Bike to the Future

"You know the sound of a Harley?" asks David Uhl. "No other engine sounds like that. It's loud. And you can control it, orchestrate it -- you can scare an old lady, get someone to pay attention and get out of the way. You can save your life! It's like playing a musical instrument."

A classic V-twin engine was the inspiration for Uhl's "V-Twin Venom," a Harley-Davidson T-shirt that shows a handful of bikers cruising down a lonely Southwestern road, oblivious to the fact that the pavement ahead has curved up into the sky and morphed into a silvery, futuristic snake/dragon. "I was riding down to the Iron Horse Rally with Peter Fonda and a few Hells Angels," Uhl recalls. "And that one bike was so loud, I seriously worried about my hearing. But that gave me an idea. It was a snake. And then it was fire, or flames, about to destroy my eardrums. I got another T-shirt out of that. We called it 'Loud and Proud.'"

Both "V-Twin Venom" and "Loud and Proud" sell extremely well, as do the rest of the eagle/wolf/engine/bike/motto T-shirt combinations that Uhl and his partner, Daniel Stuckenschneider, have designed for Harley-Davidson. The pair have been working together so long that they're never sure who started or finished a T-shirt or poster or logo -- only that it turned out right. "I'm taking the Harley out of the garage and into the living room," Uhl says. "The whole look has changed. It used to be primitive, like tattoo art. Cool, but not refined. We've taken it up about 200 steps."

But there are bigger canvases ahead: On the eve of Harley-Davidson's hundredth anniversary, Uhl finds himself in the enviable position of being one of the most collectible Harley painters of all time. So he wasn't surprised when Harley headquarters included him in an elite group of seven artists who were each commissioned to create a piece of centennial art.

"Actually, it turns out I get to do two paintings instead of one," he says. "They had nothing representing women. I paint all kinds of people, but I'm known for painting women and Harleys, so they let me go ahead with another painting."

These are not the pneumatic-breasted sci-fi amazons of '80s biker magazines, but deeply nostalgic paintings taken from photographs of women and bikes at the dawn of the hog era. "The Enthusiast," one of Uhl's centennial commissions, is set in 1930. A young woman has just ridden to the post office to pick up the latest issue of The Enthusiast, a biker magazine still published today. Unable to wait until she gets home, she stretches out on her Harley and begins to read. Close inspection reveals the magazine's date: 1953, the year of Harley's sesquicentennial and still 23 years in the future. It's a time-warped in-joke only Harley fanatics would notice.

And there's no shortage of those. Judging from the success of the 28 Uhl prints released so far by Harley, "The Enthusiast" will sell out in less than a year, after which its price will continue to rise. "Ruby," Uhl's best-selling print, originally sold for between $600 and $900. If you could find one now -- and that's a big if -- you'd pay between $3,000 and $4,500.

"Women and bikes," Uhl muses. "It seems obvious, but there are so many obvious things people miss. Like Velcro. Or suitcases with wheels. Why did they take so long?"

"'Ruby' is the most successful Harley-Davidson print ever made," says Louisville art dealer Greg Segal. "The only way we can get 'Ruby' for a client who just has to have one is to call those who purchased them and offer to buy the pieces back at a significant profit."

Until 1993, Segal Fine Art was a Los Angeles-based family venture devoted to wealthy clients. When the business moved to Colorado, the family added photorealist Scott Jacobs to the list of artists it represented. "Scott was a gallery owner in New Jersey at the time, mostly painting portraits of women," Segal remembers. "The only problem with that was, who buys it but the woman who commissioned it? Our sales director, Ron Copple, suggested Scott paint something he was truly passionate about: his bike. It came out incredible."

That summer, Copple and Jacobs set up a small booth at the annual motorcycle gathering in Sturgis, South Dakota, and found that not only did the prints sell well, but they also attracted interest from Harley executives. The timing was fortuitous. A decade ago, doctors and lawyers started trading in their BMWs for serious hogs, and Harley stood to make serious money from an entirely new group of customers. The company began expanding its product line accordingly.