A few things came to mind when I though about what I might encounter during a visit to the Bushwick headquarters of the outlaw motorcycle gang, Forbidden Ones. And none of them involved peace and harmony. For one, there’s the image of the old-timey cast iron cannon one member allegedly sold to an undercover NYPD officer a few years back (definitely the most hilarious of the items that led to a slew of criminal weapons trafficking charges brought against a number of the club’s members). And then there was the unmistakable visage of Tatu Jesus, an FO with a preference for blood-red contact lenses, heavy chains, and black leather.
It’s hard to explain until you see him, but Tatu looks exactly like a vampire biker. Naturally. Which makes sense, seeing that I was invited here by was Eric Rivas, the director of Vamp Bikers Trilogy. The Brooklyn-born-and-bred filmmaker was wrapping up part three, starring Michael Alig as a Club Kid zombie alongside “authentic, real outlaw bikers.” (The second installment, Vamp Bikers Dos, screens tonight, March 1, at 8:45 p.m., as part of Anthology Film Archives’ New Filmmakers series.)
Getting behind the doors of an outlaw motorcycle club is kind of a dream, especially considering that it took one freelance photographer, Shadi K. Best, about a month to gain their trust before he could shoot the members. (He documented the group for several years starting in 2011, one year before the gang became embroiled in the gun running mess.) And yet, oddly enough, the FO clubhouse is just steps away from Roberta’s. Up until the moment I was standing outside the club, I had no idea that one percenters (or self-declared outlaw gangs) were convening in so-called Morgantown. The clubhouse sits behind those same colorful murals aimed at sweeping away the area’s industrial grit, transforming the wash of grey into a technicolor kaleidoscope of digestible images that’s way more fitting of the fine-dining and shopping destination the place has become. Picturing a gun-toting outlaw gang here was very strange indeed.
But the more I found out about the FO– a network of Puerto Rican friends and family members, many of them Bushwick natives– the more I realized that “Morgantown,” which has changed drastically along with the rest of the neighborhood, probably looks even stranger to the members of the motorcycle club.
“Not all, but many” of the Forbidden Ones, as Rivas explained, have appeared in all three of the Vamp Bikers films. And the club’s “mother chapter” headquarters is among the sites that Rivas has used for the third film, including several parkside spots in Coney Island– an eerie place in the winter, when the carnival booths are shuttered, the rides frozen, and the beachside theme park is essentially abandoned. The footage shot at the clubhouse has been reserved for a music video starring the genderqueer Brooklyn rapper Uncle Meg (aka Meg Skaff of the rap crew Hand Job Academy), which will act as the backdrop for the opening credits of Tres. It’s a proud B movie, so just go with it. (Another music video starring Meg served as the film’s teaser trailer, and Rivas also convinced Baby Pun, or Chris Rivers, the son of legendary New York City rapper Big Pun, to contribute original verse that will be incorporated into the film.)
“The clubhouse always stood out to me as being in the middle of all the hipster places,” Rivas remarked. As a good friend of the Forbidden Ones club Vice President, Tito (aka Rafael Martinez), Rivas said he’s been around the club for some “good times” with his pals. “We’re of similar age and we’re both Nuyorican, he’s a biker and I’m not, but the friendship is there,” he explained. The two met while Rivas was filming Lost in Coney Island. Tito was on set to lend a hand with fixing a Harley, a prop for the film that was having problems, and ended up acting in the film. “I thought he was good in the scene, then realized he came to help out a fellow biker on a tow and not to act,” Rivas recalled. “From that point on I made it a point to ask him to be in the films– turns out he got the acting bug and is brilliant in stunt coordination.”
Tatu Jesus was the first person to greet me inside the door to the clubhouse, which I was sort of terrified to find wide open, meaning I didn’t really have the option of asking to be let in. Thankfully he recognized me and pointed me toward the basement, where I could find Rivas.
It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the dark, subterranean bar, lit by red lights and a greenish glow. It seemed as if I’d stumbled into the middle of someone’s living room, complete with a big-screen TV blasting Cops, a sleepy-looking pitbull, and a gaggle of haggard hangers-on grabbing at each other and teetering around in drunken revelry. I started to step back, convinced I was seeing things I shouldn’t be seeing. But beyond the cushy area reserved for the party people, the place started to look like an actual establishment.
