Photographer Trevor Traynor had already found success shooting the biggest names in hip-hop when a disc jockey friend invited him to his first lowrider cruise in San Francisco’s Mission District last Cinco de Mayo. “There were all these cars lined up,” Traynor recalls. “One after another would pull up, and I put my camera on video and just started shooting from the back of his Skylark.” Traynor edited the cruise footage into a two-minute video that went viral among the local car clubs. Soon he was setting up shoots with members of the Bay’s biggest lowrider clubs: Frisco’s Finest, Pachuco Car Club and the Inspirations.

Lowrider culture traces its roots to the post-World War II era in the Southwest, where, instead of purchasing new cars, Mexican immigrants would restore, maintain and customize cheaper second-hand ones. During the next 50 years, lowriders would spread across the globe to become one of the most popular auto trends.

Over the past year, Traynor has photographed at least a car a week. His exhibition, Low Life, premieres this Friday at the Cukui clothing store in San Jose, the first stop in a four-city tour on both coasts.

Traynor’s shots aren’t like those one might see in glossy magazines with bikini models sprawled across the fenders. Instead, Traynor frames both car and driver in images that capture lowrider culture: a tight-knit, predominantly Chicano community that meshes both the preservation and enhancement of classic cars with personal pride. Traynor says one of the biggest challenges was owners insisting their cars be perfect before the photo shoot. Some would push back the date, telling him, “I got a new trim or a new detail or a new custom piece.”

“For me, being new to this, I say, OK, well, I’m not going to notice a difference, and in the photos nobody will know the difference,” Traynor explains. “But [the owners] will know the difference. It’s about that very little detail.”

Readers familiar with Japantown’s Cukui know that the space is a bit, well, cramped for an art show opening. Maybe that’s the point: parts of Jackson Street will be blocked off so attendees can check out the lowriders that will be lined up outside the shop. Traynor says a taco truck will be there serving up grub, too. John Coyne will provide motion visuals.

Low Life
April 8–May 9
Cukui, 229 Jackson St., San Jose
Opening Reception Friday, 7-10pm