There’s a shop full of motorcycles in various states of disassembly at the intersection of Highways 183 and 35E. The inside looks like a motorcycle graveyard but it's really a place for resurrection, where bikes are taken apart, repaired, painted and put together under a completely new skin.
Two guys are in a small center office, hunched over fenders and gas tanks with brushes in hand. Dozens of paint containers sit open on their desks. There’s not enough ventilation and the paint fumes are intoxicating.
What would ordinarily be a reception area is instead full of gym equipment including a punching bag and treadmill, motorcycles, parts and other odds and ends. The main wall has a dozen framed portraits of a bare-assed woman straddling a motorcycle. Underneath sits a coffin, custom painted with faces and figures that have been stripped of their skin, exposing grotesque, meaty musculature.
In a side room are four coffin-sized glass tanks that could become your final resting place if you dared to mess with their inhabitants: four 15-foot-long Albino Burmese Pythons. The pythons’ heads dance back-and-forth behind the glass when they see a visitor, poised to strike. The owner of the pythons is also the owner of this motorcycle repair shop, and he feeds them live rabbits from a local pet store.
The pythons’ home, Other Side Customs, is the setting of some of the most intricate and skilled custom paint work done on motorcycles in Dallas. It counts three area Harley-Davidsons as clients and takes orders from around the state. Most of the work takes several days and can cost up to $10,000.
The artists on staff specialize in rendering realistic figures, and it’s some of the most skilled representation out there; on metal, paper or canvas. Most motorcycles have a theme: Mexican movie stars, Marvel comic book heroes and Game of Thrones characters are some of the recent projects.
Gary Queen opened Other Side Customs 12 years ago, and has been servicing the custom painting needs of local motorcycle manufacturers without much competition. With six guys on staff, he runs perhaps the largest custom painting operation in Dallas-Fort Worth.
At 5’ 7” and covered in head-to-toe tattoos, Queen looks like he’s been to prison. He’ll be the first to tell you that. He’s been mistaken for a former inmate by a guy at a bar, who insisted they’d served time together. But this drug-free non-drinker and non-smoker prefers the straight-edge lifestyle, waking up at 4 a.m. every day and putting in 14-hour shifts, 365 days per year. He only takes off a half-day on Christmas, he says.
Some of his intricate tattoo work includes spider webs overtaking both elbows; a collection of spiders crawling out of his ear; a painter holding an airbrush; and Rat Fink, the hairy green rat that’s an icon of hot rod enthusiasts, on the back of his head. After he filled up the left side of his head, his friends asked when he was going to get a tattoo on the other side.
“My friends used to bug me all the time, and I said, ‘If I put “See Other Side” on the side of my head will you leave me alone?’” Queen wasn’t bluffing. He got the directive inked on the blank side of his skull and the slogan stuck, eventually becoming the namesake for “Other Side Customs.”
It’s hard to zero in on Queen’s tattoos while he’s bouncing around his shop from project to project. But if you are able to read it, chances are it would soften his tough-guy image. “It helped me because even though I look like I just got out of prison, you see the tattoo that says 'See Other Side' and you realize I have a sense of humor,” says Queen.
Queen is a self-taught airbrush artist; he didn’t even take art in high school. In fact, he dropped out when he was 15 years old after his girlfriend (now wife) got pregnant. Queen illustrated the incredibly intricate coffin in his front room, a prop for a motorcycle show. It used to stay in his personal car, a hearse that his mom drove to pick up parts at various shops around town. It took him only two weeks to paint, which is impressive considering the detail and size.
Before Queen was doing figurative airbrush work, he got his start in custom painting at collision repair shops in Austin. He learned the trade from the ground up. His job was taping off cars before they were painted, but he would come into the shop hours ahead of his shift to learn the other guys’ jobs.
“I worked 8 to 5, and I said, ‘Who's the first person that comes in here?’ The guy who gets here at 5:30 in the morning. I was there at 5:30 in the morning the next day with a box of doughnuts walking around watching what everybody do [sic],” Queen remembers. “I'm going to learn everything in this fucking building. You don't have to teach me shit. I'm going to teach myself.”
Queen says his boss at the time told him he didn’t want to teach him how to airbrush because he was afraid Queen would take his job. So Queen bought an airbrush and practiced in his garage. Over one weekend, he painted his truck.
“I pulled my truck next to his truck on Monday morning. My truck whooped his truck’s ass. I said, thanks for not teaching me how to paint. You were my motivation,” says Queen.
Queen worked his way up to Sewell Lexus, doing the repainting after collision repairs, but his tattoos got him in trouble with the boss, so he quit.
