Ed Roth began driving cars when he was 12 years old. It was in Southern California, right after World War II, and cars were what every young man was dreaming about. At first Ed did the same thing his buddies were doing: He'd buy an old car, like a '32 three-window coupe, and customize it for racing or cruising. Then, in the late '50s, he did something no one else had tried. He started building cars from scratch.
Using simple tools, junkyard parts, and a new, inexpensive material called fiberglass, Roth created automobiles in his garage. The first one was named, appropriately enough, the "Outlaw." It was proof that anyone can indeed do-it-yourself, without a team of engineers and a Detroit assembly line. All that was really needed was hard work and imagination.
Ed had plenty of imagination. He became "Big Daddy," a hot-rod Dr. Frankenstein who was more of a struggling artist than a mechanic. His garage became his studio. His cars were never meant to be driven: They were sculptures on wheels.
The Outlaw was followed by the "Beatnik Bandit" and then "Rotar." Big Daddy Roth had to finance his creations by selling T-shirts. On weekends, he would set up a booth at a drag strip or car show or county fair and personally airbrush shirts. He would draw cartoons of monsters and pictures of cars, but when he airbrushed T-shirts with monsters driving cars, people began to line up at his booth.
His most popular monster was a repulsive rodent named Rat Fink. Roth was a genius at designing cars, but it was "Finkie" who brought him fame and fortune. By 1963, pimply teenagers across America were buying Rat Fink model kits and mass-produced Rat Fink T-shirts.
His garage/studio evolved into the blue-collar equivalent of Andy Warhol's Factory. His new shop was located in Lakewood, California. Dozens of employees helped Big Daddy create more Kustom Kars, T-shirts, records, and Revell produced model car kits patterned after his creations. Rat Fink was soon joined by other gross, disgusting creatures driving the coolest hot rods.
Alienated adolescents who knew they'd never fit in now had their own heroes: Drag Nut, Mother's Worry, Mr. Gasser, and other members of the Rat Fink family. The message was clear (even if it wasn't the one Roth had intended): Ugly is beautiful, and being a weirdo is cool. It was a lesson some would never forget.
By the end of the '60s, the damage had been done. Those kids freaked out and found new things to believe in. Psychedelia killed the Rat. Big Daddy Roth started chopping motorcycles and hanging out with bikers. His business fell apart and he had problems with the law. He bottomed out, found religion, and disappeared.
Rat Fink and his buddies, however, were not dead for long. While Roth was living a quiet life as a Mormon sign painter, his creatures found a new life of their own: in tattoo parlors, underground comics, and art galleries. On concert posters by Frank Kozik and Coop. And on lots of record covers. Rat Finks and other monsters driving hot rods have become rock-art, icons. Initially they were embraced by surf musicians, but now they're everywhere. Countless punk and alternative bands have used the images on 45s, LPs, and CDs. Check out the cover of the new release by the Voodoo Glow Skulls for a recent use (or abuse). Bands as diverse as the Cramps and White Zombie consider Roth their own personal Big Daddy.
Ed "Big Daddy" Roth finally got the recognition he deserves. "Kustom Kulture," once looked down on as being low-class and disposable, is now being seen as a unique American art form, and Big Daddy is celebrated as one of the pioneers of the movement.
Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Robert Williams, and Others, Laguna Art Museum/Last Gasp of San Francisco. Pinstriping, hairy eyeballs and their effect on modern American culture. Revisit the hot-rod scene of the late fifties and early sixties, when Von Dutch, Ed Roth and his young protege Robert WIlliams were coming up with the visual vocabulary for a generation. This ripe auto/art/youth movement has inspired cartoonists and gearheads for decades. Check out this beautiful volume for the loud, hoodless, flaming, bubble-topped, bulging-winged-eyeball roots you never knew you had. Hundreds of full-color photgraphs and reproductions of canvases by Von Dutch and Williams make this well worth the price of admission. Published by the Laguna Art Museum. Paperback, 96 oversized pages.
ORDERING INFORMATION: Here's the info to enter into the order form! Item #22301B, "Kustom Kulture," Price: $24 - Order It! Hot Rods by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, by Ed Roth and Tony Thacker, Motorbooks International. Magazines...
Juxtapoz, features work by new artists carrying on the tradition of Ed Roth and Robert Williams. Available at hip news stands, or call 415-822-3083 Other Info...
Rat Fink T-shirts, decals, key chains, etc. are still available. Send $3.95 for a Rat Fink catalog to: MOONEYES U.S.A., Inc., 10820 South Norwalk Blvd., Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670; phone 310-944-6311 or 1-800-547-5422, fax 310-946-2961. For information on the "Hot Rods and Customs" exhibition, contact: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street, CA 94607; phone 510-238-2200, fax 510-238-2258.