If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tales of the Rat Fink: Ed "Big Daddy" Roth

Today I watched for the second time the wacky documentary Tales of the Rat Fink: The Legend of the World's Greatest Kustom Car Builder Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. Ed Roth was a beatnik hero for many youth in the late 50's and early 60's. I was one of them. Like his iconic drawing Rat Fink , which was an anti-establishment alternative to Mickey Mouse, Roth was a counter-cultural figure that drew me into his rat hole. Starting in the early 60's I ordered his t-shirt catalogs, bought prints (which I still have), wore the Rat Fink hillbilly "crash helmet," and built Revell car kits based on Roth's custom cars(the Outlaw and Beatnik Bandit were so cooool!)

Roth was my inspiration to start airbrushing t-shirts of monsters in hot rods when I was 14 years old. I used to do them for myself and friends. I was a fan of Roth into my high school years when I cruised A Street, the "fishbowl," in my brother's loud, yellow hotrod Falcon, raced it on the back streets of Oxnard, California, went to the drag races in Palmdale to smell the nitro, and read Hot Rod magazine. The Kustom Kulture of Southern California in the late 50's and early 60's was symbolized by Roth's wild t-shirt and car designs.

Tales of a Rat Fink, narrated by John Goodman as Roth, shows just how influential Roth was not only upon a young generation, but also upon popular culture. Young people who wear rock t-shirts or t-shirts with other images or messages can thank Roth for starting this trend. In the 50's no one thought of putting drawings on t-shirts. It all started with Roth doing car club pictures with an airbrush on t-shirts because the heavy jackets used by car clubs elsewhere were not as appropriate for sunny Southern California. Roth's t-shirts sold like hotcakes. Today you can find Kustom Kulture artwork by some artists who worked for or were inspired by Roth in fine art galleries.

Roth was one of the first to fabricate his own custom cars through the use of fiberglass molding making his roadsters into sculptures. He was creating designs like nothing anybody had ever seen before. Roth was a master at pinstriping, which he picked up from another countercultural artist and car designer, Von Dutch.

Roth believed that his talents were a gift from God and that he was to use his gifts and share them with everyone. He attributed his car designs to God. He claimed God put him on earth to accomplish two things: build cars and promote Rat Fink! Amen!

For those interested in Roth I suggest Douglas Nason and Greg Ecalante's Rat Fink: The Art of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth (Last Gasp, 2003) and Pat Ganahl's Ed "Big Daddy" Roth: His Life, Times, Cars, and Art (CarTech, 2003) or watch Ron Mann's Tales of the Rat Fink. For me it was a trip...back in time.

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