For Stacey Roper, a pinstriper and official Rat Fink artist, lowbrow is not a dirty word. Roper, who’s better known as Stace the Ace, says the appeal of lowbrow art is simple: it’s fun. “I’m a bit of a weirdo,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s my ADHD, but painting the weird stuff is so much fun.”
Roper is a pinstriper and illustrator who spends a lot of her professional life drawing hot rods and decorating custom cars and bikes. Roper’s affiliation with kustom kulture recently inspired the creation of The Ace, a zingy, salted margarita gose from NZ beermakers, Panhead Custom Ales.
The Ace is a rarity in Panhead’s custom can range in that it wasn’t inspired by a famous hot rod or Kiwi car builder. “All the limited edition beers are based on car builder, makers and racers, except for mine,” laughs Roper, who’s speaking to Rolling Stone Australia from her studio in Auckland.
Filmmaker Cal Thorley gets credit for giving rise to the Ace. Thorley, the brains behind the long-running web series, Hot Rod Revue, profiled Roper’s pinstriping for a previous project. Pinstriping is a style of freehand decorative painting that adds to the customisation of automotive bodies and parts. Given Roper’s pre-eminence in the field, Thorley, a regular Panhead collaborator, suggested the beermakers conceive a can in Roper’s honour.
The Rat Fink art created by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in the 1960s has influenced the comic-like illustrations that appear on many Panhead products. In fact, Panhead’s earliest custom can, The Vandal, was directly inspired by Roth’s art.
“Simon Morse does a lot of the Panhead illustrations—he’s done the Vandal and Black Sabbath and that is totally based on Ed Roth’s style of art from the 1960s,” says Roper.
For the uninitiated, Rat Fink is a big green mobster rat, a sort of grotesque, bizarro world Mickey Mouse character. Roth passed away in 2001, but Rat Fink lives on through a select number of licensed illustrators around the world. Roper is one of them.
“Ilene [Roth], Ed’s last wife, she and her family run Ratfink.com and they license Rat Fink out to artists,” Roper says.
How did Roper, a Spotswood skate-rat turned pinstriping powerhouse from Aotearoa, become a licensed Rat Fink artist? “I actually came across a guy from Japan years ago and he had done some Rat Fink art and I was like, ‘How is he allowed to do that, legally?’ And he had a label on his art saying that he was an ‘official Rat Fink artist,’” Roper recalls.
After doing some research, Roper flew to the US to attend the annual Rat Fink Reunion in Manti, Utah. “They’ve been having Rat Fink Reunion since Ed passed away,” Roper explains. “They used to get together even before he died, and then once he passed away, they just decided to keep going.”
When Roper arrived at Rat Fink Reunion, it was nothing like what she’d expected. “It was like 77 people painting Rat Fink over a weekend,” she laughs. But this suited Roper just fine, and she soon realised she was in good company.
“There was all these people that had worked for Ed back in the day that had gone onto work for Pixar and Disney and stuff like that. They were his old friends, and you’re just sitting there going, ‘Holy crap. There’s all these amazing people out here.’”
In the course of the three-day event, Ilene Roth recognised Roper’s talent. After some dialogue, she signed up Roper as an official Rat Fink artist. “I think there’s only about 12 [of us],” Roper says.
Roper’s art career hasn’t always centred on hot rods, bikes, and depraved petrolhead rats. Roper grew up as a skater. She got the kustom kulture bug after attending the annual rock’n’roll and vintage car festival, Beach Hop, in Whangamata, Bay of Plenty.
“We originally started going to Beach Hop for the bands, because the bands would come over from Australia,” Roper says. “But it wasn’t until I went to Beach Hop that I went, ‘Far out, hot rods are actually fucking sick.’”
Sometime later, this insight trickled into Roper’s artistic practice. “I was doing a lot of pop art and I ran out of space to store it, so I just started drawing hot rods with pencils, quite realistically. It was about 2007. I wasn’t expecting to sell it, and then it took off a little bit.”
Fifteen years later, Roper is proud to call herself a lowbrow, weirdo artist. “Lowbrow fits quite a massive art demographic—pretty much anything that’s frowned upon by the elite,” she says. “When you go to Rat Fink Reunion, everyone’s proud to be weirdos. So, I just embrace it.”