'Bike Life' by Cian Oba Smith
On industrial estates on the outskirts of London, groups of young men are gathering on mopeds, motorbikes, and even quad bikes. These young men form part of a growing underground subculture known as ‘Bike Life’.
Photographer Cian Oba Smith spent five months intermittently documenting the UK 'Bike Life' scene. Speaking about the work, Cian told us: “The initial interest in the Bike Life scene came through a friend of mine, who posted a picture on Instagram of him and some of his friends performing wheelies. This led to a year of on-off conversations before he finally gave me the address of the location that they all met up.”
With social media making it so easy to share photos and videos with followers, the people involved in the scene have grown a cult following and a ‘celebrity like’ status online. We asked Cian if this had an influence on how he documented them. He said: ”I was aware of this and I wanted to avoid replicating the photos that have been shared on Instagram by the riders.
“Initially I began by photographing the riders doing the more visually sensational, I held back from conversing with them and just observed. This led me to realise that the people were the most interesting part of the scene, which was when I began to focus on making the riders used to my presence. When they saw me regularly coming to meet-ups they were very open to being photographed when I approached them.”
The popularity of the UK Bike Life scene appears to be growing by the day. Cian gives us his view on the scene: “Bike Life has definitely had a surge of popularity in the UK. Instagram has made it very easy for scenes around the world to communicate with each other. The UK has always had a love of mopeds, and as the riders have moved on to bigger bikes and social media has comeinto play and provided an audience, the Bike Life scene seems to have grown at a really fast rate.”
On the other side of the growing popularity of the Bike Life scene, there has also been a lot of negativity towards the subculture, Cian said: “I was aware of the negative stereotypes that surround the Bike Life scene, but I wanted to find out for myself.
''Communities are fascinating, and as a subject they are something I could explore forever. They're most interesting to me when they are made up of a variety of people from all different backgrounds, yet they are bought together by a shared love for the same thing''.
“Overall I found that the people I met just wanted to ride bikes, they weren't interested in trouble with the police or anyone else. The issue they had was that they were judged on appearance and most people assumed they were ‘up to no good’.'
In some places, it has been suggested that the Bike Life scene is a revival of the Mod subculture from the 1960's. From his time spent documenting the group, we asked Cian his thoughts on this. He said: “I wouldn't say it's a revival of the Mod subculture, but it definitely has it's similarities. The obvious one being the rebellious attitude. I feel like most young people have always had a certain disconnect with the Government and this manifests itself in subcultures like Bike Life.”
With all subcultures, the people who are part of them are considered part of a community. A lot of Cian's work focuses on communities and subcultures. We asked what drives him to document them. He explained: ''Communities are fascinating to me and as a subject they are something I could explore forever. They're most interesting to me when they are made up of a variety of people from all different backgrounds, yet they are bought together by a shared love for the same thing. That is what struck me about the Bike Life community.”
''I'm also interested in travelling abroad to document other Bike Life communities''
With the inevitable growth in popularity of the Bike Life scene in the UK, we asked Cian whether he had finished photographing the UK community. He said: “I'm finished with photographing the UK scene, however, I'm in talks about producing a short film.
“I've also collaborated with a graphic designer about producing a small run of photo books, which will go into print soon. As well as that, I am really interested in putting on an exhibition, so the work can be seen as it was envisioned.
“I'm also interested into travelling abroad to document other Bike Life communities. The obvious place to go is Baltimore, but I'm more interested at looking at obscure places like the Caribbean and other parts of the US.”