Chopper Dave - Sinner Extraordinaire

Published: 04 June, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 177, October, 2009

Chopper Dave (Chopper Daves Casting co.) is a West Coast legend, and a guy that does it all; Asides from build complete motorcycles, he manufactures cast aluminium, and cast bronze motorcycle parts, and some accessories. 

 

He does miscellaneous motorcycle fabrication work, writes for a handful of different motorcycle magazines such as the Horse, Hardcore Chopper Japan, Old School rods, Hardcore Chopper Deluxe, and also shoots photography of motorcycles and or girls and has a healthy interest in tattoos and tattooing.

We visit Dave at his Long Beach garage, to find a laid back guy that stays out of the TV show driven glitz, and seemingly minds his own business, but put him on the topic of bikes, girls and tatts, and his absolute love of all three is barely concealable when he talks. Checkout his blog to see more of his kickass work: 

www.chopperdaves.com/

 

How long have you been doing the bikes for?

Twenty years, for a profession - on some level, twenty years. I bought a fucked up BSA chopper from a buddy of mine, when I was 18 and it was all downhill from there.

 

Where did you grow up?

San Fernando Valley, just north of LA.

 

What kind of place is it?

Have you seen the movie Valley girl? That valley - that’s where I grew up.

 

Describe your youth.

I don’t know…I went to private school; I was planning on being a psychology major, until I dropped out of college to work in a motorcycle shop. It was good, I spent a lot of time listening to punk rock and riding skateboards.

 

How did you learn how to fabricate parts?

I was working at the shop in the parts department, then I took over as the parts manager, at Vic’s custom cycle in Reseda California, then I went to the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute to factory motorcycle mechanics training, I was at that for 14 months in Arizona. I got back from that in
‘91, where I went to work full time at the same shop as a mechanic.

 

Did you have an apprenticeship?

No, not really, you probably should, but too many people get into it thinking you can get into it when you just can’t. I was working under a guy who is still one of my best friends, Dana, who pretty much taught me 90% of what I know. He taught me repair work, all the junk that the lowest guy on the totem pole does at the shop.

I was there for four years and went to another shop, when I got into a motorcycle accident and destroyed my ankle, completely. An old man in a van made a left turn in front of me, the standard way, - the guy on the motorcycle gets wiped out.

I didn’t work for a while after that, but at that point, opened a small shop in the valley myself where I was doing the fabrication stuff, built a couple of bikes, I chopped tops on a couple of cars, I was doing miscellaneous car stuff the whole time too. I was always involved in the whole 50s kustom kulture scene. I then had three failed surgeries on my ankle.

 

How long were you out when you busted your ankle?

I wasn’t doing anything for just under a year. I was in a cast for five years.

 

Holy shit!

I raced twice on a drag strip in a cast, I got hopelessly hooked on painkillers, went to rehab, when I was I was rehab my old boss called me and said ‘I need a mechanic, do you want to come and work for me? ‘ So I went back to work him, the whole shop thing when you are on drugs is a bad idea, so I went back for two years, which was killer ‘cos I was the head of the shop at the back which was nice.

That was when Jessie asked me to work with him, and I was on the TV show with Jessie James to go to Sturgis, and started working for him for 2 years later for four years. I left there in ‘05, and here I am now!

 

What is the appeal of bikes?

Oh I don’t know! Pretty much, it just consumed everything in my life for the past 20 years. I wouldn’t know how to live my life not connected to it somehow. As much as I can’t stand the industry and most of the stuff that is out there, and the people that are building bikes that shouldn’t be, everything I do on some level has to do with motorcycles.

 

What do you dislike about the industry?

Everything. The crass commercialization of the industry.

 

When did you start seeing that happen?

After the guy I worked for started it, basically, which was Jessie from West Coast Choppers. That is pretty much how it started, and he was the one that caused the TV shows.

For some of the people who haven’t seen the show, can you tell us what it is?

He did a show called Motorcycle Mania, which was a chopper building show, it was the first thing to show chopper building in a different light. It was an older “biker perspective”.

 

Does it equate to more business for you?

