Mess Media

monitors, analyzes and corrects media reporting errors and bias concerning messengers and couriers.

Messenger Institute
 for Media Accuracy




Style and Action: A Decoding of Bike Messenger Symbols

Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, June 2005; 34; 344

By Jeffrey L. Kidder
University of California, San Diego

“ . . . if messengers are speaking through their style, the question is not simply what are they saying, but why are they saying it?”

Using a social world’s perspective, this article looks at the style of New York City bike messengers. Combining the works of Hebdige and Biernacki, it is argued that messenger style is intertwined with messenger practice. Five stylistic elements are analyzed: riding behaviors, the use of helmets, bicycle choice, clothing, and language. In each case, evidence is presented to illustrate how a liminal social position and an outlaw character is expressed within the signs messengers display.

Star Tribune writer Hannah Allam (1997) once noted, “It was only a matter of time before the fashion world got hip to bike messenger chic, a distinctive style that is equal parts hip-hop, skateboarder, and punk” (p. D1).

What is most striking about this statement is that bike messengers have a style at all. Stranger still is the fact that there is an entire book dedicated to messenger fashion. Messengers Style (Bialobos 2000) is a collection of photographs introduced by fashion historian Valerie Steele. The fact is, bike messengers, those “maniacal and dangerous” (Lee 2001, 14–1) men and women who “bring such thrills, chills, and spills to New York’s streets and sidewalks” (Goodman 1986, C12), do, indeed, have a very distinctive style. As Allam puts it, “These urban antiheroes come complete with tattoos, body piercings and a story for every chipped tooth” (1997, D1).

We speak through our clothes (Eco 1973). If all cultural objects are texts offering themselves to be read, what is messenger style communicating? Numerous sociologists have addressed this question with other social groups. From punks (Hebdige 1979) to mountain climbers (Mitchell 1983) to truckers (Ouellet 1994), the stylistic choices of various social worlds have been detailed. Such studies analyze the contested terrain agents must negotiate to demonstrate their cultural proficiency. Unfortunately, sociologists rarely address why a social world adopts its particular symbols. The analysis of style must go beyond the cataloging of meaning and attempt to situate such meaning within an understanding of practice (Biernacki 2000).

I address this gap in the cultural literature of style—the connection of style with practice—by conducting an ethnographic study of bike messengers. Style is composed of three main elements: demeanor, image, and argot (Brake 1985). I am interested in tracing the “maps of meaning” encoded within objects (Hebdige 1979). More important, building from an understanding of culture in action (Swidler 1986; Biernacki 2000), I argue that the stylistic choices of messengers are best understood within a discussion of the urban environment and the messenger’s location within the city. That is, if messengers are speaking through their style, the question is not simply what are they saying, but why are they saying it? In answering this question, I first provide a brief overviewof previous sociological studies about style. I then explain my research site and methodology. Next, I argue that bicycles occupy a liminal space within the urban environment. From this understanding on liminality, I tie my analysis of messenger to style (specifically, riding behaviors, the use of helmets, bicycle choice, clothing, and language) to messenger practice.


In discussing his research on style, Ewen (1999) writes, “I was about to tackle a subject that was at best, amorphous; a subject with no clear shape to it, and lacked the kind of concreteness that has shaped the catalogs of knowledge that scholars and students depend upon for intellectual guidance” (p. 3). Hebdige (1979), of course, provides the best known attempt at putting a sociological meaning to style. As a member of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, he focused on post–World War II British youth subcultures—most notably punks. For Hebdige, style is at the heart of a subculture because it is “pregnant with significance” (p. 18). In the case of punks, the contradictions of bourgeois consumption and England’s industrial decline were played out in reappropriated symbols. Trash bags became dresses and safety pins were used as jewelry. Whatever insights Hebdige has to offer on style, unfortunately, are overshadowed by his failure to enter into the life world of his subjects. Muggleton (2000), an English punk himself, says of Subculture: The Meaning of Style, “I fought my way through it until the bitter end, and was left feeling that it had absolutely nothing to say about my life as I had once lived it” (p. 2).

Analyses of style are a regular component in qualitative sociological inquiries. Ethnographies on mountaineering (Mitchell 1983), horse (Case 1984), punk rock (Fox 1987; Muggleton 2000), outlaw motorcycling (Wolf 1991), trucking (Ouellet 1994), and the British goth music scene (Hodkinson 2002) all include discussions of style.
The work of Mitchell and Ouellet provide useful comparisons for my argument. Unlike the work of Hebdige, Mitchell’s ethnography of mountain climbers is the product of numerous years of participant observation. While not his explicit intention, in discussing how mountaineers construct their social world, Mitchell analyzes style. In an age of planes, helicopters, and various automated gadgets, making it to the peaks of mountains in itself is not impressive; what climbers care about is how a person makes it to the peak. In this sense, the whole of mountaineer identity is located within a discussion of style. For example, if a personwas somehowable to parachute to the top of Mount Everest, this would not make him or her a “mountaineer.” Likewise, choices of what clothes to wear, what routes of ascent to take, what tools to use and (most important) not use are paramount within the climber’s social world. A climber with a new ice axe is seen as a neophyte, while a climber with an old rope is seen as a fool. According to Mitchell, climbers carefully manage their image (through the use of symbols) to portray themselves as experienced climbers.

