This story is part of Image Issue 16, “Interiority,” a living archive of L.A. culture, style and fashion that shows how the city moves from the inside. Read the whole issue here.
The most intoxicating thing might be the smell — heady exhaust on a hot afternoon. Or the sound of dozens of engines revving in unison. But all of that is just a precursor to the actual feeling. Riding a dirt bike on an L.A. street is a singular experience — a regional tradition with local roots in places like Watts and Compton (and of course, a practice that goes back decades in Baltimore, New York and other East Coast cities). Riders say they’re all chasing some version of the same thing when they’re ripping down Crenshaw 20 deep, or doing wheelies so high on Normandie they can trace the asphalt with their fingertips: Freedom and fellowship. Being on the bike gets you closer to the sky.
Bearing witness to a pack riding out on a Sunday afternoon feels special. It’s a sight that logically should seem out of place, being that it’s a dirt bike on a street, but there’s something about the subculture that fits right with L.A. “We just put on a show for the community,” says Mr. Dirt Bike Kid, one of the youngest and most well-known riders. But there is nothing like being a part of the pack itself — a chosen family that transcends neighborhoods, age, background and even gravity when the nose of a Yamaha 450 is flying in the air.
Jay 305, South L.A., Yamaha YZ450F
Me and Nip would meet up at his grandmother’s house, riding up and down the block every Christmas for four years. The last Christmas before he died, we actually rode from the 60s to Baldwin Village — the Jungles — and then slid back down Crenshaw. I was on a four-wheeler, he was on a dirt bike. The reason why I bought my own bike after he passed is I was like, “I’m going to keep this going.” That’s how I started meeting up with the people I knew who were on dirt bikes. I did one big ride on Christmas Day for Nip.
Riding a dirt bike in the street, in the city, it’s almost like a show. But there’s still a freedom. It’s mixed with danger and fun. On the street, you’re swerving through the cars. There’s a bit more obstacles than if you were riding it on the dirt. I don’t do tricks, but a lot of my boys know how to, so I have respect for them in that way. My angle to dirtbiking is: Maybe I can use it to bring — let’s say — “enemies” to the streets who will actually ride with each other. We had a thing called Helmets On, Guns Down. It’s a pure thing, like lowriding, like any culture. People put the gun down and understand we’re here to have fun and be free. Everybody still on their tip. Still on high alert. But it’s like, Oh, this is cool.
When I put together the Nipsey thing, rival gangs were riding with each other and I remember them telling other people, “It’s crazy that Jay 305 put that together. We’re from our different neighborhoods and we’re not trippin’ on each other.”
Some people come all the way from other cities to come here and ride, but the core of the scene is Compton, Carson and Watts. Everybody will link up there and then the pack just floats. Sometimes there will be so many bikes that you have to be smart and understand that you just can’t swerve. I’ve seen somebody popping the wheelie and fly off their bike in the air and break both of their [femur bones]. It gets scary when you don’t know what you’re doing. But the thrill takes away the fear.
Ty, 26, Compton, Kawasaki KX250
I always watched dirt biking culture growing up, I always wanted to be a part of it. But I had to make my own money first. Everybody embraced me with open arms. We meet up on Sundays. It’s always good vibes. There’s a guy over there that I ain’t seen in like, two months. So it is kind of like a reunion with our extended family. We have fun at what we do. It’s a stress reliever for me, to be honest. There could be a million things going on, but when I’m on that bike I’m focused. It’s hard to explain the feeling, but it must feel great because I’m always riding.
Cash, 24, Watts, Honda TRX450R and Kawasaki KX450
I don’t even have the fear no more. It’s a dangerous sport. You’re going to fall regardless. Honestly, I’ve been hit by a whole car. I fell so many times too. But I like to ride so much that it’s like, what am I gonna do? Riding the bike, it’s like nobody can really tell me nothing. It’s just me and my bike, riding. The bike be taking over and telling me where it wants to go and I just let it ride around. As long as my bike’s not messed up, my bones not broken, I’m good.
The main thing about us riding is that everybody from different areas who aren’t supposed to hang together, who don’t get along — none of that matters when we’re riding bikes. Right now we’re riding and we’re a family right now. If somebody hits you with their car, we’re gonna take care of you. We’re gonna make sure your bike gets home. We’re going to make sure you’re all right. If something happens, we’re blocking traffic. If you need gas, we’re going to make sure you get gas. Right now, it’s bikes. We take care of each other.
9Boy, 32, Compton, Yamaha YZ450F
I remember being young and I was living in Compton. Older guys had dirt bikes, and I used to see them go to the abandoned houses and burn out in the grass. One of my older relatives who lived with us had a dirt bike. All his homies would pull up and just ride around the neighborhood. So that grabbed my attention. On the East Coast it was real popular — riding the dirt bikes on the streets. In L.A., we used to have a ride called the Takeover. It started building around 2012. We would set up a certain day and everybody would meet up and we’d just go out and ride. People would come out and cook for us. People used to sell merchandise. We’d stop at different locations and just hang out.
Most of the time it would start over in Carson or Compton. We’d meet up next to a park, or somewhere it would be harder for the police to find us. We’d stay on the main streets because we wanted to be seen by everybody. Also, we had four or five photographers coming out so we had all these pictures. What I did was create an Instagram and called it @dirt2streets. My mom was telling me to take it serious and make some money off of it. At first I was telling her, “This is illegal. We’re not supposed to be doing it so we can’t make any money off of it.” But I didn’t look at the bigger picture. We could sell our own clothes. We could charge people to go perform for parties or videos. That’s how we ended up blowing up. At times we were going to schools, talking to the kids, doing talent shows. We were doing paid birthday parties. I’ve done commercials for Apple, J. Crew. Numerous video shoots for different artists.
