Illustration by Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth

We were saddened to learn of the passing of legendary underground artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth from a heart attack on April 4 at his Manti, Utah, studio. Roth, a renowned pop cultural figure in his own right, was also the single most important progenitor of lowbrow art, inspiring underground cartoonists and tattoo artists and launching the career of the young Robert Williams. Roth’s initial fame came from his outlandish and often impractical fiberglass customizations of automobiles — the famous “Outlaw” and “Beatnik Bandit” being two of his earliest masterpieces. Hundreds of thousands of plastic model kits, based on his creations, were sold through the early ’60s. But it was his monster drawings (sold initially at drag races to pay for his customizing projects), and the iconic “Rat Fink” in particular, that burned themselves into the collective subcultural consciousness of several generations.

“His visual style provided an outlet for repressed suburban boys like me,” says artist Jim Shaw. “When he was in the ‘Kustom Kulture’ show at the Laguna Art Museum, a friend of his was walking around with bug eyes and a German hillbilly hat letting off an a-oogah horn every once in a while — and it was really annoying. They saw themselves in opposition to this repressed white museum culture, and it was nice to see that it was actually functional in that way. Usually when popular art is exhibited in museums it’s to elevate the fine art next to it, but as Michael Duncan said, ‘The art loses out next to the custom car.’”

In recent years, the high cultural institutions that once defined themselves in opposition to Roth’s milieu began to see the error of their ways — with exhibits such as the current “Customized: Art Inspired by Hot Rods, Lowriders and American Car Culture” at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, and LACMA’s inclusion of Roth’s 1963 Road Agent as a highlight of its “Made in California” survey. The Copro/Nason Gallery in Culver City, which has issued a number of archival-quality prints of Roth’s drawings, is planning a tribute show for December.

Although Roth denounced his wild and woolly ways for brotherhood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1974, he continued to work on his art to the very end, passing away in his workshop studio even as he planned a new customization for touring in 2002. A fitting final note for a visionary popular artist who toiled for decades for minimal commercial compensation and virtually no critical appreciation, but whose work blew the minds of millions.

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