Bikernet Blog Search Bikernet
Ride Forever -
Sunday Edition

The Artist-Ones Hit the Road

Chris Callen and His Band of Bikers with Easels

By Tyler with photos from the Cycle Source Band of Bikers

Share this story:

They pile into vans with their equipment and hit the road in search of the next show. They perform live in front of crowds. Venues request them for major events. This group, unofficially known as the Smoke and Mirrors Guild, take their craft seriously, pouring their heart into each stop on their tour. Through all the excitement, they scrape through their travels and get by on the day-to-day.

The Guild lives the rock star lifestyle as much as any band. However, they carry canvas and palettes instead of six-strings. They are artists- ones that have spent lives entrenched in the motorcycle industry and spirit. They extract it from themselves through painting, enamel, and other visual mixed media.

Chris Callen, painting to relieve magazine deadline pressures.
Chris Callen, painting to relieve magazine deadline pressures.

“Imagine trying to get this shit through T.S.A.,” griped Chris Callen of Cycle Source Magazine. The reference had obviously been to his many oil paint tubes and airport security tyranny. He impatiently unloaded the trunk of his rental. “I always check that stuff now. They act like its plastique explosive or something.”

I contemplated his dilemma while I silently compared the resemblance of his collapsible painter’s easel to a rifle bipod. The party at Willie’s Tropical Tattoo of Daytona had been going on a couple hours now, and it looked like he expected to be early. I grabbed a bag and we greeted a sunny day at Bike Week. Callen’s mood instantly changed as he set up his canvas.

Seth Leibowitz working on my favorite painting displayed here.--Bandit
Seth Leibowitz working on my favorite painting displayed here.--Bandit

When Chris Callen, Seth Leibowitz and Darren McKeag start to paint anything, people watch. As I wandered the spectacle of Willie’s Tropical Tattoo at Daytona, there were many sights and smells of creativity. Alone, next to blaring speakers of blues band, Callen laid down his first layers of another tribute to our culture. The audience watching the guitar solo faced the audience of Callen’s paintbrush, like a flying-circus yin-yang. Even with ear-splitting commotion on all sides of us, the silent painting still demands attention of the crowd.

They create art inspired by the moment, and what today’s bike culture actually looks like-- not some black velvet panorama of James Dean and Marilyn parked outside of malt shop. The viewers recognize the tone and style of the art as a snapshot of motorcycle lifestyle.

Callen has his dirty fingers in a lot of pies nowadays. Being Editor in Chief at Cycle Source Magazine and bassist for Big House Pete at the same time is an art in itself, but these things put his previous love for painting on the back burner. Still, he wanted to do more, and the traveling art show blossomed from there.

“When I got back into art it was like I found a lost piece of my soul,” said Callen.

Darren McKeag and Seth Lebowitz are both renowned tattoo Artists in Grinnell, Iowa and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania respectively. They are Callen’s counterparts in the art posse. Leibowitz explained to me the details of how the group came to be.

“I’ve known Chris going on 15 years, back when he delivered Cycle Source by hand. Guys used to constantly come into the tattoo shop asking if the new issue had been dropped off yet. I’m, like, you know we also do tattoos here…” Leibowitz joked. “The culture was evolving, and Chris had the idea with David Mann to create collages of event’s snapshots in Photoshop and then paint the collages on canvas.

The first collage grew out of the Smoke Out rally. We found a picture of a guy spraying accelerant and couple guys from Led Sled kicking a bike. Chris Carr set the land speed record with the bike in the background. Johhny Chop shinned with his banner. They came out amazing, and we hung them in the [tattoo] shop.”

Darren McKeag came into the fold about three years ago, when he met Callen at Torque Fest in Farley, Iowa. McKeag had originally come to Callen about advertising partners for Cycle Source, but has since become a contributor of writing, photography, and, of course, art.

These renaissance men have had a busy few months. Between setting up galleries and shows at Indian Larry’s and the new H-D dealership in New York, Las Vegas, and of course Daytona has left them precious little time for their personal pursuits. McKeag revealed some of the grind Smoke and Mirrors adapts to.

“Some people think it’s always a party. You’re constantly working. It isn’t until after midnight when we have time for a couple drinks or relax, we’re up till the morning, sleep for a couple hours, and then it’s time for the next destination. You’re painting all weekend, setting up your own booth, promoting yourself at the same time, and tearing down and getting back on the road. Then we all have our other stuff. And you’re trying to raise kids back home… But it’s my art. It’s all I’ve known since I was three.”

The foundations of the group are actually super simple, but original- a positive indicator that these shows will only get bigger from here.

“Nothing was about green paper,” declared Lebowitz. “[It was about] educating people through art, because art is such a good teaching tool. When they put their minds to something it happens. It’s about captivating people through art. The focus has gone elsewhere from art in education and culture, and everything really stems from art.”

“People have sort of forgotten the art side of motorcycles,” Callen explained. “That’s really where the whole thing comes from.”

It didn’t sound like it either. The group piled their supplies together and takes off for each location picking each other up on the way. Infamous artists like George The Painter, and the mysterious Jon Towle join them. Good or rough times are had by not one, but all.

“We’re all broke,” said Callen. “It’s hard to make it across the country loading up a bunch of guys and girls into the same van. We’re eating stuff out of crock-pots… sharing everything. In New York, Seth sold a helmet for a great price. All of us we’re so happy for him and congratulating him because it’s a huge accomplishment, but also because we would have some gas money to get back home.”

Everything is shared, and is for the good of the cause. If their brotherhood and camaraderie didn’t shine through the first minute you first met them, you might just call it socialism. They feed off of each other’s energy, and they really have fun.

