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.


Junichi Shimodaira: Cholo Style in Japan

The Nagoya, Seto Aichi area of Japan is known for its custom motorcycle and car building scene. Junichi Shimodaira straddles two cultural worlds at his Paradise Road shop: one foot in his area’s impressive custom scene, the other in SoCal's Cholo low-rider culture. The mid-sized port city of Nagoya is Japan’s auto manufacturing hub; the vibe is working-class and down to earth compared to glitzy Tokyo and historic Kyoto. People in Nagoya are not afraid to get their hands dirty. During the early days of post-war globalization, Nagoya became the sister city to both Los Angeles, California and Mexico City, Mexico. Over the last thirty years, SoCal inspired Cholo style custom car and motorcycle building has become the lifeblood of the city’s motoring culture.

Junichi in his Nagoya workshop, Paradise Road, with one of his amazing Galaxian custom that took Best of Show at the 2008 Mooneyes show. [Michael McCabe]
Many of Japan’s talented builders live and wrench in the Nagoya area and most would agree that Junichi Shimodaira and his “Low and Slow” Paradise Road shop - opened in 1987 - has been a key inspirational player. The shop focuses on rebuilding and customizing less emphasized car and motorcycle models. Junichi founded the Pharaohs Car Club in Nagoya, borrowing the name from the cult film classic American Graffiti. It is now the oldest custom car club in Japan.

Junichi Shimodaira with the Triumph 500 he rescued from scrap to become a Cholo-inspired custom. [Michael McCabe]
During the late 1980s with “nada” English language ability, Junichi followed his gut and visited LA, and met iconic custom builder Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Roth returned the favor in 2001 with a visit to Junichi’s Nagoya shop and blew the doors off the shop’s mild mannered but growing reputation. Junichi’s customizing cred was firmly established after his 2002-3 RODriguez rebuild of a 1930 Ford Model A Tudor sedan won best of show at Shige Suganuma’s Mooneyes 2003 Hot Rod and Custom Show. Five years later, Junichi dropped a 1959 Chevy 348ci big block, triple carb V8 onto the rebuilt rails of a 1927 Ford Model T Roadster, added some over-the-top body stylizations and his Galaxian took best of show at the 2008 Mooneyes event. These cars pushed other builders as the Japanese custom scene continued to take shape.

Junichi shaping the rear fender of his Triumph custom to suit his talisman - a plastic water cup he made into the taillight. [Michal McCabe]
“In 1987 I quit my truck driving job and went to LA,” Junichi said. “When I came back I decided to open a shop. My first shop was small; I sold American antique car toys and smuggled car and motorcycle parts. The shop became a place for car and motorcycle guys to hang out. More people in Japan were becoming interested in Low Riders and motorcycles. 1987 was the first Mooneyes Tokyo Street Car Nationals show. It was good timing. Shige Suganuma at Mooneyes brought together a lot of car and bike guys for the first time in Japan.” The combination of Junichi’s growing reputation and his SoCal-inspired sensibility has influenced many builders. His open door policy welcomed the curious into his shop, and introduced them to what was (for young Japanese fans) a very mysterious, exotic and cool cross-cultural experience. At that time before the Internet, Japan was still an isolated and conservative culture. Young Japanese wondered about the outside world but had limited access. Within a few years, Paradise Road with its ‘crazy’ cars and motorcycles became a go-to destination.

The cup! Looking simply outstanding in the shapely multi-colored rear fender of Junichi's Triumph, Psicodelico. [Michael McCabe]
“For many years I was deeply involved in the Nagoya Low Rider scene,” Junichi said. “Then 2004 I was looking around Yahoo! and found a pre-unit Triumph 500 Speed Twin. The bike was very bad shape. Everything broken, nothing worked but it was a full original bike. I started a new project to create a new bike. I stood the bike up under the lights in my workshop. For a long time I had saved a red plastic drinking cup that had cool shape. I was saving this cup to make a cool tail light. I held the cup over the rear fender… It was like an inspiration. To rebuild the bike so I can use the red plastic cup. Make a cool, perfect custom tail light from this cup. I took the bike apart and broke it down,” Junichi said. “I had different sections of my workshop for every part of the bike. I had to keep everything organized. It was like a cool puzzle── engine here, transmission there, frame against the wall, no seat, front forks next to frame. Electrics were 100% throw away. I opened up the engine cases. Wow! What a mess! Everything was bad. The flywheel, the rods, the pistons, intakes. I took apart the transmission and it was dried out solid. I knew this was going to be a big project but a good project. Bring back this great motorcycle. It took me three months to clean up this bike and rebuild the major components.

