The Iron Triangle, NYC

The 1980s saw the beginnings of a new economic process for places like New York City.  Old, neglected, and crumbling post-industrial neighborhoods, where people had found cheap rent refuge from the 1940s through the 1970s, suddenly saw an influx of capital, otherwise known as gentrification.  In short order, affordable living and working spaces were renovated and became astronomically expensive, and a way of life was eliminated.

Drivers cruise the slow, unpaved streets of the Iron Triangle, shopping for parts. The giant Pepsi-Cola sign demarcates one border of the neighborhood: Citi Field. [Mike McCabe]
A few areas in the city resisted upscale transformation, because they were isolated from access to public transportation, dangerous, had no sewer lines, or were in old industrial zoning classifications. Willets Point in the borough of Queens survives today as such a place; it’s a watch-your-back, NOYFB (None Of Your Fucking Business) economic borderland on the downside of automobile retail culture. In recent years the area has picked up a nickname, The Iron Triangle, that describes the 75 acre, 13 block triangular intersection of 126th Street and Willets Point Boulevard, home to an under-the-radar scene that boasts just 10 permanent residents, who have somehow figured out how to reside there. There are no paved streets, just dirt access roads (that flood after a rain storm) where ramshackle garages house around 200 off-the-grid discount auto repair, muffler, rim, and tire businesses that employ a fluctuating average of 1200 daily workers.

Right back at you: a shot of Willets Point, The Iron Triangle, from Citi Field. [Jim Henderson via Wikipedia]
Most people who own cars in the five boroughs of NYC are familiar with the low-cost parts and repair options offered by Iron Triangle businesses.  But the rough, masculine, and dangerous vibe requires a sense of bravado to actually visit. Customers' cars move slowly along the uneven, washed-out lanes as drivers rubber-neck at the neatly stacked pyramids of aluminum wheels and hanging muffler pipes glistening in the sun. Workers use subtle hand gestures to point out large, clumsily painted signs that simply read TIRES, RIMS and MUFFLERS to guide customers into a shop. Middle-aged women push carts between the cars and shops selling home cooked empanadas, wearing wide brim hats for both sun and identity protection. In the deeper shadows, a few sex workers try their luck.

The tin shacks were built decades ago with no permits, when nobody was looking, but land in NYC is valuable, and the Iron Triangle is a doomed 'temporary autonomous zone.' [Mike McCabe]
In the early 20th century, Willets Point was a barren, anonymous fly ash dump (a byproduct of coal burning), possibly the very locale described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby as the 'valley of ashes':

"About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air."

By the 1930s the area segued to become the final resting place for smashed cars and other hard-edged industrial refuse. Slowly, impromptu fix-it shops appeared, clustering around economic possibility. Word got out and a reputation took shape. City government noticed them during the early 1970s, and wondered what to do. Was any of this licensed? A push and pull contest between NYC government, property owners, business owners, sports stadium developers, affordable housing advocates and real estate carnivores tumbled through the courts for decades. Redevelopment plans included a mall, a hotel, parking lots, a school and parks. Under the threat of eminent domain, many businesses have already been razed, evicted, or relocated. Streets have been closed and the remaining businesses have lost customers. A final solution was approved by city government in 2018, but the Covid pandemic put everything on hold.

Wheels and tires...if you've bought them for your car, you know it's a big expense. The source of these wheels is suspect, so buying here requires a suspension of moral belief. [Mike McCabe]
The ‘thickness’ of New York City’s social and economic landscape provides cover for undeclared, marginal situations. The scale of the city makes it impossible for the Man to keep an eye on everything, and in that space of permission-less freedom, the dynamism of the city nurtures growth in unpredictable and creative ways. The marginal economy of the Iron triangle survived in the vacuum of indecision, and continues to provide a much needed, budget-sensitive option for willing car owners. For over a decade, starting under Mayor Bloomberg, much-contested and renegotiated plans have been in the works to redevelop the Iron Triangle. Today, the fate of the Iron Triangle remains a mystery.

Not much space for a wrecking yard in other parts of NYC, but these provide a very useful and economical source of used parts for working-class mechanics. [Mike McCabe]
Heavy industry and freight hauling live here too. This shop was the source of Senator Dianne Feinstein's significant family wealth. Just kidding. [Mike McCabe]
Who are the owners and customers of Iron Triangle businesses? Clearly not denizens of the Upper East Side, nor the hipsters of nearby Williamsburg/Ridgewood in Brooklyn. It's the working-class and recent immigrants, mostly. [Mike McCabe]
 

 

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. More of Mike's articles for The Vintagent can be found here.

On Old Streets: The Motorcycles of Rhodes

Walking along the medieval streets of the storied town of Rhodes, Greece, the ancient and modern coexist in glaring contrast.  Scattered at the feet of the 14th century Gothic gates of the Palace of the Grand Master are hundreds of sleek motorcycles.  Inside the gates, behind time-worn limestone city fortifications, dozens more bikes owned by residents and workers sit in quiet corners of the cobblestone alleyways. A few years ago, Greece topped Italy and Switzerland to become the number one European Union country for motorcycle ownership. A gentle climate, a demographic skewed towards youth, and affordability have all fed the trend. Since 2014, Greek motorcycle ownership increased 0.5% year on year, with 150.24 Units per thousand persons. In 2019, the country was ranked number one compared to other EU countries in motorcycle ownership; Italy, Switzerland and Spain respectively ranked number 2, 3 and 4. The Motorcycles market in Greece is projected to generate a revenue of US$734.3M in 2024, and the BMW Motorrad is expected to have the highest market share there in 2024.

Motorcycles parked at the 14th Century Palace of the Grand Master in Rhodes, Greece [Mike McCabe]
Rhodes is the fourth-largest Greek Island, measuring 49 miles long and 24 miles wide. There are more than 14 motorcycle and step-through dealerships that support an active local and tourist two-wheeled riding community. Several well-organized mototourist companies provide historical and pleasure-riding itineraries around the island. On the downside, in the rest of the European Union, fatal accidents involving motorbikes make up just 17.7 percent of all road deaths, whereas in Greece the percentage is close to 40 percent, making Greece one of the most dangerous countries in the EU for motorcyclists. Young, inexperienced riders not wearing helmets account for the high numbers.

A custom chopper parked in front of the Islamic Library in Old Rhodes Town. [Mike McCabe]
Because of its strategic location, the small island of Rhodes has experienced a lot of history: the assortment of conventional and step-through motorcycles parked on the streets of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Rhodes Town serve as contrasting visual reminders of constant cultural, historical and strategic movements in the Mediterranean/Aegean region. The still legendary Colossus of Rhodes, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, took 12 years to build between 294 and 282 BC. The 100-foot tall bronze statue is said to have stood at the entrance to Rhodes harbor but collapsed during a 225 BC earthquake.  The statue debris sat until 654 AD when it was cut up and hauled away by attacking Arab forces who melted the bronze down and refashioned it into swords and coins. No evidence of the statue has survived beyond the legend.

Scooters make up the majority of two-wheelers on Rhodes, and are very convenient for the ancient narrow cobblestone alleys. [Mike McCabe]
The motorcycles of Rhodes Town roam the streets of the oldest inhabited medieval town in Europe, where 6000 people live and work in the same buildings the Knights of St. John lived, six centuries ago. The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John - commonly known as the Knights Hospitaller - was a medieval Catholic military order formed in the 11th century, with roots as a religious order located in Jerusalem. Their primary objective was to look after the welfare of wounded crusaders and religious pilgrims.  When the Knights of Saint John were defeated in Jerusalem, then Cyprus, they came to Rhodes in the year 1309, built the impressive walled fortress/town, and controlled the strategic island for 200 years. There were approximately 7000 knights from several European areas that were classified by their ‘tongues’ (languages) and lived in ‘tongue-based’ dormitories along the Street of the Knights. Even today, the French consulate maintains an active ‘French tongue inn’ on the Street of the Knights that dates to 1492. Construction of the medieval Hospital of the Knights of Saint John started in 1440 and was completed in 1489. Today, the impressive Archaeological Museum of Rhodes is housed in the remains of the hospital building and contains artifacts and historical collections from different parts of Rhodes and the neighboring islands.

Byzantine art in the Rhodes Byzantine museum. [Mike McCabe]
The Turkish mainland is just 17 miles from Rhodes, and during the 1400s, Ottoman Sultans attempted to overthrow the Knights several times. In 1522 Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent arrived with 400 ships and over 100,000 troops to finally conquered the Knights, who numbered only 7000. After seven years of wandering stateless, Pope Clement VII negotiated for a permanent home on Malta for the Knights, where they became known as the Knights of Malta.

The new knights of Malta? Bikes parked by the old fortress/city walls in Rhodes. [Mike McCabe]
The motorcycles parked inside and around the historic walls of the Palace of the Grand Master look out of sync, but are actually part of a long historical process. During the Roman Republican period, (510-31 BC) the Empire conquered the Greek city-states - including Rhodes in 146 BC - and incorporated them into the rapidly expanding Roman Empire. Imperial Rome dates from 31BC to 476 AD and became almost as big as the USA is today, stretching from the administrative city of Rome in the west to what was Constantinople in the east. The eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire literally butted against the massive Ottoman Anatolian peninsula and Asia.

Inside the oldest active mosque, the Ibrahim Pasha Mosque built in 1540. [Mike McCabe]
The Romans constructed and utilized an unprecedented network of roads to facilitate the efficient movement of goods, services and information. However, the scale of the expanding Roman Empire became untenable and the empire split into west and east in 395 AD. The Byzantine Empire emerged and ruled most of Eastern and Southern Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Its capital city, Constantinople, was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe during the time. The Byzantine Empire, also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, developed its own form of iconography, based Eastern Orthodox Christianity, that survives today in the churches of Rhodes.

The entrance to a 17th Century sea captain's house in Old Rhodes. [Mike McCabe]
The Western Roman Empire finally collapsed during the 5th century AD, but the Byzantine Empire continued as a powerful administrative, maritime and mercantile economic power until 1453, when it finally succumbed to Ottoman Turk attacks, and Constantinople was renamed Istanbul. Byzantine art has a quality of magical religiosity, with static figures depicted in archaic styles surrounded by rich colors and ethereal gold leaf, that looks strangely naïve compared to the preceding Greek and Roman classical art styles. During the Byzantine era the Orthodox church controlled the purse strings of art patronage, and it would take the Renaissance to rediscover the naturalism of classical Greek and Roman artistic expression.

Cobblestone streets and two wheels; uneasy riding partners, but the only way to travel. [Mike McCabe]
Places like Rhodes represent the fluid mixing of history and culture that usually unfolds in border regions. The culture of Rhodes is still heavily influenced by Ottoman/Turkish culture and there is a Turkish Muslim minority of 3500 people who are descendants of the Ottoman times (as they will tell you, they are Greek 'only by their passports').  There are seven historic mosques with minarets that include the first and still active Ibrahim Pasha mosque that dates to 1522 where prayer is still called inside the mosque five times a day. Restaurants located in the Hora Muslim section of central Rhodes Old Town serve Turkish-influenced food and musicians (who ride to work on motorcycles), sing traditional Ottoman folk songs late into the night.

A rare c.1931 BMW R11 parked in Rhodes Old Town on the Street of the Knights. [Mike McCabe]

 

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. More of Mike's articles for The Vintagent can be found here.

In the Darkness: Langdon Clay’s Cars, NYC 1974-76

 “Time seemed stationary, yet the painful pressure of time was constantly felt.”

Hubert Selby Jr. The Room, 1971

"The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding."

John Updike. The New Yorker, 1976

The 1970’s in New York City were a dangerous, dystopic, but also a liberating time, when a beat-up, two-bedroom East Village apartment was one hundred dollars a month.  A glass of Rheingold Beer in a Bowery bar was twenty-five cents (and came with lively bartender conversation). Photographer Langdon Clay was born in New York City in 1949, and at twenty-five, after schooling in New Hampshire and Boston, returned to New York City - more specifically lower Manhattan in 1971. In New England he had experimented with making 8mm movies and began to develop his eye. A friend suggested a few photographers he should look at: Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson. He learned about the camera’s capacity for documentation.

Langdon Clay playing with light in the late 1970s. [Langdon Clay]
Clay arrived back in the City just as the place was falling apart. The 1970s fiscal crisis had pushed Gotham into a downward spiral of economic exhaustion. New York was represented in films like Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974), Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) and Sydney Lumet’s Serpico (1973): their Cinema Verité grittiness matched the vibe of the city.

The famous New York Daily News cover from October 30 1975, giving a purely New York take on federal politics. [New York Daily News]
As a byproduct of the 1975 fiscal crisis, more than one million city residents fled to the suburbs in what would become known euphemistically as 'White Flight'. The city’s economy imploded: 50,000 city workers were laid off in 1975 and the police force shrank by 34%, with a simultaneous 40% increase in the crime rate.[1] There were an estimated 40,000 prostitutes walking the streets, even on lower Park Avenue.[2] What is now the posh Madison Park at 23rd Street and Madison Avenue was then referred to as Needle Park. The subway had the highest crime rate of any mass-transit system in the world with 250 felony arrests every week. On Thursday October 30, 1975 New Yorker’s awoke to the famous New York Daily News headline: Ford to City: Drop Dead and learned that their president, Gerald Ford, and their federal government were refusing to help bail the city out from its very real economic calamity. Today, when young people lightheartedly walk the streets of lower Manhattan, they have no idea they are actually walking on the bones of a very different previous civilization. When Landon Clay ambled the same streets of the West Village and Chelsea during 1974-1976 with his Leica CL, a 40mm lens, and heavy-duty tripod, the banged-up parked cars sitting curbside under the glow of streetlights spoke to him.  His photos reveal a different reality, and a different New York City.

A selection of mid-1970s images form Langdon Clay. [Langdon Clay]
Michael McCabe (MM): You were born in New York City in 1949, and after some schooling in New England and Boston, you came back to the city in the ‘70s, when you were 25 years old.

Langdon Clay (LC): I was born at St. Vincent’s Hospital. I don’t think it’s there any more...it’s some condo building now. I lived in Princeton, NJ in the ‘50s and then we moved to Vermont. I went to some fancy boarding school. In school we were making 8mm movies without sound. But scheduling got complicated. On a trip to New York I went to Olden Camera at 34th Street and bought a Pentax. I was familiar with cameras to a degree. I was familiar with the notion of recording things. I did not migrate to still cameras as a complete neophyte.

'White Tower Car, Buick LeSabre,' Meatpacking District, 1976. [Langdon Clay]
I don’t know where visual sensibility comes from. Part of it is who you like. Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams were early inspirations. Soon Evans, Sheeler, Atget and Stieglitz were on my radar. Eventually I was inspired by more street and less architectural/art photographers like Eggleston, Christenberry, Winogrand, Friedlander and many others from the so called ‘Snapshot School’. Also painters like Piero della Francesca and Vermeer.

I was reading Camera Magazine and seeing all the European people, but wanted to get away from it. I didn’t want to be an imitation of it. I wanted to do something that was mine. I understood the difference between an impressionist and expressionist perspective. I wanted to record. If photography is one big tree, one branch goes off and it’s realistic and it’s recording things and the other is expressing things from an artistic point of view using light sensitive material. For me, using the camera is to record. That’s always how I’ve felt about it.

'Kojak Cop Car, Plymouth Fury, in the Twenties Garment District,' 1975. [Langdon Clay]
MM: During the 1970s downtown Manhattan was deserted, dark and potentially dangerous…  You were walking around as a 25 year old. You have said about the cars... “They were all there motionless. Quietly parked. They were staring at me at the foot of the buildings, side by side as if they could create a kind of geographical and imaginary map of the city I loved so much.”

LC: You know what they say… If you are a writer, write about what you know. So if you are a photographer follow where you are. You can always find something. To photograph something which I had done for a long time in Black and White is one thing, and then to turn it into a project where you are going out a couple nights a week kind of hunting, is kind of another level. So it brings you to the whole question in photography of how do images and sequences, how does the ordering, compound the meaning and questions like that. Photographing the cars was the first time I had put together that I was actually kind of on to something not so random.

Ford Falcon. [Langdon Clay]
MM: The issue of the cars. We are brought up in the American car culture, Post-War, the early days of American industrialism and exceptionalism. You were wandering the streets at night, you were only 25 but the cars were resonating. At the time did you realize you were making historical documents or were you looking at these things aesthetically?

LC: I knew they wouldn’t always look like that. In fact, I took those photos in ‘74, ‘75, ‘76 and we’d already had the gas crisis. Several things had happened with cars: they had to get smaller. And the other thing that had changed is the design engineers had come up with the wind tunnel and probably some early computers. Instead of being designed by a sculptor, who would make a life sized model of what the car would look like with no regard for the cost of gas, the gas crisis [meant] the design of cars was going to change. And the cars I was photographing on the street were still from four, five or eight years earlier. And the ones I picked were the cool designs but by they were all rusting out and banged up. I knew to that degree, since things were changing, that those cars and my photographs would be a little bit of history. In ‘79 I did something about 42nd Street and that really was done for history. The newspapers were full of stories about the need to renovate (read clean up) Times Square and I thought, 'fuck I better do something about that', to make a record.

MM: You said about the older car designers, “At the time designers were crazy. They were real artists. They could do anything they wanted but above all they were drawn by hand.” So at the time did the cars seem important and worth documenting? And why at night?

'Colonial Car, Chevrolet Nova 230, Hoboken, NJ, 1975' [Langdon Clay]
LC: That was partly because night is different. The city at night is more dreamy. There’s one photograph of the Dodge Lancer that looks stucco. You can see the fenders look like someone was troweling a wall, and then of course the wall behind the car is exactly that. So, what that means to me is that cars when they are designed by people have a scale to them. You can tell that there was a certain amount of love or it’s much more personable than what was developing elsewhere. Some of this still existed in some European cars. The Volvo. I don’t know, they just look like cars. The headlights look like eyes.

The French were early on the weirdness of design. The Nordic types and Germanic ones had a different approach to cars. Most of their designs were better I would say. That’s just me. Now as far as photographing them, I don’t have much interest now. The only ones I like around where I live (down South) are those same cars from the ‘70s.

'Greenwich Theater Bug, Volkswagen Beetle, 1974' [Langdon Clay]
This whole thing also arcs back to not just cars but trains and people like Raymond Loewy [who designed the Studebaker Avanti - ed.] and industrial design. That was a field you could get into, like being an architect. I don’t know that nowadays with computers…maybe it's packaging. That’s as important as it ever was. I don’t know if the people who do it are just grunts behind a computer or if they’re kind of art stars in their own right. I imagine in some ways it’s very efficient and keeps some of the costs down.

MM: At what point do you think as you are walking around and noticing these cars, like that Lancer, your personal sensibility… You realize you have stumbled onto something. It’s dark, the streets are not congested. You were using existing light of the Sodium Vapor street lights.

LC: During the 1970s Mercury Vapor was used to illuminate places like basketball courts at night. Then to save money, the city switched to Sodium Vapor which is much warmer and more golden light and it works very well with Kodachrome. I tested different films and that one worked the best. The problem for the city is that it’s cheaper to use that light but the trees keep growing at night. So then you’ve got to get the tree people in to trim the trees. So there’s always something. I tested all that because I was just learning about color and switching from Black and White to color. I tested different color films but the best one was Kodachrome. I am glad I picked it. There is a permanence and some weird richness in Kodachrome.

'Floral Designer Car, Mercedes Sedan, in the Twenties near Broadway, 1974.' [Langdon Clay]
MM: You said, “At the time it seemed like an obvious and natural transition (from Black and White to color) but what was less obvious was how to reflect my world and my city in color. I discovered that night was its own color and I fell for it.”

LC: I was hoping to find the right technology for the aesthetic. I could tell, I got to a point where out of a roll of film, I could use everything on it. The pictures found me at a certain point. So I knew when I had a match between a car and a background.

MM: You said, “To see what it is, to record clearly and pass it on faithfully to your children and their children or inquiring Martians or leave it to posterity. It became kind of a calling. I had to see it for myself.” Was this some kind of a calling?

LC: Yeah, it was kind of, and the Village along with those cars had a similar effect to Paris. The scale of the West Village or Hoboken which then was an easy run under the World Trade Center on the Path train. And it wasn’t scary to be in those places. The East Village had a different feel from the West Village. So, I was living on 28th street and the Village was a walk, I took a couple in Murry Hill, the highest I got was 59th street or something. If there was a calling it was to my own neighborhood. I had a sense of place. I didn’t have a lot of money. I’d paint apartments. I could do that for a couple weeks and then take two weeks off and go to the movies with my friends. Hang out and play cards.

Blue and white: Andalucia Inc Spanish Food and Mustand Mach 1 hardtop. [Langdon Clay]
When I photographed the cars at night, I had to be aware of the light. It’s not just the street lights. It was also the light from stores and stuff. You might not be seeing it directly, maybe if you are across the street but there were certain neon glows of red and blue and green that you can see were behind the camera. So if some store lights were turned off, it wouldn’t be the same thing. I was photographing from 8 to 10 PM, in that range. Before people really shut up for the night.

MM: Did you have any precondition about what kind of car you wanted to photograph? You are walking down the street and you see an old banged up Studebaker and you’d say to yourself, “That’s a good one. I better take that one.”

LC: Yeah, I passed by a lot. And of course I went past the same streets and same buildings over and over and over again. But the cars changed, so that’s why I went back again and again, because something might turn up that would work. In the beginning I did even wider sort of streetscapes where there might be two or even three cars, like a red car and a green car right next to each other. I pretty quickly got down to just one car and one background as an aesthetic approach. At the time I was learning more about Renaissance styles.

When I first showed these photos in Paris in ‘76, the French thought I had just moved the cars. They thought it was an arrangement thing. But that would be pretty theatrical and I didn’t have either the money or the imagination to do it. Nothing was particularly planned other than I would roam the streets.

