In another day and time, having tattoos and driving a motorcycle was the ultimate act of societal rebellion. Although tattoos have become more mainstream in their adoption, motorcycles are still seen as one of the ultimate freedom machines. There are a variety of brands from as far as Japan with Honda and Kawasaki and traditional brands like Harley-Davidson closer to home. Then there are sophisticated European brands like Ducati like seem to be the sex drive of the Italian nation on two wheels.

The Iron Horse

No contraption in the 20th century has had more popular cultural influence than the motorcycle. The motorcycle is by-word for freedom, enjoyment, and unencumbered fun. From the big cruising machines made by Harley-Davidson to the fast “crotch rockets” of the Japanese and European manufacturers, motorcycles have created a special mystique. Mankind might have quit using the horse for transportation but that same energy of fast freedom was reborn into the motorcycle.

They come in a variety of colors, shapes, sizes, engines, and styles. There are different styles based on the manufacturer and the colors of the wheels and the prominent gas tank can be quite elaborate. No one can miss the iconic “chopper” style with the raised handlebars and the lower seat.

There is nothing quite as iconic as the symbol of the all-American man riding a Harley down the highway, in leather, ink on full display, club jacket on display and riding off into the sunset. It just paints a certain picture, doesn’t it?

Bicycle Beginnings

The earliest examples of motorcycles were produced in both Europe and America and were steam-powered and based on another new invention: the bicycle. The most notable examples were created in France and England. This began as early as 1867 and was based on early examples of bicycles. Micheaux et Cie in Paris created one of the first steam-powered cycles. Later examples were created by Sylvester Roper in Massachusettes, USA and Lucious Copeland created a steam-powered 3 wheel motorcycle in 1887 which could achieve 12 miles per hour. Early self-powered bicycles were made and shown off my Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, and Wilhelm Maybach in Germany. These were powered by the new internal combustion engine and featured ideas from early examples of the automobile created by Karl Benz. Few of these were ever produced in any serious way and were more like test inventions for the new internal combustion engine. By the early 20th century, Harley-Davidson, Triumph, Indian Peugeot, Royal Enfield, and a smattering of German manufacturers began producing motorcycles for public sale between 1895 and 1903. The age of the motorcycle had arrived. Motorcycles were a popular military vehicle in WWI. They often replaced the jobs of horses, especially in messaging. Triumph produced 30,000 examples of their type H for the war effort earning it the nickname, trusty Triumph.

During the interwar years, Harley-Davidson became the world’s largest manufacturer selling their bikes in 67 countries. Royal Enfield continued to produce motorcycles as well, especially in the buildup to World War II. Motorcycles were prized for their small engines, excellent fuel economy, and small size. The culture of the motorcycle really took off after the end of World War II.

Although American and a few European brands would dominate the market, by the late 1960s, Japanese brands had begun to infiltrate American markets. Americans took to them right away from being light, cheap, and easy to repair while also being incredibly reliable. Motorbikes were ideal in Japan where cars were just beginning to become common and their cheap price, low fuel cost, and ease of repair made them ideal for everyday people. To this day, motorbikes are in common use throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Easy Rides and Easy Rider

Although the 1960s would become famous for free everything (love, sex, music and so on), the trend towards staying out of society began in the last 1940s. The early motorcycles of the post-war era were the direct descendants of the machines that the Allies rode to Paris and Berlin. They were tough, sturdy, simple, and easy to work on. Young men especially embraced this cheap and simple form of transportation and in many states, the age for a drivers’ license was as young as 14. American biker culture sprung up as a way for WWII to get some of the camaraderies they were missing in civilian life. These clubs were popular in California but soon spread eastward as well. With their codes, private clubhouses, and brotherhood, they became a social touchstone for guys who were lost without the structure of the military or were looking to maintain that male support system. The culture centered around the motorcycle and riding them but many of those veterans also had tattoos, especially if they were in the Pacific theater. The link between bikers and tattoos would become iconic, right alongside the culture of these men and their fast women living life from one road to the next. However, there was an iconic film that would put American biker culture front and center: Easy Rider.

Henry Fonda changed lives when he rode in on a Harley at the beginning of Easy Rider and suffered a tragic ending at the end of that same film. 
The Iron Horse is evocative of freedom not often enjoyed anymore. This was certainly true in the middling post-war years in America. There was a decided lack of freedom that the social repression of the 1950s could not contain forever. the 1960s social wave of change was the response that and as young people looked for freedom from the bland normalcy of the 1950s, the motorcycle represented untethered freedom that was not available from any other form of transportation. The hog could go anywhere. It could go where cars, not even hot rods would not dare. It could cruise down a bad road. It could weave in and out of traffic. It could climb up narrow passes or take the rider far from civilization and all its problems, requirements, and normalcy. 

