DIY motorcycle garage/repair shop MotorGrrl is a staple of the Brooklyn motorcycling community, and owner Valerie Figarella is a life-long resident of the city who dreamed of doing something new, bringing the community together…and making some new friends. On the evening of April 28, MotorGrrl hosted the premiere of Grace Roselli’s Naked Bike Project and Susana Rico’s Viragos Project. We interviewed Valerie, Susana and Grace to see what inspired their projects and how riding motorcycles has shaped their lives.
Valerie Figarella’s MotorGrrl garage is unique in that not only is it fully licensed and registered as a New York State (NYS) repair shop and inspection station, employing technicians that will get your ride back on the road, it is also a DIY garage that rents tools and lifts to apartment-dwellers needing a space in which to work on their bikes. MotorGrrl offers memberships for regular DIY-ers, or you can just pay as you go for what you need. It even offers one-on-one instruction, so you can finally learn how to change your brake pads or check your valve clearances yourself.
Woman Rider – Tell me about how MotorGrrl came to be.
Valerie – I’ve been riding for more than 20 years. I started wrenching to save money—if something went wrong, I wanted to be able to fix it. I was traveling a lot on my bike, and when you’re on the road, you want to be able to fix things. I had an ’83 Virago. It needed a lot of work while I traveled. One time, I rode to Miami and back and seized the engine. But I loved that bike. It came to MotorGrrl with me, you know? It’s what I use to teach people how to ride.
Anyway, I was working on my bike outside, here in the city, on the sidewalk. There was nowhere else to go. People—mostly guys—kept stopping and telling me stories about motorcycle accidents they’d seen or been involved in or their friends were involved in, just gabbing, not helping. And I wanted to have a place where I could learn how to wrench, and I figured that if I wanted that, other people probably did too. And I’d have new riding buddies!
I lost my job—this was right after 9/11—and I needed work. I opened the first MotorGrrl garage here in Brooklyn, on North 9th Street between Bedford and Driggs. 1,500 square feet. I threw a grand opening party, and only one person came! I advertised it on Craigslist.
People would break down and see my place, and they started asking for help. And here in the city, parking is not cheap, so a lot of people were just looking for storage. Most parking garages won’t let you work on your bike, but I would. I didn’t take out any bank loans, the whole thing was financed on credit cards. I knew I had something that was new and exciting, and I was motivated to see where it would go.
“I wanted to have a place where I could learn how to wrench, and I figured that if I wanted that, other people probably did too.”
I got taken advantage of. Mainly by guys. They’d want to keep their bike at the shop, but not pay for storage. So they’d bring it in and say, “Oh, can you fix the throttle cable?” Then I’d call and tell them it was done and they’d say, “Oh, I need a new mirror, can you fix that?” And then, “How about a new chain?” And on and on, all these cheap, tiny fixes that just kept their bike there for cheaper than it costs to pay for parking.
I love what I’ve created, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I just had a vision and a passion for motorcycle riding and bringing people together. Guys say, “Wow, I can’t believe what you’ve created. I’ve always wanted to do that, but you’ve actually done it.”
I had a few employees leave and start their own garage. I used to be mad about it, but now I realize I was a positive influence on the Brooklyn community, I’m a part of it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.
WR – What inspired you to host this art event?
V – It goes with the MotorGrrl concept to bring people together. I love art. And I wanted to do something different again, bring the communities (art and motorcycling) together. I like to be excited. I like to be on the frontier of new things. We’re starting a new concept: MotorHead. MotorHead at MotorGrrl: you get a haircut while you’re waiting for your bike to be done.
“I don’t want to do inventory, I want to be on the cutting edge.”
Susana Rico, originally from Portugal, is a New York City-based photographer. Her Viragos Project is a portrait series of tintypes depicting women riders and their motorcycles. The word “virago” has been used as both an insult and as a title of respect and admiration; it originated in ancient Rome as a way to describe a woman who surpassed the expectations for what was believed to be possible for her gender (since women were considered lesser than men). A virago could be a heroic warrior or a pious nun.
However, it could also be used to imply that a woman wasn’t exceeding expectations, she was violating cultural norms; she was “un-ladylike.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a virago as “1. A loud, overbearing woman,” and “2. A woman of great stature, strength and courage.” And men don’t understand why it’s not easy being a strong woman…
WR – Give me a little background on you: where you’re from, how and why you started in photography, etc.
Susana – I grew up in Setúbal, Portugal, and spent five years of my childhood in the French part of Switzerland. I went back to Portugal and completed my Marketing and Advertising degree, in Lisbon, in 2005. In 2009, I moved to London to learn English and, one year later, I left to work in Zurich, Switzerland. It was on a trip to Bali, Indonesia in 2011, when I felt in love with the beauty of the images taken and started to take my camera everywhere. Being exposed to different languages and cultures ever since childhood made me become extremely aware of my surroundings and I developed a particular taste for street photography and documentary. The choice of unique characters and subcultures are imminent in my work. Whatever photographic style I’m working on, the use of strong contrasts and extremely bright colors is also noticeable throughout my photographs.
As a photographer, I have a wide range of interests. My interests have in common the pursuit to find the specific beauty in each of my subjects, and to discover how they relate to my own life and journey in surprising and unexpected ways. My motto: “Always put your soul, creativity and love in everything you do.” I’m currently based in New York.
WR – What inspired you to do the Viragos Project, and specifically, why women and motorcycles?
