When I think about some of these big trends & influences from yester-year’s import scene – the first thing that I reminisce on is the giant vinyl graphics. When imports first hit the SoCal scene, graphics were everything. These were the cars that you’d see in Garden Grove that would race up and down the streets… raising hell with the loud exhausts, looking like something you would see on Speed Channel (Speed Vision back then). I remember being one of those kids… and I learned at a young age that I could sit in school and listen to a teacher all day, or I could get off my ass and get a job.
My 1st real experience in the car scene was in 1996. I hung out at a local car shop, buying parts and shooting the shit about cars – great for a kid who had nothing to do. The shop then decided to expand, and with that he would need a right hand man, and that person was me. So in 1997 I had my first gig in the automotive import scene. The shop was called Karnage Graphics, and there, I started to learn the process of how a sticker was made, taped, applied, and sold. So of course – my car was quickly covered, and I was part of the craze I had seen and enjoyed so much.
For 2.5 years I learned the ropes, how to make and design ‘graphics’ and how to install them. I learned the now-classic “roll call”. (To those who may not know what that is it’s a sponsor listing typically found in a row under the mirror running down the side of the car. This was to show the people on the street or at the shows what products you had and usually gave you an idea if you wanted to fuck with them or not lol.) Back then, roll calls were fresh, racecar-type shit.
A couple years later, I moved up to a new job at a shop called Serenity Sound & Performance – doing suspension, motors, etc. Serenity was active in the show scene, and my sticker-knowledge added one final touch… yep you guessed it – vinyl graphics! And how perfect was it that he now had a vinyl installer as a employee (me haha). At the time, we would purchase our graphics from the famous Modern Image Signworks in Huntington Beach, CA… and I would install them. Over and over and over… work was really consistent, and I got really good at it. Well – the OG owner of Modern Image, Robert Wilson, noticed that we were buying a ton of decal sets. So eventually he asked, “Yo, who is installing all these?” My old boss at Serenity said – Joe is. So Rob (from Modern Image) looks at me and says, “You come in Monday and I will give you a job.” Hard to turn down – I went.
Here we are, rounding the corner into the glorious year of 2001. YEP – the year the industry-changing Fast & Furious comes out. Holy shit you would think it was the hottest thing next to sliced bread. People were selling whatever they drove to get an import, so naturally, they needed the coolest graphics to make the car look like it’s doing 100mph when it’s sitting still. Business was great! If you didn’t know, Modern Image did all the set cars on The Fast & The Furious. The “MI” logo was on the hoods of these cars… so people were paying top dollar to have it on theirs. Let me tell you how much of a pain in the ass it was to sticker all those cars. We’re talking 10 of each car… just in case shit happened on set. Days and days were spent sticking cars for that movie… and each one got more and more difficult and the timeline got shorter as each movie came out. I was really lucky to experience the first 2 movies, but due to things going on in my life, I chose not to do the 3rd, cause I didn’t want to spend months at a time in Japan.
I worked for Modern Image for several years as the head installer, sticking all the top-dogs’ cars. Stephen Papadakis had brought me his record braking hatchback. JG racing, Spacro, Wings West, Yokahama, Falken etc. I was living a damn dream – the top companies in the world calling my cell phone to do the stickers. In return, I got all the parts I could ask for. I got in all the top parties at SEMA. My work was all over magazine spreads, TV shows. Fame… and a little fortune haha. Later, I had a falling out with the owner and decided to part ways. Having done this for so long my brother and I decided to start our own company – and Backyard Concepts / Backyard Designz Co. was born. Our 1st year in business we had a booth at SEMA, and 7 magazine covers. Not too bad for 2 guys doing it out of a small office in the backyard. (Yeah that’s where the name came from.) I was working from home – creating designs, sticking cars, and doing performance installs. As business & popularity picked up on motor-swaps, the graphics trend started to suffer. Then the JDM craze came along. The ‘less is more’ type-styling… and graphics kits were out the window. A few angled stickers on the windshield wouldn’t pay the bills. So here we were in the middle of a recession – racing teams were parked, even good ol’ Hollywood (F&F) was taking a break. The graphics trend had died.
But if I had to name one of the key players/trendsetters in the evolution of the SoCal tuner movement, it would be hands-down Robert Wilson – the old owner of Modern Image. Coming from an enthusiast background himself, he did it for the love of the game, and turned it into something huge – knowing what cards to play when they should have been played. At that point in time – the import scene was all about getting noticed, and graphics setups drew a line between the newbs and the serious lifestyle dudes. And it seemed like if you didn’t have it done by Modern Image – then your decals were 2nd rate. Back then, vinyl could be compared to wheels in today’s scene – it represented a car at 1st glance. The car, the wheels, the stickers… made the decision in your mind if you were even going to waste your time going over to look at it. Haha.
If I was to sum it up, I would say it was probably the biggest movement for me, in my life so far. The best craze, and the most fun. I got to do things I would have never done, see things I would have never seen, and meet people I would have never got to meet. To me, that was the best part. The magazine articles, the DVD’s, and the TV shows were all constant reminders that – if you just stick true to what you love, shit happens that changes your life.
Trends are going to come and go. Like all the body kits, stickers, wings, 17″ wheels… to the 15″ deep dish wheel craze, the JDM parts craze… and I’m perfectly ok with that. It’s just important that each person builds their car the way they want – I’m a firm believer in that. What pisses me off is, on all the forums, you see all theses NEWBIES talking shit on the cars/owners that stay true to their heart. People forget where they came from, and what they once did to their cars. Anyone who has been building cars for as long as some of us went through these crazes, so to trash someone who finds happiness in what they think is cool is not ok. Obviously this is my opinion and mine alone. Maybe I just remember where I came from, and the trends I went through to be where I’m at today.
Some of you may remember a Yellow EK hatch on the cover of this very magazine in the summer of 2011 with a graffiti engine bay?? Well that’s my car. Wanna talk about a love/hate relationship! Haha. I have seen people bash it, and some get inspiration to stay true to themselves for it… and that is the very reason I built that car. No matter what, in the very end, I did what I wanted. I didn’t care what others thought, it was/is my project and I wouldn’t change it for anyone. I’m now in the mist of another project, and I can guarantee that it will be built the same way. I didn’t have my parents buy my car, it was built not bought, and to me that’s priceless.
If you would like to read more about Joe’s EK, pick up a back issue of Issue 21 here.