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Make an art bike: A how-to guide from Twin Cities experts

Andrew Tubesing on the Vike Bike

Andrew Tubesing on the Vike Bike

You've probably seen an art bike. It may have been a herd of zebra bikes at the MayDay Parade, a propeller bike on the Stone Arch Bridge, or the ubiquitous 10-person-powered Pedal Bear the frequently shows up at festivals. But have you ever made one?

"I've imagined and envisioned lots of things in my life, but I don't always do them," says Andrew Tubesing, electrical engineering lab manager at the University of St. Thomas.

In 2014, eight days before the MayDay Parade, he imagined a glorious viking ship bike. So he acquired an adult tricycle and a dented (but free) canoe. On festival day, he was pedaling down Bloomington Avenue in front of thousands of people in what he now calls the Vike Bike.

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With outdoor summer events like Northern Spark and Open Streets coming up fast, the Vike Bike and other contraptions will soon be cruising around the Twin Cities. Instead of ogling them on your plain ol' 10-speed, now is the time to construct an art bike of your own.

To help, we consulted some local experts. First off, what exactly is an "art bike"?

Karen Haselmann, an information technology specialist at the University of Minnesota and creator of Fish Bike, asked that question 20 years ago at Burning Man.

Mina Leierwood and neighborhood children on the Tiger Bike

Mina Leierwood and neighborhood children on the Tiger Bike

"I went to [the art bike] site and they got really specific about what an art bike is because out there people want to come in and go, 'I'm going to be in the art bike camp,' and they put a flower on their bike," she says. "That's a decoration."

Mina Leierwood, an art teacher at Minneapolis Public Schools and owner of the tandem Tiger Bike, offers a less alienating approach.

"The simplest way to art-ify your bike is to tie some weird thing on the handlebars," she says. Her son currently has X-Men's Wolverine mounted on his two-wheeler. That's all it takes.

"The thing that's so cool about art bikes is they start having a personality. If you tie a Wolverine onto the front of your bike, you're going to meet all the people that love Wolverine," she says. "It's kind of wearing a piece of yourself on the outside."

The best part? You don't have to be a painter, sculptor, or puppeteer to transform your bicycle and parade it around.

"I don't call myself an artist," says Willis Bowman, creator of Bat Bike and Propeller Bike. "I'm an engineer who loves to play."

His escapades include building a pedal-powered ice cream maker with Haselmann, and decking his Bat Bike out in lights for the annual Greenway Glow festival and night ride.

"People were just going crazy," he says. "That's what I love: to push people off their normal, everyday, workaday worlds."

After speaking with the creators of Vike Bike, Fish Bike, Tiger Bike, and Bat Bike, we put together some helpful hints for transforming your normal, everyday, workaday bike into something better.

Up next: What you need to know to make an art bike.

10 Tips for Making Your Own Art Bike

1. There are no prerequisites. You don't have to be an artist, a bike mechanic, or a DIY die-hard. "The technical skills required for [the Vike Bike] didn't require any specialty knowledge of bikes," Tubesing says.

2. Don't hold back. "The most important part is to envision something and be bold and go do it," Tubesing says. "It doesn't always feel like you can do something, but you might as well try and if you keep going you probably can. That's a reminder I have to give myself sometimes too."

3. Reuse and recycle. Bowman's propeller bike includes an old stage light and a pizza box. Leierwood's Tiger Bike is made of cardboard coated with contact cement. Tubesing's Vike Bike has everything, including a canoe that a tree fell on, a car battery, and a mixing bowl that's now a Viking helmet.

Karen Haselmann on the Fish Bike

Karen Haselmann on the Fish Bike

4. Work with people. Haselmann recounts some advice from an In the Heart of the Beast puppeteer: "Those things you promised yourself you're going to make all year and you didn't? Suddenly, when you're in a room with 100 people making stuff, it spurs you on." Since art bikes are not restricted to MayDay workshops, she suggests joining up with friends and checking out local "makerspaces" through www.makersofminneapolis.com.

5. Be road ready. Even if you're building it for a specific event, make it safe for everyday. "This has been to parades, but I like it more where people don't expect it, like when you go past a coffee shop. That's where people light up and they appreciate it," says Haselmann of Fish Bike. "One of my neighbors was having a wedding outside. The day before, I rode by and she goes, 'The wedding's at noon if you wanted to come.'"

6. Watch out for wind. If you're going to make it tall, cut some holes in it. This is one of Haselmann's two major art bike requirements: "I want the wind to go through it and I want it to be able to handle the elements."

7. Handle the elements. Not everyone will be able to weld together a giant metal fish, but no one's art bike should disintegrate after splashing through a puddle. Cardboard is good if you coat it with a sealant, but a corrugated plastic like Coroplast is better. Metal means longevity, but it also means weight.

8. Add interactivity. "As far as being a crowd-pleaser, that gets people's attention," says Tubesing of his sound system. "They turn, they dance, people boogie in the street." Leierwood's interactive tip? "It's really fun to have a bicycle built for two that's an art bike because you can pick up hitchhikers."

9. Safety is fun. "The other thing that's very, very, very important...is you don't want stuff sticking too far out," Bowman says. "Cars may not be so careful around you. I've had some close calls. Don't make it wider than a car." But Leierwood is quick to point out that drivers are more likely to notice an art bike than a normal one.

10. Make it happen. Experience the joy. "Everybody rides a bike down the street all the time and it's possible they could have turned it into something," Haselmann says. When walking Leierwood's Tiger Bike out of an alley, a passenger in a car yells out, "That looks great!"

"This is what's so fun. I'm not even riding it at the moment," she says. "With art bikes you just instantly make friends."