White Volkswagen Microbus and snow. [Langdon Clay]
MM: Did the cars encourage a new way of seeing for you? The cars showed you something that you would not have realized otherwise?

LC: Yeah, but actually, I don’t care all that much about cars. I cared about the whole picture. You know, for photographers when near, middle and far line up in this way, you want to comment on other things in the picture. Sort of like a poem I guess. You need something happening where the parts of the picture are talking to each other in a way. There were photographers like Brassai who photographed Paris at night who was an inspiration. You can go further back into French painting- Georges de La Tour did a bunch of night scenes with candle light, with gloomy shadows. And there was Edward Hopper. I don’t know why I gravitated to that. Another thing was, not so many people were photographing at night at the time. Now with digital, it’s much easier; the lighting works better. You don’t need all the filters, etc. And now, you can tweak them in the computer.

For most of my time in New York at least until the early ‘80s I didn’t even own a car. Even back then, to keep a car in a parking lot cost as much as having an apartment. Before, when I lived in Vermont everyone had VW bugs. I was a little partial to them because I knew if you got stuck in a snow bank, it only takes two people to lift them out.

Symphony in blue: optician and Ford Torino. [Langdon Clay]
MM: In the forward to your book; Langdon Clay,  Cars - New York City, 1974-1976 (Steidl 2016) Luc Sante said that the mid-‘70s were the magic years. Life was affordable. Everyone was free-wheeling. Those years were a very unique time. Now for me, as someone who first lived downtown in Manhattan in 1975-6, your car photographs capture something authentic. You said, “I was running in the other direction from street photography. It was a decisive moment; I had a tripod, a Leica, a 40mm lens, Kodachrome film and two years of wandering around. It was photography of the street itself - one car, one background, so simple. Night became its own color.”

LC: Well, you know what it means. From living in that city in particular. Back then, you weren’t always safe. There were three guys coming at you down the block and you’d cross to the other side to save yourself a bunch of grief.

Photographing at night in that light was a different thing. Particularly during the summer- the humidity and the night are protective layers, so you don’t have to worry about the sky. You are focused to the street level. Basically, photographing the cars was very objective. I was also very keen to maximize any detail in any given image. The issue of recording evidence. Yes, there are the cars but there is also all the other information in the frame. For me that’s what’s important. In one-hundred years that’s what I hope people will get out of these things. I guess some of what is in the background of the photos is still there but many of those places are no longer there.

Symphony in yellow: Ford Mustang II, Fiat, Vega, and Audi. [Langdon Clay]
MM: Yes, they are documents. The cars are of course important but the backgrounds resonate with the noise of life. New York is an impressive place to begin with. It’s a real city. It’s overwhelming and impressive.

LC: I guess a lot of it is still there but they have painted over the buildings. Some of the buildings are gone. I was in the city recently and went looking for some of the places where I took the photos; like the White Tower hamburger place I photographed with a car in the snow… That’s gone. There is a big apartment building there now.

MM: You as a young man, you were twenty-five, you were impressed with this city, you had a camera- you could have taken pictures of so many different things. You could have taken pictures of store fronts.

LC: Atget did this in Paris. He wasn’t afraid to show the mannequins in the windows. There’s another part to it for the photographer which is- to make an image and then later- a week, ten days later after it was developed and came back in the mail, to look at it and to discover what it was you took a picture of. Especially what you didn’t see at the time because you were worried about the guy down the street or getting run over by a car. Then later at your leisure project it on the wall and think about it. So that’s still for me the fun of photography. Although now with a digital camera you can see it immediately. I am not complaining about that but I have to train myself not to fall in love with what I just took and put on my computer. Just give it some time. It’s kind of like when you are angry with someone and you want to write a mean letter - before you send it, give it a few days. So that is a kind of wonderful thing about even recent history; you have to give it a little time to become history.

Fiat 128 askew and amidst garbage cans. [Langdon Clay]
MM: You were shooting transparencies. You had to mail the film off to Kodak. You had to wait ten days for them to come back. There was a whole process to this. There was a sense of expectation. You were stewing on the images. In your head you had some notion of what you thought you photographed; then you got your film back and some of the images were different from what you remembered. It’s a very different reality than the digital thing.

LC: Yeah, absolutely. And there is another part that involves the darkroom. Which I didn’t do with these transparencies; the issue of switching from negative to positive. That’s another drill to add to the mix. I always liked that. And if you are using large format with ground glass, everything is upside down and backwards. Seeing is in your brain not in your eyes. It’s not the lens you are using, it’s your perception.

MM: I remember you described how you felt as a young guy in the city. Borrowing from an old 1964 Roger Miller song, Dang Me- “My Pappy’s a pistol, I’m a son-of-a-gun…” You said, “We were all pistols on fire, New York was ours in the 1970s, so we thought…” That sense of freedom walking around as a young person back during the ‘70s.

LC: Well you know what it’s like, when you are twenty-five and sort of cocky. That song used to be on a ten-inch reel in the darkroom that went on for hours. That’s why I put in the last part- “So we thought…” Now at my age, the things I thought as a kid would become more clarified, are now more muddy. There is no linear way to progress through old age, retirement and complete understanding. You just have to look in at any given stage in your life and see what’s up. So that’s what I was doing when I was twenty-five. Those years in New York during the 1970s were pretty incredible - life was affordable, creative.

Langdon Clay at his studio, 2021. [Langdon Clay]
Langdon Clay's webpage is here, and his gallery is Jackson Fine Art.

For more photography content on TheVintagent.com, click here.

[1] Source: John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

[2] Source: Publication of New York Women in Criminal Justice in collaboration with Prostitution Task Force.

 

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.  More of Mike's articles for The Vintagent can be found here.

A Girl and Her Scout - Josephine Vandell

The twentieth Century was marked as the age of the machine and a revolution in human history; for the first time human beings partnered with noisy, greasy and powerful machine technology.[1] Josephine Gomez was born October 16, 1921 in Baltimore, to a family that used a motorcycle as transportation. Her father, Luciano Gomez, was born in Spain in 1889 and had apprenticed in his home village to become a cabinetmaker. He saved his money and, like many of his young friends, felt the urge to buy a bicycle, and explore this novel means of transportation.  While riding with friends a few days after his purchase, he was shocked to encounter his first motorcycle.  Of course he wanted it, but with all his money spent, how could he possibly get his hands on one? America…surely if he went to America, he could afford a motorcycle. He joined the Merchant Marine and traveled the world. At port in Bayonne NJ, a friend with a motorcycle let Luciano take it for a ride. Just as he'd imagined. He jumped ship and settled among other Spanish immigrants living on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Josephine Vandell in 1940 with her Indian Scout on Staten Island. [Vandell Family Archive]
Arthur Vandell Jr. is Josphine's son, and relates the tale: “My grandfather (Luciano Gomez) was born in Spain in 1889. He apprenticed as a cabinetmaker, and at the end of his apprenticeship he had enough money to buy a bicycle. So he and his friends went on a ride up the mountain to a resort. They stopped halfway and they heard this noise coming up the hill. Here comes three guys on motorcycles, and they had never seen one before. So Luciano says, 'oh my goodness, I just spent all my money on this bicycle…now I am never going to get a motorcycle. The only way I will get a motorcycle is if I go to America.' This was 1905. He saw the first airplane, the first car that came into his town. Then he joined the Spanish Merchant Marine.”

Paterfamilias of the Gomez family, and a first-generation immigrant to the USA, posing proudly with the motivation for moving to the USA: to afford a motorcycle! Luciano poses in 1940 with his Indian Chief. [Vandell Family Archive]
Josephine Gomez Vandell adds to the story of her father: “He came on a ship to Bayonne, New Jersey. He rode on a friend’s motorcycle and said, 'Oh, wow!' And he made up his mind that one day he was going to leave the ship and he is going to settle in this country. And he did. He was excited about being able to have his own independent transportation. This was like a new thing. My whole family rode Indians, a lot of motorcycles.”

Suzanne Vandell Quinn, Josephine's daughter, pipes up: “My grandfather was a carpenter and he had a carpentry business on Pearl Street in Manhattan, and he had an Indian with a sidecar. He would come to Staten Island on the ferry and work on building his house by hand. After the house was finished, my grandfather and grandmother moved to Staten Island[2]. Back then, there were very few people on Staten Island. There wasn’t any transportation. They used the motorcycle. They didn’t have a car ‘till many years later.”

Josephine: “My father had the whole family on the motorcycle. I used to ride with my brother in the specially-made sidecar, and my mother rode behind my father. You know, when I lived in the other end of the island, in our neighborhood, we were the only ones with a vehicle, and it was a motorcycle (laughter). Transportation has changed since I was younger. In this part of the island there was no bus… you walked to the train station. My father Luciano Gomez was from Spain. There were many Spanish people living downtown Manhattan around Cherry street. They all had motorcycles. During the summer we’d all go off on our motorcycles, crabbing or something. And on the way we’d stop and somebody would make a fire from twigs, and they would make a paella. In those days we didn’t have refrigeration; we used to cook rice with whatever we coudl find, and snails. Oh, I used to love them.

The Richmond Motorcycle Club in 1939: all Indians, as that's what the local dealer sold. [Vandell Family Archive]
“In 1931 we used to go to the shore a lot. We’d go crabbing down in Toms River (NJ). We went to Montreal, Canada during Prohibition [January 17, 1920-December 5, 1933] in the side car. We went to Niagara Falls in the side car. You have to remember, there were no highways. Staten Island was mostly dirt roads. There were still horse-drawn carts. I remember them. My father would be driving the motorcycle, we were in the side car and I remember going past horses and wagons.[3] My father had a special sidecar made by a company named Goulding. This sidecar could be taken off [its chassis], and he made a little cart and he put that on for his cabinet business. Where he would carry his lumber and all that. When it rained, there was a cover onfor the sidecar, and we’d get under that. And we would go to sleep there. When we took that trip to Montreal there were no paved roads. We wore goggles. Sometimes we’d get stung by a bee. We had a cloth helmet that was a flight helmet.

Riding gear and aviation gear were very similar in the 1920s and '30s, before flying suits became more specialized. Pilots were dashing and usually wealthy, setting the standard for suitable adventure outfits. This young woman in the 1920s wears high flying style, with a cinched leather coat and leather jodhpurs, a classic flying helmet with goggles, and high boots with speed laces. Flapper chic! [The Vintagent Archive]
“[In the] 1930s we didn’t have a lot of examples of how to do all this. We looked at pilots and airplanes for what to do. How to dress. Airplanes were still a new thing. A pilot was a new thing. Going fast and traveling. This was a new thing, Ya. We were looking at flight.  It was a pleasure riding in those days…there wasn’t any traffic on the roads. There were no highways, no interstates, no hotels to stay at, no restaurants to eat. We are talking 1926-7. We’d be touring on the motorcycle and there weren’t really any hotels. We’d find a place with a cabin. Sometimes you’d see other people with motorcycles. There weren’t people with cars.

“There were no maps, no tour guides, nothing. Maybe we had a compass. There was the Lincoln Highway [dedicated Oct. 31, 1913. Ran from Times Square NYC to Lincoln Park in San Francisco]. And there was one road that went from Maine to Florida [The Florida Highway was first built in 1938]. Many parts of those roads were paved. It was a pleasure driving then.

Josephine Vandell on her Indian Scout in 1940; note the extra-deep fender valences, and the influence of flying gear on her outfit. [Vandell Family Archive]
“We had to have tools. My father kept his tools in the sidecar. Yes, you had to have knowledge about how these things worked. If something broke you had to figure it out on your own. My brother worked as a mechanic for Mike Lombardi Sr for forty years [Staten Island Motorcycle dealership originally opened in 1905 by Frank Lombardi as a general store]. Many people came from long distances to have my brother work on their motorcycles. Staten Island has a real history of high speed guys…there was a lot of racing; Thompson Stadium…Weissglass…there were a couple race tracks and hill climbs.

“I was nineteen, twenty-two, twenty-three when I got my first motorcycle. I bought an Indian Scout around 1939. I was the only woman with a motorcycle in my area. Then there were a couple women in the Richmond club [Richmond Motorcycle Club] who had motorcycles. There was a woman named Wanda and she had a motorcycle. This was not a question of being cool. There was no such thing as cool.

"There was no such thing as cool." Because Josephine Vandell was too busy living cool to ever worry about that. Here's another shot from 1940 on her Indian Scout, wearing a wool jacket with leather collar, and heavy cotton trousers. [Vandell Family Archive]
“We followed the racing circuit. Many of the daughters and sisters of the riders were their mechanics. It never bothered me to get my hands dirty. My Indian was a simple motorcycle. I wasn’t that good at mechanics, luckily I had my brother 'Don'; actually his name was Selestino, but some of the guys in the club called him Don Juan, and Don stuck as his nickname. And my father knew how to work on motorcycles. The Gomez family was known for motorcycles. In Staten Island there weren’t that many motorcycles around. My father rode, my brother, and my husband and my son. Now I have my grandsons riding. And my son in law, he rode. The best man at my wedding and my husband’s brother… It was affordable to ride a motorcycle.

The Richmond MC hosted hillclimbing and racing in the 1930s and 40s. [Vandell Family Archive]
“We were before the 'thing' about motorcycles and ‘rebel culture’. We rode Indians. Mike Lombardi (Sr.) sold Indians. Back then a lot of people who rode Indians were different from people who rode Harley-Davidsons. The women who were in the Richmond club were dignified. My Scout was a 45 cubic inch motorcycle. It was heavy. The seat was a comfortable distance from the ground. I could easily sit on my motorcycle. One time I had to stop real fast because this car was coming, they didn’t see me because the sun was in his eyes… He was heading for me… So I dropped the bike. Then I had to pick it up… the poor man was so apologetic.

“I felt independent… You’d get that breeze… I was so used to that. It was great… That’s how I met my husband. He was in the men’s Richmond Club and I was in the auxiliary. We used to have nice parties. Lombardi had his shop in the back, they had a little shack and we had all our parties there. That’s where I met my husband. It was good clean fun. None of the girls were married but the men were gentlemen. We’d all foxtrot around the floor. It was like a family outing. Beach parties, BBQs.

Another Richmond MC event; picnics and dirt racing in 1940. [Vandell Family Archive]
“We rode through all the weather but we didn’t think about it. That’s what we did. We didn’t think we were tough. This is just what we did. Yeah. Then I met my husband and we got married and then I was pregnant with Arthur Jr. and I gave it up. That was in ’47. My father had a 1936 Ford coupe with a rumble seat. Those were the good ol’ days…we had no money but we sure had fun. Ha. Transportation and traveling was in our blood. We loved it. I loved driving. Motorcycles and cars and driving was how we socialized. This is how we met each other. I liked to go skiing and skating…I guess the motorcycle thing was embedded in me. My father, my brother, it was second nature, it was no big deal. This is something I always knew. I think I paid $200 for my Scout. It was used. The fella was in the Army with my brother. I worked at Fort Wadsworth [the military base on Staten Island, opened during the Civil War 1861-1979].

The c.1948 HRD-Vincent Series B Rapide owned by Luciano Gomez of Staten Island, on which Josephine first experienced 'doing the ton'. [Vandell Family Archive]
“My mother was French, my father was Spanish. They met in England. They were adventurous people. They didn’t think they were, but when I think about my mother coming here, she was like a pioneer. I still love to sit on a motorcycle. I don’t ride now, with this traffic. When I was young and rode, I would open it up a little…yeah. I think the fastest I rode was around 70mph. My father had a Vincent HRD Rapide [Series B] and it was fast. I went around 100mph on the back with my father. I remember we went to New Hampshire on that thing. That wasn’t the most comfortable motorcycle. The back seat was kinda hard. My Indian was a comfortable motorcycle. It had a big seat. The good ol’ days…ha ha.

“It was motorcycles and our sense of transportation. Having fun…there was no issue of bad behavior...no. When I see that place in the Dakotas - Sturgis - when I see those girls on the back of the motorcycles, they are half-dressed, and they have those thongs on their feet, and short shorts, I say, Oh my God, if they ever fall down boy are they gonna be scraped. We all wore boots. Even in the summertime we wore leather jackets. We wore jodhpur horse riding pants.

The Women's Auxiliary of the Richmond MC at a club dinner in 1952. [Vandell Family Archive]
“My brother was born on Cherry Street in downtown Manhattan. I was born in Baltimore. There were a lot of Spanish people in the Cherry Street area. There were a lot of Irish people in there too. You know, the ages of people have changed in my lifetime, with older and younger people. When I was young before WWII things were different between older and younger. There were a lot of older people.[4] But Oh ya, when I was on my motorcycle, and I had the wind in my hair, I had a sense about myself. I was riding on my Scout, I was going where I wanted to go.

“We wore Buco leather jackets. We were into style. I paid attention to how I wanted to look. We wore certain clothes that we always wore when we rode. We wore blue cotton pants but they weren’t jeans. There was no such thing as dungarees. Not then. We wore heavy cotton pants.

June 1946, a Richmond MC club photo wearing club shirts. [Vandell Family Archive]
“I was usually with somebody else, know what I mean, on a long ride. We always had a little tool box. We used to go all over. Early, early in the morning we’d go to Toms River New Jersey to go crabbing and by noon time we’d come back with a bushel of crabs. Today you’d be lucky to get one or two. We went all over Jersey. I was too young to remember then when I rode with my father. I don’t know if he had a map. He had a good sense of direction.

“This is what my family did. We rode motorcycles. Nobody ever said anything in the neighborhood. In the house I lived in, my father built that house. He’d come every night by motorcycle and dig the foundation by hand. There were no bulldozers… When I was young there wasn’t a lot of money. There wasn’t any transportation in this area. There was a bus we could take to school but it cost a nickel. We didn’t even have a nickel. So we walked. Two miles.

Josephine Vandell's club shirt for the Richmond MC. [Vandell Family Archive]
“Me riding on a motorcycle as a young woman was different. I didn’t think of myself as a rebel. This is what I did. It was a good life. We managed. Staten Island was all farms. Oh yeah. Out on the south shore we were kind of hillbillys. We’d look across the water at Manhattan… We were so close to it but where we lived was so rural. Most of the jobs were in Manhattan so people took the ferry. Kind of isolated.

“When we used to go riding, we’d meet up with a dozen motorcyclists. Different kinds of people we wouldn’t usually see. They’d be from a club all going. There was a club from the Bronx and they were a good bunch. There were all different races of people riding in New York. This is how we met each other. As a kid I had a sense of confidence. The motorcycle helped me to have this as a woman. A lot of this confidence was passed to me by my mother. She had been an orphan since she was 13 years old. She had to figure everything out by herself. I learned this independence from my mother. It was a natural thing. I was prepared to take on the world. Whatever I needed to do, I went ahead and did it. I was the only young woman I knew who rode a motorcycle. This helped me be who I am.”

The memorial card for Josephine Vandell, who died aged 102 in January 2024.  She would never have thought of herself as an icon, but here she is, looking iconic in 1940. [Vandell Family Archive]
Josephine Gomez Vandell passed away January 10, 2024 at the age of 102. Her oral history chronicles her life-long passion for motorcycles and how they provided her with a sense of self and independence.

[1] One reason the 20th Century exploded in economic advancement is connected to the automobile. Economists will tell you that when a developing economy introduces the automobile, that economy will double in GDP in ten years.

[2] New York City has five boroughs- Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Staten Island. Early 20th Century, Staten Island was rural farmland (dairy farms that supplied milk to the city). Underpopulated. It has been referred to as the ‘Forgotten Borough’. Population during Josephine’s day, 1930, was 6,930. By 2020 the population was 495,747. The construction of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge (1959-1964), along with the other three major Staten Island bridges, created a new way for commuters and tourists to travel from New Jersey to Brooklyn, Manhattan, and areas farther east on Long Island.

[3] In 1900, around 130,000 horses worked in Manhattan--more than 10 times the number of taxicabs on the streets of New York City today. A typical city horse produced up to 45 pounds (20 kilograms) of manure and 2 gallons (7.5 liters) of urine a day. Many city horses died young, sometimes in the street. By the early twentieth century, the number of horses in the city began to diminish. Technology, in the form of motor vehicles—cars and trucks, gradually reduced the city's reliance on horsepower. Between 1910 and 1920, the number of horses in the City declined from 128,000 to 56,000.

[4] The baby boom that began after soldiers returned from the war in 1945 was an important demographic shift that occurred during the 1950s; there were more than 70 million births between 1946 and 1964 in the United States. By 1960, an estimated 60 percent of the U.S. population was under age 30. This demographic shift towards youth changed the tone of American culture.

My thanks to Arthur Vandell Jr. (Josephine Vandell’s son), Tim Quinn, and Suzanne Vandell Quinn (Josephine’s daughter, married to Tim), for their generous help with this article, and for the use of treasured family photos.  This interview was conducted on 7/25/2014.

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.

Nagoya Kustom Life - The Breezy Biker Camp

Tatsuya Fujii and his Nagoya-based Osu Naka-ku crew were sitting with their bikes in the morning light as he tightened the springs, clutch hub and release disc on a crew member’s ’72 Shovelhead. With the final twist of Tatsuya’s wrench, everyone fired up and pushed off towards the Breezy Biker Camp event located just outside Takashima City. It was a straight-shot 123 Kilometers (76.5 Miles) from Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture to the Makino-Kogen recreational park in neighboring Shiga Prefecture. Tatsuya had rebuilt most of the AMF-era Shovels and XLCH Sportster Iron Heads his young crew rode; no more cylinder head oil pooling, chronic overheating, blown gaskets, bad valves and guides, worse wiring and sheared head bolts. He dropped his rebuilt motors into rigid frames or short stance, high Frisco peanut tank frame set-ups he designed and fabricated. “I been working on these old motors for a while,” Tatsuya said. “I understand the problems and know what they want.”