By the 1970s, bikers had gotten a reputation, and not in a positive way. Biker gangs would frequently ride around, often drunk, and destroy property, cause general mayhem, and much more. The Hell’s Angels, the largest of these, was particularly known for their rough tactics. Bikers frequently used ball-peen hammers for repair and often used those same tools for violence. These men grew a reputation of being the sort of people no one wanted to attack directly. They were as tough as individuals and tougher as a group. As the drug trade began, some of these gangs would engage in that kind of organized crime. It should be noted that while this the pop-culture reputation of biker gangs, not all gangs and not even all chapters of the same club were involved in the same activities. Many clubs were simply social while others were involved in more nefarious activities.

Photo by The Ride Academy on Unsplash

Leathers and Helmets

Riders, for protection, usually wear leather. Like the riders of old on the back of sturdy steeds, adorning their bodies with the skins of past kills, the motorcycle rider adorns his body with the same symbols. This is another area where tattoos began to be featured prominently. Tattoos were not only seen as art, but they were also seen as a badge of that legendary toughness. As a style, bikers are iconic with their leather riding vests or jackets. Although not as prominent now, the artwork of their helmets could be quite elaborate. Almost like watching troops from World War I and earlier march into battle, these men expressed their loyalties, personality, and more through the artwork of their clothing in a kind of post-modern masculine strut that lent an air of confidence that could be quite attractive.

The culture of motorcycle clubs, most poignantly seen in the popular FX television show, Sons of Anarchy, is also a unique institution. These private clubs are one of the last places a man can find a true band of brothers. Their hallowed halls are a container for a type of masculinity that modern society has slowly squeezed out of three generations of men. 

The Freedom of the Open Road

The freedom was also physical in nature. No doors and no glass to separate the rider from the outside world. The rider could enjoy a true present. 
The motorcycle could hold (at best) one passenger. The rider is not encumbered by commitments, responsibility, and duties. He is free to enjoy the company of whoever he invites on his machine. The legs are spread across, putting the power between a man’s legs in a vaguely sexual manner. His seat and spread legs are a quiet invitation for a woman to come to see what was between them. His body is open, arms spread, embracing the wholeness of the world. 

Photo by Steven Erixon on Unsplash

Tattoo Culture

The relationship between tattoos and motorcycle culture is close. They arose at the same time. At the same time, Von Dutch and other legendary artists were at their peak, biker culture arose alongside and many of those who wore that original work were themselves bikers. Inking one’s body, in modern American culture has always been a fundamental act of rebellion because it is fundamentally changing the character of one’s body. This ink was often visible in a world where almost no one had tattoos unless they had been in the military. In a buttoned-up world, bikers were letting it all out and taking their art on the road with them on their bodies. This culture is partly what gave tattoos their air of danger and a certain amount of fright. The grit of the art, the idea that ink had been injected into the skin with a great deal of blood split and pain endured created a mystique for tattoos that often exists to this day.

The idea that tattoos are not professional or somehow denigrate a person also came from this culture. It might seem ridiculous that simply getting body art would be a mark of your character but for almost all of the post-war period until our post-Recession world, it was a mark of character. Tattoos had to be covered and seeing someone in a prominent position with one could cause a scandal. Times have begun to change in this area with younger people embracing tattoos not as a cultural statement but as art and as a form of expression.

Photo by Motoculturel on Unsplash

Riding Off Into the Sunset

Biker culture exists to this day but it is not like it was. The motorcycle has gone mainstream. There are still hardcore biker clubs in existence. You can still seek them riding out on the road. There are fewer of them now. Recently, retired members of the Hell’s Angels contributed to a TV show going inside the secretive gang and into a world that was closed off to anyone outside. Today, you’ll see far more regular people riding all kinds of machines around for pleasure. All those feelings of freedom and a fast pace of life were pretty appealing, even to the squares. Anything outside of the mainstream will eventually hit a critical mass and be mainstream at some point. Biker culture was definitely one of those things. Sturgis, the famous biker meetup is a tourist attraction these days. Sturgis was the place to settle debts and do drug trades back in the day. Now, it’s just a place to party, drink beer, and ride your bike for the weekend to the wilds of the upper midwest.

On the one hand, roving gangs of bikers doing PCP and destroying property is something society can live without. Alternatively, that mystique, the freedom, the expression, and the living the world one mile at a time down the highway still has a great deal of appeal, especially in a late-capitalist society such as we are living in. In that way, biker culture will always live on and so will their tattoos, at least in the popular imagination.