April 24, 2018 Off By noelle talmon

What is art? For some, it’s a beautiful painting that makes them feel happy (Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” for example). For others, it’s a giant outdoor sculpture à la Alexander Calder that can be touched and used for shade. Still more consider their child’s first drawing a work of art (it may not be “good” art, but it’s still art in their eyes). Art comes in a variety of forms and sizes. It can be inspiring, disturbing, uplifting, or thought provoking. Whatever it is—a painting, a sculpture, a photograph, a poem—it evokes an emotional response from its audience. 

Many artists wouldn’t be who they are without a muse that serves as their inspiration. One such muse is the motorcycle. A motorcycle represents speed and freedom. It’s a lifestyle that’s only truly understood by its own and those who document it through the lens, the brush, or whatever medium shows their love for two wheels.

David Mann is one of the most iconic motorcycle graphic artists of all time. His work was featured in every centerfold of Easyriders magazine from 1973 until his death in 2004. Mann, who rode a red rigid framed Shovel/Pan with a jockey shift, launched his art career in an era when bikers were outlaws and looked upon unfavorably by the general population. He depicted bikers as viewed by the average non-rider. In one of his pieces, a family of four is stopped in a station wagon with two sons in the back seat. The young boys have their faces pressed up against the window to get a closer look at the so-called hellions in the lane next to them while their mother looks on, aghast.

Mann also glorified the biker lifestyle, and historic and mythical figures were a big presence in his work. One print features a group of bikers riding in the Midwest flanked by ghosted images of Native Americans on horses. Still more of his work shows bikers as heroic characters. One depicts a motorcyclist as Neptune, the God of the Sea, with a trident in his hand and a mermaid as his passenger.

Bronze artist Jeff Decker’s work is centered on “man’s quest for speed.” He has credited Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical drawings and grotesque sketches as his biggest inspirations. Decker is predominantly known for his large-scale 15,000-pound bronze sculpture, “By the Horns,” which is displayed at Harley-Davidson’s headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The biker is riding a DAH bike and is in mid-crash while attempting a hill climb. Decker has also created several smaller-scale bronze sculptures, including one of racer Joe Petrali taken from a photograph in which he set a 136-mph record on his Harley-Davidson Streamliner in 1937. Decker finds inspiration in the physicality and motion of riding a motorcycle.

Like Decker, painter David Uhl is also an HD-licensed artist. He finds joy digging into the company’s photo archives so he can recreate stunning images of vintage bikes and riders on canvas. Uhl is known for his Women of Harley-Davidson collection. One features a Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) named Ruth about to ride her 1940 knucklehead bobber.

Some of his more offbeat work includes his steampunk series, one of which features actress Kristy Swanson as Buffy the Vampire Slayer brandishing a wooden stake pistol astride her motorcycle. Uhl is absorbed by the lines (and the curves) of women and motorcycles and tells a story with each of his amazing paintings.

In a time when everyone with a cell phone thinks they’re a photographer, Michael Lichter is the granddaddy of motorcycle photography. His work has been featured in Easyriders and numerous other magazines, books, and articles since he got his start in the late seventies. He still owns his first bike, a 1971 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead, and curates the Sturgis Buffalo Chip Motorcycles as Art Exhibition each year. This past August the theme was “Old Iron – Young Blood: Motorcycles & The Next Gen,” featuring custom bikes by builders under the age of 36. While largely a commercial photographer, Lichter sees the motorcycle as more than a mode of transportation. It’s a way of life.

Custom bike builders are mechanical artists, breathing life into the machines they modify with every engine they rebuild and tank they paint. Arlen Ness has been in the business for over 40 years. Dubbed the “King of Choppers,” he’s known for his custom builds featuring unique paint jobs and creative themes. The first bike he built was a 1947 Knucklehead called “The Untouchable” featuring an image of Elliot Ness. His bike “Ness-Stalgia” was inspired by a 1957 Chevy. The concept motorcycle “Mach Ness” runs on a jet-powered helicopter engine (which he bought on eBay) encased in aluminum. Until its dissolution in 2017, Ness collaborated with Victory motorcycles, providing style input for a factory custom motorcycle every year. Ness sees beauty beyond stock motorcycles and transforms them into incredible choppers born from a passion for two wheels.

There are also many lesser-known artists who see motorcycles as their muse. Fiberglass artist Steve Parker and his partner Maynard Tockish own 3D Customs in Willoughby, Ohio. Using an epoxy mud, Parker fashions sculpture on motorcycle gas tanks, creating a 3D effect. His “Spider Queen” tank features a woman surrounded by spider webs. He created “Project 343” in honor of firefighters who lost their lives during the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The fender on the bike looks exactly like a firefighter’s helmet with the number 343 illuminated by an LED. Like Ness, Parker is unfettered by convention and turns motorcycles into mobile works of art.

Sid Werthan, a metal sculptor, conceptual installation artist and longtime rider based out of New Haven, Connecticut, cites his studies in western Zen Buddhism, martial arts doctrine and the motorcycle as the core of the inspiration for his art. Specifically, the motion created by the mechanical symphony leading up to the ride and the rolling meditation en route are a pathway to everyday Zen. Mechanics plus fluids and a rider equal rolling meditation. His artistry extends to crafting custom furniture using found and junked motorcycle parts. It usually starts with a frame from a discarded bike (not one that has been involved in an accident). “Night Train Lounger” has the frame of a 2005 Harley-Davidson Night Train. It is long and lean, taking styling cues from the original bike, and is stretched out like a ‘70s chopper. There is still an original VIN number etched on the frame so the buyer can identify it with the exact model. There are also copious amounts of found objects and rebar added to his pieces.

Motorcycle art can also be wearable. Matthew Allard runs Inked Iron, an online custom motorcycle print and apparel shop for those who like expressing their passion for two-wheeled adventures. T-shirts and posters are emblazoned with motorcycle-inspired doctrine. The print “Smoke Em If You’ve Got Em” features a biker doing a burnout. Another shows a Ducati superbike with a quote by Hunter S. Thompson: “Anything that gets your blood racing is probably worth doing.” A third features a woman rider with a quote by C.S. Lewis: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” Allard says what all bikers feel. Riding takes you to a different place, physically and spiritually. It’s an experience that only motorcyclists understand.

Artists have been paying homage to the motorcycle for generations. It’s an extension of their being and an integral part of who they are as humans. Every painting, photograph and sculpture reveals their passion for speed, the open road and the freedom riders experience each time they turn the key and make the engine purr.

Photos: David Mann