Ride or Die: The Representation of Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs

Hell’s Angels motorcycle club captured by LIFE photographer, Bill Ray, in 1965.

On the West Coast in the 1960’s, outlaw motorcycle clubs started to gain nationwide attention in the media for their illegal and violent actions as a subculture. They were almost always demonized by the mass media and portrayed as a group that should not be messed with. Though this negative media attention was based on truthful acts of violence that the outlaw bikers participated in, oftentimes it was extremely biased or sensationalized in order to appeal to the emotions of the mainstream American public.  As of the present day, the stylistic characteristics of this subculture have been appropriated in mainstream society; the pervading themes of the extreme violence of past media representations have been lessened in exchange for a more family-oriented, sympathetic, and relatable representation in today’s media.

In “The Work of Representation,” Stuart Hall discusses the concept of representation itself, which he explains, “connects meaning and language to culture” (Hall 15). Choice of language plays a large and complex role in representation, as do visual images. The meaning that is constructed by the author is not always the meaning that is taken away by the audience. Additionally, different audiences will interpret meanings differently. Our world is based upon our own construction of meaning, which is influenced by the images and words that are presented to us by news outlets, television shows, books, and films to name a few. While the concept of representation is extremely complex, it is helpful and interesting to analyze a subculture of people, like outlaw motorcycle clubs, in terms of how they have been represented throughout popular media in the past and how we, personally, would choose to represent them in our own creation of media.

Firstly, what exactly constitutes as an “outlaw motorcycle club” and how did this subculture arise in American society? Generally, any group of motorcyclists can come together to form a club but this does not necessarily make them an outlaw club. The nonprofit organization known as the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) has been sanctioning or chartering many motorcycle clubs since it was founded in 1924. The clubs that the AMA did not sanction, which did not abide by AMA rules, constitute as “outlaw.”

These outlaw motorcycle clubs came about after World War II when many returning veterans felt unable to go back to living a quiet life after all of the action and excitement of war.  Some had even been trained to ride motorcycles during their time serving overseas. After returning home, many veterans took to drinking at their local bars as well as looked for hobbies to get their adrenaline pumping again. Many who invested in motorcycles and participated in the outlaw clubs desired to recreate the familiar brotherly bonds that they established between their fellow soldiers during war as well as take part in a thrilling, exhilarating, and risky hobby of riding motorcycles.

This World War II era Harley Davidson ad targets veterans, encouraging them to purchase motorcycles for “thrills.”

Many of the post World War II outlaw clubs actually relished their denial of acceptance by the AMA and took this denial even further by forming, “a loose association of truly outlaw motorcycle clubs known as One Percenters” (Dulaney). These One Percenters considered themselves the one percent of motorcyclists that did not abide by the law. They wore a diamond shaped one percent patch to signify this “exclusive social status” (Dulaney). The main philosophy of these one percent clubs is that the demands of the club always come before the demands of the individual. The “big four” commonly known outlaw motorcycle clubs are Hell’s Angels, Pagans, Outlaws, and Bandidos. All of which are still active today and are recognized as outlaw motorcycle gangs by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These clubs or gangs were, and still are, known to support themselves through illegal activities like drug dealing as well as the trafficking of stolen goods. At their height of notoriety in the 1960’s, outlaw motorcycle clubs were mainly based on the West Coast in California though, different chapters of each motorcycle club were dispersed throughout the country, inhabiting specific zones that they considered their own territory. Overtime, the clubs expanded across the country all the way to the East Coast and now outlaw clubs exist worldwide.

Stylistically, in the past, outlaw bikers usually were easily identified because they wore denim vests with their club’s insignia on the back along with Levi jeans. Contrary to popular belief, bikers on the West Coast did not usually wear leather.; wearing a denim vest was a symbol of toughness since it did not offer much in terms of protecting the skin in an accident. The dirtier their clothing the better and their motorcycles were always their pride and joy. Usually these outlaws rode Harley Davidson bikes, which they “stripped down” enough to still meet inspection requirements. No matter how dirty the bikers themselves were, their bikes were always extremely clean and well taken care of.

Two members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club captured by LIFE photographer Bill Ray in early 1965.

