I worship at the altar of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, the wild-man custom car visionary from the early ‘60s. While Roth built fantasy hot-rods out of fiberglass, Roth’s design studio deftly marketed stickers and t-shirts and (with Revell Models) plastic model kits of big-toothed monsters riding hot rods to the surly 12- and 13-year-olds olds of those dull and prosperous times. If you’re not familiar, see right for some typical Roth:
He also came up with the Rat Fink, a giant, drooling, fanged rat covered with flies and a tunic bearing the letters RF. Rat Fink was a symbol of that rebellious hot-rod culture that the 13-year-olds dreamed of.
Your mother would not approve of the Rat Fink. That was the point.
So I get a kick out of the above bicycle-riding “Rat Fink” homage from the Dirt Rag mountain bike magazine. It’s not local or important, but it’s All Roth. It had to come home with me.
Roth’s studio had an impact on many artists who came after, and there’s much to say that I won’t at this time. Suffice it to say that as the years have gone by, Roth’s “car monsters” have inspired many t-shirt artists for many different purposes. Here are a few Roth-like tees I own:
“Rib King” was a barbecue chef, butcher, and food truck operator named Loren Ozaki . I remember a stocky Asian-American guy around 30 with a gold earring and cargo shorts. He tooled his diamond-plated chariot of ‘cue to workplaces all over Santa Cruz and mid-county from about 2005 to 2010 or 11.
He used to stop by my office on the West Side around noon, and while I never popped for the ribs he made quite a tasty pulled-pork sandwich. He sold the above tee out of his food truck along with the ‘cue and the coleslaw and the drinks. It’s an Ed Roth-inspired ‘60s Car Monster. Roth’s artist minions never drew a monster quite as grotesque as Rib King’s barbequed-pig food truck driver.
I paid full retail for this tee, one of the few times ever. Yes, I’m cheap. But I had to have it, and thought I’d never see another one. And I haven’t, not in years of thrift-shopping.
The Rib King left the local food truck scene somewhere in the early teens and took his butchering skills up to the Bay Area for awhile. I don’t know what he’s up to now. Sadly, I can’t identify the artist of the shirt.
The military loves t-shirts with monsters: the idea is that the average grunt is a monster of battle, a bad mofo. It’s for morale. Especially since a lot of military jobs are pretty boring, if vital. And since enlistees are still mostly male and young, monsters appeal to them. Or the brass thinks they do.
RED HORSE is a real acronym for a type of mobile Air Force construction battalion: “Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operations Repair Squadron Engineers.” RED HORSE: I’d like to know how long it took some blue-uniformed bureaucrat to put that name together. And how drunk they had to get.
Anyway, the Red Horse battalions repair and upgrade forward airbases and airstrips under combat conditions. They’ve guns, they’ve got heavy equipment, they rappel down from helicopters just to build things; they do whatever the base’s PRIME BEEF unit (Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force) needs them to do.
RED HORSE, PRIME BEEF — you can’t make this stuff up. But the Air Force can. And does. I wonder if they wear Rat Fink shirts to staff meetings.
This gleefully crazy tee was illustrated for Cole’s Barbecue in Santa Cruz by local “extreme” artist Jimbo Phillips. Jimbo is the son of skateboard/rock poster artist Jim “Screaming Blue Hand” Phillips.
The screaming blue hand is one of several iconic characters that Phillips Sr. came up with for Santa Cruz Skateboards in the ‘80s for the edification of the surly 13-year-old boys who are the the target demographic of the skateboard industry — as they were for Ed Roth. Phillips Sr. admits to Roth as an influence on his skateboard work; his son Jimbo, who grew up drawing skateboard art with Dad, names Roth as one of his personal “old masters.”
Gonzales Machine and Forge is a machine shop and forge in the Salinas Valley agriculture town of Gonzales: they fabricate specialized tilling equipment for agriculture, barbecues, whatever you want. I can’t find out much about them, but they deal with steel and fire and big hammers. For such folks, I can see Ed Roth’s machine/monsters as part of their belief system.
