As first published in Art Scene, July 2006.
By Tim Schmitt
Inside an Artists Studio on the west end of Snusville Business District, next door to the Hull Avenue Tavern—Des Moines oldest drinking establishment—a trio of tattooed bikers passes a magnifying glass among themselves. They’re examining a stockpile of goods they’ve assembled from personal stashes and fellow members of the Des Moines- and Sioux City-based El Forastero motorcycle club.
Spread out across a large conference table and lining the shelves of the room are dozens of prints, original paintings and pencil sketches from the late David Mann. He was a personal friend of this group of men—an El Forastero himself—and a legendary artist known for his centerfolds in Easy Riders, a magazine that portrayed motorcycles and the biker lifestyle.
Even if Mann’s name is not immediately recognized, his work is. As an artist, Mann captured the spirit of freedom and adventure the motorcycle represents in a way that touched bikers and non-bikers alike. In doing so, his work has become a permanent part of our collective national psyche and a fixture in American pop culture. Anyone who has ever straddled a bike and tore down the road knows his name—or should. But few are aware of his relationship with this band of brothers in Iowa that served as the inspiration for much of his work, or the influence Mann’s artwork had on the world of motorcycles.
“Dave built a lot of bikes with his brush,” explains Moose, a member of the El Forasteros for more than half of his 60-plus years. Moose is also an artist in his own right, who for four decades has been building the low-riding, chopped and dropped bikes now featured on television shows and popular with TV stars and weekend suit-and-tie bikers.
“Before us, there wasn’t anything like this,” Moose says. “There was nothing to see.”
The chopper, recognized by its extended forks, raised handle bars, lowered seat and streamlined appearance, was Mann’s passion long before it was fashionable in Hollywood. He saw his first chopper in California in the early `60s and fell in love. Upon returning home to Kansas City he shelled out $350 for his first bike—a 1948 Harley Davidson Panhead. He chopped it and entered it in the Kansas City Custom Car Show where the judges, not quite knowing how to respond to such a radical creation, created a new category and award for Mann on the spot.
But Mann also carried with him to this show his first bike painting, a piece that he created with watercolors titled “Hollywood Run.” The appearance of this bike and painting at the car show as well as a chance meeting with two outlaw bikers from Iowa changed Mann’s world and the motorcycle world forever.
The biker’s artist
Walking the corridors of the car show that day in 1963 were perhaps the only other two people in Kansas, or the Midwest for that matter, who understood Mann’s creations. Tom Fugle and Harlan “Tiny” Brower, founding members of the El Forastero motorcycle club in Sioux City, had for a couple of years been cruising the river city on chopped machines unlike anything that anyone had ever seen. The bikes’ radical designs inspired fear or passion, loathing or love. There was very little indifference.
So when they saw Mann’s bike and painting among the more common entries in the car show that day in Kansas City, they knew they’d found a brother.
“When we met it was like we had known each other for years,” Fugle said in a eulogy at a memorial service for Mann in 2004. “We had something in common—the chopper. It was something you either know or you don’t know.”
And if anyone knows a chopper, it’s an El Forastero.
In 1962, Tiny and Fugle, realizing there were a number of chopper riders around Sioux City, petitioned the Satan’s Slaves motorcycle club in California for permission to start a chapter in Iowa. The Slave’s laughed at the notion, so Tiny and Fugle founded the El Forasteros.
“The Forasteros has always been a chopper club,” explains Steve Humphreys, a member on hiatus from the club. “You have to have a chopper to get in.”
The club name, meaning “the outsiders” or “the strangers,” was perfect for the club that rode such strange machines understood by so few people.
“It was done out of spite,” Moose says. “The Slaves out of the San Fernando valley said there were no motorcycle people outside of the valley. We were outsiders even in our own world.”
Until this time, Mann’s artwork had focused mainly on pin-up girls and hot rods. But upon Fugle’s and Tiny’s advice, Mann began painting more bike scenes, concentrating on, as Tiny put it, “painting what you see.”
Somewhere down the line, Tiny sent a snapshot of Mann’s work to Big Daddy Ed Roth, a friend of the club and creator of a cult biker magazine called Chopper. Roth eventually commissioned 14 works from Mann, 10 of which were published and lithographed for posters produced through the magazine.
Roth was a shrewd businessman who stamped his own name and copyright on Mann’s paintings in such a way to detract attention from Mann’s signature. Mann received little recognition for these pieces and even less in compensation, but his influence and notoriety spread nonetheless.
