Art and Wheels

s m a l l  s h o w . b i g  d e a l .

Bikes, art, skaters, punk, hot rods, BMX… the Art and Wheels show in Switzerland is an eclectic mix. But it definitely works

Location: Basel - Switzerland


Expectations. I’m in Basel, Switzerland for Art and Wheels, a custom show starring several top American builders I’ve followed for years – plus a bunch of excellent European and Scandinavian guys.

I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks, but now I’m having doubts. I’ve travelled with the Sailor Jerry UK crew and we arrive early at the show in a quiet residential area. There’s a few choppers parked outside and we’re ushered into a room the size of a small village hall. “This is the show,” says Jimmy, who’s helping organise things. Show? A quick count makes it 16 bikes, a selection of art and photos on the walls, and a T-shirt stall. He can see I’m somewhat surprised. But a quick look around reveals serious quality and, once the bikers start arriving, I realise Art and Wheels isn’t just about what’s inside, it’s about the people who come – and their bikes outside.

‘I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks, but now I’m having doubts.’

All day long there’s the steady off-beat ‘potato-potato’ thrum as people come and go on Harleys of all shapes and sizes. The parking lot becomes a display of custom iron with bikers from France, Germany, Italy and of course Switzerland. Art and Wheels is run by three guys; Mario Burkardt (mbleathers.com), Lukas Renner (student and photographer) and Vinzenz Guntern (mechanic).

Mario is a bear of a guy with long tousled hair. He’s softly spoken and impeccably mannered, explaining how Art and Wheels was conceived. “We were in the Mooneyes café in Italy, drunk and creating a giant wish-list of what we’d like from a show. Then I flew to Japan, where I exhibited at the Mooneyes Show in Yokohama. I asked my buddies what they thought of our ideas and whether they’d be interested in coming and they all said yes. So I thought, ‘we really have to do this now.’”

Then the reality of producing a show hithome. Mario says: “Switzerland is a rich country but you try to get sponsorship for a custom bike show! It was a nightmare. Everyone said, ‘great idea’ but no one wanted to help with sponsorship so we paid for it ourselves. It’s a one day show, cool bikes, cool people and we think it’s a nice vibe.”

He understates his case. It’s brilliant. The show might be the focal point but it’s a destination – and the result is hundreds of bikers in one place, kicking back. The reason it’s so ‘cool’ is the philosophy: “It’s about bringing together different subcultures like motorcycles, skateboarding, punk, hot rods, BMX, art, and a million other things – not seen in a bike show in Switzerland before. We wanted to get away from traditional biker imagery of beards, skulls, beer bellies and leather jackets. It’s about the art and craftsmanship it takes to build a motorcycle and handle it on the wide-open road.”

It’s more Bike Shed in concept than most UK commercial shows too. “At most bike shows in Switzerland you pay 25 bucks to get in, there’s 200 booths of people trying to sell you crap and they call it a bike show. The aim of Art and Wheels is to show what it takes to build a real custom bike – not to have bikes built with off the shelf parts. “So through my affiliation with bike builders and artists we’ve got a small number of really special bikes and some nice art. We’ve got Paul Cox and we flew in his bike. Max Schaaf is here, Josh Kurpuis and of course Chris Richardson, with the Sailor Jerry Knucklehead.”

Much like early days of the Bike Shed, the organisers are trying to keep it pure. Mario says: “We never quite know what to expect crowd wise. Luckily we’ve had good weather both years – 1600 people came last year, a few more this year. The biggest thing about our show it that it’s not commercial. We’ve paid £5000 of our own money – and we’re out of pocket. Last year it was free entry. The idea was to always be that way, but we’ve had to include a small admission price this year. We’re backed by the local Harley dealer – but not Harley itself.”

A&W is not exactly a one-day bike show either. Mario and his gang ran a Swiss premiere of the new movie ‘21 Days Under The Sun’ on Friday, and there was one heck of a pre-party that night with bands, booze and burgers in a grungy, 1970’s Easyriders-style club-house. There was a post-show party on Saturday night too. And on Sunday they organized a ride-out for the American visitors (on rental Harleys) and anyone else interested to the Ace Café at Lucerne. Mario and his mates all have other jobs but they intend to continue with Art and Wheels. “The plan for next year is maybe to expand the location – but it needs to be a similar charming show,” says Mario. “We’d like a bigger place but we’re not going to sell out. We don’t ever want to sell booths to the big corporations. We don’t want to sacrifice quality of the bikes on show.” Amen to that.