Meet Drew, owner of the Black Skulls – a unique mongrel of clothing shop, workshop and bike club that lurks unseen in the backstreets of the East End
“We started off building bikes as a hobby. We were never professional bike builders, though we sold the bikes on like anyone else does once we got bored with them and wanted something else.
I’m walking up and down looking for what has been described as ‘the shop’ but it takes a call to our snapper Gary M to make me realise I’m stood right outside it. But maybe that’s the idea. The home of the Black Skulls is literally two lock-up garages opening out onto a side street – as a guarantee of security it’s perfect. Shop owner, or whatever he is, Drew turns up, grabbing his hair with both hands and pulling it apart to reveal a pair of bleary eyes. “Aw man, sorry I’m late. Wish I coulda’ called you guys earlier and put this off. We had a bit of a heavy session here last night and I didn’t get in till late,” he says with the gruffness of a man who downed many bottles of JD the night before. In fact he’s not just hung over, he’s still pissed, but what’s new? He’s the front man of the Black Skulls, a curious kind of bike shop/biker collective based in the East End of London. He unlocks the security bolts and flings open the up-and-over doors to reveal a treasure trove of old and new clothing, a couple of ratty looking XS650s and an array of tools. It’s hard to comprehend exactly what this place is meant to be: bike shop, workshop or club house? But you immediately feel you want to spend more time here.
No matter where you look there’s cool shit, whether it’s the stash of old Easyrider magazines, the two custom bikes that look in desperate need of some TLC or the neat new leather jackets that bear the BS logo. There’s stuff to love and cherish. And Drew is already coming across as the kind of guy you’d want to share biking tales with over a beer or six. So what exactly is this place and how did it evolve? Drew takes a slug from a can of Red Bull then shrugs his shoulders. I’m not sure if he really has no idea or if he has yet to activate the wings the energy drink promises. “The back story is that me and Reino (owner of The Great Frog, see page 16) started off in here nine years ago customising bikes for fun,” he says. “Up to that point we rented different lock-ups around London then I bought this place so we had a base. I sold the directorship of a firm I started – it was a full-time stressful job in die making. That got me a few grand in the bank to play with and buying this was the starting point.”
The twin garages quickly became home to a band of local bikers, a party place with a work space to call their own – so the regulars came up with a name for themselves. “The Black Skulls name was a bit of a joke,” admits Drew. “Our girlfriends at the time said, ‘what do you guys think you are, some kind of biker gang?’ Which we obviously weren’t. What with people like Nico (the artist known as Ornamental Conifer), James from the Kingdom of Kicks (see page 28) and us, we had a good scene going on in this area. “Black Skulls is my business but also a collective of those who are around. It’s never been about one particular person.
“We started off building bikes as a hobby. We were never professional bike builders, though we sold the bikes on like anyone else does once we got bored with them and wanted something else. “I didn’t ever pursue the idea of bike building professionally. It’s one thing doing it for yourself but it doesn’t make sense spending thousands on stuff, spending all the man hours building the bike and then trying to sell an old Jap bike for over £7000. Customising is a personal thing for me. I didn’t want to lose that by becoming a professional builder.” Despite Drew’s reluctance to become a pro builder the Black Skulls did become known for their cool bikes, as well as ‘the shop’.
“I think the lock-up created the brand. It’s here for everyone. People take responsibility for the place, which is cool. We did some T-shirts and custom bikes then I had the idea of getting some leather jackets made. We’re all fans of old leather jackets but these are kind of old school style but with a modern fit. You know, you see the old boys wearing leather jackets and they kind of just hang. These jackets fit. We should push our brand on social media but we’re happy plodding along.
“When we did the fittings for the leather jackets I took ownership of it – it makes you think how it should be. I’ve always had a collection of leather jackets and always liked lots of different brands with different styles. I bought them purely for that. Now you can buy leather jackets with art on them, which is a relatively new idea. The art on the back of the red leather jacket – a Lewis Leathers one, by the way – is by Nico. He did the Black Skulls shop sign on an old Ikea wardrobe door too. “Our leather jackets sell well. I had no idea about making them, but you learn – I had to learn everything. I remember going to a wholesaler and looking at his zips and I’m like ‘you’ve only got three types of zips to choose from?’ and he says: ‘they are pulls, Sir.’ I learned most of it off a mate. That was good because I wasn’t patronised, made to feel like I was back at school.” Drew is keen to promote the jackets, probably the most expensive items in the shop, but the overwhelming impression is that this is not just a shop but one really cool place to spend time.
'Our leather jackets sell well. I had no idea about making them, but you learn'
“Yeah, it’s always been more of a hang-out than a bike shop,” he says. “Some people might think it’s cliquey in here but that’s only because we’re always here. And last night’s late session is not that unusual. “I’m here every day but I’m no salesman. I wonder sometimes what I’m doing and when I have a wobble I’m ‘right I’m gonna sell all this shit’.” With that Drew drops his head into his hands in mock despair. A black and white cat brushes past the sofa he’s sat on. “That’s Doris the cat,” he says wearily, barely looking up. “She’s a bloody stray that’s made the lock-up her home. Pain in the ass. Fucking cat craps everywhere, pisses over the boots we’re trying to sell and leaves fur all over the clothing.
But she’s famous now. We get Japanese vistors turning up going, ‘where is Boris the cat?’ What the fuck?” Drew got into bikes via an off-roader while still at school. “When I was a kid I had a ’crosser,” he says. “We used to holiday at Camber Sands [in Sussex] and riding there really got me into bikes. We used to get loads of kids down there on ’crossers, trikes and we had mates with jet skis too. I think they’ve stopped all that now.” Life wasn’t just a beach though. Back in the East End, Drew to used to race around the rec with mates. “I used ride my BW scooter on a thing known as the Figure of Eight – a track we used to regularly ride. I was 16 then and we all had scooters and used to jazz them up. I think that’s when I got the thing for customising. But I got into custom bikes big time much later thanks to Wrenchmonkees some ten years ago. I just loved their stuff. “Now people get into bikes because of the customising. And the scene is so diverse – trackers, bobbers, cafe racers.
But customising wasn’t on our radar when I first got into riding. We just rode old Jap bikes because they were cheap and we’d modify them to suit.” In truth, Drew rides anything and everything. He even had a DRZ400 for green laning at one time. “I rode on my tod – I’m not into riding in groups. I like to stick my headphones on and just ride. But I’ve sold all my bikes recently. I had a very tidy early Blade, CB550 brat, Tiger bobber, the DRZ and a VF Honda. I love the VFs. I love 16in wheels. I’m mainly into 1980s Hondas and old British bikes but my ex took me to the cleaners when we split so I’ve had to sell them.
“My next bike? I dunno. I’ve got so much shit on right now. But I’ll regroup and get myself something to ride. Right now I’m thinking the next step is to open a Black Skulls live music bar – a kind of pie and mash joint with good music and bikes. It’s the next thing to get my teeth stuck into – but not for a while. I’m not a shopkeeper, man. This place started out as a workshop for a bunch of mates but has evolved in a shop. The biggest loves for me are bikes, cars and music. If you can do all that in a job then you’ve cracked it as far as I’m concerned.”