The Legend of Jim Ganzer


Intro by Brian Lotti, photos by Jim Ganzer unless otherwise noted 

Many of us know Jim—or ‘the Ganz’—as the force and vision behind Jimmy’z, the iconic mid-‘80s brand with the baggy, Velcro karate belt pants and shorts that everyone from Lance Mountain to Tommy Guerrero to the Gonz skated in for years.

The invention of those loud and unmistakable pants helped usher in a golden age of style, inclusion and possibilities in skateboarding and surfing, and we have Jim to thank for it. But before Ganzer was a mischievous and trendsetting garmento, he was an artist and prolific photographer whose early work now offers a glimpse into another time in Los Angeles.

Like Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ganzer’s photos transport us back to an earlier, more innocent era, when it was much easier to connect the dots between artists, actors, surfers, and musicians. Jim has decided to give Monster Children an exclusive peek at some of the photos he’s been editing as he prepares for an exhibition and forthcoming photo book.

His early love of surfing and beach life is well-known, but Jim was also a seeker and explorer who headed inland on road trips and shot people and places from the perspective of an early street photographer. The influence of Robert Frank’s The Americans is evident, particularly in Jim’s photos of Downtown L.A. and the MacArthur Park area, where he captured the sense of the despair and mounting tension in the late ‘50s and ‘60s.

Kerouac’s On the Road was also a big inspiration, and Jim shot a lot of interesting photos from the highway and roadsides while driving through the Southwest, Mexico, and Central America. There’s a riveting series of images documenting a harrowing but ultimately successful trip to a remote corner of west Texas to gather peyote buttons. Some of these travel photos recall the formal elegance of Lee Friedlander’s photography or the lonely exhaustion of Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era subjects. If grandeur and pathos mark these travel photos, then his casual shots of friends and acquaintances read like a chummy yearbook of an early and intersecting LA art, film, and music scene.

Dennis Hopper and a buddy pal around in Venice and mug for Jim’s camera (the same hang where Dennis suggests Jim and co. seek out one Boyd Elder in Valentine, Texas for directions to the secret, sacred peyote fields). Legendary Los Angeles artists Ed Moses, Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha, and Ken Price all appear in several casual portrait photos, either being goofy or rapt in serious conversation.

There are also portraits of musicians T Bone Burnett and a young Steve Winwood. The Peckinpah sisters appear in some of the travel shots and also some of the portraits of people who visited Jim’s rented cottage on the beach in Topanga (when there were still houses there). Leafing through the many portraits Jim shot, one gets the sense that Los Angeles was definitely a smaller and much more close-knit scene.

It makes sense then that Jim would go on to found what we now call a ‘lifestyle brand.’ Jim was an original—a non-conforming artist and explorer who was well-versed in the culture. The branding for Jimmy’z (a guy in a Woodie with a surfboard on the roof) implied a non-competitive sense of adventure, travel, and having a good time with friends. The thematic seeds for the brand are visible in this early photography.

For anyone with an interest in Southern California before all the hype—and many of the people documented here that went on to really affect the greater culture—Ganzer’s photos offer us some windows to feel connected to this recent and rich past.

Jim Ganzer, portrait by Andrew Peters
STEVE OLSON

When I first met Ganzer, it was back in the mid ’80s. He was slinging Jimmy swim trunks outta his car and they were really wicked. Jimmy is one creative individual, always thinking of what is possible, and still working towards that to this day. Jimmy and skateboarding went hand in hand. Jim had surrounded himself with a lot of skateboarders working for him, myself included. He was also one of the first team managers of Makaha Skateboards in the mid-60s. The way to describe Jim to someone is easy: This is my friend Ganzer, he’s insane, but in the best way possible.

ALEX OLSON

He’s been around since forever. My mom worked, or tried to work, for him at one point. His daughter Sandy—who I’m just as close or maybe even closer with—used to babysit me. He’s family, basically. I have a much better rapport with him now than when I was little because I was probably annoying to be around, and he was an older man then—still is. It’s almost hard to put into words because we’d always just go to his house or he’d be around. I didn’t really know what his role in things was back then.

