I Smell a Rat!: The True Creator of Lowbrow Art's Iconic "Rat Fink" Revealed

I Smell a Rat!: The True Creator of Lowbrow Art's Iconic "Rat Fink" Revealed
If there is a single image that symbolizes the outsider status of "Lowbrow" art (in spite of the movement's transformation into a marketing side-stream for illustration professionals) it's the iconic figure of Rat Fink — the grotesquely oozing, drooling, contorted cartoon rodent that served as the corporate mascot and alter-ego of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, 1960s custom-car designer and figurehead of a marketing empire that encompassed plastic model kits, silk-screened tee-shirts, decals, and other mass-produced artforms. Rat Fink is to the Juxtapoz set what Duchamp's "Fountain" is to Modernism — in more ways than one, as it turns out.

As I wrote in my 2003 essay "Brother Rat Fink and the Eruption of the Grotesque in Popular Culture" (published in Doug Nason and Greg Escalante's "Rat Fink: The Art of Big Daddy Roth, Last Gasp"): "It's virtually impossible to assess the full formative impact of Rat Fink on the generation of Americans that was to make up the counterculture.... Rat Fink and the other hot-rod weirdos entered the pop vernacular with a speed and depth of penetration unthinkable to the captains of the advertising industry. My own first exposure to the character was in the form of a sketch by another kid at school. It was Rat Fink all right, and widely recognized and appreciated, but it was a copy of a copy of a copy; its authorship and Kustom Kulture provenance lost to us. Only its iconic resonance held our attention and fired our imagination."

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Now it appears that this authorial indeterminacy was closer to the mark than many realized. In a new book from Last Gasp, the family of an obscure but influential Los Angeles graphic designer makes a convincing claim that Don "Monté" Montéverde — not Roth — was the author of the quintessential Lowbrow mascot. Bill Selby's "Monté: King of the Monster Age Decal" tracks the career of the UPS driver turned decal designer, whose rough-hewn monsters, devils, aliens, and fork-skewered eyeballs ("Pass the Mustard," 1959) were an enormously influential and previously unacknowledged element in the postwar rise of the pop-culture grotesque.

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Selby devotes an entire chapter to the Rat Fink controversy. With both principals dead, and no paper trail, the intellectual property dispute is framed anecdotally, with Montéverde's son Larry, Roth's lead artist Ed Newton, and other witnesses weighing in. Monté indisputably did artwork for Roth in 1963 — including the first finished Rat Fink — and subsequently felt bitter that Roth took the character to lucrative widespread recognition while his decal business ground to a halt, forcing Montéverde to return to his UPS route.

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It's a story that — alongside Jeff Koons's recent ridiculous foray into brand protection — points up the fundamental discontinuity between the model of creativity underlying the concept of copyright and the way ideas are generated and disseminated in a living creative community. The final word must go to psychedelic poster genius Stanley Mouse, who began his graphic design career as a hot-rod couture designer and friendly rival to Roth, and whose cartoon self-portrait as early as 1961 — two years before Rat Fink debuted — was a drooling, bloated, bulgy-eyed rodent surrounded by flies.

"Roth took my catalog back to L.A. and showed it to his staff," recalls the 70-year-old designer. "In one fell swoop they, they took my character and stole my identity." Ironically, Mouse had already been profoundly influenced by Monté's decals, even adapting some of them for his own tee-shirt designs. "It cracks me up to finally realize that Monté, a guy I never knew but who was one of the major influences on my monsters, did it. Sorry, Big Daddy fans... it was the hand of Monté screaming out in the Rat Fink."