The Hells Angels is the world’s largest biker motorcycle club with chapters (branches) around the globe. Along with Outlaws MC, Mongols MC, and Bandidos MC, the Hells Angels belong to so-called The Big Four of outlaw biker clubs. Today, Hells Angels is the most famous motorcycle club. Law enforcement agencies in some countries call them a motorcycle gang and accuse of drug trafficking, racketeering, trade in stolen goods, etc. Club members claim to be peaceful motorcycle enthusiasts, united for joint motor rides, meetings, and social events. Truth, as they say, is somewhere in the middle.
According to the legend reflected on the Hells Angels official website, the American Air Force had a 303rd heavy bomber squadron called Hell’s Angels during the World War II. It was named after the eponymous movie directed by Howard Hughes, which many pilots loved. After the end of the war and the disbandment of the unit, the pilots were left without work. These American heroes had a feeling that their homeland had betrayed and left them to fend for themselves. Former aviators had no choice but to go against their own country. They started riding motorcycles, united in motorcycle clubs, and rebelled.
There are two different versions of the Hells Angels MC origin. One of them says that this biker club was built on the basis of two other motorcycle clubs – Boozefighters and Pissed Off Bastards, both involved into the infamous Hollister riot (this event is shown in the movie The Wild One featuring Marlon Brando). Their members supported the idea of the squadron’s veteran Arvid “Oley” Olsen to unite both clubs by the name of Hells Angels. This happened in 1953 in San Francisco.
According to the other version, the first Hell’s Angels were established by 13 people from the city of San Bernardino in 1955.
Either way, the official logo of the Hells Angels MC, a skull with wings, was created by the president of the San Francisco chapter Frank Sadliek. The official colors of the club became white and red.
In the 1960s, Ralph Hubert Barger, better known as Sonny Barger, was elected president of the chapter in Oakland (California, USA). Later, he became the president of Hells Angels MC World. In fact, the history of the biker movement (in the modern sense) begins with this person. Becoming a member of the club in a teen age, Sonny Berger glorified its name and took it out into the world. It was Barger who registered Hells Angels brand and their symbolism. During the reign of Barger, bikers began to regularly participate in massive motor rides and pay membership fees. Thanks to his charisma and innate talent for PR, not only the Auckland chapter but also the Hell Angels as a whole has become the most famous motorcycle club in the world.
Under Sonny Barger, the motor club also acquired its modern structure. It was no longer an chaotic association of motorcycle buffs but an organization with a charter, membership fees, traditions, a rigid hierarchy (support, hangaround, prospect, member), and authoritarian leadership (including officers, vice president, and president).
Sonny Barger spent almost 20 years in prisons. Now he lives in Oakland with his wife Sharon. They own a biker store and workshop. Throat cancer in the 1980s took away his ability to talk and he communicates with the world through a special device attached to his neck. “I don’t regret anything. I had a lot of fun and even the prison is not too much punishment for my life”, says Barger.
It’s better to rule in hell than serve in heaven
These words uttered by Sonny Barger in the classic film “Hell’s Angels on wheels” can be considered the motto of the Hells Angels in relations with other motorcycle clubs. Speaking of which, there is the Big Four of motorcycle clubs including the biggest organizations: the Hells Angels, The Outlaws, The Bandidos, and The Pagans.
The Outlaws appeared in 1957 on the heels of the sensational movie “The Wild One”. They took the emblem on the leather jacket of Marlon Brando for their logo (a skull with dumbbell-shaped bones). For the most part, the Outlaws are people who for various reasons were not accepted to the Hells Angels. Because of it, they consider the Hells Angels to be too pretentious. They are in a state of constant war with the Hells Angels.
The Bandidos began its history in the mid-1960s. Hunter Thomas in his book “Hells Angels: the strange and the terrible saga” pinpoints 1965 as the year of the club’s establishment. Their logo is a pot-bellied cartoon Mexican gangster (although, according to the club, they do not accept “stinky Mexicans”). Bandidos are notorious for raiding small towns in Texas and imposing them with a tribute. They are constantly battling with the Hells Angels for a bigger share in the sex trafficking and prostitution market.
The Pagans MC is probably the least known club among the Big Four. They can’t boast a good structure – they are badly organized and have few branches (all of them are located within the US). However, they are very brutal and almost all members of the club served in a jail at least 3 times.
The Hells Angels are certainly ahead of these clubs in the race for leadership. This can be explained by several factors: they are the first to be founded, they can boast of a few well-known legal movements (Red and White, Big Red Machine, Defense Fund, Keep the real America …), and they are well- organized. On top of that, Hells Angels are not seen in absolutely mindless activities (in contrast to Bandidos, who raid on banks wearing club vests).
