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The phrase "to smell a rat," meaning to suspect or surmise treachery, dates back to the mid-16th century, when it alluded to a cat sniffing out a rat that it could not see. So, a "rat" became a slang term for a contemptible or undesirable person, a scoundrel, especially an informer or someone who abandons or betrays his associates, especially in a time of trouble. The term was also used to refer to a strikebreaker. A "fink" is largely synonymous: a contemptible or thoroughly unattractive person, a strikebreaker or labor spy, an informer or "stool pigeon;" as verb, it means to "squeal," to inform to the police. But "fink" is an Americanism that arose at the turn of the 20th century, from the German word for finch, which was a colloquial epithet for an undesirable person, especially an untidy or loose-living one (and was often used in compounds, such as "Schmierfink" [untidy writer] or "Duckfink" [sycophant]); students called nonmembers of fraternities "finks," probably by association with the freedom of wild birds as opposed to caged ones (much as the term "stool pigeon" arose in the 1820s in the US), and the term was later generalized to denote those not belonging to organizations such as trade unions. But the two terms were not combined until the mid-1960s. "Rat Fink" was a promotional cartoon character created by artist Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, one of the originators of Kustom Kulture that came out of the hot rod culture of Southern California of the 1960s; it referred to the artwork, vehicles, hairstyles, and fashions of those who drove and built custom cars and motorcycles.
Born in Beverly Hills, California, Roth was a custom car designer and builder who was active in counterculture art and hot-rodding his entire adult life. Aside from his vehicles, he became known for the grotesque caricatures that depicted imaginative, out-sized monstrosities driving representations of his hot rods. He began airbrushing and selling "Weirdo" T-shirts at car shows and in the pages of "Car Craft" magazine in 1958, and in 1959 he opened a customizing shop in Maywood, about 8 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. In the early 1960s he formed a novelty surf music band, Mr. Gasser & the Weirdos, which recorded three albums (especially 1963's "Hot Rod Hootenanny"). Roth conceived Rat Fink as an anti-heroic Mickey Mouse, the popular cartoon character created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks in 1928; Rat Fink made his debut in an ad in the July 1963 issue of "Car Craft." In 1962 the Revell model company began selling plastic models of Roth's cars and, between 1963 and 1965, his monsters, including Rat Fink; since then Revell has reissued the Rat Fink and other kits many times, and Rat Fink continues to be a popular item in the form of T-shirts, key chains, wallets, toys, decals, etc. In the mid-1960s, when a lot of Outlaw motorcycle clubs congregated at his shop, he began customizing motorcycles, but when mainstream motorcycle magazines refused to run his articles and ads he started his own publication: "Choppers" ran from 1967 to 1970 and was the first magazine to exclusively feature custom motorcycles. He also took black-and-white photos of some of the bikers and turned them into posters which he sold at car shows. When some of his subjects demanded larger royalties, a gang went to his shop with guns drawn; Roth challenged the head biker to a one-on-one fist fight to settle the matter; after beating his opponent, he burnt his biker posters and abandoned the biker lifestyle.
In 1968 Mattel introduced its Hot Wheels line of die-cast toy cars, including Roth’s Beatnik Bandit, a 1961 project for "Rod & Custom" magazine; using a supercharged 303 cubic inch Oldsmobile engine, the car was controlled by a joystick instead of a steering wheel. But business slowed, and Roth closed his shop in 1970 and went to work for the "Cars of the Stars" display at Brucker's Movie World and painted signs for Knott's Berry Farm, a popular amusement park in Buena Park, California. In 1974 Roth joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and eventually moved to Manti, Utah, with his fourth wife, but continued to workon car-related projects; at the time of his death in 2001, he was working on a hot-rod project involving a compact car as a departure from the dominant tuner performance modification style. Meanwhile, his esthetic continued to attract fans in California and elsewhere. In 1977, Robert L. Williams, one of the artists responsible for Zap Comix (where he introduced his own anti-heroic cartoon character Coochy Cooty in 1970), organized the first Rat Fink Reunion to celebrate Roth's legacy; his parents had married each other four times before their final split in 1956, when he was 12, and he became involved with hot rods and street gangs before his expulsion from school in the 11th grade; at 20 he moved to Los Angeles to avoid a jail term, briefly attended the Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts), worked for "Black Belt" magazine and designed containers for the Weyerhaeuser Corporation, and then began to do ads and graphics for Rothfrom 1965 until the shop closed. In 1979 the punk band The Misfits covered "Rat Fink," Allan Sherman's 1963 parody of "Rag Mop." In 1982 Roth himself did cover artwork for "Junkyard," the third (and final) album by the Nick Cave-fronted Australian post-punk group The Birthday Party, and Starhead Comix, an underground comics publisher in Seattle, Washington, issued one issue of "Rat Fink Comix" in 1987, drawn by R. K. Sloane. A Rat Fink revival in the late 1980s and the 1990s centered on the grunge and punk rock movements. Then the "low brow" art movement of Williams and Roth began to attract serious critical attention. Shortly after a Kustom Kulture show at the Laguna Museum, the Julie Rico Gallery held a a major exhibition in Santa Monica In 1993, "Rat Fink Meets Fred Flypogger Meets Cootchy Cooty;" the "Los Angeles Times" covered the event and put Rat Fink on the cover of its Culture section. In 1996 the American heavy metal band White Zombie recorded "Ratfinks, Suicide Tanks, and Cannibal Girls" for the "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America" soundtrack. Ron Mann's 2006 documentary film "Tales of the Rat Fink" chronicled (in the words of "The New York Times" reviewer Jeannette Catsoulis) "the colorful history of the hot rod from speed machine to babe magnet and, finally, museum piece and collector’s item. Along the way we learn of Mr. Roth’s lucrative idea to paint hideous monsters — including the Rat Fink of the title — on children’s T-shirts." In Manti, a Rat Fink Reunion is held every year and displays Roth's art.
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