Skip to content

Ray Troll: The Man, the Myth, the Ratfish

You remember the ratfish incident in Port Harvey, right? (Click that link if you don't.)

Well the ratfish has crept into many conversations since then…the weird "girl grabbing appendage" (called a tenaculum) on its head that grabs with little Velcro-like hooks onto the fin of the female ratfish during mating, the long "graspers" that hang from beneath it to also grab the female ratfish during mating…there's a lot to talk about, about the ratfish. Ratfish belong to an ancient species of shark relatives–Chimaera–a very primitive group of fish dating back more than 300 million years. 

Our flotilla group has had many conversations about the ratfish since qw pulled one up on our crab trap: (1) that we should have a flotilla burgee designed with a ratfish on it, (2) that the secret "Waggoner Flotilla 2015 Greeting" should be a bent forefinger at the forehead, mimicking the protruding tenaculum on the forehead of the male ratfish…you get the idea. Lots of silliness.

The other night while having dinner at the Bar Harbor Restaurant, Brigette stopped by our table. Brigette Ellis is a friend of Mark's and the owner of the Alaska Eagle Arts Gallery with her husband, artist Marvin Oliver. She'd been having dinner a few tables over and stopped by to say goodbye. She happened to come by during another one of the ratfish conversations, and someone said "Hey! Do you know about the ratfish?" She said "Yes, but the guy who really knows about ratfish is Ray." She returned moments later with Ray (I assume he was dining at another table).

"This is Ray Troll. Ray, they want to know about the ratfish."

Well. This could not possibly have been a better set up.

Ray pulled up his shirt sleeve to show us his ratfish tattoo.


Ray gave us a little info about the ratfish, and I told him I'd caught one on our crab trap at Port Harvey and showed him the pics from my iPhone. He enlarged each shot to show everyone the tenaculum on the male's head as he explained different kinds of ratfish, their relation to sharks, how they haven't changed in 300 million years, and then said there is actually a ratfish named after him. For real. Check this out

Ray, demonstrating the "Ratfish Secret Handshake":


Ray Troll is an artist who has lived and worked in Ketchikan for the last 30 years, but his art reaches far beyond SE Alaska. You've likely seen his work. He calls himself a "fin artist" and his main subject is fish. The first time we ever saw his his work, it was the fish art t-shirts (years ago).

This is one of his most popular designs…(he's got a color version here as well):


But Ray's not just about art t-shirts. He has had many museum shows, a bunch of books, and he also has a band about to release their third CD. The band is called Ray Troll & the Ratfish Wranglers (of course).

In 2011 Ray and scientist Kirk Johnson (now the Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History) were jointly awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Science Writing category to support their book project called “The Eternal Coastline: the Best of the Fossil West from Baja to Barrow.”

So basically, Ray's kind of a big deal.

We chatted for a few minutes there at the table and Ray said we should come by his shop the next morning and talk fish. So we did. He gifted me one of his CDs (as a new member of the Ratfish clan) and I told him I'd trade him a portrait, so we arranged to meet at his shop (Soho Coho, run by Ray and his wife Michelle) on Creek Street yesterday afternoon.


I was a little early so I could look around the shop a bit (definitely worth going by if you're in Ketchikan…lots of good Ray Troll stuff, plus the work of quite a few other local artists). Ray arrived and off we went to his studio. We got to the parking lot and he gestured to a car and said "This one's mine." The license plate is RATFSH. I said "Of course it is!" :) 

Ray's studio is a cool, contemporary vertical structure he designed and had built behind the home he share with his wife Michelle's, and it's got a fantastic view out over Tongass Narrows. 


We hung out and talked for a bit first and Ray taught me some cool things about his current obsession: the Helicoprion, also known as the "Buzz Saw Shark". He's got some pretty cool props inspiration in his studio, and we played with a bunch of it.


Two of Ray's friends stopped by and he opened up a jar containing a preserved ratfish and gave the three of us an impromptu lecture about ratfish! 


(Note the Buzz Saw Shark artwork in the background, and the ratfish hat on the table.) 

Describing the tenaculum:


Until next time, little ratfish buddy. Back in the jar you go!


Ray said he was really trying not to ham it up too much. He was charming and warm and funny (and he totally hammed it up and it was great).

We call this one "Look Into the Whorl" … the visual of how the Buzz Saw Shark's teeth grow:


And here's the more serious portrait of Ray in his studio:


Meeting and photographing Ray was a blast. He dropped me off back at Airship, with one quick stop along the way to show me his very first piece of public art. On the side of the the Silver Lining seafood-processing plant you'll find Ray's first mural, dated 1984. He worked here on the "slime line" as a fishmonger when he first moved to Ketchikan, and traded that mural for some studio space in the adjacent building, where he was close to the fish (he could bring fish right up to his studio to draw them). He told me that the halibut in the mural are totally wrong though…they're facing left, but they're actually right-facing fish.

He knows that now.