Bikers can be recognised by their "colours," the denim or leather vests they wear. The backs of these vests display their patches, which identify the clubs to which they belong. Patches not only identify a biker's club, but they also may reveal other characteristics about the person wearing them. In the outlaw world, some patches may detail a biker's criminal exploits.
The configuration of a biker patch can be a signal of the type of motorcycle club to which a rider belongs. Clubs' patches come in one, two or three pieces. A one-piece patch generally signifies a motorcycle association, often associated with a particular manufacturer. A good example is the Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.). A two-piece patch usually signifies a riding club. A three-piece patch is usually a sign that a biker belongs to one of the notorious "outlaw" motorcycle clubs. According to motorcycle writer Dan House, some of the best-known outlaw motorcycle clubs include the Hell's Angels, the Bandidos, the Pagans and the Outlaws.
A three-piece patch consists of a centre patch, which displays the club's emblem and two crescent-shaped patches, known as "rockers," above and below the centre patch. The top rocker displays the name of the club, while the bottom rocker displays the region of the club, usually a state or city. In outlaw motorcycle clubs, the three pieces are earned only when a prospective member (known as a prospect) is approved for membership, according to House. A prospect has only the bottom rocker. When he is approved for membership, he receives the top rocker and club emblem.
In some cases, a three-piece patch does not mean a biker belongs to an outlaw club. Some military and veterans' motorcycle clubs wear three-piece patches on their vests or jackets.
Some outlaw bikers wear a small, diamond-shaped patch with "1%" on the front of their vests (also known as "cuts"). Many outlaw motorcycle clubs refer to themselves as "1 percenters," which is a reference to a statement by the American Motorcycle Association that 99 per cent of American motorcyclists are law-abiding. The association made this statement denouncing a violent incident between two early outlaw biker groups in Hollister, California, in 1947. Law enforcement agencies generally consider the diamond-shaped "1%" patch a sign that the person wearing it is involved in criminal activity. The counterpart to the "1%" patch is a "99%" patch, often worn by members of law enforcement motorcycle groups.
Another prominent patch in the outlaw biker culture is one that displays the number 13. Interpretations of the meaning differ, but many writers who have studied outlaw motorcycle clubs think the number is associated with the letter M, the 13th letter of the alphabet. It is said to stand for "marijuana" or "methamphetamine" and is a sign that the wearer is a user of seller of these drugs. Law enforcement authorities regard outlaw biker clubs as major drug traffickers. Another interpretation is that the 13 patch refers to 12 jurors plus 1 judge, a statement that the biker is his own judge and jury.
Biker patches are not limited to the outlaw motorcycle club world. Riding groups, law enforcement motorcycle clubs and Christian motorcycle clubs also have patches. Other patches commemorate specific motorcycle events, such as the annual rally in Sturgis, South Dakota.