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.
Oakland, Calif. — 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."
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.
One summer day, Stevenson was hanging out in front of his cousin’s house. The older boy showed him how to fold aluminum foil over the spokes of his bicycle so it would look like chrome plating. Impressed, Stevenson decided to spruce up the bike even more. He grabbed some green spray paint left over from a school project. “Let’s paint the bike,” he said.
Other boys were taken with Stevenson’s new wheels. “That’s town business,” they decreed – slang for “That has Oakland written all over it.” He started decorating friends’ bikes for free.
In 10th grade, someone told him to bring a few bikes over for a video shoot by the popular hip-hop group, The Federation. He was thrilled.
Then, in July of 2006, Stevenson’s close friend, Mikal Robinson, was hit by an SUV while riding around west Oakland on a dirt bike. Death has always been far too present in Stevenson’s life: Oakland, a relatively small city, saw 127 murders last year. After Mikal died, Stevenson wrote a song listing the names of 15 dead loved ones. He figures that number has doubled since then.
The loss of Mikal rocked Stevenson’s foundations. He threw himself more fully into his newly discovered hobby. Now he wasn’t just promoting scraper bikes for himself; he was doing it for Mikal. That fall, he approached da Trunk Boiz.
“I believe I have something to bring to the table that will further both our careers,” he remembers telling them.
From there, a phenomenon was born. Last April, Stevenson’s scraper bikes were featured on the front page of The Oakland Tribune – a day, he says, “I will never forget.” The Oakland Museum displayed one of his bikes in an exhibit on local culture. A local T-shirt company, Oaklandish, began sponsoring his work. “These are young people who normally wouldn’t be considered artists, but I definitely consider it fine art,” says Nicholas Basta, who does community outreach for the company.
Stevenson, who has been attending adult school and is set to earn his high school diploma this month, plans to take some business classes at a local community college. Soon, he hopes to patent his design, then open a scraper bike shop where he can employ other youth. His long-term goal, he says, is to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
By 6 p.m. on this cold, wet night – which Stevenson has proclaimed the second annual Scraper Bike Day – the boys in the parking lot are getting antsy. Rain clouds have darkened overhead and the event’s main illumination now comes from a Burger King billboard.
Stevenson, who has affixed a speaker system to the back of his oversized yellow-and-white three-wheeler, lines the group up for a photo shoot. He tells them twice not to flash gang signs in any pictures. The scraper-bike movement needs to represent something positive, he says. There’s no room for street-level rivalries.
Finally, the three-dozen boys pull their bikes onto Foothill Boulevard, where Friday night traffic snakes by. They don’t have helmets or bike lights, so their main safety equipment comes in the form of the T-shirts Oaklandish has donated – black, with glow-in-the-dark letters on the back.
Late into the evening, Stevenson and his riders pedal their way across Oakland’s forgotten neighborhoods. They ride over broken glass, over discarded handwritten signs promising “Fast Cash for Houses.” They ride past bewildered families, past bow-tied members of the Nation of Islam, past a rowdy group of teenagers hanging out by the corner store. Some drivers honk their support, others their frustration.
Among the scraper-bike boys, a light-hearted enthusiasm abounds. At least for tonight, these streets belong to them.