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Hell's Union: Motorcycle Club Cuts as American Folk Art

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Collected by artist and motorcycle rider Jeff Decker, Hell's Union: Motorcycle Club Cuts as American Folk Art is an exhibition at UCR ARTSblock that features defunct motorcycle club "cuts," or vests, and their assorted, colorful club "colors," or patches, that represent a unique form of American folk art embodying the freedom and nonconformity symbolized by bikers. Jeff Decker is an artist famed for his bronze sculptures of vintage motorcycles and he grew up surrounded by the car culture of southern California in the 1960s. The cuts in this show are almost all denim and are from the 60s and 70s.

Decker had the insight to look at the cuts as American folk art rather than only as artifacts of mythologized outlaw motorcycle clubs. As he said during a walkthrough at the exhibition's reception, "I don't look at the cuts as anything clandestine. To me, it is folk art that has been ignored."

With this notion, the cuts may be viewed in the same context of Amish quilts that use their own set of "colors" that emphasize solids and simple compositions, but fine craftsmanship. Like a MC president and founder, their local religious leaders approve their "colors" too.

Carrying "colors" began with the military. The most familiar are the medieval European armies in which standards were carried with a coat of arms. Up until industrial warfare that began in the twentieth century, which allowed for some distance from the enemy, it was important to know the whereabouts of one's regiment and how to keep formation when smoke and dirt were in the air, much less the chaos of charging and falling bodies. Its importance is underscored by the fact that experienced soldiers, or flag guards, were assigned to its protection. So, to protect one's flag or an attempt to capture an enemy's "colors" were both great feats of combat. Now, more symbolic than tactical, but for the same reason, it is why MC's go to such lengths to protect their "colors." In today's American culture, in which success and happiness are often defined by money, their fierce protection might also be viewed as protecting one's "brand," akin to a "cease-and-desist" letter sent on a top-notch lawyer's letterhead to a perceived copyright infringer.

The cuts are from defunct motorcycle clubs (MC) primarily. You will not find a Hell's Angel cut. This is due to the fact that "colors," or the patches, have to be earned. No one can wear the colors unless they go through a right of passage. Decker says that in this respect, younger riders often question his motivations, mainly because he did not go through their various rights of passages in the clubs represented. But, according to Decker, "the older guys get what I'm doing. In fact, they often say, 'Maybe you will tell the story right.'" Decker feels that Hunter S. Thompson was an excellent writer, for example, when he published his 1967 book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, but he was still an outsider. And then the insiders are not the most articulate. So there is no well-written history yet, at least this is Decker's sentiment. At this point, his respect for the cuts, and his manner of displaying them in their own, deeply shadowboxed, black frames, as if they are religious reliquaries, is one way to begin to tell the story visually.

Decker's collection focuses on cuts from the 1960s and 70s. From hearing him talk, my sense is that the reasons are varied: connection to his childhood when his father worked on cars, and even having a chance to hang around Kustum Kulture car customizer God, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth; and because there were so many films at the time that played on the fears of small town American: invasion and take over by a foreign menace, whether it be aliens from outer space, Communist Russians, or lawless bike gangs. I think that perhaps Decker would like to rectify a bit the suburban fantasies of ancient Vikings coming to pillage and rape as depicted in The Wild Angeles (1966) with Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern, which was followed by Devil's Angels (1967), starring actor-director John Cassavetes; Jack Nicholson in Hells Angels on Wheels (1967); The Glory Stompers (1968), starring Dennis Hopper, The Cycle Savages (1969), starring Bruce Dern, or a plethora of other biker-related films available to stream on Netflix in one's own subdivision of the mind. After starring in this new genre of B-movies, Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson collaborated in 1969 on Easy Rider, a conversion of the violent motorcycle gang movie into one for the hippies.

In fact, it is these biker-ploitation films that contributed to a decline in sales of "machines" which led, in part, to the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) distancing themselves from certain MCs. In essence, in the United States, clubs became an outlaw one because of not being sanctioned by the AMA, which included not following their rules, and subsequently making up their own bylaws. Then the AMA supposedly made a comment, although denied by the AMA, which distinguished them as representing 99% of riders in the U.S., most family-oriented, implying that there was a remaining, undesirable 1%. Of course, this designation was taken up as a matter of pride by the outlaw MCs, and is represented by a diamond shaped 1% patch on their cuts.

As a collector, Decker also seems attracted to the cut-sleeve cuts from the 60s and 70s because they are made from denim. The cotton fabric was particularly apt for absorbing urine, blood, and dirt, thus, capturing a patina of authenticity and individuality. Later, in the 1980s, MCs started wearing leather jackets because, in part, they were easier to clean, according to Decker. During a walkthrough at the opening reception for the exhibition someone asked about issues of preservation, as some of the cuts were barely intact. Jeff summed up both the badge of honor sensibility with the stains and unintended preservation, "They're pretty pickled already!" Despite meeting a collector's desire for authenticity, the more unwashed, overly mended, and greasier the shoulders from hair, the more the cut represented the wearers long-term commitment to the MC. It is for the same reasons that an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow will scold an owner who has scoured the patina off of a piece of centuries old furniture, as it may have provided protection over time, it removes its history through use and, for these reasons, reduces the market value considerably.

