Tattoo artist Diego Mannino was born 1974 in Los Angeles into an evolving story of local moto-culture. Personal identity and status were shaped by time spent driving or riding the expansive six-lane freeway culture of Interstates 5 and 405.  One’s daily personal presentation combined your ride, its paint and wheels, your sound system, your sunglasses, your hair and body language. Without a set of wheels in LA you were reduced to total anonymity – a fate worse than a head-on collision. Young LA kids learned early about the vehicles in their communities; their histories, what was cool, what wasn’t, and why.

Diego Mannino with his 1970 BSA A65 Lightning at his garage in Los Angeles. [Mike McCabe]
California developed a unique center of gravity during the 1950s and 1960s, integrating cars and motorcycles into a new sense of self.  Young men and women expressed themselves with their customized rides, and this forever changed the world. The post-war 1950s California industrial economy nourished the SoCal hot bike/hot rod movement. Young people developed social and economic prowess and then used it to their advantage. In California the population exploded from less than 2 million in 1900 to 10 million in 1950; first from Depression Era migration and then from nuclear-family expansion. Between 1950 and 1960 California’s population increased 49%, with a median age around 35 years old. Young people ruled the day.

A young Diego Mannino on his Vespa in his San Francisco mod days. [Diego Mannino]
In response to the increase of young people in places like California, the cultural hardware started to change; Motorcycle manufacturers noticed the demographic shift in places like California, and responded. Triumph boss Edward Turner re-worked the 27 horsepower 1937 Speed-Twin motor in hopes of capturing the expanding US youth market. Turner enlarged the cylinder bore from 63mm to 71mm and increased the stroke to 82mm on the original 500cc engine. The result was the game-changer 34 horsepower 649cc 6T Thunderbird of 1950.  His 42 horsepower 1954 Triumph Tiger T110 opened the next door for performance and style in the UK but particularly for the North American market.  It became the fastest production motorcycle in 1955 with the collapse of Vincent Motorcycles, and rocked both Harley Davidson and the European manufacturers with its simplicity and tremendous style, and inspired the young Japanese manufacturers.

Diego Mannino in his LA garage, working on his Harley-Davidson UL flathead. [Francis Caraccioli]
The CEO of Nippon Gakki Co., Ltd (the parent company of Yamaha), Genichi Kawakami also noticed the new youth market. He retooled his production facilities in 1955 to move from making airplane propellers and musical instruments to designing and manufacturing motorcycles.  Kawakami had travelled to Europe and America in 1953 on a fact-finding mission and observed that young populations were not fixated on work, but were engrossed with leisure activities. He had an eye on the design and stance of the Triumph as a design template. Yamaha’s first bike, the 125cc 5.6 horsepower YA-1 Brit bike look-alike was released in 1955 and nick-named the aka tombo (red dragonfly). Across all Japanese motorcycle brands, production increased from 10,000 in 1950 to 750,000 in 1954.

Another view of Diego Mannino’s Harley-Davidson UL custom, built by Keino Sasaki in New York street style. [Francis Caraccioli]
The post-war, two-wheeled personal transportation revolution was global; motorcycles were more than machines, they had become bundles of specialized cultural information, with discreet codes that communicated complicated ideas to young consumers. Youth had the numbers; speed, risk and danger eclipsed the concerns of safety-fixated older adults in the UK, America and Japan. The updated ‘devil may care’ values of the 1950s were adopted as variables of change. Young people in Los Angeles followed the Brit-youth trend and turned to affordable, easily serviced, stylish scooters and motorcycles as material symbols of autonomy, re-defining who they were.

The shifter knob on Diego’s Harley-Davidson is a vintage NYC public school doorknob! [Francis Caraccioli]
During the industrial era many young people worked at ‘get your hands dirty’ jobs and did not shy away from scraping their knuckles. Wrenching know-how was a part of the masculine mystique. Grease and grime evolved into badges of gritty honor that have transcended time. Young SoCal people – but particularly young men – became fluent in the names, dates, models and bike brands Triumph, BSA, Royal Enfield, Harley Davidson, Yamaha and Honda as new extensions of a sense of self. Slogans rang in a young man’s ears; “Nothing handles like a Triumph”, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda”, “Until you’ve been on a Harley Davidson, you haven’t been on a motorcycle”.

