Master of chaos

T.W. Smith, "T-Dub" to his friends, poses with a custom 2000 Murray Beach cruiser made into a 1969 Schwinn Manta-ray custom-modified with a flame thrower. Many of the bikes Smith acquires, including a 1940s Schwinn, below, show their age before he begins the restoration.
T.W. Smith, "T-Dub" to his friends, poses with a custom 2000 Murray Beach cruiser made into a 1969 Schwinn Manta-ray custom-modified with a flame thrower. Many of the bikes Smith acquires, including a 1940s Schwinn, below, show their age before he begins the restoration. The News Tribune

Strange things have been happening since T.W. Smith moved to Tacoma last spring: erotically themed Halloween costume parties; squads of voluptuous calendar girls causing commotion at local bars; squads of rowdy bicyclists going on monthly, pedal-powered pub crawls that Smith has dubbed "the Friday Night Booze Cruise."

“We spend about an hour in each bar and cause massive chaos. We go in, have a good time, and then we leave just as quickly as we appear,” said Smith, 46, a rising figure in Tacoma nightlife who moved from Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood about a year ago.

If you’ve witnessed the Booze Cruise spectacle, Smith – aka “T-Dub” – was the burly guy on the blue bike with flames spewing from its tailpipes.

“The minute the flames come on, people can’t believe what they’re seeing and they cheer,” he said, flashing a big grin.

But even without the pyrotechnics, he’s difficult to miss. Eccentric, outgoing and compulsively chatty, he’s used to being the center of attention.

“He can talk to anybody. He really can, and he has a really good personality,” said Nicole Gray, 27, one of the aforementioned calendar girls and an organizer with Smith’s business, Renagade Muscle.

And Renagade is the reason for all that ruckus, by the way. Smith’s edgy events are planned primarily to promote his business, which is making “one-of-a-kind rolling art,” as he calls them.

More specifically, he builds vintage, custom bikes in his South Tacoma workshop, the cycling equivalent of those flashy “rat rods” you see at classic car shows.

His designs approximate classic bicycle models from simpler times, many delivered with a wild twist. For starters, flaming tailpipes didn’t come standard on the 1969 Schwinn Manta Ray. (Legal would have never gone for it.)

“There’s nobody really out there that does what I do,” said Smith, his breath misting in his unheated work space, a chill he seemed oblivious to, even in short sleeves.

Some of his unique creations will be featured at the 22nd annual Old Bike Swap Meet and Show, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 28 at the Kent National Guard Armory, 24410 Military Road, in Kent.

Still more can be seen at the Red Bike Dueling Piano Bar in Lacey, a set of stylish cycles that underscore the trendy lounge’s concept.

“He’s an interesting character,” Red Bike general manager Kyle Murphy said. “He definitely has a very big passion for bikes. He knows more about bikes than anybody I’ve ever met in my life.”

It’s a passion Smith traces back to elementary school, when ignoring his dad’s advice led to the loss of his beloved 1968 Schwinn Pea Picker.

“The old man always told me, ‘Put your bike away, put your bike away,’ ” he recalled.

“And of course one night I didn’t put the bike away, and the bike disappeared.

“So ever since then, I’ve been building bikes because that was the cool bike on the block. Everybody wants to have something that no one else has, so that’s pretty much where it started.”

These days, he reunites others with the first bike they loved – or close replicas, at least.

“I don’t know if I can count on two hands the people I know that never had a bicycle,” he said. “Maybe they don’t have a bike now, but they had a bike as a child, so they can relate.”

Customers typically find him through word of mouth, online ( or at collectors events.

Based on their descriptions, photographs and research, Smith hunts parts at flea markets, junkyards and other closely guarded sources.

“If you came to me with a 1940s style (idea),” he said, “I’ll custom build you something from the ’40s. Almost everything on that bicycle will be from the ’40s.”

In the past, sponsors and individual collectors have paid $2,500 to $10,000 for custom designs. But Smith said $1,000 is more typical in today’s stagnant economy.

Slowly but surely, Smith’s passion for pedal power is catching on in Tacoma. But he has his work cut out for him, based on hit-or-miss attendance at bike events Smith has held at the Robert Daniel Gallery and other local hot spots.

“Tacoma is a lot different than Seattle,” Gray said. “People are way different here. It’s like they don’t want to spend money to come out to an event. … But they will spend $5 to see girls half- naked and to be able to take pictures with hot girls. And then the hot girls are what bring people in to see the bikes.”

And there are other forms of resistance.

Smith said Erotic, If You Dare, his aforementioned Halloween party at Tacoma’s Robert Daniel Gallery, was nearly shut down for permitting issues after city officials read about it in the newspaper. And not everyone in attendance apparently appreciated the risqué entertainment.

“I got an e-mail the other day,” Smith recalled. “A lady said, ‘I love your bikes. I love what you’re doing, but I don’t like the fact that you’re bringing your big city antics to our small town of Tacoma.’ They came to one of my shows, but they don’t like the idea that I’m bringing big city ideas to the little city of Tacoma.”

Laughing, he figured, “If they’re talking about you, whether it’s good or bad, at least they’re talkin’ about ya.”

Ernest Jasmin: 253-274-7389