words :: Feet Banks
Troy Lee is a third-generation motorcyclist (his grandfather co-founded the legendary Bonneville Speed Trials) who knows how to haul ass on anything with wheels, but he’s also a second-generation artist who’s been custom painting helmets since the early 1980s.
Custom paint jobs evolved into custom visor moulds into Troy Lee Designs, a full-force operation that offers helmets, apparel and protective gear for off-road moto and mountain biking fanatics. When it comes to protecting your head and looking awesome at the same time, there’s kinda only one name in the game: Troy Lee.
Your custom work is legendary. How often do you get to hand paint helmets these days?
Not much, but I still do custom designs for our moto, bicycle and Indy car athletes. Even the energy drink helmets that our pros have to use, Red Bull and Monster have guidelines, but I still like to get in there and inject the athlete’s personality and paint DNA into each one. I don’t work well with rules.
After so many years in the game, what role does nostalgia play in your art now?
I still do my own sketching by hand and it’s as exciting now as ever, if not more so. Someone like me, who has been around bikes and motos for so long – I remember when mountain biking was first getting going in the 80s – I do find myself drawing a lot of influence from the past or taking things I did years ago and modernizing it with new paints we’ve developed, new fabric processes or metallic. We do like to keep things fresh but it’s funny, when someone shows me an old helmet I painted 30 years ago it plants a seed where I want to do that style, but with revisions. But there is no one way to do it, I find inspiration for design in everything – from cars to bikes to nature. My kids give me new eyes to discover stuff too, it’s awesome.
A lot of athletes speak of riding as an art form and finding a flow that already exists in each line. Similar to how Michelangelo would say he just chips the stone away from a sculpture that already exists inside the marble. What parallels do you see between art and sport?
You said it man. There are a lot of parallels between the art we do with helmets and gear and an athlete’s art. Look at someone like Brandon Semenuk, his riding is an art form and the way he makes videos is an art form and just when you think it couldn’t look more perfect, he changes the game. With helmets, we often will feel like we’re done and it’s perfect but then we add a stripe or tweak a colour… it feels like we can go on all day, just creating, but at some point, we have to stop. Like the finish line in a race or the end of a video edit.
This summer you’ll be live painting in Whistler during Crankworx?
TL: Whistler is always a highlight for me and my family, it’s just paradise city! It’s a dream come true to have a store up there. Last year was the first time we did the “buy a helmet, get your name custom painted” experience, 2 nights for a few hours just meeting people and hearing about their day on the hill, the bikes they ride… man, I love it.
Any words of wisdom to young artists out there?
TL: I think the best advice is it’s similar to racing, keep practicing, don’t ever be afraid to experiment and don’t be afraid to get loose and wild. I guess the old ‘follow your dreams’ is true, until the dreams can’t put food in your belly. Again, it’s like racing: you have to do it for yourself. Love your art.