History can fold back on itself, and subcultures can bloom, fade, and repeat.  For example, a Brooklyn Ton-Up scene emerged in the 2000s, and hit its sweet spot between 2007 and 2014, with its heart at Works Engineering, near N.14th Street and Wythe in pre-gentrified Williamsburg, as well as at a Johnson Ave garage in Gowanus.  That was a dicey patch of real estate notorious for its low rent, and that murky and dangerous-at-night canal.  The Gowanus Canal was an industrial throw-away zone full of abandoned cars and rusted artifacts of New York City’s old ‘hard’ economy. The canal was hid body parts of disappeared, mobbed-up bad actors. NYC urban myth claimed alligators had been sighted in the canal, maybe dining on underwater mafiosi.

Works Engineering in 2010. [Michael McCabe]
The big warehouse of Works Engineering contained the Brit bikes, Harleys, German and Japanese machines that sustained the bar-hopping, two-wheeled blast around Brooklyn that took its cues from the working class 1950s London Ton-Up scene at the famous Chelsea Bridge, Ace Café, Busy Bee, Nightingale and Salt Box coffee bars. In Brooklyn in the 2000s, the run-around lifestyle meant you worked all day at your studio doing creative stuff, then screamed off to Ray Abeyta’s Union Pool, Hotel Delmano, Jessie’s No Name, Myles’ Lady Jay’s or Erik’s Matchless Bar, to tip a couple pints with your lads.  It was a good scene, and we never gave a thought to whether it would last. Young creative people lived and worked on the cheap in big, rough, cold in the winter, unorthodox post-industrial studio spaces, where everyone twisted wrenches, and shared ideas or expertise. Bobby Garey and Ray Abeyta had studios at Works Engineering where they painted fine art canvases and customized their motorcycles. The following is an interview with Bobby Garey about that time, his history, and his work.

Remembering Ray Abeyta

Ray Abeyta with his signature Triumph Bonneville NYC-style custom. [Michael McCable]
“Ray and I started our bike builds at approximately the same time, around 2005, and finished them about the same time too.  Ray had the space to build bikes, and he invited me to build my Sportster there.  Ray’s motor was a ’68 Bonneville, and he bought a rigid frame from somewhere, but he used to say he built the bike around that large gas tank!  His saddle was a custom job; he drew a design and J.J. Jenkins tooled the leather saddle cover. The artwork on the two sides of his oil tank was all Ray’s, and he had the same two images tattooed on his shoulders.  My motor is a ’66 XLCH and my frame is a ’59 XLCH.  The front end is a stock ’59 with a 19″ wheel. The rear end is lowered by installing a pair of 12″ Shovelhead shocks and a 16″ wheel.

Bobby Garey in his studio at Works Engineering, with his custom Sportster. [Michel McCabe]
I used to talk about how Ray’s and my bikes were like cousins. The Brit Bonnie and the American Sporty. I loved blasting around the neighborhood with Ray. We’d stop for a beer and look at our bikes parked side by side outside the bar ready to fire up and blast off to wherever we might head next. Ray was tragically mowed-down December 1, 2014 by a runaway truck going the wrong-way down a one-way street, and the accident forever changed the Brooklyn scene. I always miss Ray and I often will think of him when I fire up my Sportster. The bike has gone through a few changes since I re-built it with Ray in ’05 and ’06. But it’s running strong these days. And it remains a connection to a great time in Brooklyn and a great friendship.”

An Aesthetic Thing

Bobby Garey with his first car, a 1949 Plymouth sedan. [Bobby Garey]
“Motorcycles are an aesthetic thing. I can be objective about it but there’s something about these old bikes – the castings, the chrome, the engineering. They are beautiful. Old tools are the same way. A machine like this is the epitome of all that. I have had this Sportster since 1988. I built it from a bunch of parts, to look like what a Sportster is supposed to look like, to my mind. It’s tough, it’s fast and it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful mean machine. For me this look comes from the era I grew up in. I was always fascinated with cars and motorcycles. Dad had a 1961 MGA, and we did all the work on that together. My first car was a 1949 Plymouth I bought for seventy-five dollars. The compression was gone so it couldn’t go up hills, so I pulled the motor out, got a manual and learned about that engine by wrenching on it. There’s a continuum in my life with old motors, old cars and motorcycles: I came from a family that was gifted mechanically.  My Dad was a chemical engineer; a smart, talented dude, ace mechanic and an amazing artist. He was a WWII fighter pilot, and raced British motorcycles when he was back from the War.

Bobby Garey’s first Sportster. [Bobby Garey]
My grandfather had a cabinet shop where I worked as a kid. I have always made a living making things, and that ties me to working on things like this motorcycle: a life-long love of it.  My motorcycle’s design is a part of that; the shapes, the way it rides. I lowered it about four inches by switching the rear shocks and rear tire size – that decision has to do with outlaw style bikes. I was brought up in the south and all we ever rode was Harley Davidsons, chopper and bobber style bikes. That whole aesthetic was a part of my growing up: strip it down to the bare essentials. Louder, ruder, meaner. There were groups down South and in the old Rust Belt states that helped form the outlaw styles; they had seen bikes from the West Coast, and the style traveled with the bikes.