As much as I think it has just opened the door for people who are just in it to make money, which I understand, - I mean, everyone has to make money, -but so many people are into it, who aren’t in it for the right reasons. They think they can get into it, get rich quick, cos you just can’t. There are million shops that can put together a motorcycle for you, but as soon as they break, no one knows how to fix them.

 

Who do you respect in the industry?

That’s a tough one, ...no one? I respect the company S & S, I built a bike for them two years ago which debuted in Japan.  I respect a lot of the smaller shops that are still doing it the way they love doing it, and I respect the people that were doing it twenty years ago that will still be doing it in ten years from now, when this is all dead. As much as I don’t really care for a lot of the stuff that those guys are building, those are the guys that started it for all of us. It’s not really my deal, but I can appreciate that they were doing it, and will keep doing it.  Guys like Cole Foster, Jeff Decker, Jeff Wright, and Roland Sands, guys who come at it from a pure “motorcycle” perspective. Guys that love it for what it is, who would be doing it no matter what.

 

And for you, what makes a good bike?

That’s a tough question, cos I spent years working on nothing but vintage bikes. And then got really obsessed with the vintage chopper, early chopper, Bob-job, Bobber type bikes. It’s hard to say, there are so many different types of things that I like. I grew up being a Harley only guy, and I’m really not a Harley only guy anymore, I'm just a motorcycle guy now. I love period correct stuff, when it’s older stuff, 40’s and 50’s custom stuff. Like my Knucklehead that I built is spot-on correct, early 50’s, the Panhead I built, is pretty much late 60’s, early 70’s style, although it is updated here and there a lot. At the moment, I’m over the chopper thing, and building a street tracker style bike.

 

Do people commission you, or do you make the bike, and then sell it?

Either way, I’m doing a bike build for a customer right now, and I’m doing the frame for the bike, and the whole thing. A lot of the bikes I have now are bikes I’ve built myself for whatever reason, but a couple of those are for sale. But I don’t really build for other people per se, I build it and if someone likes it, that’s great. But I don’t build to please anyone else.

 

And you race as well?

A couple of times, a handful of times a year- I don’t do it very often. I’m going to race this weekend, at the Speedway night, or Harley night at the Costa Mesa speedway. The bike that I’ve been riding on the street for a while which is basically a glorified flat track bike cause I built it to race in 2004, but then I took it apart and painted it all, so it is like a done bike now.

 

Can you describe the event?

Well I’m going to go out and try and put Roland Sands into the wall! It’s a small dirt track, like a small flat track type track. It’s not like real sanctioned racing, but it’s fun, I have a couple of guys, we all have real flat track bikes, a bunch of us are running race bikes on some level. I have a Yamaha TT500 that one day we will all get back together.

 

What kind of bike do you ride to get from A to B?

It depends; I ride Suzuki 2001 TL 1000 S Street Fighter every day. Its fast, it always runs, it handles great, it stops great, and it’s the ultimate around town, shitty traffic bike. And it will do 160.

 

Is there a Los Angeles scene?

There is a big chopper “ scene” with the stuff that myself and my friends all like. We all pretty much build the same style of stuff, we have all shifted a little bit from the strict period chopper stuff to the more functional chopper stuff cos we all tend to ride way too hard, and way too fast all the time.

 

Can you describe your club?

It’s a t-shirt club, or a family club, it’s not a MC like the Hells Angels, it’s not that kind of club. It’s a bunch of guys that get a long together, and have bikes and whatever. We don’t do anything, we are just good friends. There will be a ton of us down at the races, cause a bunch of us are all going to race, we have a club 4th of July party, Revolution Mother played last year, we do a bunch of stuff like that.

It’s not a club you can go out and join, we are just super good friends; I have known a handful of these guys for the last 18-20 years.

 

How have you seen the industry change over the years?

It’s gotten bigger and flooded, it first started getting crazy in the early 90s with the first real chopper craze, and we thought it would die down. Then it got a little worse then it didn’t - then all the TV stuff happened, and it exploded. And it became too big for itself. It changed…it stopped being about heart, and loving what you are building and riding, to all about money. All these people getting into it, and cashing in on it, and they are not coming from the right place.

