SAN FRANCISCO — On a good day, you might find Antonio Yepez and his family and friends cruising down the street, chrome shining in the afternoon light, as his crew rides low and slow.
One Sunday in San Jose earlier this month, thousands of people took to the streets on two wheels for the city’s Viva Calle biking event but it was Yepez’ group of lowrider bicycles that stood out in the crowd.
“People look at you and say ‘Wow that is a beautiful bike!’ and, to me, it feels good,” Yepez said. “This is what I want to do — represent our culture.”
Representation emerges from his apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, where Yepez grinds and shapes old bicycle frames into striking works of art. In the past 15 years, he has built more than a dozen lowrider bikes.
“What I have in my head, I put it here,” Yepez said, pointing to one of his creations. “If you have art, this is the best thing you can do. Show off your art and your work.”
He expresses his art on two wheels in a Latino and Chicano culture known for their elaborate, four-wheel displays.
“I always had a dream to have a lowrider car but never had enough money to build one,” Yepez said.
Even so, he has gained recognition for designing his own bikes, including his latest which he calls The Joker. It’s a purple bike he built for his son, featuring the different faces of the Batman villain. The bike is mostly used as show piece for display and contests.
“We already won 10 awards for this one,” Yepez said. “Third places, first places but more first place wins than thirds.”
Beyond the awards and accolades, Yepez’s biggest victory is how his art and hobby has become a family affair. When Antonio needs help fine-tuning his bicycles he recruits his wife Bertha for assistance.
“This is a two-person job,” Bertha explained. “We always help each other. Everyone in our club helps with everything so I love, I love all of this.”
It is a love they take to the streets where Yepez’s family rides, expressing their Latino culture through their club and crew — a crew where everyone is included no matter their race or background. Ryan White, an Irish-American who grew up in an Hispanic neighborhood in Southern California in the late 70s now rolls with Yepez and his family.
“I am the White guy. They call me Guero,” he said with a smile. “They see the love I have for their culture. I also speak Spanish as well so they are not going to care that I am White.”
The popularity of lowrider bicycles can be traced to Los Angeles in the1960s.
Yepez says he is one of the few people still designing the bikes in San Francisco with other designers and artists spread around the Bay Area.
He tries to stay true to his art, building bikes for himself and family, knowing he could make a nice profit if he mass-produced the lowrider bicycles.
“One time a guy offered me $10,000 for one of my bikes,” he laughed. “I didn’t even have to think about it. I turned him down.”
He hopes to pass along his creations to his sons and family and even, one day, share them with a bigger audience.
“One day I want to see my bikes in a museum,” Yepez said. “One day, I would like to see a museum dedicated to our art.”
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