East Oakland Man's Mission to Save Kids With Colorful ‘Scraper Bikes'

NBC Universal, Inc.

In the unique folds of the bicycle universe, among the brightly colored niche of what is known as the "scraper bike" - descriptions like ostentatious, overdone and lacking subtlety are often thrown around. To Tyrone "Babye Champ" Stevenson, that's the goal.

In Stevenson's world -- nothing about a bicycle painted bright orange, with a yellow seat post and spokes bejeweled with tape and gold painted aluminum foil -- is meant to be subtle.

"That’s what makes it a scraper bike is just you customizing it," said Stevenson, who founded East Oakland's Scraper Bike team, "putting your design on it, making it personalized."

The idea of tricking-out a bike with bright paint and plenty of bling has been Stevenson's passion since he was a kid growing up in East Oakland. He remembers his first scraper bike project was painted with a chameleon paint that changed with the light from purple to green.

"That was one of the best bikes," Stevenson remembered. "And I had a cup holder."

Decades later, Stevenson is the prime mover of East Oakland's scraper bike scene; organizing workshops, public rides and an after-school program that teaches kids how to customize bikes -- operating out of a shipping container behind the Martin Luther King library in East Oakland.

As a kid growing up poor in East Oakland, Stevenson was beginning to find himself swept up in the trouble of the gritty streets. He discovered the more effort he put into tweaking his bike -- the less trouble he landed in. He found therapy in ripping bits of colorful duct tape and applying them to bike spokes, or pairing bright colors of rattle-can spray to give his bike frame pops of color.

"It was fun," Stevenson said, "it was something for me to do, it was something to keep me creative."

He now sees the scraper bike program as a means to steer other kids from trouble, giving them someplace to apply their energy and passion. For Stevenson, who's lost friends and family to gun violence and drugs, what was once a hobby has morphed into a mission.

"Through our programs and our curriculum through the schools," he said, "it can help the next kid stay out of trouble."

If Stevenson is the scraper bike king of East Oakland, it was his uncle Paul Brown - who sat on the scraper bike throne of West Oakland. Brown, known as Tall Paul, was legendary for the brightly colored tall bikes he built out of the RV where he lived in an industrial neighborhood. He was legendary in the neighborhood for his work building free custom bikes for any kids who showed him a good report card. When he died several years ago from cancer, Stevenson endeavored to carry his flame.

"One of the things he told me before passing was I should open up a school," Stevenson said.

The COVID pandemic threw a wrench into Stevenson's plans for opening a school, shutting down the bike shed for nearly two years. But working with the Higher Ground Neighborhood Development Corporation, Stevenson plans to reopen soon and expand the program, even adding additional shipping containers.

Though the program has been temporarily on hiatus, on a recent day Stevenson worked out of the shed painting a small dirt bike with orange and yellow paint, adding aluminum foil on the spokes with highlights of blue and red tape.

Teenager Isiah Lewis closely followed the work, when Stevenson suddenly offered him the bike -- outfitting it with lights and safety reflectors before presenting it to its new owner.

"I think that the color and the time it takes making it," Lewis said, "makes it the best."

Stevenson watched as Lewis took his new bike for a spin, excitedly racing up and down the gravel driveway behind the library. For Stevenson it was proof of the potential for the eclectic bikes to bring hope to places where it's in short supply.

As Lewis rode off with the paint on his new bike paint barely dry, Stevenson could only watch and grin.

"That’s a good lookin' bike," he said.

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