Within a year, Mann had joined the El Forasteros as a founding member of the Kansas City chapter. With no formal art training, Mann continued to depict the world around him, sending images of the wild choppers in Iowa and the wild men who rode them to a growing audience around the world. As Mann’s work spread, so did the chopper and the El Forastero influence on the bike world.
By 1965, Mann had taken a job in the mail room of Scheffer Studios in Kansas City, where he befriended Dave Poole, an architectural renderer who recognized Dave’s artistic ability. Poole taught Mann architectural rendering and airbrushing, which Mann used often in his later work. From Poole he learned to represent detail, reflection, exacting dimension and mechanical perspective—all skills that added even more realism to his already lifelike creations.
Mann went on to study surrealism, tromp l’oeil and fantasy at the Kansas City Art Institute where he mastered the use of gouache and acrylics. The effort combined with his talent led some to rightly compare his work to that of other American masters such as Norman Rockwell and Leroy Neiman.
In 1971, Mann responded to an ad in the back of a new magazine called Easy Riders that was looking for a motorcycle artist. The publishers wisely responded, and for the next 32 years Mann created centerfolds for the magazine, drawing what he saw—mostly the El Forasteros in Iowa and Missouri with whom he rode. He retired in 2003 due to failing health.
Though Mann was largely responsible for making Easy Riders a success and for further popularizing the chopper and biker culture, he once again failed to earn proper compensation for his submissions. He never owned the rights to his work, and he profited little, if at all, from the many calendars, prints and other uses of his work that found their way into homes and garages.
History on the basement wall
Looking through Mann’s catalog of work, especially in the presence of long-time members of the El Forasteros, is a lesson in history.
The bikes in the paintings are actual creations ridden by Tiny, Fugle and several other members of the club, most of whom are depicted themselves atop their prized rides. The bike runs depicted and the parties and gatherings are also often real events that Mann saved for posterity.
“These were real things that happened and if he wasn’t there, Tiny would tell him about them and he’d put it to paper,” Moose says.
Steve Humphreys is an El Forastero at heart, but for the time being he’s prohibited from wearing the club’s patch or associating closely with club members due to the conditions of his parole earned after nine years in federal prison. While in prison, Humphreys passed the long hours looking at bikes in calendars and dreaming up the bike that Moose would build him as a post-prison gift.
“That’s how I did my time, thinking about bikes and looking at pictures Moose sent me,” recalls Humphreys, who received permission from his parole officer to meet with his old comrades to discuss Mann’s artwork for this article.
Humphreys first saw Mann’s work as many others did, hanging in the garage of fellow club members.
“I thought, ‘who the f–k is this guy, drawing these bikes?’” Humphreys says.
While doing his time, Humphreys also developed a greater understanding and appreciation of the art behind the creation of a chopper—whether created in Moose’s garage or in David Mann’s paintings. He also recalled the many sketches and original works of Mann’s that were tacked to the wall of the Forastero clubhouse or taped to the wall in Fugle’s basement, yellowing with age. He set about collecting the works, buying them from Fugle or convincing the club to have them framed and mounted for the sake of preservation.
“This was just something Dave did for us,” Humphreys says of the drawings. “He’d sketch this out and hand it to Tom and say ‘here you go,’ and he’d hang it on the wall and let water drip on it for 30 years.”
The thumbtack holes, water drips and circular stains from the bottoms of beer bottles are still noticeable in many of the early sketches, now preserved for posterity’s sake with the images themselves. The Sioux City Art Center displayed the collection recently and, in appreciation of the El Forasteros loaning them the work, had the original paintings and sketches professionally matted and framed.
“I told Tom 30 years ago that it all needed to be saved,” Humphreys says. “It’s nostalgic. It’s history. To me, it can never be replaced.”
The collection Humphreys has assembled is impressive. And he is intimately familiar with the work, carefully pointing out the unusual vertical brushstrokes Mann used to create a fiery night sky in one painting and recalling the real-life identities and histories of the bikes and people in the scenes.
One of the originals now in Humphreys’ possession, an oversized piece called “Tecate Run” was Mann’s second painting. The image depicts Tiny, Fugle and members of the Galloping Gooses and Hell’s Angels with the city of Tecate, Mexico, burning in the background. The burning of the city, whether accurate or not, was attributed to these clubs and contributed to their outlaw standing in the motorcycle world, a distinction these clubs bear with honor.
