Rats in Art and Pop Culture
I am taking this assignment in a looser way than may have been intended. I’m defining pop culture as anything in the media public domain that may have been seen by many people, or a persona perpetuated by a well-known image.
Rat. It’s the animal I’ve chosen for the “three views of an animal” assignment. It’s one of the universally reviled, thwarted, killed, mocked, and shunned species that exists on Earth today. I am choosing to show the rat as a being of the light rather than the dark, as a public servant hero (in the case of rats that detect landmines), underground art hero (as in the spray stencils of Banksy), and symbol of solidarity against corruption (as in the giant inflatable rats that union workers rally around).
There are places in the world where nobody lives or tills the field, or goes for walks, because there are active landmines from old wars. Starting in 2003, rats (primarily large Gambian pouched rats) were trained to sniff out explosive material in small areas with the hope they could be of service in safe mine detection. The rat was chosen for its size (too light to set off a mine), for its superior sense of smell, low cost maintenance, intelligence and ability to be trained, and ability to navigate space. A small team of rats and handlers can cover a much larger tract in a shorter period of time, in fact, they, “can check an area a man would take two days to cover in 30 minutes.” Far from being “vermin” these rats are saving the lives and limbs of children, adults, livestock and wildlife. Here is a recent article about the humanitarian organization that works in the field. Here is a paper that focuses on methodology.
This image says it all. Underground art hero, Banksy (not to be confused with Blek le Rat), is mysterious as ever. His real name and origin are not well-known, even Wikipedia the Great has very little information about this graffiti art star. One of the reasons he is so popular is that he blurs the line between art and criminal activity, and certainly the rat has ever been charged with misdemeanor upon petty larceny. His images are subliminal, happened upon, like a rat scratching behind the wall, or underneath your bed. One of the recurring personas found in his work is the anarchist rat, seemingly a self-portrait, a clandestine rebel. His art requires the talents of a rat, sneaking around, avoiding detection and detention (especially when making something like this and this) yet the work is for the public viewer not the private buyer. There is no signature except style. The rat in Bansky’s work functions not only as dark knight, critical of The Man, but also functions as a system of values to aspire to: don’t sell out motherfucker.
The worker unions are plenty and powerful. They have huge influence on corporations, politicians and the course of history. Belonging to a union ensures a worker that certain expectations about pay, hours, safety and quality of life will be met. When an employer does not meet these expectations, or does not hire union labor, the giant inflatable rat descends upon their auspices to show what kind of “rat” runs the place or works there. While originally intended to mock, scare and call attention to such “scum,” the giant air-filled rodent seems to have become a symbol of fidelity around which to rally for a common cause. This representation of a loathed creature has been adopted and re-casted as a political mascot. But ‘lo, the rat was reported “endangered” in NY back in 2005– and was protected as “free” in NJ, according to the first amendment (which was ratified on Dec 15th 1791). Here is a quote within a quote about the rat from this article:
Does the Rat work? “Usually, employers go bonkers when they see it across from their property,” says Randy Mayhew, organizing director of Laborers International Union of North America, which employs about 20 rats. “It’s an effective piece of street theater,” says Peter Jones, executive director of the Labor Heritage Foundation.
Other occurrences of rats I considered looking into were:
Rat King from Nutcracker
And this rat king, which is when a large group of rats gets their tails tangled and wreak havoc. Reports date back to the 16th century.