The club’s insignia–the acronym “FO” cut by two crossed pistols– popped out at me everywhere, from faded patches sewn neatly onto leather vests and jackets. Another one of the club’s symbols, a skeleton joker face wearing a menacing grimace, cackled from the purple and black pool table and peered down from a flag hung behind the bar, watching over the members wearing huge silver rings and black leather getups. A number of the members were looking up at a large flatscreen monitor to the right of the bar, which projected grainy black-and-white security footage from cameras pointed at various entrances to the club and on the sidewalk outside. I realized someone, maybe everyone, had been watching me the whole time. And I was definitely attracting more confused stares now that I was actually inside. Suddenly, I realized that with screwed-up orange hair and ’90s mom jeans, I was either their worst hipster nightmare or the opposite of “Forbidden Ones’ Bitch” material.
Thankfully, I noticed some recognizable faces, including the lanky sideshow guy from the Coney Island set I’d visited in January. He was solo-grinding up against a pole, flopping around like a spaghetti noodle, twerking as much as his man hips would allow. A vampire girl with teased-out tresses was mirroring his dance moves. The scene indicated either it was beer o’clock or the crew was filming another raucous party scene. Rivas, who was clutching two bottles of Corona, caught my eye and confirmed the former.
He was speaking excitedly with Meg– a tiny, glasses-wearing package with a spunky, kid-like face but plenty of baditude– preparing to shoot their final scene for the day outside the club. Apparently it was Alig, ever the hip kid, who turned Rivas on to Meg. “He told me that [Hand Job Academy] was going to be as big as the Beastie Boys,” Rivas recalled. “Meg and I hit it off, we really get each other.” At the clubhouse, the filmmaker, a lifelong hip-hop fan, gushed over the young rapper who, in exchange for the Vamp Biker-themed video, is contributing her song to the film. “It’s a hybrid of Vamp Bikers with Meg’s style– it’s gonna be crazy,” Rivas predicted.
The music video, which acts as a story-within-a-story, opens with a scene shot outside the club in which the motorcycle gang, pitbull in tow, descends on Meg. “They’re like, ‘Get this stupid fucking hipster!'” she explained, summing up the scene. One of the outlaws lifts Meg off the ground, kicking and screaming, and slings her over his shoulder, dragging her into the club. “Then they’re like, ‘Rap! Rap! You can’t fucking rap!'” Then at some point, things turn romantic. The film also stars Meg’s girlfriend, a tiny Wednesday Adams type, as the love interest, and Meg as the motorcycle-riding bad bitch who steals her away from one of the outlaws played by Tito, the Vice President of the Forbidden Ones. At the end, they ride off together into the darkness.
“They see each other in the club and it’s love,” Rivas explained. The story is inspired by the Wong Kar-wai film Fallen Angels, a hyper-stylized noir film set in Hong Kong complete with shoot outs, speeding motorcycles, and a star-crossed love story. When asked if she actually rode the motorcycle in the scene, Meg cackled. “Hell no, I don’t wanna die today.” Actually, it was Tito who suggested they strap the motorcycle to a trailer and drag it through the streets while filming. “Tito was the first one to help me make this emotional contact between two people on the bike,” Rivas explained. “He’s helped me out so much even though he’s going through a lot right now.” Instead of concentrating on the road, or dying perhaps, Meg and her GF were able to lock eyes.
I only saw bits and pieces of raw footage long before Meg (who does all her own editing) will have the opportunity to arrange it all. But what I did glimpse was impressive– the takes were gorgeously shot and the scenes were intermittently moody and hilarious. In a way, the video seems to fulfill fantasies that I imagine some of the FOs must have about putting things in the neighborhood back in place, so to speak. After all, the story opens with badass biker dudes snatching up a white hipster transplant and dragging her down into their seedy underworld.
But the video also plays on Meg’s own insecurities about her work. While she’s got plenty of hip-hop swagger, several times during conversation she brought up her fear that people sometimes dismiss her as nothing more than a “hipster” rapper. Clearly Rivas doesn’t think so. And by the end of the video, Meg has proven to the vampires, bikers, and zombie sideshow freaks not only that she can rap with the best of em, but that she can party with the weirdos and win the cute girl at the end of the day.
Somehow, Rivas had managed to bring so many seemingly disparate groups together under the roof of a very improbable location– a Nylon-featured rapper from West Virginia, Coney Island freaks, and motorcycle outlaws– and all for one very unusual film.
Look for the premiere of Vamp Bikers Tres this summer.
Correction: a previous version of this article stated that Tito is the President of the Forbidden Ones. He’s actually the Vice President of the motorcycle club.