You're driving down a long stretch of highway on a clear summer day, when you hear the sound of distant rumbling. It's not a pop-up thunderstorm, but a posse of a few dozen bikers, coming up behind you in the rearview. But how do you know if you're dealing with a group of weekend warriors blowing off steam between shifts at the office, or with a show of force by a motorcycle gang like the Hells Angels? One way is by looking at the "colors" that the bikers have sewn to the backs of their leather or denim jackets.
In the wake of a small 1947 riot involving bikers at a Hollister, Calif., rally, the American Motorcyclist Association released a now-famous statement. Ninety-nine percent of motorcycle enthusiasts were average citizens having a bit of fun, the AMA said. Only a small 1 percent was responsible for problems like what happened at Hollister. Once these "outlaw motorcycle gangs" (OMGs) began forming over the following decades, they embraced the 1 percent label, and began calling themselves "1 percenters" and wearing a diamond-shaped patch that said "1%" usually on their jacket lapels [source: Thompson]. The "1%" patch was one of the earlier forms of motorcycle club colors -- elaborate sets of patches and designs that bikers wear to make their affiliation with one club clear.
Before Hollister, the original outlaw motorcycle gang, the Outlaw Motorcycle Club, wore patches on the backs of their workman's coveralls as far back as the 1930s. These were not the elaborate designs that clubs use today, but simpler patches with the club name [source: Dulaney]. Over time, the patches began to evolve. The Outlaws, taking a cue from a Marlon Brando movie, started wearing a logo they called "Charlie," a skull and crossbones design with the crossbones replaced by pistons [source: Dulaney]. From there, colors became more and more commonplace among biker clubs.
Today, club colors are powerful symbols of OMG identity, a way to brag about affiliation and warn rivals to keep their distance. Recreational clubs that don't engage in criminal activity often have their own versions of colors, too. But this article will focus on the outlaw gangs, and how they use them. Read on to learn more about how motorcycle clubs use their colors to keep control of their territory, keep members in line and intimidate their enemies.
What motorcycle club colors represent
Just like urban street gangs, outlaw motorcycle gangs use their colors to make their affiliation public to both fellow gang members and rivals. Sometimes, OMGs even have actual colors to go along with their "colors." For example, Hells Angels wear red, and members of the Vagos Motorcycle Club wear green [source: Pugmire]. Motorcycle gangs are extremely territorial of what they consider their turf. They use displaying colors as a way to define that turf. In the 1980s and '90s, war waged between the Hells Angels and the Mongols for control of Southern California. When rival gangs like these tussle, they will try to remove and destroy the colors of their rivals by force [source: Glod].
If a gang member shows up in the wrong turf wearing rival colors, they have the choice to remove their colors, or face violence from the ruling gang. That's because wearing your colors in rival territory is seen as either a threat, or an all out declaration of war. For example, when the Black Pistons MC opened a chapter in Portland, Maine, in the 2000s, rival gangs swarmed the town. In this particular case, no violence erupted, but Hells Angels rode through town and loitered on the streets just to show their colors and make clear that the Black Pistons weren't welcome [source: Hench].
The OMGs don't hand out colors lightly, either. They can only be worn by fully initiated members, not by casual allies or even allied gangs. In order to earn the right to wear their colors, prospective club members have to go through a long, grueling initiation [source: Peirce]. "Initiates" have to do the bidding of all other club members, which could include anything from mundane tasks like laundry or cleaning up after gang members' messes. Of course, it can also involve criminal activity like stealing bikes or proving themselves in fights with bikers from rival clubs [source: Peirce].
Once members earn their colors, the patches themselves are considered almost sacred. OMG bikers pin their jackets to their clothes so that the colors attached can't be left behind on accident, or pulled off easily during a fight [source: Peirce]. Anybody who tries to leave an OMG, or who gets kicked out, has their colors revoked -- by any means necessary, including violence and even murder. Even group members' tattoos are enforced. Members have to get clearance from club leaders before they can have emblems tattooed on their bodies. If they ever want to leave the gang, they have to have the tattoos removed first [source: Peirce].
What do the symbols mean?
