Lowriders: The Next Generation

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lalo Figueroa's baroque baby, "Evil Weapon," spun slowly atop a battery-powered pedestal on the 20-yard line of the San Fernando High School football field.

Rag in hand, Figueroa stepped gingerly over the braided rope that separated a steady flow of admirers from his work of art: a purple-flaked, gold- and chrome-plated Schwinn bicycle. He stopped the turntable and dabbed at a speck of dust on the face of the Grim Reaper, airbrushed onto the rear fender.

"I don't do this for trophies," said Figueroa, 19, of Burbank, activating the turntable. His work resumed its sinister rotation at a recent car and bike show. "I do this because it makes me feel good."

The latest thing in lowriders travels on two wheels. They are the sparkling centerpieces of a little-known universe where young, mainly Latino artisans build skills and self-respect by transforming antique Schwinn Sting-Rays into abstract sculpture.

Built low to the ground, upholstered and "tricked out" with accessories ranging from wet bars to stereos, the bikes are hot not only in Southern California--the epicenter of lowriderdom--but are popping up at custom bike shops and shows in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and as far east as Connecticut.

The bikes are even catching on in Japan and in the videos of popular rap singers.

The kids building the wildly ornate vehicles spend anywhere from $200 to $2,000 and say they're driven by the creative urge shared by all artists.

"Some say we're just gangbangers on wheels--that's not true," said 18-year-old Eric Martinez of Sylmar. "Kids get into it because it's something safe and fun."

Martinez is a member of the Oldies bike club of San Fernando, a branch of the Oldies car club. He can't afford a car but says he would prefer his 1960 Schwinn lowrider to a car any day. "When you build something, you look at it and you say to yourself, 'Hey, I did this.' It's nice. And I want to take credit for it."

It's the promise of being different from every other video-game-playing teen on the block that is attracting growing ranks of young lowrider customizers.

"Five years ago, I'd go to a bike show and see a couple of lowrider bikes. Now, I see 100 at every show," said Alberto Lopez, publisher of the Pomona-based Low Rider and Low Rider Bicycles magazines. "Every nationality has some unique trait; in the Mexican American, it's creativity and pride. These bikes are an expression of our people's character."

But lowriders aren't just for Latinos any more.

"It's become super-popular," said Bill Blake, the owner of Dennison Schwinn Cyclery, located in the middle of Whittier Boulevard, a cruising mecca in East Los Angeles. "I get surfers coming in here from Dana Point, rap groups are getting into it. It's just become a cool, hip thing to do and it's spreading."

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Back at the bike show, Figueroa seemed oblivious to the attention his creation drew as he waited for the judge to stop by. Although he says he isn't in it for the trophies, winning doesn't hurt. It would be good recognition for him and his friends in his Burbank-based lowrider bike club, Neighborhood Dreams. It would be nice to tell his dad--who once built lowrider cars--that he won the first-place trophy. Others eyed a raffle prize: a set of new "Baby Dayton" rims, worth about $250.

The custom-made rims are manufactured specially for lowrider bicycles and were invented at Blake's shop. A variation of the Baby Daytons built for cars, the bicycle rims have 72 spokes--twice as many as ordinary rims. Blake also markets the turntables used to exhibit bikes like Figueroa's.

"It's big business for us," said Blake, who recently built a lowrider bike with his son.

Old Schwinn Sting-Ray frames--the most sought-after are those built between 1963 and 1972--sell to lowrider customizers for about $75, up from $10 a few years ago.

Lowrider bikes got their start as funky, low-budget cousins to the expensive lowrider cars that became popular in the 1960s. While their dads built cars boasting velvet-upholstered dashboards, chromed rims and exotic paint jobs, garage-rat kids began applying their artistry to their bikes.

"It's kind of a way of life," said auto mechanic Ken Najera of Sylmar, a lowrider-car aficionado who judged the bikes at the recent Valley show. Though the bikes have been around almost as long as the cars, they caught on only recently. The recent explosion in the bikes' popularity is partly the result of exposure in magazines and on MTV.

The new generation of two-wheeled lowriders differs from the old in more than just the horsepower. The founding fathers of lowriding fused form and power to create a new style of car. Was it art? Maybe. But the cars were functional, too.

But to today's hard-core lowrider biker, form is paramount. Many bikes aren't ride-able; their frames are lowered so far that the pedals don't clear the ground. The bikes have evolved into design objects.

"Think of it as rolling art," said Nathan Trujillo, senior editor of Low Rider Bicycles magazine.

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Even as bi-wheeled baubles, though, the lowriders serve a higher calling.

Frank Alvarez, founder of a group for at-risk teens in San Diego County, was among the first to recognize and promote the artistic aspect of lowrider biking. In October 1994, Alvarez organized a lowrider-bike exhibit at MiraCosta Community College's campus in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. "The idea was to get the kids to work together, to create some sense of unity," Alvarez said.

Some participants stayed in his group, and Alvarez continues to put their work on display.

"Some kids think they can build these bikes overnight, but there's a process, and in that process, I've seen kids change," Alvarez said. "They become responsible, get a job to pay for bike parts. That's the whole idea."

As interest grows, the bikes have become more sophisticated.

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Painted in lustrous, cobalt-flecked hues, the bikes are being accessorized with everything from aquariums to boomboxes--and yes, even hydraulics.

As lowrider bikers compete at car and bicycle shows, clubs have sprung up across Southern California. The club names--Neighborhood Dreams, New Exposures--reflect the high fantasy quotient that propels bikers' imaginations.

But while lowrider bikers seem to have inherited the creative spirit that drove their predecessors to custom-build the low-slung machines, they've also inherited old stereotypes--the suspicions and fears of those who equate the lowrider look with gangs.

"We're just in it for fun . . . not to have any hassles," said Mark Delgado, 16, his hands deep in the pockets of his baggy, black pants at the recent Valley car and bike show.

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Despite his protests, Mark's 1964 Schwinn Sting-Ray--"Alcatraz"--boasts a dreamlike mural of the island prison, including a man with a knife in his back. Mark said he has no criminal record and denies any love of violence, confessing only to a fascination with the legendary pen. The mural--airbrushed by an ex-con--was not intended to glorify violence, but serves as a reminder of how not to live your life, he said.

In fact, many lowrider bikers are drawn to dark images and names for their bikes. Lalo Figueroa's "Evil Weapon," with its cemetery scene and large skull, is another case in point. But again, the creators insist their themes are not meant to reflect a violent ethos.

"We try to think up names and ideas that are like, different," said 15-year-old Edgar Solis. Yet not all the bikes have such themes. Najera, the lowrider judge, has seen bikes with images of Jesus Christ airbrushed onto their frames.

"Each bike is an expression of whatever makes a person tick, or scares a person, or impresses them," he said.

In fact, one recent award-winner was pure confection: Ernie Trujillo Jr.'s 1974 Schwinn Sting-Ray christened "A Passion for Blue." The brilliant cobalt-blue bike has sparkle aplenty with a double-plated chrome seat, Baby Dayton rims and extended, 20-inch forks. And not a scary image in sight.

Trujillo's father, who also lives in Sylmar, helped him with much of the work but laid down an ultimatum. "I told him I will help as long as he stays out of trouble and keeps his grades up," the elder Trujillo said.

"I was a lowrider myself," he added, "and now I'm getting back into it."

Figueroa also worked on his bike with his dad, another ex-lowrider who insisted on good grades and no trouble as a condition for pursuing the hobby.

"Generations," the younger Figueroa said, buffing his bike at the recent Valley show. "Generations, man. I think he wants me to have what he had."

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