The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) is a worldwide one-percenter motorcycle gang and organized crime syndicate. whose members typically ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles. In the United States and Canada, the Hells Angels are incorporated as the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation. Their primary motto is "When we do right, nobody remembers. When we do wrong, nobody forgets".
Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service classify the Angels as one of the "big four" (Hell's Angels, Pagans, Outlaws, and Bandidos) motorcycle gangs, contending that members carry out widespread violence, drug dealing, trafficking in stolen goods, and extortion. Members of the organization have continuously asserted that they are only a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who have joined to ride motorcycles together, to organize social events such as group road trips, fundraisers, parties, and motorcycle rallies.
The Hells Angels were originally formed in 1948 in Fontana, California through an amalgamation of former members from different motorcycle clubs, such as The Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington. The Hells Angels website denies the suggestion that any misfit or malcontent troops are connected with the motorcycle club. However, the website notes that the name was suggested by Arvid Olson, an associate of the founders, who had served in the Flying Tigers "Hells Angels" squadron in China during World War II. The name "Hells Angels" was inspired by the common historical use in both World War I and World War II, to name squadrons or other fighting groups by a fierce, death-defying name. The Flying Tigers (American Volunteer Group) in Burma and China fielded three squadrons of P-40s; the Third Squadron was named "Hell's Angels". The 1930 Howard Hughes film Hell's Angels displayed extraordinary and dangerous feats of aviation, and it is believed that the World War II groups who used that name based it on the film.
Some of the early history of the HAMC is not clear, and accounts differ. According to Ralph 'Sonny' Barger, founder of the Oakland chapter, early chapters of the club were founded in San Francisco, Gardena, Fontana, as well as his chapter in Oakland, and other places independently of one another, with the members usually being unaware that there were other Hells Angels clubs.
Other sources claim that the Hells Angels in San Francisco were originally organized in 1953 by Rocky Graves, a Hells Angel member from San Bernardino ("Berdoo"). This implies that the "Frisco" Hells Angels were very much aware of their forebears. According to another account, the Hells Angels club was a successor to "P.O.B.O.B." Motorcycle club, The "Frisco" Hells Angels were reorganized in 1955 with thirteen charter members; Frank Sadilek, who designed the original death's head logo, served as President. The Oakland chapter, at that time headed by Barger, used a larger version of the patch nicknamed the "Barger Larger" which was first used in 1959 and later became the club standard.
In an interview in September 2011, with one of the original "thirteen", the above history is confirmed as basically accurate. The person interviewed is perhaps the only one of the original thirteen still living. The youngest member would be aged mid-seventies at this point, and they all engaged in a life of reckless behavior. The Frisco Hells Angels were formed in 1953 by Rocky Graves, a member of the Berdoo Hells Angels. The group fell apart and was reformed in the summer of 1955 with thirteen living members. This is the group that continues today. The number thirteen was considered inauspicious by those in attendance at the formation meeting, so another member, known as "Crazy" was installed posthumously. Crazy was killed in 1954 when he rode his motorcycle off of an unfinished elevated San Francisco freeway. Frank Sadilek was the president of the group, which was formed in 1955. His wife Leila was secretary. Both held these offices until they moved to Hawaii in 1961. The Death's Head emblem was not designed by Sadilek. The emblem on the original Frisco Angels jackets was a copy of Rocky's Berdoo Angels jacket. The emblem used on the membership cards, which was a very detailed pen and ink drawing, was done by a man who was known as "Sundown". His signature could be seen in very tiny letters in the originally printed membership cards. He was one of the habitués who hung out in the pool hall upstairs in the building on the north east corner of 7th and Market Streets in San Francisco, which for a time was the common meeting place, both before and after the formation of the 1955 group.
The Hells Angels are sometimes depicted in a similar mythical fashion as the James-Younger Gang, as modern day legends, or as free spirited and iconic of an era of brotherhood and loyalty. Others describe them as a violent criminal gang and a scourge on society. The 1966 Roger Corman film, The Wild Angels depicts the gang as violent and nihilistic.
The Hells Angels official web site attributes the official "death's head" insignia design to Frank Sadilek, past president of the San Francisco Chapter. The colors and shape of the early-style jacket emblem (prior to 1953) were copied from the insignias of the 85th Fighter Squadron and the 552nd Medium Bomber Squadron.
The Hells Angels utilize a system of patches, similar to military medals. Although the specific meaning of each patch is not publicly known, the patches identify specific or significant actions or beliefs of each biker. The official colors of the Hells Angels are red lettering displayed on a white background—hence the club's nickname "The Red and White". These patches are worn on leather or denim jackets and vests.
