There is a Polaroid I assumed was teenage me: head down, fist ready to smash the gas tank of my 2000 Honda XR80 in utter frustration over something, either a crash or repeated failed attempts to kick-start the bike. Then I realized that it couldn’t be me – I didn’t own those clothes, I was much smaller than that. I was the photographer.

My dad had a Polaroid camera with a pack of unopened exposures tucked in the glove box of his impossibly messy three-toned (glossy red/primer pink/primer grey, those last two both being replacements from car crashes; 1: deer; 2: unknown) 1995 Dodge Ram.

Text & photos by
Brian Sokolowski

The person here is Riley E. (sharing the same first name as my childhood dog), fellow Orange Corners, ON, resident, my older brother’s age. I cannot tell you how utterly uncomfortable it is to ride a dirt bike in jeans and sneakers with holes in them. I had taken a file to the teeth of my foot pegs to make them sharper, as I insisted they added extra “grip” and therefore, more speed, by which I meant they would reveal my raw talent, but Riley’s loose acid-wash goopy camo jeans and oversized white T-shirt from a Variety Village Junior Camp, a Toronto-based children’s charity, didn’t stop him from being naturally faster and more risk taking than my father, my brother, or me. There is at once a vulnerability and a very “fuck it” attitude to this look, both of which were very Riley, in whom this duality repeatedly played out. I saw this in myself too.

A hyperactive intensity and general defiance tempered by a sensitivity and desire to exit the shadow of our own impulsivity and rage. He “saw” me too when I was a young teen, and this did not sit well with me.

The cyan and purple blur is my brother, Mark. In new Fox gear not yet distanced from the last gasp of late 90s day-glo moto gear fashion and wearing innocuous black Fox boots, Mark is well-protected and moto “passing”. My father’s palatable and sober black, white, and red Fox gear is planted in the dreaded early aughts of fashion, though far from the big, bland, and sexless masculinity at the end of the spectrum that haunts that era for me, both within moto fashion and without. Think giant Etnies shoes, oversized Randy River rayon shirts depicting dragons in a fire lightning storm, short hair with spikes.   

As with all fashion there is a resurgence of the era, retooled, made “better” years later as a fetish commodity, but the original iteration carries with it a particular trigger for me, vaguely centred around 9/11, adolescence, and the creeping doom and anxiety of that time. I also think of the era’s sports fashion in terms of Woodstock ‘99. That seething shitshow of Fred Durst fanboys – fitted backwards Yankees hats, big white shirts, and cargo shorts – a uniform for disaffection and sexual assault. For my early teenage self, the utter lack of options and the absence of disposable cash meant I never really got to choose the attire which best suited me. Instead, I settled for a very frustrating representation of a kind of aggro-dopey masculinity, an awkward truce between what was available and a vague sense of what I wanted.

My father and brother wore Fox, while I wore Thor. Fox had better ads, but Thor had the better gear. It fit a little tighter, was slightly less plain, had better colourways and managed to navigate, if only for a few years, the ugly transition from the day-glo goofiness of the 90s to the macho bag of the aughts. The last set I owned before I “retired” was black, yellow, and white with bold embossed rubber lettering and a two-toned Viking helmet logo that felt at once clean and busy, plus it contrasted nicely with the blue 2001 Yamaha YZ125 that I got when I was 15. This was paired with my beloved last set of boots, Alpinestars Tech 6. I bought them for $300 from another rider outside of a gas station somewhere in Southern Ontario. I added red and blue accents by hand. The red faded to pink.   

The pink inevitably drew subtle but unmistakably homophobic remarks from various basic moto bros, the aggro sarcasm of “nice boots!” followed by the self-satisfied laughter of schoolyard bullies was common when walking through the pits. God I loved those boots. I would often look down at them while railing a berm, admiring my handiwork. Vanity and speed aligned.

The only other Polaroid I have is of my father and my six-year-old self standing in the snow at the Chrysler dealership on Lansdowne St., Peterborough, when he bought his 1995 Dodge Ram. This and the Moto Polaroids are the only Polaroids I have. And while I’ve made thousands of 35mm and 120mm negatives since, I’ve never taken another Polaroid since that teenaged day on the track.  

I have no idea where the camera or exposures came from, perhaps from my father’s brother, alleged former amateur photographer-cum-Canadian Air Force Major à la bureaucratic class. When I was given these Polaroids a few years ago in a stack of keepsakes from my mother who felt her large house could no longer support them, while my very full 4 ½ in Montreal obviously could, I was disappointed that I was nowhere to be found in them (the curse of the image maker) but now as I look at the fuzzy, dust-blasted, perfectly saturated squares, I can recall the exact place on the jump I stood when I took that picture, the character of the dirt on that track, the smell, how many rocks there were. I can feel my gaze as it was then.

In 2010 a privateer (a non factory rider, aka a professional racer with little to no financial support) wore an all-pink outfit during the Toronto Supercross at the Rogers Centre. Throughout the evening’s events, any time this person rode, jeers and vicious homophobic slurs poured out of the row of bros sitting behind me. I cheered for this rider, who subsequently did not qualify for the main event, instead crashing twice.

Eleven years later, moto culture and moto fashion have changed somewhat, but as a fringe sport populated largely by rural white men, that change is minimal, and mostly superficial. Contemporary racing gear is more athletic and high-performance based, and the colourways and designs are dominated by unisex primaries, blacks, and whites. A throwback set is released each year or so, hearkening back to the early to mid-seventies, with sparse fuzzy browns and oranges. Mostly though, logos range in style from oversized full bleeds to the sickening and ever-present hyper minimalist style adopted by brands worldwide. 

See Thor, whose embossed helmeted godliness has been replaced by a whisper of the letters T-H-O-R, the first and last letters only half formed, suggesting the graphic designers of moto gear aren’t totally out of sync with larger corporate trends, sipping on a backwash of cultural momentum which speaks not to uniqueness or inclusion, but erasure.

There are some outliers still, even in Thor’s catalogue. One gear set in particular begs attention: Pulse Counting Sheep Charcoal/Acid (PCSC/A). Large murky neon green accents recall the heyday of day-glo, and easily the weirdest and queerest era for moto fashion: the mid 80s to late 90s. From here, however, PCSC/A manages, like a fishing trawler dragging a net through decades of fashion, culture, and iterations of masculinity, to pick up the trash from the aughts with the charcoal silhouette of a howling wolf against a chomped out swampy green moon across the shoulders and chest, the image of the lone wolf conjuring up iconography of white domestic terrorists, incels, and the dreaded Randy River

shirts of the past. This is then mixed with the frantic slate grey lettering (envision the Joker’s “Why so serious?” typeset) spelling out: “The wolf does not concern itself with the opinions of the sheep” across the legs and arms culminating in a bizarre soup of intergenerational fashion, one that reeks of Sigma-grindset and MAGA.

I love moto, and also moto fashion, despite its many missteps and despite many aspects of its culture being antithetical to me (the politics of its riders and fanbase, the baked-in misogyny and racism). A good moto jersey, when worn unironically, is to me both macho and sexy, filled with queering potential, signalling both a love of hard racing and motorsports, and also a love of fashion, of boldness, and of cultures that hover at the margins of the mainstream.

Rat Chat Magazine