MIKEY OJEDA: BLEACH DESIGN WERKS
Words by Seth Richards | Photography by John Ryan Hebert
I t’s after hours in Los Angeles. From the Hollywood Hills, the lights of endless sprawl underpin the gray horizon, and from the heights of this American Olympus, the gods of celebrity, culture and money invent themselves. It’s here that Mikey Ojeda had a revelation.
Ojeda and his friend, the pro skateboarder Nyjah Huston, are leaving an afterparty. As the evening’s revelry disperses in the night, Huston, in a T-shirt and white Nikes, climbs on the murdered-out KTM 500 EXC-F Ojeda had just finished building for him, thumbs the starter, and sets off. Huston glances over his shoulder at the Uber full of women giving chase and pulls a heraldic wheelie, pronouncing his place in the world.
As the blast of the KTM’s exhaust cuts through the perfume of sagebrush and spilled champagne, the party’s din fades in the air, and Ojeda begins to realize the significance of his custom dual sport.
That night and others like it became the inspiration for Ojeda’s custom house, Bleach Design Werks. Based in Los Angeles, Bleach specializes in building custom dual sports with an LA-inspired aesthetic. It’s quickly attracted a celebrity clientele and sparked collaborations with Deus Ex Machina, Harley-Davidson, Alpinestars and Dunlop. And that’s just the beginning. Remember the name. Bleach Design Werks is about to blow up.
“In the beginning,” Ojeda says, “I didn’t even like the idea of dual sports. I didn’t understand them.”
Given his background, it’s no wonder they seemed so alien. Ojeda grew up in Los Angeles and started racing motocross on a KTM 50 SX, practically learning to ride in the crucible of competition. A motorcycle was a tool for competition, not something to be ridden to the corner store for a carton of milk and a laugh.
Spending much of his childhood at the track prepared him for a career in the industry: first as an athlete manager for supercross and motocross racers, then as marketing director for an online motorcycle gear retailer.
When Huston, with whom he shares a love of skateboarding and motocross, said he wanted to customize a dirt bike to fit his style like he does with his cars, Ojeda figured he could help negotiate a deal with Kawasaki, given Huston and Team Green’s mutual association with Monster Energy. Huston had other ideas.
Ojeda recalls the conversation: “Nyjah said, ‘I want a dual sport. I want to ride it on the street. I want a KTM 500.’”
“I said, ‘We don’t ride those bikes. We ride dirt bikes!’ I remember arguing with him about it and was like, ‘You’re crazy. They’re not cool.’ But he was so persistent.”
Next to a purebred motocross bike, a dual sport is a compromise—and looks it. A larger tank, cheapo turn signals and a bulky license plate bracket diminish the form-follows-function look of a number-plate-and-knobby off-roader. They’re slower and heavier, too. The engines often have lower compression ratios for improved street-ability, larger radiators to cope with city riding and revised chassis geometry. To pass muster with the Feds, they have catalytic converters, charcoal canisters and quiet exhausts. In the process of becoming reliable, street-legal and socially acceptable, dual sports lose the purity that makes a motocross bike the most badass machine on a showroom floor.
Huston was undeterred. After picking up the KTM at Three Brothers Racing in Costa Mesa, California, he shocked Ojeda again by tossing him the keys.
“Nyjah said, ‘All right, take it home,’” Ojeda recalls. “I was like, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘Build it.’ I told him, ‘I don’t do that. I don’t build bikes.’’’
Ojeda remembers thinking, “Once again, I’m getting talked into something I don’t do.”
“If I can style this dual sport as closely to a moto bike as I can,” he remembers thinking, “it might be cool. I’m going to take factory brakes from a motocross bike; I’m going to set the suspension up like a motocross bike; I’m going to be able to ride it on the track.”
He tore down the brand-new engine to have it Cerakoted black, gave the front suspension a black diamond-like coating, installed a slender motocross tank, added a bunch of titanium hardware, and gave it a signature graphics treatment. It set the formula for every Bleach Design Werks motorcycle since.
After riding it, he realized this new breed of dual sport was no joke. “Ten years ago a dual sport was an XR650,” Ojeda says. “Now these KTMs and Husky and Hondas are so close to a motocross bike.”
“The way I saw Nyjah use that bike really became my whole concept behind the brand,” Ojeda says. “I use the analogy of a Ford Raptor. It’s fully capable off-road, but 90 percent of them will probably never see dirt. People want to go to the club, or go to dinner, or go on a date with their chick and be in this off-road vehicle. There’s this cool factor of it being this urban thing. Can I build the Ford Raptor of bikes?”