Tatsuya Fujii crew member with his Harley-Davidson FL Panhead built in classic 1950s bob-bob style. [Mike McCabe]
Tatsuya’s Duas Caras Cycles shop claims one of the leading reps in Nagoya because his builds are tight and reliable. Top end torque and horsepower delivered without any of the day-to-day drama. More than fifty-thousand Shovelhead motors were produced between ’66 and ’83 and close to twenty-thousand XLCH “Ironheads” between 1958 and 1974 in the USA.  A healthy percentage drifted across the Pacific to Japan; today, there are rumors that 50% of Harley Knucklehead motors now reside in Japan.

Riders at Breezy Camp Nagoya. [Mike McCabe]
Traffic on the Meishin and Hokuriku Expressways was moderate. The cars were spaced a cookie cutter perfect 1.5 car lengths from each other and moved at a benign 80.467kph (50mph). Most of the cars were identical: small, gas efficient, safe and painted generic factory white. Adult drivers stared ahead as if in a trance. Tatsuya and the pack came up loud and fast: their straight pipes blasted “WAKE-UP!” through the monotony.

Tatsuya Fujii Dus Caras Knucklehead bob-job build. [Mike McCabe]
A crew member named Datch held his handlebars firm, jumped onto his seat and danced. Another member, Yoshiki threw a leg over his Sportster style tank for some side saddle. Ten other riders split lanes and wove a skillful zig-zag between cars in a crazed moto-ballet. The adult car drivers sat stoically as if nothing was happening but their kids broke rank and pressed against the car windows smiling, pointing and waving at the bikers. As they plowed through the parade of uniformity, Tatsuya and his crew posed a question to the kids, and offered a different strategy for living.

Where the young are: a Tatsuya Fujii crew member. [Mike McCabe]
Japan’s general population has a median age close to 49 years old, compared to 38 in The United States.  There are more older than younger people and the aging Japanese society puts pressure on the younger demographic to conform to cultural mores. Tatsuya and his crew displayed tremendous performative audacity on their bikes as they pushed hard against a society that is literally weighted against them.

Tatsuya Fujii crew member Hard Ride and his Shovelhead bob-job with springer front end. [Mike McCabe]
Like all cultures, on the surface Japanese life is characterized by prescribed codes of conduct. However beneath the observable day to day, there is a punishing subtextual orthodoxy that rewards relentless conformity: the approved life path emphasize following the rules. Young people who resist are questioned and doubted by the status quo, and seen as losers and a problem to be solved. Japanese culture uses shame to modify behavior, and people who don’t conform have still internalized Japan’s cultural requirements. Unfortunately, there are few places for them to vent and blow off steam. Since the 1970s, western youth-centric culture has become more accessible to Japanese people. A growing percentage of young, urban Japanese have turned to the stylistic symbols of 1950s-80s rebel youth culture for tangible relief; loud, crazed, Rock and Roll music and fashion, as well as dangerous motorcycles and hot rods.[1]

Hello, England! The Ton-Up Boys have a legacy around the world. [Mike McCabe]
The Nagoya metropolitan area is a mid-sized, deep harbor port of 9.6 Million people (Tokyo has 14 Million) and is located close to both Kyoto and Osaka, in the middle of Honshu. The humid, subtropical climate is perfect for riding year-round.  During the early decades of the 20th Century, Nagoya’s industrial economy expanded and Japan’s aircraft industry was based there. At the final stage of WWII, Nagoya’s industries and much of the city were destroyed by intense aerial bombardment. After the War, Japan was no longer allowed to produce aircraft and shifted production to automobiles and motorcycles. The tone of the city is small-town working class and down to earth in comparison to Tokyo. There is a good chance that a few of Tatsuya’s crew and many of the Breezy Biker Camp attendees support their riding by working on an assembly line.[2]

Shoes off on the camp tarp! [Mike McCabe]
As Tatsuya and his friends drew closer to Mt. Biwa and the Breezy Biker event, impressive, two-wheeled American machines appeared on the expressway. The numbers and depth of the historical inventory was shocking to see, and the bikes looked like a rolling moto-museum. 99.9 percent were cared-for vintage V-Twin Harley-Davidsons; a pair of perfectly preserved DL and RL 45ci Flatheads from the 1930s, two more EL 61ci and FL 74ci Knuckleheads from the 1940s, several FL and FLH 61ci and 74ci Panheads from the ‘40s and ‘50s, many FLH Super Glides and Sportsters, and FX 74ci Shovels from the 1970s.

Patches...many riders stack them neatly to show off multi-year attendance at Breezy Camp. [Mike McCabe]
The Nagoya bike pack blew into the Makino-Kogen Park where a fifty-acre pastoral setting was surrounded by thick natural woods and low mountains. A couple of hundred bikers were already in the process of shaking out their ride, staking claim to a patch of turf, parking their bikes, pitching tents and (as is the custom) removing their boots before finally plopping down on large blue tarps.

Yoshiki on his Shovelhead bob-job visiting a Nagoya neighborhood Shinto shrine. [Mike McCabe]
The gender profile of riders was skewed predictably towards the masculine but there were more than a few women who busted the stereotype of Asian female docility. They stood with or sat on Harleys that ranged from stock Sportsters to chopped customs with aesthetic paint schemes and extended front forks, and statement-makers showing off impressive, sculpted skull tanks.

Stock is ok too! An early post-war Harley-Davidson EL Knucklehead, with its owner. [Mike McCabe]
Everyone’s clothing had been well-curated to project the agreed-upon authenticity: the cowboy or trucker hats, club-patched vests and jackets, sunglasses and jewelry were all on point. The Breezy event began in 1994 and attracts an ever-growing family, and many proudly wore leather vests decorated with rows of patches boasting sequential years of unbroken attendance. Vest leather was road-darkened from the elements, taking on the luster of a status symbol. “I come here with my wife for many years, this is like a big family,” A middle aged man said. He smiled warmly, exhaled cigarette smoke, gave the thumbs up and gestured towards the patches decorating his vest. “Everybody knows everybody and we catch up about our life. This kind of place is important. We can relax... No worries… The motorcycles here are good history to look at. These bikes are trying to tell us something.” The man moved closer to his wife and they reclined onto their tarp with friends.

The rebel wardrobe; a theme with infinite variations.  In this case, chaps, bear claws, bandoliers, snakeskin, beads, and fringe.  [Mike McCabe]
Campers nearby tended sizzling hibachi grills and cracked cold beers. Somewhere a CD player blasted Sweet Home Alabama - “Big wheels keep on turnin’. Carry me home to my kin.” A gentle breeze carried wafts of spicy, grilled sea-fare across the park. The sun was high over the field, making the chrome and custom paint sparkle. As the song described, for a couple of days, life with these kinfolk was sweet and the park was home.

Datch in Osu Naka ku district, gearing up for the ride to Breezy on his Yamaha XS650 custom. [Mike McCabe]
[1] During the 1950’s and ‘60s in America and England, an increasingly corporate work culture propagandized behavioral norms as the economy boomed.  But cracks developed at the edges of the ballooning youth demographic. In the immediate post-war era, working-class jobs had high-paying union wages that rivaled white collar corporate jobs. Well-paid working class jobs meant new symbols of individual achievement, and new kinds of fun. The danger, grease, sweat and grit of manufacturing work carried over from work to play, and greasy machines like motorcycles became material examples of success. A working-class youth lifestyle emerged in both America and England that thrived on danger and risk. Chopped-down Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycles in the States, and Ton-Up Brit bikes in the UK were freedom machines for working-class youth. Today, it would make much more sense for Tatsuya and his friends to ride affordable, reliable and efficient Hondas, Yamahas sand Suzukis, but no… Instead they got their cues from history, paid the freight on Ebay to ship a used Harley to Japan and dove into rebel style.

Triumph T140 custom and a cool T-bucket hot rod too! [Mike McCabe]
[2] The Toyota Motor company is headquartered in Toyota City that is a suburb of Nagoya. It is the largest automobile maker in the world.  99% of Toyota’s domestic manufacturing in Japan is centered in Nagoya and employs 66 thousand workers at 12 manufacturing facilities.

 

 

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.

Last of the Old School - Frank Voto

“I feel an attachment to something like a Shovelhead engine. It goes back to where I started from. After market companies still sell parts for these old engines but they don’t know nothin’ about them. They don’t know how to make them run. I like to change the parts around to make them run better. I put the whole valve train from an Evolution on a Shovelhead. They told me I was dreaming. It couldn’t be done. Oh ya? In that case I am going to make a stroker to boot. So I made a ninety-two incher out of a seventy-four. It was a challenge. I’m dreaming? Don’t think so. Fucking thing purrs like a kitten.” - Frank Voto

Frank Voto in his workshop, and drawers full of gizmos, in Wolf's Pond, Staten Island, NYC. [Mike McCabe]
There is no avoiding the passage of time, and the only constant is change.  Change has become increasingly rapid in the modern era, and much of importance is left behind and forgotten. Standards, tolerances, sensibilities and methodologies have been surrendered to expediency. Frank Voto and his secluded Wolf’s Pond, Staten Island motorcycle shop push back against the tide of change and relaxed standards. He attended high school during the 1960s when machine shop, electrical shop and wood shop were still valued parts of the curriculum. Hard-ass skill-based learning that pointed you towards a life where you used your acquired skills and your hands to make a buck."

Frank Voto in 1970, on a Harley-Davidson FL Panhead Hydra Glide. [Frank Voto]
“I first started getting into motorcycles in 1967. I was seventeen,” Frank said. “I was always involved in engines. As a kid in the neighborhood I was always working on lawn mowers and outboard motors over by Great Kills. Small motors. Then some guy come by with his Harley and asked if I could fix it. Have gave me the manual and I gave it a shot. Then a friend of his showed up with his Indian. I studied the engines and I liked the way they were designed. Now, I think that I am the oldest engine guy in New York City. I have lasted the longest."

Frank Voto built and maintains Mark Kmiotek's sweet 'Frisco style' 1948 Harley-Davidson FL Panhead since 1989. It's a classic New York City style custom, just like the 1%er clubs rode in the 1950s. [Mike McCabe]
“Back when I got into this in the '60s people told me I rode an old man’s bike because I was riding a Harley. Young guys rode BSAs and Triumphs. Then in the '70s the motorcycle movies made the Harleys popular. In my time nobody wanted these things. You could buy them a dime a dozen. Then that movie Easy Rider came out. In ’67 I bought a full dress Panhead for three-hundred dollars. Nobody else wanted it."

Frank Voto's long time friend Mark Kmiotek in 1975, wearing his club colors of the Living End MC Brooklyn. The club was active from 1977-1980. [Frank Voto]
“I work a lot on older style bikes. Rigid frame, small tank; some people might say it comes from the San Francisco outlaw style. This style traveled across the country from San Francisco to New York City. The style traveled with members of a few clubs. The small tanks were popular - you have to remember gas was plentiful in the 1960s. Guys were riding choppers with peanut tanks. Gas was cheap. Twenty-five cents a gallon. Then when the gas crunch days hit everyone wanted a bigger tank. These clubs really rode, and if you were really riding across the country that was a problem. In the '50s guys rode dressers, then the style changed in the ‘60s and outlaw guys started riding rigids with peanut tanks, then it started to change again in the ‘80s back to dressers."

Matty Newman in 1972 riding in Staten Island on a bike Frank maintained. An early extended-fork chopper, post Easy Rider. Note the 16" front wheel, which is second-gen long fork style, after 21" front wheels were found to slow steering. [Frank Voto]
“I love the rigid. It’s lower to the ground and more stable. The swing arm started  in ‘58 [on Harley-Davidsons...Indian had a swingarm frame in 1914 - ed.]. Before that you had the rigid. But think of how the roads were back then. You still had cobblestone roads and bad roads. The rigid is lower to the ground and more stable. I have an old swing arm but I put stabilizers on it. They sway around on the highway. As old as I am I still like a rigid."

A rigid Harley-Davidson Panhead custom built by Frank Voto circa 1977. Note the molded tank and rear fender, the Bates seat and pillion pad, no sissy bar, straight pipes, standard frame geometry, and 'bottlecap' valve covers. [Frank Voto]
“There has been a shift in ideas about working on engines. It has happened to me on more than one occasion that a young guy will walk into my shop and then he gets a look on his face. I can see him looking around the shop but he looks lost. He doesn’t know where he is and he doesn’t feel comfortable. One guy walked in here recently and he asked me, 'What do they call this place? They call this a machine shop?' He had no knowledge of a screwdriver. He’s pointing at this and that and he’s asking, 'What is that?' He was pointing at the lathe and asking what does this thing do. I said to myself, Holy Shit."

Frank Voto with several of his builds. [Mike McCabe]
“This guy's been riding on a motorcycle and he’s a member of a big club and he doesn’t even know that the tools are. For the young, they are not being taught this in school any more. It has become a lost art. They do not teach machine shop in high school any more. I went to McKee Technical High School on Staten Island. They had machine shop; they had electrical shop, woodworking shop. Now that is all gone. I see myself as a dinosaur. There’s nothing I can do about it. But there are dinosaur hunters out there looking for people like me. This shop represents a completely different world. Now, a shop like mine is bid on and sold to salvage brokers that buy it and send it all to South America. Mexico and overseas. It’s all gone. Harley is designing bikes so you can’t work on them."

Cast iron machine tools, made in the USA, refurbished by Frank when they were valueless, and stable enough for Frank's exacting hand. [Mike McCabe]
“I do look at myself as someone who is holding onto the history. That’s all I got. These engines and these old bikes are my life. I started off doing this work as favors and it kept going. I spent three years accumulating the machines I needed to work on these engines. I bought these machines all beat up as scrap and I put them back together. The guy delivered them one by one. They were so heavy that they destroyed his truck. He was like, what the fuck are these old machines made out of? I remember when my whole shop floor was covered in parts. I took them apart piece by piece. I paid less for these machines then you would pay today for a Black and Decker drill. My machines are cast iron solid. Cincinnati. There is no aluminum in my shop. No vibration. Every vibration shows up on the tooling. Believe me. But my machines go back to the last generation. I do not tolerate vibration. All this new machinery is inferior but now they are stuck with it. All the old cast iron companies are gone. Any vibration in the machine will show up in the milling. But now there’s nothing you can do about it."

Tools need tools: a good machine shop is capable of making more machines, and repairing anything. [I have the same Fordham flexible drill in my workshop - ed.] [Mike McCabe]
“The quality of my work and my reputation has to do with the fact that I found these old cast iron machines and brought them back. I am self-sufficient. I have made the decision to do it this way. I was not going to give this machining work to some shop that uses bad tools. This only creates problems. I wouldn’t do it. There are roller bearings and there are shims and there is a flywheel. All of this has to be perfectly centered. There is a clearance of only four-thousandths. You have an old Panhead and these things have to be tightened up but it has to be done correctly. I learned all of this by trial and error."

Frank's friends Matty Newman and Mark Kmiotek. [Frank Voto]
“I have a set of standards that I work by that is based on old heavy cast iron technology. I don’t need to work with a Bridgeport. It does not meet with the standards that I am interested in. They don’t make nothin’ like that no more. Today people just go out and buy something. That’s a consumer world. I don’t live in that world. I live in a producer world. All this aftermarket stuff is made now but it doesn’t fit. It isn’t made correctly. What are you going to do? Do you know how to use a reamer? No, you are going to have to bring it to a machine shop for them to fix it. Why should I have to bring something to a machine shop that is supposed work in the first place because the bushings were not correctly made? All this after-market shit. How do you sell something to somebody that doesn’t fit?"

Frank Voto in 1970: not much has changed but the color of his hair. [Frank Voto]
“There has been a shift in values. It doesn’t piss me off but today people just think everything is going to work no problem. Well, it’s not going to work. There is no such thing as a no problem on these old engines but that’s why it’s interesting. A guy came in here with an old Harley that he said didn’t sound right. I took a look at the motor. The carburetor and exhaust were totally detached from the engine manifold. You could see daylight through the connections. I looked at the guy and thought, the motor doesn’t sound right? The whole thing is disconnected. Can’t you turn a wrench? But it still runs. These old motors are like that. You could spit on the peddle and they’d start up. They were designed during a different time when guys could turn a wrench."

Matty Newman in 1972, aboard his Frisco style chopper, built by Frank Voto. [Frank Voto]
“You have to be mechanically inclined. If somebody tells me, well I want to be a mechanic, I ask them let me see your shop. First thing I am going to do is look to see if they have any gizmos. Stuff that you save from old motors. Little pieces of things, old odd-ball bolts. If you’ve been saving that stuff that means you are into it. If you go into some guy’s shop and he has three screwdrivers and a couple wrenches it’s like no, no, no. This guy doesn’t get it. You gotta be a pack rat and save stuff you can use. I got drawers with labels that read “gizmos”. There ain’t no name for them but you need them. I save stuff because somewhere, someday that thing is going to look cool on something. It’s going to look funky on something. The only guy I ever heard use that term was Indian Larry. We were looking at a bike and he said, 'That bike don’t have no gizmos on it.' I nearly fell back in my chair. What he’d just say? I couldn’t believe he just said that. I thought I was the only guy that said that."

Frank Voto in his happy place, at his shop in a quiet corner of Staten Island. [Mike McCabe]
“I do wonder if these kinds of things are going to pass on to the next generation. I’m not sure but I hope so. It’s the way these things go. A lot of this has become a dying art. I work on guys' bikes and these guys own a motorcycle shop. They’ll mess around on yours but they don’t want to take a chance on their own. These old engines will last forever but I wonder if the knowledge to really work on them will last that long.”

Frank Voto built and maintains Mark Kmiotek's 1948 Harley-Davidson FL Panhead since 1989. [Mike McCabe]

 

 

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.

My Coney Island Baby

Bob Peterson grew up in Edgewater, New Jersey less than twenty miles from New York City. He remembers as a kid during the early 1960s being intrigued by groups of motorcycle club riders like the Aliens[1] he saw on the highway near his home. The no-frills, chopped-down style of the bikes the Aliens rode was both radical and impressive. They projected a seductive sense of power as they split lanes and blasted through the traffic. He got his motorcycle license and started to learn about the culture of motorcycles.

Bob Peterson with his Coney Island Baby, a heavily modified 1975 Harley-Davidson FLH Electra Glide in 'Coney Island style'. [Mike McCabe]
Today fifty years later, Bob rides a 1975 FLH Shovelhead that he customized into what is called a Coney Island style bike. He has added stylized, chromed deco-looking front fender add-ons but more importantly behind his bike’s impressive custom seat rail[2], an elaborate tail rig configuration of several dozen small, decorative runner lights. Coney Island style bikes have a history that cuts across different racial and ethnic groups and through different New York City neighborhoods. Some call them ‘Garbage Wagons’ or ‘Garbage Barges’ but they all are known for their elaborate tail rigs and light assemblies that are inspired by the incredible lightbulb displays and romance of the historic 1900s to 1960s Coney Island amusement parks- Dreamland (1904-1911), Luna (1903-1944), Steeplechase (1897-1964).

Luna Park on Coney Island in 1906, with enough Edison lamps to be seen 50 miles at sea. [Mike McCabe Collection]
“Coney Island first became a showcase for the wonders and promise of the machine age. A 300-foot tall observation tower with steam-powered elevators was brought to the Island, as well as an Inexhaustible cow whose mechanical udders dispensed limitless drafts of milk. In 1876 the hot dog was invented there, and five years later, the rollercoaster. At night there was "electric sea-bathing beneath the hiss of primitive arc lamps.”[3]

In 1902, Scientific American documented the latest craze of motorcycle-paced bicycle races on small banked tracks, the forerunners of the Wall of Death. [The Vintagent Archive]
The Electric Tower at Coney Island’s Luna Park was a 200 foot tall orgy of bright light created by more than 20,000 incandescent lightbulbs. The entire Luna Park amusement park had more than 1,300,000 lightbulbs that could be seen 50 miles at sea. Thomas Edison patented his first game changer light bulb near his home in Menlo Park, New Jersey in 1880, but it was the carnivalesque entrepreneurs of Coney Island’s amusement showcases Dreamland, Luna and Steeplechase Parks who used it to push back against the darkness, lengthen the day and create a new entrepreneurial dimension. 300,000 people visited the parks well into the evening on Saturdays during the 1930s. After WWII in 1947 that number swelled to more than 2.6 million people.