“When I opened my own shop, I had one tattoo on the back of my neck. I said, 'If I put tattoos on my head I'm going to make it to where nobody will hire me; that will make me have to work harder at my own business,'” says Queen.
And that’s essentially what he’s done. He says he no longer has to go out and hustle for business; he has a constant influx of customers. Strokers started sending most of their paint work to Queen more than 15 years ago after its regular painter attempted several times to match the pearl white paint on a motorcycle that had gone through a collision repair and couldn’t. Queen says he was able to do it, and he turned it around fast, in a matter of days.
The demanding quotas at Lexus (30 cars in a week) forced Queen to be quick on the turnaround. His speed, accuracy at color-matching, and skilled rendering with the custom work have put him above his competitors.
“Some dude in Sweden could do a custom paint job and if you crash it, I can fix it. There's nothing that somebody can do paint-wise that I can't fix,” says Queen.
Queen has since stopped doing the figurative airbrushing to run the growing business, so he employs two full-time airbrush artists on staff, Mike Cissell and Tim Murphy, in addition to his other four employees who handle all aspects of motorcycle collision repair.
Both Cissell and Murphy came from the airbrush department of American IronHorse, a now defunct custom motorcycle manufacturer that was based in Fort Worth.
Murphy is a trained artist who went to art school in Boston. He had a 20-year career as a custom engraver but said the work became physically painful, clutching tools day after day. He wanted to be an airbrush artist so after moving to Texas, he began working for American IronHorse. When it closed down, he came over to Other Side Customs.
“I've always been an artist, ever since I was a little kid," says Murphy. "I did traditional art, regular painting with a paintbrush, but that wasn't my real job. That's just what I did for fun.
“I'd always wanted to airbrush, but it took a long time to get to that phase ... when I got to do airbrush art at American IronHorse that was like my dream come true,” Murphy adds as he’s working on a motorcycle part that’s covered in photorealistic skulls rendered in grayscale.
A radio plays in the background and a small fan spins the hot, paint-fume laden air in the office that Murphy shares with Cissell, also an artist since childhood. Cissell has been airbrushing for 20 years. He had been a muralist before and started doing airbrushing side jobs for friends, eventually building up a customer base. He started catering to custom motorcycle clientele over the years, both on his own and in-house with American IronHorse, before joining Other Side Customs. When Cissell was running his own shop, he considered Queen one of his major competitors.
At one point Cissell opened a mixed-use space so he could operate a gallery and give airbrush lessons in addition to his custom paint work, and he held several gallery shows in the space before he had to shut it down. He said the city of Arlington hassled him about the ceiling, not having separate bathrooms for each gender and not having enough ventilation, which eventually led to its closing.
He was working out of his home garage when Queen approached him to join Other Side Customs.
"I said, ‘You can't afford me. I need X amount of dollars,’” Cissell recounts. “Gary said, ‘I can do that.’ And I said, ‘Shit, really?’ So it was better than working out of my garage. I came here, and it's been seven and a half years. A lot of my old customers are his customers.”
Cissell still takes on freelance work on the side, painting props for Museum Arts, which makes sets for museum exhibits. One of his very visible projects was repainting the carousel at the Fort Worth Zoo. Another of his recent projects, a life-size tortoise, is sitting in the front room of Other Side Customs.
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Cissell is also tapped into the Dallas art scene, counting artists like Sergio Garcia as a close friend and collaborator. Garcia is known for making fantastical tricycle sculptures and realistic hand sculptures covered in tattoos; Future, Lil Wayne, and French Montana are all clients. Cissell says he and Garcia have collaborated on many projects in both traditional media and on motorcycles. Cissell was also involved in the Deep Ellum Mural project with the godfather of Dallas street art, Frank Campagna. None of this is surprising considering the quality of work he puts out.
“Dallas is a huge network of artists of all types. We all communicate and do different things together and collaborate from time to time,” says Cissell.
Painting motorcycles presents some challenges, like working on a curved surface instead of a two-dimensional canvas, says Cissell. Queen mentions that Harley customers can be demanding. “They want their shit fixed yesterday," he says. "This is their life. They have to have their bike back.” And airbrush artists aren’t taken as seriously in the art world, their medium a rolling canvas on two wheels instead of cotton duck.
Murphy even cites the lack of airbrushing classes in college curriculum as a sign that it’s underappreciated, but the intricacy of their work speaks for itself. And the price is validation that people are willing to pay big bucks for their art; on par with what any gallery is selling. As these guys have proven on their own and in collaboration with Dallas heavy hitters like Garcia, you can be a real artist, part of the art world, and still work on motorcycles during the day.