Although the war among these motor gangs has been going on for decades, it is more indicative in its nature. Sometimes, however, The Outlaws seized some fiefdoms of Hells Angels (it happened when Sonny Berger and some other HA leadership served in a jail in the mid-1970s) but, by far and large, the Hells Angels keep the biker world under their control.
Motorcycle clubs are often at loggerheads with one another for control over territories. Sometimes these conflicts develop into armed clashes with numerous wounded and killed. The Hells Angels members are prominent participants of biker wars.
In recent years, the Hells Angels have been on a deadly feud with the rivals from the Bandidos in Germany. As a result of regular clashes, there are dead and wounded on both sides. In May 2010, representatives of both gangs met in Hanover and concluded an armistice agreement. Similar biker wars took place in Denmark, other Scandinavian countries (“Great Nordic War”), England, Canada, and in many countries where Angel’s chapters and other motorcycle clubs have to share the same territory.
The Symbolism of the Club
The official logo of the Hells Angels motorcycle club is a skull with wings. Originally, the logo was copied and creatively modified based on the emblem of US air force units. The author of the original sketch was Frank Sadliek, the president of the San Francisco club chapter. The image of the skull and logo details has been later changed a few times.
The official colors of the emblem and symbols are red and whiten – the inscriptions are made in red letters on a white background. This gave the club one of its nicknames – “The Red and White”.
Another frequently used euphemism for the club name is 81, from the sequence number of the letters “H” and “A” in the English alphabet. Patches with these letters can be seen on members of so-called support clubs since the full name can be worn only by valid members of the Hells Angels.
The symbolism of the club depicted on leather or denim vests is represented by Colors. The Hells Angels Colors consist of three parts: two arc-shaped patches (top and bottom rockers) and the central part, which is an image of skulls with wings. The Hells Angels’ members also sport four rectangular stripes on the chest with the name of the club, the location of a particular chapter, a biker’s nickname, and his position in the hierarchy. You can also see 1% patches and various abbreviations plastered on bikers’ outfits and gears, such as:
AFFA – Angels Forever Forever Angels
HAR – Hells Angels Rules
FTW – F**k The World
DILLIGAF – Does It Look Like I Give A F**k?
SS Filthy Few are special elite members of the Hells Angels who received this title for special merits (usually for killing people who opposed the club or its members).
1% – this symbol is worn not only by the Hells Angels but also by every Outlaw Motorcycle Club. It indicates belonging to the top biker class, which, according to these people, is 1% of the total number of bikers in the world.
The Hells Angels Hierarchy
The Hells Angels MC World consists of individual chapters that are basically its branches in a certain territory. A chapter can be created on the basis of a motorcycle club already operating in this region or built from scratch. It takes at least five bikers who share the ideology of the club, support its goals, and agree with the charter to open a new HA chapter.
To get started with a chapter, the founders have to apply to the clubhouse head in Oakland. Then the chapter leaders will vote for or against this branch at the general meeting. Before getting the official name of the Hells Angels MC, a club bears the status of Prospect Club (i.e., it is on a probationary period). After some time (from one to three years), a club officially joins the Hells Angels MC World and is entitled to wear the Angels Colors.
Today, the Hells Angels’ chapters are in place in every US state, in almost all provinces of Canada, as well as in Brazil, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Great Britain, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Greece, Russia, Portugal, Chile, Croatia, Luxembourg, Hungary, Dominican Republic, Turkey, and Poland. There are also clubs in Iceland, Lithuania, Japan, and Latvia that are not yet part of the Hells Angels but they will become official chapters in the near future. Additionally, there may be autonomic chapters in different cities of the same country.
The Angel’s Business
The whole business empire of the Hells Angels can be divided into several large groups:
1. Transportation and control over the drug traffic (contrary to popular belief, the Hells Angels do not trade drugs personally). This part of the business is the most profitable but also the most contradictory. The HA members condemn (at least officially) the use of any drugs except marijuana and amphetamines. Such a conviction, however, did not prevent Sonny Barger from using cocaine throughout his entire adult life. Dozens of Hells Angels have been convicted of the sales, transportation, and production of illegal drugs (there is even a famous movie with Charlie Sheen in the lead role called “Chasing the Shadow” filmed based on one of such cases).
2. Sex trafficking and prostitution. As it has been recently revealed, in Hamburg alone, approximately 50% of prostitutes are forced to pay to the Hells Angels. In the United States, the gang levies a tribute on prostitutes and also has their own chicks, who bring them the money they earn. The Hells Angels divide women into two categories: chicks and old ladies. Chicks belong to the whole gang and anyone can take them at any time. The gang forces chicks into prostitution and takes all the money they make. Old ladies belong to a specific member of the club (often those are their wives). They never do prostitution but many of them work as strippers in nightclubs belonging to the Hells Angels.