Today a lot of this history has been reduced to a “look” but one of the things I like about my motorcycle is that it predates all the bullshit. It’s nuanced and subconscious, but when I made it I was really just thinking about building a bike that runs. Something I could use to get out there on the New York streets that runs mechanically and safely and is in tip-top shape. Particularly if I was going to ride the hell out of it – and that’s how I like to ride. Riding in New York is an intense thing, and I like the intensity of it. Jamming the bike, splitting lanes; it’s exciting. The adrenaline pumps. It gets hairy. So many close calls.  The look of early outlaw bikes was a statement. These guys were exploring how to make things look fast. They might not have been able to put it into words but this is why they were doing it.”

Bobby Garey’s Shovelhead FLH in his Works Engineering Studio with his library and one of his paintings. [Michael McCabe]

On the Unspoken Nature of Motorcycling

“These guy’s bikes looked like they were going fast even when they were standing still. They looked like they are going to blast-off. Like when you look at an old photograph of a race car driving around a track; all the cars are pitched forward. So these San Francisco outlaw stance bikes were exploring this same perception of velocity. They might not have been able to talk about it but that’s what they were doing: blood knowledge and muscle memory. These guys were riders and they were building fast bikes, they knew what it felt like when they hit it. So they were building a bike to look like that. They had an internal knowledge of what the machine should look like. So were these guys in San Francisco thinking this way about how they were making their motorcycles? Maybe; but maybe not. They just made them like they wanted. I just made my bike like I wanted. But the stance and the look of these bikes had come from someplace. Nobody could even talk about it but their machines just affected people in deep ways.”

A Sportster engine on Bobby Garey’s workbench. [Michael McCabe]

East Coast vs. West Coast

People will talk about East Coast/West Coast styles and I think a lot of the East Coast style is from New York City. Narrow bikes that you can cut through traffic with. But that style also goes back to the California outlaws and their bikes. ‘Frisco style tanks. The Sportster tank was the prototype for that style. There is no motorcycle tank that comes close to it. Two and a quarter gallons of gas. I can run for about an hour and then I need more gas. You can change the tank a bit; raise the cap and add a petcock so you get about a half-gallon more gas. Guys in San Francisco invented that style tank. That’s an aesthetic I like. I finished building this bike about five years ago. It took me more than four months to build it. My friend Billy Phelps the photographer was working on something for Harley. He called up Ray and me and asked us to meet him over on Front Street in Brooklyn. He did a photo shoot set up with us and our old bikes and sent it to Harley. So, Harley went for his idea and then he set up a big shoot for the advertisement. There was a tractor-trailer full of new Harleys that he used in the shoot. The representative was there from Harley overseeing the shoot – my bike was parked there and the representative looked at it and said, “Ah, there’s that bike – whose bike is this?” The rep said that he had showed a photo of my bike to the president of Harley and the president said, “This is what a Sportster should look like. This is it.”

Bobby Garey in his Works Engineering studio. [Michael McCabe]

I Am a Southerner

I am a southerner; I love to ride down south, that’s where I grew up riding. Country roads with smooth surfaces. It’s relaxing. I am very aware of my connection to a region. And from that I have an understanding of other regions in America –  Southwestern, Appalachian culture. As a kid I hitch-hiked all around the country. I am acutely aware how in America there are these great epic stories: Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, John Steinbeck, and the Civil War. I am aware of this and I try to explore this narrative approach with my painting. My painting style and how I like to paint has a lot to do with craft and a sense of tradition. My Sportster also has a lot to do with a sense of craft and tradition. I’ve been drawing and painting for a long time. I’ve been making pictures with people in them since I was nine years old. Now I see a lot of this kind of thing disappearing. I have done all these paintings of people and places in New York and it dawned on me sometime during the process that I was painting things that were disappearing.  Works Engineering, where I had my studio, was an important place, there were some creative people there. It was a golden time.

A painting homage to the late Ray Abeyta, by Bobby Garey, 2014. [Bobby Garey]
A few years back I went down to South Carolina to take my motorcycle license test. I talked to the gal in the window and she asked what kind of bike I had. I told her a 1959 Harley-Davidson. Everybody in the office got all excited. The motorcycle trooper lady who gave the test said she wanted to see my bike. She took a look and asked me to turn on my head light. I told her I had to kick the bike over to do that. “You don’t got a switch for the light?” she asked. “No Ma’am, all I got is a magneto,” I replied. “Where’s your turn signals? I don’t see none,” she asked. “I don’t have any.” I replied. “Well I don’t know about that.” she said. She asked next, “Where’s your speedometer?” I replied I didn’t have one. “Well I don’t know about that.” she replied. She asked me to toot my horn. I told her I didn’t have a horn. She asked me how the heck I was expecting to pass this test? She said she was going to call her office and see how to handle this. She came back in 10 minutes with a big smile on her face and said, “My supervisor up in Columbia just told me that if you want to take the test on a 1959 Harley-Davidson then you deserve to take the test even if you don’t have no horn, no speedometer or no turn signals.” “Thank you Mam,” I said. She passed me on my test and stamped my license. As she was giving me my license she looked at me real serious and said, “That’s one fast looking machine; I bet it runs fast as hell.” “Yes Ma’am,” I said.”



Michael McCabe is a New York City tattoo artist and cultural anthropologist. He is the author of New York City Horsepower, Kustom Japan, New York City Tattoo, Japanese Tattooing Now, Tattoos of Indochina, and Tattooing New York City. For New York City Horsepower, Mr. McCabe spent two years discovering and documenting underground custom motorcycle and car garages in the City, as rapid gentrification put their culture under tremendous pressure. He interviewed and photographed New York City customizers about their personal histories and creative sensibilities.  See more of his work with The Vintagent here.
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