When we think of tattoos, often times one of our first associations is with bikers and motorcycles, and the motorcycle that we think of first is usually the legendary Harley-Davidson. ‘Harley Davidson’ — America’s symbol of the road. And for many a potent symbol of freedom. No less so than some peoples consideration of a tattoo as an expression of personal freedom. It’s no accident that tattoos and bikers are intertwined in the public’s imagination.
Harley owners aren’t buying the best motorcycle in the world, they’re buying the rugged and masculine Harley mystique, the ‘easy rider’ legend with its worship of American individualism, complete with its bad boy connotations, its rebel macho image. The Hell’s Angels love their Harleys. The ‘underground’ associations with Harley Davidson contributes to the myth, sometimes with negative consequences to the brand name.
If you’re sporting a ‘Harley Davidson’ tattoo, you likely own a Harley. While the name can be incorporated into any graphic arrangement of eagle, wings and wheels, the standard ‘bar-and-shield’ logo that appeared in 1910 is still the defining symbol of Harley Davidson to this day. While the logo depicts nothing in itself, it invokes a myth that’s summed up in the philosophy ‘Live to Ride, Ride to Live’. The Harley is also unique in the way it has been altered and customized over the years by its owners. Like tattoos, a Harley can be made into a very specific expression of its owners vision of what a bike should be, a one-of-a-kind individual expression of motorcycle art.
Nobody buys a Harley specifically for its performance, such as its 0-60 acceleration. Technical stats aren’t as important to the Harley owner as participating in the mystique, which is comprised in no small way by the bike’s unique sound – ‘potato-potato-potato’. Speed is good, but the way it growls upon take-off, the way the low-end torque ‘gurgles down in your groin’, as one observer put it — that’s what gives the Harley its all-important ‘feeling’ of power. Other bikes may claim superior performance, but heads don’t turn to Japanese bikes as they do to a Harley when it rumbles away, exhaust pipes snapping, cracking and popping the Harley symphony. The sound of a Harley is so synonymous with the brand that at one time the company tried to copyright it!
William Harley and Arthur Davidson came up with their first prototype bike in the early 1900s. You had to peddle it uphill. In WWI, the company provided over 20,000 machines to the military forces, and by 1920 was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. The tear- drop gas tank appeared in the 1920s. To crank up sales during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the company added the Art Deco eagle to that gas tank. The bike earned a patriot reputation when Harley gave over its entire production to the cause of WWII. But it wasn’t until Hollywood deployed the Harley in a raft of outlaw biker gang movies in the years 1950-70 that the bad boy image became firmly established.
For Harley insiders, the name and winged logo inspires an astonishing devotion to the Harley cult, which includes a certain dress code and occasional rituals such as cruising in packs. The brand name implies a counter-culture lifestyle that’s designed to exclude more people than it includes. While Harley owners may like their ‘Harley’ T- shirts, when the company came out with Harley aftershave, they turned up their noses en masse. The company quickly realized they were messing with a powerful icon.
Harley-Davidson tattoo designs usually make heavy use of the HD logo, but you will also frequently find patriotic design elements and symbols such as the American Bald Eagle and the Stars and Stripes of the American Flag. Other popular design elements are engine parts like spark-plugs, pistons and connecting rods. And in an homage to the biker philosophy of ‘Live Fast, Die You, Leave a Good-looking Corpse’, many tattoo designs feature skulls, a stark reminder that life is transitory and short. Ride while you can!
Get inspired by some great images and tattoos in our Harley Davidson Tattoo Gallery