Diego Mannino is a tattoo artist and vintage motorcycle enthusiast, who explains both the LA scene he grew up in (and has returned to), versus a thriving NYC motorcycle scene he adopted in the 1990s.  The following is his statement on those scenes: who inspired him, who he worked with, and how these wildly different cultures compare:

“I was raised in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, Alhambra and Pasadena mostly. There were always lowriders and hotrods driving down Valley Blvd, and once in a while I’d see some local motorcycle clubs riding by in packs. I remember wanting to buy a leather motorcycle jacket in junior high school because of how tough those bikers looked. Ha ha! I was always into drawing comics and fantasy art. My father used to take me to the Los Angeles Science Fiction and Comic Book Convention. I would sit for hours watching the comic artists draw and chat with us kids. I went to the Pasadena Art Center College of Design for a few semesters before moving up to San Francisco in 1994. I finished up my degree in Illustration at California College of Arts and Crafts around 2003 and immediately started to learn to tattoo the following year.

Diego Mannino in front of Dare Devil Tattoo NYC. [Michael McCabe]
I was part of the Mod scooter scene in Los Angeles and San Francisco from 1988 to about 1998, and would customize old Vespas and go on rides with lots of other clubs. I think this was my start in wanting to ride a motorcycle. After the scooter club thing dissolved most of my friends in the club got into British bikes. I thought it was a natural transition to go from being a scooter boy to a Rocker! I think I gravitated to English bikes because I had a few good friends in San Francisco that rode old Triumphs and BSAs. One of them was my next door neighbor Levon who had a beautiful Triumph 500 Daytona. I graduated from riding classic Vespas in my late ‘teens to bigger British bikes in my mid- 20s. I had a good friend Clint who worked on his own British bikes. He had a 650 BSA Lightning for sale that was running but needed lots of work. I purchased it for around $2500 and restored it myself over a ten-year period.

Diego working on a client’s tattoo at Dare Devil. [Michael McCabe]
I remember driving down to Raber’s Parts Mart in San Jose every few months to get parts. I also took my bike to Mean Marshalls in Oakland because my friend Big John worked there and I trusted him. My friend Jason Steed in San Francisco also taught me a lot and helped me work on my bike more than anyone. I broke down all the time, usually because of electrical problems. Eventually I replaced the wiring harness and added an electronic ignition. I tore the whole bike down to the frame and repainted, chromed, powder coated and reupholstered everything. I even remember sending my old grey face speedo gauges to a guy in Georgia to have them rebuilt. It was a long process that I loved and later started over with my Harley Flathead.

Riding in San Francisco was challenging because of the hills and traffic. To this day it’s still the most fun I’ve had riding in a city. Once in a while I would take it over the Golden Gate Bridge to ride through Muir Woods. Some of my favorite memorable rides in the Bay Area was the Rockers vs the Mods ride that went in a big circle around San Francisco. Half way through the ride all the British bikes met up with the old Vespas and Lambrettas and we rode together and pretended to hate each other! It was an homage to the rock opera Quadrophenia performed by The Who. [The two groups would meet head-on in the Stockton St tunnel and halt all traffic while performing stunts. – Ed]

Keino Sasaki at work: his tattoo is by Diego Mannino [Michael McCabe]
I moved to New York City in 2009. The city was a different place then: downtown and Williamsburg, Brooklyn were un-gentrified, low rent and very creative. I met Keino Sasaki, Paul Cox, John Copeland and Wes Lang within the first two weeks. I learned Keino and Paul had worked with New York City motorcycle legend Indian Larry (1949-2004). Paul first met and worked with Larry at Hugh Mackie’s Sixth Street Specials shop located in the bohemian East Village around 1990. Paul then went on to work with Larry at the historic Psycho Cycles shop around 1992 that was located a few blocks south of Mackie’s shop on the infamous Lower East Side. The look and lay-out of Larry’s bikes evolved from his intuition about what he thought worked best for a motorcycle: Standard rake, straight pipes, twin carb, small tank. His iconic question mark logo expressed his world view; Question Everything.