Now people go out every Sunday. We’ll probably end up in the Crenshaw area. Hit Rosecrans, Central, Slauson. We’ll hit the freeway, the 110, the 91. Then we’ll go to what we call “stunt spots,” an empty street behind buildings where the police wouldn’t go, where there’s no traffic. That’s how a ride-out is now: It’s wheelies all day. It’s tricks all day.
The main thing is the freedom. If you pay attention, you’ll see a lot of different races coming together. You see a lot of different gangs coming together. There’s not too many settings where you can get that. If you’re at a club, a lot of times there’s going to be problems. But when you on a bike, all that stuff goes out the window.
Kellz, 24, Compton, TRX450 and TRX450ER
I’ve been riding for 12 years and I’ve been doing stunts for five. I remember riding my first dirt bike, it felt real natural, like it was already made for me. Freedom and adrenaline are the two things that really come to mind when I’m on a bike. As soon as you start getting to the gas, speed is everything you’re thinking about; all your problems go away. The first time I rode with the pack it was crazy. I can’t even describe it. When you’re around your guys, it pushes you to do more. Everybody just vibing, dancing and stuff. When you’re by yourself, you might release stress. But when you’re in a pack it’s a whole different vibe. We can really do our thing.
It opened up a lot of opportunities for a lot of people in a lot of different ways. I got the opportunity to be in a Lexus commercial because of my bike. Recently I did a campaign with “Call of Duty.” You can’t get scared or panic, because one wrong move and it can be over real quick. I fell a couple times, but you have to fall before you can really get nice. My fallen soldiers who have gotten hurt over this, they would want me to still go do what they would do. They would push forward if I was to get hurt or anything. It’s bigger than that. We all brothers and sisters on the bikes. I like that we have this. Not saying that it’s legal, but it is in our heads because we’re just riding, catching a vibe, feeling free.
PoloBoyy J, 15, Watts, Banshee 350
I’ve been riding since I was 2. My mom and my dad ride. My dad rides professionally. I was born into it pretty much. I didn’t notice it was different until I seen a lot of kids doing football, and then I realized this isn’t something everybody does. This is my sport. I’ve been doing this forever and I will forever do it. It’s the thrill. I feel like Superman when I get on my bike. With the pack, everybody out here riding no matter who you are. I just love the vibe. My dad always tells me, “If you fall, you gotta get back up. Because if you fall and you stop riding, it’s gonna be a waste of time.” So I put my mind to it. If I fall, I’m gon’ get right back up. I’m gon’ get right back to it. If I’m going through pain it’s for a reason, if God is putting me through these trials and tribulations it’s for a reason. I stick to it and keep doing what I gotta do.
Tyler Stone, 26, Westmont, Kawasaki KX450
I was a kid sitting in the back seat of my mom’s car on the freeway and I seen a dirt bike on the back of somebody’s truck. A couple days later, we went to a dealership and we picked one out. I was riding around my neighborhood when I was a kid, around like 9. Racing mini bikes. I didn’t know anything about the culture of dirt bikes [back then]. I didn’t even know any known riders. It was a neighborhood type of thing. I didn’t take any of this stuff seriously until the pandemic. All of us were inside the house and had nothing to do, so I bought [another] bike and I’ve been outside every single day, meeting new people, and we all just became like a family. Bikes bring bonds. What’s kept me going is getting noticed from artists. Working with major brands like Nike, Adidas. It’s my passion. It’s my job.
West, 37, L.A., Yamaha Raptor 700
I’m a photographer. I started doing this on the East Coast. I came back to L.A. and started shooting everything over here, really pushing this culture on the West Coast. They’re still going through a lot of stuff. Figuring it out. To watch it happen here, you see the future coming forward. My reason for riding is going to be different than others because I’m a veteran. I was in Iraq. I have a Purple Heart, got hit by a grenade. This is my outlet. I got arrested about a month ago riding. The cops were trying to talk crazy to me, and I was like, “The fact is, most of the people I came back with are either, dead, homeless, in prison, on the streets. So if this is the worst thing I do, I don’t care.” Everybody that’s out there riding is going through stuff. That’s why I got so interested in bike life. I’ve ridden with people who are lawyers, artists, and then one of the kids that lives in the projects is riding with us. It’s so vast. And in L.A. politics? We have all these different ’hoods that are riding together. Outside of the bikes it’s separate, but once we’re here everything is cool. We moving. Because at the end of the day they both know they’re going through the same shit.
Mr. Dirt Bike Kid, 15, Watts, Yamaha YZ450F
When it comes to riding bikes, my dream is — no matter what, no matter if I’m rich off of it — to remember how much freedom it brought me. To remember that it’s a sport, something that kept me out the streets, something that made a way. I started watching dirt bikes on my dad’s phone when I was 6. At 12, I had my first ride out. I remember how passionate I was, how much it really touched me. If I’m on a dirt bike, I feel untouchable, like Superman. It’s like a ghost high. When the dirt bikes come through with the engine, the vibration, the feeling, it’s a huge adrenaline rush. It’s a get away for everybody, but also we turned the getaway into an actual thing where we can take ourselves out the ghetto and change our lives. I think about taking it as far as I can take it: endorsements sponsors, movies. The way they talk about rap, the way they talk about football, soccer, basketball, I want them to talk about dirt bikes.
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