What is a Rat Fink?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

In the tough-talking, gin-soaked underworld of speakeasies, gun molls, hoods and coppers, a "rat fink" ranked amongst the lowest of the low. If a major crime boss such as Dutch Schultz or Al Capone ever saw the inside of a jail, it was most likely caused by the loose lips of a low-level associate trying to cut a deal. That unfortunate soul would be forever known as a rat fink, since he had the nerve to "rat out" his boss to the cops. An identified rat fink's life was often brutal and short.

"Happy Days" character Fonzie was inspired by the rat fink tradition of riding custom-built motorcycles.
"Happy Days" character Fonzie was inspired by the rat fink tradition of riding custom-built motorcycles.

In underworld crime parlance, being pegged as a fink was already a serious offense. A fink may crack under police pressure and name names or otherwise compromise a criminal operation, but he is also liable to spend some time in prison himself as an accomplice. A rat fink, on the other hand, may have ambitions of moving up in the ranks, so his information is leaked to law enforcement in a less obvious way. His reputation in the organization would still safe as long as no one connected him to the leak. A true rat fink usually lived out his criminal career in the murky middle, enjoying the benefits of the criminal lifestyle, but not getting too close to those he could betray.

There is another popular culture reference to a rat fink, and it has nothing to do with underworld gangsters. During the 1950s, an underground artist and custom hot rod car enthusiast named Ed "Big Daddy" Roth created a character based on his hatred of the sanitized Disney icon Mickey Mouse. Roth drew a rat, complete with bulging eyes, a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth and a decidedly nervous disposition. The rat character also wore a t-shirt with the initials "RF," which stood for "Rat Fink." Other artists went on to draw the character in comics and Roth's catalogs.

The Rat Fink character soon began to represent the burgeoning custom car and motorcycle building craze of the 1950s and 1960s, often referred to as Kustom Kulture. The Kustom Kulture phenomenon had a major influence on the hairstyles, clothing and attitude of the teens who grew up in that time period. "Rat Fink" was often portrayed as a freewheeling custom motorcycle rider, which helped to inspire such leather jacket and denim wearing characters as Fonzie on the television show Happy Days and greaser Danny Zuko in the musical Grease.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


@Buzzkill: "looking at Roth's cartoon of Rat Fink, I never would have connected him to Mickey Mouse..." I think that's the point. He's meant to be the polar opposite of Mickey Mouse, the opposite of sweet and childlike. He could be considered gruesome looking, etc.


My grandpa used to call me a rat fink when I was little. That's why I just looked it up.


This is not the full story though, according to Roth. In the Rat Fink comic he answered a fan letter asking for the origin of the character. The whole answer takes several paragraphs but this was the highlight when a reporter asked about the origin. "If you could take a popular cartoon like Mickey Mouse and analyze why he was popular it would be because he grew from this. So I drew a figure from Mickey from the thirties and how he looked in the sixties, this was when 'Fantasia' came out, and Mickey looked nothing like he did in the thirties. I further told the reporter, if you go back ever farther than the thirties and drew Mickey Mouse's father from the twenties, he might look like this and I drew a Rat Fink on a napkin. I put the napkin away and finished talking to the reporter. I hung the napkin up in my office and the next car show I drew him on a t-shirt and the kids went crazy."

At no point before or after the story does he say anything about the sanitized image of Disney or having any disdain for the character.


I have a 2001 Fat Boy Trike. A gorgeous Rat Fink is painted on the front fender with the insignia of an 8 ball with wings. I am wondering if this is some kind of original painting? Thanks, Nancy


After reading about Big Daddy Roth here, I was curious to find out more about him. Interestingly, Roth headed up a novelty music act in the 60s called Mr. Gasser & the Weirdos. Roth was known as Mr. Gasser. They released a few unusual surf rock albums, including Hot Rod Hootenanny which came out in 1963. Supposedly, a 2CD-set, including all their music and artwork, was released by One Way Records in more recent times.


I'm with you BuzzKill. I had no idea about rat fink being associated with Mickey Mouse or the connection to characters like Fonzie and Danny Zuko. It does make sense that Rat Fink would be the polar opposite of Mickey Mouse. Since Big Daddy Roth despised the "sanitized" image of Disney, then certainly he created Rat Fink to be a far less appealing version.


I knew about the reference to a rat fink when it comes to gangster life, but I didn't know about the cartoon rat who mocked Mickey Mouse or the idea that inspired Danny Zuko and Fonzie.

Looking at Roth's cartoon of Rat Fink, I never would have connected him to Mickey Mouse. They look nothing alike. Rat Fink is kind of gruesome looking whereas Mickey Mouse is sweet and child-like.

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