 

Where do you see it going?

I don’t know. Right now the economy is so shitty so a lot of those people are going out of business. I think that isn’t great for them, but I just assume that the Chopper outlaw culture will go back underground a little it. The flip side of that is, if it wasn’t as big as it is now - there are lots of people making crap, but there are lots of people, like me, making a living off it.

 

What are your current projects?

I’m trying to sell stuff right now…I’m building an XR 750 inspired Evolution Sportster- that’s really it. That is my next project.

 

How long does it take to actually make a bike?

It depends, the bike I put together for S&S took about three months, but that is pretty much all I did for three months. It seems to be, we are all building Sportsters right now, the smaller bike that Harley makes, cos they are a lot of fun to ride. I’m doing a couple of other vintage projects. I try and keep the bike builds to one at a time for someone else, I don’t have the time and lose my ass building for other people cos I put too many hours in. 

 

How do you divide your time though, with all these projects you have?

I don’t know. I don’t feel like I accomplish anything most of the time! I try and keep on top of the parts and the manufacturing. I have to keep on top of the writing that I am doing to get it in on time, trying to shoot as many naked or half naked girls as I can. I’m not the best at time management!

 

Do you distribute mostly here or overseas?

Both, I have a Japanese distributor; it’s been great for me. We have a following there, I mean I sold 100 shirts there in one day!  I have a handful of foreign distributors, some in England, I don’t like shipping to Germany cos it gets lost, and they get mad really fast if it isn’t there in ten minutes.

I do a bunch of custom work; I do the bike parts, the air cleaners, the foot pegs, the custom buckles, and a ton of different stuff.

 

Of all the bikes you have worked on, what has been the one that you are most proud of?

My knucklehead. Building that thing and making it run cause the motor has got two front heads and I fabricated a bunch of stuff from scratch. I had a bunch of people that should’ve known better tell me that it wouldn’t work, and it worked. I’m happy about that.

 

So you’ve been going overseas to bike shows?

Yeah I’ve been to Japan six times, four times for Mooneyes, and two times for Cool Breaker, which is also in Yokohoma. Mooneyes Yokohama is the greatest motorcycle/ car show I have ever been to in the world... in my life. It is unbelievable on every level. The quality of the stuff there, the people, all of it, it is awesome. It is gigantic; there is so much amazing stuff out there.  The blue bike went to Japan in 04, the X-wedge, that one went there in 07.

 

How do you describe the Japanese attitude towards the scene versus the American attitude? 

Here it’s all about winning something, build your bike to win the show, or beat this guy, it’s not really like that. Yes, there are trophies in Japan, but these guys are building this stuff cos they love it. Their focus isn’t on winning something, cos when it’s like that, it changes the way you do it.

It’s about what you love in your heart to, I need to build this a certain way, to beat this certain person and to win this award, it changes it, and takes a lot of the soul out of it. 

 

What do you write about for the magazines?

I do bike features, I also do editorial, on stuff that I like and don’t like. Really depends, I write about what I want to write about. I’ve done features about bike shows and different bikes, and stupid shit that I’ve done

 

What US shows can you recommend?

There aren’t any!

 

Really? There has to be one!

Paso Robles, but that stopped two years ago. Bike shows? I mean, really honestly, who is reading this?

 

It’s a UK audience.

Oh god. Daytona or Sturgis, just cause that is the last real tradition for that stuff, they are still racing in Daytona thank god. They still do hill climbs and the short track flat track in Sturgis; that is the real history of it. But for the most part the bikes still suck. I mean I’m still saying that from a purest anti- high money builder deal. Y’know? I worked for a high money builder for four years. I’ve done that, and I’ve seen it but it just isn’t my deal.

 

How about the photography?

I really only started last year, I mean, I have been taking pictures for years, mainly bikes shows for years and years, but I borrowed a camera off a buddy of mine, took it to Japan with me in 07 and it kind of grew from there.

 

I have to ask you about your tattoos! When did you start getting tattooed?