“We like to pick up hitch hikers,” recalled McKeag. He tells a story of one that asked to be let off a few miles down the road when a couple guys were in the back seat seeing what its like to drive through multiple states naked. “We’re always fucking off, its chaos. We’re always trying to keep each other awake. I don’t spend as much time in the van as I would like to.”

Like an orchestra, the group creates their art for the same reason but each of them through different mediums. Leibowitz specializes in the tattoo world in cover-up work.

“I love working with fresh skin, of course, but I have a lot of empathy for cover-up work because I have some bad tattoos myself,” Leibowitz notes. “I enjoy the challenge of fixing them.”

He, like Callen, also prefers oil and canvas in terms of painting, but has also recently experimented with painting on wooden surfaces since receiving one accidently from a friend. A trip to Goodwill later ensured he had found a new medium.
 “Oil on canvas is like spreading hot butter on toast, and acrylic is like spreading cold butter on toast.” Leibowitz reflected. “It’s almost like sculpting. The wood, though, absorbs it completely different. I like to keep that monochromatic, and go over it with torching and burning and a layer of epoxy for a different look.”

McKeag primarily works with enamels, which allow him to create things like murals on high-temp surfaces such as engine headers, and he is also well versed in pinstriping. The parallels between the pinstriping, tattooing, and t-shirt designs he is known for are easily observed. “Seth and Chris do oil, which is great, because they’ll just pull the van over in the desert and paint a sunset, or whatever. I just hang in the van or, you know, go take a piss on the Joshua tree.”

The group has even been known to do “panel jams” with painting and pinstriping, with the artists switching canvases in the middle of the painting’s creation and picking up where the last one left off.

“It’s similar to something we’ve done before in the tattoo world, switching off between shading and outlines and coloring. It’s cool because it has so much energy, and it something that can never be duplicated- something completely one-off,” explains McKeag. Like any tag team, it’s also something that easily grabs the audience’s attention.
 As I spoke with the trio, it was obvious that they were beyond passionate about their craft. However, their charity work in particular elicited a glowing response from each of them. Adrenoleukodystrophy (A.L.D.) is a horrific disorder. Without getting technical, it causes a breakdown in the nerves, continuing on to effect and shut down the entire body. It is diagnosable through a simple test that can be done at birth- and costs only around $1.50 to do it.

“Aiden Has A Posse,” run by Bobby and Elisa Seeger of Indian Larry, is a charity devoted to bringing recognition to the cause in memoriam of Aiden Seeger who passed at only six years old. Smoke and Mirrors painted helmets for an auction style fundraiser, along with other prominent artists. In my conversation, the guys’ enthusiasm hit its maximum when speaking about their charity work.

“My helmet arrived three days before I left for a tour through Europe, and I had to throw everything I had into it and ship it back because I didn’t have as much time as the other guys,” said McKeag. “It was really busy. It was a black helmet so I did it in white enamel. I didn’t think it would be all that popular, but it was quite popular. Mine sold for $850. It’s really nice laying down knowing my painting made a difference for 850 people with what the tests cost. It’s so good to play it forward.”
George the painter uses light to draw the eye.
George the painter uses light to draw the eye.

 Around the same time, Seth did a portrait of “Walter White” from the television series Breaking Bad on canvas for the Rock For Life foundation that benefits families of cancer victims. It brought in hundreds of dollars, and was painted using only his left hand since his right was broken at the wrist. There does not seem to be anything they won’t do to show people how art can benefit people in a very real and significant way. They recognize their talents and reputation as a tool to help them help others.

“At the Indian Larry Block party I am working on a canvas, and people are watching, and I hear a little voice from behind me saying ‘Can you paint me a princess?’” said Callen warmly. “I turn around and see this little girl, and her mom is saying how we are working and too busy to paint a princess with her. Well, I asked if she could come by a little later, and I found a smaller canvas. We sat for a while and we painted a princess together for her. She was pretty captivated and definitely thrilled. It goes to show how people enjoy art on a natural level.”
 Callen later discovered through a mutual acquaintance that the same little girl had a learning disability. It made it more difficult for her to interact. Painting with him was a rare occasion. She connected with something and someone profoundly. Taking opportunities to share and teach art with the individual is a recurring theme with Smoke and Mirrors Guild.

“Life is too short,” McKeag reflected. “I am really blessed to know these people and have them in my life. The motorbike community opened up my entire world. My life is amazing because of them.”

Although none of them can pinpoint the plan for the future of the project, each of them is optimistic and un-afraid of what it could become.

“It’s snowballing,” McKeag exclaimed

“I would like to see it makes it way into a sort of guild. I want it to pick up more people as we develop and we have been, there’s a good bunch of us,” explained Callen. “I would definitely like to see it become a larger guild, because we get so much energy working with each other.”

“With this, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” said Leibowitz.

Personally, I have every belief that this will become a sought-after tradition at many events. It is a touchback to the ideals of the alternative and creative lifestyle motorcycle culture has carved out for itself. The Smoke and Mirrors Guild brings it full-circle, a new way to document, involve, and evolve the community.

The Smoke and Mirrors Guild will be appearing at the David Mann Art Show, December 6-8.

Tyler on the left, the author, with master McKeag.
Tyler on the left, the author, with master McKeag.

Check out    
 for new and updates.

Share this story:

Back to Of Cultural Interest, Special Reports

Reader Comments

Exciting group of artists - great quotes an pics. Felt like l wanted to hang with these guys for the weekend!

Downers Grove, IL
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Editor Response Someday I may hang out with them. I will need a set of torches and a bucket of nails.

Your thoughts on this article

Your Name
Anti-Spam Question:
Please enter the words you see in the box, in order and separated by a space. Doing so helps prevent automated programs from abusing this service.