Outlaw motorcycle clubs as a subculture fit extremely well into Ken Gelder’s definition of a subculture in his book, Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice. Gelder identifies subcultures as being “evaluated negatively in terms of their relation to labour,” transcending class, territorialising public spaces, meeting outside the domestic sphere, having excessive behavior, and being deviant from the mainstream (Gelder 3).  Many members of outlaw motorcycle clubs had criminal records and worked manual labor jobs, if they worked at all. In terms of behavior, outlaw bikers were known for their violence and intimidation. Usually bikers would gather at their local bars every night and a few special times a year, like Fourth of July, they would get together for club trips in which they would ride out to other towns and party for the weekend, often scaring locals and causing damage.

Outlaw motorcycle club, Hell’s Angels captured by LIFE photographer Bill Ray in early 1965.

Since the beginning of their formation, outlaw motorcycle clubs have been portrayed almost solely in a negative light throughout the mass media, especially Hell’s Angels. The subculture has been associated with rapes, riots, and town raids throughout news media outlets, regardless of whether it is based on true or false occurrences.  A turning point in the representation of outlaw biker gangs in the media occurred after two Hell’s Angels were accused of raping two girls in Monterey, California in the summer of 1964. The “Monterey Rapes” as they came to be known caused the government to release the Lynch Report, which outlined outlaw motorcycle clubs as a threat to the American public. Interestingly, the two Hell’s Angels who were accused of rape were never charged and released due to lack of evidence. Before the alleged rapes, motorcycle gangs operated under the radar and were not in the public eye but after this outburst of attention in the media, the subculture took on a violent, menacing identity in the eyes of the mainstream public. In response to the Lynch Report, catchy, biased headlines popped up all over discussing the outlaw clubs. For example, titles appeared like, “California Takes Steps to Curb Terrorism of Ruffian Cyclists” in The New York Times in March of 1965 as well as The Nation’s “Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders” in May of 1965.

Two Hell’s Angels in handcuffs in Los Angeles in 1964.

Merely two years after the Monterey Rapes, Hunter S. Thompson’s book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga was published, which detailed his personal experiences with the Hell’s Angels over the course of a year in which he spent time with the club. Thompson’s intimate relationship with the club allowed him to debunk many of the sensationalized stories in the news media as well as pointed out major fallacies in the Lynch Report. As a media representation in itself, Thompson’s book aims to show a more accurate, factual portrayal of the outlaw motorcycle club subculture. It does not aim to portray Hell’s Angels as good samaritans by any means, but it gives the reader a more well rounded view of the club. Thompson often presents stories surrounding the Hell’s Angels first, as they were portrayed in the news media and then from his own perspective and personal research, usually with the use of other testimonies from bystanders. Often, this presents a pretty large gap and points to extreme exaggeration in terms of news media stories.

Hunter S. Thompson’s, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga, published in 1967.

Thompson’s representation of the club in opposition to news media representations’ ties tightly into Todd Gitlin’s discussion of media frames in his book, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making & Unmaking of the New Left. He defines media frames as, “persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual” (Gitlin 7). Basically, the way in which journalists choose to represent a subject can greatly influence mass opinion. The mass media is also obsessed with violence and crime, two things that make outlaw motorcycle clubs an easy target for exaggerated representation in the media. It is easy for the media to convince the public that outlaw motorcycle clubs are dangerous simply by choosing catchy headlines, as Thompson emphasizes.

While Thompson aims to represent outlaw motorcycle clubs in their truest sense, his goal is still to entertain and captivate the reader. The information he provides on the everyday activities, style, and behavior of the club members is oftentimes shocking. Representation of the outlaw motorcycle club subculture through a book based on personal experience seems to allow for an extremely authentic portrayal yet, the reader can only trust the word of the author. Additionally, outlaw motorcycle clubs are well known for their intimidation factor and are no strangers to violence. Perhaps Thompson would not have wanted to say anything negative or against the beliefs of any of the Hell’s Angels for fear of being harmed. He mentions early on in the book that many of the members were skeptical of what he would write about them because they had been the target of so much negative publicity.

