How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mighty Atom

Atomic City's Jim 'Prince' Hughes is living proof that the mushroom cloud of punk rock contaminated more than just musicians

Akbar & Jeff’s Atomic Hepcat Hut? Nope. James “Prince” Hughes in the maelstrom of cool that is Atomic City.
Akbar & Jeff’s Atomic Hepcat Hut? Nope. James “Prince” Hughes in the maelstrom of cool that is Atomic City. (Photo By Todd V. Wolfson)

History is important, but timing is everything.

Looking back, 1945 was a pivotal year for America, for Austin, for the embattled world-at-large, but most of all for the Mighty Atom. It being a war year, things were weird from the get-go, but by late summer, both the beginning of the end and the end of the beginning were in sight.

After years of secrecy and toil in the New Mexico desert town of Los Alamos, during which the finest scientific minds of the Greatest Generation harnessed their collective noodles together in an effort to curtail the bloodbath in the Pacific theatre, America dropped the bomb ("Little Boy") on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6. Three days later, Nagasaki got it, too, via the "Fat Man."

While these twin, ill-named harbingers of the Atomic Age effectively ended World War II, they also set the atomic clock ticking, ominously, while jet packs, flying cars, and the idealized gleam of the 1939 World's Fair, with its shining Trylon and Perisphere promising a better, pointier Tomorrowland, were suddenly, irrevocably quaint.

In Austin, a far more localized and less flash-burn-inducing birth went entirely unnoticed. Five months earlier, almost to the day, an entirely different type of little boy, no less unique for being an orphan, unceremoniously popped into being at Fort Worth's Edna Gladney Home for Unwed Mothers. Nothing too fateful on the face of it, but three months later, the tyke was adopted by an Austin-based nuclear physicist, Dr. D.S. Hughes, and his wife, Leah Belle.

The couple christened their new offspring James "Jimmy" Hughes, and the family, also including Jimmy's sister, split their time between summers in the possibly still glowing atomic hotbed of Los Alamos, N.M., where the senior Hughes worked, and Austin, where Dr. Hughes taught at the University of Texas, a position he held for 30 years.

"You couldn't have asked for a better childhood," smiles Hughes Jr. "It was the perfect nuclear family, literally."

Atomic City: The Future Is Now

Flash forward to Austin, right here, right now, and little Jimmy Hughes, long known by his nickname "Prince," hasn't had that radiant little kid inside decay a jot. Indeed, all evidence points to Hughes having a half-life far surpassing that of, for example, your standard daikaiju ("giant monster").

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mighty Atom
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

That fits perfectly, because as we talk, both of us are surrounded by daikaiju, not to mention enough postwar Japanese pop-culture ephemera to send your ordinary gaijin's ("foreigner") head spinning: Godzilla rules supreme, but also present are his triple-headed nemesis King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and even the big green guy's dopey offspring, Minya. Everywhere you look there's piles, stacks, displays of what can only be described as "cool stuff." Ultraman, Gigantor, they're all here. And that's just one shelf.

Welcome to Atomic City.

For 25 years now, Hughes, the tall, stocky, benevolent spieler/collector extraordinaire has been indulging his love of, as he says, "really cool stuff" on a daily basis as owner of the hands-down, boots-up coolest and most unique store in Austin. As the first local retail shop to carry original punk rock gear back when putting some Manic Panic in your hair could get you a beat down on the Drag or worse, Atomic City is an Austin institution. Imported English shoes, rockabilly style gear, Clash tees, plus toys, gadgets, novelties, even a talking, blinking, pricey scale model of Forbidden Planet's beloved Robby the Robot makes Hughes' retail headquarters a veritable riot of fun. When they say "Keep Austin Weird," this is what they mean.

PAUL MARTIAN SESSUMS, Criminal Crew, the Black Cat Lounge: "Atomic City is like the store you always wanted to have as your own when you were a little kid, and Prince is that little kid. And he actually did it, you know. He grew up and he opened the store that every kid in the world would love to have themselves. [In the early to mid-Eighties] Atomic City was to the punk rockers what the Armadillo was to the hippies. And these punk kids hanging out on the porch all day, they were the children, really, of the hippies."

When it comes to Atomic City's beyond-reality inventory, the guiding principle is simple.

"I have to be fascinated and intrigued by it in some way," shrugs Hughes. "It can't just be something you might find at the mall."

