It’s fair to say that bikes and tattoos go hand in hand, and let’s be honest, a good tattoo can be irresistible when partnered with the perfect leather jacket. But when we look deeper into it, tattoos, bikes and leather have always been partners in crime. So much so, there’s a whole heap of history behind it.
Biker tattoos first originated in the 1940s and 1950s when they were worn to denote affiliation to a particular motorcycle group. Most of the first gangs to really hit the road were made up of war veterans or youths that had troublesome upbringings. Biker gang culture was a brotherhood back then. It was a pact, providing stability and discipline that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
There were role models within the culture early on, too. Take Marlin Brando from the 1969 blockbuster, The Wild One for example. His rugged, no-messing attitude sparked a love for bikes and ink, pumping a violent streak of testosterone through the veins of anyone that was brave enough to join the culture.
Rider-or-die bikers often called themselves the 1%’ers (one percenters) after a comment made by the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) in the early days of motorcycle culture. They stated that 99% of motorcycle riders were good, and only “1%” were outlaws. Those in tattooed-covered biker gangs said that they were in that 1%.
Early motorcyclists were more than happy to be seen as outlaws, with the majority of them receiving a lot of their tattoos in prison. Bikers who were seen with fuzzy, blue tattoos were most likely to have received them behind bars, with the lack of equipment leading to poor artwork.
As the years have passed however, the bad-boy stigma attached to motorcyclists has passed, with a lot of bikers being kind, law-abiding citizens that do a lot of modelling and charity work.
But going back into the history of biker tattoos, the ink has always held an allure for the biker. A good tattoo is their way of expressing themselves and their lifestyle. Some bikers share tattoos with their bikes, as a way of showing which motorcycle gang they associate with. Usually, a tattoo would be connected to feelings of power and speed.
Popular designs tend to lean towards images of eagles, flags and skulls with flames spouting from the eyes. One of the world’s most famous biker gangs, Hells Angels, favour images and text relating to the Harley Davidson motorcycle - these would be skulls with wings, roses and flags. Other bikers opt towards Norse tattoos or fantasy style and mythic creatures. Nude or semi-clad women and vintage pin-ups are also popular, as are spiders, snakes and scorpions.
When it comes to where the bikers would have their tattoos placed, it would usually be on the shoulder because it is more likely to be seen when the rider is wearing a cut off leather jacket. But in all honesty, tattoos can be found literally anywhere. It’s a competitive nature between all invested bikers out there though… The more skin a rider would have covered determines how hard-core they are. So with that being said, it’s not uncommon to see full sleeves, chest and backs decorated with biker ink.
Now, when we’re looking into the vast majority of bikers today, they’re not seen as thugs or outlaws, although a percentage of the subculture will of course include some. But at the end of the day, the fact still remains that there are millions of bikers who love and will die by the culture, and there is a majority that look to it for fashion inspiration. So when looking into whether a passerby really is a die-hard biking chief… Always look at the ink.