In attempting to understand the strict work ethic of truckers, Ouellet (1994) provides another excellent discussion of style. For Ouellet, the “super trucker’s” sense of identity is rooted within his idealized image of the trucker. For these men, “styling” in a shiny Peterbilt is worth more in self-esteem than the higher paying union jobs driving less prestigious rigs. The question of trucker style, however, goes deeper than the make of a truck (and the amount of chrome which adorns it). Like Mitchell’s mountaineers (1983), truckers must negotiate a contested terrain of style. That is, just as some equipment is appropriate for some climbs but not others, truckers must choose when to break traffic laws and when to put in extra time for the company. A slow trucker gets no respect, but a trucker with too many speeding tickets is seen as irresponsible. Likewise, super truckers must work hard for their employers, but at the same time, they do not want to be seen as company dupes.

Despite their different socioeconomic positions (highly educated upper-middle class vs. less educated working class) and orientations to the activity (leisure pursuit vs. occupation), both mountaineers and truckers handle style in a similar manner. That is, Mitchell (1983) and Ouellet (1994) demonstrate that each social world has a style, but despite appearances, neither style is ready-made. “Style is a visible reference point by which we have come to understand life in progress [emphasis in original]” (Ewen 1999, 23). Climbers and truckers must actively make decisions about what symbols to use in varying situations, and it is within this constellation of symbolic choices that style is demonstrated. Culture provides agents with a disorganized array of objects that they must selectively use (like tools from a tool kit) in constructing strategies of action (Swidler 1986). Ultimately, cultural signs cannot be understood in isolation from cultural practices (Biernacki 2000).

Neither Mitchell (1983) nor Ouellet (1994) attempt to connect meanings to the actions that sustain them. We must not only ascertain that truckers value polished chrome while mountaineers value tattered clothing but also attend to “the pragmatic relations between signs and the organizations of practice [emphasis in orginal]” (Biernacki 2000, 309). A cultural analysis of style must move beyond mere descriptions and explanations of symbols. If action and meaning are in fact intertwined, then sociology cannot separate style from the social practices that create it. To go back to Hebdige (1979), “if styles are to catch on, if it is to become genuinely popular, it must say the right things in the right way at the right time. It must anticipate or encapsulate a mood, a moment” (p. 122). That is, styles must hold the “objective possibility” of reflecting the social worlds from which they sprung (Clarke 1975, 179). The approach used in this article grounds a semiotic reading of signs with ethnographic fieldwork. Through this method, I attempt to “classify the means by which agents connect representations to practices as they engage in social conduct” (Biernacki 2000, 302).


I conducted research for this article in New York City between June 2002 and June 2003. With the intention of gathering data, I found employment as a bike messenger. Throughout the day—Monday through Friday—I directly participated in the daily realities of messenger life. More important than the work hours themselves for this research, however, was the non-work time I spent with messengers. It is during social gatherings and other off-work events when the meanings and styles of being a messenger are discussed, contested, and represented. I hung out with messengers after work in parks and bars, and I went to messenger parties. I raced in alleycats—unsanctioned bicycle races held in open traffic—and I went on group rides with other messengers.

Through such active participant observation, I was as integrated as a sociologist could be in this particular social world. While I did have an academic motivation in working as a messenger, it should be made clear that my participation within the messenger world was neither forced nor faked. To the contrary, my lifelong interest in bicycles and alternative transportation melded seamlessly with the messenger lifestyle.

During the course of my fieldwork, most of the messengers with whom I came in contact were unaware of my research; this was a matter of necessity. In New York City, a messenger crosses paths with hundreds of messengers a day. The numerous individuals that helped form my understandings of messenger style could not all be approached to sign consent forms. Messengers with whom I had reoccurring contact were informed of my sociological interest. To protect the identities of the various messengers discussed in this article, pseudonyms are used; the exception to this rule are messengers cited from other sources. I obtained the vast majority of data for this article through informal interviews.

I unobtrusively took notes throughout the day and at social events. Upon returning home, these data were compiled into my field notes. During the workday and during races, parties, and other social gatherings, casual conversations provided the truest glimpses into messenger beliefs, ideologies, and opinions. To this end, I avoided formal interviews and instead allowed my questions to be answered by normal talk within the social world. This line of reasoning follows Mitchell’s (1993, 2002) observations on fieldwork.

1 In the following discussion of bike messengers, I am analyzing an occupational subculture within the larger messenger culture (see Trice 1993). For most of New York’s more than 2,000 messengers, being a courier starts and stops with the workday. These messengers fall largely outside of my analysis. This discussion centers around couriers who view being a messenger as a lifestyle. I estimate this group to comprise approximately 15 percent of the total New York City messenger population.

These “lifestyle messengers” socialize mostly among themselves, participate in messenger races (i.e., alleycats), and use bicycles as their primary form of transportation (even when notworking). Moreover, while the majority of bike messengers in New York are black and Hispanic males, the majority of lifestyle messengers are white males. It is worth noting that while messengers are almost exclusively men (approximately 99 percent), the majority of women I observed on the job were also part of the lifestyle.

