Billy Bike, 2020


Billy Bike, 2020
Oil on Canvas 20in x 24in framed



Before Forbes and Gentrification: Bikers and Choppers Series

The motorcycle played an important role on the ground in World War 2, which led to a surplus of affordable motorcycles after the war, and their adoption by rebellious young adults, often veterans, starting in the late 1940s. In America, the “biker” entered popular culture, while in England it was the “ton-up boy”, so named for often fatal attempts to achieve a speed of 100mph on wet, narrow, winding English roads.

In America, bikers began customizing their motorcycles, which were labeled “choppers” due to the removal or cutting away of trim and fenders, and replacement of fuel tanks.  Clunky hand gear shifts were relocated (the jockey shift) or replaced with a toe shift and hand clutch.  Soon choppers began to sport custom paint jobs and lots of chromed hardware.  And the front forks were extended longer and longer, to the point while turning the bike the front wheel laid over rather than changed direction, creating an impossible turning radius. And at high speed the gyro effect of a large front wheel often caused the forks to flex rather than turn the wheel.

Hollywood picked up on the biker rebel theme, driven by the public fear of rampaging Southern California biker gangs such as the Hells Angels, Chosen Few, Mongols, Vagos, Hessians, and Pagans, and produced several dozen low budget genre movies.  Bikers often worked as hands on Hollywood sets, which then gave them a chance to be extras in biker films.  The better biker flicks featured pre-fame Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern and William Smith among others.  The high point of the biker movie art form was Fonda, Nicholson and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider in 1969.  At the same time, choppers evolved into a growing art form, led by Arlen Ness in Northern California.

In the 1980s, capitalist Malcolm Forbes began riding a Harley, and subsequently choppers became gentrified. Chopper shops began appearing in wealthy enclaves selling choppers built from the ground up for wealthy discerning patrons, enabling original chopper stalwarts such as Gary Bang to cash in on the trend. Today there are probably more MBAs riding expensive choppers than original gray-bearded bikers on their old Harleys. What does it say about a society that adopts the hallmarks of rebelliousness and crime and takes it mainstream?

Billy Bike, (a 1951 Harley), a depiction of Dennis Hopper’s motorcycle in Easy Rider, represents the simpler chopper of the period, with flamed paint, shorter forks and handle bars, simple seat, and basic exhaust.


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