At some point in the mid-’90s, multi-media artist Uriel Starbuck resettled in St. Louis, after time spent in Key West. Having already toyed with customized bicycles in Florida, he found himself teaching a paper-making workshop at the late Taproots School of the Arts, then a magnet for members of St. Louis’ bohemian culture. At Taproots, a pair of striking sisters took his course, and to sum up a somewhat complicated and pixie-dusted story, he used their muse-i-tude to create a different kind of bicycle club.
The Banana Bike Brigade’s armada began modestly enough, with a float dedicated to Neptune, along with a complementary bicycle, outfitted as a mermaid. With a gleam in his eye, he says that the mermaid’s expression was one of mid-orgasm, and this added detail apparently intrigued the free-spirited sisters enough to join in, too. In time, the group began gaining more members. They added customized bikes as they went, won awards in parades all over St. Louis, threw large Mardi Gras balls and even sent 33 custom bikes to children in war-torn Bosnia. The growing group hit the road for trips to Houston and New Orleans, where one member, Jon Jung Echols, served jail time for illegally leading a spontaneous, permit-free parade—he was literally locked up for creating fun.
While Echols says that the animals affixed to their bikes are “light as a feather,” in reality, they’re also oversized and occasionally awkward, calling for a Banana Biker to stay sharp during busy events (Echols, in particular, takes on some of the trickiest rides, like a camel and a giraffe, each of which are eye-popping members of the Banana Bike menagerie.). When riding, the group fan out into a wide loop, circling around a fixed point, such as the golf cart that centered their troupe during St. Louis’ giant Soulard Mardi Gras parade. Using pretty much the entirety of the street, the group’s members slap hands with the crowd, hoot-and-holler, generally make the event a little bit more special than it would be without their presence.
“The whole philosophy is to play for peace,” Echols says. “We all try to get that going, get your imagination going in that direction. But it can’t be a dangerous thing. You need to be able to see where you’re going, operate this thing so that there’s no meltdown or crackup, ‘cause there’s a wild potential for crazy, for a very bad accident. But being on the cycles is great.”
The intended effect works. Crowds eat up the scene that the BBB creates, whether it’s at a major parade, like the city’s pair of massive St. Patrick’s Day events, or a tiny town fair in some far-flung, rural edge of the St. Louis region. David Udell, a lifelong musician and five-year Brigade-r, says that there’s a definite message in the madness, no matter the audience.
For Udell, the club’s become a family affair. His partner, Valerie McMeen Pennington, is one of the most-welcoming people involved; his son, Dylan, has also become a regular. He says that the Brigade’s membership requirements are relatively fluid and very much unofficial.
“People have asked (about that), like a friend of Dylan’s who wants to be in it now. It’s real easy to join if you’re a friend. And if you’re not, it’s probably not that hard, either,” Udell laughs. “I think you just have to party with somebody, really. The reason we do so much is that we kept showing up when it was 100 degrees out, going to those Father’s Day parades in some little town in Illinois. That really solidified our positions.”
“Not to make it sound totally pretentious, but it’s about spreading art,” Udell says. “We want to show how easy it is, which is the really cool thing about riding in small town. A teacher comes out and says, ‘we’re going to have our kids do this.’ And, for me personally, I want to get involved in my community, which is Soulard. I grew up in this neighborhood.”
Since the heady, early days, the group’s membership has risen-and-fallen-and-steadied. Today, about 15-20 members are the most active, engaging in the group’s main activity: parade riding. About half of that number take part in the group’s Tuesday night work sessions, when they repair bikes or construct paper mache animals for those bikes. There’s also a ton of socializing. On a recent Tuesday evening, the group painted a wall and one side of a door and, otherwise… well, they simply caught up on the last week’s worth of life.
“Some come, some go,” says Echols of the group’s membership. “Some stick around, some stick around a lot longer. All that stuff changes. Babies are a big thing. You can’t take a baby out on a ride with the Banana Bike Brigade.”
This summer, they’ll head out to some of those rural rides, maybe six or eight of them, in total. By the fall, a few more will help wind down the annual riding, which closely matches the seasons: in the wintertime, the group rests, though the ideas never stop flowing. For example, at their recent painting party, the members were kicking around the idea of a Halloween party, which would be an invite-only affair, held in the tight confines of the Banana Bike’s colorful workshop.
Amidst all those giant animal heads and bike wheels, some of the members are extroverts, crashing down on a worn couch, telling the stories of their life with obvious enthusiasm and openness. Others leave a little bit of mystery. Heather Bell, a newer(ish) member of the BBB is a social butterfly at rides and work sessions. But asked in many different iterations why she takes part, she’s a cagey interview subject, preferring to let others tackle the simple question of why these very different people get together to wear costumes and ride whimsical bicycles as a team.
On the morning after the work session, an e-mail arrives from Bell with the final word:
“I realize that I showed you, rather than told you, the answer to your question: the creative feeling, synesthesia of sorts that I experience with my BBBretheren. My career (profession, boards, conferences, students, etc.) demands so much of one side of me that I seek that ‘right-brained’ energy to balance out.”
Which she does with aplomb, dressed as cowgirl, riding an alligator.