I have conceptually distinguished lifestyle messengers because my sociological interest is cultural, not occupational. I approached messengers from a social world perspective (Strauss 1978). While working as a messenger is a requirement for entering this world, it is not the occupation itself I am interested in—it is the symbolic practices of its participants. This matter is underscored by the fact that many lifestyle messengers have long since left the occupation but are still integral members of the social world. Furthermore, in answering my questions about symbols, action, and meaning, it is the lifestyle messengers who provide the starkest examples of a unique “messenger style.”

There are numerous factors influencing messenger style. Obviously, race, class, gender, age, and nationality effect the meanings and actions embodied within courier symbols. As Muggleton (2000) has argued, “Our compression of the world can only ever be empirical, partial, and one-sided” (p. 14). The analysis offered in this article, therefore, does not claim to capture the vast complexity of the bike messenger world.

Instead, I provide one particular analysis of style. My argument does not negate the quintessential sociological factors of race, class, and gender. I do, however, attempt to highlight another thread within the “web of significance” (Geertz 1973, 5), which is culture. This is to say, social scientists cling tightly to particular variables but equally ignores others (see Agar 1996). While the more typical sociological concepts are certainly at work within messenger lives, the factors discussed belowshould not be ignored or subsumed within convenient constructs.

Regardless of how lifestyle messengers are (unwittingly) “doing” class, race, and gender, it must also be acknowledged that other factors are at work. Such an acknowledgment only expands the explanatory power of our discipline.


Bike messengers work in the business districts of congested cities (New York, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, etc.). Most couriers work for messenger companies that are contacted by firms needing immediate deliveries. Even in the age of e-mails and faxes, there are still countless items which must be transported physically, in a timely manner. In New York, messengers routinely carry advertising proofs, videos and film, architectural blueprints, model portfolios, contracts, and legal documents. Messenger companies dispatch these jobs to their riders via radio, cell phone, or pager. Couriers work autonomously, crisscrossing the urban grid, making their pickups and drop-offs. Paid piece rate, messenger work provides a dangerous and unstable source of income. At the same time, however, couriers take great pride in not just their work but their lifestyle. As one messenger states, “It is the greatest job in the world. I hope I am doing it until I’m 50. The only other thing I’d really like to be is a stuntman” (quoted in Duvall, 1991, 22).

In making deliveries, New York couriers can be found riding at high speeds and performing daredevil acts. One veteran messenger gave me this advice: “in New York, you just have to do crazy shit. You just gotta ride!” During myfirst weeks as a courier, I was awestruck by other messengers’ bravado. “It is amazing to watch these guys run red lights. It really is graceful. I think it is one part technique, three parts perception, and a few more parts raw nerve” (field notes, June 21, 2002). Emphasizing the importance of such nerve, Reilly, a long-time messenger, titled her memoirs of courier life Nerves of Steel. Because of their actions, messengers have been labeled “the speeding bane of NewYork’s pedestrians and motorists” (Lyall 1987, 58), and newspaper editorials have suggested plunging umbrellas into the courier’s spokes (Rosenthal 1987). The piece-rate system is the most commonly cited reason for the messenger’s behavior. As one New York Times editorial states, “What motivates those cyclists who whiz along the blind side of traffic lanes, plunge through intersections against the light and otherwise terrorize New York City drivers and pedestrians? For the worst offenders, the answer is money” (NewYork Times 1983, A34). Less often discussed— but what every urban cyclist knows—is that the built environment provides a structure for such behavior.

Generally speaking, city planners are ambivalent about bicycles. Roads have been constructed for automobiles, and sidewalks have been put in place for pedestrians. Bicycles, however, exist “betwixt and between” (Turner 1964). Cyclists are denied access to sidewalks and are refused equal rights to the roadway.2 As such, bicycles must ride in a liminal space—the shoulder of the road—a space suitable for neither car nor pedestrian. Moreover, while technically subject to the same traffic laws as automobiles, enforcement of bicycle violations is inconsistent and minimal at best. For instance, Christy, a messenger of less than a year, calculated that she ran more than ten thousand red lights before receiving her first (and only) ticket.

It is this very nonstatus of the bicycle that allows messengers to perform their job.Walking is simply not fast enough, and cars, despite their potential speed, are easily jammed in traffic. Forced into a liminal zone, cyclists have the freedom to maneuver anywhere their bikes can fit. As Turner (1964) states,

Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise [emphasis in original]. (p. 7)

By ignoring bicycles, lawmakers and architects confine cyclists to “invisibility,” but in this state—”neither living nor dead”—cyclists have the potential to travel in ways denied to the visible (see Turner 1964, 7). Chuck, a messenger since the 1970s, fondly remembers the early years when cyclists could do whatever they wanted. By the mid- 1980s, “They started enforcing laws and making laws.” However, even today with members of the New York Highway Patrol specifically assigned to ticket bicycle scofflaws and with several major roadways painted with designated bike lanes, messengers are still able to take advantage of their liminal status. That is, messengers mix with the ebbs and flows of traffic, darting between the “legitimate” users of the street and sidewalk.

