Copper in the Arts

August 2011

On the Road to High Art: Copper Mike's Artisan Motorcycles

By Nancy Ballou

Copper Chopper The COPPA CHOPPA. A Gravesend "Copper Mike" designed Motorcycle.

Photograph courtesy of Michael Cole

Michael Cole developed an early appreciation for fine details. After years of working with high-end clients in the retail construction industry, he honed that appreciation into the acute sense of style he now uses to fabricate the world's most exclusive and luxurious motorcycles, handcrafted with copper.

His love affair with being on two wheels began when he rode a dirt bike at age 14 and the thrill of riding inspired him to buy his own before his 18th birthday. However, his dream to build a luxury, high performance motorcycle from the ground up was not accomplished overnight. Never deterred by a challenge, Cole bought into an existing shop restoring and rebuilding vintage pieces and customizing new ones, constantly learning as he went. After years of working with a partner, he branched off on his own to pursue his creative visions. Today, he specializes in building one-of-a-kind, perfectly tuned driving machines with fine finishes like hand hammered copper, platinum leaf and blown glass.

Cole combines a refreshing blend of old and new to create his one-off masterpieces that are works of art in their own right. For one piece, he obtained a 1972 Harley Shovelhead and collaborated to modify the motor to accept 1940s cylinders and cylinder heads. The copper plated frame and the paint work with matching metal flake seem to breathe new life into a classic design. Graphics on both sides of the oil tank depicting the Brooklyn Bridge serve as a subtle reminder of Cole's roots. He titled the bike GRAVESEND and its legend appears across the face of the fuel tank. Both the motorcycle and his business, Gravesend Cycles, are named after his hometown of Gravesend, Brooklyn.

One early production of Cole's is a rigid framed 1939 Harley Knucklehead with hand sculpted, hammered and brazed copper rear fender, gas tank and oil tank.

Michael Cole "Copper Mike" - Michael Cole at the PJS Exhibition Bespoke.

Photograph by Paul David

"I started bending the fender in the two necessary directions, spent days and days beating the copper but couldn't get it right," Cole says. "So I decided to trash it and start over. I soon realized I had been further along than I originally thought and went back to my first attempt then finished in a week or two." He added a customized leather seat and COPPA CHOPPA was born.

The bobber branded him with his industry name "Copper Mike." Besides being a beautiful work of art that has appeared in several photo shoots, it has sentimental value. Until recently, he kept it for his own personal use. With the opening of his exhibit "Bespoke: Words by Copper Mike Cole" at P.J.S. Exhibitions gallery in the West Village, N.Y., he decided to make this piece available to the public as part of his collection.

"His bikes are pieces of art," Owner of P.J.S., Patrick Sullivan, remarked of the exhibition. "You discover new exquisite details, finishes and accents every time you walk around them." Sullivan was especially impressed by rims wrapped in leather.

Cole says, "I always loved the look of copper and was drawn to it organically. I wanted to use something other than steel for my gas tanks. So, I buy 16-gauge copper sheets, cut out patterns and hand hammer. I taught myself copper brazing and how to use silver sod. I feel this method handles the vibrations better than traditional soldering. Sometimes I put copper plating over steel because I love the tone, especially the final look whether patina, polished or both."

Cole's is an open-ended, always-evolving creative process. It can take six months to build one bike. He starts with vintage Harley motors, then modifies the existing parts or makes his own from scratch until they meet his exacting specifications. His artistry is eclectic. He incorporates precious metals and attends antique swap meets for pieces that can adorn his bikes. He's been known to put one project aside when suddenly inspired to create something else.

Copper Chopper Close Up Copper Embellished Motorcycle Close up.

Photograph by Paul David

"Sometimes an idea just pops into my head and I will get up in the middle of the night, clear the current project off my work bench and start on something new," Cole reveals. "When I finish, I go back to the bike I was working on." 

He can assist clients in bringing their dreams to fruition by designing and building individualized and custom tailored motorcycles. But, like most artists, he prefers to create what is in his own mind as an outlet for himself.

A copper-plated clock and a piece of artwork containing original copper pennies and featuring the adage "A Penny For Your Thoughts" are among his designs. Though he has never played guitar, after spotting a metal steel bodied one while shopping for antiques, he built a hand hammered copper resonator guitar that he says "looks like a piece of jewelry." He also restored a 1960 vintage Schwinn bicycle with custom leather seat, a copper frame and metallic root beer fenders. He has even designed and made limited edition copper dog tags.

Cole's work has been catching the eye of some famous collectors and celebrities. After reviewing his work along with many others, a Cole's bike and various pieces were chosen by Lady Gaga to adorn the stage of her May 23rd album release "Born This Way." For publicity photos, the stage at New York's Union Square Best Buy was strewn with motorcycle parts. Complimentary to Lady Gaga's original style and flair, PRECIOUS METAL with its platinum leaf frame, 14-karat gold gas cap and starter button, gold leaf on the tank, a battery box covered in leather, plus the trademark copper oil tank, was a perfect marriage.

A Gravesend Motorbike STEAMPUNK. A Gravesend "Copper Mike" designed Motorcycle.

Photograph by Paul David

Cole has received honors at most major U.S. motorcycle shows. Articles about him have appeared in "New York Times," "Forbes," "Renegade Magazine" and numerous other prestigious motorcycle magazines. Though his roots are in Brooklyn/Long Island, he now has a large following in Europe after exhibiting in France and Monte Carlo. In 2010, during Art Basel in Miami,his bikes appeared in the window of the Atrium as well as in the Mamushka Gallery. Discovery Channel filmed an episode of his work for their show "Two Wheel Thunder." And, if you should see a trailer rolling down the highway painted like a replica of a New York City subway car, that could be Copper Mike on his way to Las Vegas Bike Fest where he will be showing at "Artistry in Iron" from September 30 to October 2.

Cole inspiration is often sparked by the influence of his friends and clients.

"They began telling me my work had a steampunk style," he recalls. "So, I researched that and came up with ideas for my newest creation, STEAMPUNK. I used antique fire extinguishers for the floorboards and rear fender. Originally, fire extinguishers were made of copper and brass. The coil cover was cut from various antique brass parts. Vintage submarine cabin entry and warning lights were modified to function as the headlights and taillights and are just a few of the details that complete this piece".

It is his use of copper, though, that truly sets Cole apart as a motorcycle builder and artist. His application of uncommon finishes has drawn the attention of those in the motorcycle, art and luxury design worlds. He pushes the boundaries of his artwork experimenting with new ways to etch and patina copper. Never to be outdone, he attempts techniques that keep him on the cutting edge of design and his labor has not gone unnoticed.


Michael "Copper Mike" Cole discusses several custom-built copper-accented Harley motorcycles, and other copper-based art projects.

Michael Cole Gravesend Cycles, 805 Albin Avenue, Lindenhurst, NY 11757, (631) 433-3173

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