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The Counterculture Rat Pack

L.A. at Large

Followers of the 'Rat Fink' legacy, dedicated to the world of 1950s autos, gather to celebrate all things pinstriped, chopped and shaved.

July 24, 2001|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"It didn't matter what guys collected--comic books, pinup photos, stamps, Zippo lighters. They all had that same look, as if they couldn't fit into the real world, so they had to find some acceptable subculture where they could fit in."

Stephen Randall, "The Other Side of Mulholland"

You could spot the cars from blocks away, and the people, too. The cars were loud, low-slung and lean. The drivers had big bellies and big beards. Or elaborate tattoos of flaming and pinstriping that echoed the designs on the hoods of their old cars, etched into their biceps, shoulders, forearms and backs. Some were second-generation greasers, hair pouffed into pompadours, sideburns widening at the ears, Levi's rolled up wide at the ankles like their daddies must've done when they cruised these wide-open Southern California boulevards back in the '50s.

It was a sweltering Saturday afternoon in the middle of flat Valley suburbia at the Woodland Hills Disabled Veteran's Park, and hobbyists had flocked from all over, from as far away as Japan (ground zero for obsessive people with bizarre hobbies), for Moldy Marvin's second annual Rat Fink Party and Kustom Kulture Extravaganza, a tribute to the life and inspiration of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.

Say what?

Listen, you might not know who Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was, what Kustom Kulture is, what flaming, pearling, scalloping or pinstriping are (no, they aren't a kind of menswear!) or how to tell the difference between a '57 Chevy and a '62 Impala. But to these gear heads, mad scientists, hobbyists and connoisseurs of Kustom Kulture, cars are religion, and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth is a GOD!

Dig it?

Roth, who died last spring at 69, was a car builder, designer and artist. He used junkyard parts and a new product called fiberglass to create automobiles in his garage. Revell American licensed his characters and his cars to make models.

But most of all he was the creator of Kustom Kulture icon Rat Fink, a scary-looking green vermin of a cartoon with bloodshot eyes, jagged teeth and long toenails, developed in the '50s as a counterculture response to Mickey Mouse. At an event like this, Rat Fink seemed to have been cloned ad infinitum. (From tiny Tokyo-made key rings to 6-foot-high statues, Rat Fink's likeness graced T-shirts, artwork and stickers.)

By 1963, teenagers across the country were buying Rat Fink model kits and mass-produced Rat Fink T-shirts, according to the rat fink Web site. After a couple of decades in hibernation, the rat resurged in the 1990s.

"A lot of people who were around in the '60s--baby boomers--say, 'My mom wouldn't let me buy these T-shirts," said Rebecca Marvel, who works with Moldy Marvin at the Kulture Shoq gallery in North Hollywood. "Now they can. And they are old enough to have cars of their own, too."

So what is Kustom Kulture, and are these people just poor spellers?

Jeffrey Hillinger, 44, a.k.a. Moldy Marvin, a special effects artist who runs http://www.ratfink.org, worked with Roth and runs a Kustom Kulture gallery in North Hollywood, organized Saturday's event. He said Kustom Kulture "has a lot to do with hot rodding, art and music."

"It's really about American culture," he explained, taking a break under a sprinkler after handing out 43 gold-plated Rat Fink trophies to winners in the car show. "There's surfing, rock 'n' roll and cars."

Saturday's event was about cars. Hot rodding was about average Joes with no other creative outlet finding old pieces of junk and melding them onto cars like sculptors, chopping, frenching, channeling, decking, nosing and shaving those babies for speed and style, to express themselves. They were the Picassos, Rembrandts and Brancusis of the blue-collar world, working in the medium available to them in 1950s America, the automobile.

From cars the flames and pinstripes moved to trash cans, mailboxes, toilet seat covers and oil cans. (Moldy Marvin has pinstriping on his cell-phone case.) There was no real name for the phenomenon of car art, until the Laguna Art Museum dubbed it "Kustom Kulture" in a 1993 show that featured the work of Roth, artist Robert Williams and some others. Today, judging by the Kustom Kulture Extravaganza, the movement seems to have evolved into nostalgia for a time when cars first reigned supreme.

But like any recycling of history, the second time around it has resurfaced in a form far different from the original.

Girls dressed in cherry-printed halters, bright red lipstick and vintage clothes carefully harvested from thrift shops swayed through the crowd. But they had something no '50s girls would have had: tattoos. Lots of them.

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