Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune Article from 2000


By Mitch Martin. Special to the Tribune. 
Published: Sunday, September 17, 2000 
Page: 1 

There is no shortage of motorcyclists who see the helmet as a heavy, sweaty infringement on their rights.

Then there are those who turn the helmet into an expression of themselves with the help of the small community of airbrush and freehand artists.

Eagles, shooting flames, pearls, pinstripes, Eight Balls; the selection of the painted motorcycle helmet is as rich and varied as tattoo artistry.

Robby Thompson of Lake in the Hills has three fairly bizarre helmets, including a sort of melted theme to go along with his 1999 Harley-Davidson FLHGCI Classic cycle that caught fire. After rehabbing it, he had the bike and helmet painted to re-create the melted look.

Add to that his helmet with goat's horns and another with cow's horns and you have some real head-turners.

"I do enjoy the shock value of it; that's something to strive for," Thompson said.

The chief challenge in painting a helmet is retaining the symmetry, because it is viewed from all angles. And like a barber cutting hair, it isn't always easy to get all sides to match.

"The first one I did, I threw away. It's a real challenge, but that's also what I like about doing them," said Ed Ciociola, or Scarecrow as he is known on his painting circuit throughout Middle America, from Pennsylvania to Colorado, Wisconsin to Montana. He said he makes yearly stops at the Woodstock Harley-Davidson and Des Plaines Honda.

Artists such as Scarecrow are rare because they can paint a helmet free-hand. Scarecrow is highly regarded, specializing in Eagle, dream-catcher and feather motifs.

"Southwestern and Indian art has become very popular in general and in the motorcycle world in particular, so eagles and feathers are very popular," Scarecrow said.

Scarecrow is known for his ability to draw freehand precisely and for his use of a three-colors-on-one-brush technique.

"It makes the work look very three-dimensional, and it is something that people just seem to be really attracted to," Scarecrow said.

Scarecrow said most people who get motorcycle helmets painted favor helmet laws.

"Just the amount of money they spend on the helmets, I think a lot of them wouldn't do it if they didn't like their helmet," Scarecrow said.

Scarecrow has been a free-hand painter for more than 20 years. He works pretty much full-time painting motorcycles and helmets, though he said he has painted just about everything, from a refrigerator door to an ostrich egg.

But his favorite is the feather-work helmets he paints.

"I've painted hundreds and hundreds. I put black and white on with whatever color they want and it looks three-dimensional, like a real feather. I think people just love them," Scarecrow said.

Thompson said helmets are important for safety, but objects to laws requiring them.

"But I am sort of a different person, so if I do wear one, I am going to have some fun with it," Thompson said.

Most artists who paint helmets are self-taught.

Andy Skic of Skic's Bike Refinishing in Des Plaines said unlike car artists, painters who work largely on helmets and motorcycles (generally gas tanks and fenders) are a much closer-knit group.

"We're just a little more rare. Unlike the guys who work on cars, there isn't one of us on every block, so there isn't quite the same type of competition for customers," Skic said. "I think the motorcycle guys tend to share information and techniques a little more."

Many larger bike shops know of a good airbrush artist. Some Harley dealers sell helmets with semi-specialized factory paint jobs.

Skic said that because there is perhaps only a few dozen airbrush artists in the Chicago area that do motorcycle work full time, they share that information.

"A lot of times it's just `did you see that really cool bike. I tried this technique and it did work. I tried this one and it really didn't.' That sort of thing," Skic said.

Skic said he advises clients to stay away from detailed and representational designs on helmets. Because of their size and shape, they just don't provide enough area for flying eagles or murals.

"I do try to stay away from the realism. It tends to be more costly and it's not worth putting it on a helmet anyway. When it's not on your head, helmets tend to get thrown on the ground, and the work is just more susceptible to damage," Skic said.

"A simple two-tone or some nice graphics tend to work better on your helmet. Save the eagles and the mountain scenes for the permanently mounted parts of your bike."

An easier helmet to work on is the half-helmet, or "skull cap," favored by some Harley riders. However, many of these do not meet federal Department of Transportation safety requirements.

Spencer Young of Spencer Airbrush Designs in Glendale Heights said one of the hardest parts of painting a helmet correctly is leaving enough negative space, the unpainted background.

He said many younger customers fill their helmets with skulls and dragons and all sorts of fanciful objects. Older customers, particularly Honda Gold Wing riders choose pearls, pinstripes and other simple designs.

If there is a common trend on helmets, it is hot orange and red.

"I would say that everyone kind of likes flames. Flames never die," Young said.

Young and Skic are airbrush artists. They said technological advances have improved the quality and diversity of helmet paint jobs in recent years. Advanced paints such as Eurothane-based ones last longer and yet are relatively easy to use. Many airbrush artists offer "lifetime guarantees" against chipping or warping.

Young said the biggest advances have been with spray-bake booths that provide well-circulated air while the helmet is being painted, and a fast drying time mode that allows often for same-day service.

"The finished product is a lot better now. It's going to tend to not peel and remain glossy for a lot longer," Skic said.

Nonetheless, helmet painting is labor-intensive because the visor and other components have to be disassembled for a quality airbrush job. It is not unheard of to pay $500 for a complicated helmet design, though the addition of elements such as a pair of wings or pinstripes can cost as little as $50.

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