by Jake Lemkowitz
Adam Cramer is in his office at Liberty Vintage, talking about the 1960s bubble helicopter that he swindled from a crooked millionaire’s tax dodge aviation center. His desk sits next to an art deco motorcycle frame that he built himself. His business is making old machines work again. “You can’t make any money doing this,” he says, searching through a collection of red cigarette packs. They’re all empty. “I do it because I’m compelled to. It’s an obsession, you know? I tried everything out there and never got hooked on nothing except for cigarettes and motorcycles.” He gives up, plucks a half-smoked Marlboro from the ashtray, and heads out through his workshop, pausing briefly before a chrome and candy red BSA bike from the 1970s. A mechanic finesses a finishing touch on the headlight. “This motorcycle is perfect for a guy named Lance.” Cramer states this with ultimate conviction. When he got it, the bike was a piece of beautiful junk. Now it runs.
The motorcycle garage-as-gallery is a fitting emblem for modern day Fishtown. In this neighborhood, lofts have supplanted old manufacturing buildings. What was once a five-story factory is now a park. A few blocks away on Trenton Street, a multi-million dollar residential renovation will soon be underway on the abandoned 26th Police Precinct. In short: industry has been replaced with the aesthetics of the creative class. But at Liberty Vintage Motorcycles, Adam Cramer merges the two worlds once a month by opening his fully functioning repair shop for the First Friday Art Crawl.
If not a museum, the space is a memorial to Cramer’s lifelong compulsion. The cavernous garage is filled with old bikes in various states of display, repair, and deconstruction. Motorcycles are lined up in a showroom-style, hung from the ceiling, stuffed into corners, raised onto workbenches. There are handsome black Triumphs, Ducatis with flamboyant exhaust pipes, a salvaged electric organ, shelves of stripped engine parts, obscure tools, amputated sidecars, the smell of motor oil, and the aforementioned Goldeneye-era helicopter. Are these bikes for sale? Some of them. Maybe. Anything is possible. It depends who’s asking. But are vintage motorcycles art?
The question feels moot, at least since the Guggenheim’s The Art of the Motorcycle exhibit in 1998. Even before that show opened, its subject matter drew vitriol from the art world. Only when attendance soared through the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed roof did critics accept the fact that motorcycles could belong in museums. They were content to condemn the show’s BMW sponsorship, a flagrant conflict of curatorial interest.
In fact, curating is very much a part of what Liberty Vintage does. When a customer came in recently with a Triumph Trident, Adam Cramer expounded upon the bike’s place in the history of British Labour politics, before refusing to work on it. On professional, mechanical, and moral grounds, of course. “This is not like a Pep Boys,” he explains. “This is actually Le Bec Fin. I’m sort of like a fancy French restaurant.” He relishes his reputation as the grease-spotted version of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, because he can do what others can’t. These old bikes can be tricky to keep alive, a proposition made more difficult by specialized knowledge, tools, and parts that no longer exist. Some 1970s motorcycles were less than perfect when they were brand new. You might trust a forty year-old toaster with your bagel, but would you take it cruising on the highway at eighty miles per hour?
On First Fridays, people wander in with a look of quiet evaluation. They admire the machines much the same way they look at the photos on the walls of the adjoining Gravy Gallery. In a huddle of leather jackets, Cramer discusses the possibility of obtaining FAA-certified helicopter blades in conspiratorial tones. He is the doctor, historian, chef, and archeologist of all these bikes. Their designers were brilliant craftsmen and engineers. So who are the artists, anyway?
The motorcycle’s artist is its rider. The rider tearing lines through cities, traffic jams, and sometimes even deserts. The rider in motion. The rider drawing abstract doodles of burnt rubber onto pavement. In the garage-gallery, these stylish bikes are a mute record of the things they’ve done, or can do, and the viewer can appreciate each one as an art object. But the exhilaration and absolute physical focus these machines once inspired has only one analog: the moment of artistic creation. Putting the pen to paper. Twisting the throttle. “Some people come in here on First Fridays like, ‘Where’s the art?’” Adam Cramer points to the room. “I tell them: everywhere.”
Jake Lemkowitz is a Philadelphia-based writer and pizza aficionado. He has an MFA from Brooklyn College, and his home on the internet is Bread City Basketball.