Most early pannier models were box-like and hand crafted from flat aluminum. Maybe not the most aerodynamic of designs, but the amount of storage space rocks.
Boxen Art – Adventure Pannier Artwork
Aluminum saddlebags were new to the USA market 10-15 years after they had enjoyed wide adventure rider sales in Europe. While American riders were purchasing leather saddlebags and plastic carrying cases, some even modified luggage bags, the Europeans were adventuring around the world with aluminum “boxes,” or “panniers.”
The European adventurers were less concerned with form than function, so early models were box-like, the Germen word for them being “boxen.” Generally they were hand crafted from flat aluminum, the standard being 2mm thick. Some were manufactured to affix to OEM mounting systems, but soon proved to be sturdier than the OEM supports. As panniers evolved so did stronger aftermarket supporting systems that would not break under the additional weight carried in the larger boxes. An additional factor in their market growth was their cost being far less than the plastic or fiberglass saddlebags offered by some OEMs. The aluminum boxes could take a hit, and in many cases could be re-welded or hammered back into usable form. Not so for the high priced plastic stuff.
Nearly all of the aluminum boxes had large flat surfaces that owners could adorn with stickers from destination points they had tagged, sponsors supporting their trips, or hand painted artwork.
A fresh set of aluminum boxes had a sheen that said to the wise observer, “New boxes on bike!” meaning “I’ve not been anywhere but I want to go.” Some newbie travelers could live with this poseur or newbie image while others wanted to disguise their wannabe traveler status. This gave rise to the application of paint to the boxes depicting everything from animals to possibly reflect the rider’s long ride through Africa, to maps of where the riders had traveled or would be traveling.
Some artwork was done to cover dings and dents from get-offs. Other artists attempted to incorporate on their boxes a matching color scheme from their custom painted motorcycle. Sponsored riders could use the full side of the box to advertise who they had secured funds or parts from to make their trips.
Plastic panniers proved to be a more difficult problem for owner/artists. Stickers would not adhere to the plastic as well as they did to aluminum and would come off in the rain or under high pressure in a car wash. The same lack of adhesion factor was a problem with painted or powder coated surfaces. Travelers learned that if they wanted stickers to stay on their boxes, a clean aluminum surface worked best.
This rider has been so many places that their exploits can no longer be restricted to the panniers alone.
A favorite application by serious travelers was either a map of their route or a list of the countries they had passed through. If doing a ’round the world tour, a hand painted, flattened outline of the globe was ideal for explaining or pointing to non-readers in third world countries showing what the planned route was or where the rider had been. Other maps were stickers cut from plastic sticker material in print shops from computerized templates while others were hand drawn maps similar to those used by Magellan or Columbus.
Some artwork is clearly for show. A $1,500 aluminum box system with another $1,000 worth of custom paint work on the boxes can suggest the rider is not headed for the Gobi Desert or the gravel on the way to Ushuaia.
Other artwork can be for the simple entertainment of the observer, such as clever stickers from souvenir shops or gas stations. With the advent of blogs and websites, many travelers find the artwork on the side of a box or pannier can incorporate their personal location on the Internet.
Some motorcycle tour companies find pannier sides as an excellent place to advertise their tour business. Of course, to the hardened traveler who sees one of these motorcycle riders on a tour company stickered rental motorcycle, the message clearly is not the same as one coming from a fellow adventurer. On the other hand, to the villagers in Lesotho the artwork says, “Here come the tourists, bring out the dancing girls and Chinese made souvenirs.”
Country stickers can be incorporated in boxen art. These are the stickers reflecting the country of origin of the rider, such as CH for Swiss, D for German, and USA for Americans. Usually these oval stickers are placed on the back of the panniers for best viewing after passing a slower rider or being passed by a faster one. The decision to affix one of these nationality identifiers is one that often borders more on common sense than artistic design. The politics of the country the rider is passing through might suggest no sticker artwork reflecting America might be a wise choice when wandering through Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq these days. On the other hand a USA sticker might be a friend-maker in Australia or Japan.
Boxen art can also score points in the gray adventure rider world. For instance, a European female traveler bought a motorcycle in the United States and borrowed aluminum panniers from a friend. She decorated the boxes with stickers from various places she had been as well as sponsors who had sent her excess stickers, then had the boxes mounted on her motorcycle. Her artwork included an oval sticker from her home country and she signed into a motorcycle rally as being from that far-away country. At the awards ceremony she walked away with the award for the female foreign rider having ridden the furthest to the rally. Not only were the boxes a work of art but her ride to the rally had been less than 20 miles where she was working a summer job.
Oval country stickers are also a popular choice among adventure riders. Can you guess what country this motorcyclist came from?
In some countries the owners of hotels, bars, and motorcycle shops ask the pannier owner if they can place a sticker on a box for advertising or promotional purposes. Membership in certain motorcycle clubs can also be reflected in pannier sticker art. Sticker pictures meaning nothing can also dress up the boxes, like outlines of road kill. One famous sticker from Vermont often seen on USA boxes is a reflective cow, meaning little more than the rider has met the designer/donor who gave the rider the sticker, a nice way of stating they are one of his circle of acquaintances.
There are a few tips for the newbie boxen artist. One is paper stickers do not last. If they make one on a computer and color print it on paper then it should be laminated and glued to the box. Another tip is not to be afraid to tear off rental bike stickers if you want to pose as a traveler on that bike and not a local rental tourist. The rental agencies have replacement stickers. Writing away for stickers to decorate your boxes can fool some of the people looking at your aluminum boxes some of the time, but a good story should be in hand if questioned why you have a sticker from the Deadhhorse, Alaska and you have never ridden the Dalton Highway.
Possibly one of the more innovative samples of boxen art was done by a German motorcyclist traveling through South and Central America. Rather than toss away or donate the excess coins he could not change at the borders, he glued the coins to his aluminum boxes. When asked about the artwork when he reached America, he said the good part was that he had collected souvenirs from across Central America that possibly made the boxes bullet proof in what he had heard was “gun happy America.” The bad part was that the excess weight had twice broken the backing plates on the aluminum boxes. He also added that he was worried that in America someone might steal his motorcycle merely for the coins glued on his panniers, the thief not knowing the artwork was worth far less than it looked. But it looked like the most expensive boxen art around.
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