Anyone who has lived or worked in Northwest Philaelphia over the past five years has likely come across Cecil Degarr at one time or another.
Degarr can usually be found cruising down Ridge Avenue or along Kelly Drive, perched atop one of his several self-made bicycles. The bikes are brightly colored, with high handlebars and solar panels that power up Degarr's radio, cellphone charger, on-the-go Wi-Fi, and even a tablet for his son, who is often rolling along behind in an attached wagon.
"If you've never seen me or one of my bikes, you're walking around this world with your eyes closed," Degarr said with a laugh.
He has become known as the "Urban Bika," and nowadays says it's pretty difficult for him to get from one place to another without having to stop for a few photos first.
Degarr is a fine artist by trade. He has lived and traveled all over the world — Spain, Italy, France and four countries in Africa. "People stop me and they think I am Jamaican," he said. "But I speak 10 languages and my accent is just a representation of that."
His painting and artwork, too, are an expression of the people and places he has seen along the way — black and white ink illustrations of life in Africa, rich and color acrylic paintings of wild animals and political statements of the American culture.
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He moved to Philadelphia hoping to partake in its rich history and art scene, but admitted he has grown frustrated.
"Art has become a hypocritical way of getting money," Degarr said. "Because of technology, we're not buying paintings anymore ... Technology has taken away everything we know, everything we use our hands to do; that makes us think; that forces us to use our intuition. But what happens when the lights go out or the electricity stops? All these things we depend on so much become useless."
But rather than give in to the negativity, Degarr said he has turned it into creativity. He began building bicycles using recycled materials — anything from old piping and plastic to laundry baskets tossed in the trash. He has built over 15 bicycles to date, many with interchangeable parts that allow him to create a new statement every time he rides.
The designs aren't just for show either. Degarr has researched and mastered his prototypes to alleviate the back and knee pain often associated with bike riding, and to support a strong posture. He has covered every inch of Philadelphia and the surrounding towns.
"When I started, people laughed at me ... and that's what the problem is with people today. They are so quick to judge something that is different, something that is creative. I'm not trying to make a living out of building my bikes," he said. "I'm not trying to be cool. I'm simply trying to bring out an idea of living our art."