Reminiscing on his favorite cut in the show, Decker says, "I think Hell's Union is one of the strongest. Splattered bleach on it, leather fringe, military medals, police patches taken from police when pulled over. The back has great embroidery. It's my favorite for its aesthetic."

A typical layout of patches making up a set of colors: 1) Top rocker - used for club name 2) Club logo plus MC patch 3) Bottom rocker - used for territory 4) 1% signifying 'outlaw' intent 5) Club name or location 6) Office or rank held within club 7) Side patch. | Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The general key to the placement of insignia goes something like the following. AMA club members generally wear only a single or two-piece patch, while the outlaw clubs wear three-piece patches. The top, curved "rocker" and central logo signify the club; the bottom rocker designates the chapter, such as the city or region, e.g. Frisco; an MC patch means "motorcycle club;" swastikas are there to offend but more in a punk rock, shock value way rather than as an in-depth political, neo-Nazi stance; "13" designates a pot smoker, with the "3" being an "M" on its side for marijuana; and then there are a myriad of other patches, like the 1% diamond.

The 1% designation represents, literally and symbolically, the super-rich in this country also. It is code too for an oligarchy of Wall Street corporations that would appear to run the "Main Streets" in the U.S. too; replacing invading aliens and Communists as a common enemy and affront to neighborly cooperation and regional collegiality. Initially, it may appear ironic that a caste of downtrodden outlaws considers themselves as 1% too. But perhaps there is little difference between the two, as both rule by fear: one through a new indebtedness and the other through physical violence. I make this extreme comparison because from an outsider's viewpoint, the cut, the colors, the insignia, the harsh manner by which respect is required and maintained, seem to be about creating conformity of the highest order. It is a uniform, after all. But, then, maybe this has been the impetus for what we call folk art today. When executed, it may not have been called art. Rather, it was a process e.g. the quilting circle, and an object that helped generate community cohesion by following both written and unwritten rules.

The degree of protocols is evident in an artifact on display in the exhibition. The "Death Barons Rules" were found folded up in the front, left pocket of the Death Baron cut. Forty rules are typewritten on the paper. There may have been more, but this one page provides insight into their organization and governance. Some highlights include:

  • Rule #2: No leave of absence will be granted unless member is paid up in full all fines due and etc.
  • Rule #7: If a member must leave the meeting early, he must have a good reason.
  • Rule #11: If money is needed for emergencies resulting from club activity, each member will pay an equal amount.
  • Rule #14: All members will show respect due to the officers at all times.
  • Rule #15: Members will be expected to wear his colors at meetings, on trips, and when visiting with other clubs. At times other than these it will be up to the individual as to whether or not he wants to wear his colors.
  • Rule #16: Any member may bring in a prospect providing he is a stand up person.
  • Rule #22: After 10 pm, members will shut off, and start up their machines, beyond the driveway.
  • Rule #25: Members will be allowed to bring their "old ladies" to the club house, except during business.
  • Rule #26: No member shall desecrate colors.
  • Rule #27: No member shall allow another member to be attacked, or harassed by anyone.
  • Rule #28: No member shall allow anyone to wear his colors.
  • Rule #33: Any member found not paying for refreshments will be fined $5.00.
  • Rule #34: No member will sit on or handle another member's machine.
  • Rule #35: All members will maintain an area residence, Fairfield, Stratford, Trumbull, Bridgeport, Milford, New Haven.
  • Rule #38: All members must have machines of 500 c.c. or more.
  • Rule #39: No member shall fight another unless both agree to take their colors off. If one member refuses to take his colors off the matter will be dropped, then and there.
  • Rule #40: If one member insists on fighting the matter will be brought before the club and they will decide what will happen.

The impression is one of both household rules and of military-style regimentation in order to create solid unity. However, I do understand that organizational consistency can fulfill a desire for fraternity and camaraderie too. Admittedly, an MC is probably more like a family than their bloodline for many of the young men that were and are in clubs then and now.
The gist that I get from the reading the rules is one of an odd domesticity too. With this notion, I cannot help but want to see what the rules may be for a quilting club, that is, in light of considering the MC cuts as folk art, and considering folk art as less about rebellious expression and more about following the crowd, although visually. I've reviewed a variety of rules and bylaws for quilting clubs. Here are some highlights that parallel the excerpts from the Death Barons' bylaws:

  • Article II, Purpose: Enhance community knowledge of all forms of quilt making, patterns, and the history of quilt making by providing general and educational meetings, fun and fellowship
  • Article VI, Dues: Section 1. Annual dues shall be paid in full by the last meeting in January. After August 1, dues will be prorated. Section 2. Proceeds from dues shall be used to defray costs of operating the club, which include reprographics materials, quilting supplies, goodwill gestures for members, and miscellaneous expenses incurred in annual social events. Proceeds may also be donated to other service projects as recommended by Board and approved by a majority vote of the members present at a membership meeting. Section 3. Upon disbandment of the Quilting Club, all monies in the treasury shall be distributed as selected by the membership at a special meeting called for this purpose. 


