Mike Calderone: A Modern-Day Master
By George P. Blumberg and Photos By Nick Baratta
It was an ironic coincidence that among the two-dozen talented motorcycle artists competing in the First Annual Super Sunday North American Paint-Off, a real Michelangelo was part of the group. Who would have suspected? Yet his talent shone through, and he netted overall First Place.
Although Michelangelo Buonarroti – the world-renowned Italian master painter whose influence on the development of Western art is unparalleled – died in Florence in 1564, Michael Angelo Calderone, born in 1970 and winner of the aforementioned spring paint competition, is very much still with us. Even before his big win, Calderone was acknowledged as one of the top motorcycle painters in the country, and despite his graphic talent and apt moniker, everyone simply knows him as Mike Calderone, the guy who runs Cycle-Delics, a custom motorcycle shop in Long Island, New York.
“I was confirmed with the name Michael Angelo,” admitted the low-key maestro, almost apologetically. “It had nothing to do with the artist, but was a combination of my grandfather’s names.
“I’ve been quiet about it and never used it. Anyone who reads this is gonna bust my chops,” he said laughing. More seriously, he added, “Actually, if anyone said I was a Michelangelo of motorcycle are, I’d have a funny feeling about it. Frankly I’d never represent myself that way to anybody.”
This modesty is not surprising to those who know the mild-mannered super-painter, who, at 5’9 and 180lbs., vaguely resembles actor Charlie Sheen despite his glasses, combination moustache/goatee, and a collection of tattoos that includes two full sleeves, a gargoyle on his back, and a right leg covered with demons. He lives in a once rundown neighborhood currently on the rise in a modest three-bedroom with his wife, Marjorie, and 13-year-old daughter, Sara. His extravagances are his “dog-house” – the hangout over the garage where he paints on canvas while watching a big screen TV – and his ’48 Chevy half-ton pickup truck with a ’60 Caddy rear-body graft and ‘vette small block mill. He speaks with a modified New Yawk accent, but don’t let that throw you, because his vocabulary – sprinkled with “Ya know, bro” – is college-level, even though the only B.A. he’s gotten was from the school of hard knocks. He speaks warmly in a genuinely friendly way, seemingly focused only on you.If Calderone is boastful at all, it’s about how he’s able to get into customer’s heads. “Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, I can create [what customers imagine, but are unable to articulate]. What I hear from customers when I show them the finished bike is that it far exceeded what was in their heads originally. So I have to assume I have the knack of getting into someone’s mind. I ask customers to just try to describe what’s in their head.
sk customer “Part of my talent is to visualize it and then create it,” he explained. “I have a knack for being able to please anyone. It’s stressful to do that, but I can by putting everything I have into each job. I may have ten jobs at a time various stages, but when a bike comes to my department for artwork, I concentrate 150% on getting it right. If I love it, the customer will too. I could always stop at a point where it’s just good enough and quit, but I never do. I keep going ‘till I’m pleased that extra notch.”
In addition to painting motorcycles, Mike Calderone colors canvas, and creates murals in the McMansion-like homes of upscale customers, including ceiling scenes. “I know about the Sistine Chapel work he did,” Calderone said, referring to his namesake. “I think he worked 16 inches from the ceiling surface, on his back. I appreciate that difficulty. I’ve done some ceiling murals, and it’s like working backwards. I’ve don’t the remnants of a castle wall and a church-type ceiling broken through with blue sky and clouds. I’ve also done roses and vines.”
Unlike the maestro of old, Calderone’s principal instrument is the airbrush, whether painting motorcycle graphics, a wall, or a ceiling. “Sometimes in a house I have to switch to a brush when the pickup bottle in the airbrush can’t defy gravity.”
When asked if he thought Michelangelo could have done a bike tank (the Italian artist designed a helicopter and other vehicles, so he probably would have had an interest in motorcycles, right?) Calderone laughed, then said: “Well, first of all, a ceiling is a flat surface and a tank is a sphere. Its really uncomfortable doing a ceiling, but spheres are [also] tough to paint. Anyone who’s painted a sphere knows the challenge of wrapping the art around it in the right perspective. But I’m sure the master could have done spheres.
“This [must] sound awful,” he said with a chuckle and a shake of his head, hastening to clarify: “I would never, ever have the conceit to put myself in the same breath as him.”
Yet, Calderone relishes the respect he receives as an artist. “My customers are from all walks of life: doctors, cops, lawyers… everyone. And they all treat me with the same respect. For instance on the road I might get hassled and pulled over as a biker riding one of my wiled choppers. But in here, the cops and everyone treat me with respect, as the artist who can make their vision come to life.”
Was it destined that a boy so named would pursue a life of art? Calderone’s talent was largely self-developed, learned through a tough upbringing. Growing up in Massapequa on Long Island, he was mechanically tinkering by the fourth grade. “ I was building mini-bikes and bicycles and painting and selling them. I started with an airbrush when I was 13,” he recalled. “I used to airbrush t-shirts at flea markets, and the back of denim jackets with rock band’s logos for the neighborhood guys.
When the guys riding bikes saw the jackets, I have no choice and started painting jackets for them.”
Calderone was on his own at age 15 after his folks split up and the grandmother he was living with passed away. “I never had art training” he said. “ I was offered scholarships in high school, but I had to work full-time to support myself.” He dropped out of the 11th grade but went back to summer school in the 12th grade and got his diploma.
Then began a pattern of working in body shops during the day, and on bikes at night and on weekends. “at one point, I luckily worked at the Patterson Brothers’ shop” he told. “These guys did the cool, chopped cars, hot rods and the coolest bikes. I learned so much there, like welding and molding and experimenting with paint.”