Two days after I turned 18. Got a shitty rattlesnake on my back.

 

How many different artists have worked on  you?

Honestly? A ton of them, but recently I have finally been getting work by some killer people, Eric Maaske (may he RIP), Tim Hendricks, Mike Stobbe, Vicky Coleman, Randy Muller…  All the shitty old work is on my arms; you can’t see the good stuff!

 

I like your corn!

I got that in Iowa. Thank you.

 

Are these guys your friends?

Yeah, it depends, a lot of the time they are friends. In my opinion Tim Hendricks is the best tattooer in the world. He can do anything and he is beyond talented, and he is a friend of mine…so I can get him to tattoo me when he is in town!

Mike Stobie is a good friend of mine; I traded some work on his bike for it. He has been tattooing for twenty years in San Diego.

Eric Maaske was a good friend also who did the super traditional work on me, before he died. He is the one who did my logo, the flags that I use, and the winged wheel that I use for my business logo.

Vicki Coleman, she did the devil riding the bike on my back. She did my Friday the 13th tattoos- the guy walking under the ladder and opening the umbrella in the house. She did my nut too, as well as the giant Koi on my left leg. They are all friends.

I know so many incredible tattoo artists that I don’t need to go anywhere else, Scott Sylvia is a friend, and we are all connected somehow.

 

What did Tim Hendricks do on you?

We had friends in common way before the TV show deal. He did the Wall of Death tattoo on me first, after I rode it in ‘02.

Do you know what it is? It’s a big, barrel basically about 26-30 foot across? It’s a big barrel basically that you ride on a motorcycle around the outside of the wall, vertical. He did Loud Fast Rules on my back, and the pin up girls on my legs.

 

Is there still a major connection between bike and tattoo culture, or not really?

Ugh, yeah~ it’s connected but it not what it used to be. Tattooing isn’t an outlaw thing anymore, and the motorcycle subculture isn’t a subculture thing anymore. They have both gone mainstream, which has made them not so connected anymore. It’s still there, I mean people still get Harley tattoos, but it’s not what it used to be.

You don’t look at a guy with tattoos and say ‘That guy is a biker’ cos there are no bikers like there used to be bikers. But, I shouldn’t say it’s not connected cos bikers still get tattoos…

 

What do you think of girls with tattoos?

A girl with a traditional Japanese body suit fucking rules, but girl with a ton of random shit everywhere…it does or it doesn’t it all depends. I like girls with super traditional Japanese work.

Ok cool, n back to bikes, what’s a piece of advice you got when you were learning to build bikes that stuck in your memory?

It’s only a motorcycle, is not smarter than you. What I have learned over the years is that you can do anything and make anything work if you have the right way of looking at it, and the right resources to do it.

 

What are the main difficulties in building a bike?

Depends on what you are doing. Something that has never been done, or hasn’t been done the way you want to do it for forty years it makes it more difficult, but for the most part, everything has been done before on some level. Probably the best thing to do is know your own limitations, and knowing when to ask for help.

 

What is the actual process?

It really depends, the S & S bike, they contacted me to say, ‘Do you want to do this bike, to debut the motor in Japan?’ …Sure I’d love to, I’m not going to turn it down. Once I got a mock up motor from them, we had to build a frame for it, cos it is different from a Harley frame. I pretty much knew how I wanted to do the whole thing, and I worked front to back.

A lot of people start with drawings, and blue prints, -which you can do, and I could’ve done, cos I knew what I was going to do, - like a early 70s Frisco style club bike style, and I wanted to stick with those design parameters, and that’s about it. And it worked, and I wasn’t too sure if it was going to until I was pretty much done with it. It depends what you are building and what your goal is with it.  

 

How about plans for the future?

I would love to go back to just restoration work, back to building 30’s, 40’s and early 50s stuff but no one wants to pay for it. But that is probably the stuff that I love more than anything else….

And if I could only get on an Unlimited Class race plane pit crew….

 

Credits

Text Maki Photography: Kelly Lind

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Skin Deep 177 1 October 2009 177
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