S – It was a moment of transition in my life and I started to be interested in motorcycles and the freedom that they seem to give to every rider. So, along with the strong desire to become a rider myself, I started to look into the motorcycle community that was more targeted to women. That’s when I got fascinated by The Miss-Fires (A women’s riding club – Ed.) and I wanted to pay homage to this group of women. I wanted to pay homage to the spirit of virago, because historically, a woman could earn the title of virago if she surpassed the expectations for what was believed possible for her gender. Virago, then, was a title of respect and admiration.
Basically, I wanted to celebrate women who have defied stereotypes, slander and sexism to taste the freedom and power the motorcycle confers.
“Hopefully, my subjects’ example will give heart to any woman who wishes to overturn convention in order to experience her own strength, daring and joie de vivre to become, in the ancient meaning of the word, a true virago.”
WR – Why did you choose the tintype medium?
S – I chose the tintype medium for its timeless quality. My portrait series epitomizes the toughness and tenacity of these defiant women. My idea was to produce a body of work where the subject is portrayed as timeless with a heroic aura that symbolizes her power, strength and beauty.
WR – There are many faces of female riding. Some look rather gender traditional, some are what people call stereotypical. Has Viragos inspired you to seek more of these faces out?
S – I didn’t go out searching for a particular face or look, I was more interested in the fact that they were women riding motorcycles—their looks didn’t really matter. The fact that they were women and riders was what I was looking for.
Grace Roselli is a Brooklyn-born artist and motorcyclist (her current rides: a Ducati Hyperstrada and a Kawasaki Ninja 650). She has a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and was awarded the RISD scholarship to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. After graduating with honors, she was awarded a residency with the Empire State Studio program in New York City. She’s had solo exhibitions in Connecticut, New York City and Philadelphia, and her work has been included in numerous group shows, including one in the Netherlands.
Her Naked Bike Project, a series of large-scale photographs, paintings and collages, combines the idea of the motorcycle—a machine associated with (often masculine) sexuality, rebellion and freedom—with the narrative and aesthetic of a woman’s body.
WR – Tell me about the Naked Bike Project.
Grace – There’s a rich history of women’s bodies, nude and clothed, portrayed in art. Much of this historical portrayal has ranged from the casually misogynistic to outright sexism. After a (still ongoing) struggle for awareness and rights, many women are now controlling, owning and celebrating the narrative of their bodies.
The Naked Bike Project is a performance of that narrative, concerning the language and agency of the contemporary female body combined with a machine traditionally associated not only with men, but sexuality, rebellion and freedom. The motorcycles portrayed cease to be mere moving vehicles, but instead become a symbol and extension of contemporary female sensuality. Its curves echoing the form of the body, the motorcycle functions as a lover, a prop, a site for the expression of utter physicality.
The female riders who have volunteered for the project share a love of riding and a willingness to be vulnerable for an idea: re-imagining the portrayal of their bodies in combination with their beloved machines. The images of Naked Bike are as diverse as the individuals being portrayed. In some pictures the women are covered in gear for the sport, but that gear can also function as armor, a mysterious shell, a hidden space. In other pictures, that protective layer is gone. Naked, the women project what protects them, or not, as female.
“My work isn’t about documenting the visibility of the growing number of female riders, but a change in the very culture we’re in.”
This is not just about/for women, this freedom of thought is for everyone. A work in progress, ultimately Naked Bike is about the journey, the beginning of a provocative and culture-shifting ride.
WR – In your “Uncanny Lady M” series, you’re “reimagining Lady Macbeth as a cyborg queen, a post-human machine without the constraints of morality, class, race or gender.” Do you see motorcycles as being the “machine” side of that, a tool or weapon (or armor) for a woman?
G – Cyborg theory is a definitely a theme running through my work. We women, because of all these societal constraints imposed on our bodies over time, have, in a very strange way, developed a great deal of leeway to take our bodies and rewrite the script of how we are perceived. “Merging” with the machine, metaphorically becoming a cyborg, means ultimate freedom—but with the downside being loss of our humanity.
WR – Women’s motorcycle gear is a hot subject. Like in comic books, movies, Halloween costumes, pretty much everywhere, the women are dressed to be sexy first. Tell me your thoughts on that.
G – I think you’re confusing that ubiquitous bodysuit painted on all voluptuous characters in comics with real life—a lot of that is male fantasy, and don’t we females like to f*** with that! Seriously, most women riders I know like their skin and brains intact—they gear up to ride! Women’s motorcycle gear should be a hotter subject, and is finally becoming noticed by the manufacturers—more choices, styles, colors and all the necessary protection! We even have our first motorcycle fashion mag, Modern Moto (modernmotomag.com). When I’ve got some dollars in my pocket for clothes, those dollars are going to the sexiest pair of boots I can actually ride with!
WR – How do you see motorcycles affecting gender roles and expectations?
G – When I started riding in the ‘80s, I didn’t know any women riders personally, nor had I come from any kind of motorcycling background. I didn’t really pay attention to any identity/gender issues until I got over the initial hump of being terrified learning to ride in the NYC area. Big huge freakin’ pinball machine! I definitely received my share of attention for “riding while female” over the years. However, there are so many more women riding now it’s becoming moot.
“A motorcycle takes a certain kind of spirit to even get involved with in the first place, and women are recognizing what guys knew all along: riding motorcycles is amazing!”
WR – Are they an extension of women’s control over our own bodies?
G – At this point, they can be, just as much as picking up any dangerous sport is.
WR – In the various Naked Bike pieces, I get the feeling that for some of the women, the gear they wear and the motorcycle they ride makes them feel sexy or sensual, for others it’s powerful, or joyous, or scared, or scary.
G – Naked Bike isn’t about portraying women riders in the everyday, it’s using the combination of a heavily loaded symbolic machine with exploring/recording ideas about gender and identity.
“Ultimately, feminism is about humanity and the ride is life.”