Red and white are also used to display the number 81 on many patches, as in "Support 81, Route 81". The 8 and 1 stand for the respective positions in the alphabet of H and A. These are used by friends and supporters of the club, as only full members can wear any Hells Angels imagery.
The diamond-shaped one-percenter patch is also used, displaying '1%', in red on a white background with a red merrowed border. The term one-percenter is said to be a response to the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) comment on the Hollister incident, to the effect that 99% of motorcyclists were law-abiding citizens and the last 1% were outlaws. The AMA has no record of such a statement to the press, and call this story apocryphal.
New York Hells Angels patch
Most members wear a rectangular patch (again, white background with red letters and a red merrowed border) identifying their respective chapter locations. Another similarly designed patch reads "Hells Angels".
When applicable, members of the club wear a patch denoting their position or rank within the organization. The patch is rectangular, and, similarly to the patches described above, displays a white background with red letters and a red merrowed border. Some examples of the titles used are President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, and Sergeant at Arms. This patch is usually worn above the 'club location' patch.
Some members also wear a patch with the initials "AFFA", which stands for "Angels Forever; Forever Angels", referring to their lifelong membership in the biker club (i.e., "once a member, always a member").
The book Gangs, written by Tony Thompson (a crime correspondent for The Observer), states that Stephen Cunningham, a member of the Angels, sported a new patch after he recovered from attempting to set a bomb: two Nazi-style SS lightning bolts below the words 'Filthy Few'. Some law enforcement officials claim that the patch is only awarded to those who have committed, or are prepared to commit, murder on behalf of the club. According to a report from the R. v. Bonner and Lindsay case in 2005 (see related section below), another patch, similar to the 'Filthy Few' patch, is the 'Dequiallo' patch. This patch "signifies that the wearer has fought law enforcement on arrest".There is no common convention as to where the patches are located on the members' jacket/vest.
In March 2007, the Hells Angels filed suit against Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group alleging that the film entitled Wild Hogs used both the name and distinctive logo of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation without permission. The suit was eventually voluntarily dismissed, after it received assurances that its references would not appear in the film.
In October 2010, the Hells Angels filed a lawsuit against Alexander McQueen for "misusing its trademark winged death heads symbol" in several items from its Autumn/Winter 2010 collection. The lawsuit is also aimed at Saks Fifth Avenue and Zappos.com, which stock the jacquard box dress and knuckle duster ring which bear the symbol which is protected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office since at least 1948. A handbag and scarf was also named in lawsuit. The lawyer representing Hells Angels claimed "This isn’t just about money, it’s about membership. If you’ve got one of these rings on, a member might get really upset that you’re an impostor." Saks refused to comment, Zappos had no immediate comment and the company's parent company, PPR, could not be reached for comment. The company settled the case with the Hells Angels after agreeing to remove all of the merchandise featuring the logo from sale on their website, stores and concessions and recalling any of the goods which have already been sold and destroying them.
The full requirements to become a Hells Angel are the following: candidates must be a male, have a valid driver's license, have an American made working motorcycle and cannot be a black male, a child molester, or have applied to become a police officer or prison guard.
After a lengthy, phased process, a prospective member is first deemed to be a 'Hang-around', indicating that the individual is invited to some club events or to meet club members at known gathering places.
If the Hang-around is interested, he may be asked to become an 'Associate', a status that usually lasts a year or two. At the end of that stage, he is reclassified as 'Prospect', participating in some club activities, but not having voting privileges, while he is evaluated for suitability as a full member. The last phase, and highest membership status, is 'Full Membership' or 'Full-Patch'. The term Full-Patch refers to the complete four-piece crest, including the 'Death Head' logo, two rockers (top rocker: 'Hells Angels'; bottom rocker: State or Territory claimed) and the rectangular 'MC' patch below the wing of the Death's Head. Prospects are allowed to wear only a bottom rocker with the State or Territory name along with the rectangular 'MC' patch.
Hells Angels clubhouse in Oakland, California
To become a full member, the Prospect must be voted on by the rest of the full club members. Prior to votes being cast, a Prospect usually travels to every chapter in the sponsoring chapter's geographic jurisdiction (state/province/territory) and introduces himself to every Full-Patch. This process allows each voting member to become familiar with the subject and to ask any questions of concern prior to the vote. Successful admission usually requires more than a simple majority, and some clubs may reject a Prospect for a single dissenting vote. Some form of formal induction follows, wherein the Prospect affirms his loyalty to the club and its members. The final logo patch (top Hells Angels rocker) is then awarded at this initiation ceremony. The step of attaining full membership can be referred to as "being patched".
Even after a member is patched-in, the patches themselves remain the property of HAMC rather than the member. On leaving the Hells Angels, or being ejected, they must be returned to the club.