1914: the first vertical 'Cylinder of Death' was built by board track racer Red Armstrong, who was looking for earning potential during the off-season. It was set up in San Francisco, and a larger version was built at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition in 1915. [The Vintagent Archive]
The glowing lightbulb above someone’s head came to symbolize an ‘aha moment’ of ingenuity and contextualized other late 19th to early 20th innovations, the internal combustion engine, the automobile and the motorcycle. The crowds at Coney Island were having fun but they were also being educated about the risk-reward of working 5 and 6 days a week at rough and often dangerous manufacturing jobs── if you survived, the weekend was yours. The novel notion of consumerism was gestating at places like Coney Island. You could save and then spend your hard earned money to buy some happiness on the expanding assortment of mass-produced merchandise.[4]

A more substantial version of Red Armstrong's vertical wall was built in late 1914, and re-named the 'Whirl of Death', seen here with Red Armstrong riding an Excelsior board track racer on the banked portion of the track.  Note the Edwardian attire of the crowd. [The Vintagent Archive]
The motorcycle worked its way easily into Coney Island thrill culture and the psyche of spectators bent on risqué entertainment. Banked cycle racing tracks had been around since the late 1880s in Europe and the USA, and it was natural that motorcycles - originally as pacers - were included in the fun.  According to the New York Times, banked cycle tracks appeared at Luna Park on Coney Island by 1911, with motorcycle pacers, motorcycles, and cars included in thrill shows on the 65degree banking.  The era of board track racing began in earnest in 1909 under entrepreneur Jack Prince, and banked tracks soon appeared all over the country, including Brooklyn’s Brighton Motordrome (1912) and the Sheepshead Bay Speedway (1919).  There were arguments for years about 'who built the first Wall of Death', but research by The Vintagent has produced the earliest photos of a vertical Wall, in San Francisco in 1914, the 'Cylinder of Death', built by board track racer Red Armstrong as vaudeville entertainment and employment during racing's off season.  The ‘Wall of Death’ gained immediate popularity, and soon smaller, portable carnival motordromes were moving from fairground to fairground, all over the USA. While the earliest motorcycles used of the Walls were ex-board track racing Indians and Excelsiors, by 1928 the motorcycle of choice for the Wall of Death was the Indian 101 Scout with its 37ci (750cc) motor.[7]

The front end of Bob Petersen's Coney Island Baby, a 1975 Harley-Davidson FLH Electra Glide with 'bat wing' fairing and lots of accessories. Note the -stock- enormous eagle sticker on the fairing. [Mike McCabe]
Brand, date and style, motorcycles take on the patina of the time they exist in. Bob Peterson’s ’75 FLH Shovelhead with its elaborate, hand fabricated tail-end light assembly and other bikes in the Coney Island style like Ernie Barkman’s ‘Black Swan’ 1950 Panhead are personalized statements that play creatively with an interpretation of history── some real, some mythological. Things made by humans are cultural and historical footprints- A history and time line to the creative decisions of the making. Motorcycle variety is a part of this process; from established brand families to the idiosyncratic, vernacular styles of particular people and places.[8]

The saddle of Bob Peterson's Harley-Davidson. [Mike McCabe]
“I was born in 1951 in Edgewater, New Jersey,” Bob Peterson said. “During my teen-years I’d watch the guys from New York City who would come over on their motorcycles, and they would ride around and all that… they were riding on FLH’s but they were probably Panheads back then. You’re talking late ‘50s or early ‘60s. I was ten or eleven and I used to love the way they decorated the bikes up with all the lights and chrome… I loved it so much I’d take my bicycles and do stuff to my bicycles- Put big white mud flaps on them… put a couple lights on them even though they didn’t work… decorate it with some lights. Soon as I was old enough to ride a motorcycle, I said, “I gotta get one of these”. I started out with a 1971 Sportster. Of course my parents were against it, gradually as I got older they were into it. As time went on and I got the money, I went in for bigger bikes like the 1200 FLHs. I started decorating them and that’s my thing. I noticed how some of the clubs dressed up their bikes. That’s where I got the inspiration from. And I tried to keep it going because it’s a dying thing now.  I love it. A lot of people don’t like it but that’s my thing.

The tail end of the Coney Island Baby. This chrome just might get you home. [Mike McCabe]
Choppers came in during the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Before that, they all had big bikes like this. Then the late ‘60s came along and during the ‘70s they chopped them. They took big bikes like this and they chopped them all up. This style bike went on the back burner. All this extra stuff on the bikes was hung up in garages or it was thrown out. I went to flea markets all over the country. If I didn’t take this stuff, it would have been thrown in the garbage. I made a lot of it but the trays for the lights were made by some after-market guys back in the ‘60s. There was a company in New York City called Bosco Brothers and they started making off this stuff… but they passed on. They made a lot of the custom parts. The special exhaust trumpets, that’s all made. The rest of it I made. The seat rail is custom made[9]. Thank God I saved a lot of this from the junk yard. It would have been all thrown out.

The heart of the Coney Island Baby remains a fairly stock FLH 74ci 'cone' Shovelhead motor, with an original stock paint job in Sparkling Burgundy. [Mike McCabe]
“Now, motorcycle tastes are changing again, that chopper theme is changing and these motorcycles are coming back. And we want to try to find all this stuff that is still hanging in people’s garages and whatever is left, and whatever wasn’t thrown out.  Oh ya, as a kid I would see these bikes dressed up with custom exhaust systems on them… Take the seats and a welder would make different seat rails… Guys would put their girlfriend’s name or their bike’s name in there. And then the handle bars had custom handle bars with curly-cues in it… I would watch them and that’s where I got the inspiration from. I eventually did my own when I got older and more knowledgeable. But it was very nice to see them take a regular stock motorcycle and make their own theme… their own custom, what each person wanted. Like mine… this is what I wanted. Not what everyone else wants… but that’s what I wanted… That’s where I got the inspiration. You customize… You use your hands, you use your brain. You customize your own motorcycle. I want my own thoughts, my own ideas… what I want to do. I put all these lights, the seat, the exhaust system, the radio, all of that I put in there myself… to what I like. It’s not what a lot of people like, it’s what I like.

Other Coney Island style bikes: this is the Black Swan built by Ernie Barkman around a 1960 Harley-Davidson FL Panhead. [Mike McCabe]
“This style was Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, those were the guys that started it. Different clubs in Harlem like the Mercury Riders (1950s), Bronx Aliens (1960s), they had all them motorcycles back then. Like my exhausts… They used to be called Bronx Trumpets. I go to swap-meets all over the country and try to find this stuff. It’s very, very hard to find it. And now it’s getting very expensive because the style is coming back around again. Back in the ‘50s none of this stuff was made for this customizing purpose… You had to make your own stuff. Like the curved light mount on my bike, I had to go to a welder, heat that metal up and bend that piece of metal around a propane tank. Then I went to a chrome guy and had it chromed. Chroming is very expensive. All of this customizing comes from a feeling to push back about being anonymous… To make something the way you like it.

The dramatic and very illuminated rear end of the Black Swan. 'The sun shines out of our behinds!' [Mike McCabe]
“The whole Coney Island theme… Ya, they call it that because when Edison invented the lightbulb, it was displayed and realized at Coney Island. And that’s why they call it a Coney Island bike, because of all the lights. This style started in the ‘50s after the War (WWII). In the ‘40s after the War nobody had any money back then. As they worked and got money I guess they started decorating ‘em and dressin’ them out nice- put different do-dads all over them, custom exhaust systems. That’s why I call my FLH my Coney Island Baby. As a kid I never went to Coney Island. It was too far away for a kid from my area to get there. The Palisades Amusement Park was my version of Coney Island. And don’t forget these bikes were big in the Bronx, in Brooklyn, Fordham Avenue in the Bronx, the guys used to hang out there with these bikes back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

The Coney Island style was popular with all races: here's a Black rider on a heavily decorated Harley-Davidson Duo-Glide FLH Panhead in the late 1950s. Likely he was part of an all-Black 'dress club' riding highly modified cruisers. [The Vintagent Archive]
“My bike is definitely not an outlaw bike. Back when bikes like mine were popular, the whole outlaw bike thing was still taking shape. In 1947 there was the Hollister Riot in California and then the movie The Wild One (1953) with Marlon Brando. This changed motorcycle culture. Back then some guys went for the outlaw thing and others went for what people called a ‘Turnpike Cruiser’, they called them. A ‘Tavern to Tavern’ bike. You’d ride to another town and meet with another group. They would all have these bikes. You don’t go 90 miles an hour on a bike like this… You go nice and easy… nice and easy with them. They weren’t geared to go that fast.

'Willie's Latin Thing', formerly seen in the National Motorcycle Museum. Clearly, Latinos liked Coney Island style too. [Mecum Auctions]
“Back when these bikes were popular, you didn’t have the super highways they have today where everybody’s doing 70 and 80 miles an hour. 65 miles an hour… that’s cruisin’ on this thing. Especially with all of this on the back… the wind gets back in there and the back starts shimmying… This bike is about 1000 pounds… At some point as you get older you drop it and can’t pick it up. I’m fine with it now. So you take it nice and easy… 45-50… No hurry. Slow down.

Precursors of the Coney Island style include Black 'dress clubs' of the 1940s and '50s...that were not always limited to Harley-Davidsons! This Ohio club photo from 1954 includes two Vincent Series C Black Shadows and a BSA A10 Golden Flash, all heavily accessorized. Even two-up, those laden Vincents would blow off a Panhead in a street race. [The Vintagent Archive]
“Ever since I was a kid, it was the whole thing about these bikes… Dressing them up… Cleaning them… the roar of the motor. It’s something in your blood… Only thing I can say- as far back as I can remember, six, seven, eight years old, watchin’ guys go around on the street… It’s just something you like. It’s in your blood.”

'May the Style be with you'. Thank you Bob Peterson for sharing your story of Coney Island style modified motorcycles! [Mike McCabe]
[1] The Aliens MC was an early motorcycle club located in the Bronx, NYC. The club later ‘patched over’ to a club located on East 3rd street in the East Village. A key Alien member, Mardo Bennett is credited with his design innovations of early chopper motorcycle styles as well as the ‘Axed’ Alien style gas tank.

The 1%er club Aliens MC in the 1960s, before they 'patched over' the Hells Angels. [Austin Johnson Archive]
[2] Bob Peterson’s seat rail was custom fabricated by Ernie Barkman.

[3] Coney Island- THE UPS AND DOWNS OF AMERICA'S FIRST AMUSEMENT PARK. PBS 1991

[4] Burton Benedict, The Anthropology of World’s Fairs: San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. 1983

[5] Joe McKennon, ‘The Pictorial History of the American Carnival’, 1977.

[6] At the time (1911) the New York Times described the new Wall of Death attraction as, ‘the biggest single sensation at Luna Park’.

The 1911 New York Times report on the banked wooden motordrome at Luna Park. [NY Times]
[7] ibid.

[8] Ernie Barkman, owner/fabricator of ‘Black Swan’, 1950 Panhead Coney Island style build commenting about the style: “Coney Island MC style- History of an Accessory Expression to Full Dress Harley Davidson motorcycles”:

“Guess you could say it started with adding 2 or 4 extra marker lights for blinkers on your Panhead. That seemed satisfying and you added 4 more hooked for extra brake lights.
Now Joe says that looks great, I’m adding a light bar over my rear license plate, and an extra set of horns. And so it started, more lights, more bling, more chrome, bigger horns, added spot lights. There was no stopping the trend to get more stuff. People made money customizing bikes and trying to out- do the next person. The 57 car style influenced the tail fins seen chrome plated on the rear of these bikes. Rear chrome decks were next making a place for rows of lights, and chrome shift knobs for show. I once seen a guy with rows of motorcycle trophies bolted to the rear of these type shelves on his Panhead. Extended exhausts with tips that resemble rocket ship tail fins. Guys would have over 100 added taillights and AM radios, in fact, I knew a guy with a small portable TV between the handlebars. Speaking of handlebars 18” high with chrome scroll work or a name of the bike in Chrome letters. Seat rails became mounting points for added rails and owners names welded in the seat back, or hearts and other scroll work. Chrome hub caps, some with little lights in the spokes, not to mention wide white wall tires. Custom paint jobs turned into an acid trip of colors and sweet design. Pinstripe went from simple to extravagant with some pretty outlandish shows of the painters talents. You had so many lights you needed a special generator from a police bike with extra amperage. Some guys ran an extra car battery in the saddlebag for the added juice. If two rear view mirrors was good… why not 4 mirrors. Sometimes you would see fox tails off the rear for style. There was no end to the creativity a proud motorcycle owner could muster up! I remember in the 60’s going to hill climbs, and scrambler tracks and looking thru the motorcycles for the big Coney Island Style dressers with my Dad.
So why call them Coney Island Style?"

Ernie Barkman's extraordinary Black Swan. [Mike McCabe]
"At the turn of the last century the invention of electric lights was displayed in a place called Luna Park in Coney Island NY. There were large displays of electric lights for visitors to see. And as people looked amazed by this wonderful invention they were heard to say…. Oh! Look at the Coney Island display of lights! Hence the Coney Island saying stuck when old folks kids seen the light displays on the rear of these bikes. Today only a limited number of these are left because so many were stripped for choppers and bobbers that came shortly after this style. Visiting motorcycle museums and personal collections of these can be viewed in limited numbers. A style that needs to be continued and enjoyed for the next generation so they too can understand…. If they put down their phones long enough. LOL
May the style be with you.

[9] Custom seat rail fabricated by Ernie Barkman.

 

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.

 


Mike's Ride in Rome

As a visitor, when you ride the streets of central Rome for the first time it’s impossible to keep your eyes on the road. The layers of the city run three thousand years deep and demand attention. Soft, pastel earth tone buildings blur into rough, bumpy hundreds of years old gray cobblestone streets that weave around hard-to-believe architectural masterpieces like the Colosseum (72 AD), Piazza Navona (86 AD), the Trevi Fountain (1700s) and the Pantheon (118-28 AD)[1]; these are the literal backbones of Western architectural history, both in their design and remarkable construction.

The interior of St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, an independent country in the center of Rome. St Peter's was built in the Renaissance and Baroque eras (16th Century), designed by Michaelangelo, Bramante, Maderno and Bernini. It replaced the original St Peter's built in the same spot by Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century (late Roman era). The building is absolutely massive, and the interiors overwhelming in their lavish ornamentation with enormous sculptures, marble panels, and gold leaf. The top of the central dome pictured here is nearly 400' above you. It is a space intended to humble viewers with the vast power of the Catholic Church, which is still the second largest landowner on the planet, controlling 177 Million acres. The world's largest landowner? Ah, colonialism has been very good to the British Royal Family...they control 6.6 Billion acres around the world! [Mike McCabe]
Then over a bridge across the Tiber River to the Trastevere working-class section of the city, that is now also home to young creatives with a late-night café lifestyle. Near the river in northern Trastevere, a few blocks from the first suburban Roman home, Villa Farnesina built in 1508 by a wealthy banker Agostino Chigi[2], is undeniably the hippest bar in the city: Freni e Frizioni (Breaks and Clutches). The storefront-sized space was originally an early 20th century mechanic’s shop with workbenches, lathes and drill presses where motorcycles, autos and machines of all designs were repaired.

Groovy bar in a hip neighborhood, built in a converted auto workshop: Freni e Frizioni. [Mike McCabe]
The bar/restaurant is legendary for its generous early evening aperitivo[3] spread and its ‘Punk Is Not Dead’[4] vibe. Bartenders are known by name[5], their creative cocktails, and also by their playlists of classic CBGB’s ‘70s / early ‘80s music: Kool Thing by Sonic Youth, The Passenger by Iggy Pop, California Uber Alles by the Dead Kennedys, Pretty Vacant by the Sex Pistols, Nervous Breakdown by Black Flag and Straight to Hell by The Clash, set the tone and push back against the din of rush-hour motorcycles rumbling over the rough cobblestones outside the bar’s front door. The square, not rectangular shaped cobblestones of Trastevere are unique and called ‘sampietrini’ which means ‘little Saint Peters’ named for the area where the stones were first set in the 16th century. The smaller sized stones have sharp edges and throw off a different sound as your tires pass over them. Freni e Frizioni’s general manager Ricardo Rossi has worked hard over the past 15 years to create a successful bar. “Our greatest pride is that we are a high volume bar, always full of people for 15 years and over time we have managed, while maintaining these volumes, to change, to improve something. We have become more international, we have raised the bar for the quality of drinking for quite some time.”

Ancient architecture...in two parts. A fantastic Baroque church in central Rome, showing the square cobblestones common on most roads in the ancient heart of the city. And a Harley-Davidson XL Sportser. [Mike McCabe]
The streets of central Rome are old-world narrow and curve respectfully around the ancient architecture. Rome is slightly larger than New York City but the population of 2.873 million is less than half of the Big Apple. Traffic density reflects the population numbers and the speed of the flow is relatively calm. It’s rare to hear angry, blasting horns. Roman vehicular tastes are shifting noticeable away from gasoline towards micro-sized, EV options. The city is also fast becoming a two-wheel town where this year (2023) motorcycle sales outpaced auto sales. The Italian motorcycle market is hot: September sales were up 17.5% and year to date sales at 286,265 are the best performance among the big 5 countries in Europe, and reflect the best year out of the last 15. The European motorcycle market is growing: The third quarter 2023 was very positive, with the overall market up 32.6%. Beyond standard motorcycles, scooters and step-through motorcycles make up 20-30% of Rome’s total traffic numbers. The most popular bikes in Rome are the Benelli TRK 502 with around 3,715 sold 2023, followed by the BMW R 1250 GS, and Yamaha Tenere 700. It’s best to behave yourself when riding in Rome, Capitale motorcycle police ride agile and quick Ducati Multistrada 1200s and Moto Guzzi V85TTs with speeds that top out at 140 MPH.

Welcome to Roma, where the cops are faster than you, riding hot Ducatis and BMWs with tremendous skill on the cobbles. [Mike McCabe]
The wheel was invented in lower Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) in the 4th millennium BC but it was the Romans who built a huge, encompassing, and especially durable road network that facilitated transportation. The Roman Empire measured almost 1.7 million square miles and included most of southern Europe. The Romans built the most sophisticated system of roads the ancient world had ever seen, and used it to create reliable connections between its people and government. These roads, many of which are still in use today, were constructed in strategic layers, with a foundation of large stones, then layers of progressively finer gravel, then topped with bricks made from granite or hardened volcanic lava (the cobblestones of Trastevere reflect this same use of materials). Roman engineers adhered to strict standards when designing their highways, creating straight roads with a crowned center to allow for water drainage. The Romans built over 50,000 miles of road by 200 A.D. that were primarily used to enable its military conquest efforts. These roads were often managed in the same way as modern highways are today. Stone mile markers and signs informed travelers of the distance to their destination. Special soldiers oversaw the day to day on the road system and acted as an early version of today’s Roman Capitale motorcycle patrol. Some things never change.

The Colosseum remains a magnificent structure, its concrete mostly intact, with restored areas inside showing it many layers both above and below ground level. Even mock naval battles were staged inside at times, and our word 'arena' comes from the Latin word 'harena', the fine sand that covered the floor of such ampitheaters. [Mike McCabe]
Notes:

[1] The most fascinating part of the Pantheon is its giant dome, with its famous hole in the top (The eye of the Pantheon, or oculus). The dome was the largest in the world for 1300 years and to present remains the largest unsupported dome in the world. Its diameter is 43.30 meters (142 ft). [The Romans perfected building with concrete and used it extensively for 700 years, from 300BC to 476AD.  As they 'cooked' their slurry with warm seawater and used crushed volcanic rock, their concrete is self-healing and thus much longer-lasting than contemporary concrete - ed.]

[2] Chigi was a banker from Siena known for throwing incredible dinner parties that ended with him asking his quests to throw all the priceless dinnerware out the window into the river as testimony to his wealth. Unknown to his quests, Chigi had nets below the windows to catch the pricy dinnerware.

[3] Apertivo refers to an after-work Roman tradition where bars put out a spread of tasty appetizers for their customers to eat while they are drinking. This early evening meal is one reason why Romans are known to eat their diner late.

[4] “Freni e Frizioni Bar Selection is a Draft Punk project, a beverage research and development company that values innovation and focuses on continuously redefining the product. For us, creative cocktails is synonymous with freedom; we mix and match flavors to create drinks to share with our costumers”.

[5] Riccardo, Manuel, Alessandro, Michele, Christopher, Fabrizio, Alice, Cristian, Silvia and Andrea.

Aperitivo time! That's dinner to a lot of busy Italians, stopping by their favorite watering hole and paying a modest sum for delicious 'appetizers' at 6pm. The best bars are usually considered thus for the quality of their aperitivo. [Mike McCabe]
A 1950s Fiat beer truck used as a display in Trastevere. [Mike McCabe]
"Leave the gun. Take the connoli" - good advice from The Godfather. [Mike McCabe]
Punk is Not Dead: a fave tee from Freni e Frizioni, here seen in their CBGB-style bathroom. [Mike McCabe]
A nighttime square in Trastevere, looking at one of the iconic Stone Pines that define the region, and an ancient campanile (bell tower). [Mike McCabe]
At Villa Farnesina, the ceiling mural by Renaissance master Raphael depicts the story of Cupid and Psyche: the seduction of Psyche by Cupid and four great tasks set upon Psyche by Venus on the arches, and the grand wedding banquet - the resolution of the story - on the central panels. [Mike McCabe]
Scooters scooters everywhere! A pair of vintage Vespas provide local color, although a considerable percentage of motorcycles are electric in Rome these days. [Mike McCabe]
 

 

 

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.

 


Qun Hung - One Hand Made

Thankfully it doesn’t happen often, but sometimes motorcycle riders go down. In his early twenties while living outside Taipei, Qun Hung was just beginning to explore his interests in racing, modifying sports cars and building custom bikes. One day, while riding to his studio he was slammed by a car and hit the street hard. When he bounced off the pavement, and life as he had known it changed radically. His right hand’s nerve plexus was shattered and the doctors told him he would never again have full use of his right hand and arm. With the help of physical therapy and his dedicated girlfriend (now his wife), Qun got out of bed, literally re-tooled himself and dove back into his building career full force.

Qun Hung in his OneHandMade workshop in Taipei, Taiwan. [OneHandMade]
After a few years building bikes in his home area, Qun realized if he was going to dedicate himself to building he needed to pack up his stuff and move to the capital city Taipei where he would have access to new materials, better working and living spaces and most importantly client/customers. His wife agreed, so he borrowed some money and they made the move.

Skinny style Triumph custom, with a clear influence from the Falcon Kestrel, but with OneHandMade style. [Mike McCabe]
“I have always been fascinated by things with wheels,” Qun said. “I dreamed of becoming a racer when I was in high school. To learn more about mechanical things, I became an apprentice in a bike shop. The bike racing industry was declining in Taiwan. Once I found a picture of a fixed up custom bike in a Japanese magazine and that’s when I started to become interested in the custom industry. We didn’t have much information and mostly only older people rode motorcycles in Taiwan. I started running my own studio at the age of twenty-two. I studied machinery and watched videos on Youtube. I watched the Indian Larry sheet metal video over and over again to make sure I didn’t miss any little detail in it. I made good relationships with the local subcontractors. I learned to operate a lathe from them. The more I learned about how to make custom bikes, the more I found out what I needed to work on.