The candy stripe paint scheme Junichi explains is Cholo-inspired with its complex mix of spraying and hand-brushing over many layers. [Michael McCabe]
“Paint was important,” Junichi said. “So I asked my friend at Freddy’s Custom Paint in Nagoya to do the paint. It is real Cholo style. Very flashy colors combined together and many different layers. Some brush, some spray. Thick lines and very thin detail lines. This is Cholo. I really like this style. It’s a very deep way of doing paint design. Motorcycle does not have much space to make a statement with paint. I talked with Freddy about making a tank paint statement. Has to be perfect but tank is small. I think this tank is good statement.

The finished Psicodelico in Junichi's Paradise Road workshop. [Michael McCabe]
“Rear fender was important,” Junichi said. “I had to fit my red plastic drinking cup tail light to fender. I had to cut the shape in the fender and cut the cup so everything will fit. I made a jig and carefully cut the angle of the red plastic drinking cup. Had to be careful. Had to be perfect. I wanted to balance bold tank color with fork chrome,” Junichi said. “Balance shiny to paint color. If no balance then the bike look won’t work. I brought the forks to guys at local plating shop. We did many layers of chrome to give forks a good look."

Yes, folks like to sit on a small and exquisitely made custom Triumph. [Michael McCabe]=
“It has been many years but I still add to this rebuild,” Junichi concluded. “That’s OK. Custom build projects are never finished. I bring the bike to shows and everyone likes to look at the bike. Everybody likes the paint colors. The bike is a good size; people like to sit on the bike and experience 'Kustom Kulture'. This is good.”



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.

Bobby Garey and the Brooklyn Bike Scene

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

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

Remembering Ray Abeyta

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

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

An Aesthetic Thing

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

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

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

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

On the Unspoken Nature of Motorcycling

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

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

East Coast vs. West Coast

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

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

I Am a Southerner

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

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



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

Under the BQE: New York City Street Racing

by Michael McCabe

Powerful, fast cars and motorcycles need smooth surfaces to maximize their potential velocity. Bumps, holes and inconsistencies represent certain disaster and even death at high speeds. The texture of New York City streets changed during the early 1900s from cobblestone to macadam and then to asphalt as the automobile took over. Car owners demanded a smoother ride as driving speeds increased. During the 1940s maniacal urban planner Robert Moses designed the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE) and Connecting Highways because he understood the automobile was now king, and planned a ribbon of elevated highways that wrapped the City. Entire neighborhoods were demolished and generations of family life were uprooted for his "progress”.

Thank Robert Moses for street racing? His sweeping roadway plans for NYC created hundreds of miles of dead spaces beneath and around freeeways, with racers inhabiting those spaces like the undead ghosts of neighborhoods razed to make way for cars. The story of Robert Moses and his eventual nemesis, Jane Jacobs, the woman who finally stopped him, is an epic tale of hubris vs humanity.

Much of the BQE roadway was designed to be below grade, in sequential sections between overpass bridges. Moses and his planners could never have known their highway would become a perfect street racing venue, with spectators above, cars below.  When the BQE was completed in 1954, builders of fast cars quickly used the design of the BQE to their advantage.

There is a backstory behind building and racing very fast, impressive cars on New York City streets. Names are connected to the machines: on four wheels, Coney Island Ralph Landolfi, Jack Merkel, Broadway Freddy DeName and John Lobranco [follow those links for incredible stories! - ed.]. This story continues to evolve but to a large degree NYC street racing has a historical depth that remains nuanced and somewhat secret. The story reflects people and their cars as they are shaped by time, neighborhoods, culture, race, ethnicity, class and the mystery of accumulated personal sensibility.

Oral Histories from Infamous New York City Street Racers

Under the BQE: a sweet hotrod and customized Honda bob-job. [Michael McCabe]


I had a drag bike and I used to test it [on the street]. All the guys would line up on a side street and I’d test my bike before I’d take it for a run… We’d race up 86th Street to Avenue U, make a U turn, and then we’d race back. Back and forth all night, “Hey, Vinny’s racing today, he’s taking his car out; he’s taking his bike out,” they’d yell. People would line up. The street would turn into a track. It was our personal track. That was during the day. At night things changed. If you wanted to run for money or somebody would come in from a different neighborhood, we’d go to Cross Bay Boulevard or we’d go to the Connecting Highways. I had two motorcycles.  On a pure stock Kawasaki I used to ride up and I’d ask if anybody wanted to run. Somebody would step up. $500.00, $100.00 whatever. I’d tell them I’d be back in an hour… I’d go home and get my race bike which was the same exact bike but it had wheelie bars and a slick. I’d put it on a trailer and bring it back. The competition would say, “That ain’t the same bike.” This was a way to put money together to put into projects. We didn’t make much money but it all went to building fast machines.

