"I don’t consider myself an artist," says Tony Markus. "I really see myself as more of a craftsman taking a skill to a very high level." Disarming self-deprecation from a virtuoso it may be, but the man who is one of the finest motorcycle painters in the known universe insists on modesty first. He can afford to. His body of work over two decades has set the bar higher than most. Manufacturers, builders, collectors, celebrities, and discerning enthusiasts lobby the Southern California-based Markus for a spot on his consistently crowded waiting list of clients.
The website of TMarkus Customs is a virtual catalog proposing genre-bending originality alongside restorations of pinpoint accuracy and historical respect. A Ducati Darmah’s finish is more splendid than the day it left the factory in Bologna. The retro-sleek Falcon Bullet-a brand new one-off looking like it roared out of a time tunnel-is pure jazz in shades of black-on-black. The scope of projects Markus and his minions embrace blows a motorcyclist’s mind as it titillates the senses. One gets the impression his is an organization running on rigor and vigor, a studio humming like that of a Rembrandt, commissions being orchestrated and executed under the master’s unerring eye.
It was not always so. Markus chuckles as he revisits the humble beginnings of an aspiring illustrator on the doorstep of an era where pencils and paintbrushes were about to be made obsolete by the digital age. "I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and in those days, going to art school took all the fun out of what I was passionate about. Teachers would hammer into you what they said you needed to know to get a job as an artist, and it just became a drag after awhile."
Markus admired the mixed-media magic of successful Hollywood movie and record album
artists such as Drew Struzan-famous for his Star Wars posters and the J.C. Leyendecker-inspired cover of shock-rocker Alice Cooper’s megahit Welcome to My Nightmare. But as the ’70s and ’80s melted away, the opportunities for a classically-trained illustrator to earn a living evaporated as computers shunted the artist’s traditional toolbox aside. "I found myself doing construction jobs to pay the rent," he recalls. "And then I started painting bicycles."
Markus had painted surfboards as a teenager, so shifting gears from Liquitex and Strathmore to industrial lacquers and fiberglass was no biggie. Applying his touch to personalizing bicycle frames granted the young Markus a reprieve, as well as preparing him for the next phase of his artistic journey.
It was a timely transition for Markus. In the late ’80s, a motorcycle shop named Pro Italia was becoming the nexus, and would soon be an icon, for West Coast lovers of two-wheel exotica. "At the time, pinstriping was really the most popular way to personalize a motorcycle or a car," Markus explains. The art of pin-striping had created a fraternity of craftsmen stretching back to the legendary Von Dutch, and that sleight of hand was carried forward by local heroes like Glen Luckmiller.
"They earned what was serious money at that time," Markus says. "So I got into that scene." Attending a pinstriping party at Pro Italia with a friend, Markus found himself in possession of a damaged fairing from a Ducati Mike Hailwood Replica belonging to a rising comedian named Jay Leno. "I just told them I could make it right again," he says, "and when I was finished with it, the shop started asking me to paint more bikes. So that fairing launched me to stardom, I guess," he laughs.
Markus gives timing as much credit as talent for his ascent. "I was really fortunate to be there when the market emerged and painters started to use motorcycles as a canvas," he says, "but I was always careful not to lock myself into a narrow segment." While customs and one-offs have been a staple of Markus’ enterprise, his abilities in the restoration of classic bikes have equilibrated his revenue stream.
"That’s an extraordinarily valuable part of our business," reveals Markus. "People will come to us and ask us to do a bike so it’s faithful to, and at the same time improves on, the original." A catch-me-if-you-can red BSA Rocket and a Harley-Davidson XR750 in eccentric azure metallic, gleaming in the SoCal sunshine, confirm his claim. "Let’s face it, when these bikes were built, you didn’t have the paint technology that exists today," he explains. "So my clients get a motorcycle that is true to its spirit, but with an everyday functionality that allows them to enjoy it to the maximum."
That technology is so refined Markus can even give the motorcycle a patina that mimics a precise point in time. "I can say, do you want it new-new, concours-new, slightly aged, or antique finish?" he says. "So you can think the paint is 30 years old, even if I just did it yesterday."
His unique knowledge of his medium complements the ambitions and imagination of his clients, and that is the way he likes it. "I had one owner come to me with a ’67 Bonneville," Markus says. "It featured a lavender candy color that had waves in the original paint, and he wanted me to re-create that."
With that kind of mastery, it is no wonder that marques including Triumph, Harley-Davidson, and MV Agusta, and many renowned custom builders, such as Eric Schwartzkopf and Exile’s Russell Mitchell, partner with Markus.
For those who want to dazzle and be dazzled, Markus can also integrate exotic materials into the equation. "We’ve done maple inlays on gas tanks, and pinstripes that are actually abalone shell," he points out.
Among the challenges he finds especially satisfying is the harmonization of paint with the metalwork itself. "Anytime you deal with antique or custom machines, you encounter a mix of welds, joins and even combinations of alloys that require you to have the dexterity of a fine watchmaker," Markus says.
When asked to identify the project encompassing everything that is Tony Markus, he immediately cites the Falcon. "The actor Jason Lee was having it built, and he wanted a motorcycle that celebrated the spirit of those incredible machines of the 1920s like the Brough Superior. This bike demanded so much subtlety that it forced me to take my game to a level higher than I’ve ever been."
A sonata in shades of ebony, one contemplates the Bösendorfer-like sheen of the Falcon’s forms and surfaces. Its skin painted by Markus, the motorcycle acquires dimensions that supersede its intrinsic nature. It can be seen as musical instrument, kinetic sculpture, objet d’art, or simply-the ultimate toy.
But like all accomplished individuals, Tony Markus forbids his ego from intruding on this hard-earned balance of intent and action. "When it comes to my clients, it’s pretty simple," he explains. "The more demanding they are, the better I have to be. That’s how I’ve made my mark, and how I hope to keep on making it."