Moped Gangs of New York

Kids in Brooklyn have brought mopeds back from the dead

Relapse Magazine

Photograph by Patrick Postle

The sweltering summer sun hung hot over Broadway Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn in late June as a gang of 100 mopedders kicked their vintage bikes alive—back from the dead…two-wheeled zombies resurrected from decades past as one of the new predominant trends of a special breed of twenty-somethings all over New York City and the rest of the country…a swarm of two-stroke whining and burning gasoline—a picnic of gear talk, grease streaks, oil stains and last-minute wrenching before the big ride, the biennial Come Out to Play Rally hosted by Bushwick’s Mission 23 moped gang and Second Stroke, their moped shop…the much anticipated group jaunt all over the City that ends with broken engines, foaming cans of beer and late-night dance parties at Bushwick bars. License plates from California, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Florida mingled in with the locals as the engines started…leather boots, cut-off jean jackets, sleeves of tattoos, “Fuck It, Let’s Ride” patches, mustaches, The Buzzards, Swoops, Pedal Cutters, BLKBLK, Humans Beans…all twisting the throttle as traffic stopped to let the swarm of fish pour onto Broadway, screaming north as a single unit like a freshly buttered chainsaw…

According to the New York City Department of Motor Vehicles, Brooklyn is the epicenter of the rise in moped use. In the past five years, there has been an 18.5 percent increase in moped registration, jumping from 548 in 2007 to 749 at the end of 2011, making a distinct impact not only on the streets directly, but also culturally—bringing people together with the common hobby of modifying and enjoying these novelty items. “[There are] people [coming] out of the works that I haven’t met before that have been riding mopeds,” explained Pete D’Addeo, member of Mission 23 and co-owner of Second Stroke, the only operating moped distribution and repair shop in New York City.  “I have seen a couple new groups form, and not that online-status sort of fame because that’s bologna anyway, but getting together and riding and having fun with their friends.”

“They are a part of history,” said avid mopedder and Misson 23 member Stinky, wiping grease off his fingers and rolling up a cigarette in the front room of Second Stroke a few days before the big rally. “They don’t make these shits like they used to. I first bought a moped nine years ago. Ever since then, I got hooked, dude.” 

    The first thing you have to know about mopeds is: Don’t call it a scooter. Although similar in the fact that they are a smaller, alternative, two-wheeled form of transportation, there are some distinct differences that make mopeds stand out. “With mopeds, you sit on it like a motorcycle, legs straddled, “D’Addeo explained. “It’s definitely more aggressive than a scooter. [A scooter] is like sitting on a toilet—legs together,” he continued, wincing. “Mopeds have always been cheaper than scooters,” said Ari Sneider, co-owner, with D’Addeo, of Second Stroke. “[Mopeds] are a no-frills kind of vehicle. It’s less about vanity with these and more about straight-up functionality. And the legal barriers are already there, too.” 

Aside from getting 100 miles-per-gallon and boasting an affordable price tag of around $1,000 (less than half of a new Vespa scooter), these gas-powered, two-stroke, pedal-accented machines run under a specific set of rules when it comes to registration and operation. You do not need a motorcycle license to operate a moped. You do not need insurance for older models. You do not need the original title to register—just a bill of sale. You do not need an inspection sticker. You can park it on the sidewalk like a bicycle. And, above all, they are completely customizable. “You get people that are just looking for that functionality and then there’s some people that are actually married to the aesthetic of these bikes now,” explained Sneider, draining the remaining bits of gasoline out of the carburetor of a sunflower yellow ‘ped. “It represents something vintage with them. There is something to say about the unique aesthetic of mopeds versus scooters.”

    People ride mopeds in New York City for various reasons. “I think most people go for mopeds because they want to stop taking the subway, feel good and refreshed when they get to work—not hot and sweaty from riding a bike or just really lethargic because they were on the subway,” D’Addeo said, who first started riding mopeds when he moved to Brooklyn five years ago. “I find mopeds fucking easy and convenient to get around. I don’t want to be looking at sweaty fucking people on the train and shit,” boasted Stinky, dragging on his cigarette. “It’s just frustration, you know? I don’t want a car no-more. I had mad cars,” he continued. “I’d drive around my car, bring my friends in there and drive them everywhere. Waste gas. Headache. Parking. Tickets. Insurance. With a moped, it’s get-up-and-go.” 

    “Everyone sees them now, that’s why they have been growing so fast in the past five years,” said Gian D’Angelo, another Mission 23 member. “The gangs formed [five years ago] and then the friends of the gangs wanted one and so on. Especially in Bushwick,” he continued, fiddling with an old sparkplug. “When I got into it, it was definitely a smaller crowd,” said D’Addeo. “[There were] only about 15 or 20 kids that were really into it. It doesn’t take much to say, ‘We are a group now—us guys.’ No one was doing that in New York until more recently—and that makes it more viral.”

“Everyone wants to be different, which is ironic because they try to be different by doing what other people are doing,” explained D’Angelo. Larry Au, an old-school gear-head who previously raced motorcycles, summed up D’Angelo’s point in a much more blunt way: “Hipsterdump: The influx of hipsters wanting to look cool [by riding mopeds.]”