Because they flamboyantly disregard traffic laws, bike messengers can be understood as outlaws, and many messengers proudly proclaim themselves as such. In differentiating himself from commuters and competitive cyclists, Shane, a former messenger, commented, “They don’t understand. You and I have experience with the outlaw side of cycling.” The outlaw defines himself outside the bounds of ordinary society but, at the same time, is an overt product of that very society (Shamblin 1972). In this sense, the outlaw is comparable to Simmel’s (1950) stranger. The stranger is neither a native nor an alien. He is estranged in his own homeland—”near and far at the same time [emphasis in original]” (p. 408). Using Simmel’s conception of the stranger, we can connect the liminal space in which messengers ride with the outlaw character messengers espouse. The stranger is “no owner of soil” (p. 403), just as the cyclist has no designated lane in which to ride. Furthermore, couriers do not want such a lane. While alternative transportation groups advocate bike lanes, messengers religiously avoid them. Messengers do notwant to be confined to one small strip of the road. Messengers relish their liminal position and the opportunities it affords them.

Pedaling through the city, the bike messenger is outside the bounds of ordinary society. Laws and regulations are rarely enforced, and the messenger can travel where he desires, as fast as he dares. As Culley (2002), a former messenger, writes of his experiences, “Red means red and green means green: I keep moving regardless. I am free to move as I wish, piercing gridlocked intersections, snaking between cars, and running the wrong way up one-way streets. I get juiced by this” (p. 189). Conversely, when the messenger dismounts his bike and enters the client’s office, he is inside society and forced to conform to laws and regulations. On the surface, this may sound trite, but the lawlessness and feelings of freedom offered by bicycle travel is sharply punctuated by the strict conformity the messenger faces when entering a building. Take, for example, Culley’s comments about an elevator ride to make a pickup.

I was in a steel box now, realizing that the world, like a projected film, runs across my neutral surface evenly. I was not in control here. I knew that. My heart gulped as it endeavored to know itself once again on this mythic descension into the modern world. (p. 35)

These feelings are compounded by management policies that attempt to segregate messengers from building tenants and customers. Messengers are often refused access to main entrances and are forced to use service elevators. Most larger office buildings do not even allow messengers to make pickups or deliveries directly to clients.

My own field notes are filled with stories of clients angrily snatching packages from me, security guards accusing me of violating building policies, and secretaries annoyed and offended by my presence. For example,

I got frustrated several times today trying to find just where exactly I was allowed to enter the building. One guard made me turn around walk a block around the building just so I could use the freight elevator (an elevator that was ten feet and in plain sight of where the guard was standing). To make mattersworse, when the freight elevator arrived the elevator guy barked, “What do you want? Why don’t you use the regular elevator.” I started to walk to the other elevator, only to have the guard start yelling at me again to go back to the freight elevator. The freight operator, in turn, looked at me as if the confusion was entirely my fault. (field notes, June 23, 2002)

At the same time, my notes are also filled with comments of exhilaration of the job.

When you catch a wave of traffic it is pretty awesome. All of the sudden you can just be flying through the city. You can cover serious distance in no time. I feel pretty safe in these situations, but, damn, there are so many things that could possibly go wrong. And, at that speed it could get messy. Of course, that is half the reason it is thrilling. Your legs are just pumping as hard as possible and your mind is racing, looking ahead for approaching dangers. (field notes, June 18, 2002)

Messenger work itself, therefore, encourages a liminal reading. Messengers are continually thrust back and forth between freedom and conformity. On their bikes, they are outside (literally and figuratively), and dealing with clients, they are inside (inside a building and expected to obey social norms and building regulations).


If style is connected to action, then the symbols messengers choose to wield must hold the “objective possibility” of portraying themselves as strangers—a liminal status and an outlaw character (Clarke 1975, 179). Most important, it must be remembered that for Clarke (1975) and Hebdige (1979), styles were not accidental or circumstantial. Styles become styles (as opposed to individual particularities) because they “encapsulate a mood” which is understood to be objectively real. I shall analyze several key aspects of messenger style: riding behaviors (demeanor), helmets, bicycles, clothing (image), and language (argot).


It is in how messengers ride their bikes that the outlaw image and liminality are most readily expressed. As a Chicago Tribune headline declared, “Pedestrians may swear at bicycle messengers, but companies swear by them” (Duvall 1991, 22). The point being, messengers irritate the average citizen, but they provide a necessary service. Messengers do not simply break traffic laws and manipulate the rules of the road to their economic advantage, however. Messengers commit such offense with the sort of reckless abandon that implies a death wish. One messenger, in fact, had a sticker on his bike which stated this explicitly: “Deathwish.” I noticed several other messengers with stickers that read, “Ride it like you stole it” (i.e., take undo risks). A journalist attempting to work as a messenger for a week reported, “I’m scared. I want to do 5 days, but I’ve made it through 4 without a mishap. The odds are against me” (Cuerdon 1990, 84)

Wolf (1991), in writing about outlaw motorcycle clubs, argues that “the threat of death” (p. 52) is the most salient distinction between the average citizen and the outlaw biker. Bikers are aware of the dangers and do not consider themselves impervious to mortal harm. “However, their collective image is one that disdains timidness and refuses to give any hint of fear or self-doubt. Riding a hog is an area where they have an edge, and they certainly don’twant to give outsiders the impression that they are hedging their bets” (p. 52). The riding style of messengers can be understood in a similar manner.

