the face and then loosely comes in with the rest of his colors, shadows, and highlights. Everything is created using mostly freehand techniques which gives it a very realistic look. He then rendered some very simple silhouettes of Johnny working on one of his bikes on the other side.
    Next up to bat was Bob Iverson with his metal flake and rose designs for the top of the tank. Bob had the design for the roses on a sheet of paper and then used carbon paper to transfer the design onto the tank. He also used a stabilo to draw guidelines for the lettering on the side of the tank.
    He then used a brush to apply the gold to the roses and lettering on the sides of the tank, coming in next with a lettering brush to apply the black outlines and details of the roses and thorns.
    Now that all the artwork was done, I could bring the tank back into the booth and clear it. With a little color sanding and polish, our tank was ready just in time for Johnny's memorial.
    Adding the finishing touch to the project is a stand made out of Johnny Chop’s handlebars.
    I decided to write about Johnny Chop because it's been two years since Johnny's passing and I wanted to pay a little respect to a true artisan and an all-around good guy. We never reopened the bike building department at Huntington Beach Bodyworks. I have yet to find anyone that could fit in as well as Johnny did. But there could be some kid out there in a garage building and sharpening his skills in the same way Johnny did and maybe he'll walk through the front door someday.
    Until then, check out www.huntingtonbodyworks.com and the Huntington Beach Bodyworks DVDs for a more in-depth, step-by-step instructions of the Johnny Chop Memorial Tank.