This mid-90s t-shirt puzzled me at first. It looked like a biker gang shirt, but what was the Big Red Machine? A biker gang? I’d never heard of it.
As it turns out, I had. Just not under that name.
Tee shirts bearing the words “Big Red Machine” or “81” are sold by chapters of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club to raise money for chapter operations. “Big Red Machine” is an alternate name for the Hells Angels, whose colors are red-on-white. “81” stands for H and A, the eighth and first letter of the alphabet respectively.
(NOTE: I was interested to learn that the t-shirt illustration above was the work of Moishe Brenman, a well-known skateboard deck artist in ’90s Santa Cruz. He died a few years ago — yes, I’ve got a t-shirt from a sort of memorial hot dog roast held in his honor– and I found this illustration in one of his online portfolios.)
The Angels will not sell you a t-shirt with the actual words “Hells Angels” on it, or the club’s death’s head logo. Nor do they approve of anyone else selling such clothing. Because by club bylaws, only initiated members of the Angels can wear clothing bearing the club name and the club’s death’s head.
While this is by no means civil law, the Hells Angels’ well-documented reputation has given pause to many. It is difficult to find any shirt like that on the open market. And if you do, you should think twice about buying it.
Ray “Spawn Till You Die” Troll, the noted Alaskan fish artist and t-shirt publisher, at one time designed and printed a t-shirt with the legend “Hell’s Anglers” and a drawing of an angry leather-clad gentleman riding a Harley while casting with a fishing rod.
Not long after, some of Troll’s distributors in the lower 48 passed him the word: the Hells Angels were not happy about the shirts. Really not happy. Troll took “Hell’s Anglers” out of distribution and later repurposed the design as “Rebel Without a Cod.” The original “Hell’s Angler’s” t-shirts became collector’s items. Of course.
“Big Red Machine” and “81” tees are known as “support wear;” wearing them means that you support the principles of the Hells Angels, even though you’re not a member.
The words “Known Associate” often appear somewhere on the tee as well: police jargon for someone who’s known to hang out with criminals.
The chapter support shirts shown here are pretty typical; some get way more extreme.
In conclusion, I’ll say what I always say about t-shirts beaing messages: when you put on the tee, you become the message. In this case, you are transmitting the principles of the Hells Angels, screaming skulls and all. The Angels wouldn’t mind. But who else might?
Be advised. The t-shirt aisle in the thrift shop is sometimes a minefield.
One final note: the club’s name is properly written “Hells Angels,” without the possessive apostrophe. The Hells Angels FAQ entry about the missing apostrophe simply says, “You may miss it. We don’t.”