Everyone says Copenhagen and Amsterdam are bike cities, but what about Marrakesh?
London-based Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj tapped into the bike culture of Marrakesh in his latest series of photos, Kesh Angels, on display at the Taymour Grahne Gallery in New York until March 8. Hassan’s version of Hell’s Angels comes from a personal tale: He once worked on a photo shoot in Marrakesh in the 1990s. Everything about the shoot was foreign—the photographers, the clothes, the models. Nothing was actually Moroccan. The artist’s latest shoot can be interpreted as a response to whatshould have happened back in the 1990s: A super pop North African photo shoot with everything that nods to local tradition fused with a twist – from the polka dotted abayas to the camo djellabahs. The photos here capture Moroccan girl bike gangs with smug looks, intimidating sneers, and badassness short of a rock video. They’re not “real big gangs,” of course. The girls are the artist’s friends, who usually paint henna tattoos on tourists in the main square; but you still wouldn’t want to run into them in a dark alley. These girls are tough, speak up to five languages, and are full-time moms who work ten-hour days. I spoke with Hassan about bike culture in Marrakesh and his definition of badass.
VICE: How did you come up with the idea to photograph your friends this way? Hassan Hajjaj: I’ve been working in this way for years now. I want to show something particular to Marrakesh, and to show that even though we have different cultures and religions; we share a lot in common as people. There is a group of women who work painting henna in this main square in Morocco that is popular with tourists. One I know was an inspiration for this series, Karima, she wears a veil and these really amazing textile abayas and djabellas and also rides a bike to work and back, she’s a normal woman who works eight or ten hours a day. She speaks about four or five languages, is a housewife to two kids, [and] built her own house.
It feels like a North African fashion shoot, did you want to honor roots with style? I was working on a fashion magazine photo shoot in Marrakesh in the 1990s when I realized everything—all the models, the photographer, the clothes—were from the west and Morocco was simply the backdrop. From then I said it’d be great to present my people in their environment in their kind of way of dressing, and play with it on a fashion level.
What is the bike culture like in Marrakech? Generally speaking, do bike gangs even exist there? How big are motorbikes? Marrakech is really a bike city; everyone rides them. Women, kids, old men, families, everybody. It’s transportation; it’s really used for work. A few of the bikes in the photos are from friends of mine we borrowed, but most are their own bikes. There are no real bike gangs.
Are your friends often dressed this way? Are these badass, colorful outfits easy to find? Moroccans have a strong sense of tradition and we are a very colorful nation. But I design the outfits: These traditional Moroccan djabellas and abayas and babouche with traditional prints and knock-off brand-name fabrics from markets in London and Marrakesh. I also build the frames for the photographs using products or objects I find in markets: cans of Fanta, tins, or boxes of chicken stock. This came from when I was growing up in Morocco as many things are recycled to be re-used, and this has somehow come into my work. I wanted to use the repetition of labels in a slightly humorous context, often directly relating to something happening in the photograph, but I also wanted to create a repeated pattern in the frame to evoke the mosaics of Morocco in a modern context.
What was the goal of this shoot and what was the best moment of shooting this series? I’m impressed with their strength and really aim to show their independence as normal. If these photos were taken in Paris or Rome I imagine I wouldn’t be asked what is so unique about women’s biker culture.
If you had a bike gang who would be in it? My gang would include women like you see in this series; women who just naturally have this strength, swagger, freedom.
Black Bike Week is an annual bike rally that happens every year in South Carolina over Memorial Day weekend. Up to half a million predominantly African American bikers and revelers descend on the usually sleepy seaside town of Myrtle Beach for several days of riding and partying. Each year the traffic comes to a standstill as the streets fill with brightly customized sports bikes, their riders taking advantage of the state’s “no helmet” law to perform burnouts and stunts up and down the main strip along the seafront.
Hordes of women—known as “huggers”—also flock to Myrtle Beach for the event, hoping to be picked up for a ride, and maybe something more. A girl will often perform the “pillion clapping” move as a passenger—essentially twerking on the back of the bike. Unfortunately, the combination of partying and biking without a helmet isn’t an especially safe one, and every year there are people who don’t make it home. The event also attracts a ton of prostitutes, but more and more women are starting to ride their own bikes and each year an increasing number of female biker gangs show up for the party.
Earlier this week, a video called “Dirty Girls” went viral on YouTube—and not for the reasons you’d expect, given the title. The documentary video, originally shot in 1996 by filmmaker (and then high school senior) Michael Lucid, was released in 2000 and chronicles a group of outcasts, refered to by their tormentors as the “Dirty Girls,” who pride themselves on riot grrrl ethos, being different, and just not giving a fuck. The video focuses on the two leaders of the Dirty Girls, sisters Amber and Harper, who speak clearly and eloquently (as eloquently as an eighth grader can be expected to) about their convictions, while girls in sunglasses and jean jackets talk smack about them behind their backs. Not only is the documentary a perfect time capsule for people who went to high school in the 90s, it also perfectly captures two strong, independent young people speaking their minds and doing their own thing.
When I first watched “Dirty Girls,” I loved it. I sent it around to everyone in the VICE offices, and they loved it, too. We all decided that we really needed to track down the original Dirty Girls and see what they were up to today. It turned to be not that difficult a task. Harper lives in New York City and was gracious enough to visit our offices, where I chatted with her and her sister, Amber, who joined us via Skype.
VICE: When is the first time that you guys saw the video? Harper: Pretty much right after it was made when we were still in high school. Around 2000, he did a screening of it at a gay and lesbian film festival in LA. He had taken it down from an hour to 20 minutes, so that was the first time we saw this short, really well-put-together documentary. We haven’t seen it since then… so 12,13 years or so.