We were driving. I don’t know where we were coming from, but my dad and I would always stop at these mini golf courses on the 5 or something. I remember seeing one and just saying, ‘Let’s stop.’ Just fucking with Jim from the back. And Jim has a really bad temper. I kept poking him in his ribs. It was driving him nuts, I guess. So he finally said, ‘Ok, we’ll go.’ He pulled over. My dad, in his mind, was like, ‘I didn’t think Jim would actually do that.’ But we stopped and Jim told me to get out and he threw me in the back of the truck. He was like, ‘We’re not going.’ There’s an element of surprise to him.

He influenced my dad heavily. My grandfather was in the air force, but my dad definitely doesn’t show that his father had a military background or whatever. I think Jim made my dad more eccentric by being young and hang- ing out with him. Jim grew up in the ‘60s in the CalArts days with [Ed] Ruscha and [Ed] Moses and all those guys who became the big California artists, and I think he didn’t get his shine, but he was right there with them. As the story goes, he had to sell weed to make ends meet and I think his friends kinda scoffed at him for doing something like that. They were obviously different times back then. I think he was on the same road to success but he just maybe wasn’t as fortunate. He needed to make a living and pay bills.

It’s funny to think about, but Jimmy’Z was short-lived, actually. It just had such an impact. The best is the story about how he came up with the shorts. He had a voice in his head while he was playing baseball. He was looking at his baseball pants, thinking, ‘Huh, I wonder why nobody has made shorts like that.’ And he said a little voice said, ‘Someone did,’ and it was him [laughs]. Just the way he says it with his mannerisms is so good. He’s an amazing storyteller.

I was so young, so it’s hard for me to say, but I think he’s had a lot of influence. If you look at all the big companies at that point, like Gotcha, Vision, Stussy, it kinda seemed like they were the coolest ones, or the ones that got it the most, just from their ads and who was associated with them compared to what else was going on. It seemed very genuine, I guess. And everyone talks about those damn shorts. Whenever you bring Jimmy’Z up, it’s all that anyone remembers. But if you look at the photos, they’re way more stylistic and fashion-forward than all the other companies at that point. So I’m sure it had a huge impact, but I was too young to realize what was going on.

It was part of history. It’s definitely a building block for what we know today in street culture. It’s part of the evolution of what kids buy today, like Palace and Supreme and streetwear culture. So I guess that was the embryo of it—these surf companies and streetwear companies. It’s so hard to depict where the evolution of that actually took place, but it shouldn’t be looked over. They were part of it. I think everyone was throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what stuck. Jim, with his artist background, was probably a little more ahead of everyone. He was a little more conceptual compared to surfers like Shawn Stussy, who was a shaper. Ganzer had a whole other past of art history in his head that he could reference, so he knew how to navigate a little better. He had a leg up against all the other people who were making brands at that point.

He’s a very big part of that Southern California surf and art culture. I think a lot of people pine for that idea of California in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. He’s part of that longboard, Miki Dora, Malibu Point wall… all of that, he was a big faction in all that took place.

I think a part of him feels like a failure that he didn’t grow with his contemporaries in the fine art community. Or maybe something eats at him that he didn’t get to be an Ed Ruscha, and I say that in the most polite way possible. What do they say? When you become a famous artist, you’re dead. There’s some quote like that. When you become rich and famous as an artist, you’re already dead. Not that I would ever want him to pass, but I think he was unrecognized as a talent that never got his flowers.

I’ve only seen his art in one art show in Venice. It wasn’t that long ago, and I was like, ‘Wow, you’re just as good as these other guys.’ It was cool to see him get some shine. When you talk to him, he’s very well-educated and well-spoken about art. He really has the vernacular for it. Anytime you see a master at something, you’re taken aback, like, ‘Wow, this guy really knows what he’s doing.’ I don’t like talking about art to anyone, and especially not to Jim, because I don’t want to sound too dumb. He’s definitely a rare breed.

NATAS KAUPAS

As a weird, shy and quiet kid, I recognized Ganzer as one of the good adult weirdos. Skip introduced me; they were neighbours in Topanga. I wore some of the very first Jimmy’z shorts to my first photo shoot with Stecyk, which made the cover of Thrasher and might have endeared me to him. Ganzer was always really nice.

