The secrets of the fixed gear bike

Interview with Mike Giant

American tattoo and graffiti artist Mike Giant explains what makes riding a fixed gear bike so special.


Mike Giant - Mike Giant working on his artwork for the Sur Place exhibition. Arden de Raaij

Met: Mike Giant

Without any concept or idea beforehand of what he's going to make, graffiti and tattoo artist Mike Giant fills the wall inside the Mediamatic Bank with various types of words and letters. The wall painting is part of ‘Sur Place’, Mediamatic’s new exhibition on urban bike culture. New York born graffiti- and tattoo artist Mike Giant became popular in New York's urban culture scene. His work is characterized by a mixture of death, erotica, old school hand drawings and elements of pop culture. Giant, himself a big lover of the fixed gear bike, came to Amsterdam to promote the bicycle, which is ‘the healthy alternative to the destructive car’. Mike’s wall painting is on view until the 22th of August.

What do you like about fixed gear bicycles?
'It's a return to the past, in some ways. But also a sign of the future. We have to recognize that the things we do and produce have an effect on the world around us. And a bicycle can have a really profound, positive effect on life in general. People don’t realize how dangerous cars really are.'

So your interest in the bicycle is also ideologically motivated?
'Absolutely. The main reason I am in Amsterdam now, is to support cycling. I don’t like to travel for art shows anymore. I tried to develop a track-cycling culture in Amsterdam when I lived here two years ago. It’s really interesting to come back and see how it has developed. The joy and connection people have. They share an interest, and in this case it’s cycling.'

You tried to introduce fixed gear bicycles in Amsterdam?
'The fixed-gear bicyle is an urban phenomenon. The hip, young people have been riding them for a long time, because messengers have an underground status. A lot of my friends in the nineties were track bikers, and a lot of the early graffiti-writers in New York city in the seventies were track bikers as well. If you see somebody riding a fixed gear bike and he puts you on it, you are like: ‘Great, I want to have this thing too!’'

What is so special about riding the fixed gear bike?
'It’s one of those things you try to conquer. When you start riding a fixed gear bike, it's really tricky. You have to be super careful. Over a period of time, you start to get into it and then your body just knows how to do it and you can start to play around. It’s just fun. If it wasn’t fun, people wouldn’t do it. And I also do meditation practice. On a track bike you can stand still. To do that, you have to suspend your attention. For me, the best way to do that is to focus on something across the street, for example a traffic signal. I just sit there, let go the handlebars, and let my body find the balance. If you think about it, you lose the balance. If you relax, there is a kind of a zen moment there. It’s quite peaceful. It’s one of the moments that the bicycle can show you bigger things. And also there are not many people doing it, so there is a community.'

Do you think that in ten years everybody in Amsterdam rides the fixed gear bicycle?
'Amsterdam has such an old bycicle tradition, that I didn’t expect that the Dutch people would really take to the fixed gear. It’s impractible and a little difficult to ride the fixed gear bike, but once you get used to it, I think it’s actually better. The regular Dutch street bike is so stable, that I don’t think it will ever get replaced. But there will be people who ride the fixed-gear bike. Because it’s the original bicycle too. The first generation of what we consider as bicycles now were fixed gears. They didn’t have a breaking mechanism for a while. People will say it’s crazy to ride a track bike, but everybody did it a hundred years ago.'

Another subject: your art. Why is it so succesful in the skateboard- and bicycleworld?
'There is something about being a graffity artist: you have to do it. You can’t just talk about it. As a graffity artist you start out very simple, maybe by making just a tag, a signature. Then you move your way up to developing complex letter systems. So it all starts with fundamentals. I think that I work from those fundamentals. And when you do that, people recognize that you have been gone through the process of understanding something fully. And then you add your own voice. There is also something with the handdraw-qualities of my work. Especially in this computer age it really resonates with people. People know it is difficult to draw, they know it is difficult to do nice handwriting. How many people really make things these days? Most people do nine-to-five jobs in front of a computer, making something imaginary for someone else. I have never put up with that. Not a long time at least. I think there is something powerful about stepping outside the norm. And that could be something a cyclist can do.'

Interview by Thomas van Lier, May 6 2010
More information about Mike Giant and Sur Place