Regardless, Thompson writes about specific members of the clubs in addition to Hell’s Angels as a whole. He does not simply stick the entire subculture into one category rather, presents it to the readers on a more personal level, emphasizing that outlaw motorcycle gangs are made up of real humans rather than violent terrorists as they were often presented to the American public by the mass media. A book is an effective form of media in this case because it does not allow readers to jump to conclusions based on appearance. The audience is forming their opinions through written encounters rather than the appearance of a tough looking biker that they see in the news.

How are outlaw motorcycle clubs represented in the media today? While the clubs still exist, they are rarely seen in the headlines as often as they were in the 1960’s.  In fact, Dulaney makes a valid point when he writes, “American society may well regard members of the Hell’s Angels MC more as pup fiction characters than as credible menaces to society” (Dulaney). Perhaps this is because the styles of the subculture have been appropriated in mainstream society through television series, films, and even fashion magazines, making mainstream society unaffected by the real outlaw clubs.

The representation of motorcycle clubs in today’s society is largely based upon clothing that originated in outlaw motorcycle clubs, some of which is now considered high fashion. Denim vests, motorcycle boots, and leather in general is hugely popular in the world of fashion today. Anyone can wear a denim vest with motorcycle boots even if they do not even ride a motorcycle. These styles originated in the motorcycle club subculture for their functionality on a motorcycle as well as to signify that they were a part of this subculture, rather than as a fashion statement as they are in today’s world.

Shot from W Magazine’s, “Biker Chic: Fall 2013” spread

The fact that anyone can dress as a biker in today’s society as well as ride a Harley Davidson calls attention to the difference between groups of bikers and authentic outlaw motorcycle clubs and how they can be misrepresented in the media. Recently, in October of this year a man, was ripped from his car and badly beaten by a group of motorcyclists known as “Hollywood Stuntz,” who are a group of stunt riders that came to New York for an event. Justin Peters writes, “The Stuntz crew has repeatedly been referred to as a motorcycle gang…it’s a term that has nothing to do with the reality of this situation. Whatever the Stuntz riders were, they weren’t a motorcycle gang” (Peters). In today’s society the line is being blurred between what constitutes as an authentic outlaw motorcycle club, which was more straightforward at the subculture’s height in the 1960’s. This misidentification of outlaw biker clubs may be attributed to what the average mainstream sees in pop culture.

A present day media representation of outlaw motorcycle gangs that is extremely influential on the mainstream opinion on the outlaw motorcycle club subculture is the popular television series, Sons of Anarchy This series is a fictional television show based on a fictional California town called Charming. The series revolves around the lives of the members of a made up outlaw motorcycle club named Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original (SAMCRO). SAMCRO runs an automotive repair shop to cover up their illegal firearm business, which financially keeps the club afloat. The series shows the interrelation of different clubs and chapters with one another. SAMCRO is constantly fighting with clubs such as the Mayans, who are in control of neighboring territory. While the television series makes clear the philosophy that the good of the club comes before the individual lives of the members, it also emphasizes the family life of each member on a very personal level. The girlfriends or “old ladies” of SAMCRO members play a very active role in the club whether by doing what they can to help or by keeping club secrets.

While SAMCRO is portrayed as violent and the club makes its money illegally, the audience can still sympathize and identify with the characters themselves. Anything illegal each member does is always justified as benefiting the greater good of not only the club but the entire town of Charming and their families. They even have Charming’s police force on their side, making it easier for the members to stay out of prison regardless of the fact that many of the members have criminal records. Sons of Anarchy pretty accurately portrays the outlaw biker subculture in terms of their clothing, behavior, territorialization of space, and illegal activities though, again this series is created to entertain an audience and to play on the audience’s emotions. In some ways, the series almost glorifies the subculture and makes it look “cool.” With a few exceptions, the club usually gets away with their illegal actions with no penalty from the law.

Many of these violent and illegal occurrences on the show seem to be a little farfetched or impossible to get away with in today’s society. On the other hand, motorcycle clubs such as Hell’s Angels are very much so still active. Recently there was an article on ABC News Australia, in which the sergeant-at-arms of Hell’s Angel’s, Peter Hewat, was recently charged and opposed bail in Melbourne for “drug, firearm offenses and possession of stolen property, as well as making threats” (Bennett). These outlaw motorcycle clubs are still operating worldwide even if the majority of the mainstream is unaware or does not see them as a threat.