Qun Hung at work annealing metal while working it. [Mike McCabe]
“I was unfortunately hit by a car while I was riding my motorcycle. The accident broke the nerve plexus in my right hand. Despite rehabilitation my hand would never fully recover. I wondered if I would ever be able to ride a motorcycle again. Thanks to my wife’s help my life became much easier. She helped me operate the welding rod while I welded and she took me for a ride whenever I felt like going out for a ride. In order to ride again, I changed the throttle from the right hand side to the left hand side. It worked. I was so excited, and it felt like getting on a motorcycle for the first time. At the age of twenty-five, I went back home and started all over again. I worked slow because I lacked some of the machines and of course, I only have one hand. And yet, customers couldn’t understand my difficulties. To improve my efficiency, I added new machines to my studio.

A OneHandMade custom Triumph. [Mike McCabe]
“At that time the masses in Taiwan had just started to accept modified cars. And every city has its own consuming habits. I didn’t think things would get better if I stayed in my home town, so I considered the possibility to move to Taipei. That was when I changed the name of my business to “Onehandmade”. What’s really interesting was that I trained myself to be able to do all this with my non-dominant left hand, and after a while my right hand could start to exert a little. I actually started working on sheet metal after losing use of my arm.

A work in progress: racing-style bodywork for a Ducati 900. [Mike McCabe]
“My accident neither broke my original intention or brought me down to give up on what I love most. I started learning something new and holding onto my passion in order to make better builds. But I knew my mind had been trapped in the small city where I lived. I was thirty-one years old and I borrowed some money to move to Taipei with my wife and child and open a new studio. At fist my studio looked a little shabby and it was hard to attract customers, so all I could do was focus on my work. I discovered that doing only sheet metal work wasn’t enough. I am still working on learning new things and hope that every tiny improvement makes my work a little bit better. I changed everything to a skinny style after moving to Taipei. People started believing in me and let me justify myself. Finally Onehandmade has been known by more people. I hope that I can continue working on better builds. I will maintain my original intention of loving motorcycles while developing myself.”

An urban Tracker BMW R9T by OneHandMade. [Mike McCabe]
Qun Hung had to come to terms with a difficult situation that was not of his making. With his wife’s help, he literally had to retool his body and relearn how to use it. His passion for building custom motorcycles became his motivating principle that prodded him forward with his creative life.  And his determination has paid off, and he's now an internationally renowned custom builder whose work shows up all over the internet.

 

 

 

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.

 


Winston Yeh and Rough Crafts Motorcycles

Winston Yeh and his Taipei, Taiwan based Rough Crafts custom motorcycle brand is no longer the new kid on the block of the international custom bike building community. For more than a decade, Winston has repeatedly demonstrated mastery with a series of impressive builds, using a diverse mix of brands and models. He has developed a reputation for his ability to reshape a bike in the distinctive Rough Crafts style: low, blacked-out, and mean machines with a highly finished sophistication. A few of his early head-turner standouts include: His 2009 Guerilla Harley Davidson 883, his 2015 Bavarian Fistfighter BMW R nine T, his 2016 Ballistic Trident MV Agusta Brutale with an innovative fairing, his 2017 Flying Phantom Yamaha XSR700 and his 2018 The Noir King customization of a 2012 Harley Davidson Road King. All these builds share a family resemblance, and were shaped by Winston’s stand-out, unique design style. He will tell you there is significance in his Rough Crafts name: he sees building a bike as a process connecting rough basic materials to the craft required to refine them. The Rough Crafts website features Winston’s builds, and an impressive selection of custom parts.

Winston Yeh at his Rough Crafts warehouse in Taipei. [Mike McCabe]
Winston’s shop is located in a simple, straightforward, mixed-use Taipei area called Songshan. Standing in front of the shop, you would never know it was there, as there is no sign or parked bikes to give it away, only a long frosted glass window revealing silhouettes of activity. Step Inside, and the front and back rooms are crowded with a mix of bikes that represent the start and completion of Winston’s customizing process: for example, a stock MV Agusta parked in front of a beefy Harley-Davidson Softail with the characteristic Rough Craft look. In the rear corner sit a desk and computer beside mid-sized brown shipping boxes ready to be mailed. This is not a garage where wrenching goes on; no hint of grinding or welding or milling, and this speaks to Winston’s unique building process. Rather than fabricating an entire bike, he enlists top crafts people with unique skill sets to assist in his bike builds.

The dramatic Rough Crafts MV Agusta Brutale 800RR 'Ballistic Trident'. [Mike McCabe]
Winston became interested in bikes as an undergrad college student, when a classmate bought a typical Yamaha 150 Taipei runaround bike, and did some mild customizing on it. Winston was intrigued by the process and bought a Yamaha 150 too. He went on get a Master’s Degree in industrial design in California at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. His curiosity continued about bikes and customizing and he won an Ebay auction for parts from Roland Sands’ RSD workshop. He then visited Sands, showed his design portfolio, and was hired; he worked at the shop for nine months. Winston learned how Sands combined RSD's innovative bike parts into complete motorcycle builds. When Winston finished working at the shop and prepared to return to Taipei, Sands gifted him a set of Performance Machine custom wheels (PM is is the company Roland's father Perry founded in the 1970s) that Winston then used on an AMD Championship bike entry. This marked the beginning of his professional building career, and he founded rough Crafts in 2009. Winston caught the eye of the international custom bike community with his Guerrilla rebuild of a 2009 Harley Davidson Sportster 883. The bike is a very clean and measured build that skillfully plays with the punishing rules that prohibit big custom motorcycles in Taiwan, and shape the building culture there.

The Rough Crafts Harley-Davidson Big Twin Softail, with the signature 'look' of the brand - blacked-out, low, mean. [Mike McCabe]
“I got a Master’s degree in Industrial Design,” Winston said. “I am educated in how to work with design-fabrication people, and exploring different ways of doing things. Or even working with different groups of people. I am not necessarily good at building all aspects of a custom bike build. People ask me, 'why don’t you learn fabrication'… 'or why don’t you learn that'... I always feel like, if you do it yourself, you are kind of limiting yourself to what you are capable of. Of course you can push yourself to learn more and more and more… that’s an option… but the problem is you will limit yourself to what you are capable of… If my fabrication skill only goes to this level, then my design options can only go that level because if I want to do more I can’t do it… People ask, why don’t you start to learn painting, why don’t you start to learn everything… I feel like that’s not possible… At some point you have to work with other people. So why don’t you stick with what you know and then let other people do their specialized job?"

Winston Yeh with a couple of his creations. [Mike McCabe]
“My strength is with industrial design, so I will stick to design. As you see, my shop has no fabrication, no nothing. I have very limited tools… I don’t even trust myself to put bikes together. So I source experts in fabrication, assembly and paint. The number of people I source is all different and depends on the individual project. Every project needs different things. That is another advantage to how I view things; when something is not needed, I don’t need to spend time or money on it. I am therefore open to work with anything and anyone. Right now, I am working more towards 3-D printing… 3-D scanning… A lot of my stuff is 3-D printed… Of course there are still limitations with current technology so I still meet with hand builders… but ten years ago I would never have thought about this. But since I am open to that, I am open to anything."

The Rough Crafts Ducati Monster and Harley-Davidson Big Twin Softail. [Mike McCabe]
”As a kid I always wanted something different. I had an SR150 when I was in college in Taiwan. My friend had one and he did some very simple modification and I thought it was cool and I bought the same bike and did the same thing. But I felt like it wasn’t enough. So I tried to figure out if I could do more. My industrial arts background helped me to start to try to figure out how to make things work. I just started to piece together parts from different bikes. OK, so if I want an 18 inch front wheel… which bike has an 18 inch front wheel and will it fit? So that was my Custom Bike 101. At the time it was all trial and error. I am not an expert mechanic but I try to understand what they are doing… what’s needed to be done, so I can provide them with what they need to complete my bike. If you walked into the shops of the people I work with, they might not look conventional. You would see different things going on. In Taipei we have many machine shops very close by and very easy to work with. I have different shops that do lathe, I have different shops that do mill. I have another shop that does fabrication and hand-made stuff… So it’s all separate."

Winston Yeh's office, with inspiration, press, and awards. [Mike McCabe]
“I think it was 2011, with my second Sportster 883, I built what I called an Iron Guerilla based on the Iron 883 and that bike became an Internet phenomenon. Everybody loved it. I think it was the overall style. For me it’s never about any particular one thing… it’s always about the whole picture. I focus on every individual component of a build to complete the overall picture one by one. The way I look at it is… If your goal is 100 points than everything you do should be one hundred points each. Not, I got a 60 points exhaust and a 40 point seat… I see the bike as a complete whole. You can’t focus on a single part… For me, if one part really sticks out, for me that’s a failure. The build has to be so complete that it looks like it could have been from a factory. That’s my goal the whole time. People understand. At first of course it was difficult for people to understand my process… No one was doing it this way… But, I believed this was the right way to do it so I just kind of forced it to happen. After a few years, now… People understand."

The Speed and Crafts show organized by Winston Yeh in Taipei this year, mixing performance-oriented builders and artistic customizers. [Mike McCabe]
“I organized a custom motorcycle show in my Songshan area at the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park in the Xinyi District from March 31-April 2 this year (2023). I got generous support from Deus Ex Machina, Shoei, The Balvenie and Breitling. There were 50 custom bikes built by Taiwanese custom builders like 2LOUD Customs, Hide Work Customs, Ken Ken Motorcycles, Persist Motorcycles, AFS Custom, Cowboy’s Company, SMF, Mike’s Garage and Tough Tracker. I invited three important builders from Japan to be judges of the competition; Kaichiroh Kurosu of Cherry’s Company, Tokyo; Kengo Kimura of Heiwa Motorcycle, Hiroshima and Yuichi Yoshizawa of Custom Works Zon in Shiga Prefecture. It went pretty good… we got almost 5000 visitors. It was the first show and I am super happy. In Taiwan we have one custom bike show that is good, but it’s more like a carnival and over the years the focus on bikes has faded. So I thought, make a show that brings the motorcycles back as the focus. So people who attend can learn and know about custom building. We had a competition with only two classes: A freestyle class and what I call a performance class. Race oriented bikes. Performance upgrades. That is still the majority of the bike world and I didn’t want to keep them out of the show. I forced them to look at each other. I asked each class to grade the other. I feel that freestyle builders need to look at performance builders. I don’t know about other places but in Taiwan those are very separate things."

The Speed and Crafts show was a big success, with 5000 visitors in its inaugural year. Winston Yeh notes the visitors were a mix of motorcyclists, trendies, and design fans. [Winston Yeh]
“The motorcycle industry is so small, it still feels divided. We don’t have the size so we need to work together and understand each other. Otherwise you are always going to be a small isolated group. So, with the show, I want to create a public awareness about custom motorcycles because even until today in 2023, people still confuse custom bikes with street hooligans… For me this is not the same thing. A lot of motorcycle culture is not really approachable for people. I go on the Internet and see motorcycles are club style or bagger and the other side is vintage chopper. But for me, neither of these sides are encouraging for young people. For example, vintage bikes like a Knucklehead build are super cool but the problem is, it’s not approachable. It’s expensive and difficult. My bikes were never meant for that. That’s why I believe building with new bikes is very important. When I bring my bike to a show, the visitor will come and say, “Oh, I have the same bike at home… What did you do?” This creates a conversation… I want to do something for the public so they can see the practicality of my builds but also the idea to create moving sculpture… I think this might be one reason why manufacturers like to work with me- I built one bike for BMW, two bikes for Yamaha, a bike for MV Agusta and Royal Enfield, because they see that with my builds people can relate to what they are selling on the showroom floor. We help each other. That is one of the big goals with my show. People relating to motorcycles. I think I am pretty happy with the outcome for the first year. 5000 people attended… a mix of motorcycle people but also non-motorcycle, curious general public. That makes me happy.”

 

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.

Jeffrey’s Finishing Touch - Taipei, Taiwan

From an early age during the 1980s Taipei kustom painter Jeffrey Chang was attracted to artistic expression. In school he excelled in art class and developed knowledge and skill with a brush and paint. Unlike in the West where pens and pencils are put into the hands of young students as writing tools; in Taiwan, the brush is the common denominator of graphic communication. Young students are taught how to hold their brush, load it with black ink, then the stroke order needed to reproduce more than fifty-thousand characters in the Mandarin language[1]. The subtlety, complexity and power of black ink (heise moshui) combined with the brush (shuazi) runs deep in Chinese culture.

Jeffrey Chang in his Taipei studio working on a helmet for a client. [Jeffrey Chang]
Jeffrey developed an awareness about the intrinsic power of paint and brush in school, and after graduating wondered how he could support himself as an artist. For many young people in Taiwan during the 1990s and 2000s, the small island nation had a sense of isolation and distance from vibrant cultural centers - Japan is 2000 miles north and the dreamland of southern California is 6800 miles east. In 2009 Jeffrey learned some Japanese and flew to Japan to visit Shige Suganuma’s annual Mooneyes Hot Rod and Custom Show. He was shocked to see the assortment of Kustom cars and motorcycles in the show and he met with Kustom painting masters Makoto and Mr. G.  this was an opportunity to reimagine his skill set, as he gained insights into kustom kulture, the use of the dagger pinstriping brush, the world of One Shot paint, and the game-changing influence of Von Dutch[2] and Dean Jefferies on pinstriping, who embodied the seminal intersection of automobile and motorcycle forms with art.

Jeffrey Chang has obviously mastered the dagger brush / One Shot combo. [Jeffrey Chang]
After Japan, Los Angeles was the obvious next move for Jeffrey. In 2015, with little English skill, he flew to LA and searched out areas with car culture reputations. The scale of the Lowrider scene was shocking: the deep cultural associations that were voiced by combining form with image, graphics and paint was mind blowing and also inspiring. Jeffrey felt like he was back in school, and studied the idiosyncrasies of air brush masking and stenciling techniques: the fades, drop shadow, scalloping with flake, candy and metallic paints as well as the diverse brush lettering styles. For him, each Lowrider car represented a high level of craft and ability that coalesced into a profound sensibility.

Tools of the trade: a small selection of One Shot tins required for a sophisticated color palette...although they can be mixed for new colors. [Mike McCabe]
Today, Jeffrey’s studio is located in an industrial section of Taipei. Outside the window there are noisy commercial truck route streets and simple block buildings where mid-level manufacturing companies share the turf with artists. His studio has the feel of an artist’s hideaway: bright overhead lights illuminate award plaques and a few trophies along the wall. There are shelves with dozens of cans of One Shot paint colors and in the center, work tables with ongoing painting projects; in-process motorcycle helmets with complicated, elaborate masking tape configurations awaiting paint.

Masking is part of the art: different types and thicknesses of tape are used, depending on the size and complexity of the masking required. [Mike McCabe]
“I started my pinstriping and custom paint job about seventeen years ago,” Jeffrey said. “At the time I was riding a scooter and I customized my scooter. I went to Japan by myself and saw a lot of Harley-Davidsons and a lot of custom bikes, and saw there were so many different styles. This literally opened my mind. After this I studied Japanese with the help of my girlfriend who was Japanese. I got married and this is why I went to Japan many times and made a lot of friends. I started to know about this culture of Harley Davidson and custom bikes, custom cars and Chicano culture."

A lightning bolt paintjob in blue...lovely. [Jeffrey Chang]
“When I came back to Taiwan I studied the process of a paint job. Before my experiences in Japan I didn’t know about pinstriping and the dagger brush but I knew how to use a brush. I looked at magazines that had information about Japanese kustom artists and what kind of brush they used for pinstriping. Then I looked on the Internet where I could buy the brush from Ebay. In Taiwan we didn’t know what is pinstriping, what is One Shot… Nobody knew. In Japan I met with Makoto and Mr. G and Wildman (Hiro Ishii- Mooneyes Japan resident brush master. Big Daddy Ed Roth gave him that name). I asked them how can I find and then use this brush? They showed me where to get and how to use. Then I thought I have to go to LA and see about this art. My English was not good but I just went to LA. I wanted to know about this pinstriping. How to make this kustom painting. Because I didn’t know anything about this kustom kulture in America. When I went to LA… I don’t know… It look very beautiful… I don’t know. I love that. Like going back in time. Very beautiful… so many old cars… vintage cars… Young guys driving around in hot rods… Hair is all slicked back… Hollywood is very beautiful.”

Jeffrey Chang is doing OK at his studio, surrounded by his own work and inspiration by others, going back in time. [Mike McCabe]
“For me, my first choice is Chicano style,” Jeffrey said. “The Mexican influence… a lot of color. Very shiny. Before I saw this in LA I didn’t know about it. I didn’t know where it came from. One day I saw a magazine… A friend in Taiwan knew that I went to Japan a lot. He wanted me to buy him some Buco helmets. Look in Tokyo to see if there are Buco with pinstriping and color and lettering. They are vintage style. We could not get these Buco helmets in Taiwan. I saw these helmets and they were so amazing… I wanted to know how to make. When I saw these helmets I was a little bit shocked. Then I learned these helmets came from the West Coast and Los Angeles. I studied this style. The Chicano style uses many different aspects. From my days in high school I learned how to use the airbrush, oil painting techniques, using shadow and fades… these are fine art painting techniques that have crossed over to kustom painting. All these techniques were taught in my high school art program. I don’t know why, but I was good at doing these. I studied painting at the top art academy in Taipei. With airbrush, I was the second in class for this. We didn’t use computer, we didn’t learn Photoshop and computer graphics in this school. We learned the classic techniques and skills. I remember my teacher telling everybody, we are not here to learn about computers, we are here to learn the techniques. He was very strict. I had to first show him what I wanted to do. Then I had to show him how I was planning to paint something. I remember I wanted to use the airbrush to draw smoke… My teacher was very tough. I remember he said, ‘You want to draw smoke..?’ (laughter)"

Smoke, fades, pinstripes, patina, metalflake, fades...and sometimes all at once. [Jeffrey Chang]
“I wanted to use my airbrush to explore kustom kulture ideas. My classmates did not understand. They were learning techniques to be able to get jobs in regular commercial art. They had no idea why I was spending all my time airbrushing kustom things. They thought I was wasting my time. I knew I wanted to get paid for my art skill. My Dad did painting for furniture, I thought OK maybe I can go to Ford or Toyota and get a job painting cars…. But this is not art. I thought maybe I can go to Japan… Get a scooter and go around to places that know Kustom Kulture. I can get jobs painting kustom cars and motorcycles. So 2009 I go to Yokohama to see the Mooneyes show. And of course when I went to that show it was amazing. I went crazy… So many kinds of cars, muscle car, hot rods, Model A, Lowrider, a lot. So at that time I just loved it. And I studied, I looked for so many custom bike shows, car shops, body shops…. Two years later in 2011 I wanted to go to Los Angeles but I didn’t know any English. So I studied English. I watched English language movies, and studied and I learned a little bit how to talk. 2015 I got a tour with some Japanese guys: Mr. Makoto, Nash (Nash Yoshi- editor Burn Out Magazine), we made a tour to go to LA and make an art show. It was humbling to be pinstriping with Makoto. We stayed in LA for ten days."

A finished helmet honoring Clay Smith Cams. [Jeffrey Chang]
“The question of style in Taiwan is different. We don’t have so many styles. We don’t know. So sometimes a customer will show me a picture and I have to research. Like with Mark Huang, he likes an older style, I have to study. So in Taiwan I have to be prepared to do so many styles. Sometimes I ask myself what is my style but I don’t know… People ask what is the Taiwan style? But I don’t know. The question of style in Taiwan is confused until now. I think Taiwan history contributes to this. I ask kustom people about this. I ask Nash about this but he says, 'don’t worry. You already have a style, the way you draw flames or the way you do gold leaf, this already has your style.' In America when people see flames on a car or motorcycles, everybody knows… 'Oh, this is 1950s special machine. This machine goes fast, this machine dangerous and maybe sexy. Person who drives this machine maybe dangerous and sexy.' Everybody in America understands this culture. In Taiwan maybe no. Maybe I have to educate people with my art."

More cans, more helmets, these with patina for a true vintage style. [Mike McCabe]
“Of course I need to tell them. In Taiwan if I do a magazine article or a TV program I have to tell them, Oh, this is Chicano style. Even if I show my work to professional artists in Taiwan, they don’t understand. They don’t have a frame of reference. This is like how it was in America during the early 1950s. I have to show them, ‘This is cool…’ In Taiwan I spend time to show young people about this. I tell them this is culture, this is history. They want to know, why is this cool? They want to learn. They want to know, which way is cool way. They do not get too complicated about the why. They say, I want to know. Hurry. In Taiwan you don’t see a lot of young people putting flames on their scooters. This might be too much. Maybe scary. Life in Taiwan is very slow. Not like America. I like painting helmets and motorcycle gas tanks. I can get very detailed. Small details. I like this. It is different than painting a car. It’s big. Maybe too big to paint. I like smaller. I can paint with more detail. This is my style.”

Jeffrey Chang in his painting studio. Note the Mooneyes banner. [Mike McCabe]
It wasn’t easy for Jeffrey to pursue his interest in Kustom Kulture. He followed a personal process of discovery and has integrated his skill and ability into his kustom painting style. He creates personal statement helmets and motorcycle tanks for private customers as well as Mooneyes and Clay Smith cams. He has received numerous awards for his work at the annual Mooneyes Hot Rod Custom Show and other events and well-deserved recognition of his unique art and skill.

Jeffrey's superb craftsmanship is evidenced in this helmet, with its many layers of paint and technique, seamlessly worked into a unique design. [Jeffrey Chang]
[1] It takes the average Taiwanese student eleven years to learn and master how to reproduce the tens of thousands of characters of Mandarin. Most Mandarin speakers only know a fraction of the characters in their language. Scholars who have mastered the entire language are deeply respected for good reason.

