Past & Present (part 1 of 2)
Today, there are tons of great skaters. You can log onto Instagram any day of the week and discover people who can do all the tricks. And these young people share a culture and skate spots with a group of older people who had radically different experiences. Older generations of skateboarders come from a time when skating was only available to those who sought it out, and the rest of the world just dismissed skateboarding as meaningless, or worse—persecuted skateboarders for being non-conformist and generally “different”. Today anyone can skate all they want at free parks practicing a regimen of tricks that they saw on instagram, and twenty plus years of evolution have changed skateboarding significantly. But the innovators–who cultivated, shaped, and defined the tricks that make up the repertoires of today’s young skate stars–existed in radically different circumstances. With very few skateparks and zero plaza style parks, the sport’s overall skill level increased relatively slowly for a multitude of reasons. In most places you had to break the law before you could start skating so that meant you were a criminal first, and a skater second whether you liked it or not; there were very few ledges with metal edges so learning grinds and slides was more laborious; people generally came out with video parts once a year, or once every two/three/four years, so there wasn't a constant deluge of skate footage to study and learn from; and you usually got kicked out of a spot if it was ideal for skating, so the idea of going someplace and practicing tricks was pretty much out of the question. In short, skateboarding today is very different from skateboarding in the not-so-distant-past.
And yet this disparity in experiences really only affects the dialog around skating, and the spectacles that people outside of skateboard culture latch onto. At the end of the day skateboarding is the same for someone who starts today, and someone who started 35 years ago. The only difference is that the people who start skating today have to deal with the complications of social media instead of the complications of breaking the law. Of course, you can skate and have fun, and be part of the scene where you live, and travel to other scenes and meet other people and have a great time and never have a social media account. But as of right now, skateboard culture–whether you want to see it as the crushing and exact athleticism of Nyjah Huston, the dark and subversive scrawlings of Barrier Kult, the historically-outsider-inclusive organizing of Unity, the casual profundity of WKND, the enduring liquidity of Tom Penny, the informed conditioning of Neen Williams, the new wave avantism of Quasi, the all-girl heroics of Meow, the living skateboard theatrics of Matt Tomasello, or anything else–is taking place on social media. And of course skate shops, and skate videos, and magazines still matter, but they’re not where the cultural dialog takes place right now.
Consider two extremely different examples of skateboarding today: a 23 year old straight white man with a brand new board from his brand new sponsor at Stoner skate plaza in West LA with all his friends on a perfect day in November, and a 42 year old trans black woman skating a chipped up hand-me-down board alone in a crusty parking garage in North Dakota on a hellish day in November. These are both examples of skateboarding, but these people are doing very different things with their boards, and their lives. The beauty of skateboarding is that it’s always had room for everyone, and while the industry might not represent every type of person equally, skateboard culture has remained distinct in its absolutely uniform appreciation of all individuals. Skateboard culture has never been about reductive comparison: there is no winner in skateboarding, and further when you compare two skateboarders there is no “lesser” skateboarder.
So how did we arrive at this moment where the past and the present are sharing one space while we all wait to see what path the future will behold? Well, we were delivered here by a well-documented group of individuals often referred to as “core skate companies”, but then once we got here—here being the current Instagram-defined culture of skateboarding—it became unclear if the culture continued to have a “core”. Today the public image of skateboarding is shaped by skateboard companies, as well as consumer goods companies who see an opportunity to make money selling skateboards. To clarify; skateboard companies operate from within skateboard culture employing skateboarders, and their products are inseparable from skateboard culture because they are made by skaters for skaters; consumer goods companies who see an opportunity to make money selling skateboards are unaware that skateboard culture exists, if they employ skateboarders it is only by chance and these people are not identified as skateboarders in the workplace, and their products are not meant to be consumed by skaters because their products have nothing to do with skateboard culture. And while the historic figures of skateboarding were ALL sponsored corporate ambassadors, the skateboard industry never took on a “corporate” feel because companies, products, and trends, were coming from within the culture: it was always capitalism in support of skateboarding and skateboarders, rather than skateboarding as a premise for capitalism.
