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Michelangelo of the Motorcycle
Springtime? Death's-Head! Point Your Ride to Rafaelle's

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006; D01

The place doesn't advertise. You have to know somebody. You have to ride. Then maybe you end up in Southern Maryland talking to a heavyset brother named Rafaelle, a man like nobody else who makes your motorcycle look like nobody else's.

Like, a Suzuki Hayabusa (but don't say any more than 'Busa) busts by you on Route 50. If you're quick, you catch up on the off-ramp, check out the paint job, holler, "Man! Who did the bike?"

"Ray. Dude out in Clinton."

So you wind up here, a garage tucked in across from an auto repair shop and next to a woodworking place at the dead end of an industrial park.

It's spring now. Bike shows are coming up: Myrtle Beach, Miami. Rafaelle has a dozen cars and 20 bikes waiting for custom paint jobs, chrome, polish or motor customizing. Step in the office, the fluorescent gloom. Eyes adjust. Man, what a mess. Soda machine that's out of most everything, little orange lights blinking. Tires. Bike helmets. Dust. Invoices. Magazines (Super Streetbike, 2 Wheel Tuner). Parts catalogues. A painting of a woman on her hands and knees, one hand on top of a skull. A closed-circuit TV camera keeps an eye on the parking lot outside.

Inside the mess is Rafaelle Proctor, owner and proprietor of the garage, which goes by the name of Artistic Creations. Short, curly hair and an ever-smiling face. He's wearing a blue garage uniform, his name stitched on the breast. He's sketching on an artist's pad.

Daryl Bailey watches.

"Just gimme, gimme --" He's a delivery driver for the money and a biker for the love and truth of it. Lives in Lanham. He's making up his mind about colors, wants something new for the summer.

He bounces up and down on his toes, jiggling the brain for inspiration, peering at Ray's sketch.

"Hot pink?" Rafaelle smiles.

"You laugh." Bailey says. "Like a line of pink, a pearl white, a TSI blue -- you know? That's hot. That's hot now."

He's thinking out loud. Then he gets it, gets how the bike will become the apotheosis of Daryl Bailey himself. "Orange is me. That's sorta mine." He settles on an image of the Grim Reaper, too.

Rafaelle sketches, turns to pull out another marker, comes back to the pad. Desk is so crowded he has to balance the pad on top of the Rolodex. Then he spins the page around. He hasn't bothered drawing the entire motorcycle, only the skins of the bike -- the plastic shells that form its shape. It's in tangerine orange, a pearl white, outlined in blue.

Bailey smiles. "Do it. Do it. How much?"

"One grand. That's for you. Anybody asks, it was $1,800."

Bailey deals out a credit card. Complains a little bit.

"I was trying to get to you last Friday, man."

"Shoot. Friday, I had 60 phone calls. 'S why I can't get nothing done."

"Don't answer the phone. Get you a secretary."

"She'd have to be big and ugly."

Bailey laughs: "What, your wife?"

Ray: "Nah, man. Guys would never leave."

That is likely true, as guys tend to hang out even when there are no women present at all, save for the pictures of the nearly nude models on the walls. A cycle garage is something like what barbershops used to be: Some guys working, some guys jawing, some just sort of there.

Rafaelle has what so many of them want from life.

He used to step out of his little ranch-style house off Alex Ferry Road in Clinton 15 years ago -- a house his father had built with his father -- and think about a shop like this. His view from the front door, morning, noon and night, was the ugly end of industrial Americana: an air-conditioning warehouse. A waste management company. Traffic. Then Rafaelle would go off to work, wearing the FedEx uniform, hauling packages. He wanted more.

There is a long history of men in this country who did not have complicated dreams or go to fancy schools but who worked through the brute force of American industry to realize things that they had only seen in their mind's eye. Creativity is not easily seen in oil pans and exhaust pipes and camshafts. But it is there, nonetheless.

One day, Rafaelle had his pickup painted and lettered. The guy showed him how to do it.

He learned. He read magazines about airbrushing. He practiced. His early stuff was awful. And then he got good. He turned himself into an artist, sketching out images freehand on transfer paper taped to the bike, then airbrushing it in. He started up a shop in 1999, did it on the side, nights and weekends. Opened this place in 2001, thought about quitting his day job.

"My father asked me, 'Would you do it for free?' And I said yes. That's when I knew I was going to quit FedEx. I love racing, love bikes, love speed. I don't have to do anything I don't want to all day long. I just wake up and do stuff I love."

The artist's portfolio: helmets painted to look like full-faced Spider-Man, complete with the visor that flips down and completes the face. Monsters, gargoyles, things with teeth. Nude women. Lots of skulls. Tweety Bird. Bikes with a leering Freddy Krueger; a Triumph emblazoned with a Union Jack. Flames -- flames are big.

An off-duty cop, standing in the office, flipping through Ray's work, looking for inspiration for his bike: "Tired of looking like everybody else, man, I tell you that."

Jerome Enoch is in here to get some motor work done, performance tires put on his Suzuki GSX-R 750. This is a high-performance Japanese sport bike, something like the Suzuki 'Busa, a top end in the neighborhood of 200 mph. You don't accelerate on these things, you detonate.

Enoch also has two helmets he wants Ray to airbrush: one to be painted as the Reaper. The other as Darth Mal, from "Star Wars." The man goes for evil.

Most guys who come out here do. Maybe they'll do the bike candy-colored green, but there'll be a skull ghosted on the gas tank. Bike art is of the Frank Frazetta school, goth/fantasy/prehistoric women with heaving breasts and loincloths. The kind of thing you used to see on the side of vans if you're old enough to remember that kind of thing.

Another fine day for Rafaelle. Why not?

Man is 33 years old, his own boss. Shop has grown to employ two people full time and two part time. Two partners do the motor and chrome work. Entrepreneurial spirit. Family enterprise. His wife, Rochelle, works as an administrator at Washington Hospital Center. They've got a baby boy, Malakai. Ray is such a damn red-blooded American it makes you want to grab a flag and hit somebody.

Donny Harley, 41, is sanding down the bright blue skins of another Suzuki, peeling off the paint with a sander. The conversation around the shop turns to speed, and Harley tells the story about being a passenger in a car about 2 a.m. on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. They were doing about 60 mph, he figures, when two bikes flew by, doing, what, 170 or better.

" ZZZnniiiooowww ! They were by us before you even saw them. So loud, it scared the guy driving so bad he goes, 'Hay-ya!' Lets go of the steering wheel, throws his hands up in front of his face."

Guffaws. The afternoon spins out; it's April, warming up, bikes back on the street at last. LaRay Proctor comes by, Rafaelle's brother. So does Daryl Rice, a man who has put more than $18,000 into a Kawasaki ZX-12. His day job is at Metro, a bus mechanic. He bought the bike used, had Rafaelle trick it out, and now he can't take it out on the street without guys asking him where he got it done.

It's that sort of word of mouth that's making this business work.

"We reference a couple hundred people per year over to Rafaelle," says Bill Gash, general manager of Clinton Cycles, a shop a mile or two away. "They're looking for stock stuff to be painted, or their helmets, or a complete custom job. He always does a great job. People know his work."

Rafaelle perches on a stool at the front of the shop. The spring sunlight falls across one shoulder, leaving him half in dark, half in light. He's airbrushing a skull with a rose clenched between its teeth on the gas tank of a Honda Shadow. The tank will be candy brandywine, which is, it turns out, the hot color this season.

This is what real-life dreams look like on a Thursday afternoon, and the view from here is pretty damn good.
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