Image courtesy of Julie Glassberg. All rights reserved.

Inside the Black Label Bike Club

by Emily von Hoffmann

The longest project of Julie Glassberg’s career was spent mostly in Greenpoint, jostling in the dark for a good shot of eccentric Brooklynites jousting on bikes. Dodging swaying spectators and sloshing spirits, determined to stay in the middle of the action, she became initiated into the culture of the Black Label Bike Club. An independent community of artists, students, and self-described weirdos, BLBC’s philosophy eschews technology in favor of presence, joy, and “teenage kicks.” For Polarr, I spoke with Glassberg about the project and her upcoming book, Bike Kill.

Emily von Hoffmann: Tell us about Bike Kill. How did you learn about the Black Label Bike Club, and what made you interested in following them?

Julie Glassberg: I was living in New York City when I first heard about the Black Label Bike Club.

I was having a hard time documenting another subculture and someone told me about them: a New Yorker from Alphabet City. I thought he knew them, but he would just see them once in a while cruising on their tall-bikes, so it took a lot of time and research before I was able to start. I was first interested in the sensational part, like most people, and then, I became quickly attracted to their lifestyle and realized that there was much more to explore.

I found in them values and behaviors that I was missing in fast pace New York. I focused more on their relationships and their philosophy. The Black Label Bike Club and their friends are an independent community rebelling against the system in a society that pushes us to consume and overly use technology. They are passionate, well-read and talented young people, and I was quite absorbed by their ways of taking risks and not being afraid to be hurt (whether it was physically or in life decisions). They are living now, in the moment and want to have fun without taking life too seriously.

Image courtesy of Julie Glassberg. All rights reserved.

EvH: You mentioned this was the longest project you’ve done. What was that experience like, and did you get to know your subjects well? Does it feel strange to be done, and do you still keep in touch with anyone?

JG: The experience was quite interesting for me. In documentary photo school, you’re taught to be a “fly on the wall” and not interact much with your subject. But in this kind of community, if you want the people to share their life, you have to share a bit of yours as well to establish some kind of mutual trust. It’s an exchange. Of course, spending so much time with them, a few became close friends and we are still in touch.

While I was in Japan, I made a handmade book of Bike Kill which allowed me to show the time I spent with them and gave a new life to the project; a new narrative. It’s hard to decide when you are done when you spend so much time with people. There are always situations or characters that can evolve. For me, the book is really what concludes everything. After thorough research, I found a great editor based in Italy. It was very important for me to work with the right person so that the book is an extension of the project and keeps the core spirit. I didn’t want a standard coffee table book but more a book-object, an experience for the viewer. It will be a great collaboration and the Bike Kill book will come out around the middle or end of 2018.

EvH: What exactly is “jousting” on a bike, and what are the stakes?

JG: Jousting on a tall-bike is exactly the same as jousting on a horse in the middle ages! Except that the spear is made of PVC and a stuffed animal or foam is at the end of it. It’s not a competition made to hurt or destroy your opponent. It’s a game. It’s all about having fun. Evidently, sometimes people get hurt as the jousters take up speed and they can fall badly or get hit in a sensitive spot.

Image courtesy of Julie Glassberg. All rights reserved.

Here is an extract from a text that Mikey (a member of the BLBC) wrote for me, that explains very well the principle of the jousting events:

Bike Kill in Brooklyn New York, Slaughterama in Richmond Virginia, Riding Dirty in New Orleans Louisiana are the names of a few of the many regular bike events that seem to define underground bicycle culture. To the uninitiated, showing up to one of these events seems to be uninhibited intoxication and the anticipation of violence. It is. But it is also more than that. The use of public space for gatherings that scream that fun can be free.
The attendees include artist students, weirdos, musicians, spectators, teenagers, twenty somethings addicted to teenage kicks, rogue scholars, travelers, artists, photographers, parents, kids… drop-outs… a small dedicated group of outsiders — and of course bicycle clubs.)”

EvH: Can you tell us about the backstory behind any particular image that sticks in your mind?

JG: I remember every moment behind every single frame pretty distinctly. One I would say that was key to that project is the photograph where everyone is shooting BB Guns in the kitchen of the Chicken Hut (headquarter) in Brooklyn [below]. That is the first photograph I took of them. I met a few members of the club the weekend before in a bar of Greenpoint. Paul informed me that it was his birthday the following week-end and that I could come. I asked him “what do you like to drink?” “Tequila!” he replied.

Image courtesy of Julie Glassberg. All rights reserved.

So I showed up at the “Hut” with a bottle of tequila for his birthday and that’s when it all started really. There, I met Stinky, who became my main contact. I would meet him regularly at the bike shop where he worked, and we’d go together meet the others. His trust towards me allowed others to give me their trust as well. He’s a friend now. Mikey (in the double exposure photograph) is also a very good friend, and Ian (portrayed with his tall bike) was one of the first members of the club I met. We often talked. He’s also a talented artist. A lot of them are.

Image courtesy of Julie Glassberg. All rights reserved.

Two other pictures are very representative of the community:

The one where Pablo is fixing Mikey’s bike in his shop in Greenpoint [above], Brooklyn. Each club member made a donation of an art piece for a silent auction organized to help Pablo open his bike shop. It’s an alternative solution in a society where banks have the power.

The photograph where Andrew and Ian are dancing with Racey and Lile [below]. I went there to hang out as usual. Ian took me to the rooftop and we started climbing from roof to roof. From one roof, we saw Lile and Beatrice on Guido’s Paradise’s roof (below the Chicken Hut), shooting BB Guns, so we joined them. People started showing up randomly, and next thing I know, a party was suddenly happening and they all started dancing and having fun.

Image courtesy of Julie Glassberg. All rights reserved.

EvH: What were some of the technical challenges you encountered when capturing these shots? Can you share any hacks you used to overcome these challenges?

JG: There were some technical challenges mainly during the jousting events. Things are chaotic, objects and liquids are flying all over the place (including substances that are dangerous for the camera) and people are pushing and throwing things. Sometimes I’d put plastic around the camera, but I usually ended up taking it off very fast as it’s really not convenient and gets in the way. Shooting the jousting in very dark places, being pushed around is more like a sport and you have to battle to get a decent shot. You anticipate, you shoot a lot, and you get a bit of luck to make it happen! There is no taking time and composing is a challenge. Also you have to watch out constantly that nothing lands in your face or on your gear as you’re focused on the jousting. It’s mayhem, like Mikey says. But it’s exciting.

Image courtesy of Julie Glassberg. All rights reserved.

EvH: Can you tell us about anything in the world (in any medium) that is inspiring you in your work right now?

JG: Cinema has always influenced me a lot. I am a big fan of David Lynch and noir movies for example. Sometimes when I take a photo, I feel like I am in a movie scene and it really inspires me. Life to me is a huge set, except with real events happening, and I go around in it with my camera to capture what I see or feel. There isn’t one truth or one reality, so I try to share my reality with honesty.

Lately I have also done a lot of art residencies. I love to meet and collaborate with various artists such as dancers, designers, composers, choreographers, performers, etc. I explore fields that are different from mine and learn new things, explore, go further. It allows me to give a new dimension to my work.

Julie Glassberg is a New York-based photographer interested in the diversity of world cultures, subcultures, underground scenes, and the misfits of society. View her work and follow her on Instagram.