For a recent photo essay, MICA student Paul Lai turned the lens on his friends — a dedicated group of Baltimore BMX riders. “I think they don’t even have food sometimes,” he said. “But BMX is like their life.”
Paul Lai was just 13 when his parents moved his family from the island of Hong Kong to the suburban neighborhood of Arbutus, Maryland.
Though he didn’t speak any English when he arrived, he picked it up with the help of his friends from the neighborhood, who he biked with constantly. They rode BMX in parking lots and streets, in a local skate park. “I was like rarely in the house. I don’t like staying in the house,” he said.
For Lai, BMX meant freedom, exercise and the adrenaline spike from mastering a new trick. It also helped him learn to speak Baltimorese.
“There’s a way that they talk in Baltimore that is like really interesting,” he said. “I remember the first word I didn’t really understand was ‘yo.'”
After graduating from high school, Lai, now 22, studied accounting at Howard Community College. “My dad wanted me to do it,” he said. But in an art class, Lai met a new passion: photography. With some encouragement from teachers, he applied to MICA. Today he’s a senior there.
But, when he got to art school, Lai said, biking fell by the wayside. He lost touch with his old friends. But, when he heard they were getting together for the Second Annual Baltimore BMX Street jam earlier this year, he found the inspiration for a photo essay. He got out his bike — and his Nikon D7100.
“We had so much fun,” he said.
Lai, who hopes to become a conflict photographer, said he wants to share his friends with the world. “They don’t have a lot of things that a lot of people have – the only thing they have is this group,” he said. “I think they don’t even have food sometimes…. But BMX is like their life in a way.”
Photos and captions by Paul Lai. Text by Christina Tkacik.