[2] Von Dutch (Kenneth Howard) was a So/Cal visionary fabricator and artist who is credited with creating the term Kustom Culture in 1949 while working at the Barris Brothers Atlantic Ave., Lynwood hot rod customizing shop. “The first job he (Von Dutch) did for George (Barris) was to paint the sign on the outside of his building.  Dutch fooled with the spelling and came up with a ‘K’ instead of a ‘C’ to spell custom. Thus establishing the Barris’ phrase ‘Kustom Car’. Temma Kramer- Hot Rod, 1977. The ‘wise ass’ changing of the C to a K was no simple act. It symbolized the influence of the new California youth demographic to change the course of history.

 

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.

Miki Rides in Beijing

“Motorcycles can help young people in China find a creative life!” Miki says. She is 26 years old and compact in size but she blasts around Beijing on her Zero Engineering Type 6 with force. The bike’s 92.63ci, air-cooled S&S Shovelhead and Baker 6-speed, combined with the Zero's frame geometry, works for smaller riders like Miki: A rigid Gooseneck frame with a 33.2 degree rake drops the bike to a closer 3.9 inch frame to street and 26 inch seat to street clearance. The classic Zero design Springer front fork and larger 5.00-16 tires reflect a nostalgic history that Miki appreciates. The bike’s 63.0 inch wheel base, 36.6 inch height, and 28.3 inch width frame squeaks through her neighborhood narrow Hutong[1] streets.

Beijing's Dong Cheng neighborhood, which retains its thousand-year old vibe unlike the bustling center that has been cleared of traditional center-court, multi-generational chauntong housing. [Edward Chung]

Miki uses Google Translate: “I live and work in Beijing,” Miki says. “I am a make-up artist for fashion, video, movie. There is a group of young people like me who also do the creative life and we ride together. My Beijing tattoo artist friend, Zhou Xiaodong (AKA: Dong- Mummy Tattoo) is an example. I live in second ring road Dong Cheng district where life is traditional chuantong open courtyard house style. Everything looks a thousand years old. It was affordable here ten years ago but now it’s difficult. My friends and I work and then we meet up, ride and relax,” Miki continues. “I have been riding a motorcycle for 10 years, and I have ridden other brands of models and favorites. I have never found what I like in my heart. I felt something was wrong, until I met my Zero, I fell in love with it at that first moment. Because I love retro, no matter the design. The style, or the sound of the engine, all I want, retro to the extreme, exquisite to every detail, call it a perfect work!”

Miki with her Zero, made in Japan. Zero was founded by Shinya Kimura, who later sold his stake and moved to the USA. [Michael McCabe]
Life has changed quickly in Beijing: Just fifteen years ago, Miki and her riding friends would have ridden the streets with millions of others on a bicycle. The city modernized rapidly in preparation for the 2008 summer Olympics. Old Hutong life remains but new areas with glitzy Euro and American cars and fashionable motorcycles dominate the scene. The flow of traffic in Miki’s more traditional Dong Cheng area is still calm and predictable and she splits the difference between new and old riding through the history.

A lightly customized Chiang Jiang, a Chinese evolution of the 1938 BMW R12, produced for decades in the Soviet Union, who later sold the tooling to China. Older motorcycles like this are not allowed in major city centers. [Mike McCabe]
Beijing is 6300 square miles big (20 times the size of NYC, 12 times the size of LA) with more than 21-Million people. The Forbidden City sits in the center surrounded with concentric ring roads that move out 78 miles to the mountains and the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall that has stood since 1570 CE. The Wall meanders like a dragon’s tail for 1300 miles across the semi-arid landscape and serves as a primary and not-so-subtle reminder of historical continuity. But for young urbanites like Miki and her riding friends, the Wall reminds them of a past they might not embrace

The Chinese economy took off during the early 2000s with unprecedented 12% annual GDP growth. Miki, Dong Dong and their friends worked hard to be a part of that new opportunity. Chinese society continues to be closed off from the rest of the world by government filters but young people like Miki use proxy servers to navigate on the Web and see what other young people are doing: The internationalism of fashion, consumerism, trend, style, and a new sense of self that includes motorcycles. If you ride in Beijing, most world bike brands from aggressive, Ninja-style speed machines to up-scale Euro and H-D are now on the streets. During the 1930s-49 the Nationalist Chinese Kuomintang Army rode Indian but sighting one of those is unlikely. The Chang Jiang side car bike had a military history in early Communist China. Today there are urban myth stories about warehouses full of dusty, abandoned 1949-1970s Chang Jiangs. The bikes are not allowed in many areas because of air quality regulations but they are seen on outer-ring Beijing streets. Trendy younger-set kids sneak them on lower ring roads and it’s common to hear their boxer opposing-twin 750 engines blowing smoke on warm summer weekend nights[2].

Riding in the outer ring roads of Beijing just might include an ice cream bar! [Mike McCabe]
Miki describes her day to day riding with friends: “We ride to Gui Jie (Ghost Street) the downtown Beijing restaurant street at night,” Miki continues. “There are 100 restaurants in the darkness. On warm nights we sit for hours next to our bikes and eat. It is called table cultureNi chi le ma? (Did you eat?). Everything focuses on the food, your etiquette skill in the eating. Endless toasting── the angle you hold your glass and at what level when you toast [3]. Slow, easy conversation. No rush. Enjoy the food and company of friends. Life in this section of Beijing is gentle and quiet. Everything works together.” The weight of Chinese culture can be strict for young people like Miki. Gender, social position, family connections go both ways. Xiao Shun or Filial Piety stresses the Confucian doctrine attitude of respect for parents and ancestors. This attitude is particularly demanding for women. Miki risks negative judgment from her marriage-obsessed parents; her relatives, neighbors and colleagues for riding a motorcycle and doing this with male friends. Her arms and shoulders are tattooed and the ink makes her point about self-determination.

Tattoo artist Dong Dong with one of his clients in a traditional full-body tattoo. [Mike McCabe]
“Tattoos have other meanings to me,” Miki says. “And they all have stories! Live hard, live yourself, at first to relieve stress, and later become my soul sustenance, accept the true self, don't compare with others, everyone is unique, must love yourself, find your own advantages and do what you are good at. Economic independence. For me, motorcycles are my family members,” Miki clarifies. “A part of my life, the pursuit of a source of free soul, and if I am to be strong and become an artist, I think it is my own efforts and natural pursuit of beautiful things! This is how I must live and my Zero helps me understand and do this! Yes, it is fun to ride in Beijing but there is something serious too. My generation stands in the middle between past and now. Very different worlds we go through when we ride.” Motorcycles are powerful messages that transcend time and distance as they encourage personal growth. Miki and her friend Dong Dong ride their Zeros through the old Beijing hutong streets to experiment with and challenge the parameters of their lives.

Miki maintaining her Zero. [Mike McCabe]

[1] Hutong refers to the traditional, narrow alleyways that are a part of traditional Beijing neighborhoods.

[2] The Chang Jiang story is a great history lesson in early moto-globalization. First developed in Third Reich Germany during WWII, then after the War to Eastern Germany, then to Russia, then to China.

[3] A hierarchy of age is a part of Chinese culture that is reflected in how people eat and drink. It is impolite to hold a glass above the level of a senior person when toasting. Younger people at the table serve food to the older first. It is impolite for a younger person to commence eating before an older person.

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.

Mark Huang - Building Customs in Taipei

Mark Huang's Learning Curve - Building Custom Motorcycles in Taipei

The semi-tropical island nation of Taiwan might be small but custom motorcycle building in the capital city of Taipei is impressive. Mark Huang (Mark’s Motorcycles) has a noteworthy international reputation, and his work reflects the historical and cultural place of motorcycles in the country[1].

Mark Huang in his shop in Taipei. [Mike McCabe]
Today, Taiwan has the most per-capita registered standard and step-through motorcycles on earth: approximately 400 motorcycles per square kilometer. In the capital city of Taipei, 2.6 million people drive 1.75 million cars but they also ride 1.4 million motorcycles. This amount of motorcycle ownership would be expected in developing Asian countries but Taiwan is a developed, high-tech place. Bikes are deeply ingrained into the culture of Taiwan for different reasons. On the surface, affordability and perfect riding climate encourage motorcycle culture but dig a little deeper and other factors pop up.  Because of its location in the South China Sea, 100 miles off the coast from Mainland China and 2000 miles south of Japan, motorcycles have a geo-cultural history there.

Two-wheeled ownership in Taipei is the highest per capita in the world. [Mike McCabe]
The high level of motorcycle ownership in Taiwan was encouraged by two interconnecting economic factors: Japan colonized Taiwan from 1895-1945 and finally renounced its sovereignty over the island as late as 1952. After WWII, Japan’s aircraft industry was forced to close and retooled into motorcycle production that was then off-shored to cheaper labor cost Taiwan from the 1940s until today. Manufacturing motorcycles in Taiwan eliminated costly shipping fees and dropped the purchase price for native consumers. Motorcycle ownership in Taiwan was also encouraged by the communist takeover of the mainland in 1949. At the time, people who fled the communists to Taiwan were told by the government that it would mount a counter-offensive and the mainland communist government would be short lived. Everyone thought they would quickly return home and rather than purchase expensive automobiles bought affordable motorcycles instead[2].

Two wheelers in every corner of Taipei. [Mike McCabe]
As Mark Huang will tell you, custom motorcycle culture in Taiwan is small and repressed by history, culture and economics. There are fewer than 20 motorcycle builders who support themselves exclusively from making custom bikes. During the Japanese colonial period, a sense of orderliness and rule based life was cultivated onto Taiwan and this ethos continues today. Following the rules is a part of what Taiwanese people do: Motorcycles are not allowed on toll roads and freeways. There is a strict motorcycle number plate and registration fee system of white (small), yellow (medium) and red (over 500cc) bikes. Motorcycles must be inspected twice a year and modifying or customizing the stock features of a motorcycle is not permitted. Bikes that violate the rules are immediately impounded and owners are fined. Protectionist import tariffs on foreign motorcycles are punishing and add thousands of dollars to a purchase price. For example, the purchase price of a Ducati Course or a Harley Davidson can increase by more than 24%[3]. People who own custom motorcycles in Taiwan must be careful…  Owners switch color and number plates on their custom bikes and usually ride them only in the middle of the night in secluded areas not visited by police. Every custom builder in Taipei has harrowing stories of escaping the reach of the law during a nocturnal chase. To be caught could result in prison or high fine and the end of a custom bike building career. It’s no joke. Mark, other builders and customers push back precariously against their strict mainstream culture to build and ride their custom bikes.

Mark Huang's daily ride, a custom 1982 Yamaha XS650, with paint by Jeffrey Chang. [Mike McCabe]
“Motorcycles are a part of Taiwanese life,” Mark said. “I have been riding since I was able to get a license at 18 years old[4]. I studied international trade and like all my friends I rode a motorcycle. I had to fix my own motorcycle and buy parts and I would customize a bit and I realized I liked doing this kind of work. The streets of Taipei are full of step-across motorcycles and also Japanese 150cc motorcycles of different ages. There is a history of these Japanese bikes here. My daily ride is a Yamaha XS650 that I have worked on over the years. My friend Jeffrey Chang has always done my paint. I discovered the Japanese custom movement through Shige Suganuma and his Mooneyes in Yokohama. He just visited me a few weeks ago (7-2023). I have been to the annual Mooneyes Custom show four times. I am friends with Kengo Kimura (Heiwa Motorcycles) in Hiroshima. This is the Pacific Rim motorcycle culture world."

Mark Huang's iconic 1977 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead custom. [Mike McCabe]
“Twelve years ago I started to collect the different parts I needed to build my Harley Davidson Shovelhead. At that time in Taiwan there were very few people who liked this kind of bike or build project. Nobody could understand why I would do this. Why would I bother to do this? I looked around on eBay and I found this old 1977 Shovelhead motor. When it arrived, there were no internal components to the motor… no pistons or rods. Nothing… It was just the shell of the engine cases. I thought, OK… This project is going to be my learning curve. I started to learn what I needed to do to rebuild this motor. I then found an old chopper frame and I rebuilt the back end and made a classic rigid frame. I shortened the wheelbase and changed the wheel sizes to 19” front and 15” rear. I spent a lot of money and time with this build. It took 4 years of work before I could put this bike on the road. I kept switching license plates on the bike so I could ride it around. I needed to run the bike to be able to diagnose what I needed to do. But, I could go to jail and lose the bike in order to build this bike. This was a real rebel bike build (laughter)."

Mark Huang with his Shovelhead custom: always looking over his shoulder for the cops. [Mike McCabe]
“I now manufacture parts for motorcycles. My customers are younger riders between 20 and 40 years old. Parts for small bikes are usually purchased by students. Then the next level for larger bikes is 30 to 40 year olds, mostly male. A very small percentage of my customers are female. For me, this experience with building my motorcycles is a labor of love. In Taiwan very, very few people have any interest in working on older motorcycles. Most young people like newer models. They don’t see the point of working on an older bike. Originally, I was not a mechanic, I found people I could watch. I read a lot of books about mechanics. But it was also a sense of developing a style and sensibility. I learned that I liked to work on older bikes. I discovered the whole ‘Vintage’ culture about motorcycles. Information about all this was very limited in Taiwan. There was no sensibility about this. I went to the Mooneyes Yokohama show in 2009. I was like Wow! I had no idea all of this existed. I went back three more times. I went to the Joints show in Nagoya. I had never seen anything like this. So many vintage Harley Davidsons[5]."

Dark and downscale, a Mark Huang custom of a Kymco 250. [Mike McCabe]
“The regulations in Taiwan about motorcycles make it almost impossible to have a custom scene here. It is very frustrating. The government restrictions work against people to develop skill sets. A person can look at a custom motorcycle and like it but there is such a gap of experience and no skill set to know how to do it. People don’t know what to do or where to start. This creativity is not encouraged and actually discriminated against in Taiwanese culture. Even if people are curious about a custom motorcycle, the gap is large about where to start[6]. Even if the motorcycle market opened up to accept vintage motorcycles, nobody would know what to do."

A few finished projects in Mark Huang's shop. [Mike McCabe]
“When I first started to rebuild my Shovelhead motor and to build my classic 1960s rigid frame my friends would look at all the work I was doing and they thought I was crazy. They didn’t get it because their cultural perspective didn’t have any experience. I was on my own. Now, when I ride my Shovelhead I feel really good about what I did. I had to develop a learning curve over three to four years about the history and the machine. There are less than 20 people in all of Taiwan that are a part of the vintage bike building group. There are so many obstacles to deal with… Culture, economics, distance, sensibility, acquired skill set, appreciation. I only have five or six friends who appreciate all this. We meet up at 2AM and go for a midnight ride. We constantly have to look over our shoulders for the police. We ride up into the mountains for a couple days and go camping. It’s a good life.”

Mark Huang's 'Crazy Arc' custom. [Mike McCabe]
Sensibility is mysterious. Mark can’t explain it thoroughly but he was attracted to a nostalgic appreciation about old machines from a distant culture. The Internet provided the link for him to connect to his Shovelhead and the opportunity to push back against the orthodoxy of his native culture. With his aptitude and ability he developed a learning curve of knowledge about how to reimagine his motorcycle life from the ground up.

Thank you to my wife, Tzyy Jye for her help translating Mark’s interview.

[1] Two additional builders, Winston Yeh (Rough Crafts) and Qun Hong (One Hand Made) and a kustom painter Jeffrey Chang (Jeffrey’s Finishing Touch) are also key members of the Taiwanese Kustom community. Their work will be explored in future articles.

[2] Why are there so many scooters in Taiwan? David Wu 2019. In-depth analysis about the economics and culture of motorcycles in Taiwan.

[3] The Cost-Insurance-Freight (CIF) Import tariff of 24%, harbor charge of 0.0415%, Commodity tax of 17%. When you see a foreign bike parked on the street in Taipei, it represents an expensive proposition.

[4] The minimum age to drive a car in Taiwan is 18 as well as light and medium motorbikes (49cc to 249cc). The minimum age to ride large motorbikes (250cc-550cc and bigger) is 20 years old.

[5] It is estimated today that 50% of Harley Davidson Knucklehead engines are in Japan. The Knucklehead was manufactured from 1936-1947.

[6] In the United States the Kustom Kulture movement took decades to formalize into something tangible. Originally in Southern California the exploding post-WWII youth population refashioned old throw-away cars and bikes into new creative statements. Today in Taiwan, the youth population does not have the power to reshape public opinion about the creative potential of customizing.

 

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.

1970s Speedway Racing at Irwindale

The Artful Skill of the Broadslide - 1970s Speedway Motorcycle Racing at Irwindale CA

“The balance of a surfer, strength of a good middleweight fighter and raw courage of a bullfighter. That’s Speedway Short Track"

Steve Evans (1970s Irwindale Speedway track announcer)

“Completely without brakes!” was the key phrase repeatedly stressed by Irwindale Raceway announcer Steve Evans as he described the drama of 1970s Speedway motorcycles rocketing around the track. He was the voice of the devil-may-care fantasy of every Los Angeles driver hopelessly locked in the area’s monstrous traffic congestion[1]. The 1970s Arab oil embargo mandated fuel-saving speed limits that rubbed drivers the wrong way. Speedway motorcycle racers Steve Bast from Sherman Oaks, Sonny Nutter from Topanga, Mike Bast from Canyon Country, Bruce Penhall from Balboa, Jeff Sexton from Montclair and others competed at the precarious edge of control on the Southern California short track circuit. The riders were twenty-something heartthrobs with blow dried hair: expensive ethanol (the champagne of fuels) guzzling heroes. They spit columns of dirt into the audience and used their artful skill to balance full-throttle speed with the slingshot friction of the broadslide.  The bikes were thin and lightweight, hybrid hardtail frame designs special to the sport:  500cc, single-cylinder, sixty horsepower, one gear transmission machines that made a lot of torque and topped out around 70 miles per hour on a tight ¼ mile, flat oval dirt track. Races were structured into quick four- to six-member team based, four lap, round-robin elimination heat contests. Evans described the heat race team goal to the crowd: “3 points for first place, 2 for second, 1 point for third and 4th place is ZERO….” Emphasis on the Zee-row.

Steve Evans commenting on a Winston Cup Series race. [Wikipedia]
There was a local summer carnival vibe at the Irwindale track for the thousands of fans seated day and night in no-frills bleachers.  Cheap-foamy-beer-in-paper-cup-drinking working class people who lived around Long Beach, California: long haired surfer guys and their girls rubbed shoulders with thick necked, buzz-cut worker families, but everyone wound their heads around and around in identical, elliptical, syncopation as they followed the screaming bikes. Long Beach is only fifteen miles from downtown LA, but during the 1950s, 60s and 70s the area was transitioning away from its historical legacy of cattle, sheep and horse ranching. Huge parcels of then unused ranch land represented an opportunity: the ascendency of automobile, motorcycle and youth culture in California prompted entertainment entrepreneurs to put the vast tracts of idyll land to use and build moto-race tracks. There were mixed use auto, motorcycle, drag strip tracks all around southern California: Gilmore Stadium (pre WWII), Ascot Park (1978-80), Bakersfield Speedway (1972-77), Irwindale Speedway (1970-77), Paso Robles Speedway (1966-67), San Bernardino-Inland Motorcycle Speedway (1975-87), Santa Ana Speedway (1977-79) and Whiteman Stadium, Van Nuys (1967-68).

The superb imagery of Pat Brady, using no flash and shooting at night, took time to perfect. This is three-time World Champion Rick Woodsnick, 'the Huntington Beach rocket.' [Pat Brady Archive]
Short track Speedway motorcycle racing was literally a perfect fit for Southern California communities like Long Beach. Track owners could actually make money. The smaller oval tracks had lower land-lease expenses (the entire Irwindale Speedway track complex was 63 acres), the low-tech, unbanked flat oval dirt track was easy to construct and maintain. Revenue from ticket sales and the snack bar could be used to pay the rent and reward young riders with cash prizes and trophies. Racing cars and bikes became a theme in Long Beach culture and there was something for everybody. In contrast to the beer drinking short track crowd at Irwindale, glitzy Formula One Grand Prix style racing on Long Beach streets was introduced in September 1975 as a Formula 5000 event that became Formula One in 1976 (Mario Andretti won the 1977 US Grand Prix at Long Beach. Andretti’s victory remains the only time an American driver won a Grand Prix on home soil). The Long Beach area was defined by its diverse racing venues.

The popularity of Speedway racing was global in the 1920s, and professional riders did very well on a worldwide tour of racing, from England to Australia to South America to the USA. Here's British rider Frank Vary racing at the Huracán circuit in Buenos Aires in 1929 on a Douglas 'Red Devil' Speedway model. Note his 'leg trailing' riding style - the full broadslide had not yet been perfected, 'Sprouts' Elder is generally credited with revolutionizing the sport. [The Vintagent Archive]
While racing on oval dirt tracks predates motorcycling, the origins of Speedway racing on short tracks are a bit fuzzy, but most agree some form of the sport first (then called Dirt Track) took shape before WWI in Australia[2] and migrated to England (and the Northern Hemisphere) at a track in High Beach in 1928, and quickly became the most popular motorsport in the world.  Dominance of the sport as it developed in the early 20s began with Douglas, then switched to Rudge and Harley-Davidson (who copied the Rudge frame for their Peashooter model), then finally in the mid-1930s it was JAP-powered specials with ultra-light, short rigid frames and limited-travel forks that perfected the form, with little chassis change since then except the make of engine (JAWA, Weslake, Godden, etc). Tracks used in professional Speedway racing are regulated by the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) that was founded in Paris in 1904. For spectators, the sport is noisy and fast; tracks are between 260 and 425 meters in length with two straights joined by two semi-circles, and it takes about a minute to complete a four-lap heat.

