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Flat Black

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Flat Black

I'd always deeply loved the idea of flat black. It was more than just a color; it was a way of thinking. I remember an English class in high school, where the teacher asked us all to describe ourselves in the form of a car. I chose flat black as the color. I don't remember what kind of car I was exactly, but I remember the reaction I got from other kids in the class. Some thought it was cool, others thought it was dumb, at the time I think I just said it to try and appear cool, but there's more to flat black than meets the eye.

I loved flat black whenever I saw it. Of course it appears in many of my favorite movies. It's the color of choice for vehicles that happen to be in any sort of wasteland movie: Mad Max, Road Warrior etc. etc. The list goes on and on. It's got an almost para-military feel; it's the color of drab, old school, communist eastern-bloc, dirty garaged vehicles. Then again it's sort of punk rock, it's the color of anarchy, it's the color of tear down the walls, and start over. It's the color of I don't care what you think. I didn't realize just how powerful it was until I used it.

I drive a lot, and I like to go to custom car shows. My wife and I had a habit of running into them wherever we seemed to be, for a while. Whenever we'd go on vacation, or go cruising on a weekend, we would see a line of old 50's or 60's cruisers on display. Every so often there was one painted in that amazing flat black. They might have had red wheels, or white wheels, and a little chrome on the engine, but they had that marvelous flat black paint job. It's kind of like a particular piece of clothing that you like to wear, that you think goes with everything; it probably doesn't go with everything, but you don't care, you wear it anyway.

Flat Black Honda Motorcycle
My love affair with flat black was off and on. By this, I mean I always loved flat black, but I didn't see it that often. The other day I was driving down I-95, trying to keep up with the ever-increasing speed of traffic, and I got passed by this guy driving some old flat black hot rod. It had a sign on it from some shop in Baltimore. The driver looked like he was on a mission. At that moment, he was the embodiment of the flat black philosophy. He looked as if he was heading for a car show somewhere, but I couldn't go, I had to go to work somewhere, all I could do was cruise along next to him, looking in awe at that fabulous black color.

I've ridden motorcycles for about 25 years now, and I've been fixing them up myself for about 10 years. I recently found a website called Ratbike.org that has pictures of lots of wonderful creations by fellow eccentrics, lots of which are flat black in color (yeah, I know, it sounds like geeky motorcycle porn), but I don't care. I always wanted to paint one of my motorcycles in flat black. Tank, fenders, frame, wheels, maybe even the engine. Flat black is the anti-chrome. Flat black looks like a favorite old, worn black denim jacket. And chrome. You know what I'm going to say, chrome looks like a cheesy 1970's glam rock shiny silver polyester leotard. Flat black is Angus Young's shorts and jacket. Chrome is Freddy Mercury's pants. All those guys who ride those chromed out bikes with the name of that company on everything they own (you know who you are, you know the name), ought to at least get paid for all that free advertising they are giving that company, maybe then they re-coup some of the cost of all the chrome. Flat black is cheap. Flat black is $1.79 a can for something colder than chrome. I just spent almost a whole weekend working on my latest fixer-upper bike...

I looked at this bike for a while. I'd had one of these bikes before, and it didn't work out. What I mean is, it needed too much work to get it back to where I thought it would have to get to, in order for me to make a decent profit. Luckily I had only paid $50 for it, so I sold it for $100 and moved on. Those late 70's Hondas were all wrong. It was a strange time for Honda. They were just beginning to lose their edge. They had been riding a wave of success since the late 50's when they devastated the American, and English bike companies. They brought out so many bikes. Too many bikes. They began to compete with themselves. There was nothing left to do, but fade out. They had elements from the 60's, that were beautiful, and elements that were almost new enough to be 80's, (basic electronic ignitions, basic mag wheels, and basic disc brakes) but not quite right yet, and combined that with godawfully ugly 70's paint jobs, put them all together and come up with bikes that looked just wrong in all aspects. Usually I only look at the price tag before I buy one to fix up. I've got an unwritten rule to never pay more than $500 for a bike. That way I'm only spending less than 1 percent of my income on what will usually end up being a toy. I usually do an inventory before I fix up a bike, you know, quick list just to see what it needs. Carbs cleaned, paint job, fenders fixed. New plugs, wires, maybe a battery, maybe some this or that. I love all motorcycles. I love scooters. I love mopeds. I love crotch-rockets, and cruisers, streetfighters, and rat bikes. I love them all. I love all the old ones that have resided in my garage from time to time. Sometimes I wish I had them back. But then I couldn't fit in the garage. Anyway, I got off track, back to flat black...

Flat Black Honda Motorcycle
When I got to the paint store, there was a long row of cheap flat black cans, next to the gloss black cans. For all you high-class motorcycle and car painters who are laughing right now, here's some info. I use spray paint. Cheap, old cans. I don't use a paint sprayer, after all I'm not a spray tech. I don't do this everyday; I don't need to. You say the quality isn't good enough with a spray can. I don't care. I go for low budget. Low-tech. Flat black is the most fitting color for low tech. It's the color they use on all those concept cars when they try to disguise their shapes on the test tracks. It's the color that goes on before any vehicle ever hits the road. It's the color that keeps people guessing. It's the color that says, it doesn't matter what color this vehicle is, only what it does. It can hide things. I could invest in a paint sprayer, and go buy specific colors. Or I could let fate decide what color to make things...