Paul Cox at work in his old Brooklyn garage. [Michael McCabe]
Keino had been raised in the Fukuoka section of Japan. He worked on the line at a Mitsubishi factory for two years and was then accepted at the Motorcycle Mechanic Institute in Arizona in 1998. He made his way to New York City where he chanced upon the downtown American Dream Machine shop and asked for a job in 2000. Indian Larry was the engine specialist at the shop. At that time there was a vital back street motorcycle scene in Brooklyn. John Copeland is a recognized fine artist but also builds classic ‘70s style choppers. For a while Copeland and Wes Lang shared a wrenching garage with other guys on Johnson Ave in the rough Bushwick section of Brooklyn. All this NYC motorcycle backstory was very influential and inspiring to me. I was pretty jealous these guys all rode killer vintage Harleys and wanted one immediately. I saved up enough money to buy my 1939 Flathead UL motor and Knucklehead transmission from a shop in New Jersey called O’Malley’s. The shop only had Knuckles and Flatheads, and at the time I could only afford the Flathead so that’s what I got.

Diego Mannino with his custom Harley-Davidson flathead. [Francis Caraccioli]
I found out later that the bike used to belong to Billy Lane from Florida. Keino and John came with me to help guide me through the sale. From then on it was full steam ahead on finishing the build, which took about 4 years to complete. I’ve always been into nostalgia and collecting antiques so the Flathead was just a natural choice for a bobber build. Every year I would go to the Oley and Rhinebeck motorcycle shows to hunt for parts. Keino and I did a part trade-part cash deal for the build. I tattooed a traditional Japanese full sleeve on his left arm. Paul Cox made me the solo Panhead seat and matching tool bag. John Copeland probably spent the most amount of time with me teaching me things about Harleys in general. We were neighbors in the East Village and hung out a lot.

Michelle Myles, owner of Dare Devil Tattoo NYC. [Michael McCabe]
I learned immediately that riding in the streets of New York City and Brooklyn is totally different than riding in LA. Riding in NYC is definitely challenging. The streets are a total disaster of never ending, teeth chattering, giant pot holes. Maniacs cut you off and give you the finger. Nobody cares about or obeys traffic rules. You are totally on your own. It’s really nuts. The Brooklyn riding community is what kept me hyped on wanting to ride as much as possible year round,” Diego said. “I organized a weekly ride with a bunch of friends in Brooklyn that would meet up every Tuesday and ride to Coney Island. I also helped John and Keino with The Brooklyn Invitational Custom Motorcycle Show that we did for 10 years. I put together the tattoo booth for the show as well as helping with setting up and promoting the show. It was really the best part of living in New York for all that time. I met some amazing builders, artists and just cool people that rode.

Diego’s 1970 BSA A65 Lightning. [Michael McCabe]
I moved to New York mainly because it had always been my favorite place to visit. I went once a year for a week from 1995 until about 2009 and then I moved there. I tattooed at Michelle Myles’ and Brad Fink’s Dare Devil Tattoo. My wife and I just moved back to Los Angeles about a year and a half ago to be closer to both our families but I still do guest spots at Dare Devil. I would say that the Covid pandemic is the main motivation for wanting to come back to California. I don’t have the same community of people to ride with that I did in New York but I’m working on it. At least the weather out here is perfect and the streets are more conducive for riding year round.  I still miss those Tuesday night rides ripping through the streets of Brooklyn. Now my Flathead is an East Coast bike living in LA! We’re both settling in to a totally different vibe! Smooth, wide freeways where everyone is pretty well behaved. I can relax a bit and enjoy my ride!”


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.


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