Within the messenger social world, the best messengers are the ones who take risks, handle their fear, and as a result ride the fastest. For example, one night afterwork, I rode with Andreas, a messenger of four years, through Times Square (an incredibly congested and dangerous section of Manhattan). Bob, another messenger, flew past us down Broadway. In speaking about the congested traffic in the area, Andreas commented, “I never go as fast as I need to through here.” Andreas was obviously envious of Bob’s speed. He continued, “I’m just not brave enough.” Rick, a messenger of three years, believes that the best messengers knowhowto take the risks of which Andreas iswary. For example, during the workday, Rick would often have informal races with another messenger whom he did not like. “Whenever I see him, I race him. . . . I’m sure he used to be fast, but he’s not willing to take the risks I’ll take. His time has passed.”

Couriers’ risk-taking is extreme during illegal alleycats, minimally structured races held in open traffic. Generally speaking, participants are simply given a manifest by the race organizers (who are usually messengers themselves) that lists specific “checkpoints” throughout the city that the racers must travel. The first person to make it to the finish line with every destination “stamped” on their manifest wins (race organizers are positioned at every checkpoint and stamp each rider’s manifest). In determining the fastest courier, alleycats emphasize the liminality of bicycles by testing the racer’s ability to negotiate city traffic as fast as possible. Unlike a professional cycling race, which tests a racer’s ability to travel a specific course in a specified manner, alleycats require innovative solutions that transcend existing structures for travel (e.g. sidewalks, one-way streets, red lights, etc.). Because these innovations are often illegal (and clearly dangerous), alleycats also promote an outlaw image. This outlaw character is further emphasized by an atmosphere of intoxication more reminiscent of a party than a sporting event.


The way a messenger rides might be argued to be purely a matter of economics. That is, the faster messengers ride, the more money they make. Certainly, that is the easiest explanation of why messengers are “scaring the public to death” (New York Police Commissioner BenjaminWard, quoted in Finder 1987, A1). It is in the attitude of helmets, however, that the truly symbolic importance of risk and the image of risk management is understood. While many New York messengers do wear helmets, the vast majority do not. At my first messenger race, I overheard a conversation that sums up the prevailing attitude toward helmets. The wife of one of the race organizers was talking to another friend during the awards party: “shewanted him to wear a helmet. . . . It is the one night he wants to hang out and have fun with his boys, and do you knowhowmuch shit hewould get for that?” Thiswoman knewthat the racer would be looked down upon if he followed his girlfriend’s advice. On another occasion, Vinny, a well-respected veteran courier, rode into Tompkins Square Park wearing a helmet. Another veteran courier loudly yelled, “rookie!” The insult was a joke, but there was a message behind it. Veteran couriers do not need to wear helmets because they “know how to handle themselves in traffic.” Rookies, on the other hand, do not. For example, Mike, an inexperienced messenger, moved to New York and originally wore a helmet. In his first weeks, he had gotten into two serious accidents. One accident sent a pedestrian to the hospital. The other accident was with a car and his bicycle was completely destroyed. The latter accident also broke his helmet in two. His helmet, by all counts, saved him from a serious head injury and perhaps saved his life. After this second accident, Mike decided to stop wearing a helmet. When I questioned him about his rather strange logic Mike replied, “Yeah, but I’ve learned a lot about how to ride in New York since then.”

There is no functional reason that messengers abstain from helmet use. I have heard people claim that in the summer, helmets are too hot, but these couriers did not start wearing helmets as the weather cooled. The general courier disdain for helmets is symbolic. Most messengers refuse to wear helmets as a demonstration of their skills and experience. Messengers readily admit the dangers present in their job and candidly discuss the injuries and deaths of their friends and coworkers (see Culley 2002; Kugelmass 1981; Reilly 2000; Sutherland 2001). A small study in Boston found that couriers have an injury rate three times higher than meat packers (Dennerlein and Meeker 2003). Conversely, messengers, while not ignoring these dangers, choose to boldly confront them. As Eric, a messenger since 1988, states, “I’m not going to die riding. I’m way past even thinking about ever getting smashed. I mean, yeah, maybe my hand will get broken, maybe, but I’m not going to die, not doing this” (quoted in Sutherland 2001). This suggests that for messengers, riding helmetless is neither reckless abandon nor a denial of death. It is, instead, a statement of feeling “beyond that”—of having the skills and experience to survive. This, again, echoesWolf’s (1991) comments about outlaw motorcycle clubs. “The outlaw considers their face-it-head-on-and-tough-it-out approach towards danger and discomfort to be another line of demarcation between themselves and the citizen. . . . Bikers face their vulnerability with a cavalier attitude, a style they feel has a lot to do with the courage to face risks and endure uncertainty” (pp. 52–53). In refusing to wear helmets, messengers assert a “face-it-head-on-and-tough-it-out” image that differentiates themselves from more timid (or safety conscious) cyclists. Furthermore, this image expresses comfort with the dangers accompanying the bicycle’s liminal status.


