Q+A: Paul Teutul Sr.

As American Chopper ceases filming, we ask the Orange County Chopper patriarch what’s next—hopefully it’s not a size 12 up our ass.

“Come over here and stand in front of me so I can hit you in the back of the head!” Paul Teutul Sr. bellows across the workshop of Orange County Choppers.

That’s Orange County in New York (not the latte-lined shores of southern California), a fact made abundantly clear by the “New York” inked on his left triceps. The workplace antics of this mustachioed, barrel-chested, biker patriarch have kept Americans entertained for eight years on Discovery Channel’s American Chopper. Now that the series is winding up, we checked in with Teutul to learn about everything from getting tattooed in a basement 40 years ago to the changing perception of chopper and tattoo cultures, fisticuffs in the shop, and what the hell this guy has against any shirt with sleeves. The show’s banter may have spiraled from endearing squabbling to family lawsuits and the kind of voyeuristic vitriol that makes for good reality TV, but one thing has never changed: Paul Sr. makes a sweet custom bike.

INKED: Did motorcycles get you into tattoos or did you have ink when you were young?

PAUL TEUTUL SR.: I think you can say motorcycles got me into tattoos. My first tattoo was a Harley-Davidson tattoo with wings and a ribbon. That was at least 40 years ago. Maybe more. I was drunk at a bar at like 10 o’clock in the morning and just decided to get a tattoo. It was up here in Orange County, actually Newburgh. It was kind of in a basement. The guy—his name was Danny, down in Rockland County—he did a lot of tattoos and he had a really good reputation. A little strung out on stuff, if you know what I mean. I remember he had his girlfriend there and she was done up with a tiger. She had every square inch of her body fucking tattooed, every bit of it. Actually, you didn’t see too many women tattooed at all then.

Tell us about your early history with bikes. You know, I didn’t get into bikes real early. The first time I rode a bike was a 250 Honda with ape hangers on it. A friend of mine had us out on it. I was on the back. He just pulled over on the side of the road and said, “You wanna drive it?” I just got on the front there and drove it. I kinda dig that. Then in 1971 I bought a Triumph, a 650 Bonneville that I really liked a lot. Then in ’74 I bought my first Harley, which I still have today, as well as the Triumph. I had a steel fabricating business for 28 years, so I always had the avail- ability. I started out just welding exhaust for hot rods or doing work for farmers. Then I got into more ornamental work, railings, and eventually commercial work. I went from just me to 70 people in the shop.

I could do stuff that nobody else [locally] could do because I had press breaks, welders, and torches. And I knew how to weld way back in the day. My first partner was from Brooklyn. I watched him build a bike from the frame up, stretching it. That’s what inspired me to start customizing bikes.

Tell us: What do you have against sleeves? In 165 episodes and hundreds of photos online, there’s never any sleeves. Do you cut the sleeves off every shirt you own? Here’s what I’m going to tell you. About three weeks ago, I started wearing long-sleeve shirts, the ones that we have for Orange County Choppers. And … I kind of like them. People really liked them. And now I’m wearing T-shirts with the long sleeve on them. When I was a young guy, I used to roll my sleeves up. And the cutting off the sleeves, that started way, way back. And it just became part of who I was. Shirtsleeves just aren’t a part of who I am.

“Shirtsleeves just aren’t a part of who I am” – Paul Teutul Sr.

You have all your kids’ names tattooed on you. Did you get those when they were born? I didn’t start getting work done again until probably 1999. If you look at the early shows, all I have is the one. Then I had multiple tattoos on my arms. My kids started complaining because I had tattoos of my dog on my arms before they were on there. On my left arm I have a portrait of my dog, Gus. He was a big part of my life for 11 and a half years. But they were like, “You got your dogs on there, but not your kids?”