I looked at the lids on the paint cans; sometimes the lids aren't quite the same color as the paint inside. I've been fooled before, into thinking I bought flat black, when in turn it was gloss. Anyway, not being able to spray a test run in the store, I went with my instinct, and bought a few cans. I felt like a giddy teenager who just used a fake ID to buy a six-pack of beer. This is a funny color. It's almost criminal to paint with it. Even just having it in your possession you feel like you should go out and write some political slogan on a wall somewhere for everyone to see.

Sometimes I like to do up my bikes to look factory. You know, just the way they looked when they rolled off the factory floor. I imagine a test run in Shin Zhen with a brand new version of whatever old bike I just fixed up rolling out the door. The tester kicks it a couple of times, then he's away, passing farmer's fields, his jet black hair pulled back in the breeze. Sometimes I like to give them a bit of my own paint. Maybe change a light, change a fender, tweak an engine, or change a color. I always thought about doing one in flat black, or doing an old car in flat black, but it seemed like every time I got to the store all they had was gloss black. I was seriously contemplating changing the color of the tank on this bike. It's hard for me to do that.

rear of honda motorcycle
My philosophy is that color doesn't really matter. What matters is what's inside. So it almost seemed playful or childish to repaint the whole bike, at least not until it had roared to life. I had got it to wake up, and blow out some 30 year old exhaust from the pipes, but it still wasn't running smoothly yet, so I felt a little bad about wasting too much time repainting it. Even so, after much deliberation, and annoyance with once more having to remove, and clean the carbs, I decided to get rid of all the old scratches, marks, and horrible stickers on the sides, and go with another color. I was rationalizing. New paint would stop the tank from rusting. It would cover the broken patches of chrome on the fenders. It would seal out moisture from here and there. It would rejuvenate the machine. After hours of scraping to remove horrible stickers, and rough spots and little dings, I finally had the tank done. It honestly looked better than before. It looked like an old guy who was overweight, standing on the threshold of a gym, deciding if he should go in, and get in shape after sitting around for 20 years. I picked up a can of primer and helped him on his way...

With the primer gray it almost looked like a big lump of clay, that hadn't been molded into anything yet. From a distance it resembled one of those lumps of clay that are carved into concept vehicles by a team of young designers. I was now the designer. It was crying out for some color. I'm glad I waited for this. I'm glad it took 25 or more years of a love affair with a color before using it. It felt kind of like those Zen archers in ancient China who were supposed to have practiced their archery, pulling their bows for 10 years before they were ever given an arrow. I'd been waiting to use this color on something. I knew how to operate the spray can. I shook it just right. The temperature was right. The light was right. The makeshift cardboard paint booth was right for the item being painted. Who knows, if I'd started with flat black back then, I might still not have loved it now...

I held the can up to my claylike gastank, half expecting to get a gloss black color come out of it, (even before I had noticed the little sticker on the side of the can clearly indicating flat black contents) and cautiously, but firmly depressed the nozzle.

rear of honda motorcycle
A fine dark gray mist was expelled from the can. It looked almost like black fog. It was enticing. It looked like something Batman might spray out of his utility belt to knock out the bad guys. At first I wasn't sure if I had shaken the can enough. I couldn't believe that that was flat black. I shook it some more, and then I saw the color hitting the primer gray tank. It was amazing. As my hand waved back and forth, I stared into the tank. It looked almost like a thundercloud. If there is a thunder god that rules over the colors of all motorcycles, like Thor, with his hammer crashing down on clouds in the middle of a storm, shooting chrome colored lightning bolts down to the earth, then flat black is a non-believer. Flat black sits alone in the cold, dark night. Flat black is an outcast. Flat black is a pagan. Painting with it is almost like some kind of pagan ritual. It's like walking up to Stonehenge on an autumn evening with your gang of druids. The color looked like a thought process. It looked like the swirling smoke from a smoky campfire, on a cold wet morning. I almost wanted to keep the color just that "cloud" color. It almost looked like I could reach into the tank. It was almost like a new dimension of color. But I kept pushing on the black, layer upon layer until the tank was dark. I did the front fender the same way. My bike stood in the mouth of the garage, silhouetted against the night. Actually the flat black wasn't silhouetted at all; it was almost like looking into the night. As I stood away from the bike I could barely make out the shape of the front fender against the backdrop of night. It was a beautiful thing. It was true blending. Just this amazing color had changed it into more than a sum of its parts. It was almost like I had discovered a new camouflage. I imagined keeping the "cloud" color for myself. It was as if I had discovered a secret color that only existed for me. I might use it in the future on another bike, or car, or maybe just the side of a building. I imagined flat black as camouflage, over greens, and browns, and tans, and yellows. All those great images of flat black came back to me, in that moment...

I hastily placed the finished tank on the bike, and replaced the seat. It looked just the way I had imagined a flat black vehicle would look. That bike looked all confused before, but now that it was becoming one uniform color it was starting to look right. In that moment I was transported to some dingy communist garage, or some futuristic sandy wasteland, or some kind of punk rock group. I saw flat black as more than just a color; it was a philosophy. It was oil spilled on sand, drying slowly, like our society's lifeblood, going back from whence it came. It was grey cat litter used to clean up spilled oil on the floor of your garage, making things right again. As I stared into the flat black, I began to think maybe it wasn't really black at all, maybe it was just dark, dark gray: the color you get when you mix all the colors together, and then mix in some black. The light in the garage cast a shadow across the half-painted front fender of my bike. I couldn't tell where the shadow began and the flat black ended. Flat black is the color of shadows, and what color are they. That's right, they don't really have a color, but they are always around us, there when we care to notice them, in front of us, or hiding behind us. I could already see myself riding this one down the street, hopefully my boyish grin, or bright red cheeks won't overshadow that good old flat black.

    Rich McCann

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