By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
They were meant to be edgy advertising, those tall bikes towering in Brooklyn Industries windows, but somebodyor somebodiestook their presence personally. The bikes, each essentially a pair of ordinary cycles stacked into a single ride six feet high, had been in the clothing stores for less than a week when a saboteur etched a protest in acid.
"Bike Culture Not for Sale," read the runny white lettering found February 23 on the glass at the four Brooklyn Industries outlets in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The Park Slope store's assistant manager, McKenzie Rollins, first spotted trouble when she came into work the morning before and found someone had messed with the gate locks overnight. "They looked like someone had inserted somethingmaybe a screwdriverto screw them up," she says, folding a retro '80s T-shirt with a cut-out neck. "We had to buy new locks."
The next morning, McKenzie found the graffiti. "They knew it wouldn't come off," she says. "This was malicious. They could have left a note. They could have gotten in touch with us about their concerns." But who could be so enraged by using a bike to pitch hipster duds? Another saleswoman suggested something curious, that it was local members of something called "tall-bike culture."
Mutant bikers, went the prevalent speculation, had just been heard. New York's leading tall-bike gangs, Black Label Bicycle Club and C.H.U.N.K. 666, are dedicated to fashioning "mutant" bikes from discarded scraps and spare partsfor love, not money.
Among their ranks are students, professors, artists, political anarchists, and assorted white-collar types. Formed in Minneapolis, Black Label is virulently anti-consumerist; its riders recycle everything from bike parts to vegetables. They pick through dumpsters for communal vegan meals. New members join through a lengthy courting process. The less clandestine C.H.U.N.K. 666, formed in Portland, Oregon, welcomes into its fold all who express a genuine interest in building and riding mutant bikes. C.H.U.N.K. also hosts bike-building workshops for kids.
Neither club is easy to reach. Black Label's one-page website features a dated flyer for an event called "Bike Kill" and a general e-mail address.
The website of an art collective yields the e-mail address of a Black Label rider. A friend of someone in the club passes along the e-mail address and cell phone number of another. Four days pass and no one writes back or calls.
A Web search turns up the direct e-mail address for "the Smelter," from C.H.U.N.K. 666's New York chapter. Finally, the Smelteralso known as Kansascalls from a friend's funeral in Chicago. After mentioning that the club has talked it over, he gives the cell phone number of fellow C.H.U.N.K.ster Marko Bon, who goes by the name of Darko.
Who tagged the Brooklyn Industries windows? "I straight-up don't know," says Darko, sitting in a Spring Street bar. "C.H.U.N.K. is not particularly aggressive in that sort of sense." Between sips from his beer mug and with a perpetual grin, he deconstructed the depiction of all mutant-bike club members as anarchist, anti- establishment renegades.
"I'm definitely part of consumerist economy," says Darko, 30, a chisel-fea tured creative director for the Ralph Lauren website who lives in Manhattan. "I don't think that earning a living is counterintuitive to making a bike."
Bike culture talks back.
photo: Brooklyn Industries
Darko says the primary objective of C.H.U.N.K., which currently has 20 members, is to take to the streets with people who love building bikes, and to show others they can live in an urban environment as cyclists. C.H.U.N.K's New York chapter typically rides together once every two weeks, in packs of about eight. Darko says kids sitting on the stoops in Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant hoot and holler as they pass. "There's a real energy from people when they see us ride by," he says.
Businesses hoping to cash in on the cachet of mutant bikes could never grasp the kinship of the clubs, Darko insists. "The essence of any bike group is based on the fact that when you're riding these bikes, because they are made haphazardly, they break down. So we're always stopping and helping each other fix the bikes. That's where the camaraderie comes in." The name "C.H.U.N.K." isn't an acronym but instead a reference to the pieces of tubing, machinery chains, aluminum siding, and other scraps riders weld together. The New York chapter has a work space called the Shack, near the clattering J tracks in Bushwick, where some members also live. "When you're riding a bike and somebody says, 'These bikes are great, can I buy one?' The answer has always been, 'No, but you can make one,'" Darko explained. "And if they're interested, they can come to the Shack and we can build one together."
Darko first learned of the tall-bikes flap at Brooklyn Industries stores from a private listserv dedicated to mutant-bike clubs. He said, "My feeling was, why are there tall bikes in the windows? It is so unnatural to build these bikes for any type of profit." He immediately called Brooklyn Industries' Williamsburg office to inquire about the displays.