Club colors themselves can be extremely intricate and detailed. If you look at the back of an OMG member's jacket, you'll see three (sometimes four) patches highlighting:
- The club's name, usually spanning the top
- The club's logo or emblem, in the center
- The chapter location, on the bottom (e.g. Chicago)
- Sometimes, distinctions and accomplishments (surrounding the colors)
Logos or emblems are the primary symbol of the club, and are probably what most people picture in their head when they think of colors. These are the colorful and sometimes-frightening patches usually depicting a monstrous or demonic figure. The Hells Angels' famous emblem is a skull with wings, wearing a motorcycle helmet [source: Thompson]. The Outlaws have "Charlie," the grinning skull with crossed pistons [source: Serwer]. The Vagos MC use an image of Loki, the Norse god of mischief [source: Hume]. The Pagan's symbol is a colorful fire god invented by one of its founders [source: Peirce]. Usually, colors are meant to project a fearsome image, but, there are some exceptions. For example, the Bandidos' logo, according to legend, is based on Fritos' Bandito mascot. In Australia, the logo of the Finks is a grinning court jester holding a bottle of beer underneath his bulbous red nose.
Colors also frequently contain some sort of motto or slogan. The "MC" contained in many OMGs' colors simply stands for "motorcycle club." The Pagans' colors have the initials GFPD, which stands for "God Forgives, Pagan's Don't" [source: Peirce]. Bikers also wear smaller patches around the colors, or on the sleeves or lapels of their jackets to represent various accomplishments or ideals. Although, these might seem like dubious distinctions to some people. A patch with the number "13" shows that a biker likes to smoke marijuana [source: Thompson]. (M is the 13th letter of the alphabet.) Different colored wings supposedly represent various sex acts the biker has performed. However, according to some writers, that association is actually based on rumors spread by bikers to gullible journalists [source: Thompson].
Colors are so important to the identity of the outlaw motorcycle gangs, that some of the larger clubs like the Hells Angels, Mongols and Outlaws have actually filed and received copyright protection for their colors. For example, the word Mongols written in an arch in sans serif type is trademarked by the gang. Or at least it was until 2009, when U.S. prosecutors successfully filed suit to have the Mongols' copyright revoked, a serious blow to the group's morale [source: Goldman]. That case proved what bikers already knew, that colors are the most important symbol a gang has of their identity.
- Dulaney, William L. "A Brief History of 'Outlaw' Motorcycle Clubs." International Journal of Motorcycle Studies. Volume 1. November 2005. (May 10, 2011)http://ijms.nova.edu/November2005/IJMS_Artcl.Dulaney.html
- Glod, Maria. "Life in the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang." The Washington Post. June 16, 2010. (May 10, 2011)http://voices.washingtonpost.com/crime-scene/maria-glod/life-in-the-outlaw-motorcycle.html
- Glod, Maria. "Va. Indictment Against Biker Gang." The Washington Post. June 15, 2010. (May 11, 2011)http://voices.washingtonpost.com/crime-scene/virginia/va-indictment-against-biker-ga.html
- Glover, Scott. "U.S. Targets Bikers' Identity." Los Angeles Times. Oct. 22, 2008. (May 10, 2011)http://articles.latimes.com/2008/oct/22/local/me-mongols22
- Goldman, Abigail. "Violent Biker Gang Stripped of Emblem." Las Vegas Sun. Oct. 24, 2008. (May 10, 2011)http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2008/oct/24/violent-biker-gang-stripped-emblem/
- Hench, David. "Heavy Police Presence Aims to Avert Biker-Gang Violence." Portland Press Herald. July 2, 2002.
- Hume, Elizabeth. "Vagos Fights Outlaw Image." The Sacramento Bee. Sept. 25, 2004.
- Peirce, Paul. "Inner Workings of Pagan's Motorcycle Gang Slowly Being Revealed." Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. July 4, 2009. (May 10, 2011)http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/valleynewsdispatch/s_632301.html
- Pugmire, Lance and Amanda Covarrubias. "22 Motorcycle Club Members Arrested in Raids in 5 Counties." Los Angeles Times. March 10, 2006. (May 10, 2011)http://articles.latimes.com/2006/mar/10/local/me-vagos10
- Serwer, Andrew E. "The Hells' Angels Devilish Business." Fortune. Nov. 30, 1992. (May 10, 2011)http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1992/11/30/77184/index.htm
- Thompson, Hunter S. "The Motorcycle Gangs." The Nation. May 17, 1965. (May 10, 2011)http://www.thenation.com/article/motorcycle-gangs
- U.S. Department of Justice. "Outlaws Motorcycle National President Sentenced to 20 Years in Prison." April 8, 2011. (May 10, 2011)http://www.atf.gov/press/releases/2011/04/040811-doj-outlaws-motorcycle-national-president-sentenced-to-20-years-in-prison.html