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The Illegal Dirt Bike Gangs of Baltimore

Wheelying across town pissing off the cops.

by Jamie Clifton
02 July 2012, 8:00am

Photo by Lotfy Nathan

Nominally, at least, it's summer in the UK, which means that its streets are once again playing host to one of their most recognisable species: the shirtless young geezer in trackies and Classics wheelying along on his mountain bike, front tyre raised to the heavens in an act of triumphant defiance.

As with most things British, though, there are more extreme versions abroad. Like Baltimore's Twelve O'Clock Boyz, a hundred-strong gang who wheely dirt bikes through a city where police are banned from chasing them, creating an illegal underground sport that the cops are powerless to do anything about.

For the last three years, filmmaker Lotfy Nathan has been documenting a Baltimore gang known as the Twelve O'Clock Boyz who spend their days and nights doing just that. He's been making a film called Twelve O'Clock in Baltimore (trailer above or here), which is now ready for release at the end of this year. I spoke to him about the gang.

VICE: Hey Lotfy. How did you first come across these guys?
Lotfy Nathan: I saw them first in passing, actually. I think a lot of people in Baltimore see them tearing through the city, and most people don't really know what the whole thing's about. It's assumed that they're pushing drugs on dirt bikes – like a pack of dealers, or bandits, or something – which is kind of ridiculous, because these bikes are incredibly loud and attract a lot of attention, which is not what you want if you're selling drugs.

Very true. What made you want to make a film about them?
Well, I didn't know if it would actually be possible to contact them at first. But I asked around and found out where they congregated and they were actually really receptive to being filmed. I hadn't really connected the showing-off element of the bike riding to what they might be like in person before, but it kind of made sense. A lot of the guys are going for a YouTube celebrity status, so they were all about the camera.

Photo by Noah Rabinowitz

I read about the weird situation with the police and the riders. Could you explain that a bit?
Basically, the bikes are illegal to ride in the city, but the police aren't allowed to chase anyone riding them, so they leave them alone. It's because of a death that occurred in 1999, involving a dirt bike rider when, allegedly, a police officer was giving chase. It's just too dangerous to chase the bikes. That then creates this awkward cat and mouse thing, because the police are being taunted.

There's a lot of "come get me" stuff from the riders?
Exactly. Some of the riders take that further than others, but, for the most part, it's just a big congregation. These guys come from all over the city and they flock up in packs of up to 100 bikes.

Do they ride through the whole city, or just their own neighbourhoods?
No, through the whole city. It's a chance for kids who would otherwise be stuck in their own neighbourhoods to parade through the whole city and declare it as their own. They go up to the harbour, where they're trying to keep things nice and pretty for tourists. They go to East Baltimore, West Baltimore, they go north, they hit the highway – wherever, really.

Photo by Eric Brittain

How do the police deal with them?
Police helicopters, undercover police and unmarked cars... there are police staking out corners with tasers, ready to take these guys out.

Jesus. Have you seen anyone get in real trouble?
Sure. Occasionally there'll be a clash, whether that be from police, or someone wiping out on a bike, or someone pulling out a gun and trying to steal a bike in a block where they just aren't having it.

I've heard that it's also kind of turned into a sport in its own right. Is that racing? Or, skills, or something?
It's more about skills, yeah. There's this kind of choreography to it, and the reason they're called the Twelve O'Clock Boyz is because the main goal is to achieve this perfect vertical wheelie, and whoever can keep a wheelie up the longest and nicest gets the most respect. It's illegal, but I think it's a lot more innocent than some of the alternatives.

Photo by Lotfy Nathan

Is there a big culture of doing the bikes up with LEDs and all that kind of stuff?
No, it's more about the rider than the bike. People do little bits to their bikes, but, for the most part, it's a pretty raw thing. You just deflate the back tyre of the bike and you wheelie as long as you can. It's a dance, basically.

Like a mating dance? Are there girls in the gang, too?
I've seen a couple of girls, but they're usually hopping on the back of bikes, rather than riding them. That's a big part of it, though – impressing women.

What does the rest of the city feel about it? Does it piss people off, or has it turned into a bit of a local treasure?
I would say it's pretty divided, and that really speaks of the divides in Baltimore. Some people think they're intentionally terrorising people, some just think they're obnoxious and some people think they're sensational.

Photo by Noah Rabinowitz

Is there an end goal to it all? Are they doing any of this in the hope of making a career out of it?
There's one kid who's starting to get some sponsorship and some attention. Kids can start riding with the packs as young as ten. In terms of some official validation, I don't think it exists yet, but it is kind of starting to. This whole thing is starting to be recognised as a kind of underground sport, and there's definitely a fan base, because it exists in a lot of different cities.

Would it ruin it for these guys if it became an official sponsored thing, do you think?
Yeah, I think it would. Inherently, it's about it being illegitimate and illegal, and part of the thrill that I've seen is the chase and the danger. The alternative is riding these bikes on dirt, and there's no real allure to that compared to this.

So, what's the basic story of the film now?
It follows a young boy who's just lost his older brother, and he's gravitating towards the dirt bike riders. He's growing up in a rough area in West Baltimore, and you see him acclimating to the group more and more as the story goes on. I just thought he was a kind of poetic representation of why the group exists. It's kind of like Boy Scouts in the hood, or something like that.

Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamie_clifton