Following that gig, Calderone was running his own body shop, building his own Panhead, when he met Rio (who, like Zorro and Cher, goes by a single name only) in 1988. Rio was building a custom Harley with an Atlas frame. “I think it was the first 200 tire,” Calderone said. “with special rims by RC Components before they got famous. Rio was getting his bike painted by a local guy who was not to reputable. I said: ‘Bring me your tin and I’ll get it done over the weekend.’ At the time, I was working 100 hours a week. I just kept going if there was work to be done, nonstop. So Rio and I built our bikes around the same time.”
Calderone worked this pattern of hot rods, collision shops and bikes until 1996, when he was burned out by the grueling schedule and realize he wanted to concentrate on bikes. Figuring he had enough motorcycle work to launch his own shop, he drove right into the deep end. “I grabbed Rio and said, ‘lets open a small shop and I’ll just paint my ass off,’” he recalled in this cavalier manner, Cycle-Delics was born.
“in the beginning, we had no rep, but we needed work to buy the paint for the next job,” Calderone said. “So Rio went out with photos and introduced us at dealerships all over. He’d come back with a truckload of parts, maybe four or five sets to paint. He’d prep them, I’d paint. Then after six months, we hired a helper.
“I did the best work I possibly could. Every job we did brought in one or two more. It multiplied through the years, and it’s how we get our clients – they see our work.” Today, Calderone does business with about 75%of the shops on Long Island. He has seven full-time employees, and Rio is still the front man. “He cushions me so I can paint,” Calderone said.
Although he harbors a personal preference for classic Harleys, Calderone doesn’t discriminate when it comes to work, and he’s been painting more and more metric cruisers lately. “We do about half a dozen complete builds a year, but a big part of our business is taking someone’s stock bike and customizing it,” he said. “We stretch tanks on FI FatBoys, which is rare because there are electronics in the tank. We take’em out, cut the bottom of the tank off, put the sending unit back in, and smooth things out.”
For imports, Calderone said standard procedure usually includes “stretching the tank and losing the big Christmas tree on the rear fender. We trim down all those light mounting brackets, French in the plate, mount LEDs, and do a paint job.” Cycle-Delics does all phases of fabricating, including framework and fender stretching.
“My principal canvases have been bikes, and my favorite style is the darker side of things,” he said. “Sure, I do fairies and flowers, but I love rotted, decayed, twisted themes.” But when it comes to what a customer wants, Calderone passes no judgment and delivers the goods as requested. “The customers want what they want,” he said. “Typically, everyone wants flames, and to me they’re boring, but I do them well. Mostly I like challenges… let’s see something like an evil goddess coming out of hell and pulling in a victim! It’s very rare to get total free reign on a bike; most customers provide boundaries, like: ‘I need purple,’ or ‘Stay with this type of graphic.’ I respect what they want, try to get inside their heads, and I give it to them.”
One of his favorites? “This guy who owns a tattoo shop in Nassau County wanted a series of twisted bizarre babies from a series of painting the German surrealist painter H.R. Geiger did, circa 1973, on his rigid custom. He budgeted 100 hours, and I can do phenomenal things in that much time,” Calderone boasted. “I wrapped the Geiger design around the frame, the fenders, and tank. I think even Geiger would have said: ‘How the hell do you do that?’ it was like painting a bowling ball! But the bike is beyond sick: it’s silver with a pewter base and all the artwork is done in black with white highlights. I made a wash of black, starting with dark and then going over it, blending it. White highlights are like the climax, the last big explosions in a fireworks display. The bike looks real sick, and it’s actually really disturbing.”
Calderone works for all budget levels with projects ranging from $500 to $10,000. “I’ve painted so many things I know roughly what it takes of me,” he said. “When a customer gives me an idea, I can say ‘you’re looking at 30 hours’ or if we have to eliminate some work. Hey if a guy has $500 and wants to do a little tribute to his wife or kid, that’s fine with me.”
With the wildly growing popularity of motorcycles, more people are looking for custom paint. Don Clady, organizer of the First Annual Super Sunday North American Paint-Off, which took place in May in Hartford, Connecticut, things television coverage, gives builders all the notoriety. “But line up al the bikes and strip the paint and how different are they?” he postulated. “Paint catches the eye. So we came up with a way for artists to get recognition and work on various projects and display them at our Super Sunday show in the art gallery area.” Artists submitted motorcycle-related art in various categories, including tanks, painted panels, and canvases.
“I was honored to be invited,” Calderone said. “I hadn’t done a canvas painting in 12 years, and I was excited to do it.” He submitted a 24” x 18” airbrush rendering using acrylic watercolors, done in what and different shades of black. “I did it to demonstrate motion,” he explained. “it was a face looking like it was shaking, a skull shaking back and forth. One half of the face had skin and flesh, the other side had a zombie effect, and the middle was a clean skull, for a transition of motion.”
Clady said 80 judges cast ballots. “Bones, Eddie Trotta’s painter, took best tank, Paul Terez took best miscellaneous for an air-brushed pedal car all flamed out, Splatterouse Graphics of New York took best oil painting, and Mike [Calderone] beat Mike Terwilliger by one vote for First Place Overall.”
“Mike Terwilliger is my personal hero,” said Calderone. “He comes from the same town I do, Massapequa. And I was just so proud.”
Mike views the popularity of motorcycling and the resultant television coverage phenomenal for business. “ People who never in their lives would have bought a motorcycle now go get one, and guess what? Well, you have to personalize it. Change the seat and bars. In the end, it has to look cool. I have a good aspect of the business because everyone will always need paint.