Factory promo shot of a 1929 Rudge Speedway model: note the frame bracing across the crankcase and from the steering head to rear axle. The 'keystone' frame resulted in an ultra-low center of gravity. [The Vintagent Archive]
Pat Brady was brought up near the Irwindale track during the 1970s and explored the racing action with his 35mm camera. It was tricky shooting at night; Pat made trial-and-error experiments with the exposure latitudes, balancing ASA, F-Stop and shutter speed to capture the action. The beautiful black and white photos he shot during night races at Irwindale are now important historical documents. “Here’s what happened,” Brady said. “I was very interested in Speedway racing that became popular at that time (early-mid 1970s). As a photographer I thought, Wow! This is kinda cool! I was going to design school and free-lancing as a photographer. As I was getting deeper into photography, one of my friends was racing Speedway. We met with each other and he said, ‘Man… You know, your stuff is pretty good.’ I was coming more from trying to capture the art and the look of a ‘slide’. I was shooting 35mm Tri-X with a Nikon. I was using a 50mm lens. There were other guys shooting Speedway at the time who were using a Hasselblad and a flash, but I noticed the flash made the riders look like stick figures. The flash would freeze them and there they are. So I said, I want to shoot this differently. My friend Scott Sivadge was a really good racer and he said, ‘OK let me work on getting you into Irwindale.’ I went to the track with my Nikon, 50mm lens and Tri-X film and it took me a couple rounds. I’d develop my film and go whoa, there’s nothing there… I’d go again and shoot it and nothing…  And then somewhere along the line I remember I was in the garage developing my film and looked and Wow! There’s a bunch of images! So that’s when I said, I think I have something…"

Irwindale racing program from June 17, 1976, featuring an All-Star Match. [Pat Brady Archive]
“I took Tri-X and started pushing it to where… OK here’s the formula… I pushed it to 1200 ASA and I was shooting at 125th of a second. If you go at 60 everything is blurry. I figured out, ah… I can freeze the actual rider… you can see I was panning with everybody to get the shot… It was F2 at 125th of a second… I could see the look was very cool of all these people racing and sliding and stuff. My whole thing was, I can’t focus on them because they’re coming down the line way too fast. So what I typically did was pick a spot and I’d totally dial in on the dirt at that spot and as they were coming I would pan with them and I knew right where they hit that spot. You are catching more of the slide, not the typical documentary type shot. Then somebody saw what I was doing and then Dirt Bike Magazine contacted me and asked me to shoot some stuff."

Using only the stadium lights, Pat Brady captures the drama and balletic motion of 1970s speedway racing. This is racer Sonny Nutter. [Pat Brady Archive]
“I was also very into what was going on. I started to get into the whole thing… It was like going to a concert. At Irwindale it was very exciting, it was on Thursday nights… Out of all the circuit tracks… I think there were five of them…  Ventura, Bakersfield, San Bernardino, Irwindale, Costa Mesa (Friday night races that got the most attendees) but Irwindale was absolutely electric. And it was because of certain things: Irwindale was on a Thursday night. The track was a little longer, a little wider so it was the fastest out of the circuit tracks. About 2-3 thousand people would show up. It felt like there were a lot of people there.

Pat Brady's photography was regularly published in magazines and on the cover of Speedway racing programs. [Pat Brady Archive]
“The seating was all the way around the track and it was very close to the wall. The seating was like right there! That made it like wow! This is a spectacle. The lights that were on seemed to be brighter than some of the other tracks. That light helped me get the shots because I was never shooting with a flash. Bruce Flanders was the announcer and he became kinda well known. He became the voice of the Long Beach Grand Prix. It’s the biggest race west of the Mississippi. So all these things came out of Irwindale. Like Bruce Penhall (b. 1957). The racing was fierce. It started in May and would go to October. 500cc, one gear, no brakes… A lot of torque, a lot of pick-up. They move fast. That’s the whole game of Speedway… It’s a super quick sprint. Late ‘60s early ‘70s the racing became like a rock concert. At Irwindale in the air was a strong scent of fuel. Methanol… Heavy duty… Some people would call it Nitro."

Using a panning camera motion, Pat Brady was able to capture the motion on the track with clarity of the rider. [Pat Brady Archive]
“In the crowd they always had a lot of beer because they had beer stands…. So there was a mix between the smell of beer and the smell of fuel and the ‘electricness’ of the whole thing. The rider’s leathers were really colorful, their helmets were sparkly. It was something. So I thought I am going to capture the slide part of this. It was very competitive, the guys would go hard. The average rider was 18-24 years old. Slidin’ Sonny Nutter (b. 1958) was the oldest guy and he was 30. Very handsome. All the ladies liked him. He was considered the old guy."

The Irwindale track program with Pat Brady's photo for Thursday June 24 1976. [Pat Brady Archive]
“The crowd was much more of a younger, good looking, surfer girls, it was more like a concert. It was very hip. Lots of surfer people would go there. Rick Woods was a well-known surfer out of Huntington Beach but he made his living and his fame out of Speedway. One of his very good friends was a famous Hawaiian surfer out of the ‘60s and ‘70s David Nuuhiwa. He’d be in the pits standing with Rick Woods. It was that kind of a scene. It was cool. Woods would pull up in a really cool, old bathtub Porsche.  A biker group would show up and you’d have one big get-down all mixed together. They’d play music on the PA so it was like a full-on entertainment center. There were some different riders who had reputations and mystique. Bruce Penhall was young and very fast; he was gearing off a couple other guys- Mike Bast (b. 1953) who was a super precision rider, Rick Woods… A lot had nick-names, Rick ‘The Rocket’ Woods (1948-2012)… There was one guy who was a spectacle, he was super-fast and super good- Danny Becker (d. 2013) and he got the nick-name, Danny ‘Berzerko’ Becker. Certain guys would go into a corner and then they’d pull up so the back end would get traction, Danny Becker would do head-high wheel stands. No one could figure out how he would stay on the bike. It looked completely out of control. It looked like he was going to kill everybody. People would show up just to see him. It almost seemed reckless but he would win races. The best guys would say, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ And he was nick-named ‘Berzerko’. It was such a spectacle.

Danny 'Berserko' Becker is highlighted in a foursome at Irwindale. [Pat Brady Archive]
“The word got out about Danny and people were showing up from all different places- more than just motorcycle people. Then the greatest of all Speedway racers shows up; Ivan Mauger from New Zealand, Barry Briggs from New Zealand, Peter Collins shows up from England… These are world champions… They are the guns… The American guys are young and brash… They are like fuck you and your reputation… let’s race. The Europeans are taken aback, like who are these kids? There were some intense battles with these guys. The Europeans called the young California guys the “Young Lions”. Bruce Penhall then goes to Europe and wins the World Championship in Europe. This opens the door and since there have been a number of Americans who have gone to Europe and won the World Championship. You have to remember the bikes were basically identical- 500cc, no brakes. Maybe some specialized tuning, but basically the bikes were identical."

Scott Sivadge at Irwindale. You can see the roostertail of dirt being sprayed in his wake. [Pat Brady Archive]
“There was a subculture about the dirt. A special mix to the dirt on the track. Before the race a water truck would go around the track and water it down to help the traction. Racers would grab a clump of the dirt and check it out. They were sensitive to the dirt texture and had a sensibility about it. Halfway through the night, the water truck would go around again. Different riders used different kinds of knobby tires depending on how the track looked that night. Different tracks set up different ways to deal with the dirt. Each track had a guy who was doing the dirt with a tractor and he’d come around and get the track dirt composite to be a certain way. It wasn’t just dirt… They had some kind of special mix to it. It was good stuff because these guys were going to race on it. I saw some guys get hurt during the races but never did I see anyone die racing Speedway. I knew a guy who broke his leg one night. There was a definite element of danger but it wasn’t where they were carting people to the hospital all the time. It was fierce, loud and dangerous."

Speedway racing always had a whiff of danger, although deaths are very rare. This is a spectacular getoff captured on an Australian track in the late 1920s. [The Vintagent Archive]
“Today, the racing culture of Irwindale and tracks that existed in the same Southern California region have disappeared. The Irwindale Speedway and a famous drag strip that was a part of that property (Lions) is now a brewery where they make beer. This culture went away. The original operator Irwindale Speedway LLC filed for bankruptcy after the 2011 season and the track sat vacant. A real estate group developer purchased the 63-acre site, September, 2022. The flat track races at Irwindale was a magical crazy thing that happened on Thursday nights. Speedway racing still goes on at City of Industry (in the San Gabriel Valley, eastern Los Angeles) that’s not very far from Irwindale. There is some Speedway in Costa Mesa right by Huntington Beach at the Orange County Fairgrounds to this day during Speedway season. But it’s not at the same level of attendance and excitement that took place in the mid-seventies. (3000 plus at Irwindale Thursday night races, Costa Mesa boasted having 10,000 in attendance at Friday night races, with around 25 elimination heat races each night).

Mike Bast racing - note he has no glove on this throttle hand, preferring total feel for throttle control. [Pat Brady Archive]
“Success on the track came down to riding skill and strategy - how good are you at finding the traction on the slide and going fast down the straightaway. If you look carefully at my photo of Mike Bast (b. Van Nuys, CA 1951-2007), he was so precise riding the inside line… a very precision rider of Speedway. If you look, he isn’t wearing a glove on his right hand. He always wanted to feel his throttle. That was his thing. 1972-1976-77- that was the zone. I am glad that I documented the culture of the broadslide at Irwindale.

[1] A Historical Perspective on Los Angeles’ Traffic Congestion Fight. Melany Curry, 2020.

“Understanding why traffic congestion matters is… not a matter of documenting real, observable conditions, but rather one of revealing shared cultural understandings.” Asha Weinstein

[2] An in depth article titled: Motorcycle Speedway is available at Wikipedia. Other articles on Speedway history on The Vintagent include:

 

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.

Common Ground - 2023 Bike Shed London Show

“Shed Row is always my favorite part of the show. You expect pro­ builders to build great bikes, like Jim Alonze producing yet another beautiful motorcycle[1] or like Calum of deBolex[2] building incredible motorcycles and seeing that dB Series in the flesh. But Shed builders are often brand new, they’ve just come into it, or they’re evolving their craft. This is a very unique time in the custom scene.” - Dutch van Someren- 2023 Road to the Show EP01

“I think the difference between factory and custom bikes will blur even more. All customs are getting more approachable to regular people, more ridable and more complete. I think stock bike and custom bike styles will begin to merge.” - Winston Yeh: Rough Crafts, Taiwan. Participant- Shed Talk panel discussion, Custom Culture - Where Next?

Photographer Amy Shore's poster for the 2023 Bike Shed London Show at Tobacco Docks. [Amy Shore]

There are three motorcycles posed in Amy Shore’s Tobacco Dock promotional poster for the 2023 London Bike Shed Moto Show; they frame the Past, Present and Future theme of the event. In the center is a 1935 Matchless sprint bike that was re-built and customized by Joe Tinley and his father John at their Toolbox Lifestyle shop in London[3], on the left, Slabshot (Slapside plus Slingshot) a custom Suzuki GSX-R1000 K9 Superbike by Marc Bell at his HAXCH Moto in London[4] and on the right a futuristic concept build-virtual bike, Slipside by creative director and UK bike builder Paul Drake AKA Ziggy Moto’s Imaginary Motorcycle Company[5]. Each bike is meant to initiate a conversation about the evolving culture of motorcycles that will then be explored by the more than 300 custom bikes that are standing patiently inside the historic setting.

Exterior of the mammoth Tobacco Dock exhibit center in London. [Michael McCabe]
Bike Shed founders Anthony ‘Dutch’ van Someren and his wife Vikki have reshaped motorcycle culture at their London and Los Angeles Bike Shed locations. They see motorcycles and the cultures that surround them as a fluid entirety that isn’t preoccupied with individual brands, platforms, motor mechanics or riding styles. For them, motorcycles and riding on them represents a dynamic ecosystem; a community where everyone including riders, wrenchers or just casual appreciators are welcome.

Shed Row: a curated selection of home-built customs. [Shane Benson]
Dutch and Vikki started a blog in 2011, then a Web site, then a pop-up event in 2013 under two railway arches in London's Shoreditch neighborhood that featured 55 curated custom motorcycles for 3000 curious enthusiasts. With growing success, in 2015 they opened a 12,000 square foot club-like destination at 384 Old Street in the same Shoreditch neighborhood where around 2500 people are now welcomed every week to experience great food and great hospitality as an ongoing ‘celebration of the creative scene around motorcycle custom culture’.

Attendees of the Bike Shed London show. [Michael McCabe]
After the success of the 2013 pop-up event, Dutch and Vikki sensed the enthusiasm for their 2014 bike show was outgrowing the first venue space, so they moved it down the street to the impressive and historical 48,000 square foot Tobacco Dock building, that easily accommodates 10,000 people at a clip in an open and inspiring space. The location was a perfect fit and they have held the event at Tobacco Dock ever since.

The lovely vaulted brick celing in the lower floor at the Bike Shed show. [Shane Benson]
As they entered the 2023 show, each attendee was given a sizable, color coded fold-out map/directory that illustrated in overwhelming detail what they were about to encounter: three days of unprecedented access to the largest custom motorcycle show in Europe and the best of the best of motorcycle design, fabrication and culture; curated food, curated art, Saturday and Sunday panel discussions with titles: Powering the Future, Motorcycle Design and The Future of Moto-Sport, a barber shop, tattooing and most important, an inspiring sense of community. The fold-out brochure floor plan map described where everything was located with special symbols and icons but the exciting, massive scale of the Tobacco Dock venue encouraged everyone to relax, take their time, rub shoulders with other like-minded attendees and get lost in total motorcycle bliss. There were upwards of 48 brands, 49 Pro/Semi-Pro bike builders and more than 120 shed builders listed. Upstairs and downstairs combined into a completely dreamlike experience.

Winston Yeh at the Shed Talk panel discussion: Customs & Culture - Past/Present/Future [Michael McCabe]
The introductory Bike Shed 2023 show statement described what attendees would experience:

“This year we will celebrate the theme of Past, Present and Future. Motorcycle culture has always looked to the past for style, inspiration and legend, while creating brand new human stories in the present and enjoying a peek into the future with innovation and evolution of performance, engineering and design. In 2023 our show will celebrate this thread that weaves the Past, Present and Future together, looking at how history has shaped the present, and where motorcycling will go next.”

Natural illumination from glass skylites helped the space feel airy, even with a large crowed. [Michael McCabe]
The show filled out the expansive floors of the Tobacco Dock venue: Upstairs is open to the sky with food and picnic tables down the middle, with glass-enclosed rooms alongside, featuring brand themes  and pro bike builds. Downstairs it’s dramatic and almost cavernous, with moody lighting and low vaulted ceilings over collections of curated Shed Builds. Each bike upstairs and down, whether brand, pro/semi-pro or Shed Built had a large, readable plaque with the bike’s name, entry class, builder and build date. This individualized information reinforced the event’s purpose to not only entertain but also educate across all the variables. There was no hint of a hierarchy of accomplishment at the show. Dutch and his crew were exploring the process of exceptional, curated motorcycle custom culture in an inclusive effort, beyond hyper-competitive judgement.

'Ol 52', a 1952 Triumph Thundebird customized by John Benbow. [Michael McCabe]
For those craving commercial brand recognition, Royal Enfield, Norton, Yamaha, BMW and others presented slick, full-scale settings that featured impressive collections of bikes and accessories. As a London based event it made sense to see a few more Norton, BSA and Triumph than central Euro and Asian builds downstairs in the Shed Built section but the entire show balanced the international bikes equitably; even a handful of UK custom Harley Davidsons and Indians sat in the Shed Built lower floor: A Fastec-Racing of Suffolk show bike with impressive paint and blacked-out engine stood near ‘The Ol’ 38’, a 1995 Softail build by Carter Harris at Attitude Cycles that was near two builds by David Smart: Fat Tracker a 2022 Sportster S and Iron Head a 1989 Sportster. Both builds featured sleek, red, custom formed seat tails.

'Fat Tracker', built from a 2022 Harley-Davidson Sportster S by David Smart. [Michael McCabe]
Builders Josh Kemp and Lin and Vic Jeffords characterized the personal vibe in the downstairs Shed Built section: Josh stood next to his Honda custom build in the moody light, “Yeah I figured there wouldn’t be much space for a little CB200,” he said. “But here I am with my build!” Josh is a 38-year old London project manager with wrenching in his blood, whose Dad restores and customizes 1930s Ford five-window coupe hot rods for a hobby.

Josh Kemp with his 1976 Honda CB200 Outriders Moto 'Surf Sprinter'. [Michael McCabe]

“I wasn't really looking for a bike when I saw the 1976 Honda CB200 on eBay,” Josh said. ‘I was just doing a bit of a look around to see what was out there and it came up for a good price, despite having a seized engine and not been running for some time. The thing that stood out for me was the flat bottomed tank. There's an aesthetic rule which I have for making bikes, that there should be a line from front to back, as it's what really helps the eye to flow along the bike and tie it all together. I actually got quite a few people saying that it looked really tidy and couldn't put their finger on why at the show!

Skull tank paint on the 'Surf Sprinter' 1976 Honda CB200 built by Josh Kemp. [Michael McCabe]
"I also wanted to try working on a smaller bike, something lighter and more fun that you could imagine -  strapping a surfboard to the side of and going ripping along the beach looking for the perfect surf (one of my dreams is to do this somewhere in the Pacific..). One of the wider things I've wanted to do with the bikes I create is to help anyone who is outside looking in have access and feel supported- hence my brand name "Outriders Moto". Plus, smaller bikes are so much fun and a lot easier if you live in a city (like London). The skull is the Outriders logo, I wanted something that was classic, recognizable and screamed rock n roll, motorbikes and that sense of rebel freedom!”

Lin and Vic Jefford of Destiny Cycles with their chopper build. [Michael McCabe]
Nearby, Lin and Vic stood next to their 1960s style chopper; raked girder front end, free-style custom bars, dropped rigid frame and a hot-rod engine rebuild. The bike’s Sportster tank was custom painted with a collage of historically inspired images and lettering from the NorCal San Fran/East Bay 1960s counterculture. They own a shop, Destiny Cycles that’s located a couple hours north of London in York. Vic explained the theme of his build; “I built this bike to talk about history. A lot of young people I talk with did not experience the 1960s when young people of my generation were asking a lot of questions. The forms of my build refer to the old chopper days, when a chopper motorcycle was a deep statement about personal freedom. Young people during the 1960s rode on choppers to say something about who they were. I want this bike to help young people today to understand that motorcycles have always had a power.”

Are you going to San Francisco? The groovy 1960s NorCal vibe on the Jeffords' chopper, 'Kosmik Trip'. [Michael McCabe]
The tone at the 2023 London Bike Shed show was overwhelmingly open and positive. Judging from the smile on everyone’s face; Dutch, Vikki, their crew, the thousands of attendees, the invited bike builders and brands all worked together to make another successful and memorable event. The ongoing story of how motorcycles continue to change people’s lives will continue to unfold at future shows. Dutch and Vikki are now planning an impressive three-day event at their Los Angeles location for 2024.

From the actual shed: Clifford Howard's custom built from a 1956 600cc J.A.P. Rotavator engine. [Michael McCabe]
[1] Jim Alonze of Alonze Custom Fabrication specializes in one-off fabrications of mild steel, aluminum or stainless steel. Over 50 years combined experience in sheet engineering and vehicle body building. Located on the Coastal Road, Scarborough, UK.

[2] Calum Pryce-Tidd of deBolex Engineering in South London dB 25 Series. 25 Ducati Monster1200, 147 horsepower limited edition series motorcycles with 100 new custom components added to each motorcycle.

[3] Joe describes the re-build- “This is a 1938 Matchless that we have re-built. The engine in the bike was built by Matchless but supplied to Brough Superior. We wanted to build a bike that we thought Matchless should have always built. Matchless never used this engine itself. This bike has been ten years in the making because nothing is off the shelf. It’s all hand-made and it takes a long time to collect these things. We made this bike as if Matchless had used the Brough engine in a Brooklands sprint design.” (From: Road to the Show- 2023 EP03.)

[4] Marc describes his build- “Underneath I’ve got 1000 K9- For last year’s show I had a Slapside ’88 1100 and I wanted to take the essence of that bike and make it into a modern day sports bike that has all the performance and capability. To put them together- try to combine the two and see if it’s possible to take a modern GSX-R and make it look good like the old ones from the ‘80s did.” (From: Road to the Show- 2023 EP04.)

[5] “Last year I had four bikes in the show, and there were four bikes in the show this year. But the future bike was in augmented reality. The build existed in two versions- There’s the photorealistic version and then there’s the augmented reality version. It’s a bike from the future with an undetermined drive train that is ergonomically adaptable. A tangible vision of the future”. (From Road to the Show- 2023 EP05.)

A 1981 Harris Magnum GSX1100EEX by Mike Stewart. [Michael McCabe]
A sweet 1956 Matchless G85CS scrambler by Toolbox Lifestyle. [Michael McCabe]
Attendees at the Bike Shed Tobacco Dock event. [Michael McCabe]
Bauhaus 2023 BMW R18 by Pier City Cycles. [Michael McCabe]
A nice spot to chill while absorbing all the energy in the venue. [Michael McCabe]
Herald Brat 125RX by Herald Motor Co. [Michael McCabe]
1968 BSA 441 by Ziggy Moto. [Michael McCabe]
2003 Ducati 999 Sami Uno by Michael Benink. [Michael McCabe]
 

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.

A Better Ride - OFF TRACK Motorcycles

"Go West Young Man"*            

Southern California Mystique- 'SoCal' became internationally famous in the early 1950s as the avant-garde connecting motor-culture with personal identity. Sports cars, hot rods, cruisers and choppers became the embodiment of a uniquely West Coast sense of self.  The lure of this legendary moto-culture is still strong.  This is the story of two men who moved to LA, following the SoCal star.