Messengers can ride any type of bicycle. The majority of couriers ride road or mountain bikes. The archetypical machine, however, is the track bike. Track bikes are designed for racing on a velodrome (an oval track with banked corners). The most notable aspects of a track bike are its fixed gear and lack of brakes. The cog attached to a track bike’s rear wheel is “fixed” and cannot coast; if the rear wheel is moving, so are the pedals (and vice versa).Afixed gear allows the rider to control the bicycle’s speed through the pedals. This should not be confused with the coaster brakes found on children’s bicycles. The sensations of riding a fixed gear are foreign to riders accustomed to freewheel (i.e. standard) bicycles. However, once the rider masters the required skills, “fixes” offer a new dimension of control and a different method for the rider to relate to his or her machine. There are several practical reasons messengers adopted track bikes.Track bikes are exceptionally light, require little maintenance, and have few components that can be stolen. More important than the practical justifications, track bikes also create more risks and require more skill and experience to ride.

Messengers pride themselves on their “track bike riding skills.” Efren, a messenger of three years, joked about track racers, “They don’t know how to [stop quickly]! They couldn’t ride in traffic. They’d be scared!” Chuck comments, “If anyone says anything to me about riding fixed, they are just jealous because they can’t do it.” A discussion I had with a former Olympic track racer confirmed these opinions. While he had attempted to ride his track bike in city traffic a fewtimes, he considered the practice far too dangerous. Emphasizing the fears of outsiders, a group of messengers who regularly trained for alleycats referred to themselves as “Rebels Without Brakes.”

Messengers often have “track bike only” races to demonstrate their particular talent. As Rick noted, “You can get away with a lot more on a mountain bike. You have to know what you are doing on a track bike.” Or as one veteran messenger (who rides a road bike) exclaimed upon seeing meon a track bike, “A rookie on a track bike!?!” For this messenger, track bikes are for people who have mastered the city streets, and rookies lack such skill. In recent years, track bikes have become popular among nonmessengers. Such popularity has offended many messengers.

Adam, a messenger of six years, snidely comments, “Track bikes are trendy now.” Indeed, it is this trend that allowed me to learn to ride fixed years before I worked as a messenger. Despite the growing popularity, track bikes are still considered the designation of a skilled bike messenger.

Kugelmass (1981) argues that messengers adopted track bikes specifically because they are harder to ride. While I believe that the practical advantages to a track bike are perhaps more relevant, there is a great deal of truth in Kugelmass’s claim. For instance, several messengers and I were practicing for an upcoming race in Central Park. In the warmer months, Central Park is always crowded with cyclists in the evening. Many of these cyclists are serious riders with top-of-the-line racing machines. As we stopped to rest, Mike commented that, “Man, we’d be so much faster if we had gears.” Mike’s point, however,was not that we should stop riding track bikes. Quite the opposite, Mike was implying that we were working harder than the other cyclists in the park.


In New York, few messengers dress in full spandex. At the same time, however, the selective appropriation of cycling apparel is common. Cycling shoes, gloves, jerseys, and caps are seen frequently but used cautiously. Henry admitted he originally wore spandex to work because he was excited about being a bike messenger. Reflecting back, he nowshakes his head telling the story, “I looked like a dork!You can’t walk into a bar after work dressed in spandex.” Many messengers do wear spandex shorts (or spandex pants in the winter), but they wear regular shorts or pants over them. This allows for the comfort of cycling shorts without looking like a cyclist. Klaus, a long-time messenger, provides a telling example. I ran into Klaus in a messenger center and I commented on the frigidly cold weather. Klaus, who was dressed in baggy black Carhartt work pants and jacket, gave me some advice. “I don’t really like cycling gear, but in the winter, it is warm.” He then pulled up his jacket to show a cycling windbreaker worn underneath. He concluded by proudly stating that even though he did wear cycling clothing, “I still don’t look like a cyclist.” This combination of urban clothes and cycling gear supports the concept of messenger style as bricolage (Clarke 1975; Hebdige 1979). It allows messengers to be seen as “a collision between the Tour de France field and the cast of Mad Max” (Wood 1994, 2)—as cyclists with an attitude.

While street clothes are far more common than cycling gear, these items have been modified. One example is long pants that have been either cutoff or rolled up just past the ankles. In New York, messengers often roll only their right leg (the side with a bike’s chain wheel). Lifestyle messengers tend to wear these pants when they are notworking. In fact, wearing messenger clothes when one is notworking is perhaps the biggest indicator of the lifestyle messenger. Joan, for instance, once chastised me for wearing different clothing when I was notworking. As she put it, “Just be yourself.” For Joan, there is no distinction between her work clothes and her leisure clothes. She always dresses like a courier because she is a courier. This is especially telling if a courier’s pants are merely rolled up and they do not bother to roll them down. At messenger parties, I noticed such behavior numerous times. On one occasion, a messenger showed up to a party in new slacks and a stylish leather jacket. These were not clothes he would work in. He spent the entire duration of the party with his right leg rolled up. He had ridden to the party on his bike and spent several hours socializing without ever caring to unroll his pant. On another occasion, Andreas was preparing for a party at his apartment. He showered and put on clean clothes. Even though he would not be riding his bike for the rest of the evening he still rolled his pant legs up (he also put on his cycling shoes—shoes with stiff sole and a cleat that mounts to the pedal of a bicycle).

A common addition to the pants of a bike messenger are patches on the seat. The number of hours a messenger spends riding causes incredible wear on the rear section of pants. To prolong the life of these, clothes many couriers reinforce the thinning fabric with patches. Two of the messenger I met, Mike and William, were skilled sewers. Mike had constructed his own messenger bags andWilliam actually participated in a sewing circle in Tompkins Square Park. While both Mike’s and William’s patches were expertly sewn, an intentional effort was made to draw attention to the alterations. Mike had sewn large star patterns to the seat of his pants.William used bright and contrasting colors to reinforce several pairs of his army surplus shorts. Likewise, Andrea used neon green fabric to mend his dark blue jeans. This practice is analogous to Mitchell’s (1983) discussion of mountain climbers. For Mitchell, the issue is not bricolage, but experience. Mountaineers sew patches on their clothes to denote past climbing experience. On a more surface level, messengers use patches in much the same manner—that is, to demonstrate enough street experience to have worn out one’s pants. Like rolled and cut pants, many messengers wear their patched pants when they are not riding bicycles.

Beyond demonstrating experience, messenger dress is a symbolic embodiment of the cultural ambivalence in which the messenger is enveloped. Couriers, like Simmel’s stranger, are inside and outside mainstream culture—at the same time. As with Hebdige’s (1979) punks, courier fashion embodies a contested battleground of divergent meanings. Cycling apparel is within; it denotes competence. Cycling caps or cycling shoes, for instance, conjure the images of dedicated professional cyclists. Conversely, patched and cut-off pants negate such a clear image. They are from without. These symbols denote an imperfect fit: fabric that has fallen apart too soon and inseams that were designed too long. I am not arguing that patches, cut-off pants, or other forms of clothing modification are inherently outside of mainstream fashion. Rolling up one pant leg, for example, is a hallmark of the New York hip-hop scene (see Holloway 1996). Likewise, patches often adorn high-priced jeans. I am arguing, however, that all styles offer themselves to be read (Eco 1973; Hebdige 1979) . Furthermore, the modifications messengers make to their clothes when juxtaposed with cycling apparel provides a reading that cannot be subsumed under the rubric grunge, punk, or hip-hop fashion. Therefore, we can understand messengers as bricoleurs. Messengers could just dress as cyclists (as some do). Or messengers could just dress in ragged street wear (as some do). For lifestyle messengers, however, neither style accurately represents the group. As such, they have introduced “noise” into the system (Hebdige 1979). They are neither competitive cyclists nor commuters on bikes. They are something in between and, at the same time, something totally different. Within the lifestyle messenger’s appropriation of symbols, therefore, we see a novel assembly of signs constituting a unique reading, and this reading tells the story of liminality.


Like all social worlds, the messenger world has a unique language. Some words and phrases locate the user within a particular city or region, while others are used internationally. Within this colorful dictionary are terms like double rush, red hot (packages that must be delivered quickly); fix, fixed, fixie (a track bike); alleycat; skid, skip (locking the rear wheel of a track bike to slow down or stop); wave (catching a series of green lights and riding with a flow of traffic); and line (the route a cyclist takes through traffic). Additionally, messengers use a great deal of cycling slang (like “Campy” for Campagnolo, a high-end component manufacturer) and radio codes (like “10–20” for location). Two notable terms among lifestyle messengers are “work” and “ride.” Both words are used synonymously with “messenger work.” A telling example of how these words are used occurred during my first weeks working as a messenger. Adam and I were discussing his yearlong stay in Los Angeles (LA), and I did not understand the meanings applied to “work” and “ride.”

Jeff (J): So did you ride in LA?
Adam (A): No I did not work in LA.
J: Were you going to school in LA?
A: No, I moved out there for a job in graphic design.
[later in the conversation]
J: You didn’t ride your bike when you were out there?
A: Of course I did.

In this conversation Adam thought I was asking if he worked as a messenger in LA. Conversely, I was confused as to why he started talking about work when I was talking about riding bikes. Later, when I attempted to ask Adam why he had not ridden his bike in LA, he was completely confused as to why I assumed he had not. Likewise, when I told NewYork messengers I lived in Boston for a year, theywould ask if I “worked” in Boston. I would get funny looks when I told them about my job at a community newspaper. Eventually I learned to tell people that “I lived in Boston for a year, but I did not work there.” In such a statement, it is understood that I did have a job, but I had notworked as a bike messenger.

What does conflating work with riding tell us about messenger meaning? Among lifestyle messengers, the spheres of work and leisure are highly integrated (see Reilly 2000; Sutherland 2001). This is to say, messengers spend their nonwork hours in largely the same manner that they spend their work hours: speeding through the city on bikes. Since messengers spend a great deal of their leisure time riding, I would argue that reducing work to “riding” is indicative of the messenger lifestyle colonizing the logic of work. In other words, messengers do not so muchwork as they simply ride their bikes (whether they are riding their bikes to a party or to make a delivery). The boundaries workers construct between their occupational time and leisure time is crucial to understanding how individuals construct identities (Nippert-Eng 1996). Thus, messengers can be seen as constructing identities that conflate their work and leisure selves. By using ride and work synonymously, messengers not only demonstrate an integration of work and leisure, but also liminality. The rationalization of labor assumes the clear demarcation ofwork and leisure time (see Nippert-Eng 1996). For the courier, riding forwork and riding for fun all becomes just riding. In doing so, messengers define their activities outside of cultural classifications. They are “no longer classified and not yet classified [emphasis in original]” (Turner 1964, 6)—they are strangers.

