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Rat Fink is one of the several hot-rod characters created by artist Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, one of the originators of Kustom Kulture of automobile enthusiasts. Roth conceived Rat Fink as an anti-hero answer to Mickey Mouse. Rat Fink is green, depraved-looking with bulging, bloodshot eyes, an oversize mouth with yellowed, narrow teeth, and a red T-shirt with yellow "R.F." on it.
Roth began airbrushing and selling "Weirdo" t-shirts at Car Shows and in the pages of Hot Rod publications such as Car Craft in the late 1950s. By the August 1959 issue of Car Craft, "Weirdo shirts" had become a full blown craze with Ed Roth at the forefront of the movement.
Rat Fink was advertised for the first time in the July 1963 issue of Car Craft. The ad called it “The rage in California”. Also in 1963 the Revell Model Company issued a plastic model kit of the character. The initial run of the kit was from 1963 to 1965, but the Rat Fink kit along with Roth’s other creations have been re-issued by Revell over the years. Rat Fink continues to be a popular item to this day in Hot Rod and Kustom Culture circles in the form of t-shirts, key chains, wallets, toys, decals, etc.
Other artists associated with Roth also drew the character, including Rat Fink Comix artist R.K. Sloane and Steve Fiorilla, who illustrated Roth's catalogs. Rat Fink and Roth are featured in Ron Mann's documentary film Tales of the Rat Fink (2006). Jeannette Catsoulis reviewed in The New York Times:
- Ogling fins and drooling over fenders, the movie traces 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, a sartorial trend that, in the 1960s, had the added benefit of getting their wearers banned from school, thus giving them more time to play with Mr. Roth's model car kits. I'll bet Donald Trump wishes he had thought of that one.
A Rat Fink revival in the late 1980s and the 1990s centered around the grunge/punk rock movements, both in the U.S. West Coast and in Australia (Roth drew Rat Fink artwork for the album Junk Yard by the Australian band The Birthday Party.
- The term fink was originally underworld slang for an informer. It derives from the German word for "finch" -- i.e. one who "sings" -- and is comparable to a "stool pigeon". A ratfink is an intensified version of a "fink. By the time Roth used this name for a character, the term had started to pass into more general usage.