How did you find out that it was taking off online like it has? Harper: A close friend of mine had it forwarded from somebody from high school. Someone forwarded it me and said, “I’m blown away. Oh my god, I love you girls. You’re such strong little ones. So confident. I’m so impressed.” And at that point, there were 2000 views. That was the first day. And then it just went from there, and more and more people contacted us.
Amber: I only really just watched it again fully yesterday. I felt like I remembered it really well 13 years ago. I had a certain amount of emotions about it at that time and was sure that I would feel the same now. But when I watched it yesterday, it was totally different. It’s amazing to me, because I think it’s a reflection on us and where we’re from. I’m the same person who watched it 12 years ago, and I’m also so different in how I’ve developed and what I think now. It was a completely different perspective. It was the miracle of life. I love it. It’s fascinating.
How do you feel when you watch the video now? Are you proud? Embarrassed? Harper: I’m excited about it. I think it’s great. I remember in the moment feeling like we were given a voice that we didn’t have without that video being shown to the rest of the school. So I felt proud of the commentary then, and I do now too. I’m also just so blown away by the positive reactions from everybody. Just looking at the YouTube comments where everyone is so inspired, impressed by us. That just makes me feel so happy. I think back then we were dedicated to giving people voices that maybe didn’t have them. And I think both of us would agree that neither of us have any hard feelings toward any of those people, the older students making comments about it.
The hemotoxins in a tree viper’s venom attack human blood cells and can result in an agonizing death in less than 30 minutes. The neurotoxins in a cobra bite can kill a person in half that time. So why has Steve Ludwin has been sticking all this lovely snake juice in a syringe and mainlining it for the last 20 years? Because he’s on a quest for immortality. Milking an array of deadly snakes including rattlesnakes and monocled cobras, with a few vipers thrown in the mix, Steve has been injecting what would for any normal human be fatal amounts venom into his body since the late 80s.
The basic principle—laid out by pioneer herpetologist Bill Haast, who died last year at the age of 100—is that regular exposure to the venom develops an immunity. Steve claims to never get ill, and that cobra venom is the ultimate pick-me-up, with effects lasting days after injecting, making Steve stronger, faster, and more resilient. And now, it looks like mainstream scientific research might be catching up.
THE RAVING OUTLAW BIKER-DRUIDS AND THEIR 1575-YEAR-OLD KING
Visit Stonehenge on the summer solstice of any year and you’ll see 20,000 people partying in and around the ancient rock formation. The crowd is usually made up of around one third tourists, one third pilled-up teenagers in sportswear, and one third neo-druids. It’s a genuinely bizarre sight. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy chewing my own face off at archaeologically significant sites as much as the next guy, but in a time when British disobedients seem to spend more time in police kettles than they do in squats, you have to wonder how all of this is, y’know, allowed.
Turns out, it has to do with the guy pictured above, who used to be the leader of an outlaw biker gang, but now claims to be the legendary monarch, King Arthur. Arthur, formerly known as John Rothwell, rose to fame in the 90s when he won his case at the European Court of Human Rights to allow open access to Stonehenge for religious festivals like the summer solstice.
Today, as the elected “Battle Chieftain” of the Council of British Druid Orders, King Arthur and his Loyal Arthurian Warband represent the political wing of Britain’s neo-druid community. I headed down to Stonehenge to visit the only living 1575-year-old king.
There is something undeniably American about biker gangs, from the quintessential images ingrained in our mind of the 60s-era Hell’s Angels made legendary by the writing of Hunter S. Thompson and The Rolling Stone’s film Gimme Shelter to DMX’s video for the “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem" where he had all those dudes in baggie jeans riding through the ghettos of New York on ATVs and suicycles.
It’s time to add one more motorist collective to that pantheon of rebels on wheels: Baltimore’s Twelve O’Clock Boyz. They’re a hundred-strong gang who wheely dirt bikes through a city where police are banned from chasing them, creating an illegal underground sport that the cops are powerless to do anything about.
For the last three years, filmmaker Lotfy Nathan has been documenting the Twelve O’Clock Boyz for a new film called Twelve O’Clock in Baltimore (trailer below), which is now ready for release at the end of this year. I spoke to him about the gang.
VICE: Hey Lotfy. How did you first come across these guys? Lotfy Nathan: I saw them first in passing, actually. I think a lot of people in Baltimore see them tearing through the city, and most people don’t really know what the whole thing’s about. It’s assumed that they’re pushing drugs on dirt bikes—like a pack of dealers, or bandits, or something—which is kind of ridiculous, because these bikes are incredibly loud and attract a lot of attention, which is not what you want if you’re selling drugs.
Very true. What made you want to make a film about them? Well, I didn’t know if it would actually be possible to contact them at first. But I asked around and found out where they congregated and they were actually really receptive to being filmed. I hadn’t really connected the showing-off element of the bike riding to what they might be like in person before, but it kind of made sense. A lot of the guys are going for a YouTube celebrity status, so they were all about the camera.
Photo by Noah Rabinowitz
I read about the weird situation with the police and the riders. Could you explain that a bit? Basically, the bikes are illegal to ride in the city, but the police aren’t allowed to chase anyone riding them, so they leave them alone. It’s because of a death that occurred in 1999, involving a dirt bike rider when, allegedly, a police officer was giving chase. It’s just too dangerous to chase the bikes. That then creates this awkward cat and mouse thing, because the police are being taunted.