For my media artifact, I propose to put together a documentary on the “big four” motorcycle gangs that I previously mentioned. I feel as though we are lacking information and representation on the outlaw motorcycle clubs that are still in existence today. How do the clubs really make their money? Are these clubs still active criminal organizations or are they just remnants of what were once notorious groups of bikers? I want to explore these issues through testimonials and interviews with past and present members of the Hell’s Angels, Pagans, Outlaws, and Bandidos motorcycle clubs.

Present day Hell’s Angels clubhouse in East Village, NYC.

According to John Corner’s, “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions,” I would be constructing my documentary mostly as “journalistic inquiry and exposition.” In other words, I would basically be reporting on outlaw motorcycle clubs using visual evidence (Corner 259).  I want to make this a very personal and intimate look into present day motorcycle clubs, portrayed in the most unbiased way possible. I would detail members’ home life, club life, and work life in order to understand how these different aspects of their lives are connected and how being in a motorcycle club affects these areas of life. I would only choose to use the bare minimum amount voice-over commentary so the audience can follow the documentary but more importantly, letting the visual footage and interviews speak for themselves. The audience should be given the opportunity to form their own opinions based on their observations.

Present day outlaw motorcycle clubs have also been associated with charity events such as toy drives so I would further explore this area in order to make sure the documentary shows outlaw motorcycle clubs in their truest sense. I would have camera crews follow these clubs over the course of about a year in order to see what really goes on behind the scenes. I would try to be as objective as one can be in creating a documentary and would not only show violent or illegal activities but also any activities that showed the clubs in a more positive light, if they partake in positive activities.

Bandidos motorcycle club present day.

According to Bill NicholsRepresenting Reality: Issues and Concept in Documentary, “style is not simply a systematic utilization of techniques devoid of meaning but itself the bearer of meaning ” (Nichols 80). In other words, every stylistic choice in a documentary contributes to the meaning that the audience takes away. Additionally, Nichols discusses the hierarchical aspects of the choice of interview itself.  He writes, “A specific agenda comes into play and the information extracted from the exchange may be placed within a larger frame of reference to which it contributes a distinct piece of factual information or affective overtone” (Nichols 53). Though it may be impossible to construct completely objective, unbiased interviews, it is important to take into account that the audience will form their opinions based on information that is emphasized and information that is absent.

Since their peak of infamy in the 1960’s, outlaw motorcycle clubs have been the topic of news headlines, television shows, and books. While the subculture was once considered a dangerous, terrorist group throughout the news, their representation in today’s media has shifted considerably. After slowly being appropriated into the mainstream, outlaw motorcycle clubs do not have the same shock value as they once did. The clothing they wear has become clothing that is easily accessible to the mainstream and they have even become the subject of a hit television series. Outlaw motorcycle clubs have gone from being seen as a true threat to society to desirably dangerous in mass media today. There is little focus in today’s media on what these clubs are truly like in the present day. A documentary that unveils the real, uncensored lives of outlaw motorcycle club members would be an interesting addition to the discourse of the subculture.

Written by Brittany Welch

Works Cited

Bennett, James. “Police Oppose Bail for Hell’s Angels Sergeant-at-arms Peter Hewat.” ABC News. N.p., 19 Nov. 2013. Web.

Corner, John. “Performing the Real.” Television New Media (2002): 255-69. Print.

Dulaney, William. “A Brief History of “Outlaw” Motorcycle Clubs.” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies (2005): n. pag. Web.

Gelder, Ken. Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Gitlin, Todd. The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making & Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California, 1980. Print.

Hall, Stuart. “The Work of Representation.” (n.d.): 15-74. Print.

Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. Print.

Peters, Justin. “Yes, “Motorcycle Gangs” Still Exist. No, They Didn’t Attack a Man in New York.” Slate Magazine. N.p., 2 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.

Sutter, Kurt. Sons of Anarchy. Fx. N.d. Television.

Thompson, Hunter S. Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. New York: Ballantine, 1988. Print.

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