Anthony Di Liberto was just 15 years old when his mentor, pinstriping and lettering artist Alan Johnson, extended an invitation to join him in his striping tent at a three-day old-car event in New Jersey, the Dead Man’s Curve Hot Rod Party. The offer, the teenager learned when he arrived, was not to watch the master at work, but to work alongside him, as his apprentice.
That was just over a year ago. A senior at New Milford High School in northern New Jersey, Di Liberto turns 17 in November.
“That day, I became a professional pinstripe artist,” said Di Liberto. “People were coming to Alan to paint their cars, and he was handing the work right to me and giving me the money.”
To spectators, the pair working together could have been grandfather and grandson. They were witnessing, in essence, the passing of a mantle from one generation to the next, and a milestone on a journey that began years earlier. With his father, Di Liberto had been attending that same old-car event every year since he was eight. Each time, he watched Johnson work, and Johnson had taken notice of his admirer.
“You can always tell when someone’s watching you,” said Johnson. “They tend to hang around awhile, and you’ll see them come back each year.”
It’s a journey captured in two photos of Di Liberto, both taken by his father, Don, a technical trainer for BMW of North America at its headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. The first shows the boy at age 10, intently watching Johnson stripe a car. The second was taken at the same location on that pivotal day five years later when the two worked as partners.
Pinstriping for cars became popular in the early 1950s as part of the period’s emerging customizing trend. Yet, as Johnson pointed out, it was already an old art by then, having been used on horse-drawn vehicles and even stationary machines since the 1700s.
Johnson, considered a master of the craft by the car and boat owners that hire him, saw a bit of himself in Di Liberto. In 1957, when he was 11 years old, Johnson accompanied his father to an auto show at the New York Coliseum. There, he watched Ed Roth, a noted pinstripe artist and also creator of the “Rat Fink” cartoons, painting designs on a car.
“I was hooked,” he said.
Like his apprentice, Johnson began striping as a teenager. He grew up in Red Bank, N.J., a small enclave on the Navesink River, not far from the shore areas immortalized in Bruce Springsteen songs. When the Raceway Park drag strip opened in the mid 1960s in nearby Englishtown, Johnson launched his career striping and lettering race cars there.
“I learned by trial and error, and that’s what you need to do,” he said. “You just have to pick up a brush and start.”
By the late 1960s, Johnson was working out of a small shop behind a farmer’s market. With earnings from striping and a job at a Goodyear tire store, he paid his way through the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art. He was also lettering boats in the area’s marinas.
“After graduation, I got a ‘real job’ at an ad agency in New York,” Johnson said.
His favorite work was creating his own typefaces for ads. He continued his striping business on the side, and also pursued other forms of painting. Finding the advertising world stifling, he left in 1974 and set up shop in rural western New Jersey, where he still lives with his wife. He said he is always willing to help a youngster who approaches to seek advice on the art.
After watching Johnson, Di Liberto began practicing pinstriping, using just pencils and markers on paper at first, then later painting on wood or metal panels.
“I would paint on anything,” he said. That includes the custom bicycles he built during summer breaks using old Schwinn parts scrounged at garage sales and on eBay.
Johnson sent him a copy of his 2007 book, How to Pinstripe. After reading it, and before knowing about Johnson’s willingness to help young people get started, Di Liberto reached out with an email. The two were soon also corresponding on Facebook. Johnson sent practice assignments, and Di Liberto submitted his work for critique.
“He gave me two alphabets he developed, including a casual and a script,” Di Liberto said. “I practiced each one two or three times a day for several weeks, all in three-inch high letters, and sent the work to Alan. You practice until it’s muscle memory.”
Mentoring Di Liberto has helped confirm for Johnson that, despite some people telling him that pinstriping is a dying art, it continues to thrive.
“Today, there are more pinstriping artists than ever,” Johnson said, although he conceded that finding young people who possess both the desire to learn and the patience to practice the craft does seem uncommon.
He said he found those qualities in Di Liberto, and now he believes the teen is ready for his next challenge, applying the fine accent stripes on the great pre-WWII classic cars, such as Auburns, Duesenbergs, Packards and the like. Johnson has been doing such work for a high-end restoration shop in New Jersey, the Stone Barn, for many years.
“Their cars win Pebble Beach,” he said, referencing the preeminent concours d’ elegance event for such multi-million dollar cars held each August in California.
“That work requires subtlety, and knowing color theory and how the cars were made. You feel the body lines to know how and where the striping goes,” he said. “It’s much different than striping hotrods.”
Di Liberto said he’s ready to take the next step, and he predicts a big year ahead.
“Next season, I’ll have my license. I’ll be able to drive to shows myself and meet up with Alan on my own,” he said.
He’ll get there in unique style, too, driving a car he said fits his personality, a 1962 Chrysler Newport sedan that he bought last spring with his pinstriping profits. He’s already using his brushes to personalize the car.
After high school, Di Liberto plans to attend technical school to become an automotive technician. He’ll keep striping and lettering, though, and he’ll keep studying with Johnson, with an eye toward becoming the best in the field.
“One day, I’ll be there,” he said. “I cannot not be there.”