When I think of motorcyclists I picture a bunch of guys with tattoos, wearing black clothes, black gloves, black leather jackets, sunglasses, with long beards, and who belong to a biker club or worse, a biker gang. However, I never saw motorcycles as an art until Michael Cole, mainly known to others as “Copper Mike”. “Copper Mike” is a man who designs and builds motorcycles from scratch by finding old antique pieces and then hand carving them. Then he hammers copper and sometimes blows glass into them to create a functioning work of art. Cole is sort of like the guys on the TV show “American Chopper”, but does it all himself. His shop, called Gravesend Cycles, is located in Lindenhurst, NY.
Cole named Gravesend Cycles after the name of the village he grew up in, in Gravesend Brooklyn, NY. Because of his close ties to Brooklyn, Cole wanted to paint his bike trailer like a New York City subway car. He then commissioned a group of Brooklyn graffiti artists to design the letters of his company’s name, “Gravesend”. He has been building bikes for eight years now.
What makes Cole’s bikes so original is that they tell a story and convey themes that either relates to his life or not.
Cole’s craftsmanship of motorcycles is a mix between the vintage old and the contemporary new. The mechanical and engine parts of his motorcycles are mainly of Harley Davidson’s but all the other components are original. For example, Cole has once used a public school cast bronze door knob as a clutch handle. He also cut a copper fire extinguisher in half and formed a lobster tail to make a rear fender. Cole usually then adds a metal plate or lacquer finishing to the motorcycle body made up of random objects.
“Sometimes an idea just pops into my head and I will get up in the middle of the night, clear the current project off my work bench and start on something new,” Cole said. “When I finish, I go back to the bike I was working on.”
Cole’s bike studio has a beautiful collection of motorcycles that range in price from $40,000 to $200,000. His most expensive motorcycle is called “Steam Punk”, which goes for $180,000, has an 8 ball as a clutch, and has a submarine light as a headlight. His work over the years has been heard throughout the U.S. and Europe. Cole always brings his motorcycles to exhibits around the United States. Many of his motorcycles have appeared in exhibitions in Daytona Beach, Roanoke Civic Center, Miami Art Space, Las Vegas, New York City, to even France and Monte Carlo.
Last year a few of Cole’s motorcycles were well received in the spotlight. Cole began to showcase his works at the P.J.S Exhibition in New York City. Plus his green, platinum, 14 karat gold, copper leaf frame colored bike called “Precious Metal” was used in a photo to promote the release of Lady Gaga’s new album “Born This Way” at the Best Buy in New York City. Cole stated that Lady Gaga was very appreciative of her fans during the shoot.
“She even bought them all Subway sandwiches for their wait!”Cole explained.
Gaga then accompanied his bike on stage in Union Square. The bike also contains a golden leaf on the tank, a battery box covered in leather, and a copper gas tank. Gaga coined Cole’s “Precious Metal”, as a one-of-a-kind motorcycle.
Another one of his bikes called“7 Deadly Sins” was used during a calendar shoot with Coco Austin, Iced T’s wife. This motorcycle has logos everywhere, with the seven deadly sins hidden throughout such as; lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.
At the Artistry in Iron 2011 Las Vegas Bikefest, Cole’s “Steam Punk” bike won People’s Choice Award. He also came in second place for the second year in a row. “Steam Punk” features numerous antique industrial gauges, a fire extinguisher and an old compass located on top of the copper gas tank.
Building motorcycles does not take a day, and not even a week. A lot of times it takes Cole about six months to complete one bike due to hard work, dedication and precision.
An early motorcycle Cole designed represented the theme of his hometown, Gravesend Brooklyn. He made this bike by modifying the motor of a 1972 Harley Shovelhead to fit with 1940s cylinder and cylinder heads. The paint work on the oil tank represents the Brooklyn Bridge. Cole named this motorcycle after the name of his shop and the name of his old neighborhood, “Gravesend”.
However, sometimes there are bikes that Cole’s working on which become put off for a span of time until he gets the idea again to continue building it or starting over. That was the same way for “Coppa Choppa”, a bike that he put off for a while. This was a motorcycle with a frame of a 1939 Harley Knucklehead. He was bending the fender and hammering the copper for days until he stopped. Cole decided to add a customized leather seat and “Coppa Choppa” was created.
Cole also designed a bike for him and his girlfriend. He measured his girlfriend’s butt to make the size of the fender and the seat. This bike called “Daddy’s Caddy” could possibly be an influence of his dad or have a sexual innuendo between him and his girlfriend.
Other motorcycles in his collection consist of “69”, which could be of a World War II influence and is painted white. Cole also has, “Intolerance”, “Nuthin’s Easy”, “Southpaw”, “Flatside Ratride aka Bottomburner”, “Raw Metal”, and “Outta My Way”. He has also modified an old vintage bicycle, added copper to a steel bodied guitar, made a copper clock, and a copper dog tag representing his shop.
Celebrities, collectors and buyers don’t only buy Copper Mike’s bikes because of appearance, but because they also ride well. Making and riding motorcycles is what makes this Cole’s perfect trade.
Cole’s interest in riding bikes started when he was 14 years old during a summer he spent with his cousin Tom. He rode his first dirt bike and was hooked ever since. Cole’s mom did not approve of his interest and thought he would grow out of it. However, he bought his first motorcycle on layaway before he turned 18. When he finally got it, he rode it home.
“After being around bikes for awhile I decided to build one from the ground up. That was over 15 years ago, I learned as I went along,” Cole said.
However, before motorcycles, his creative talent came from his father. Cole’s father worked in the fashion industry and encouraged his son to study pattern making. Cole then went to F.I.T for fashion, beauty retail design, and construction. This was the root of his creativity.
Cole became “Copper Mike” when he first began using copper. Cole was always interested in that element and made his own gas tank so he could use something other than steel.
“I always loved the look of copper, and I was just drawn to it organically,” Cole said adding,“I taught myself how to braise copper and fell in love with the tone and final look of the metal, whether it is patina, polished or a little of both.”
In October he will showcase his motorcycles at the 2012 Artistry in Iron Las Vegas Bikefest as well in the October Issue of Playboy Magazine. Maybe he will take first place this year.
Cole might have future exhibitions to attend, but his major plans are not completely mapped out. Future projects will eventually come when they formulate in his mind. His last project, the steel bodied guitar was an unexpected creation. Besides the fact, that it was not a motorcycle, Cole has never built a guitar in his life nor has he ever played one.
Cole explained, “While antiquing I saw a metal steel bodied guitar. I saw a vision of a copper hand hammered (guitar) and had to build it.”
Cole has turned motorcycling into a beautiful work of art. He is able to recreate the vision in his head and appeal to a large audience. Cole teaches people to look past the metal, past the engineering, and instead look at the soul and character of the motorcycle. People might not know how to ride a motorcycle or even want to, but people sure can now appreciate and respect them.