View from the inside: a veteran street racer under the BQE. [Michael McCabe]

I remember that I bought a car off a guy; a ‘66 Chevelle. Somebody had painted it turquoise with house paint…with a friggin’ paint roller. Roller marks all over the car. A real Lower East Side classic paint job. A guy, Raoul took me under his wing and started explaining things… We’d go for test drives and he’d ask, did you hear that squeak? He’d say, that squeak means that the bushing on the shock absorber is getting dry. We could change the shocks out or… spray some WD 40 on it, get some money and six months from now the guy will need new shocks and we get some more money. I worked with him in the street for about two-three years, until I was 18 or 19. We worked at Ludlow and Stanton. Back then cops would kind of harass you about working on cars in the street, but they wouldn’t really bother you if you kept your side of the street clean. It was frowned on back then but they didn’t bust your balls too bad. Raoul knew people… He worked on some guys' cars in the street, and they wore a badge later on in the day…

Preferring to remain anonymous to protect their fun: NYC street racers. [Michael McCabe]

I used to race cars on the street. But you gotta be able to work on your car. Over here in Brooklyn that’s tough to do unless you have a house with a garage. Me and my buddies, we all lived in buildings. That’s a different story; we had no garage. Our cars sat in the street and once you start street racing people would either steal your shit, or burn it, or break into it. Guys would hunt around for the competition cars and pour ball bearings into your oil. You’d have to try to lock up your hood. All the guys I knew had bikes so I just got into bikes. It’s a lot simpler.

I had a couple cars. I had a ’85 Cutlass, like a normal passenger style car but with a ’69 big block in it from a Chevy… a 396 big block with a turbo 400. It was a fast car for the street. I used to street race it. Guys been doing street racing forever in Brooklyn. When I was getting into it and everyone was racing around here; like Fountain Avenue, East New York area, was probably mid-‘90s. Right when I got my license. Then racing faded out because of law enforcement. A car flipped over… people died… Killed a guy, another guy lost his arm and a girl who was standing with them died also. What the city did? On Fountain Avenue, Flatland Avenue… They dug like ruts, reverse speed bumps. At night they’d come and turn the fire hydrants on and soak the avenues. You couldn’t race because the streets were soaked. So... Late Nineties I got out of it. After like five years of fucking having cars broken into… Ya know? But guys used to race for big money. I’ve seen guys almost get killed over big money. People would tell stories about the amounts… forty, fifty thousand. People didn’t believe them… but they did race for this kind of money.

Vintage street racer in a contemporary setting, under the BQE. [Michael McCabe]

Even before I owned a car I would ride out on my bicycle and watch the race on a Friday night. Fountain Avenue was the hot scene back in the late '70s. My sister’s crowd was six or seven years older than me. So when I was like 13 or 14 it was no big deal for me to bum a ride with one of her friends and go out to the races and watch. I was really really into it even before I was 14 or 15 years old. The races went on over by the landfill. The only people you would see go through there were busses because there was a bus turn-around there. And there were garbage trucks too because that’s where they dumped the garbage for the landfill. Actually it was a big thing back in the ‘70s because it was a Mafia burial ground… There are tons of stories about the old Fountain Avenue landfill… Back when organized crime ran private sanitation and they could pretty much do whatever they wanted. It was a great spot.

There was Columbia Street which was a dead end down by the piers in Red Hook. There is a police impound there now. First and Third Avenues were racing hot spots… Down by the twenties. All those avenues down there. This is long before cell phone calls and long before beepers… Basically there would be a parking lot and everybody would just go to the parking lot. The Fountain Avenue and South Conduit Avenue spot on Linden Boulevard. You’d go there on a Friday or Saturday night; tow your car, drive your car… We would tow our car a block away and then drive it in. Let everyone think that we drove it there. Try to psyche them out… Eventually they would get to know who’s who… but at first before they knew who you were..? You could get into some races. Now-a-days the world is so small everybody knows everybody. That whole sleeper thing… That’s cool to read about in magazines but those days are over. Guys would be real secretive. These guys racing from behind tinted glass… No one knew who the hell they were. They never gave up anything. But if you were racing for money you’d have to give something up. Now, those days are over.


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


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