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Crafting Filipinx visibility in the Bay Area’s Custom Motorcycle Scene with Alvin Dizon

Alvin Dizon at a Moto Social event on September 20, 2022 in San Francisco, California. Photo: Jen Rocha

Alvin Dizon is becoming a familiar face in Bay Area motorcycling circles, building custom bikes, organizing local gatherings for motorcycle enthusiasts, and sharing their stories. His work with other Asian American motorcyclists troubles a trope of motorcycle culture: that it’s an exclusive space for outlaws, renegades, and fugitives — many of whom are white. His ability to tell inclusive, empathetic stories stirs up social impulses in friends and strangers alike.

After riding out from his Daly City home to a beachfront café in Pacifica, California, Dizon shared his artistic philosophy: “I live my life trying to make magic with little to nothing at all.”

Dizon is a second-generation Filipino American born and raised in the Bay Area. His mother is from Ilocos Norte, and his father is from Manila. As a youth, Dizon watched his father tinker out of his garage and quickly followed suit.

“I liked to create things in lots of different mediums,” Dizon recalled. “As a kid, I liked to draw and sketch. Then it turned into building things with my hands.”

In 2018, Dizon and his wife caught the riding bug while visiting the Philippine island of Siargao. There, small, low-powered improvised habal-habal motorcycles transport tourists across its 170-square-mile locale.

“At the time, I had very little experience riding any type of motorcycle,” Dizon said. “I remember that sense of just being on the road and not wanting it to end. When I got back, I told my wife I was getting a motorcycle, and I did.”

When he returned from the Philippines, Dizon purchased a used 2007 Honda Shadow and learned how to “chop up” his ride as he went. His personal build is now iconic: a worn tuck-and-roll seat, whitewall tires, high handlebars, a brass knuckle shifter, a Filipino vinegar bottle for a coolant overflow tank, and decals paying homage to his Filipino American identity and Daly City roots.

Dizon’s ride showcases the chopper style of motorcycles. Riders modify their machines to fit their personalities, match their riding preferences, and satisfy their needs for self-expression. This approach to motorcycle customization reflects a counter-cultural impulse within a subculture historically associated with nonconformity.

“The word ‘chopper’ and the style of the motorcycle had a rebellious undertone to it,” Dizon said.

While Dizon eventually became attracted to the subversive cultural potentials of chopper building, he admits that it took time for him to warm up to this customized aesthetic. His reservations stemmed from perceptions that chopper building was cost prohibitive or solely for folks who owned Harley-Davidsons — popular associations reinforced through films like “Easy Rider” (1969) and “Hell Ride” (2008) and television series like “Sons of Anarchy” (2008-2014). There was also the added dynamic of being a Filipino American in spaces historically associated with whiteness.

Dizon credits the folks of LNSPLTBLVD, a group of Asian Americans based in San Jose, California, for stoking his enthusiasm for choppers, teaching him how to customize bikes, and emphasizing that Asian Americans have a long history of occupying motorcycling spaces.

“This group of Asian guys that are into choppers and bobbers, and they build and ride their own bikes — it’s just such a badass concept,” Dizon said.

Dizon’s admiration for LNSPLTBLVD stemmed from their mechanical skills and attitudes toward personalizing their rides. His subsequent collaborations with LNSPLTBLVD also underscore an important facet of his experience building and riding motorcycles: that those involved are searching for community. This has a historical precedent.

The history of Asian American bikers reaches back at least half a century. Asian American veterans of World War II were some of the first thrill-seeking riders around the Bay Area. By the 1960s, the “Golden Age of Choppers” included a vibrant Asian American cohort of bikers. San Francisco’s Chinatown, North Beach, and Japantown became epicenters of Asian American chopper culture. Activism against the war in Vietnam and the rise of the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State University heightened the gravitational pull of these artisan rebels. Filipino Americans were right in the middle of it. The power of these historical legacies reflects in why Dizon loves taking apart old bikes.

Photo: Jen Rocha
Photo: Jen Rocha

“There’s something about old relics that have already seen so much,” Dizon said. “I really like the soul that old things have and the stories they hold. It takes a while to breathe life into something so modern.”

Dizon’s love of a good story energized his efforts to build an archive of Bay Area motorcycling. In 2020, he and Christopher Hugo founded Heartbreak Moto, an inclusive motorcycle lifestyle art-brand intent on sharing the pair’s creative visions.

Inspired by LNSPLTBLVD’s work, Dizon and Hugo hoped to cultivate a following out of Daly City by sharing their chopper builds on their YouTube channel. Thanks to Dizon’s penchant for storytelling, that’s exactly what happened. His work with Hugo has earned him staunch support, especially from viewers inspired by his positionality as a Filipino American chopper builder.

“A lot of people that view my content are starting to be more inspired by the fact that I am a Filipino American learning how to build these things and navigate my way through the chopper community,” he said.

There is power behind representation. It’s a belief of Dizon’s that stems from his college years as an Asian American Studies student at San Francisco State University.

“Learning about my culture through people who look like me was eye-opening,” Dizon said. “I had no intention of learning or wanting to learn that. It just kind of happened that way, and I started embracing it.”

Dizon sees representation as a way to open doors for those interested in being part of motorcycle communities but may be intimidated by its traditional associations with outlaws and renegades. He encourages folks to reach across the largely imagined boundaries between motorcyclists and those who may be hesitant to get on two wheels.

“A lot of us stay away from certain things because we’re afraid of what our parents told us or how you’ll be portrayed if you get into this kind of thing,” Dizon mused. “There’s something to be said when somebody looks like you and is doing amazing things. You feel more empowered to do them also.”

Moto Social organizers Alvin Dizon and Allan Aguas with their bikes on September 20, 2022 in San Francisco, California. Photo: Jen Rocha

The core of Dizon’s work is community. In 2020, he began organizing with The Moto Social. A brainchild of Toronto riders in 2013, The Moto Social has since grown into a global series of gatherings spanning twenty-five cities across seven countries, including San Francisco. The event values inclusivity above all else, and its success hinges on community builders like Dizon, who are committed to bringing people together.

“I want to highlight and put more emphasis on our culture as Filipino Americans in the motorcycle community, even if it’s just us, showing up to more events and just being who we are,” he said.

In his journey to learn how to hone his creative skills through motorcycle building, Dizon is doing something remarkable. He is showing people the magic that happens when you pursue your passions grounded in your roots.

“Like many other things in life, you just have to take a leap of faith,” Dizon said.

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