The Lowrider community was dealt a heavy blow in 2011; we lost a legend and an icon in the form of Walter Michael Prey, a master pinstripe artist who changed the custom paint game forever. Ever the humble perfectionist, Walt lived life outside the box and inside the lines, never seeking the recognition and fame associated with his legendary works. Even though Walt has closed up the lids on his “one shot paint” cans, cleaned all of his special brushes in mineral spirits, put away his purple velour cloth for spinning silver leaf, and closed the doors of his studio for the final time, his work lives on in the form of the many rolling canvases this San Fernando Valley painter has left behind.
Born in Illinois and raised in Inglewood, California, as a youngster, the self taught and influential pinstriper made sure that in his high school years, he would be the teacher and not the student when it came to automotive custom paint design, styling, and pinstriping. Walt began doing professional level paint jobs as a teenager, determined to follow his passions and make his mark on life, literally. By the late 60’s the “Kid Striper” had grown up and teamed up with the great painter, Bill Carter at Carter Pro Paint on Burbank Boulevard. Walt was Bill’s pinstripe expert, and the word grew that Walt was definitely the go-to guy for custom striping. At the time, Bill would also take under his wing a 12-year-old worker by the name of Mario Gomez, who handled the broom duties at the shop, and in years down the road, the friendship between them would bring about the Candy Factory. Walt, who had always maintained the mindset of working with and not for other people, struck out on his own, opening up Walt’s Custom Studio out of a small garage in Van Nuys, CA. It would be in this setting that Walt would cement his genuine, albeit reluctant, iconic status when a project with Jesse Valadez would become the stuff of boulevard legend.
This project, one of Walt’s first full custom paint jobs, began in the early 70’s on a 1963 Chevrolet Impala, owned by Jesse. The initial design yielded some orange blends and swirls and Jesse ultimately decided that he wanted something more unique. Taking influence from the roses painted on a Mexican restaurant, Walt painted 40 roses on the car that would eventually be christened, “Gypsy Rose.” The ’63 was wrecked and a second incarnation of the car as a 1964 Impala was again painted with the roses theme by Walt, and this car was seen weekly on television during the opening credits of “Chico and The Man.” While this car gained Walt a ton of notoriety, it was only the beginning of many other iconic paint jobs that Walt would go on to create.
Walt’s talent was not limited to the garage, either. His abilities also allowed him to go into sign painting, lettering on race cars, and his favorite hobby of all; model airplane building. In fact, some of his vintage style airplanes’ paint styles and colors competed with his best custom paint work on cars! As the years and thousands of creations went by, Walt would devote most of his time to pinstriping, and sign painting. His work would color coordinate many a paint job. In fact, he actually made some painters look good as he would tie intricate patterns of paint together with his colors of lines to box, or frame things, into content. There were hundreds, if not thousands of cars that contained his artwork on them, and his work with the Lifestyle car club in particular produced more than a few masterpieces. He would sign his name, “Walt,” and the T was crossed with a small drawing of a hand holding a striping brush. He styled every car his brushes touched and the amount of talent he had was only matched by his constant selflessness and humility. While his love for the automobile design would never make him rich in the monetary sense, it did make him wealthy in friendship.
While the debate will forever rage about who the best pinstriper of all time might be, it is no doubt that Walt was the baddest, and, as I said at his funeral, I know that everyone who ever had the fortune of working with him appreciated his work and the value he put forth on our cars. Without Walt, a void will forever be left in our hearts and our garages, and his priceless works can no longer be fixed if damaged. Trust me, a lot of guys’ future paint plans have to be changed now that Walt is working on some stripes for the man upstairs. They always say that you have to bring roses to people while they can still smell them; it’s a saying that means to appreciate people while they are still here. Walt definitely knew how much he was appreciated, but even in his humble and selfless nature, his talents and the love he had for his creative designs will always live forever. Thanks for all the colorful memories you have left us Walt Prey.