Scraper Bikes: The World of Customized Bicycles

matthew reamer
matthew reamer / matthew reamer

Photography by Matthew Reamer 
Q&A by Kristy Puchko 

Kids in Oakland, Calif., tend to travel in packs—like kids everywhere do—but look closely and you’ll see that their bikes are one-of-a-kind. The trend takes a cue from the customized car scene (they’re called “scraper bikes” after scraper cars—the ones that have rims so oversized they scrape the inside of the wheel well). But more than just a showy mode of transport, these bikes are a movement. It began to crystallize around 2007, when Oakland bike hacker Tyrone Stevenson Jr., aka “the Scraper Bike King,” started recruiting young men for an organization called the Scraper Bike Boys. Drawn by the opportunity to both express themselves creatively and be part of a positive community, its members commit to maintaining a 3.0 GPA while they build practical skills working in Stevenson’s bike shop. With similar organizations popping up in Atlanta and Chicago, this DIY-driven subculture shows no sign of slowing down.

Photographer Matthew Reamer captured the scrappy glory of the Scraper Bike Boys in our latest issue. We posed a few questions about his process. 

So, how did you get into photography?
I bought my first camera when I was 19 for a cross-country trip to California, which I have yet to return from. After a few months living here I started shooting around local music and political organizing scenes and it just kind of grew from there.

What was your training like?
I took two or three classes, but mostly just trial and error. Digital hadn't really become a thing yet, so the learning curve was a lot less steep than it is now. I had a brief career in the education field and shot photos on the side the whole time. Once I transitioned out of that, I started assisting established photographers and learned quite a bit that way, though I don't think you'll find many people who thought I was a very good assistant.

What inspires you to pick up your camera? And what's your process?
I think it's the desire to tell people's stories or give the viewer a chance to create their own stories. I just like these little vignettes of life that make us realize how big and yet how small the world is.

The process varies greatly between assigned work and personal. Most of my personal work doesn't have a very defined narrative, but I try to keep visual and thematic threads that will hopefully help to hold it together. The process is usually just grabbing a camera and wandering until I find something or someone I want to shoot. It definitely helps me to be away from home, being able to look at things through more of an outsider's filter. My last project, "Disco Fire," was shot driving to Alabama and back.

What inspired you about The Scraper Bike Boys?
I just remember seeing them around all the time and thinking how cool it was that these kids were being so industrious with seriously limited resources and coming up with some awesome stuff. I was also very interested in the role of corporate branding in the designs, which also tends to be a theme on many scraper cars, like actually decking your ride out with the logos and color scheme of a specific brand—essentially advertising for them, but without the benefits of an actual sponsorship.

What's your favorite subject to shoot?
People in their environments. I'm particularly fascinated by the teenage years, so I like to photograph people of that age whenever possible.

You can find more on Matthew Reamer and his work here.