Prince as drawn by Austin artist Kerry Awn, 1973
Prince as drawn by Austin artist Kerry Awn, 1973

It's not just all for him, either, as any longtime Atomic City shopper will tell you. At least half the modus operandi behind the store is so that Hughes can turn his friends and customers on to neat stuff, be it the timeless paranoia of those old tail-twitching Kit-Cat Klocks, Gigantor ("Bigger than big, taller than tall"), French postcards, windup tin toys, or Japanese art of all kinds. Walking into Atomic City for the first time can result in some serious sensory overload. It's like stumbling through the looking glass and finding a new home. Granted, for some it's like stumbling into Videodrome without the safety net of James Woods.

"Some people get it and some don't," admits Hughes. "And I mean really don't. I've seen people open the door, take a look inside, freeze up, and then just back out the door really slowly."

They may not get it, but Hughes is still very much possessed of all the kidhood enthusiasm of Jonny Quest meeting Ed "Big Daddy" Roth at Zatoichi's pad for an all-night bull session on The Wizard of Oz's art deco production design or a marathon screening of Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse films. It's a defining character trait, an engaging gleam in the eye, that defines both his workplace and his home, which, it should be noted, is like Atomic City with more art deco panache. Or like the 1939 World's Fair had it been held in Oz. On Halloween.

HARRY KNOWLES, "A lot of people, when they think of me, they think of Hawaiian shirts and crazy shoes, both of which I get at Atomic City, and then they come over to my house and see all these coolass toys, most of which are from Atomic City, as well. Certainly to a large degree a lot of my personal geekdom is defined by Atomic City. In my opinion, it's the coolest store in Austin, Texas."

How's About a Nice Hawaiian Punch?

Now flash back, to the late Sixties: The proto-Prince, Jimmy Hughes, discovers the nascent Austin hippie scene via the Vulcan Gas Company and Armadillo World Headquarters. He also discovers something of a professional calling as the buyer for Doug Brown's seminal Oat Willie's head shop

"Jimmy had an eye for just instinctually knowing what people would want to buy," nods Brown. "He was always one step ahead of what the next thing might be. He was the one who anticipated Frank Frazetta's posters, and he ordered a lot of 'em. They sold right out. This was before anyone really knew who Frazetta was, or at least the mainstream didn't know. But Jimmy did."

It was Armadillo muralist Jim Franklin who tagged his friend as "the Royal Hawaiian Prince," which came in recognition of Hughes' endless collection of Hawaiian shirts, alcoholic beverages served in plastic pineapples, and the ability to chill out all summer long, day in and day out, lounging by the low diving board at Barton Springs Pool with Kerry Awn. The Royal Hawaiian Prince had that certain only-in-Austin panache that sprung from both the Armadillo World Headquarters and the underground comics scene of Rick Griffin, Awn, R. Crumb, and Franklin himself.

Then punk rock happened.

Prince of Austin meets King of Monsters. Ink by Rollo Banks.
Prince of Austin meets King of Monsters. Ink by Rollo Banks.

"When I got into the punk rock thing," says Hughes, "a lot of my hippie friends couldn't figure out why. But when I went to Raul's, the energy was the same. It was a lot of misfits, a lot of eccentric people getting together for the music. They didn't fit in, but they liked the music, and that's what brought them together. It was the same with the hippies – people that didn't fit in or didn't want to fit in and who eventually found other misfits and banded together.

In 1982, Hughes left his six-year stint at Oat Willie's and moved across the street (literally) when he was offered a chance to first manage what would become the Atomic City property and then buy out the previous owners, who'd been running a vintage clothing store. Initially, Hughes' longtime friend and running buddy Susie Lange, who owns Blue Velvet, rented out the store's back room before ceding it to Chris Gates of local first-wave punk legends Big Boys.

Gates renamed his corner of the shop "Rude Boys" and got busy silk-screening punk rock T's for a then-punk-rock-T-shirtless world. It didn't last, of course, but I was there while it was happening, and so was every other punk in Austin. By 1984, Atomic City had become the place to hang out.

CHRIS GATES, Big Boys, Gatesville: "Prince is part of that original generation of 'Austin weird' that includes Biscuit, Uranium Savages, and Jim Franklin, people who made a working model for their life out on the edge. A lot of people are weird in their 20s, but these guys meant it, and they're still doing it. It's guys like him who have helped me discover that there's a way to build a functional life out here on the edge and not have to have your electricity shut off every week."

Biscuit and the Tatman

In the Seventies, Hughes first encountered the late Randy "Biscuit" Turner (see "Making Biscuit," Aug. 19, 2005), who at that time wasn't yet a Big Boy but already obviously on the same wavelength. Turner, as it turned out, ended up not only as one of Hughes' closest, lifelong friends but also helped bridge the way from the Royal Hawaiian Prince's days of hanging out and groovin' to the mellow stonage of Steve Miller Band at the Vulcan Gas Company to just plain Prince's crossover into Austin's legendary early-Eighties punk scene.

