What, you may well ask, is a Rat Fink? Reducing it to its most fundamental level, Rat Fink is a cartoon character generally traced to artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth sometime in the mid-'50s. But to describe Rat Fink as a cartoon character does him a gross injustice, because Rat Fink is so much more.
For starters, Rat Fink is the unofficial mascot of Southern California hot-rod car culture. Formally launched in 1938 when the first organized drag race was held at Muroc, Calif., local car culture reached a hipsters’ apotheosis in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the Beat Movement and hot-rod culture converged (the dry lake beds at Muroc were lost to the hot rodders in 1939 when they were appropriated by the military and transformed into Edwards Air Force Base).
More than a mere insignia, however, Rat Fink is nothing less than a philosophy of life. A demented ancestor to Bart Simpson, best described as Mickey Mouse’s evil twin, the gnarly little beast has come to be synonymous with a pedal-to-the-metal, anti-authoritarian approach to life, and for nigh onto 40 years 13-year-old boys have instinctively recognized that to embrace Rat Fink is to shout hooray for weirdos!
Last weekend was a big one for Rat Fink, who’s been drifting in and out of the public eye for four decades; he became virtually invisible during the peace and love reign of the Hippies, then began to creep back into view with the arrival of the Punk movement. Rat Fink’s return was made official on Friday when he was feted at the opening of an exhibition of work by Roth, Stanley Mouse and Robert Williams at the Julie Rico Gallery in Santa Monica. Further accolades came to the mighty Rat the following day at the Rat Fink Reunion, which was held at Mooneyes, a custom car shop in Santa Fe Springs that was the site of a similar gathering a year ago.
The Rat Fink Reunion has, in fact, become an annual event that begins at noon and stretches well into the night, attracting car nuts from all over Southern California. A combination barbecue, auction, pin-striping demonstration and automotive fashion show (you can count on seeing several insanely cherried-out hot rods at these events), the Rat Fink Reunion was originally organized by Robert and Suzanne Williams in 1977, and the first one was held at the Movie World Cars of the Stars Museum in Buena Park. It’s meandered to various locales for 16 years, but may have found a semi-permanent home at Mooneyes.
Located on a forlorn boulevard lined with topless bars and ugly refineries that spew smoke into the sky around the clock, Mooneyes drew a crowd of several hundred males from 5 to 70 on Saturday. A staunchly heterosexual scene, hot rod culture clearly inspires a breed of its own, and among those in attendance were several members of the Chislers, a car club from the San Fernando Valley that favors a vintage hod-rodder uniform: white T-shirt, hugely oversized Levis dangling on suspenders, and Rat Fink Hats. Also known as a hillbilly hat, a Rat Fink Hat is created by soaking a fedora in water, jamming it on the end of a baseball bat and pulling for a few hours. The misshapen results are straight out of Lil’ Abner.
Positioned behind a table stocked with poster reproductions of his paintings was Robert Williams, who was the art director at “Big Daddy” Roth’s legendary customizing shop in Maywood from 1965-1970. Meandering around looking shy and a little lost was Mouse, a Detroit artist who moved to the Bay Area in the ‘60s and became one of the most critically acclaimed proponents of psychedelic art; Mouse became an associate of Roth’s in the early ‘60s when the two were often pitted against one another at car shows where they hawked their work. Though all three artists have distinctive graphic styles, certain motifs surface in all their work; all combine a fetishistic approach to craft with elements of cartooning and Surrealism. And, although Roth is the only one of the three who actually depicts Rat Fink in his work, all of this art is infused with the anarchistic spirit of the drooling rat.
The origins of Rat Fink are cloudy. Though usually credited to Roth, the P. T. Barnum of car culture who popularized the image by merchandising it to the max (Roth oversaw the production of Rat Fink T-shirts, model hot rods, posters and all manner of automotive paraphernalia), Rat Fink can also be traced to the ‘50s Beat Movement. An ambiguous slang expression that entered the mainstream vocabulary via Steve Allen, who frequently used it on his TV shows that aired in the ‘50s, Rat Fink also has strong links to Mad magazine, whose dominant graphic style ia a dead ringer for Roth’s.
According to Roth, however, in his recently published autobiography, “Confessions of a Rat Fink: The Life and Times of Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth,” Rat Fink flowed from his pen after seeing “Fantasia,” which left him feeling “fed up with all the publicity Mickey Mouse was getting.” Roth’s status as a cult figure was enhanced considerably when Tom Wolfe made him the central subject of his seminal work of New Journalism of the late ‘60s, “The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” Even those who are reluctant to credit the 62-year-old artist with having created Rat Fink out of whole cloth concede that he’s almost single-handedly kept him alive.
Friday’s opening at the Julie Rico Gallery was mobbed. Though one might be tempted to dismiss the Rat Fink phenomena as nothing more than a nostalgia trip, exhibitions such as “High/Low,” organized last year by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and this year’s “Kustom Kulture” show at the Laguna Art Museum suggest that the split between street culture and the avant garde is rapidly closing. Artists such as Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Georganne Deen and Anthony Ausgang have done much to legitimize what’s long been dismissed as a debased style. Moreover, as this underground style is in the process of being admitted to the academy, it’s gathering strength on the grass-roots level.
So, say goodby to Beavis and Butt-head and prepare to meet your Rat.