Line Man

Robert Schroeder was eking out a quiet living doing pinstriping and flames for custom cars. The Bon Jovi discovered him


Sitting in a cluttered auto shop in a sleepy southern Pennsylvania farm town, 45-year-old artist Robert Schroeder confesses that he's worried about groupies finding him.

They want to give the mild-mannered automotive detailing artist their demo CDs. They want autographs. They want concert tickets.

Don't ask him, he says - he's just the pinstriper for Bon Jovi.

"The chicks flip out," says Schroeder, who took cars that he detailed for the band to a show in Churchville. "[The band] told me, there's gonna be groupies here that's going to try and steal the tags. Sure enough, later that night, these chicks from Jersey are jumping over the rope, taking pictures, one's laying on the car ... ."

"He's as good as I've seen, but he's never gotten the recognition," says the band's longtime producer and sound engineer, Obie O'Brien, during a break between shows. "He's sort of like a beatnik. You could transplant him to 1960 and he'd be right at home. Money is truly secondary to him."

But Schroeder, who goes simply by his nickname, "Kobbie," is increasingly finding himself the center of attention. And O'Brien wants to see that continue "whether he likes it or not."

"I think he's got a very distinctive style; we need to enhance that and bring it to the forefront and make it his trademark," O'Brien says.

O'Brien wants to provide Schroeder with the seed money and connections to create a line of clothing for car aficionados. If successful, Schroeder would essentially be following the path of his hero, Kenny "Von Dutch" Howard, an underground legend known as one of the fathers of the 1960s custom-car craze.

Howard's signature was painted flames and freestyle pinstriping used to accentuate a car's curves and lines. People traveled from across the country to have him decorate their cars and motorcycles. The style was influential to many young car fans such as Schroeder who were captivated by the style in magazines and rock album covers.

Eight years after Howard's death in 1992, his symbols and style became synonymous with a line of clothing aimed at hot rod enthusiasts - and soon after became popular with a different crowd. When stars such as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher began wearing "Von Dutch" shirts and hats, blue-collar car collectors were turned off. O'Brien sees a void.

Following Howard's path, however, is almost what did Schroeder in.

Growing up in Pylesville, Schroeder said he was captivated by cars and automotive art. He idolized Von Dutch, who famously rejected his notoriety and lived on the edge of poverty.

At age 30, Schroeder quit his steady job at a color-chart factory to pursue pinstriping and was determined to live a life of poverty and suffering for his art.

"I'd do a job for a six pack of beer, and all I'd wake up with was a hangover," Schroeder says. His income hovered below $4,000 a year, and he was hospitalized several times because he was not eating enough.

Schroeder's first job for O'Brien was no small task - pinstriping the '32 Ford Deuce Coupe that frontman Jon Bon Jovi gave to him for Christmas. Schroeder did the job right in front of him.

When he was finished, he asked for his fee - $40.

"I said, `What are you, nuts?!'" recalls O'Brien.

That was five years ago, and while O'Brien continued to toss projects his way, he kept Schroeder at a distance from the tight-knit band.

Things changed this year. Before a show at Fort Monmouth, N.J., O'Brien summoned Schroeder to decorate a drum set backstage.

He's since painted guitars, effects pedals, equipment for technicians and toolboxes. You can even watch Jon Bon Jovi climb out of a custom car decorated by Schroeder in the music video "Who Says You Can't Go Home," airing on Country Music Television.

On a recent weeknight, Schroeder travels to O'Brien's home, north of Rising Sun, to discuss decorating options for a '34 Ford three-window coupe that O'Brien purchased for Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora. Schroeder shuffles through a variety of whimsical designs for O'Brien to consider - a guitar built around the speaker on the door, a whammy bar for a handle.

But those features will be for others to execute. Schroeder has become an artistic director of sorts for these wild hot rod projects, conjuring up designs and researching experts in those areas to execute them.

"I've got a whole ton of people, but I'm narrowing it down to one guy," he tells O'Brien. Soon, he'll meet with rockabilly star Brian Setzer for a future project.

"He's an artist, he respects the lines of the car and how it's made. There's something about that that's very important," says Sambora, who met with Schroeder on Dec. 18 to plan how his car could be customized.

Schroeder says he charges the band the same as anyone else - $40 for a quick design or $2,000 for a larger project.

Aaron Kahan, a graphic designer from Los Angeles who is preparing to release a book on Von Dutch, says Schroeder's fees are "decent," but the referrals he's getting are priceless.

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