“No Bicycle Parking” seeks personal stories behind stolen bikes

For two days this week, the Painted Bride Art Center is hosting artist Raphael Xavier’s “No Bicycle Parking” photo exhibit, for which he has spent almost 13-years taking photos of abandoned bicycles in Philadelphia with a few in California, North Carolina and Canada. 

Some of the 400+ photos of abandoned bikes – mostly shot at night – that Xavier has collected cover the walls of the Painted Bride exhibit space as a 20-minute mini documentary about Xavier’s work and experiences taking the photos projects on the wall. 

Xavier is hoping to talk with people who visit the exhibit. For those who have had a bicycle – or parts of it – stolen, Xavier wants to ask how they felt then, how they feel now when they see these photos, if they left the bicycle remnants and why. He plans to then incorporate these personal stories into his upcoming book of photography, No Bicycle Parking. 

Xavier, a performing artist, documentary maker and photographer, started this project as a young photographer in the ‘90s, looking for something that would make him stand out.

“I tried rocks and door knobs and trees, but they were all done before. Then I tried homeless people but it didn’t feel right,” he wrote for a poster explaining the exhibit. 

Then he turned to abandoned bikes, and something clicked. 

For the past 12 years, Xavier has made note of stripped and abandoned bicycles or parts of bicycles that he sees around the city. Then at night he’ll map out their locations and shoot anywhere from one to 10 in a session using a slow shutter speed, often capturing the movement of cars and light around the subjects. Part of the idea of taking the photos at night is that it ties into the idea that many bicycle thefts happen at night. 

When Xavier first started, people would ask, with negative connotations, how he had so much time on his hands. People told him it was silly or that the idea didn’t make sense. He stuck with it and the questions shifted to how many bicycles he had photographed. Then the questions turned into excitement about the project. 

“It’ll be 13 years in June, so this is not a silly little overnight thing,” Xavier said. 

In that time he has occasionally photographed the same bicycle abandoned over the course of years. Some he photographs seasonally. 

Xavier is starting to see a change though.

“Now they’re just disappearing,” he said. “Not only because the city’s removing them but because the thief is moving them.”

He suspects thieves steal part of a bicycle – the wheel or the frame – and that the same thieves or others are now starting to go back for what is left.

Xavier has yet to get photos of anyone stealing a bicycle, but he says he would like to. He would not report the thief, he explained, but those photos would help tell a part of this story. 

The stories of bicycles, stripped and abandoned, and of their owners is really what Xavier’s work shows.

After 12 years of doing this, he has a few stories of his own. Like how a couple of years ago – even after he had already been talking about bicycle theft for years – he lent a bicycle to a friend who only locked the front, quick-release wheel. It was daytime, and the bike was parked in front of The Wilma Theater, but when the friend returned only the front wheel was left. 

Another time Xavier and a friend biked to 30th Street Station. His friend went inside the station leaving Xavier outside with the two bicycles. A couple police officers walked past Xavier and saw him sitting on the ground with the two bicycles. The police spotted two cut bike locks nearby and were soon asking if Xavier had stolen the bikes. The situation escalated to the point that Xavier said he was nearly arrested. Photos of that incident and some video footage he managed to capture are incorporated in the 20-minute documentary showing as part of the “No Bicycle Parking” exhibit. 

Xavier said he would love to complete and publish his No Bicycle Parking book of photography and bike owner stories by the end of the year, but that he probably won’t stop taking these photos once the book is out. 

“I can’t stop now,” he said. “It’s addictive. Even if I wanted to stop, I can’t. 

The exhibit is open to the public from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 21 and Friday, March 22. The opening reception is scheduled from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday, March 21. 

No Bicycle Parking, a photography exhibit by Raphael Xavier, is open March 21-22 and the Painted Bride
No Bicycle Parking, a photography exhibit by Raphael Xavier, is open March 21-22 and the Painted Bride

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