Consciously or not, by understanding a motorcycle’s implicit cultural message and its role in symbolic behavior, Ojeda has fit the machine toward man. Replace for a moment the image of Huston wheelieing away from that afterparty on his Bleach KTM with a 200-horsepower superbike, and the impression it leaves takes on a different meaning. On a superbike, that wheelie comes across as gratuitous and self-serving, an indictment of tact. A superbike’s superlative performance is subjugated to its relation to the rider who will never be its master. It’s too serious a thing to use as a playful prop. But on a lightweight single-cylinder off-roader producing less than 70 horsepower, that wheelie blithely tips its cap to braggadocio. The rider looks like he’s having fun, not like he’s desperate to impress.
It’s no easy trick to express one’s sense of self-assurance and self-gratification so convincingly, and yet such symbolic messages are critical to the way we interact with each other. The clothes we wear, the vehicles we drive or ride, and the places we choose to be seen devise the identities in which we find succor and confidence. In one form or another, finding meaning and social position can be attributed to the way we style our lives.
“Style is everything,” Ojeda says. “Style creates a feeling. There’s no standard for style. My style is what makes me get up and feel the way I want to feel in the morning. I think there’s style in everything.
“I take a lot of inspiration from fashion. Riding these bikes in the city, you’re not wearing motocross gear; you’re wearing normal clothes. The bike is an accessory that belongs with the way you look.”
Bleach motorcycles look like LA pop culture and reflect the style of its celebrity clients, including Justin Bieber, rappers Ty Dolla $ign and Arizona Zervas, Ben Simmons of the Brooklyn Nets, skateboarders Leticia Bufoni and Boo Johnson, and Ojeda’s childhood friend, motocross racer Cole Seely.
As much as the Bleach look is an expression of Los Angeles, riding dirt bikes on the street has strong associations with broader urban culture. Dudes were riding CRs and YZs on the streets of Baltimore long before Ojeda Cerakoted an engine black or Bieber made it cool to suburban kids.
So, in a sense, a Bleach custom is a designer take on urban style. Exclusivity makes Bleach motorcycles the fare of rappers and basketball players, but the trickledown effect is what most excites Ojeda.
“I see the bikes almost being the smallest piece,” Ojeda says. “How can we touch the demographic of people who can’t afford the bikes but want to be inspired by the way they make other people look?”
Bleach is rapidly expanding into the fashion world and is developing capsule collections with several big-name brands. One such collaboration is with Harley-Davidson. It puts him in good company: H-D’s latest fashion collab is with menswear giant Todd Snyder. Undoubtedly, Harley-Davidson wants a piece of the Bleach demographic.
Bleach’s current residency at Deus Ex Machina in Venice, California, further emphasizes Ojeda’s vision beyond two wheels. Ojeda sees it as an opportunity to invite people into the processes of building a bike and developing a line of made-in-LA clothing.
During the launch party of the residency, Ojeda opened the Deus workshop and began to tear down the KTM, maneuvering around the lift while guests drank beer and chatted.
“We built the shop out like a clubhouse,” Ojeda says. “I wanted it to feel like when you hang out with friends in your garage. The workshop used to have a one-way mirror looking into the retail store, so no one could see in. The first thing I wanted to do was blow that whole window open.”
“The days of hiding everything are just dead. Creating transparency is so important. Everyone wants to feel a part of something, like they belong.”
While the motorcycle community is connected by common interest, it’s also divided by overt symbolic behavior that delineates who’s part of the club and who isn’t. The perceived barriers of gender, race and social class are just as evident in the motorcycle world as they are anywhere, and are even amplified by the distinct expressions of motorcycling’s subcultures. Marketing success is contingent on a brand’s ability to play to the right crowd. To transcend a specific niche requires a broader appeal.
Bleach bikes aren’t easy to categorize. They don’t fit easily in the custom scene, and performance aside, their LA-at-night style is a departure from the motocross and off-road scene from which the bikes are derived. Consequently, Bleach’s demographic has come more from outside the motorcycle world than from within. So, despite Ojeda’s deep roots and connections within the industry, Bleach can come across as an outsider.
“I submitted one of my first bikes to a motorcycle publication, and they denied it,” Ojeda says. “They said it’s not really a custom bike. I was bummed, thinking I’m not doing it right. Then I took a step back and realized I had a different place to go. Now, seeing my bikes in all these different publications that have nothing to do with bikes—that’s where I want to be. That’s where I belong. We take in ‘Nos’ as if they’re always bad, but sometimes ‘Nos’ are the biggest ‘Yes.’ You gotta find where you fit.”
Ojeda looks beyond the insular subcultures of motorcycling to glimpse a world far larger. He has his eye on Paris Fashion Week, Vogue, and a culture in which two wheels are usually invisible. And in Los Angeles, where culture invents itself in the waning hours and outsiders become the in-crowd, Ojeda is on the brink of introducing Bleach to the world.