A Return to Kustom Kulture

Image of Rat FinkI finally got around to picking up the latest issue of Filmfax, and I just happened to open up to Michael Stein’s “Confessions of a Rat Fink!”—an interview with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth who was an icon of the Kustom Kulture movement in the 1950s and 60s.  I knew little or nothing about this movement before I read the interview—which means I know only a tad bit more than nothing now—and I was fascinated with the way Roth framed the impact and import of imagining, designing and building custom cars from scratch during the 1950s and 60s. He wasn’t so much a mechanic as he was an artist—and I don’t necessarily mean the Rat Fink logo he became most famous for, though there is that—but the very idea of building something unique from scratch that is otherwise mass produced—creating a model of one that has no real precedent in the automobile industry.

What strikes me even more is how this idea of designing and building something for yourself gave birth to a long line of car subcultures from hot rods to dragsters to low riders over several decades, but was by no means limited to this sphere. It effected clothes, hair styles, comic art, movies, novels, and on and on and on. It was not so much the object of what was being created, though that was vital, but the act of creating it, the decision to build it. From the act is born an aesthetic that embodies an approach to the world—the relationship to design that is as key to galvanizing a cultural movement as it is to transforming a culture’s vision of cars.

Ed Roth with the Orbitron

Roth’s discussion of what he was doing and why seems to capture the power of tinkering as a means through which to design, rather than consume, the world we inhabit: “fiddling with the brackets and the grinder and the welding machine has always produced things that were better than what Detroit was building.” I love the way Roth understands his work as in many ways diametrically opposed to that of Detroit, and no so much to exalt himself as an individual designer, but more to suggest what is possible.

His final quote of the interview seals the deal for me:

I don’t know id I’d describe it as “art.” We were setting an example for what could be accomplished. What Von Dutch, Robert Williams, myself, and other customizers were saying was, “Hey guys, why build led sleds in Detroit when it is possible to build stuff like this?” There was a whole culture thing in America [in the 1950s and ’60s] that’s come and gone, and it’s sad. We supplied ideas for kids: the cruising, the dancing, the good times. And I can remember going out at night, and looking around the city–you could see al the guys had their garage doors open and they were building cars. Now all those garage doors are closed….”

I just love the whole idea of a culture around building stuff and sharing it, and I wonder if that isn’t the impetus behind what we do, the reason for getting excited about doing it. In just about every aspect of our daily life we have been removed from the process of designing or building anything, we have been left simply to consume what’s been made for us. Perhaps the time has come to move away from the spaces created for us by Detroit and reclaim a space that ours, and create a culture around building and making—rather than consuming and repeating.

And, as is always the case now, there is fan video of Ed Roth’s work (focusing predominantly on his Rat Fink artwork) , I particularly like the soundtrack on this one:

The Rat Fink toy:

And even what seems to be a post-humous Ed Roth clothing line, which is what happened to Von Dutch after he died, his daughters sold his name and art to the highest corporate bidder, despite his own rare and respectable views about money:

I make a point of staying right at the edge of poverty. I don’t have a pair of pants without a hole in them, and the only pair of boots I have are on my feet. I don’t mess around with unnecessary stuff, so I don’t need much money. I believe it’s meant to be that way. There’s a ‘struggle’ you have to go through, and if you make a lot of money it doesn’t make the ‘struggle’ go away. It just makes it more complicated. If you keep poor, the struggle is simple.

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One Response to A Return to Kustom Kulture

  1. You should check out Tom Wolfe’s article on the Kustom culture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kandy-Kolored_Tangerine-Flake_Streamline_Baby . Malcolm Gladwell cries himself to sleep every night wishing he were one-tenth as brilliant as Wolfe was in his early stuff.

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