Take a moment to think about the iconography from hot rod and biker culture that holds the most significance. If Rat Fink wasn’t one of the images that just appeared in your head, you may want to reconsider your answer, at least if you’re in earshot of anyone in the Lethal Threat family. In fact, we love that gnarly little creature and the mayhem he represents so much, that he just might be our number one choice. Our love for the rat extends to a love for his creator, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. His work as a custom car designer was defining in the Southern California scene, but it was his playfully malformed monster caricatures like Rat Fink that led to his now cult status as a pop-art iconoclast. You’ve more than likely seen shirts and patches indebted to Roth’s signature style, or even featuring one of his designs, including from us. If you don’t know the history of one of Kustom Kulture’s most underappreciated figures, just keep on reading. We’ll break it all down for you right here.
After selling airbrushed t-shirts for a few years at the end of the 1950s, Roth would come up with the idea for Rat Fink. The expansive pop culture effect of Walt Disney’s films was his primary inspiration. Life in a Disney movie is cheery, carefree, and upbeat, with any problem being easily solvable in the length of a motion picture. If this sappy, utopian portrait of life makes you want to barf, don’t worry. Seeing that poverty and suffering in the world were largely ignored by consumer culture, Ed Roth felt the same way. As a response to Mickey Mouse’s chipper demeanor, Rat Fink — the inverse of everything cutesy, sanitized, and family friendly — was born.
Rat Fink embodies everything that makes Roth’s style so simultaneously kooky and clever. Usually colored green or gray, the rat is known for having a dramatically exaggerated body shape to capture his depravity; including a twisted smile, eyes bulging out of their sockets, and rows of sharp, crooked teeth. While echoes of Mickey can still be seen in the ears and nose, this still comes across clearly as a new beast. He is usually drawn behind the wheel of either a car or motorcycle with the engine roaring, and even when he isn’t, you can tell by the look in his eyes that he’s up to some kind of mischief. No matter how feral Rat Fink’s design appears, the satirical edge of Roth’s intent is always there to serve as a self-reflexive wink, creating a sense of solace for the counterculture without ever pandering to a wider market.
Roth debuted Rat Fink with an ad in a car magazine in 1963, but that would only be the beginning. The design immediately caught on, and exploded. Soon enough, you couldn’t be a part of Kustom Kulture without seeing the backstabbing varmint on t-shirts, keychains, decals, and so much more. Rat Fink would be one in a series of unmistakable caricatures from Roth through the 60’s, including Drag Nut and Mr. Gasser, to name two. Each one was unique, but retained Roth’s love of absurdity (and flaming exhaust pipes). The most notable artwork of Roth’s post Rat Fink was the album cover for Junkyard, The Birthday Party’s seminal post-punk record in 1982. Just a side note: if you haven’t listened to Junkyard before, do yourself a favor and go do it! As soon as you’ve finished reading our blog, of course.
Long after his death in 2001, Roth’s accomplishments are still celebrated in the form of the Rat Fink Reunion, held annually in Manti, Utah. Hosted by his wife in the final city he lived in, it is the perfect way for those who still appreciate his incredible art to pay their respects. Even though Ed Roth will never be touted in magazines like Andy Warhol, his artistic contributions helped people in the hotrod lifestyle carve out a niche. Around the country, new Rat Fink reunions are starting to pop up for those who are passionate about his work. Rat Fink will forever be a symbol of alternative culture, and as long as we remember the man behind the rascally rodent, that is enough.
Ed Roth's artwork goes onto inspire even Lethal Threat's T-shirt designs, decals and much more. Here are just a few examples.
Written by Josh Sandler