Teens in Oakland, Calif., find an outlet in ‘scraper bikes’
Led by young Tyrone Stevenson, they create two wheelers from tricked-out scavenged frames, recycled rims, and Oreo cookie wrappers.
The parking lot is full of boys. There are tall boys, short boys, rowdy boys, and shy boys. There are eager boys who clown around, hyper with anticipation. There are hard-looking boys with gazes that pierce like nails. On this rainy autumn evening, the whole group is spinning around a cracked, weedy corner of east Oakland on the souped-up bicycles and tricycles they call “scraper bikes."Skip to next paragraph
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They’ve spray-painted the recycled old wheels orange and blue and white and red. They’ve pasted Reese’s and Skittles and Oreo wrappers on the scavenged frames. A few even have amplifiers wired to the back. Laughing, the riders zoom and turn, zoom and turn, often narrowly avoiding collisions.
One older teen – a soft-spoken dreamer with a sequined hat perched atop his head – serves as their leader. His name is Tyrone Stevenson, though most know him by his nickname, “Baby Champ.” He is, everyone agrees, the Scraper Bike King. He wants to change the rough, violent world that he and these other boys are growing up in. He thinks he can do it with bikes.
“I just want to give them something positive,” he says.
Until recently, most people had never heard of Stevenson or the tricked-out homemade bicycles he invented back when he was a troubled 13-year-old. Stevenson modeled his creations after “scraper” cars, which are popular in east Oakland and feature booming stereos, candy-colored paint jobs, and big wheels with matching rims. The cars’ name derives from the rims, which are sometimes so large they scrape against the wheel wells. Stevenson simply borrowed that idea – big wheels, bright colors, loud music – and applied it to bikes.
Last year, Stevenson joined forces with a local hip-hop group, da Trunk Boiz, to make a music video paying tribute to the scraper bike. Their videographer posted it on YouTube, and Stevenson soon forgot about it. Perhaps because hip-hop songs aren’t normally playful ballads describing a boy’s love of his bicycle, perhaps because the lyrics are simple and catchy, their video quickly soared in popularity. The two most popular online versions of the video have now been viewed 3 million times.
The chorus of the song goes like this: “I’m moving on my scraper bike. I’m cruising on my scraper bike. My scraper bike, go hard. I don’t need no car.”
Those words are now on the lips of teenagers from Germany to Russia to China. But nowhere are they so well-known as in the neighborhood where the Scraper Bike King grew up. The bikes have become a symbol of pride for east Oakland youth. They offer an outlet for kids growing up in troubled schools, troubled neighborhoods, and – often as not – troubled families.
Scraper bike boys may not have access to the expensive video games enjoyed by their suburban peers. There’s no promise of a car on their 16th birthdays. But there is the simple pleasure of refurbishing a discarded bicycle, of taking something old and broken and making it shine.
“He’s helping the kids that would otherwise be on the street – packing guns, selling drugs,” says Andre Ernest, who directs da Trunk Boiz and has a nonprofit called Super Innovative Teens.
Six years ago, when he dreamed up his first scraper bike, Stevenson was spending his freshman year at a continuation high school. He’d been kicked out of middle school for smoking pot and fighting. “I was a problem child,” he says.
His father – never much of a presence in Stevenson’s life – had died of AIDS when the boy was in third grade. His mother, who worked two jobs, begged her only child to find a hobby, some constructive outlet for all his pent-up frustration.