3. Bike theft. This is a classic business and there is not much new we can say about it (although many motorcyclists are scared to buy bikes in stores owned by the Hells Angels).
4. Bike customization, motorcycle tuning, and trade of biker-related products (T-shirts, leather jackets, biker jewelry, etc.). This is also a classic business for bikers. One of such stores in Oakland, California, is personally owned by Sonny Barger. Anyone who visits it can easily meet Sonny himself or his wife Sharon.
5. Legal support-events and club merchandising. The most well-known events founded by the Hells Angels are Keep the real America – Support your local Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, Poker Run, and Cancer Run. The first two events are designed to support the HA (though, for the most part, this is rather a moral support) and explain civilians that bikers are good guys. The latter event is much more curious.
Cancer Run is a 150-km motorcycle ride which any biker can attend for a fee. For this money, bikers join a group ride, partake in some entertaining activities, and have a dinner at a pre-arranged eatery (food is traditionally included in the price). The raised money is transferred to one of the child cancer charities. Where is the business, you may ask? The fact is that under the guise of such a motorcycle run, bikers transport drugs, usually from a city where the ride starts to a location where it finishes. The police are normally aware of the illegal activity but it is simply impossible to stop a single motorcycle during such runs as there are thousands of them.
Official Support Merchandising
The first and, perhaps, the largest of these projects is the Big Red Machine New York, a motorcycle dealership and trade in related goods (for example, sweatshirts with pretty amazing artwork). Some top celebrities flaunt clothes from the Hells Angels, for example, Mickey Rourke (he is said to be a friend of the Angels, and even until recently he picked up bodyguards only from the Hells Angels members). Country-western music star Willy Nelson (who is, by the way, the only person awarded with the title “Honorable Hells Angels”) and president of the Ku Klux Klan and quite an influential politician David Duke are also active supporters of the Hells Angels and their projects.
Another support merchandising project was initiated by the San Jose chapter and is called Red and White. It was basically copied from the Big Red Machine New York, but the creators added a little bit of southern flavor to it. Many people in the southern states wear clothes with the Hells Angels symbolism because they carry the American spirit.
The Defense Fund project has been originated as a legal defense of the HA in the 1970s. The Angel’s lawyer decided that the gang needed the support of the masses to shad an image of bad boys and criminals that had stuck to the club. The project managed to achieve some tangible results: the police stopped seizing people only because they belonged to the club, and persistent journalists watched every step of the law enforcement agencies during arrests or investigations against the Hells Angels. It helped to create a slightly more positive image of the gang (as well as all bikers in general).
Another well-known support projects are Sharon Barger’s initiatives called free Sonny Barger (it was held during her husband’s imprisonment) and Sonny Barger’s An American Legend. The latter has died down recently, although a couple of years ago virtually every American biker considered his duty to have a Sonny Barger – An American Legend T-shirt.
The first of these projects ended with a huge bender party thrown after Sonny has been released from prison. It is said that the party had almost a thousand guests. There are still small annual parties in honor of this event. The second project is still going and although it does not have an online presence, you can order Sonny Barger – An American Legend T-Shirt by mail.
“Black biscuit” and other police operations against the “Hell’s Angels”
In 2001, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosive (ATF) launched the Operation Black Biscuit. Agent Jay Dobyns was introduced to the gang under the name of Jay “Jaybird” Davis. He managed to earn trust among the Angels by simulating the murder of a member of one of the warring gangs. He quickly became a full-patched member with the right to participate in major gang affairs, such as the transportation of large consignments of drugs, racketeering, murders, etc. During his time undercover, Dobyns collected evidence that allowed the Hell’s Angels to be accused of drug smuggling, extortion, and murders. In the summer of 2003, as a result of the operation and several ATF raids, 52 Angel and their accomplices were arrested. 16 people were jailed on charges of racketeering and murder.
On December 13, 2010, German police conducted searches at the clubhouse and the homes of club members in the federal states of Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, and Rhineland-Palatinate. The operation involved more than 900 police officers. As a result, several people have been arrested and a large number of weapons (shotguns, rifles, samurai swords, machetes, knives, and incendiary bottles) have been seized.
Hells Angels In literature and cinema
At the peak of their scandalous popularity, the Angels have been heroes of many literary works. According to the gang, the best book about them is Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs by Hunter Thompson. The bikers are also featured in an episode of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.
There are also several films featuring the Hell Angels such as Hells Angels on Wheels, Angels From Hell, Hell’s Angels’69, etc. The Angels became characters’ prototypes in the sensational TV show Sons of Anarchy.
In the period of the 60s-70s of the 20th century, the very concept of a biker was often associated with the Hells Angels. In particular, this is reflected in the names of various films attributed to the subgenre of biker movie.