Watching Lil’ Daddy Roth airbrushing a genuine monster shirt and talking about some of the history of them, I combed through my personal library to see if I could find out more about those “weirdo shirts”.
It was at Rumblers Ruhrpott BBQ 2016 when I took the opportunity to have one of my Road Devils Car Club member shirts airbrushed by Lil’ Daddy Roth. His dad was among the first guys airbrushing t-shirts way back in the late 50ies and early 60ies and I wanted to have what possibly every hot-rod-crazy kid during that time was dying to have: A monster shirt.
Imagine the mid 50ies: T-shirts were predominantly white, no logos or designs on them, just like James Dean wore them in Rebel without a Cause. Then came along the Drag Wagons and they changed the face of the fashion industry forever, that’s at least how the story goes.
The Drag Wagons were a local car club from Maywood CA and staged car shows at local high schools, mostly on football fields. They had some really cool cars, but they didn’t have any member shirts. So they went to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth asking him if he could airbrush their logo on some white t-shirts. Doing the same design on several t-shirts just seemed boring to Roth so instead of airbrushing the club’s logo on those shirts, he did a caricature of each member together with his car.
One Drag Wagons car show had several magazine guys there doing a story on high school kids, nothing particularly about Hot Rods. They took a picture of one of the members with the hood open on his Ford Model A. He was bending over working on it with his back to the camera. On his shirt was excactly a caricature of his Model A, with the hood open and with him working on it. That picture came out so good that they put it on the cover of their magazine. Sadly the picture and the magazine were lost somewhere in the swirl of time. Soon after publication the magazine got bombared with mail from people asking where they could get those t-shirts. They forwarded all those letters to Big Daddy who instantly realized that it was a good idea to start making more of those airbrushed shirts.
Mostly at car shows Roth would then be making his monster and weirdo shirts. Kids would come there with their Hot Rods and Roth would do a caricature of the kid as a monster with his wildly customized car spinning tires in the background. Adding slogans like “Forget the house, how big is the garage?!” or “The more I learn about women, the more I like my car!”, combining them with a car with a blown Hemi and smokin’ tires was excactly what those kids wanted. Roth also understood very well that the point of those shirts was to impress your high school friends and at the same time offend your parents, but that they couldn’t be too vulgar, but bad taste was definitely good.
When demand for Big Daddy’s custom airbrushed t-shirts exceeded what Roth and his friends could do at car shows or in their shop they went one step further and started silk-screening them and built up a big mail order business. The popularity of those silk-screened t-shirts quickly spread all across the USA and forever changed the way t-shirts are worn.
With silk-screening getting big on the scene, airbrushing t-shirts disappeared but today is still popular among hot rod aficionados. Some contemporary artists still practice it at car shows, although it’s quite a rare sight to actually stand beside somebody and watching him paint one of those shirts.
- Pat Ganahl: Ed “Big Daddy” Roth: His life, times, cars, and art.
- Douglas Nason: Rat Fink. The art of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.