When it comes to moto-centric art, there are a few names that come to mind from the chopper magazines pages of yesteryear, but the artists of today who are carrying on that tradition with a blending of mediums and style are what will keep the movement fresh for years to come. One such artist out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is Darren McKeag of "McKeag Art". McKeag blends his love for motorcycles, tattooing, and all the fast paced fun of everything in between. He mixes that style to become an extremely well rounded artist that tackles everything from tank and helmet art, pinstriping, illustration, large scale paper and canvas painting, drawing, and of course, art of the skin. We met with Darren to discuss some of the pieces he was proudly displaying at this years Indian Larry Block Party in Brooklyn, New York. We were able to get a sense for his incredible way of life and what keeps him inspired to create in the now well-defined "McKeag Art" style that has made its way all over the country in many different mediums.
Starting off, tell us a little bit about the 17 Bones show you are featuring this weekend. What's the story behind that?
I hit up Bobby about doing the block party this year and I said would it be cool if we did an exhibition of some stuff here in the shop, like some of my art. I had this idea of doing 17 bones, so starting September 1st through the 17th I would draw one original piece each day. That became what is in the gallery now. I also did these screen print posters for the exhibition and there are only 17 of them that you can get if you buy one of the original drawings. A week or two later I hear back from John the Painter who says we are doing a full blown art show. That's kind of where it stemmed from. I've actually had by art here in Brooklyn and at Genuine Motorworks several times before.
What was the inspiration for this 3-part piece you have in the Grindhouse Gallery for the Indian Larry Block Party this weekend?
These 3 are Haight Ashbury, Rush Street, and 42nd street. They were inspired by the Michael Lichter show "What's the Skinny" which was about skinny motorbikes, but I also took it as "What's the word on the street?" You know, "What's the skinny?" In California, on the west coast, of course there's the famous Haight Ashbury street, that was their hang around. Then in Chicago, in the midwest, you had Rush Street. It's got all these different places and references in it like The speakeasy, Loose Lips, Rumors... Then in New York you had 42nd & 8th, which was their hangout. That's kind of what inspired these pieces, the different hang out spots for all those places combined.
You've done some projects and collaborations with some pretty big names in the Moto industry. What was one of your favorite collabs?
Oh, that's a good question. I'm probably going to miss something here because it's such an on-the-spot question and I have so much history with painting. I don't want to miss somebody. Obviously my default answer is going to be my fondest memory. It has to be collaborations with people that I am close with and I whose art I admire, like Big Meas. He and I have done a skate deck and stuff, just jamming. He's a tattoo artist out of Ohio and he has a reputation for calligraphy lettering and we dropped in on a deck together, which was fun.
To be honest — and I'm not lying or anything — but just the other day I did a collaboration with Armando from the Mile High Mural place (on the Indian Larry building). Armando did the maroon on the Larry question mark and I did the outline yesterday.
I wondered about that, too, because I saw someone starting the question mark on a video, then I saw you doing the rest.
That was kind of fun because painting large-scale isn't normally my forte. It's a lot of work, but doing that with Armando was a highlight.
I also do a lot of collaboration with my buddy Phil from Montros, Colorado. He's a tattooer by trade, but he's also a really rad pinstriper. He and I always jam on stuff together. Taylor from Top Shelf Signs out of Grand Junction as well. He and I have collabs, but what's fun about it is, it's just pieces that end up going on the wall. They're not for sale, they just sit in our galleries, you know.
That’s pretty cool. This wasn't even a question I had prepared, but do you think that you enjoy doing more “not for sale” projects than you do with projects that are commissioned? At the end of the day, I imagine that one of the hardest things as a painter and an artist to distinguish between is the art that you love doing and the art that you have to do to pay the bills.
That’s a good question. Obviously, early in my career, when I was trying to make a name for myself, I was willing to take everything and anything. But now I'm to the point where I've got commissions on deck, though I'm trying to wean myself off of those. I don't want any more commissions. I want to create what's in my head based on my experiences of riding motorbikes and sleeping in a ditch. I used to party and I don't party now. I've been sober for seven years and I just want to create what's in my head and if that sells, it sells. And with my tattooing career, I only take on certain projects. I'll have the client tell me in an email what they want and if it's something I want to do, then they give me a deposit and we book the appointment. Otherwise I pass it on to somebody that I feel would do the job better.
