Be the Artist: The Big Daddy Behind the Rat Fink

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Ed “Big Daddy” Roth took wacky ideas and turned them into an iconic style of the Kustom Kulture era. Take a tip from his page and draw a little on the edge. Image: Lisa Kay Tate

The Artist: Ed “Big Daddy” Roth

Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, the designer and cartoonist behind one of the most famous icons of the mid-century hot rod era, Rat Fink, was a self-taught artist.

Born in California in 1932, he took both auto shop and art in high school, but that’s pretty much how far any formal training went. He got bored in college, because the engineering and physics classes he took didn’t have anything to do with cars.

He picked up several useful skills through life, including learning to draw maps while serving in the Air Force, working on displays at a Sears, and later working in his own garage.

In the late 1950s, he began drawing exaggerated, over-sized creatures, and cartoon depictions of the hot rods and cars his friends had built. He later expanded this talent by selling airbrushed designs, known as “Weirdo” tees at shows. Once these started making their way into a popular enthusiasts’ magazine Car Craft, his shirts soon became a fashion craze well beyond just the hot rodding community.

Roth himself was influenced by the pin-striping expertise of fellow Kustom Kulture movement artist and customizer Kenny “Von Dutch” Howard, but Roth was the first in many design achievements. This included being the first designer to sculpt custom vehicles out of fiberglass.

Even Roth’s car designs became characters in themselves, like “Beatnik Bandit,” “Mail Box,” and “The Outlaw.” His bright yellow “Surfite” buggy co-starred along Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in Beach Blanket Bingo.

Roth’s work is still often the subject of several works and exhibits, but he also authored his own biographies and how-tos. Image collage by Lisa Kay Tate; all work © Ed Roth.

It is for his grotesquely wild illustrations and characters for which he is best known. Most notably, of course, is Rat Fink, Roth’s bug-eyed, snaggle-toothed, drooling anti-hero counter to Mickey Mouse he first created as a drawing for his refrigerator. In 1963, Rat Fink had blossomed into Roth’s most famous creation selling countless model kits, t-shirts and other memorabilia.

Roth’s over-the-top combination of personality, counterculture lifestyle (although he later became a devout Mormon), and hyper-exaggerated art has given him a cult following by artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers. Rat Fink and other Roth creations have popped up in tattoo designs, fashion, books (including coloring books), album art, custom car design, toy and model lines, and pretty much anything else.

Roth was still at work on new ideas when he passed away in 2001 at age 69.

According to several quotes by Roth from on his official site, no matter what he did in life, he wanted it to be original.

“If I find myself in a copy mode, I quickly shift to a lower gear and wheelie out,” he said.

The Project: Fink Your Fandom

Don’t worry about following rules of perspective and realism. Exaggerate, animate, and my all means, laugh a little. Image: Lisa Kay Tate

This project celebrating Roth’s love for what he did is straightforward: turn a favorite fandom, no matter how unlikely, into a crazy monster car drawing.

Since the purpose of these Be the Artist projects is to help people of all ages and skill levels to try out different styles of art, these Roth-inspired images will be not only a little less detailed than his work, but hopefully not so extreme. That doesn’t mean you can’t make this project as detailed or extreme…or crazy as you want.

Whether slightly goofy or completely outrageous, however, here’s three ways to give your hero, villain or creature the Ed Roth style:

Exaggerate. Exaggerate. Exaggerate! Besides making the character about two to three times as big as necessary for their vehicle, give the one or more of the following traits: bulging and/or bloodshot eyes, toothy depraved grins (often with lolling tongues), elongated arms, oversized gnarled hands (often clutching long and spindly gear shift), or wild, wild hair. In short, make them look really, really, really happy to be driving that car or motorcycle

I personally never go full-on gross, but you can still get the idea out, without the being too creepy, especially if drawing with kids.

face sketch
Don’t worry about realism. Go for exaggeration. Image: Lisa Kay Tate.

Bring the vehicle to life. Remove all concepts you have “rigid metal,” and give the cars some personality. Let them bend a little to look they are going over hills, or have them “rear up,” on their hind end like horse. Let them lean into the turn, flatten in the wind, scrunch together if the break or on, or fit themselves to the driver. Let them kick up dirt and smoke or spew fire. Find a way to take that one, immovable image and give it motion.

Be Colorful and Comical. There may be those who will argue Roth was not serious artist, but no one can argue Roth was too serious. Whether people find his work, displeasing or delightful, it was evident Roth had fun. There is nothing his work that didn’t scream, almost audibly, with enthusiastic joy. Give your drawing details, colors or situations that will provoke smile, smirk or chuckle to whoever sees it.

Practice a few car sketches before adding your “monster,” in order to get the image how you want. Image: Lisa Kay Tate.

If you want to delve deeper into the world for hot rod art, I recommend How to Draw Crazy Cars and Mad Monsters Like a Pro by Thom Taylor and another Kustom Kulture legend, Ed “Newt” Newton, as well as longtime hot rod cartoonist George Trosley’s How to Draw Cartoon Cars. The revamped CARtoons, also has a quick tutorial by Trosley in each issue, for those wanting newer drawing challenges.

Don’t try to draw every detail as you go along. Draw the basic idea:

Who is this going to be? Batman? Penelope Pitstop? Deadpool?

What are they driving? In some cases, the “ride” itself is as much a part of the character of your subject. Who doesn’t know the Batmoble, the A-Team’s van, or Wonder Woman’s Invisible Jet?

Once this is on paper, begin adding details, colors or little customizations, as the Kustom Kulture artist might say, which really make it stand out!

But, take your time. Roth knew the importance of not only taking time to be creative, but not forgetting to be yourself.

“Whatever you are…are it good,” he said.

Even the most unlikely vehicle can look cook with a little Big Daddy-style treatment. Image: Lisa Kay Tate
Even the most unlikely vehicle can look cool with a little Big Daddy-style treatment. Image: Lisa Kay Tate

GeekMom Lisa Tate’s Be The Artist summer family art series for 2016 focuses on American artists from the past and present. This week’s artist is the second of a two-part look at the Kustom Kulture movement.

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1 thought on “Be the Artist: The Big Daddy Behind the Rat Fink

  1. You would unironically a) put a signature on this work and b) post this in a public place and c) actually ‘instruct’ others? Who exactly do you think you are! Unbelievable, astonishing arrogance!

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