  • The machines are to be used by those members enrolled in the class or activity only. All persons using the machines must be trained. The other portion of the room will be available to open sewing for members working on personal projects with permission from the Instructor only.
  • DO NOT change the bottom bobbin tension on any machine.
  • Everyone uses their own bobbins and supplies when using the machines. Bobbins and needles are available for purchase from the club officers. If it is a club project then supplies will be provided.
  • Equipment and supplies belong to the club. These shall not be used for personal use. Some cupboards are locked for safekeeping and require a special key from an officer. Members who wish to make items to sell for profit cannot use Club equipment or supplies. (i.e. making items to sell at craft fairs, school fairs or in a member's employment.
  • New members need to be trained on the use of the machines and how the sewing room operates, such as duties and checking out of books, selling of club items, etc.

Honestly, belonging to club with such overt rules and concern for conduct would be the last thing that I would want to do. It's why I would never want to live in a place with a homeowners association.
But, what if I were to venture into creating my own Riverside-based MC? I could harken back to the founding days of the Hells Angels in San Bernardino, just a few miles north of Riverside. The first Hells Angels Motorcycle Club was founded in the Fontana/San Bernardino area in 1948. The San Bernardino charter (also called "Berdoo") still exists, although most of its original members at one time moved northwards to Oakland. This removal is probably the reason why many outsiders wrongly describe Oakland as the Mother Charter of Hells Angels MC, which was founded by Sonny Barger.

Would an MC called "The Artists" find members?

From 1936 to 2003, Laguna Beach High School athletic teams were called the "Artists," in recognition of its reputation as an art colony. In 2003, the student body voted to call themselves the "Breakers," which was the name used for 19 months before the 1936 name change. The new name not only alludes to the breaking waves along the rocky shoreline but also sounds tougher. Maybe it was difficult to follow a standard emblazoned with an painter's palette?

In light of my profession, perhaps I'll go with creating an MC called "The Curators." It would reach back to the early 20th century when artists were reacting against the World Wars and the results of rapid industrialization, i.e. the Futurists and Dada.

The Futurists had a love of machines too, like the MCs represented in this exhibition. And, they too wanted the machines to help break the rules of institutions, such as the academies, libraries, and museums. Their adulation for the machine, war, and anything to disrupt a way of status quo thinking is akin to the MC's emphasis on motorcycles traversing the country as if there were no country, as if their tire prints in their dirt were redistricting the vote, and their upside down police badges next to swastikas were meant to challenge those who say, "You can't."

As if speaking to the disaffected youth of the 1950s, 60s, and up to today, F.T. Marinetti wrote in his 1909 Italian "Manifesto of Futurism": "Indeed daily visits to museums, libraries and academies (those cemeteries of wasted effort, calvaries of crucified dreams, registers of false starts!) is for artists what prolonged supervision by the parents is for intelligent young men, drunk with their own talent and ambition."

More excerpts from "Manifesto of Futurism" that share the same sentiments expressed by many outlaw MCs, artists, and nonconformists, and done so in manner that was/is meant to shock and not be politically correct:

  • Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
  • We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
  • Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.
  • We want to glorify war -- the only cure for the world -- militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
  • We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.

A proposal for the design of my MC colors for The Curators of Riverside:

  • Top Rocker: The Curators
  • Middle Logo: Half of an apple joined to half of an orange, alluding to the phrase "apples and oranges" that is employed when acknowledging that two disparate elements have been forced into a comparison, but in this case, the forced juxtaposition is embraced as it generates new meanings, none of which is the absolute correct one
  • Bottom Rocker: Riverside
  • Patch #1: MC
  • Patch #2: Infinity symbol, ∞, in order to represent engagement with ambiguity of meaning when analyzing objects, events, or people.

Some rules:

  • All colors will be handmade and hand sewn in order to emphasize the rule of the hand over the machine; individual expression over crowdsourcing and polling.
  • Cut-sleeve vests will be made from discarded painted canvases obtained from trash bins behind art schools.
  • Every club discussion or challenge to an outsider will center on two questions: What is the context in which the object is situated or an event took place? What is the apparent intention of the object's maker or the event organizer / facilitator / instigator / agitator? 

Hell's Union: Motorcycle Club Cuts as American Folk Art is on view through December 8, 2012 at UCR ARTSblock, and dialogues with the concurrent show, In Their Prime: Photographs of Racing Car Driver Legends from 1960.

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