When the actions of a small group of motorcyclists began garnering a lot of negative media attention in the 1950s, motorcycle sales began to slip. In response, a representative of the American Motorcycle Association publicly proclaimed that 99 percent of bikers were good people and that only one percent of riders were out looking for trouble.
Those few outlaws accepted this designation and began distinguishing themselves as One Percenters, adding a patch to their jackets indicating their proud membership in the elite group. A few clubs—the Hell’s Angels, the Galloping Gooses, Satan’s Slaves and the El Forasteros—share the patch.
Mann was only able to represent these club’s patches in his work because he was one of them—a member who walked the walk. Yet even this was not enough to always keep him from drawing some member’s anger. Around 1975 Mann contributed a painting to Easy Riders called “My Old Gang,” which was a close-up view of the El Forasteros’ Fugle, Grey Cat, Tiny, Skip Taylor and Dan Jungroth.
The painting was unusual in that the focus was more on the riders of the bikes than the bikes themselves. Several Forasteros were not pleased with the unwanted publicity and were ready to rough Mann up a bit to make sure it didn’t happen again, but Humphreys convinced them to let the incident pass.
“This was a real picture of a real scene,” Humphreys says. “The El Forasteros always try to stay out of the limelight. We only ever wanted to be chopper riders and a band of brothers. There were some guys who were pissed off about it. We didn’t want the publicity.”
But times have changed. Thanks in no small part to Mann’s artwork spreading the image of the El Forasteros and their bikes to every corner of the world, the popularity of this style of bike has surged. And with that has come new publicity and even fame for some of the long-term members that was never anticipated.
It’s all about the bikes
While showing off his collection and talking about Mann’s work, Humphreys casually takes a phone call from the Discovery Channel’s Brett “The Big Schwag” Wagner informing him that the channel will be featuring him in an upcoming episode of “Monster Garage Road Rage”—after careful editing of his “colorful language,” of course. And Moose, the longtime chopper builder who influenced Mann, has been featured in an early episode of the show with Jesse James.
But it’s something they all take in stride now. They realize, just as Mann did, that the fame, money and glory are not the goals in creating such works of art. It’s the love of the medium and act of creation itself that matters.
“The things they build [on these shows] today are things I done years ago, and I realize now I’ve been a part of this for 40 years,” Moose says. “And I don’t just build a bike for anyone.”
The difference, his brothers are quick to point out, is that Moose was building these bikes by bending steel over his knee and cutting metal by hand long before million-dollar, computer-driven machines did the work for you.
Though the current popularity of the chopper is due in no small part to the builders who toiled in creating these monstrosities for fellow club members, Moose acknowledges that Mann was an important part of this evolution.
“David Mann had a lot to do with that. I don’t know how many bikes he created with his art,” Moose says, who first met Mann in 1966, only a year after he started building bikes. “A lot of what I tried to do with the bikes, the way I designed them, was based on how Dave painted the bikes to look like they were moving. I tried to design my bikes so that so they looked like they were moving even when they were sitting still.”
Though whether Mann first portrayed the Forasteros’ bikes this way or the Forasteros built their bikes this way as a result of Mann’s work is unknown. It’s likely a lot of both.
The clean lines, flowing frame and intricate paint jobs on Moose’s choppers make the bike appear to be either in motion or full of pent-up energy, ready to explode on the highway at the first chance.
The bike Moose built for Humphreys as his get-out-of-prison gift is classic Mann. He sits low on the seat, arms outstretched to the raised handlebars with custom engravings from some of the worlds most famous bike builders, artists and designers. The bike itself appears to be flying down the highway—even when sitting still.
“This is the same image that Mann painted 40 years ago,” Humphreys says. “It’s a timeless image.”
That’s exactly what Mann knew and portrayed so perfectly.
“Dave Mann changed the way bikes look in this country, but Moose changed the way David Mann saw bikes,” Humphreys says. “Now it has spread everywhere, and they’re driven by everybody, and they don’t even know where they came from.”
But thanks to the effort of this band of outlaws and brothers to save Mann’s work for posterity and share it with a new generation, that may just change.
“Family,” “Comin’ at ya” and “Ghost Rider” courtesy of Paisano Publications, Easy Riders magazine and Segal Fine Art • 800-999-1297, www.motorcycleart.com.