Seventy years ago, a group of like-minded war vets got together and formed the Hells Angels to celebrate their love of motorcycles and rebellion.
The World’s most notorious outlaw motorcycle club celebrates seven decades of patches, vests, clubhouses, cruisers, and craziness
First founded on March 17, 1948, the Hells Angels have since become the world’s most (in)famous outlaw motorcycle club. Over the past seven decades, the group has been both demonized and romanticized by the media, appearing in or heavily influencing pop culture in the form of books and film, TV, and even video games. Last week marked the club’s 70th anniversary, and what a long, wild, and weird 70 years it’s been.
IT NEVER GOT WEIRD ENOUGH: Animated reading of Hunter S Thompson talking about the Hells Angels
Classified by the United States Department of Justice as an organized crime syndicate, it’s unsurprising that the Hells Angels are viewed by most of the public as criminals. Despite this, the organization does have its hand in a number of legitimate businesses and endeavors—as well as, of course, some less than legal enterprises. When violent incidents do popup—and there have been more than a few over the Angels' lifetime—the media is usually quick to cover the story, resulting in a number of unflattering national news stories about the club.
Hunter S Thompson famously spent two years with the Hells Angels in California in the 1960's, an experience the author wrote about.
A quick google search does reveal that the Hells Angels routinely take part in various charity efforts, often benefiting child-related charities. On top of having clubhouses all over the world, the Hells Angels also have copyrights on their name and various club-related images. This has lead to a handful of lawsuits in which the Angels have sued movie studios and designer clothing companies for using its logo, likeness, or images without permission.
“This isn’t just about money, it’s about membership,” Hells Angels lawyer Fritz Clapptold the New York Post in 2010. “If you’ve got one of these rings on (referring to a $500 four-finger ring that was being sold by Saks Fifth Avenue that bore the “death’s head” logo) , a member might get really upset that you’re an imposter.”
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One of Bill Ray's photos from LIFE Magazine circa 1965.
The Hells Angels are no strangers to crime of both the organized and unorganized varieties. The club has a long history of alleged involvement in everything from the trafficking of drugs, weapons, sex, and stolen goods to extortion and even murder. The club does make it fairly clear however that any criminal actions are not representative of the club as a whole, and just the individual club member(s) committing them. An assortment of incidents that made national headlines thrust the club’s name into mainstream consciousness, such as the 1969 Altamont Speedway Free Festival, the 2002 “River Run Riot” aka “Waco Shootout”, and countless lesser-known cases and incidents.
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Interestingly the badass image of the club has been used by some motorcycle companies—specifically Harley-Davidson—to promote a certain rebellious image that up until recently, sold a ton of bikes. This circles back to the American attributes of the Hells Angels that have been glorified and romanticized. As of the time this was written, the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club reportedly boasts more than 100 chapters in 29 different countries, and continues to grow.
Photos by Bill Ray from LIFE Magazine circa 1965