Credit: David Yellen (photographer), Jon Coen (writer)
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.