The East Bay Rats
1 Apr 2007
My fascination with bikers began in my teens, after my mother told me a story from my early childhood. We lived in Southern California and had a small house in the suburbs. My mother, a pretty, stay-at-home mom, would play with my brother and me in the front yard while my dad was at work. Apparently, a local member of the Hell's Angels took a shine to her, and would ride past every day, circling the block to check her out.
She was terrified. Each time he appeared on our block, she would gather us up, run into the house, lock the doors, and stay inside until he went away. Today I smile imagining such a scene, but the stereotype of bikers as dangerous men lives on.
Fast forward to a hot, sunny summer afternoon in 2006. I'm stopped at a traffic light on my way home through Oakland when I notice a small white storefront with large black letters: East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club. A biker is outside getting onto his bike. I see his jacket - the club name and logo of a rat with wrenches for crossbones. I think of stopping to ask about the club, but the light changes to green, and the moment has passed.
I look up the club and fire off an email asking if I can come photograph them. A few days later, I get a response: "Come on Friday night."
I tell only one friend, who worries about me going there by myself. I go, and stay late into the night, photographing them as they drink, throw flaming axes into a door, and shoot a crossbow into an old car seat propped against the wall across the room. Everyone smokes, and I go home that night reeking.
Until that night, I wasn't aware that the Rats had been the subject of a reality TV show or numerous other articles in magazines and papers. I didn't know they put on large-scale events, such as "Fight Nights" where anyone can step forward, lace up a pair of gloves, and get into the ring to box an opponent. Or cocktail parties where everyone is expected to dress in gowns and tuxedos and drink and party in the grungy clubhouse. By the end of the evening, many of those gowns have been peeled off as some of the girls strip and dance around two brass poles. As a friend of the Rats said to me, "Lots of people sit around and think of crazy things to do. The Rats think of them, then actually do them."
Since that first night, I have been going back regularly. I have been inside their homes, established friendships, and gotten to know them as individuals. And while some people may find it odd that I, as a woman with a camera, would be welcome to hang out with bikers, I think the Rats and I have found a mutual respect. Some of my best shots of them came from my first few nights there, which tells me that they have never been anything but who they really are around me.
My mom would be horrified.