Thanks in part to Turner, but also due to his genial, friendly, and above all "real" nature, Hughes quickly became a mainstay at all of the punk shows: the Butthole Surfers in fire-trap Voltaire's Basement, the Big Boys at Liberty Lunch, the Dicks at the Ritz. Hughes was there, effortlessly moving between the fading Austin Armadillo scene into the shoutier, spikier sphere of punk and back again with zero of the repercussions you'd expect from such polarized music-based subcultures.

Then there's the magnificent tattoo artistry by the late but still legendary ink-slinger Michael Malone, aka Rollo Banks, formerly of Austin's China Sea Tattoo (see "TCB," April 27), that covers Hughes' entire back, legs, and arms. Done in classical Japanese style, it depicts a sinewy all-star lineup of the Toho Co.'s biggest box-office breadwinners, namely Godzilla, King of the Monsters, posed midroar, batting planes out of the sky, as Mothra and daikaiju galore roil across Hughes' broad back.

"I never wanted a tattoo," acknowledges the tat's owner, "and in fact I was down on them, but one day I saw a photo of a full-back piece done in the Japanese style in an issue of Ed Hardy's Tattoo Times, and I was just amazed by it. Maybe a month later Rollo moved to town. I ended up meeting him at a party not long after that, and we hit it off. I knew he could do it because I'd seen his portfolio, and so I gave him an idea of what I wanted, he drew up some sketches, and then, within a few days, we started on it."

The Royal Hawaiian Prince, freshly leid, 1975
The Royal Hawaiian Prince, freshly leid, 1975 (Photo By Kerry Awn)

A suit usually takes ...

"Well, we did the main back piece really fast, maybe a month. And then when he moved to Hawaii, I had to fly over to get the rest of the suit finished. That took about 10 years."

Mentioning Malone's unexpected death last month, Hughes is instantaneous in his praise of one of his profoundest friends.

"He's the other guy in my life, the mentor, kind of like Robert Moorehead, that introduced me to all this Japanese stuff, introduced me to other people who knew ... so much. He had a huge impact on me. He took me to a wood-block print show of Japanese ghosts and demons at UT in '86. It literally changed my life, because I had only ever seen the more mundane example of Japanese art, the geisha under the tree with a parasol, you know?

"The art Rollo introduced me to blew my mind, completely. I've been following that stuff ever since."

Keep Austin Weird or Die Trying

Twenty-five years in the same location. Think of it. James "Prince" Hughes and Atomic City have survived and even thrived in the face of the Internet, the mall-ification of punk rock, and the fickle tides of economics by selling whatever is worth seeking out, tracking down, and putting it on display.

It's not just that Hughes was the first to foresee the inherent cool factor in, say, Dr. Martens footwear and rainbow-colored hair dye, nor is it simply because he likewise forecast decades before anyone else the inherent coolness of those Atomic Age icons of Japanese pop culture, Godzilla and Astroboy, although he did just that, predating America's current and seemingly endless infatuation with everything from Akira to Iron Chef and from pulpy manga mags to the even pulpier hypervibe of Quentin Tarantino's Yakuzafied Kill Bill.

Outgoing, amiable, frighteningly intelligent on a wealth of obscure topics that runs the gamut from Japanese mythology and printmaking to the history of the 1939 World's Fair and from the style-conscious, fashion-fast-forward of quality footwear for the aesthetically daring (Canadian designer John Fluevog) to the history of Halloween collectibles and the timeless appeal of zeppelins, Weimar-era Berlin, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and the forever fun duality of the robot as both self and other, Hughes is the type of Austinite to just hang with and keep your mouth shut and ears, eyes, and heart open.

Come to think of it, when it comes to Hughes, heart is what it's all about. Atomic City is that rarest of commercial commodities, a solo-run retail shop that mirror-balls its owner's energetically inexhaustible sense of curiosity about not just shoes and the films of Akira Kurosawa vs. Ishirô Honda vs. Gigantor ("Ready to fight for right, against wrong!") but, more importantly, about mankind and art and the sheer joy of discovering something new, something cool, something you've never even thought to think of before but that is there nevertheless and always has been, idling at the corner of Wow Street and Supercool Boulevard.

For Jim "Prince" Hughes, Atomic City has never been about running a store or generating cash flow. By his own admission, he hates playing the part of the businessman. At the end of the day, he'd much rather just be playing. end story

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