Published: October 27, 2010
Grown men in leather, dirty beards and fingerless gloves riding Harleys aren't always as grizzly or as grimy as they appear.
Some could be criminal lawyers, anesthesiologists or marketing gurus in boots flaunting vicarious thrills on drop-dead expensive bikes, with their trophy blondes and Bloomfield Hills houses in the rearview.
But this writer grew up around true-grit bikers, guys who wore rockers and rolled patches; guys who belonged to 1-percenter motorcycle clubs. Guys with "M/C" patches on their backs so you knew exactly who you were dealing with. These guys weren't the casual cruisers, they are, often, truck-stop bruisers.
American Motorcycle Clubs go back to the Depression era, but it was the 1947 Hollister, Calif., clash between the Boozefighters ("a drinking club with a motorcycle problem") and the local fuzz that changed American culture. The event was somewhat immortalized, inspiring Marlon Brando's 1953 film The Wild One — and anything after that involved two wheels and a cigarette. After the Boozefighters fracas, the American Motorcycle Association released a statement claiming that 99 percent of motorcyclists are law-abiding citizens, and 1 percent are outlaws. Hence the "1 percenter" tag embraced by hardcore motorcycle clubs the country over.
In the summer of 1935, a bunch of motorcyclists gathered at Matilda's Bar on old Route 66 in McCook, just outside Chicago. The men entered as unaffiliated roughnecks and left a unified gang, christening themselves the Outlaws.
In 1963, the Outlaws were the first official 1-percenter club east of the Mississippi. Expansion followed in '65, and the club established charters in Milwaukee, Detroit, Cincinnati and elsewhere. By the '70s, the Outlaws were national. Today, they roll throughout Canada and across Europe, from Italy to Serbia, with a strong presence in
Germany. Some claim they're the largest motorcycle club in the world, now that they've rooted in Japan and Australia.
Jim Miteff was a husband, father, biker, businessman and photographer from Detroit. He could build a bike from the floor up before he joined the Outlaws as a founding member of the Detroit charter in 1965. And while some in the gang tucked knives and guns into their belts and boots, Miteff rode armed with wrenches and cameras, even on stormy rides to Milwaukee. The local Outlaws dubbed him "Flash." (That's him with the camera on the preceding page.)
In those days, when the various Midwestern charters were meeting regularly under the direction of the mother chapter in Chicago, the group was without a Detroit clubhouse, so the Miteff's home in Dearborn Heights became a crash pad for Flash's extended family. He documented it all too, beautifully, from the house party comings and goings to the long highway rides, bar nights and courthouse mornings.
For what Miteff's eldest child doesn't remember, his photos filled the gaps: "We constantly had two to 20 Outlaws at our house at any given time," says Beverly Roberts, who only began to compile her father's photos a few years ago. "It was a pretty crazy house. Parties all the time. Somehow [my parents] managed to juggle it all. We were good, educated kids. The guys were rowdy, but they were always extremely nice to my sister and me. I actually couldn't have felt safer. It was one huge adventure."
Miteff's photos of those early days reveal a kind of aimless adventure and misfit anarchy, as these guys were caught between the greaser '50s and hippie late '60s. Flash was there in the very beginning, when they were wild, when they'd wear Nazi garb and touch tongues for reaction.
For Miteff, the adventure lasted from 1965 to 1969 — critical years for Detroit and for the country. He left the club in good standing. But what he documented was pure outsiderist Americana. He knew it too. "The pictures are sacred and he kept them that way," Roberts says.
So it is that Roberts, with the blessing of the club, has published in two volumes her dad's photos. Bringing them to light was an adventure in itself, one that saw her reunite with a somewhat estranged "family" and rediscover parts of herself in the process.
See, reprinting or publishing the Outlaws skull-and-pistons logo is forbidden, or so it's said. To protect club privacy and uphold his sworn oath, Flash made sure his images never went public.
Then, in 2008, Roberts compiled negatives for what would be Portraits of American Bikers: Life in the '60s. The Flash Collection. First she started selling prints at biker conventions, testing the market for the photos. Reactions were split. People loved the photos but thought she was crazy for printing and selling them.
"It's not my goal to expose anything about them that they don't want the public to have access to," Roberts says. "I can respect that because these photos were part of my private life for so long — they're like my family photo album. In publishing them, I'm also saying, 'Here's my life, my upbringing, for the world to see and judge.' That's as uncomfortable as anything." (Surely some won't know what to make of all the swastikas, switchblades, bonfires and doe-eyed women.)
Roberts was also selling her dad's prints on the same eBay store where she sold dollhouse miniatures.
People noticed, especially a few members of the Outlaws. Soon after throwing them on the Internet, she was in touch with Jingles, a club elder who handled its PR.
Jingles and much of the old Outlaws guard dug what Roberts was dishing, and these books wouldn't have been possible without his help. Unfortunately, Jingles was diagnosed with throat cancer shortly after getting approval from the club to go forth publishing with Roberts.
> Email Travis R. Wright