rat fink

by Art Chantry (art@artchantry.com)

ED ROTH (given the name”big daddy” by one of his model kit clients) is one of those iconic pop culture figures of the last half-century. there is an awful lot of things that we take for granted that he either ‘invented’ or popularized. his great talent was that of an art director (much of what he is famous for was actually created by a talented staff of artists), but his sheer crazy hustling skills didn’t hurt either. at his peak (think ‘rat fink’), he was hawking his name on custom cars, monster models, spray paint, key rings, comic books, chopper magazines, tshirts, lp records (he sang), car models, paint, decals, hats, motorcycles, pinstriping ‘how to’ books, bubble gum machine novelties, and kiddie coloring books (among so many many other things). you tend to lose track of everything he was hustling. all the while he still found time build crazy custom show cars and to hit the car circuit and sell hand-airbrushed tshirts custom made right there in front of you. ed ‘big daddy’ roth was a BRAND – and practically a force of nature.

AC:...that's also why i don't truly believe what he said to me. i think he might have been hustling me. but, just the same, it's sorta nice to think it may be true in some small way....

within a few years of his peak, he succumbed to a number of bad influences (too sordid to go through here) and collapsed. he retreated to a job at knott’s berry farm, where for something like 19 years he was the resident signpainter. he eventually met a “good woman” (his words) who happened to be a mormon, converted, and then began to raise a new family. that’s a big shift for a man who used to ride with the hell’s angels motorcycle club.

one of the fun things we used to do at the rocket was every year we’d save our pennies (literally) and hire a “famous guy” to do a cover. over the years we had notables do covers such as don martin, von dutch, nathan gluck, milton glaser, drew friedman, matt groening, lynda barry, jamie hernandez and many others.

back in 1985, i was rather fascinated by ed roth’s career. a conversation with peter bagge had reminded me about him and i began to research all i could about the man. there was an enormous amount of information (even articles by tom wolfe) and imagery (he was photographed in ridiculous outfits and his face graced almost every product package he was involved with. the adverts are hilarious). he launched the careers of a huge percentage of the underground art scene, but he seemed to have vanished.

i was able to find a connection to him and called him up. i called him at knott’s berry farm. he was thrilled to chat with a ‘youngster’ and was excited that anybody under the age of 40 knew who he was anymore. he talked excitedly about huge plans for his ‘rat fink’ character in a new comic strip (as a force for good and help save the children!) he eventually tried to talk bob newman (my editor) into running it in the rocket. i think we actually did run it for a few issues. i can’t rightly remember.

i asked him if he’d like to do a cover for our crappy little mag. he declined, explaining he still thought of rock and roll music as ‘chuck berry’. he was hired to do a cover for a “new” rock band called ‘the birthday party’ (OMG!) and he thought the music was so disgusting that he wasn’t interested in doing any rock music projects ever again. he felt he had been conned. my response was to get his address and send him a bunch of rockets, so he could get an idea of it. he loved it! (we gave a liftetime subscription then and there.) we offered him $3-400 (i forget) and he agreed to do our xmas cover.

a couple of weeks later, i got a tshirt in the mail. it was airbrushed in b&w (i was to add the color with the mechanicals) on BOTH sides of a pit-stained dirty tshirt. you could still see the pencil underdrawing he did, as well. it was pretty cool.

i used only one side of the image for the cover art (the january 1986 issue – our xmas cover). bob newman reproduced it in his “magazine cover” series on his facebook™ page (http://www.facebook.com/ph​oto.php?pid=3729024&id=757​82447667). his recollection of the artwork is inaccurate, however. but, you can see the cover i cobbled together. i pieced the masthead from one image and pasted it into the other and then added all the color with zipatone screens angling them like to moire patterns to create the 4-color builds. no kidding. i really did that.

the image i reproduce here today is the UNUSED image, the one drawn on the other side. i still have it. it’s a little tamer than the one we used and presents all of roth

17;s characters. i don’t think this image has ever been presented publicly before.

soon after this interaction, i was asked by steve heller to right a little piece about my working with ed roth for the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) Journal, the publication he was editing at the time. my article got distributed to the power elite of american graphic design. one west coast designer – michael manwaring (who actually started out in design by becoming a pin striper at the ripe age of 14 – his striping name was “manwell”) read the article and was blown away. roth was one of his childhood heroes.

he contacted me and wanted to get a hold of roth. it seems manwaring was booking the speakers at the Stanford Design Conference (one of the best conferences and greatly mourned). so, ed ‘big daddy’ roth was booked to present! even better, he was the HIT OF THE SHOW! everybody thought he was absolutely erudite and wonderful. witnesses claimed he managed to hit everything square on the head and was mobbed by all of the hoity-toity designer culture mavens. pretty cool.

