Highway to Heil
How common is Nazi iconography among bikers?
Another day, another photo associating Jesse James with Nazi iconography.
US Weekly released an undated photo on Wednesday of James, former husband of Sandra Bullock, sitting in a car next to a man giving a "sieg heil" salute. Another picture, posted on Facebook by an employee of James's motorcycle company, West Coast Choppers, features the children's book character Flat Stanley dressed as Adolf Hitler. These pictures might be surprising if it weren't for the previously published photo of James from 2004 saluting while wearing a Nazi hat, plus pictures of his former mistress, Michelle McGee, posing with a Nazi hat and swastika armband.
A friend of James explained to US Weekly that the Nazi pictures don't make James a neo-Nazi or a racist, "He's into history," the person says. "The swastika deal is to scare people. It's part of biker culture."
That might be true—if this were 1969. Anyone who's read Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angelsor seen older biker movies like The Glory Stompers (1968) knows that biker gangs would sometimes wear swastikas or iron crosses—a German decoration during World War II.
But Nazi symbolism is a lot less common among bikers than it used to be, says Tom Barker, a professor of criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University who studies motorcycle gangs. "It's really unusual," says Barker. Biker gangs used to roam American highways with all kinds of Nazi insignia—swastikas, iron crosses, SS-style lightning bolts, steel helmets, peaked caps. But that stuff has gone out of fashion in the last decade or two, says Barker.
The main reason: marketing. As motorcycle organizations like the Hells Angels and the Banditos and the Outlaws have established chapters across the world—including Germany, where Nazi symbols are illegal—they've toned down the regalia. At the same time, the Hells Angels—sorry, the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corp.—have become a profitable business, selling merchandise and trademarking their logo. (When Disney used a similar-looking image in the movie Wild Hogs,the Angels filed suit.)
There's always been a connection between motorcycle gangs and white supremacy. None of the five major American gangs—Hells Angels, Banditos, Outlaws, Mongols, and Pagans—are said to allow black people to become members (there's the occasional reported exception), although some have begun to recruit Latinos. And some members sport tattoos that explicitly endorse white power, like the "W" and "P" on the back of Michelle McGee's legs. Some chapters of the Hells Angels have even reportedly linked up with neo-Nazis.
But for most bikers, Nazi iconography has less to do with supporting Nazi ideology than wanting to piss people off, says Barker. Modern American motorcycle gangs started in the late 1940s and early 1950s, just after veterans of World War II brought home iron crosses and other trophies. "One-percenters"—so named in response to the claim that 99 percent of bikers are law-abiding—adopted the Nazi insignia as a form of patriotic rebellion: By using it, they showed their love of country (we defeated the Nazis) and their indifference toward their countrymen (they know it makes you uncomfortable). "This stuff—iron crosses, the Nazi insignia, the German helmets—that's to shock people. To let them know we're individualists," Hells Angels icon Sonny Barger told the Los Angeles Times in the 1960s. "If a Hells Angels guy is wearing Nazi paraphernalia, it's basically their equivalent of sticking up a finger to some middle class family they see in a Volvo," says Julian Sher, a Globe and Mail correspondent and co-author of Angels of Death: Inside the Biker Gangs' Global Crime Empire.
In Hell's Angels, Thompson argues the paraphernalia was mostly to épater le bourgeoisie: "They insist and seem to believe that their swastika fetish is no more than an antisocial joke, a guaranteed gimmick to bug the squares, the taxpayers—all those they spitefully refer to as 'citizens.' … If they wanted to be artful about bugging the squares they would drop the swastika and decorate their bikes with the hammer and sickle."
That's the funny thing about the claim by James's friend that he wears Nazi memorabilia because he's "into history." To most bikers, a swastika is no more about killing Jews than it was about Hindu good luck to the Nazis. It's about being a badass—and that's it. The whole point is that it's divorced from history. The fact that many profiles of James describe the logo of West Coast Choppers not as an iron cross (to which it's identical) but a Maltese cross (to which it's not identical) gives you a sense of how little the history matters. The symbol has become so assimilated that some people just call it the biker cross.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of Jesse James by Jason Merritt/Getty Images for Art of Elysium.