Mutant Bike Gangs of New York

Tall-bike clubs live free, ride high, and don't want your stinking logo

He spoke with a woman there who put him on hold several times. "I did get the sense from them that there was this, 'Oh my God, what just happened?'" said Darko. "They didn't know what they were getting into."


The New York Police Department declined to comment on the case, but Brooklyn Industries' marketing assistant Allison Grenewetzki explained that employees had noted "growing chatter" about the graffiti online.

The Black Label Bicycle Club is virulently anti-consumerist; its riders recycle everything from bike parts to vegetables. They pick through dumpsters for communal vegan meals. And they don’t (usually) talk to the press.
photo: Ray Lewis/fleabilly@mac.com
The Black Label Bicycle Club is virulently anti-consumerist; its riders recycle everything from bike parts to vegetables. They pick through dumpsters for communal vegan meals. And they don’t (usually) talk to the press.

Suckapants, a blog run by photographer Tod Seelie of Bushwick, focused on the ethic of tall bikes. "Yeah, I am pretty damn suspicious of this one, especially if the bikes aren't functional," Seelie wrote after the Brooklyn Industries hit. "Then they are just decorations trying to align a commercial establishment with a piece of radical, and currently attractive, subculture."

Seelie, 27, is an avid cyclist who over the years has befriended members of tall-bike clubs through Critical Mass rides and while studying photography at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. For the last three years, he has photographed the Brooklyn chapter of Black Label.

"To use tall bikes in a window display seemed shallow," Seelie tells the Voice. "Tall-bike gangs have a very heavy base of anti-consumerism. They live in warehouses, and all their clothing could fit into a tall duffel bag. A lot of them are dumpster-diving people. The idea is to avoid consumer waste."


Seelie says he initially suspected someone from the bike gangs of vandalizing the windows, but the groups turned out to be as surprised by it as he was.

Michael Green, a film technician, filmmaker, and keeper of the BikeBlog (bikeblog.blogspot.com), also weighed in. Green, 35, who lives in Williamsburg, is a self-described fan of tall bikes who taught himself to build them in 2000 for Critical Mass rides. He says he once built a tall bike for C.H.U.N.K. "I'm not affiliated with any group but I am friends with a lot of people in those groups," Green says of his association with mutant-bike clubs.


C.H.U.N.K. 666: You can’t buy a tall bike, but you can build one.
photo: Marko Bon

When Green theorized on his blog that Black Label may have made the tall bikes used in the Brooklyn Industries displays, James "Stache" Mulry, a member of the New York chapter, quickly fired back.

"Black Label would never commodify bike culture," wrote Stache on BikeBlog. "In every event we have held or participated in, Black Label has encouraged the reuse of discarded goods. We have never sold a custom bicycle, nor will we ever."



Riding tall bike with armor on - Chunk 666
photo: Marko Bon

Soon enough, the guy who had made the tall bikes got sick of being a whipping boy for the blogs. Wayne Heller, who works on design, signs, and window displays for the company, now says point-blank, "The bikes were never intended to be sold." Heller explains that the displays were part of a charity initiative the company has forged with Recycle-a-Bicycle, which teaches kids how to make and fix bikes. According to Brooklyn Industries' website, the company gives $2 from each messenger bag it sells to the Brooklyn-based nonprofit.

Sounding like a man on trial, Heller argues that his tall bikes are rideable, even if some lack brakes. "I do not believe they should be considered unfunctional because they lacked a part that could be attached after completion," he says. Heller, a cyclist himself, took the criticism of his workmanship personally. "When we worked on these bikes," he says, "it was not meant to be commodification. It was meant to be homage."

But to the riders, that supposed homage seemed more like yet another attempt to sponge off the bikes' potential for helping to build a cool brand.


In the last few years, tastemakers have begun calling on Black Label and C.H.U.N.K. Rumor has it that Rolling Stone and MTV have asked Black Label members to cooperate for feature stories, only to be declined. Darko says magazines such as GQ, Details, and The New York Observer have contacted C.H.U.N.K., and no wonder. The club's beer-soaked signature shindig, the Chunkathalon, has one event called Flaming Bikes of Deth. It involves draping chicken wire with rolls of kerosene-soaked newspaper, adding firecrackers, then hauling the exploding rig around on a cycle. On a quieter day recently, club riders saddled up and tried to eat a hot dog at every Gray's Papaya—a mission Darko says was foiled by widespread nausea at the 11th location. They're friendly to reporters, but usually say no. "C.H.U.N.K. has no interest in commercializing bike culture," Darko says.

Some members of the mutant-bike community were understandably mystified when the Brooklyn chapter of Black Label, which normally shuns the press, agreed to be appear in B.I.K.E., a documentary directed by Jacob Septimus and Anthony Howard, and produced by Fredric King of Fountainhead Films.


The film, as yet without a distributor, chronicles co-director Howard's desperate attempts to be invited to join the gang, even as he craters into drug and alcohol addiction. B.I.K.E., set to screen at New York's Bicycle Film Festival in May, is less a definitive portrait of Black Label and more a depiction of Howard's quest. The directors give us pageantry-filled shots of Black Label riders at night, decked out in dark cut-off jackets. One member, Mesciya Lake, stares down the camera while also reveling in its gaze. "Black Label is not for the media," she says. Other riders, their faces smeared with greasepaint, engage in tall-bike jousting, a game in which two players wielding well-padded lances try to topple each other from the bikes.

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