5 (or so) years later, ed roth made an appearance at the ‘kustom kulture show” (i did the poster) at coca (center on contemporary art) – an exhibit in an ‘art gallery” of kustom kulture art that included one of his cars and many of his paintings and graphics (rat fink was the mascot of the movement.) true to form, he was huckstering tshirts and prints and stickers and what not at a booth inside the gallery – just like the he would at a car show.

i approached him to introduce myself to him (for the first time). he did a double take and said, “you’re the one.” i didn’t quite understand and said , “huh?” he then said to me, “it was you who kickstarted my second career. i owe you.” i was floored, flabbergasted. how do you respond to your godhead thanking you for … what? admiring him? i sorta stumbled and muttered and got his autograph and wandered off.

i dunno if he was one of those ‘butter them up’ sorta guys or whether he was honestly sincere in what he said. but, i have to admit, i beamed inside. the idea that i could have been a part of a link in a chain helping out a man who taught me so much is truly a wonderful thought to work with.


AC: i see roth’s big contribution as his ‘studio’ efforts. he took other folk’s ideas and made them his. even rat fink was bastardization of stanley ‘mouse’ miller’s work. roth hired yet another guy to do the bastardized version of mouse to make rat fink.) ‘dirty doug’ actually designed and built most of roth’s show cars. even the name ‘big daddy’ was a media creation.

but, roth took it and MARKETED it. he began silkscreening those monster-driving-a-hot-rod tshirts. he made decals and advertisied in car mags. he made the deals with the model kit companies. he published. he hustled hollywood. he even walked into a recording studio and SANG (mr. gasser and the weirdos.) he worked it all constantly, dressing up in silly outfits and always always always playing every angle that took his fancy. roth wasn’t an ARTIST, he was a CAPITALIST! we should all be so smart, ya know?

so, he was the guy who brought it to the world. otherwise, it would still be a local phenom skulking around california’s outer edges….frankly, i’m not even sure roth actually drew the cover art he sent. i THINK it’s his work. and it certainly is nicely drawn, especially for a feller who also claimed he “couldn’t draw worth a hoot.” …howie pyro wrote a book – and ‘auto biography’ – for roth a number of years ago. howie claimed that roth was too busy/lazy/secretive/whatev​er to actually do the interviews. or maybe his memory machine was all burned out, i dunno. but, he told pyro to just make shit up. so he did.

people still refer to that particular book as true gospel. but, it’s all fantasy. roth told LOTS of stories. how many were true? dunno….

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4 Responses to rat fink

  1. Rusty O'Toole says:

    Guys who knew Roth well have testified that he had no fear and was totally frank in his opinions. If he said you kickstarted his second career, he meant it.

    As far as who built the Roth cars, we know he built the first Roth fibreglas creation, the Outlaw, with his own hands and to his own design. Others were designed by Joe Henning, Ed Newton and possibly others. Dirty Doug did do a lot of work on the bodies, Fritz Voight did motors, Watson did paint jobs, and so forth. But Roth always kept complete artistic control. Sometimes to the chagrin of those around him.

  2. Rusty O'Toole says:

    It’s also important to note that after the fame and his original shop and staff disappeared, he built a series of trikes, 3 wheeled cars, 4 wheeled cars and motorized putt putts (wheelbarrows etc). No one doubts that these were his own creations, built to his designs by his own hands.

    He regarded building hot rods, trikes etc as his calling. The car shows, T shirts, rat finks and the rest were what he did for a living or for fun.

  3. Howie Pyro says:

    well…ya know, about half or more was from his mouth so at least there may be some truth in there…the rest was my warped fantasy fueled by Roth’s punkish “fuck it all” who cares attitude. That’s as good as the truth…and he read it and okayed it with a big grin & a hearty laugh cuz i made it fun & retarded…

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