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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.

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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.

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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.

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