This is another Jimbo Phillips tee from Santa Cruz for Clutch Couriers the people who run bicycle messengers around town and staple posters to wooden power poles. I swear you can’t see the wood for the rusty staples sometimes.
Jimbo Phillips is a working artist, and does many tee designs, logos, and so forth for local businesses. Although there is no car involved, the Clutch Courier tee meets all the Roth criteria: Giant bloodshot eyeballs? Check? Mouth full of big teeth? Check. Flames? Check. Generally grotesque? Riding a vehicle irresponsibly? Double Check.
The t-shirt above also meets all the Roth criteria, though the “monster” is a muscle-bulging heavy equipment operating operator with snaggle teeth. But he’s doing a wheelie. In a Caterpillar.
The tee above is a little different than the other Roth-type designs. The the horned monster “driver” is riding his car like a skateboard. That’s because this tee is for a skateboard shop, the Santa Cruz Boardroom. More precisely, it’s for the shop’s skateboard team.
On to another shirt: The Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, California, collects and restores pinball machines. The t-shirt below morphs a pinball machine with an early ‘60s hotrod monsters to capture the teenage male zeitgeist of the times. Yes, I used the word “zeitgeist.” Sue me.
Pinball was a huge part of growing up in the early ‘60s; especially since the machines were often technically illegal for under-18s because it was “gambling.” We played them anyway. The pinball museum houses its machines under one roof in Alameda, California, where an “all you can play” day pass is yours for $25. As a 10-year-old, I’d have thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.
By my best guess, the “monster” component is inspired by the Hawk “Weird-ohs” plastic model kit, “Digger.” We had one around the house; my older sister bought and assembled it, which was entirely unlike her. I remember that she did a masterful job painting red veins on the eyeballs.
Artists take inspiration from Ed Roth’s studio in many ways — few as grotesque as Charles Burns ‘ effort above. Burns is a noted cartoonist/auteur in underground comic art, famous for his curiously disturbing horror comics. In this image he was riffing off the usual Roth approach to, I read somewhere, reinterpret what a Roth monster car really says about American culture. I still think that you need to ask a 13-year-old boy about that.
This tee from the ’80s or ’90s is a Roth riff off the fictional Church of the SubGenius and its fictional guru/cult leader J.R. “Bob” Dobbs. The Church was a parody religion whose members made fun of the beliefs of traditional religions and especially the cults of the time. Their holy leader “Bob” was a pipe-smoking 1950’s salesman who had somehow become the vessel of the truth about everything.
“No Prob!” was a “Bob” catchphrase. One of the artist credits on the shirt is for a Candi Strecker, a high leader (“Dominatrix”) of the Church. I used to know her; in truth, she was an ex-librarian with a serious yet merciless interest in everyday American culture. “Bob” and Ed Roth both fall within her purview.
If Ed Roth were still alive, he’d probably stop by the Primer Nationals car show (later succeeded by the Ventura Nationals) in Ventura, California. To enter, your car has to be American; it has to be older than 1968; it has to be either an old-school hot rod or a restored or customized car.
The Primer Nationals was a bastion of what’s called Kustom Kulture: the teen-oriented custom car and hot rod culture of the ’50s and ‘60s, and the design aesthetic that went with them. Roth was hip deep in Kustom Kulture, both through artwork and through the design of his own custom vehicles; and this t-shirt is all outlaw and all Roth.
Kustom Kulture still lives; and as long as it does, Ed Roth will be remembered.
In the meantime, I’m going to stop stalling and pay full price for an Ed Roth Rat Fink tee — in the original black and white, in honor of 12-year-old me who looked at those Roth ads in the back of Model Car Science magazine in the junior high school library at lunchtime and wondered if I’d ever dare order one, and what the parents would say.
I never did. Now is the time. Now more than ever.