its a virus, i tell ya!

Once you catch the bug…

by Art Chantry ( ):

One time, while I was being tattooed, I was in so much pain that i actually started to hallucinate. no joke. After it was over, I curled up in a little ball and had hallucinations. guess what they were? hot rod monsters! big green slobbering toothy bug-eyed ghouls driving hot rods with flaming headers and a stick shifts that stuck up in the air.

Not surprisingly, this really piqued my curiosity. why hot rod monsters? where do these things come from? I’ve always been a big fan of Ed Roth’s ‘rat fink’ and Von Dutch and all that stuff. But, I’m also a gorehpund who loves my horror movies and devours dark zombie fiction like it’s candy. So, when faced with ‘break-your-will’ pain, why do I hallucinate a silly hot rod monster? is there something deep in every psyche that harbors crazy bug-eyed gooney monsters like that? is it some sort of Jungian archetype? can such a thing even be?

AC:after WW2, the 'displaced vet syndrome' was in full swing. old soldiers that couldn't quite fit back in to society were the foundation of most of the subcultures that dominated the 50's and 60's - bikers, rodders, truckers, surfers, beats, and on and on. we owe a lot of american pop culture to those returning soldiers who were so deeply affected by the war that they started alternative societies to deal with their experience.

The first hot rod monster (loosely defined for our purposes here as a cartoony bug-eyed monster driving a wild exaggerated hot rod) seems to have been ‘invented’ (created? birthed? hatched?) by Kenneth Howard, aka ‘von dutch’, in the early 1950′s. His was primarily known as a pinstriper. but he was also a custom car builder, gun smith, painter, musician and general jack-of-all-trades. He could build anything – and did. His creative integrity and ferocious inventiveness became so admired that having your car decorated by him became a great status symbol. Pinstriping your car was even referred to as having you rod “dutched”.

One of the things Von Dutch commonly included in his wild pinstriping work was little characters formed out of the interlocking stripes of his brush. often these took the form of exaggerated animals and eventually they became monsters. these little monsters became great ‘good luck’ symbols to the superstitious drivers and they began to request them from Von Dutch.

Read More: Dutch. AC: unfortunately, ed roth said all sorts of things to enhance his own legend. what is true and what is not is open to conjecture. i met him back in the mid-80's when i hired him to do a project (a rocket magazine cover). at that point, he was pretty much forgotten except by old time fanboys like me. i later wrote an article about working with him for a design trade publication. that lead to his being invited to the old stanford design conference where he was the undisputed hit speaker of the event. he later told me that it lead to the resurgence of his career. so, i had a very very tiny teeny tiny little footnote in his amazing career. i'm grateful to him for that. he was always extremely kind to me.

Of course, whenever something becomes that popular anywhere, other people try to to do it, too and soon there were many imitators doing monsters as well. in fact many of the hottest car cultures customizers were being asked to do monsters – even demanded – by their customers. so, what started as a cool little trick by a notorious independent eccentric creative pinstriper quickly became a fad. in fact, soon, Dutch even tried to market his work in little cheap ‘decal’ kits to apply to your car – including a monster or two.

It’s an easy step to go from making a picture on a car, to making a picture on your clothes. Von Dutch often pinstriped his own clothing and wore the shirts to events as a personal identity device. soon he was applying artwork to other folks clothing as well. this was the first known commercial application of graphic illustrated imagery to a tshirt with an air brush. certainly, graphics have been applied to tshirts since the times of slavery (where tshirt first emerged as cheap field wear – often with simple stenciled field slave numbers on them). in military and sports circles, insignia and team’s names have been silkscreened to clothing since the turn of the century. but Von Dutch seems to have been the very first to actually apply ARTWORK to shirts directly. It was his innovation. every rock tour shirt ever made owes karma royalties to Dutch.

