Editor’s note: Today, the Journal continues the once-a-month series “A Word” with staff writer Carl Knauf, as he takes an in-depth look at a New Mexican.
New Mexico has a strong sense of fellowship and family – blood or a welcomed acquaintance.
Love and acceptance is especially exemplified in one of the more creative, yet overlooked artistic mediums: lowrider bicycles.
The mass of riders parked their bicycles near the curb of the intersection. Passersby slowed their pace to admire the unusual, yet enchanting site, some stopping to inquire and offer compliments.
“All bicycles are welcome,” Aaron Gonzales, co-founder of Oddfellas Bike Club, told a young pair whose eyes were wide with wonder.
Gonzales fabricates lowrider bicycles in Albuquerque, but his style is recognized worldwide.
A love for the scene
Gonzales grew up in the lowrider scene. He said about 10 years ago he was watching YouTube and found videos of a bicycle group coasting past grassy fields in the Netherlands. That’s when he “fell in love” with the niche.
He said, “They were just all walks of life, older people, younger people, and it was cool.”
After a friend in town taught him how to weld, he began building his own bicycles, and has been doing so for about seven years. A month ago, he surpassed 70 frames built.
“I never thought that I would be able to fabricate or even design,” he admitted. “It’s a hobby of mine, but it’s my passion.”
The bicycles are primarily low to the ground and long, the operation similar to a recumbent bike. Gonzales explained that he will usually transform used bicycles or rides he finds at Walmart into the stretched cruisers. His style has not only been praised around town, but internationally.
“In the bike scene, everyone recognizes me as one of the top guys in the world,” he said. “What made me fall in love with this culture is the hospitality and the way people treat you.”
Gonzales has made connections with other bicycle builders, artists and enthusiasts outside of New Mexico. Even the Oddfellas has grown nationally, with members in California, Arizona, Texas and Ohio among other states. It’s not just about the amount of riders, however, it takes a village just to create.
A communal effort
For the last 30 years, artist Chris Vasquez has gone from airbrushing T-shirts and license plates to perfecting wall murals and cars. When he first saw the custom bikes, he knew they were the perfect canvas for his style.
“The bike scene goes hand-in-hand with any kind of customizing,” he said. “I ended up finding a bike … and from there, I kind of started adding my little touches to it, and then I got hooked.”
Vasquez met Gonzales years ago at a car show where both of them had their bikes on display as well. He said Gonzales rode up to him, and a friendship and network was immediately formed.
The artistic circle within the lowrider bicycle community is strong. Gonzales builds, Vasquez paints, and there are even people who specifically make the seats or add distinctive decor for the vehicles. Many hands mark each bike during the customizing phase.
“That whole art world is kind of intertwined, so it works out perfect, because we get to express it in a different way and enjoy it too. Instead of just painting something and hanging it up, we actually get to ride it,” Vasquez said.
The love for the scene is spreading, forming a vast community, but it’s strongest at its core. Both Vasquez and Gonzales have influenced their daughters’ artistic sides, which will hopefully, in turn, strengthen the scene even more through future generations.
“When we drive our cars, people love them, but when they see the bikes, it’s a totally different way people love them,” he said. “When we do our rides they’re starting to get bigger and bigger. At first, it was like six of us … now there’s 20-30 people showing up.”
When the group is noticed and interacts with people, appreciation is immediate. However, as is the case for any misunderstood art form or stereotyped culture, there is a stigma that needs to be erased. For lowrider bicycles, it’s more of an uphill battle.
A long history
Lowrider bicycles, which derived from the lowrider car scene after World War II, first became mainstream around the 1960s when Schwinn launched its Sting-Ray. It is believed that Eddie’s ride from “The Munsters” is considered the first lowrider bicycle. The vehicles were also part of an important cultural transition in America.
Kyle McQuilkin, a teacher with the Lytle Independent School District outside San Antonio, Texas, earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Texas Tech University. For his dissertation he arranged eight exhibits in Lubbock, Texas, to promote lowrider bicycles as an art form and open the minds of the gallery demographic.
He said, “I think that the bicycles and the cars have largely been ignored as objects of art because of that established hierarchy.”
Not only was it difficult to get the standard museum-goers to appreciate lowrider bicycles as art, there’s also the deep-rooted outlaw reputation that comes with the culture.
McQuilkin explained that the development of lowriders coincided with the early stages of the Chicano movement in California during the 1940s, and racism tarnished the artistic nature of lowrider culture.
“There weren’t necessarily laws so much as societal norms against ostentatious public display,” McQuilkin said of the era. “So that outlaw image was associated with lowriders.”
Despite this, the popularity of the cars, and, in turn, bicycles, grew over the decades.
Magazines circulated, clubs were formed, and competitions and shows were organized. The interest in lowrider bicycles spread overseas to Australia, Asia and Europe.
McQuilkin said through his surveys he found that the outsider perception was generally accepted within the community, which is partially attributed to the respect builders and riders have for each other – and, ironically, outsiders.
“I was embraced heavily, that they were so happy that somebody noticed them and gave them what they wanted more than anything else, which is just respect,” he said about his firsthand experience. “Respect as a human and respect for the object for the amount of time and effort that’s put into the bicycle to help erase the stigma.”
Custom bicycles are one of the few art forms that is both right brain and left brain. The design and creativity cannot be ignored, but the engineering is occasionally overlooked. Though some are made for display, the bicycle also has to be functional, balanced and structurally intact for riders.
“Every frame that I’ve ever made is specifically tailored-made for the certain individual I build for,” Gonzales said about the detail that goes into his work.
Injuries and cuts are common, he says, “I have scars everywhere, I’ve burned myself. … I’m like, this frame has my blood on it, and it really does.”
Whether the bicycles are used for transportation or as part of an exhibit, there is a strong sense of culture and art in every vehicle.
“The reason that people do it is individual and can’t be simplified,” McQuilkin said. “The bikes themselves are expressions of that individuality.”
The unique styles and relative uses of lowrider and custom bicycles are all part of an international community – one that is safe, welcoming and seemingly balanced.
Time to ride
After the pit stop, the riders unchained their bikes and the convoy began to form. Bystanders held up their cameras, capturing the unique moment.
“When I bring out one of the bikes, or even when we do our group rides around the city, people freak out,” Gonzales said. “To me, it’s so hard not to be happy. … It’s not necessarily, look at what we have, it’s more like we want you to ride with us.”
All bicycles and all walks of life are welcome to ride. That’s what lowrider bicycle culture is about, and that’s how a community is built.