It sounds like you've really come to a perfect point in your career as an artist that many people work to — sometimes through the span of a lifetime — where you are able to pick and choose what you want to do and what you are most passionate about.
Exactly. That's the place to be. I remember in the early nineties, I had friends who were tattooing and right out of the gate they were doing just their style and what they wanted. That was great. I was happy for them. It just took me a little bit longer. But, you know, with social media, sobriety, and having an amazing wife behind me, I've been able to take my art to a whole new level. That's allowed me to market myself and people know my style by seeing it.
Your work ranges from highly detailed illustration, to tattoo art and flash, graffiti, pinstriping, and more. Would you say that you have one style, or is your art more all encompassing?
I have one style. That's the McKeag Art style, but I have many mediums.
I've been influenced by so many artists my entire life, and I feel like I've put all that shit in a blender....and that's the McKeag Art style.
That leads into my next question. Who were some of your inspirations as an artist coming up?
Growing up, I still remember the day I saw David Mann's work for the first time. His art has always been an influence. Brian Everett, who's an OG in the tattoo world out of Albuquerque, New Mexico is not only a big influence, but he's also a good friend. He was the backbone to helping me get into the tattoo business. But there have been a ton of people who have influenced me along the way, as well as cartoons or magazines. That's where I learned to draw cars and trucks. Just being in the tattoo world and blending a bunch of different lettering styles together, now I have my style of lettering. I could name a lot of people; it goes on forever and ever. I think, as artists, we're all influenced by people.
Yeah, exactly. I think that everyone sees and interprets art in a different way and they draw inspiration from things in different ways. For instance, with David Mann, I can see that influence in your work looking around the gallery, but it's clearly the McKeag art style.
Definitely. And there's a little bit of Robert Williams' influence just by the way that story plays out and by the composition.
Robert Williams was a huge influence on me in art school back in the late 90’s. I can definitely see his style reflected in some of your pieces, but I wasn't sure if you were a fan.
Oh dude, I love Robert Williams, and I'm good friends with Jimmy Litwalk, who's a tattoo artist. He and I were doing conventions at the same time back in the early nineties and his enamel work is amazing. He was an influence, along with tons of other people.
You have influenced a lot of tattoos with your flash style art. Has that been the goal with those pieces, or have they just evolved to become permanent art on people?
It's probably just evolved. There's definitely a heavy influence of tattooing in my art because that's what I've been doing for about 33 years, you know? My dad rode Harleys — mostly stock and all sorts of motorbikes — and my stepdad had choppers and tattoos, so I was influenced by all that. About 10 years ago my mom found some drawings that I had done when I was 10 or 12 years old, and it was tattoo flash and it was my black and white pen and ink stippling art. I had a sort of revelation that I'm really where I'm supposed to be and that I've come full circle.
As an artist, was there ever a time in your life when you didn't think that art was going to be able to be your main thing, and that you would have to have a lame day job or something of that nature?
Yeah, early on for sure. My parents always believed in my art and supported it, but it was my high school art teacher that was like, dude, you can make a living. I went all through my entire schooling of kindergarten through 12th grade drawing art up and down the margins of my papers; flames, hot rides, bikes, and all the teachers were like, "You can't hand your papers in like this." I go, "Why?" I don't give a fuck about math or history. I mean, I love history now, but this is all I want to do. I was literally the same.
That's all I wanted to do as well and it was funny having conversations like that with teachers as a teenager. You know, trying to convince a teacher that economics and algebra and all these other things that you're forcing me to study don't matter. Now I know that I need those skills as an adult, but it's not what I wanted to do. Isn't what I want to do and what I’m actually going to pursue more important?
