Gibson Studios in Miami, Florida, was one of several retina-resetting stops on the Harley-Davidson “Art of Custom” media tour that I attended this past February. On the second floor of this stark, blue-and-white-striped building located in a gritty, industrial part of the city was a colorful display of custom-painted gas tanks. Some of the tanks were decorated by local artists, such as David Le Batard, aka Lebo. Others, including the Steve McQueen/flat-track-inspired “Petrol Heads” and the DC Comics-themed “Wonder Woman,” were replicas of designs created by actual Harley owners.
Le Batard painted three tanks. Inspiration for his red-white-and-blue Evel Knievel-themed “Good and Evel” was “the idea of individuality and self-definition.” The matte-green, nose-art-esque “Infinite Sky” paid homage to “the aggressive designs of America’s fighter planes from WWII…while celebrating the spirit of the open road.”
Le Batard described to the press how, as an artist, he’d watched Miami “grow up.”
“Artists usually occupy really impoverished places,” he said. “You can get a lot of space for relatively little expense. People get interested in rundown neighborhoods because of the artists. Wynwood, where we are now, is a perfect example of that. About 10 years ago, it was really dangerous. Even during the day, you had to walk with somebody else and be really careful.”
Le Batard was talking about the area’s famous “Wynwood Walls,” which use blocks of windowless industrial buildings as massive canvases for both up-and-coming and celebrated artists.
“When you ride around,” continued Le Batard, “I think your eyes will be opened to something really cool. It takes the idea of an art gallery and turns it inside out. You’re in an environment that is spontaneous and urban but really creative, as well.
Le Batard, who also counts Coca-Cola among his corporate clients, said this project with Harley-Davidson concentrated on the idea of customization.
“As an artist, you are an individual, and as an individual, you want to bring customization to anything you do. In the end, when we talk about being an individual and customization, we’re talking about what it is to be an American. This is the only country that really, really promotes that from its origin—that we are individuals and we have a voice. People want something that expresses who they are in a way that is singular to them.”
So, why did Harley go to all of the effort and expense? Because art and customization are a big part of its DNA—its past, present and future.
“Harley-Davidson is synonymous with art,” said Chief Styling Officer Willie G. Davidson. “Early on, I had an ability to draw. I was forever drawing custom motorcycles and hot-rods. Motorcycles and the world of art have been an important part of my life.
“There are 20 people in my department, and they’re all artists—fabricators, photographers, custom builders, pinstripers. Artists and Harley-Davidson really go hand in hand.”
Where from here for these custom gas tanks? Some may end up in the Harley museum in Milwaukee. Others may be auctioned in support of The Motor Company’s favorite corporate cause, the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Don’t be surprised, however, if one or two end up on actual motorcycles. Harley-Davidsons, of course.