Categories: Features

Skidmarks – I Am This Motorcycle

Only in America do we put our expensive cars in the driveway so we can fill our garages with useless crap.

How do you tell your motorcycle story?

Every motorcyclist has his or her story. It starts with what inspired them to ride, then the harrowing first-ride tale, then that heady discovery of the freedom granted by their first motorcycle. There’s the recounting of adventures, then the realization of danger – usually accompanied by tales of injury and other mayhem – and how the rider either quit or scaled down to a sustainable level.

Photographer and storyteller Jean-Philippe Defaut decided to lay his story out for all the world to experience as a visual, tactile exhibit. It’s called “I am this Motorcycle,” and he invited me to come see it last week.

The show, at San Francisco’s Heron Arts gallery, uses photos, artwork, artifacts, books and, yes, motorcycles to tell the stories of riders from all over the world. The show isn’t about looking at cool stuff – though there’s lots of cool stuff, including a gorgeous Norton Atlas racer and a signed photo from Evel Knievel – it’s about examining what makes motorcycles interesting and valuable to people.

Beautiful Norton Atlas roadracer embodies the raw, essential spirit of motorcycling.

“I’m interested in telling people’s stories,” the British-born (to French parents) Defaut told me. He’s good at it, too: he’s worked for decades as a portrait photographer. You’ve probably seen his photos in the New York Times and other places, and he’s been working in branding for 20 years as well. Five years ago, he started work on this project, mainly “to explore my own curiosity.” After shooting riders in New York, London, Paris, Portland, Los Angeles and San Francisco (where he moved recently), he put together displays of all the ephemera – books, clothing, photos, mechanical bits and pieces and other items – that tell his motorcycling story.

Defaut also used his considerable talents as a photographer to tell the story of riders and their motorcycles, displaying them with the other items. His subjects are varied: men, women, American, English, French, but their passion and interest in motorcycles is universal.

He’s also gotten some of his friends to display their favorite motorcycles in the show, from a gleaming BMW R69 to Ezikial Decanay’s not-so-gleaming CB550. The battered and much-loved 45-year-old Honda is described as “a gun slinging, whiskey drinking, dirty old girl,” by the owner. “She’s bare bones and just wants to go.” A ’70s-era Harley chopper crouches in the center of the show, stark contrast to the clean and polite ’60s Honda CB77 against the wall, the same bike Robert Pirsig rode on his trip across America in his world-changing book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s parked neatly beneath a shelf of vari-colored copies of the book. “If you haven’t read it, it’s not too late,” admonishes a sign next to the books.

Defaut contemplates his stuff… and his life on two wheels. Photo by Jennifer Winfrey

He’s planning on taking the show to other cities, including Los Angeles, New York and eventually Europe, and is working on a book as well. But I’m not here to tell you to go see the show (though you should, if you have an opportunity). I’m here to tell you to make a show of your own.

If you’re like me, you have piles of stuff that has no value or use to anybody but you – but tells the story of your motorcycle-riding life. That means you can’t throw it away, and nobody but you understands why.

Looking around my office, I see my old First Gear Kilimanjaro jacket that kept me dry through so many San Francisco commutes. I’ve worn it once in the last 10 years, but I just can’t get rid of it. There’s a fragment of the little fairing from my old BMW R100S, recovered after I crashed my bike on nearby Mount Hamilton in 1995 (Defaut also crashed up there and like me, enjoyed the in-flight morphine service on the helicopter ride to San Jose, which he is still paying for). There’s a quartet of trophies from my last season of roadracing that were won in such a non-competitive way I’d be embarrassed to tell you about them in detail (one involved beating grown men riding XR50s), and the alternator cover from local racing legend Frankie Mazur’s Interceptor 750 – he passed before I could sell it for him on eBay.

Yes, it’s all the same book. Defaut buys copies of Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance whenever he sees one and hands them out to youths he meets through his Stay Curious mentoring program. Somehow, this book is better when it’s a beat-up, second-hand copy.

And there’s more. Photos of my girlfriend and me saddling up to ride to Oregon on our motorcycles, long before marriage and mortgage and baby. Special tools from three or four bikes ago that are as useful now as a shrimp fork at a bar mitzvah. My copy of Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and armor from jackets and trousers long gone. A poster of Angel Nieto riding his Derbi 50 to a victory in the 1970 Dutch GP. I’m starting to think I have more stuff that I don’t need than stuff I need, which must be in the psychiatric literature somewhere as a symptom of something. Hopefully, it’s treatable.

My closets and bins of stuff tell of a quarter-century of fun, failure, hope and injury, the stories of friends gained and lost, experiences won and then forgotten. How will you tell your story? Telling our stories helps us move on. It helps us start new ones. Keeping our stuff doesn’t drag us down – it gives us somewhere to stand.

Tell us your stories.

Gabe Ets-Hokin is an interactive app available for Android and iPhone. The app will only work on the HTC Dream and iPhone 2.

Gabe Ets-Hokin

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Gabe Ets-Hokin
Tags: artgabe ets-hokini am this motorcyclejean-philippe defautmuseumphotographyskidmarks

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