Exactly. My high school art teacher was the only one that told me I could make a living doing this. I went to a smaller art school for graphic arts and ended up in the corporate world after that. And I was miserable. Three years into that, I had a Harley out in the parking lot, and I walked into my boss's office and said, "Yo dude, I'm quitting. I'll be back in a couple hours for my 401k." And he goes, "What are you going to do?" At that time I was airbrushing Harleys and I was ready to start my tattoo career. So I go, "I'm going to go start my own business." And he goes, "You'll never make it." And I'm like, "Awesome, dude. See you later, man." So I got on my FLH, I got a case of beer, and went to my bike shop that I owned with two other guys. Every day you got to get up and hustle.
You've done art on so many different mediums and surfaces from gas tanks, helmets, canvas, paper, graffiti, signs, etc. What's your favorite medium to work in or work on?
I really, really love enamel paint on a helmet — or on anything. In the Indian Larry shop, there's a sign by their parts. It says “Motorcycle Parts Made In-House.” I did that this week and I just went out back and found a fucking chunk of steel laying in the fucking garbage. I brought it in, I cleaned it and said, "Fuck it, let's use this" and I painted that. I enjoy enamel art because it's my fucking zen. That's my yoga. When I'm painting — and I can say that a little bit about acrylic on canvas or the shoes I paint — but when I'm painting with enamel, dude, its like, I'm not even aware of anything going on around me. Just ZEN.
It's like when we rode to Sturgis from Montrose, Colorado all the way through Wyoming. I swear to God, there was a highway that we were on, there were four of us, and — I'm not even exaggerating — I was on my chopper and we pop up over a hill and you can see the road for like 50 miles. And it was sunny, there's mountains, there's no traffic. And I really felt like me and the bike were one. I couldn't even feel the road. We were just fucking six inches off the ground, levitating, floating. The first couple of times I was just like, what the fuck is going on here? And I've felt that a couple times before, but that's when you say to yourself, this is exactly where I'm supposed to be.
In some pretty sleep deprived, crazed states I've had a similar experience to that myself. This year on the Biltwell El Diablo Run, I did the whole first leg on almost 48 hours with no sleep and it was one of those kinds of Hunter S. Thompson moments where you're completely at your body's limit, going 90 mph somewhere in Southern California, with the heat of the desert scorching every inch of skin — “That's when the drugs began to take hold.”
Dude, yes! Mine was much about lack of sleep, too. When I drove out, my first day of driving was 12 hours and it was getting late and getting dark. I was just like, you know, we've been there, where we're just tired and you see things that aren't really there. On the bike trip to Sturgis I didn't see things that weren't there. I just saw everything that was there. I almost didn't even hear my bike. It was weird, but it was cool.
How do you feel your relationship with motorcycles has changed your art over the years?
I don't even know if motorbikes have even changed my art. It's just always been a foundation of my art. It's always been there. I grew up on my dad's stock '65 Panhead. He didn't have a sidecar at the time, but I sat on the tank and my mom was on the buddy seat. Then when he got a sidecar, I moved to the sidecar. It's just always been there.
So has your relationship with motorcycles always driven your art?
Yeah, and I've always had motorcycles. I've always created art that’s based around tattoos and motorbikes. That's weird, I guess, but I have no doubt that this is exactly where I'm supposed to be.
That's the best place that anyone could hope to be. What are some of your upcoming projects or goals that you're excited about?
I have a lot, actually, but I have two or three paintings that are based on a couple of my motorbike trip experiences. I probably should't even be saying this, but I've got one with Paul from Bare Knuckle Choppers. There's a Willie Nelson song called "Me and Paul" and I want to do a painting of him and I about this amazing story from when we were at the BMR one time. I want to put that into a painting and call it "Me and Paul".
I've got a lot of projects on deck. I just have to find the time to do it, you know. But I'll make it happen.
That's a good problem to have!
You know what, dude, life's good. I don't measure success by a bank account, but by the fact that I don't wake to an alarm, I don't wear a watch every day, and every week I forget what day of the week it is at least once. At anytime my wife and I can go anywhere in the world for any reason, as long as we want. We love to travel and that, to me, is success. I couldn't ask for anything better. If I checked out tomorrow, I would be fine.
To see more of Darren's work, check out at @mckeagart on the socials
Photos and words by Mike Vandegriff