There’s a certain amount of creativity that goes into custom bikes, but it has to be balanced with physics. You could be the best artist in the world, but you have to know how art goes on the body. Talk about those similarities. Yeah. That’s 100 percent true in my world. And with tattoos, there’s a certain structure and balance. If you look at my arms, that’s the way they’re done. There’s nothing on my arms that isn’t meaningful. I will not get a tattoo just to get a tattoo. Sometimes I’ll go years without any work and then something will come up and I’ll say, “That’s meaningful to me.” And I go get the tattoo right away. I have tattoos on my triceps and the side of my biceps all the way up my shoulder and each side of my back. On my 1974 Harley, which is called Sunshine, I did a picture of a sun breaking out into a flame. I just had that done on the left side of my chest. I want to do the right side of my chest, but nothing has come along to interest me to do that.

It does seem like the show afforded you a certain level of celebrity. Who are some of the people you’ve met or things you’ve gotten to do because of American Chopper? I’ve met everybody and I’ve been everywhere. It’s cool that you meet famous people, but I don’t get too wild like that. I met Billy Joel, Jay Leno, and Bill Murray was my favorite. I had lunch at Muhammad Ali’s house. That’s really cool. One of the cooler things is being able to make a difference in people’s lives. The feel-good stuff is what it’s really all about. We were named the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Chris Greicius Celebrity Award winner in 2005, over Disney. That’s fucking nuts.

I was a kid who grew up with nothing, so I have everything I wanted, and more. I’m a real car guy. I have a nice collection of cars and over 40 bikes. I have over 38 acres here with horses, goats, and donkeys. I have a workshop at my house. I constantly build bikes. I’m not the type of guy who can sit down and watch a football game. I always have to be doing something.

On the other side, reality TV is a certain amount of airing your family’s dirty laundry. Was there ever a time when you decided to turn the cameras off because it was a private family issue? The world knows everything about me. After the first show, it was too late to shut the cameras off. Listen, the thing of it is, I’ve always been a real person. And any opinion anyone ever had of me never made any real difference. When the Discovery Channel picked us and they said they were coming to film, I asked myself, “Should I lose weight? Should I talk differently? Should I act differently?” All these things go through your mind. And I’m a guy who didn’t like to have his picture taken with a fucking camera in the first place. At the last minute, I just said, “Fuck it. I’m just going to be who I am,” not knowing that they were going to air all that stuff. That was kind of shocking.

You were always threatening to put your size 12 in somebody’s ass. Did it ever come to that? Not really. It never came down to hands. It was throwing shit and breaking shit. There was one incident with me and Paulie [his son], where we were in each other’s face. There was a little hands-on, but it was never the rule. I grew up in a tough background where you had to do everything yourself. I was in the construction business. And back in the day, there weren’t a lot of lawsuits. It was more of whoever yelled the loudest got their money. And if you had to grab somebody by the throat, you did it because that’s just the way that it was. It was hard to grow out of that mentality.

How about the correlation between biker and tattoo culture? If you look back at the last 15 years, they have kind of fed off each other and gained widespread acceptance. It has changed. I’m not sure, 100 percent sure, what that’s all about. It’s cool. But there’s the real biker who likes to ride and work on his bike. Then there’s the suit guy who likes to have a bike in his garage and take it out on weekends, which is okay. And then there’s that lawyer who grabs a few tattoos, which is cool. I’m not really into taking people’s inventory. But it’s not the real deal to me. I think chicks are more into tattoos now than those people. Girls like things a certain way. They spend more time figuring out where the tattoo fits, and honestly I think chicks look great with tattoos. My wife has only one and I really like it. I’m sure she’ll get more. But I never look
at a chick and say, “What the fuck is that?” I actually go up to that person and talk to them about it.

What projects can we look forward to seeing from you in the future? We’re always doing something. We have a 100,000-square-foot building [in NY] with a 30,000-foot retail space. It’s kind of like a museum. And then we opened up the OCC Cafe? restaurant in it. We’re opening up two more in Miami and one in Panama, so that’s exciting. We’re going to go international with our brand, and you might even see me on TV again pretty soon.

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