Beauty and The Beast

Lee Henry meets Daryl Maxwell for a custom job

Daryl Maxwell’s work raises a contentious question: what exactly is art? Is it a fresco on the ceiling of a chapel or an unmade bed in the middle of a gallery space? An indecipherable sculpture or a custom painted motorcycle? We all have our preferences and our own points of view. But for Daryl Maxwell, there is no argument: it’s the bike every time.

If there’s one thing that bikers like more than their wheels, their leathers and their speed dials, it’s a good custom paint job. In garages and cluttered gardens across the land you’ll find them, weak at the knees and watery-eyed. Grown men reduced to tears over a lick of paint. Possibly there’s a Freudian explanation for it all – (show me the biker with a new paint job and I’ll show you the child at seven) – but that’s not for us to say.

Petrol heads may argue that motorcycles are cleverly designed, skilfully constructed, beautifully proportioned works of art in themselves. But even the most ardent of purists would have to concede that it’s the external aesthetic of a good paint job that really gets the blood flowing.

And when the two worlds of fine art and motorcycling collide, there can only ever be one winner: the man with the custom paint on his hands.

Having been commissioned to airbrush a number of scenes from the Alien movie series onto the various parts of a black Harley Davidson, Maxwell – one of Northern Ireland’s foremost airbrush artists - is hard at work when I arrive, top of the range Iwata airbrush in hand.

‘I’ve been working on this bike for about three weeks now,’ Maxwell explains. ‘With this particular job, the guy brought in a book for me to look at with various pictures from the film and picked out a couple of things that he wanted me to work on.’

Although a lot of Maxwell’s output is produced using stencils, the more complicated freehand designs like the Alien sketches better showcase his artistic talent.

‘Firstly I draw the outline of the picture onto the bike with a pencil and then just free hand over the pencil with the airbrush afterwards. At that stage, it’s all in black over silver.

‘The final stage is to coat the bike with coloured paint - in this case with a candy red colour. So when it’s finished, the work underneath will show up through the red outer coat. There are a number of layers of paint that build up, one over the other.

‘It takes somewhere in the region of three to four weeks until a job like this is done and dusted, although I have been working on other things at the same time. If I wasn’t so busy, I could probably wipe it out in two weeks.’

In 2002 Maxwell set up his own vehicle repair and restoration company, Maxport, along with his friend Brian Porter, and now specialises in customising cars and bikes of all shapes and sizes.

Further down the line, the men operate noisy machines on other bikes. We expected high jinx and hilarity, Motorhead in the background and porn on the walls. But here in Maxwell’s storeroom cum studio, it’s almost funereal in its stillness. Airbrushing is a delicate business.

‘I’m self-taught,’ he says, dressed in overalls and coated with dust, as humble and unassuming a man as you’re ever likely to meet. ‘It all started when I drew a picture of a smoking gorilla that I wanted on one of my own bikes. I went to have it priced and the guy told me that it would have cost about £110, so I decided I’d give it a go myself.

‘I did art at school. I have an ‘O’ Level in art, like everyone else I suppose. But that’s about as far as it went until I started airbrushing.

‘So I’ve been doing it on and off now for about ten years in total. The first six years were experimental, getting used to the airbrush and the paint and learning how to freehand. I did a couple of jobs for my friends – cartoon characters and things like that. And it just progressed from there. I’ve been airbrushing professionally now for the last four years.’

In the age of Pimp My Ride and the ever popular Orange County Choppers, it’s no wonder Maxwell’s airbrushing idol is an American: Mike Lavallee, airbrush artist to the stars.

‘It is mostly American artists that I admire,’ he confesses. ‘And Mike Lavellee is probably the best airbrush artist when it comes to bikes and cars. He does a lot of business with celebrities. You name it, he’s airbrushed it. He’s even painted helicopters. I’ve learnt a lot from his work over the years.’

For Daryl Maxwell, it’s a lifestyle thing. He’s driven bikes all of his life, and what started out as an obsession restoring old Fords has now become a full-time job.

‘It’s good to see the customer’s faces when they come in to collect their bikes,’ he says, showing me a fuel tank customised to look like a tin of Guinness. ‘Seeing that they appreciate what you’ve done, that’s what you get the buzz out of: that sense of satisfaction. It’s one of the main reasons that do what I do.’

Check out Daryl’s website to see more of his work.