As a child, biker gangs always fascinated me. I remember on dull motorway journeys I’d occasionally get excited when a gang was spotted. They would pass in tight formation, hanging onto their tall ‘ape hanger’ bars, showing no care or respect for others. You’d always hear them before you could see them and as they passed, the roar of rolling thunder would echo through the car as each biker, all dressed in black would bolt past. It seemed my BMX would not cut it after such a sighting.
My intrigue led me onto the classic yet controversial novel titled ‘Hells Angels’ by Hunter S. Thompson. To this day an early line would reflect my childhood memory of these rumbling riders. “like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg with no quarter asked and none given”.
Later, I would abandon my BMX to get my own motorbike, however, I was never part of any club or gang. I was curious as a young boy and still am now, maybe it’s my connection to bikes or the appeal of a rouge brotherhood, looking after their own interests.
The Bulldog Bash was an annual motorcycle rally which took place on Long Marston Airfield in Stratford upon Avon. It started with a small group of Hells Angels back in 87’ and had grown into one of the largest motorcycle festivals in Europe. It was organised and policed by the Hells Angels, and drew chapters from around the country to run the event. Every year it attracted around 40,000 people across the four-day event including bikers, motorcycle clubs, and spectators.
For two years I visited the Bulldog Bash to document the event and culture; a rally that is as much about the motorbikes as it is the bash, after all, the slogan boasts ‘Fight for your right to Party’. Sadly, in 2017, the Bulldog Bash came to an end due to the sale of the land. Some of these images made were from that final Bash.
The rally was focused around a quarter mile drag strip, an impressive dual race lane daubed in burnt rubber, where anyone with a motorbike can race as fast as their machine will take them. Depending on the setup of the bike, the sound can be deafening. Bikers wait, as the next pair move forward to do the customary burnout. ‘Burning out’ the tires is crucial to gain maximum grip and optimum acceleration.
A custom bike show showcases all the best bike builds from chromed out choppers to beautifully restored BSA’s, it’s a true spectacle of engineering. For £3 you can view the famous ‘Wall of Death’ show where four stuntmen and women ride the circular wall as they defy gravity. The cramp viewing tent reeks of engine fumes and as they ride by the whole structure vibrates and rattles. Amongst the leather waistcoat and belt buckle stalls are ‘HA only’ tattoo tents and live music bellows from the main arena. A funfair illuminates the evening skies and a 24hr drinking bar keeps the punters hydrated. In the evening when the racing stops, the Adult Zone opens for business and intoxicated bikers attempt hits from Thin Lizzy to Alice Cooper on the karaoke stage.
This project focuses on the people, characters and faces that attend the Bulldog Bash; all of which attribute to my childhood memory of the modern-day Genghis Khan.
Describe what it was like to read 'Hells Angels' by Hunter S Thompson and how his words made an impact on you.
It was good, I admired his courage and had upmost respect for a journalist to put himself amongst a group of people like that. I felt truly inspired and wanted to create work of that nature with that level of access he achieved. Having a keen interest in motorbikes and the culture that surrounded the various scenes also added to the inspiration. Until that point I had my own ideas about motorbike clubs and gangs, and 'Hell's Angels' was affirmation of some of those thoughts but also great to get the fiery details on a subject that would seem completely unattainable as an outsider. As a photographer I've come to understand I'm actually extremely nosey in character and curious about people and their behaviours, so any insight to an organisation that would usually be out of bounds really intrigued me. I look at other work I am now interested in such as Taryn Simons 'An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar' or any of Edmund Clarks work and it's the unbelievable access that not only baffles but interests me.
You describe a biker gang as ' a rouge brotherhood, looking after their own interests,' can you go into further details of specific moments you experienced that brought that concept to life.
From an early age we rode BMX and soon developed a very strong connection between one another. At one point it was all we lived and breathed, we did what we wanted, within reason and when we wanted. Although we would not have any connection to the criminal world, the idea of a tight group of mates who owned their freedom and intentions somewhat is where I draw one comparison. We looked after each other in many ways but our central cause and reason for being round one another was BMXing. When we stopped riding BMX many years later I would come to realise that the actual experience of BMXing itself would be secondary to the brotherhood bond we had developed.
In terms of my own experience with Motorcycle clubs, I can recall a standout event from when I was younger. Whilst studying at University the national news covered a huge story about the murder of a Hells Angel by a rival club member from the Outlaws. The story depicted the Hells Angel riding back from a Bulldog Bash motorcycle rally, when a group of Outlaws came up from behind and shot him in the back of the head with a shotgun, killing him instantly and crashing on the motorway at high speed.
I thought to myself reading the article for the first time, how crazed and wild, yet terribly tragic that scenario must have been. It was around time that I had read Hunter S Thompsons book on the Angels, so that incident seemed extremely vivid and descriptive in how I would imagine the scenario unfold on the motorway, utter carnage.
A few months after that incident I was walking to University, which took me past the Birmingham court house. It was here where the murder trial was being carried out. I had never seen anything like it, the whole place was swarming in Outlaw riders. On all the street corners were Outlaw positioned as lookouts and directly outside the court seemed like hundreds of the toughest looking guys, dressed all in black and wearing their MC patches with pride. They were there supporting their imprisoned friends, regardless of the circumstances, they were there as a united brotherhood.
I was curious and just watched them as they waited. They looked rouge, they looked tough, different haircuts, covered in tattoos, a huge physical presence all added to their image. I plucked up the courage and asked if I could photograph them as they stood there. To be honest, I was pretty nervous, knowing the circumstances. I was soon redirected to the president of the club to ask for permission. As a young 20yr old wanting to take photos of the most gnarly looking guys was somewhat nerve-racking. But I was told not to and that was that, I was not going to argue with them that’s for sure.
How did you seek out who you would photograph at the Bulldog Bash?
It would be a fairly straightforward. A portrait could come from a conversation or I may see something in somebody that I would like to capture. I would constantly be looking for characters with interesting features or somebody who looked like they had a story or two. Most attendees of the Bash were friendly and welcoming. The Hells Angels on the other hand are very difficult to photograph as an outsider. I tried a few times, but swiftly got rejected, so I would avoid them as subjects. I was able to capture them from a distance, but not at close range. It’s understandable really as their organisation has been known to participate in the criminal underworld, so a stranger wanting to take a portrait would raise alarm bells. Clubs like the Hells Angels are built on trust and rely heavily on loyalty, they have a strong and silent bond that comes from years of development and nurturing within a hierarchical structure, so there is no room for any compromise especially when criminal activity has been known to be present.
In what ways did the Bulldog Bash change throughout the years since it began in 87' and ended in 2017?
Unfortunately, I have only been a handful of times in recent years, so haven't had first hand experience of the change. I do know that the event could no longer continue due to the land being sold for development. The main events successe was that it was centred around a 1/4 mile drag strip where bikers could race up all day. This was a major attraction and success of the Bash. Unfortunately in England there are very few 1/4 mile drag strips around that have the capacity to host such an event. Having recently been to a similar rally called the Bullfrog Bash, it was clear this event, albeit very good, didn't have that central attraction that brought so much excitement.
As an artist how would you define risk and reward in the creative process?
I would say, just by putting yourself out there in the first place can generate opportunity to create work you can be really proud of. I used to find approaching people intimidating in itself but once I started seeing the results I knew it was worth it.
To keep up to date on Andy's upcoming work follow along here: