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Art on wheels: Father-son team adds aesthetic touches to motorcycles

The bike revs, its sparkling paint reflecting blinding bursts of sunlight back at the viewer – highlighted by a passionate portrayal of an eagle soaring, weightless, above the earth.

The design is a testament to the owner’s personality, a melding of art and mechanics. And it’s just one of hundreds created by Jeff Smikowski, owner of T.S. Customs, a Wa-terford-based painting business geared toward motorcycles, hot rods, signs and more.

Jeff’s love for art took root when he was 7 or 8 years old, when he developed a passion for drawing and cartooning.

By the time he was a teen-ager attending Boys Tech in Milwaukee – now known as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Technology and Trade School – he transferred his art skills to wheeled objects.

At 16, he applied pinstripes and lettering to his own car, then started working on his buddy’s cars, lockers, motorcycles – anything made of metal that could be painted, striped, and cooled-out.

Jeff eventually opened his own shop in Milwaukee – TS Customs, painting motorcycles, signs, hot rods and more.

He moved to Waterford, Wis., with his family in 1979, and then closed the Milwaukee shop two years later in favor of working in the garage he converted to a new shop, right next to his home.

His son, Adam – a Waterford Union High School graduate – works with him as well. It’s something Adam has been doing on and off since he was about 10 years old. Adam does metal fabrication, the basic painting and clear coats, and the bodywork.

“I try to get everything ready for him (to customize), then he gives it back to me to finish out in the shop,” Adam said.

The father-and-son team attends an average of two rallies each month during the summer, visiting with motorcycle and car enthusiasts and displaying and demonstrating their work.

That’s been one of their best sources of business, Jeff said. T.S. Customs also gets referrals from Milwaukee-area Harley Davidson dealers.

“It’s a lot of fun being at the events,” Jeff said. “It’s amazing how many people are into the motorcycle scene.”

Adam said, “A lot of people like that we’re there and they can talk to us face to face.”

Last year, T.S. Customs was hired to paint a Buell STT motorcycle with a Spiderman theme. The bike was part of a national giveaway promotion sponsored by Burger King in conjunction with the release of the movie, “Spiderman III.”

More recently, Jeff and Adam provided custom graphics on the Special Edition 2008 “Rock Girl” Harley Nightster for local FM radio station 102.9, the HOG. The bike will be awarded to one winner in a random drawing later this year.

One of the team’s most challenging projects was a “Heroes” themed Road King, done in 2003.

The bike featured detailed murals depicting Iwo Jima, firemen during 9/11, and the Korean War and Vietnam War Veterans memorials.

The twin towers of the World Trade Center were painted on the helmet.

The owner has shown the bike all over the country, Jeff said, and “won a gazillion awards with it.”

One of Jeff’s favorite projects is Adam’s motorcycle, which features diamond plate painting and detailed skull graphics around the tail and signal lights.

Painting projects can take two or three weeks, or as much as four months.

“It depends on the complexity of the job,” Jeff said.

Whether the job is simple or complex, both Jeff and Adam enjoy the work – and they enjoy working together.

“We’re friends. Not a lot of people can say that about their kids,” Jeff said.

They both like the people part of the job as well.

“We spend a lot of time with our customers, because it’s their baby, it’s their toy (we’re working on),” Jeff said.

Customers often have their helmets and leather jackets painted to match their bikes.

“The joy in this whole thing is the customer’s response,” he said.

T.S. Customs also makes custom signs – Jeff said he offers a discount to local non-profit organizations – along with customizing bikes, hot rods, jet skis, and more, with everything from pinstripes to flames, to complex murals, to gold and silver leaf.

“Anything that will stand still long enough, we’ll paint it,” he said.

The best part: “It’s rare in this day and age that you can say, ‘Man, I love doing my job,’” Jeff said.



I'm a writer, editor, photographer and artist living in rural Southeastern Wisconsin. I grew up in Chicago, made my way to the deep woods of Northern Minnesota and then landed here among the cornfields and cows. It's quite simply my happy place.

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