I was never sure how to engage with him—or most people, really—but I would watch as he combined and created from a multitude of sources. Inspiring and dazzling, I still think about the things he shared, how he put them together and how the outcome seemed elevated but with a human touch. The world could use more Ganzer.

As far as Jimmy’z and skateboarding goes, I thought the colours and patterns were so perfect for the time—and it looks like I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. The gap between mainstream fashion and streetwear was purposefully larger back then. Jim Ganzer was looking to step up to the big design houses with his vision, play by their rules, and show people how they should dress, all from his Southern California coastal perspective—that’s my take on the situation. His confidence in the dusty California surf and skate sensibilities gave us—or at least me—faith in what we were doing from a design perspective. I carry that inspiration to this day.

Ganzer made our scrappy scene sexy and relevant. You have to remember this was before the Dogtown movie. His version of ‘sexy’ was truly titillating, but not just someone shoving their cleavage in your face and saying, ‘fuck me,’ but real flirtation that felt like it had intent and came from a place you wanted to be.

Dave Hackett

Most people inside and outside of skateboarding or surfing don’t know the impact Jim Ganzer had on the world, on our culture. Aside from his deep surf and skate roots, he attended Art Center in Los Angeles and became, in my honest opinion, one of the greatest post-war American modern contemporary artists of his era, including Ed Ruscha, Peter Alexander, Laddie John Dill, Chuck Arnoldi, Ron Cooper, and Billy Al Bengston. In addition to his avant-garde painting style, Jim would invent and build his own brushes from pieces of palm trees and other interesting items found in the jungles of Costa Rica, where he purchased 20 acres of beachfront property in the early ‘70s with legendary surfboard shaper, Robbie Dick.

I met Jim in 1983 at a party at my former father-in-law’s [Tilton Gardner] home in Santa Monica canyon. ‘Tilt’ was a very successful stock broker whose company Morgan, Olmstead, Kennedy, and Gardner had a seat on the NYSE. Tilt was an avid modern and contemporary art collector and was also a wealth and investment manager for artists such as Laddie Dill, Chuck Arnoldi, and even famous architect Frank Gehry. 1983 was the year my brother murdered our mother and destroyed our family. I think Tilt suggested to Jim that it would be a good idea if he took me under his wing and gave me a job as I was kinda spiralling out of control at 24-years-old, with the best years of my competitive skateboarding career kinda over with the death of the skateboarding industry in 1980.

In 1984, Jim invented the Velcro waistband and attached it to surf and walk shorts, and bam: Jimmy’Z the company was born. I had already been Jim’s personal art assistant, prepping canvases and assembling his famous ‘Ganzer Stands’ out of palm fronds and scrap marble we would salvage from dumpsters and surfboard resin. I loved that gig. And Ganzer made me laugh every day and sometimes all day long. We had so much fun it was crazy. When Jimmy’Z the company was launched, I was in the perfect position to help pro- mote the brand by taking the shorts to backyard skateboard contests and helping get all my pro skateboard buddies behind the brand, and many of them sponsored by the brand. This included Christian Hosoi, Steve Caballero, Dave Duncan, Scott Oster, Steve Olson, ‘Block’, and Eric Dressen!

I would say that Jim Ganzer was the most important influence to not only my own art career, but also the surf and skate industry. We started Jimmy’Z at Jim’s funky art studio in Topan- ga Canyon with a $16,000 loan from his art dealer, Jim Corcoran. By the fourth year, we were writing $40 million in orders, going up against the established brands like OP Sunwear, Body Glove, and Stussy.

Ganzer also influenced me in that he knows how to not take life so seriously, and how to take an F’d up situation and create something new and fresh out of it almost instantaneously. He truly is a genius in his own right and one of the most creative and underrated artists of his era. He helped save my life by showing me that the only thing we can count on in life is change, and I got to see, participate in, and also create literally thousands of tee shirt designs, logos, fabric prints, and ads for Jimmy’Z from 1984 until we were bought out in 1989 by Ocean Pacific Sunwear. It was one of the greatest times of my life, and I consider Ganzer the creative father I never had. I am forever grateful for the times we spent together and think of him often. Long live Jimmy’Z!

