See the wild, customized creations of Indonesia’s ‘rebel riders’

Here, scooters aren’t just a mode of transportation—they’re a form of self expression

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Iponk (middle), a scooterist from South Sumatra, traveled hundreds of kilometers with his son Rendy (right) and travel companion Thoriq (left) to attend a Vespa event in Lampung. They mostly traveled under the cover of night to avoid police.

See the wild, customized creations of Indonesia’s ‘rebel riders’

Here, scooters aren’t just a mode of transportation—they’re a form of self expression

The streets of Indonesia teem with two-wheelers, pulsing through dense traffic in the thick, tropical climate. In a country where more than 85 percent of the population owns a scooter, Indonesia has one of the largest Vespa enthusiast communities in the world—second only to Italy.

“Everyone knows about the Vespa, but those who are not in the community do not understand who we are and what we are doing,” says Vespa enthusiast Delvis, better known by his street name: Blake Sharon.

For this group, the Vespa is not just a bike, but a lifestyle. It’s an extension of personality–an exaggerated form of self-expression.

The scooter has been a signature on Indonesia’s streets since the 1970s, both manufactured and distributed in Jakarta until 2001. But after Indonesia was hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, many could no longer afford individual bikes, which surged in price tenfold over the past decade. Though still unattainable for many, high costs have spurred creative solutions: Scavengers are transforming iron sheets, plastic bottles, metal drums, and fallen trees into modified Vespa extremes.

There is only one mandatory component required in the design: the Vespa engine. “A bike that we build is usually a contribution of many,” explains 18-year-old Fauzi, a new enthusiast and high school student in Bandung. “Even if we could build on our own, the essence is the togetherness, figuring things out, experimenting until it is finished,” he says. “We construct it together, and we ride it together.”

The modern Vespa culture boom started 16 years ago when large-scale events were broadcast through social media. Thousands of smaller, once individual groups from across the country were united. Today, vintage, mod, and modified Vespas arrive in droves, creating mass congestion in the towns hosting the two-day extravaganzas. (21 striking photos of how the world gets around.)

“Each main island in Indonesia has their own big event, once per year,” explains Bang Reza, the organizer of Java’s youngest and most well-attended event: The Java Scooter Rendezvous. Established in 2008, it recorded over 50,000 attendees in 2019. “Every scooterist waits for these events,” Reza says.

Gatherings essentially become trading posts for travel stories, and attendees collect branded stickers featuring group logos like passports stamps. Between Vespa competitions that are awarded with trophies, rock and reggae blare interchangeably as Converse sneakers, leather boots, and tattoos propel a sea of youth into the air—their bodies lost in a sea of music. Members come from all different backgrounds but they recite the same motto, “One Vespa; one thousand brothers.”

“Solidarity is what really attracts me to the community. From there I try to find meaning,” says long-time scooterist, 29-year-old Sasi of Jakarta.

The ultimate rite of passage for a Vespa enthusiast is long-term travel: a deeply personal journey made by the brave. Indonesia gives way to this adventurous lifestyle through lightly enforced road rules. Though there is a real risk that if caught, vehicles can be confiscated. So, with that, many Vespa nomads travel under the veil of night, as engines sputter on open, traffic-free roads and unregistered, modified creations typically go undetected.

Delvis's solo journey, funded by odd jobs along the way, took him four years and to the deepest corners of the country—from Papua to Sumatra. “Initially, I questioned what can I be proud of in Indonesia? At that time, it was the [2014] presidential election,” he says. “Everywhere, everything was messed up. I was searching for the diversity and the culture of hospitality that Indonesians have.”

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Farah is a scooter enthusiast from Bogor, West Java. For many riders, the Vespa is an extension of personality–an exaggerated form of self-expression.

And that’s exactly what he found when he crossed through territories untouched by time, and was housed, fed, and nursed to health by Dayak villagers following a road accident. As his limits were tested, the Vespa became a testimony to the journey, adorned with the head of a deer, crocodile, and goat.

“The skull means loyalty, just like my motorbike. Because until they become skulls they accompany us with loyalty. In these years, even my bike is more loyal than humans,” he confided.

A network of basecamps across Indonesia also guides travelers, and are arranged through a secretive WhatsApp phone chain within the Vespa community. Basecamps are typically unpronounced shacks that blend into the landscape, whether dense jungle or bustling city, and run by enthusiasts who have given up the nomadic lifestyle.

“It is all very underground and will always stay underground. You have to be in it to know,” Reza explains. “To make it mainstream would essentially compromise its identity.”

Basecamps aren’t just spaces where travelers sleep, eat and socialize—they are also informal mechanic workshops. Encircled by scraps and spare parts, members of the Vespa community service bikes for the public in exchange for minimal earnings that fund fuel and food.

Delvis recalls the warm welcomes, “All Vespa community members [living in the area] would be contacted and told, ‘Come to the basecamp, we have a guest from Sumatra!’” Stories are exchanged late into the night over cigarettes and home-brewed moonshine made from fermented sugar cane, a community signature.

After spending months or years on the road, many members naturally transition out of the community in favor of more stable lifestyles. Tattoos and scars from their rides serve as reminders of their past lives. And though priorities and responsibilities may shift over a lifetime, almost every Vespa community member will attest that the bike will always be their most loyal friend.

Muhammad Fadli is a documentary photographer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. To see more scooter enthusiasts, buy his book, 'Rebel Riders,' or follow him on Instagram @mfimages.