The initial ‘monsters driving hot rods’ were also Von Dutch’s creation. in the early days, the most popular format for purchase was the sweat shirt (not the ts

). it took the ink better and was more durable. so there are early Von Dutch sweatshirts that still survive today that have images of monsters AS hot rods (their head is the engine, the body is the chassis, the hands and feet become wheels.) soon, he had his monsters sitting upright and steering the machines as well. thus was born the classic hot rod monster.

Read More: pyro wrote a sort of 'autobiography' of roth. trying to get roth to open up honestly about his life and the details of it proved to be rather difficult. at one point, roth simply said, "oh, just go make it all up." so, out of frustration, howie did just that. roth loved the result and that is what got published. little exercises like that really helped to confuse the truth of roth's history. but, everything i heard about the REAL ed roth is every bit as colorful and eccentric and extreme as his personality would indicate. he was quite a guy.

Soon, every kar kustomizer in america was trying their hand at it too. hey, it’s a capitalist culture, they were businessmen and the market demanded it. so, they tried to fill that demand. renown pinstripers like Darryl Starbird was making monsters, so was Phil Cushenberry. this advert I show you is one selling hot rod monster tshirts and sweatshirts created by none other than George BARRIS (king of the kustomizers, who did the batmobile and many other famous hollywood cars). But, his monsters were terrible and his efforts failed quickly. Barris was the king, but he weren’t no Von Dutch, ya know?

The most successful early hot rod monster maker was a chubby four-eyed geeky kid from the Detroit area who began to set up a booth at car shows around the country selling his pinstriping and monster artwork. he began to market (with the help of his mom) a catalog in hot rod magazines selling pre-drawn tshirts to order. It proved to be so successful that he actually became almost as famous as Von Dutch. his name was ‘Stanley Miller, but he took the moniker ‘mouse’ because his dad used to work for Disney studios or something like that. ‘mouse’ became synonymous with monsters. his logo of a little rabid crazy mouse-monster became one of his most popular selling tshirts designs, alongside his creations like ‘mr. gasser’ and ‘freddie flypogger’ (his star.)

Read More: got to slightly know von dutch for a spell. we had a correspondence that lasted about a year. then i made the mistake of hiring him to do a rocket cover and the whole process exploded in my face. it ended our friendship. i felt terrible about it. then he died. so, it goes, ya know?

In southern California, the popular and very very ambitious pinstriper Ed Roth began to note the success of Mouse and decided to go into competition against him. The battle was fierce. Roth soon realized he wasn’t as good of an artist as Mouse, so he went out and hired a guy named ‘monte’ (don monteverde) a hip dude who was making a living doing little decals for novelty companies using (again) pictures of crazy monsters. there was a monster fad sweeping America every kid in america had Monte’s decals on their bicycles at this point.

Roth approached Monte and hired him to illustrate some ideas for images to put on shirts. Then he also employed him to design a logo/mascot for roth as well. Roth pulled out the little ‘mouse’ logo and the image of mouse’s most popular character ‘freddie flypogger’ and simply said, “here, make it look like this. I want to call my mascot, ‘rat fink’.” Monte virtually traced flypogger for the basic structure and added rat-like appendages and an ‘RF’ on him and shoved him behind the wheel of a bucket T – and there he was ‘ the ignoble RAT FINK, vermin of legend!

Soon, Ed Roth was (as per his old military training and signpainting background) SILKSCREENING rat fink and various Monte-penned hot rod monsters on his tshirts, (thus bypassing labor and materials costs) and selling his tshirts through an even more ambitious car show/catalog/advertising campaign. He quickly became the leading monster maker, virtually eclipsing Mouse. the young Stanley ‘mouse’ Miller, gave up the hot rod monster biz and moved to warmer climates – San Francisco. there he teamed up with a biker/car dude pal, Alton Kelly, and became known as influential ‘mouse/kelly (later ‘monster’) studios’ and branded not only the Grateful Dead, but the entire emerging hippie scene with their graphic design and poster work.

