Exhibitions » 2019 What's the Skinny?


The 2019 "MAA” exhibition at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip


This year’s annual "Motorcycles as Art” exhibition at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip explores the "Skinny” motorcycle style. "What’s the Skinny?” features bikes that are light, lean, look fast standing still and are the stylistic opposite of the very popular 26” wheeled, thousand pound custom baggers that have their own (and very different) place in the motorcycle world.


With the resurgence of skinny-style customs about a dozen years ago, I became fascinated with bikes that seem to do more with less. Smaller engines, less bulk and less weight means faster and more nimble rides that are refreshing, fun, and a completely different aesthetic.


Skinny bikes aren’t new, as the earliest motorcycles (often based on bicycles) at the dawn of the 20th century certainly fit the bill. No sooner had motorcycles appeared than riders were racing them and for board track racers "Skinny” meant fast. Bikes started putting on weight in the 1930s (a 1928 Harley-Davidson JD is 90 pounds lighter than a ’36 Knucklehead) and then after WW2 and into the 1950’s, as motorcycle touring grew more popular, we saw the advent of "Full Dressers”. Adding creature comforts like full suspension, plush saddles, big fenders, windshields, and saddlebags meant increasingly heavy bikes, which we now refer to as Baggers.


Skinny bikes survived as race bikes, race-inspired production bikes and café racers and then in the 1960s, stylish and skinny choppers and show bikes began to appear. Bay Area Diggers like those from Arlen Ness were the skinniest of all. Arlen prided himself on his stretched, spare and light Jim Davis frames made from thin 5/8” chromoly tubing to which Arlen added his faceted tanks and tails and then ran on slender tires.


The 1980s saw custom bike wheels, engines and bodywork get bigger and bigger so that building to the millennium, we saw fat tire choppers and baggers dominate the scene. Manufacturers raced to bring out bigger wheels and tires each year, but something was brewing underground. Skinny garage-built bikes, harkening back to those earlier styles, started to emerge again in the mid-2000s. Perhaps it was the economic crash that had everyone tightening their belts and rethinking what is important. A new energy went into this counter-culture skinny style, but no matter how crazy they seemed, these creations, at least at first, were built more for "Go” than "Show.”


One thing I love about the re-emergence of skinny bikes is looking at them from the back; straight-on with their thin tires, clean lines, narrow primaries with exposed chains and handlebars barely wider than their slim tanks. These days, the style is being pushed to the limits with jewelry-like details that add personality and style, linkages you desperately want to play with, and curvaceous hand shifters, controls and motor mounts you want to touch. These characterful elements all add up to reveal the builder’s nature and really, the nature of an emerging generation.


Rather than dictating what these Skinny bikes and related art for this exhibition should look like, I didn’t lay down strict rules or parameters. For the builders, there were no rules on the type and size of tires, no limit on how small the fuel tank had to be nor a maximum width for the handlebars. Each builder’s inclusion was based solely on past bikes they have built and their interest in this aesthetic. For graphic artists, I sought out those whose work demonstrated a refreshing quality of line, subject matter and technique that suggests "skinny.” The pinstripe artists are among the best out there, since by definition the fine lines they lay down are skinny. In the end, once the builders and artists accepted my invitation to participate, they had to decide for themselves what Skinny means and how they would interpret it for this exhibition. As with all our past "Motorcycles as Art” exhibitions, it is up to the artist’s and builder’s peers, the general public and the motorcycle press to judge how they’ve done.


- Michael Lichter (exhibition curator) March, 2019

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