This mid-90s t-shirt puzzled me for a bit: it looked like a biker gang shirt. But what was the Big Red Machine? Never heard of it.
Well, I had. Just not under that name.
Tee shirts bearing the words “Big Red Machine” or “81” are published 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.
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 have a well-documented reputation that gives 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. Perhaps three times.
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 that Hells Angels had complained about the shirts. Troll took the shirt out of distribution; the ones already sold became collector’s item.
“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 message-bearing t-shirts: when you put on the tee, you become the message. You are supporting the principes of the Hells Angels, screaming skulls and all. The Angels wouldn’t mind that at all. 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.”
Interesting! Like other fraternal secret societies, they have their “secret” code signs, which are not really all that secret, but neither is a lot of the secret stuff of groups like Masons. Besides the 81 t-shirts and *official* leather jackets, some Hells Angels like to sport a 1% patch, which references an American Motorcycle Association statement about how 99% of motorcycle riders are law-abiding people. Probably best to avoid wearing such stuff unless one is really a fan and supporter of the Hells Angels.
There are other patches as well, like “The Filthy Few,” which may indicate that the wearer has killed someone for the club; others say it means that someone has done time for club activities.
The one-percenter patch is interesting. I’ve also heard that the term is generic to any outlaw motorcycle club, but I don’t really know. I do know that the term “one-percenter” is most often used with the Angels. Some time back I picked up a tee from a building contractor in Silicon Valley who specialized in framing up luxury homes. In emphasizing how great this guy was, the tee described him as a “one-percenter.” That term was used on his website, too.
Now, many Angels are in the trades. He has got to know what “one-percenter” means. I looked around the net to see what I could find about the guy — just that he frames a lot of houses, has a loving wife, and plays a lot of golf. But I do have to wonder if this solid citizen has got a Harley and a set of colors in the garage, just ready to go.