Lions dragstrip: an OG strip built to stop hot rodders from street racing, and run as a non-profit. [OFF TRACK]
It took some doing, but Sy and Dustin Wise-Tylek followed their gut, uprooted their East Coast life, and relocated to the promised land of Los Angeles. Originally from the New York City area, Sy and Dustin first met around 2016 at Sy’s motorcycle gear shop in Montclair, New Jersey.  As their friendship progressed, they noticed many of their East Coast riding friends were in the process of throwing in the towel and moving to LA. Around 2018 Sy learned Dustin was heading out too, with his 1978 Shovelhead. So Sy, too, closed his shop and rode his 1979 Harley Davidson FXDLS across the country to take a look. It was a no brainer: warmer 365-day riding, smooth roads, a diverse riding culture with more than 800,000 registered bikes, including more than 30,000 custom choppers. To top it off, lane splitting had been explicitly legal in California since 2016. Sy and his family made the move, then he and Dustin re-opened a gear shop in April 2020, at 1322 Coronado Ave in the Zafaria neighborhood of Long Beach.

Sy and Dustin outside their OFF TRACK motorcycle shop. [Mike McCabe]
Moto Subculture- After the move to Long Beach, Sy and Dustin soon learned they were part of a bigger story and their area had a deep motor culture legacy that included historic motorcycle race track venues, Grand Prix street racing, and drag strips. It’s hard to picture today, but in the late 19th and early 20th Century the area around Long Beach was entirely cattle and sheep ranches. As the ranching economy shifted to other locations, their unused land became an opportunity for entrepreneurs to open car and motorcycle racing venues.  The public was fascinated with vehicles and velocity (women were first allowed to get a four wheel vehicle driver’s license in 1900 and a motorcycle license in 1937), and the Los Angeles Motordrome opened in 1910; this encouraged others to try their hand at creating racetracks.

Moto History- After WW2, a new set of racing ovals, and ¼ and ½ mile dragstrips emerged. The Los Angeles Speedway transitioned in 1957 to the Ascot Park dirt track speedway opened by J.C. ”Aggie” Agajanian (1913-1984) that featured NASCAR, Indy car and dirt track motorcycle racing until its closure in November 1990. Fifteen miles northeast of LA, the San Gabriel Valley Speedway (known informally as the Irwindale Speedway) was a dirt track that operated from 1965-73. A new Irwindale track and drag strip opened near the original track in 1999.

Dustin Wise-Tylek on his Harley-Davidson custom. [OFF TRACK]
The legendary Lions Dragstrip opened in 1957 as a community strategy to stop the sharp rise of illegal ‘Grudge Match’ street racing. The local government reached out to the Long Beach area Lions Club that raised the initial $45K needed to build the strip. Racing celebrity Mickey Thompson became the director of the not-for-profit dragstrip (all profits went to local charities) and initiated changes that forever modernized the sport: the first ‘Christmas Tree’ starting light system (amber-amber-green/red), night lights for evening racing and the profitable ‘Date Night’ ticket that introduced the thrill of drag racing to women.

The Lions strip developed a reputation and mystique among drivers and fans; known by drivers as the ‘Beach’ the track was a few blocks from the ocean and drivers believed the ‘thickness’ of the sea-level ocean ‘rare air’ had a mysterious effect on the effectiveness of a drag car’s high performance engine. The grip of the ‘secret mix’ asphalt used to pave the Lion’s strip was believed to produce faster speeds than other strips.

“Each drag strip had its own specific character,” said Tom Madigan, a drag racer and drag strip historian. “That was important to the guys who ran them. Like Long Beach - you didn’t have any nerve if you didn’t run Long Beach. It had a mystique about it.”

Sy in OFF TRACK motorcycles. [Mike McCabe]
Motorcycles Everywhere: Sy and Dustin and the history of Long Beach.

Sy and Dustin opened their new shop in good company: notable custom motorcycle builders Go 'BRAT STYLE' Takamine and Roland Sands have impressive shops nearby, and contribute their reputation to the area. Dutch van Someren and his bike culture mecca The Bike Shed is twenty minutes away in the downtown LA Arts District. “Dustin’s wife found the space in the Zafaria area of Long Beach,” Sy Said. “It has a pull-down garage type door that makes it easy to walk bikes into the space for display. We built out the space ourselves and kept things simple. We got creative and used trucker’s ratchet straps to hold up the shelves for the gear we sell.”

Sy and Dustin learned riding culture in California is different than New York: there are many more riders in Cali and this can cause brand subcultures; Harley guys ride with Harley guys, Brit with Brit, Asian with Asian. Sy’s first shop in Jersey didn’t have this luxury of rider critical mass and it was open to all riders as a communal resource center. Sy and Dustin want to continue this sense of inclusiveness at their new shop. “At OFF TRACK it doesn’t matter what kind of motorcycle you’re riding,” Sy said. “As long as you’re riding.”

Dustin Wise-Tylek with his customized pickup. [Mike McCabe]
Sy discusses his process:  “I'm from New Jersey originally. Coming out here to LA, it was the lifestyle. I remember looking at my wife and we said, 'Ya, we’re good here.' Of course the riding… there is a sea of motorcycles here. More than back in Jersey and New York.  In no particular order, I looked at it in several different ways: first and foremost, you have the weather to your advantage, and having that weather plays into so many different parts. You can ride more because it doesn’t rain as much; it makes it easier to ride all year ‘round; the roads are  a lot nicer because they aren’t beat up from the salt; you can lane split over here - East Coast that isn’t legal, and drivers there actually try to bump you off the road for doing it. East Coast drivers don’t like to be cut off."

“The freeway scene in LA is so different than the East Coast. Yeah, everything’s open but there’s a sea of traffic -  LA and Southern California is known for its traffic.  What I love about being here is the culture of the motorcycles. Because of those conditions - weather and smooth roads - you have a lot more bikers here. Population… Because of ease of weather and all the nice amenities… and in this area (Long Beach), everything is in driving distance. You want to get some snow, it’s an hour away. You want to get some hot weather, it’s an hour away. You want some mountains with some twisties and curves, Boom. You got race tracks right there. Everything is nearby."

California dreamin'. The essence of Long Beach. A 1977 Harley-Davidson FXS chopper [Anthony Ocampo Jr]
“There’s a sea of cars if you’re driving, but if you’re on a motorcycle, lane splitting is allowed and you get there a lot faster. I use that to my advantage. If I have to go to downtown LA, I use my bike. So when you have a lot more bikes and a lot more people who ride, there’s more community, there’s a sea of different styles of bikes, you get to see a culture of different bikes that are out there versus what is on the East Coast. There’s a certain look and feel about how they customize in LA, how they dress and how they act. To me, it’s just a wider array of different riding styles."

“Because we’re down here and there are so many more motorcycles, you have more groups that are into the different subcultures: there’s a Sportster group, a Dyna group, a chopper group… FXRs, that’s a separate group. Baggers are a separate group. And that’s all within the Harley market. And all these groups are big,  they are all around you. Then you get into the things that are happening with Japanese and Italian bikes. Back on the East Coast, we didn’t have that large number of groups, so we rode together. The limited riding time with the seasons that mess everything up; we didn’t care what you rode, we didn’t have big groups. But in LA you may have a bunch of guys who don’t wave to each other because there’s so many riders. East Coast you have that 'rider wave' to acknowledge, but in LA there’s so many riders, that wave thing is different."

Sy with his dirt bike: SoCal is not entirely paved over... [Mike McCabe]
“Here there are so many bikes and that’s where I want to be. A lot of the motorcycle manufacturing corporations are here in California. So this is a good spot to be in. I always like to look at the community as being as broad as possible. Accept all riders that are coming in. I don’t want anybody segregated out because you ride a particular motorcycle. If I had a magic wand, we would have our own brand established, our own apparel, from top to bottom, from your helmet to your boots. To have a brick and mortar destination where people can come in and hang out and have all the gear they need. And if I can have my café too? Yeah, why not? This is the one thing that’s missing in the motorcycle community. To have a place to shop and to hang out. I want you to stick around. Bust out your computer and work on whatever you gotta do for your work. More depth, motorcycles as culture."

“Our shop is not exclusive - we’re inclusive. We want to have community out here. This sounds so corny- everybody wants community but I think it goes past the talking and goes towards what we are actually doing. You see our events you read our reviews, people feel they are being helped and they belong here. That’s what we do. There is a difference between us and some of the other guys. We want people to feel welcome. I think we are doing the right thing here.

“I was a little unsure about Dustin and me being from the East Coast, the issue of territory and outsiders, but nobody seems to care. Everyone is very open. Part of this is the California vibe, and some is where we are coming from. The vibe here is certainly laid back, and I don’t think we are being judged. It’s been nothing but good. We are able to play well with Roland Sands - we have one of his bikes on our stage, and are going to put another up in the front. The Bike Shed guys just came up here. They know who we are and everything is good.

Dustin riding in front of OFF TRACK motorcycles [Mike McCabe]
“I miss some stuff from the East Coast and New York. Riding through the East Village with the old buildings… riding through SoHo on the cobblestone streets… we had to give that up, and the food. That was a big thing… changing diet…. The East Coast is carb heavy, meats and cheeses, pizza… In California is all about healthier options. Fresh stuff and protein."

“I am working on a new project to design certain accessories for motorcycles with our own flair. Bikes are changing and so are the styles. I want to have a helping hand in that. On top of this shop, on top of being on-line, on top of designing clothes, I want to have hard parts that we design. I want to promote local businesses and artist too… for our clothing, I want to get it from the LA garment district and promote local Long Beach business. If we’re making parts I want to get it from a CNC machinist that’s from here. I want to help other people."

“Dustin and I chose OFF TRACK as our name for a reason. We are not following the rest of the other guys, we’re off-track. We’re not perfect and we continue to stay ‘not perfect’ because I think that’s more genuine. We like to rip down the street, we like to ride, it’s not a front.  People appreciate us for the way we are, it’s not a reach. It’s just what we do. We went OFF TRACK for a reason. We are different than other people.”

Sy and Dustin are settled into exploring the possibilities of Long Beach and LA motorcycle culture at their OFF TRACK shop. Like so many before them, they followed their gut to move west and its proving to be a good idea.

[*"Go West Young Man" - apocryphal.  The phrase is usually attributed to Horace Greely, but he denied ever saying it, and no period (1800s) publications include the phrase.  Other authors have been proposed, but the true source of the phrase is unknown.  And yet, 'Go West' is part of American folklore, and was used to support Westward expansion of the United States in the 19th Century.  The phrase is, like much American folklore, a convenient mythology. - Ed.]

 

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.

 


Dutch Talks: the Bike Sheds

“LA is kind of a natural home for motorcycle culture in terms of brands, builders, bikers and scale, weather and roads. Here, you can ride 365 days a year. There are more over 600cc registered bikes in California than any country in the world.” [1]

-Dutch van Someren owner of the Bike Shed Moto Co.

The man himself: Dutch von Someren in his element, The Bike Shed LA. [Michael McCabe]

From his earliest riding days in London, The Bike Shed founder Dutch van Someren sensed motorcycles represented more than the sum total of their moving parts and reflected a complicated cultural process. Today, his London and Los Angeles Bike Shed locations are an important part of that on-going story.

History and Culture

Initially, as the 19th Century rolled into the early 20th, people became intoxicated by the possibility of machines, velocity and individualized movement. From the earliest production motorcycles in the mid-1890s, the combination of the internal combustion engine with a bicycle frame, seat, two wheels, gas tank and throttle created a thrilling and novel experience, but it was reserved only for the wealthy.

Twenty years later in 1901-2 the American manufacturing know-how of the Hendee Manufacturing Co. (Springfield, MA), later renamed the Indian Motorcycle Company, and Harley Davidson Inc. (Milwaukee, WI) in 1903-5 expanded the possibilities of the motorcycle and dropped the sticker price for a growing consumer public. Initially through the 1930s and early 1940s, motorcycles were seen as an affordable and fun transportation option but the 1947 Hollister 'riot' changed how bikes and bike riders were identified, via complicated signifiers of a countercultural, dangerous, sexualized life-altering possibility. [2]

Social, but reserved for the wealthy: even elaborate bicycles like this 1881 Starley trike were expensive. This chassis was used for the world's first electric vehicle, Gustav Trouvé's electric Starley tricycle of 1881 - check the story here. [The Vintagent Archive]
The ballooning post- WWII youth demographic in America and England was hungry for new options for identity── Hollywood contributed The Wild One (released cautiously in America in 1953, but banned by the British Board of Film Censors until 1967 and first shown at the motorcycle themed 59 Club). Adventurous youth in America, 'Ton Up!' oriented Leather Boys in England took to bikes as affordable transportation with added ‘mystique’. Savvy motorcycle brands in England, the US and Japan sensed an opportunity and enticed the youthful demographic shift with slogans:  “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”. A new individual who rode on two wheels was created.

Common Ground

Dutch had long wondered if there was common ground among people who rode, the different brand platforms and riding styles. He started a blog in 2011 that explored the ‘new wave’ of custom motorcycles that was taking shape and wrote about the bikes and builders on the scene, especially in the UK and Europe. Within two years the blog grew to be one of the most popular commentators on what was becoming a powerful cultural movement. As the blog moved forward, Dutch was joined in 2013 by his wife Vikki and friends as they brought the community to the next level, hosting their first pop-up motorcycle event as ‘a celebration of the creative scene around motorcycle custom culture’.

The Bike Shed Moto Co. HQ in the Arts District of LA. Always bikes in the parking lot, and many more inside. [Michael McCabe]
The first Bike Shed event featured 55 curated custom motorcycles from as far away as Thailand, Portugal and the US that were displayed across two arches in the Shoreditch area of London. The event attracted more than 3000 people to not only enjoy the motorcycles but also art, photography, curated retailers, great food, a barber shop, tattooing and hospitality. In 2022 the Bike Shed London Show at Tobacco Dock welcomed 19,000 people to see 319 curated custom bikes with 500 exhibitors, live music and cinema. It was clear that Dutch, Vikki and their friends had struck a powerful nerve of interest.

Got art? Amazing work by Conrad Leach graces the walls of The Bike Shed LA. [Paul d'Orléans]
Following the second Bike Shed show in 2013, conversations started about the possibility to make the Bike Shed a permanent destination for bike riders who wanted to combine their love of motorcycles with a desire for hanging out with like-minded people. A club-like atmosphere with great food, great hospitality and comfortable surroundings that was open to everyone- bikers, non-bikers and the general public and also a club with membership perks like organized meetings, events and rides.

The custom motorcycle display / event space at The Bike Shed LA: an impressive array any time you visit. [Michael McCabe]
2015 the Bike Shed motorcycle club opened its doors on a 12,000 square foot venue across four renovated railway arches at the heart of its original home, at 384 Old Street in Shoreditch, Central London. The space featured display custom bikes, curated retail, space for more bikes, art, a barber shop, tattooing and event space. The café, bar, shop and gallery was open to everyone- bikers, non-bikers and the general public. Seven years on the Bike Shed welcomes 2500 ‘People Who Love People, who Love Motorcycles’ every week.

In April 2022, the potential of the Bike Shed Los Angeles expanded internationally and opened a 30,000 square foot venue in a 1945 red brick warehouse building located in the burgeoning Arts District. Similar to the Bike Shed London venue, the LA space has a 325 cover restaurant open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a multi-brand retail space hosting Belstaff, Bremont, Indian, Ducati and Royal Enfield concessions, a barber shop, tattoo studio and a 7000 square foot event space, plus dedicated private spaces for Bike Shed members.

J. Shia's super cool BSA A65 custom can be visited - it's worth a look at the crazy work she put into this unique machine. [Michael McCabe]
For educated eyes, nested among the bike brands on the floor are noteworthy custom builds that lend their process to the space:  J. Shia’s (Madhouse Motors, Boston, MA) 1972 BSA A65, ‘The Manipulated A65’ known for its provocative found object seat cowl and industrial lever side shifter is on the floor next to the Hugo Eccles (Untitled Motorcycles, San Francisco, CA) 1975 Moto Guzzi 850T ‘Supernaturale’ that is ten feet from the 1958 ‘Later Days’ Panhead built by Taber Nash (Nash Cycles, Vancouver, WA) and the impressive collection goes on. The vibe at the LA venue is chill and all about respecting the incredibly unique opportunity to be among friends and the bikes. We are now in the process of planning a shed built bike show similar to Tobacco Dock at our Los Angeles location for 2023. This event will be very important to the shed builders and admirers in and around LA.

Dutch describes his process of the Bike Shed; “I had a grown up job in media and motorcycle riding was my passion. I knew so many people for whom motorcycle riding was one of the main things that defined them. It wasn’t the only thing but it was one of the main things. They wouldn’t necessarily call themselves a ‘biker’, they’d say, ‘I’m a bike rider’ and they might have five bikes. But most of the industry in terms of magazines, shows, even the way the manufacturers behaved was really about the extremes of sports or commuting and there wasn’t anything about lifestyle.

The restaurant at The Bike Shed LA is open daily, breakfast/lunch/dinner, and has great food and a very cool bar, and places to chill on overstuffed couches. A super appealing formula. [Michael McCabe]
“Everybody I knew who rode, rode because biking is cool and it has a heritage and it inspires adventure and community and creates comradeship, friendships and experiences. And I didn’t think the industry or even journalism was speaking to that at all. They were obsessed with just engineering or just performance. To me those things were a product… But the real product is experience. When you get on an amazing high performance motorcycle, it’s something that’s beautiful. It’s really about creating story and adventure and experience.

“I don’t need to get geeky about fuel injection or how ABS works… That’s vaguely interesting to me because it might keep me alive or give me speed, but once I’m on the bike I’m enjoying this incredible human adventure. And I thought no one was really looking out for that. And that should be about good food and good hospitality and curated retail with not everything on sale for cheap. So everything that Vikki and my friends did was from a consumer point of view… As motorcycle riders, what do we want? We wanted a little more inclusivity and we wanted a bit less judgement, a little bit more fun. We didn’t want to go to grotty trade fairs with bad food where you are just a commodity. We wanted to de-commoditize biking. And I don’t want to spend all my time with people talking about how fast I’ve been or whether I’ve dragged my knee, or whether I used to be a pro racer… I love motorcycle riding just as much as people who can do those things but I express it in a different way. And it turns out there’s a lot of people like us who feel that way.

There's a bike / gear shop - a great place to find the best and coolest riding gear, or buy a custom bike or even stock Royal Enfield or Ducati. [Michael McCabe]
“It’s a little bit like the whole conversation with some of the guys in MCs. I respect their place in bike culture, they call themselves the 1%ers for a reason… Well, we’re the 99%ers… there’s a lot of us… So ya, so really, the journey was looking at what our community wanted. I found our community- I spoke to them through a blog, I spoke to them through a show, and now we’re speaking to them through destination. London worked because London is a rich community of creative, interesting, adventurous people… Aspirational people who love biking and bike culture… Los Angeles is the same; there’s an amazing community here, we found our family here. But we also know there are families all over the world, in Lisbon, in Barcelona, in Austin and in Chicago, there’s communities just everywhere. So we’d like to continue to serve them in all of those places as long as the community allows us to do so. We will take it as far as our community will have us. If we can find a way to get there, we’ll go. I am very, very grateful for what we have been able create. Very proud of how we’ve brought this community together and given them a place to hang out in this kind of common ground. It’s a great privilege to keep doing it.

Need a haircut or tattoo? In common with the London Bike Shed, you can get both in LA. [Michael McCabe]
“The concept of a shed built bike, the celebration of what people can build at home is what has always inspired me. It’s great to be a professional builder but sometimes that gives you limitations like a budget or what you do. The great thing about some of these shed built bikes is they take inspiration from pro-builders, the manufacturers of after-market parts. You can buy exhaust pipes, wheels, triple clamp sets. You can do extraordinary things on your own. And shed builders aren’t charging by the hour… They might spend three-four hundred hours on a bike and not think anything of it. But sometimes it’s the story… When you realize a bike was built by father and son, or two brothers restoring a father’s bike after he died. It’s the context. Motorcycles are beautiful objects but without a human being on them they don’t do much. They just sit around. I really love the human contribution to biking. The human story is incredibly important to me. Like the bikes we have on display here… All of them run, all of them ride… It’s one of the rules about the bikes at our show… They have to work. That makes those shed built bikes even more interesting.”

As Dutch says, the Bike Shed offers a common ground, community and experience, where people who love motorcycles share a culture that unites them, in a time when too many people focus on the small things that divide, the Bike Shed finds a common ground.

Roland Sands' '2 Stroke Attack!' was featured in our Custom Revolution exhibit at the Petersen Museum in LA. [Paul d'Orleans]
Notes:

[1] Dutch van Someren said at the April ’22 opening of his 30.000 square foot Los Angles motorcycle mecca. There are more than 800,000 registered motorcycles in California. More than 160,000 motorcycles registered annually in Los Angeles.

[2] The Hollister 'riot' of July 4, 1947 was adjacent to the annual ‘Gypsy Tour’ sponsored by the American Motorcycle Association (A.M.A.) since the 1930s. The small Hollister police force was overwhelmed and soon lost control of the event. The event was featured in the national media of the day as ‘Havoc in Hollister’. A second motorcycle themed riot occurred the following year in Riverside, California and supposedly this prompted the A.M.A. to make a now legendary statement: “The trouble was caused by the one percent deviant that tarnishes the public image of both motorcycles and motorcyclists.” The A.M.A. has no record of actually saying this but the statement, whether real or of not is recognized as the birth of the 1% outlaw biker personality.

 

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.

 


LA vs NYC with Diego Mannino

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.