C.R. STECYK III

Given Jim’s integral positioning in these crucial interchanges, it was inevitable that he would emerge as a venerated consiglieri of the coast. ‘Surf, Skate, Relate. Velcro—it’s the mating call of the ’80s. EZ IN, EZ OUT.’ Ganzer conjures up unisex, infinitely adjustable clothing. Natas Kaupas, Ry Cooder, Christian Hosoi, Jonny Ray Bartel, David Hackett, Steve Olson, and Stevie Ray Vaughan were early endorsers of a brand with a unique trajectory that is now approaching its fortieth anniversary.

Appropriate to its 1984 founding, the magic Jimmy’Z debut was a composited ’64 portrait of Jim sitting in his ’49 Ford Woody while the aquatic, atomic ’46 Baker blast at Bikini Atoll exploded in the background. The resultant radioactive mushroom cloud of vaporized sea water and nautical debris constituted both the new dawn and the coming storm. In 2022, a photo of Doc Paskowitz’s family wearing Jimmy’Z attire is featured on the wall of a converted boathouse. This mythical structure serves as the set for the clandestine oceanfront HQ of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). LL Cool J, the lead thespian of this police procedural dramatic series, has been known to inform viewers of NCIS Los Angeles concerning the importance of the previously described clan and photo. The dystopian confusion of a genuine rapper, in the guise of a fictional naval detective, delivering true information about an actual family, based upon a real photo appearing on a Hollywood production set—and the conspicuous display of the aforementioned nuclear woody brand mark—qualifies as uber gesamtkunstwerk and is ultimately, very Ganzer.

RON COOPER

People have underestimated Ganzer because he’s not very pushy about his art. We’ve done a lot of stuff together so I’m really glad this boy from Blue Island, Illinois is getting his comeuppance right now.

You’ve seen that article about him as the inspiration behind Jeff Bridge’s character in that movie [The Big Lebowski] and going on a ride with the filmmakers. Now, Ganzer and I—I can’t remember exactly the year, but somewhere in the ‘70s—were up on a hillside in Malibu before you go down a hill to Trancas, standing there on a piece of land with Jeff and Beau Bridges, shooting the shit. All these insane beach guys, Ganzer knew them all. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love Ganzer.

[Billy Al] Bengston was the big shot in Venice. Larry Bell was a very fantastic mentor and friend to all of us. [Robert] Irwin was a friend. You know, that whole scene. But Ganzer was a dedicated surfer, okay. And he lived in Topanga. I’m now more interested in building hot rods than I am in making art, just about. And I understand, out of sight, out of mind. And also, everyone at that time did series of works. In other words, they developed a concept and they made 10, 12, 20 pieces within that concept so it was understandable as a body of work.

Well, Ganzer would make one unique piece and move onto the next one. So it didn’t fit the mold of what an artist was back then. He was just as talented as anyone, though. We did this show in Denver—Larry Bell, Ganzer, myself, and more—and we all drove there in a Cadillac. Ganzer was really close with Ed Ruscha. We drove to Mexico together one time, all the way up through Baja before there were any paved roads. He did some beautiful pieces there. And Larry Bell talking about Ganzer’s wall—that leaning wall. So, it just took special people to understand who he was and what he was doing.

There was a spontaneity and freedom. He was free from that silly notion of having to do a series, he could explore what he wanted. His photography is the same deal—Ganzer was free to do anything photographically. As a matter of fact, one of my most successful pieces ever was this piece called Floating Volume of Light. I said, ‘Jim, how do you photograph this thing?’ And he said, ‘Just open the lens, leave it open, and count to 25. Just experiment.’ And I captured this photo of two beams of light intersecting and creating this floating volume. He was responsible for that. He had a camera wherever we went. He had an underwater camera. He was always creating.

Everyone gets known for something. You may know him from Jimmy’Z. But among the art world, he’s known. Among our peers, he’s well-known and respected and loved. Have you seen his ‘Ganzer Stands’? I have two of them. All my art friends have them; we love them. And we also had a thing called ‘Ganzer’s Angle’ where he’d just place something a certain way. And it was him. We just love him.

To read more from Issue #70 of Monster Children, pick up a copy here

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