Read More: Many people don't realize the breath and scope of Carl Casper. While George Barris and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth are household names, Carl entered into the car show rhelm with his "Exotic Empress" Chevy custom in 1960. Casper, who hailed from Flint Mich, now makes his home in Lousville KY., saw the deplorable state the unorganized indoor car shows were in and decided to start his own, eventually owning over 20 shows through out the U.S. while building award winning cars. In 1965 he won the AMBR (America’s Most Beautiful Roadster) award with his now famous "Caspers Ghost" (pictured), complete with its hand-formed body, twin-blown ’57 Pontiac motor and custom-fade paint scheme, that was followed up with Caspers Ghost II, a competition couple dragster that took the catalevered body style to the next level.

Roth, on the other hand, delved deeper into his kar kulture empire, hiring dozens of other artists to create the images and employees to sell them through his catalogs. he became a great art director. many of his former hirings went on to become the backbone of the youth culture pop scene. but, Roth was old school and stuck to his conservative guns.

Also a custom car builder (or perhaps, ‘art director’) his struck a deal to have model kits (so popular at the time) of his custom cars. soon, though, the model kit companies (trying to cash in on the universal monster models kits’ success) began to build and market Roth’s ‘rat fink’ and his other popular hot rod monster designs. The model kit company’s marketing department nicknamed him – ‘big daddy’. Roth loved it, jumped on the band wagon and never really got off. he became a national promotional figure himself – appearing in ads in crazy outfits and selling himself as a virtual cartoon as well – ed ‘big daddy’ Roth until the day he died..

Read More: AC: the bloodshot eyeballs are an unconscious tribute to von dutch. his flying eyeball was a classic and emulated by generation after him. freddie flypogger's eyes and rat fink's eyes were a direct tribute.

What Roth launched with his automation, excellent art director’s ‘eye’ and obsessive huckstering was pop fad that, in turn, created a tidal wave of imitations and amateur kids drawing their own hot rod monsters. every pre-teen boy in Amercia could draw their own “monster driving a hot rod” design. many put them on school book covers, bicycles and even their own tshirts. the hot rod monster made it into the movies and even onto ‘leave it to beaver’. the hot rod monster became as American an ideal as apple pie.

Now, 60 years later, the hot rod monster is as common and as ubiquitous as soda pop. you can’t visit a record store without seeing one on a record cover. you can’t look at an art magazine without seeing a monster on some canvas painting hanging in an art museum. the magazine/bible of the ‘outsider art’ movement, ‘juztapoz’, was founded by Robert Williams – who began his career working for Ed ‘big daddy’ Roth. artists like ‘coop’ built careers based on hot rod monsters (he was even asked to paint rat fink on ed roth’s casket for the funeral). bug-eyed hot rod monsters have become part of the American dream/nightmare landscape. it’s really no wonder they popped up in my hallucinations. they really are inside of our DNA at this point. like a virus.

One time I was giving a lecture in dallas (a very very conservative religious city). at that time during my talks, I spent some time talking about the career of Ed Roth. that would usually clear out a certain section of the audience (the corporate guys wearing suits) and leave the ‘real folks’ behind who were better suited to chat with. It was great ‘filter’ system at my talks.

It, Dallas worked like clockwork and I probably cleared out about a third of the room by the end of the presentation. afterward, I was talking to some of the audience, when I was quietly approached by what I think was the last guy wearing a suit in the whole place. he shyly came up to me, shook my hand and said (in a confidential whisper so no one else around could hear him), ‘i used to draw hot monsters. I how I started out in this business.” he walked away and I realized he had shoved a piece of paper in my hand. on the napkin was a crude drawing of what looked like cookie monster wildly commandeering a flame spewing hot rod. I can’t tell you his name, but he was one of the most powerful corporate design/art directors in the state of Texas.

It’s a virus, I tell ya!

Related Posts

This entry was posted in Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion, Modern Arts/Craft and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>