The words “civilian” and “suit” also connect the messenger to Simmel’s (1950) stranger. Civilians include anyone who is not a messenger; suits are business people. “Suit” is an obviously pejorative term—reducing a person to an inanimate object. Furthermore, this object is associated with a way of life couriers abhor. As Rick explains, by being a messenger, “I’m not sitting behind a desk being strangled.”

Borrowing from military terminology, civilians are non-messengers. They have their own look and values all separate from messengers. José, a messenger of two years, exclaimed upon seeing me dressed in my nonwork clothes, “What are you doing dressed like a civilian?” Steve, a former courier who now runs a messenger company, explains the distinction by breaking society into four main categories. “There was civilians. The police—the paramilitary. Then you have criminals. Then you have outlaws. Bike messengers fall under the realm of outlaw.” Steve segments society in this manner to explain why negative stereotypes of messengers did not concern him. “A lot of people spit on you. . . . It didn’t bother me because as far as I was concerned, I was part of a different culture” (quoted in Sutherland 2001). For Steve, messengers are outlaws—neither civilians nor criminals. Again, we see messengers as strangers—something betwixt and between.


Building from the idea of a cultural tool kit (Swidler 1986), this article has sought to connect the style of bike messengers with the daily practices involved in messenger life. “The significance of specific cultural symbols can be understood only in relation to the strategies of action they sustain” (p. 283). Sociologists have long catalogued the various styles of the people they study. Mitchell (1983) and Ouellet (1994) offer particularly compelling accounts of how mountaineers and truckers manage various symbols in the construction of identity. Unfortunately, neither work adheres to Biernacki’s (2000) criteria of linking signs to action. Mitchell demonstrates how a mountain climber can use a battered ice axe to promote a specific image of the self. Likewise, Ouellet details the importance of truckers modifying and cleaning their trucks. What is missing in their discussions of style, however, is a connection between the actual practices of truckers and mountaineers with the meanings imputed upon their symbols. Neither Mitchell nor Ouellet explain why truckers have come to value meticulously shiny trucks while climbers value intentionally ragged attire. Both groups cherish experience and dedication, but both groups express this knowledge and commitment in contradictory ways.

In their exploration of subcultures, the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies emphasized the theoretical linking of action and meaning. “Style . . . cannot be seen in isolation from the group’s structure, position, relations, practices, and selfconsciousness” (Clarke 1975, 176). Through semiotic analysis, Hebdige (1979) attempted to link punk symbols to the realities of Britain’s industrial decline. In recent years, the methods of the Birmingham School have fallen under ill repute (see Muggleton 2000). For all his efforts at decoding the meaning of style, Hebdige neglected the subjective meanings assigned to symbols—armchair theorizing replaced actual fieldwork.

Combining traditional ethnography with Hebdige’s (1979) semiotic approach, I have examined messenger style in relation to messenger practices. We can understand that courier symbols are not randomly selected from Weber’s (1949) “meaningless infinity” (p. 81). To the contrary, while humans have the potential to assign any meaning to any object, cultural influences promote certain readings. For messengers, I have detailed a physical liminality—the nonstatus of bicycles on city streets (see Turner 1964). Furthermore, I have explained how couriers manipulate their liminal position to swiftly negotiate the congested urban environment. Messengers, therefore, become both strangers (Simmel 1950) and outlaws.

Messengers make their money, and consequently define their occupational niche, and (for lifestyle messengers) define their selves by skillfully using a machine that slips between cracks in the law (and spaces between cabs and pedestrians). By using track bikes, messengers exemplify their status as strangers by using an object that is at once familiar (a bicycle) and threateningly foreign (a bicycle without brakes). The bricolage of messenger clothing—neither street style nor cycling apparel—furthers this strangeness. The language of bike messengers reaffirms a liminal status. Messengers ride, for work and for play, and define themselves as noncivilians—as outlaws. Messenger symbols, therefore, become an extension of the messenger’s social location (Clarke 1975). As Swidler (1986) and Biernacki (2000) would argue, messenger signs reflect the social actions that sustain them.

Future cultural analyses of style should continue to highlight the ties between symbols and practices. Conversely, Hodkinson (2002) has argued that style does not inherently reflect the actions of a social world. Can other groups be subjected to the same analysis offered here? Or as Hodkinson notes with regard to goths, should style be considered as something purely aesthetic? There is always the threat that semiotics can be more imaginary than imaginative (Cohen 1980). However, if human life is a series of symbolic interactions (Blumer 1969), then exploring the connections between action and meaning is paramount to our discipline. As more ethnographies address this question, the nuances of practice and representation will become clear. In teasing out such connections, the elusive link between agency and structure will come into greater focus.

JEFFREY L. KIDDER is a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. His research interests are focused around the problems of meaning construction in postmodernity. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 34 No. 2, June 2005 344-367
DOI: 10.1177/0891241605274734  2005 Sage Publications




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