Words by Jordan Hoover
Tucked into a rich forest of stray cats, deeply embedded in a section of one of the blue-collar working belts of Jacksonville, lives a tall red building with bay doors halfway open. Inside the hum of an air compressor powers a wall vacuum, paint fumes funneling through a filtration system in one room of the trade-enriched building. The main shop area is littered with motorcycle-related items that have spanned the test of time, engines from the 1940s, hand-built frames, tools, machinery, springer forks glimmering from beneath their covers, everything awaiting their turn to be of use. A current project that sits atop the bike lift awaiting its organs of power is the center of the conversation. A phone alarm suddenly chimes its interruption, mid-sentence: “Time to paint.”
James “Fish” Alcorn disregards his current thought as he pulls his gas mask on and steps into his paint booth.
This is the tune of integral attention Alleyway Kustoms was built for with every minuscule detail planned out. Twenty-six years ago, Alcorn got his first Harley Davidson and it’s been a love affair ever since. As I approached his shop for the first time, beyond the handwritten “shop closed to public” sign on the door, I’m waved onto the scene. A gas tank sits on the table, hand-drawn flames taped off for a layer of paint, punk rock playing in the background and a shop cat named Boots — her collarbell ringing a greeting.
Alcorn grabs a container of wax and grease remover to clean his glasses as we sit down. He’s been operating out of the current space for four years now, taking a typical car service building and tailoring it to his needs. A climate-controlled room is used to tape off the next paint job and store show bikes and sewing machines for custom seats/leather work, the walls lined with repurposed log cabin wood and scattered photos, trophies and keepsakes from various bike shows. Shelves behind him, lined with Sign Painter and House of Kolor cans — behind the wall the workshop where bikes come to life, followed by the paint booth. The shop operates as an appointment-only location, and appointments are determined based on prior phone calls, where your specific needs are spoken about in detail.
“We build a handful of custom bikes a year, one-off custom bikes and then we do custom paint. All the other services that we do … wheel building or seats or metal fabrication that goes along with it, at this point … it’s only offered on our bikes, you know, because I got to be careful,” Alcorn said. “I’ll get some guy with a trike like — ‘Hey. Hey, man, I want you to build this [laughing.] The idea is to get people to come to you for your style. So you gotta start telling people — No.”
Obviously, there’s a long road that’s brought Alleyway to where it is today. A 1969 Ironhead Sportster Harley became the segue into a life of building custom bikes. The name Alleyway Kustoms stems from where Alcorn started to modify and paint his earliest works. At that point, it was just a hobby done with friends in a dirt alleyway behind a series of apartment buildings Alcorns’ grandfather owned in Jax Beach. He credits all the organization of his shop to his wife, who influenced him to take on this passion as a potential business. The name “Alleyway” once used as a clothing brand in cahoots with the band Kings of Hell, which Alcorn co-founded, then transformed into what we know today as a nationally-recognized custom bike conglomerate.
In 2018, Alcorn attended the Brush Masters Getaway, a so-called informal paint school, as he puts it. Made possible by “Mister Oz,” the gathering was Alcorn’s first in-town experience with top-level painters—and he had a notebook with eight pages of questions ready to further his knowledge of paint. Before that, all skills were learned with the help of local friends. “I worked out of a shop with Mike Wilson off of Beach Boulevard, and this guy would work there at night for extra money. He delivered organs for the Mayo Clinic during the day … and would come check out what we were doing and kind of give us pointers and stuff.” It’s all been hands-on learning for Alcorn since the beginning, seeking out a certain level of outcome he expects these days.
Like many stories these days, there is of course a COVID-19 relation somewhere. In 2020 Alcorn entered the People’s Champ Competition, affiliated with the infamous Born Free Bike Show in California. Three thousand people entered the contest via Internet submissions in hopes of being 1 of the 25 selected. After making the cut of 25, Alcorn made it through several rounds of Internet-based voting, eventually earning a spot in the final six and the chance to bring his bike to California for the show, where the final in-person vote happens. Unfortunately, the world shut down prior to the event, and after being pushed back a year, the contest reset with a new slew of hungry builders. Alcorn was offered a space to showcase his bike at the show that following year but missed his chance at taking home the People’s Champ Award, reminiscing on how that build still kick-started his career into the mainstream world of choppers. “Man, I did so many interviews and podcasts that year I feel like I didn’t even have time to work,” he said while pointing to a cover photo of the contest bike on Cycle Source magazine behind him.
Alcorn is still innovating, planning the next build and aspiring to become one of the invited builders for the actual Born Free Show, noting that a win there would be the most prestigious to him. Winning Born Free as a bike builder sets you on a path of notoriety, including a trip to show your bike at the world-renowned Moon Eyes show in Yokohama Japan, a true builders’ paradise. Alcorn makes note of other bike shows he enjoys being a part of like the Congregation show in Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as the Central Florida Wheels of Steel show in Lakeland. These are some of the opportunities (besides obvious Bike Week shows in Daytona) for Jacksonvillians to get out there and see some of the work that Alleyway Kustoms produces.
You can also do a Google search for Alleyway Kustoms’s one-of-a-kind masterpieces, built right here in Jacksonville, or follow them on Instagram @alleywaykustoms or Facebook (/alleyway.kustoms.35).