    “I think that part has died, Larry,” D’Addeo sitting next to Au, rebutted.

    “Well, there’s always a new generation that comes along,” Au continued. “Look,” he said, talking to me, “I ride mopeds because I have motorcycles and racebikes. And for the City, it just makes more sense. With mopeds, you can make them go fast, but it’s a lot of work. It’s like old-school engine tuning. It’s nothing but handwork. It’s gratifying because I can build something that I don’t have to plug a damn computer into.” D’Addeo agreed with Au on this last part: “If you have the slightest lick of desire, you can do cool little things to make [mopeds] your own. And that’s where it gets exciting.” 

    The customization of mopeds is what really weeds out the dedicated riders from the hipsters. Because it does take time and effort to keep these things running fluidly, (“Older mopeds are not that reliable, although newer ones are better,” admitted D’Addeo) the group of truly die-hard riders stays tight-knit. In any case, the influx of mopeds in Brooklyn— chopped, screwed, kitted, zinged or otherwise—have caught the attention of the NYPD. 

    “When I first rode, I definitely got pulled over a lot for no reason at all,” D’Addeo confided. “They wanted to know what I was riding. I was getting tickets for not having the proper helmet or inspection stickers and all this stuff we don’t have to worry about. But it’s definitely getting better. There are still occasions when people get pulled over for that crap, but if you go to court and fight them you win.” D’Addeo alone has won nine out of the 12 times he has gone to court to fight a ticket. “Some cops pull you over and they are just total assholes,” Gian D’Angelo said plainly, continuing to say that police are mainly ignorant of the rules and regulations surrounding these niche machines. The NYPD was unavailable for comment on the issue. 

    Mopeds were originally manufactured as a cheaper alternative to scooters in post World War II Europe, whose car markets were on the rocks. And as the economic squeeze made its way over to the States, mopeds soon followed. “It was a utilitarian thing,” explained Sneider. “Gas was expensive in the 70s—a gas crisis. Mopeds were super fuel efficient, and they still are.” But as the glam-mentality of the 1980s gave way to flashy cars, neon and glitter, mopeds fell by the wayside. It wasn’t until the late 90s in Kalamazoo, Michigan that mopeds began their resurrection. 

    “Originally, it was just about the whole gang thing—a community aspect,” explained Dan Kastner, owner of 1977 Mopeds, a parts and service shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and one of the originators of the moped resurgence. “We were watching a lot of Warriors and a themed gang was near to our hearts.” Within a couple years, Kastner and his clan’s initiative was growing from a hometown pastime to a national phenomenon with the help of the Internet. They started MopedArmy, an online forum and database for moppeders from all over the country to use as a one-stop-shop for advice, local community information, and a classifieds listing service. “It started as a tool to organize [the moped culture],” Kastner said. “It facilitated growth locally.” Although in his 15th season on a moped, Kastner explains that the majority of the culture’s growth has been recent. “The past five years have really taken off,” he said. “It’s crazy to see it grow like it has. At first, there was no network for parts. And now, [1977 Mopeds] is a big business for mopeds,” with a worldwide customer base. MopedArmy is still going strong, too, with 22 official gangs from all over the country under its umbrella. “It takes a bit to get official—voting and all that,” Kastner confided, saying there are dozens of non-official gangs scattered throughout the country, as well. “There are 550 official members of the MopedArmy and thousands of people that visit the website daily.” 

    There has also been a rise in gangs overseas in countries like Finland and France, where moped parts are still manufactured new for older bikes. “In Europe, they are fucking heavy, man,” Stinky admitted. But, on the home front, a lot of mopedders have to be a little more resourceful. “Five years ago you had to scour eBay to just find parts,” Gian D’Angelo told me. “Now, shit, kids are just making their own parts.” Indigan Mopeds, out of Illinois and Michigan, has been manufacturing their own parts for just under a year. Wesley Kim, a leader in heavily-customized mopeds, is general manager for the company and tours around the country promoting the brand. Outside of Second Stroke, before the rally, he was putting finishing touches on his white-tanked moped, faced with Indigan decal stickers. “We are just supporting this culture,” he said. “I was picked up by Indigan and now I build bikes, go to rallies and design parts,” he continued, explaining he has been traveling all around the country for months. “It’s never-ending. But I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s the raddest shit ever.” 

    A roar of chanting boomed down Ingraham Street in Bushwick just after midnight as the post-rally party peaked at Brooklyn Fire Proof—dozens of mopeds lined up along the sidewalk, kids dancing in clusters atop wooden picnic tables in the back of the outdoor seating area, “Niggas in Paris” chugging along through the speakers. Spilled beer and lit cigarettes and rally-chat in small circles around the party with some riders more drunk than others, taking down rounds of cheap whiskey out of plastic cups…giving way to an announcement of a midnight ride…one last jaunt before the rally came to a close and the weekend was over and the wait settled in for the next group outing somewhere…anywhere and by anyone who would host a place to come together, twist throttles and scream in unison down dimly-lit streets. Two dozen mopedders lined up in formation, punching their chainsaws to start and headed off again to nowhere in particular…one single unit…a gang…a community…a family.