In the contemporary era “corporate” is shorthand for exploitative corporate organizations with bad taste and too much protocol. The corporations of skateboarding are mostly run by skaters who want to be part of skateboarding, not investors who want to leverage unactualized capital. So skateboarding is an exception when you compare it to any other culture being bought, sold, leased, and monetized in the internet era. Mainstream capitalism values skateboarding, but mainstream capitalism did not build skateboarding, skateboarding doesn’t rely on mainstream capitalism, and mainstream capitalism can not control skateboarding. There are no other cultures of such massive—in terms of how many people, and the global area they cover—immediacy outside of mainstream capitalism anymore. Hip hop has become the provenance of multinational corporations with 5 year fiscal projections, and cannabis is now the official industry for investors who have never risked getting arrested for growing, selling, or transporting weed. There are certainly more fractured and minute cultures that skirt the influence of mainstream capitalism, but none of them have the urgency, social immediacy, mainstream media presence, and widespread global relevance that skateboarding has.
“Skateboarding: Culture Rebel In The Barren Zone” is the game that skaters of the past play. Skaters of the present play: “Skateboarding: Trickmaster5000”—a game that starts with the work of decades of culture innovators, and ends with little to no reference to the culture of skateboarding. Of course, these are generalizations. But they’re generalizations because they are accurate—at least in part—for large groups of people. The essence of any culture is usually defined by a relatively small group of innovators, and then consumed and internalized by the general public. But in the social media era, when many skaters mistake the essence of skateboarding as the extent of your tricks and the richness of your style, it’s very easy for the past’s value to become radically skewed. In today’s skateboard culture you wouldn’t be too far off to say that many of the great people and things of skateboarding are overlooked in favor of those that are most easily packaged for digitization. Things get even more tricky because the nature of Instagram’s algorithm seems to suggest that innovators are less important than the newcomers who stand on their shoulders. That’s likely because these innovators have less value to advertisers who are looking at the consumption of skateboard culture in hopes of having a premise to sell their goods. But if you look closer, you’ll find that this dynamic is nothing new. Most pros can tell you a story about someone from their hometown who ripped harder than anyone else who lived there. Skateboarding’s past is littered with the unvalued accomplishments of hordes of unnamed individuals who will never be remembered or even acknowledged because they weren’t part of the industry. If you don’t look with a critical eye it’s easy to think that the story that has been sold in skateboard magazines and videos is the complete story, but it’s not. Even though skateboarding was invented less than 75 years ago, nobody knows the whole story when it comes to skateboarding. Some of the people who are credited with innovating or creating the sport are merely that: the people who were credited, not the people who innovated and created.
When it comes to skateboarding tricks are important. And when it comes to tricks, who did something first is one of two aspects of distinction amongst the billions and billions of iterations of the same maneuvers done by millions and millions of people–the only other element of distinction is doing something with style. But even though tricks are important, skateboarding is not a game of tricks, in the same way that playing music on a piano is not a game of finger dancing; the performer doesn’t touch us, the music does. And in skateboarding, the “music” that resonates in our souls is everything but the tricks: the sounds, the friends, the unique perspectives, the constant excitement, the self-actualization, discovering a new part of your city, et cetera. Skateboarding is a culture of agency and self-actualization in a society of conformity and oppression. No matter the tricks, every skater has access to immediate transcendence. In skateboarding no one is telling you what to do, no one is telling you what is good enough, and no one is telling you when to stop. Everything that you do on a skateboard is the result of the direction and energy you manifest from within yourself. Most people will never experience a situation where they are free from the social conditioning and cultural prompts that define values and character for millions of “individuals” who choose to replicate a formulaic identity. And thus most people will never experience the individual agency that is promised to be indulged by all the free time and creative freedom that comes with being an American Consumer Par Excellence. But skateboarding offers just that type of freedom and self-driven urgency by utilizing capitalism. The only difference is that skateboarding doesn’t promise to free up your time and make you more creative. And the resources that skateboarding offers aren’t the product of a free market, instead they are the contributions of innovators and cultural forebears.
Skateboarding doesn’t promise us anything. That hasn’t changed since its inception, and it probably won’t ever change. Skateboarding offers us many things, but none of them without startling debts to be paid in time, blood, bones, muscles, grey matter, ligaments, tendons, teeth, sanity, friends, relationships, and the myriad components–both fleshy and ethereal–that define the human being. It’s all fair game in the exchange between you and skateboarding, and skateboarding wants it all–in fact skateboarding demands it all. But no amount of lurking violence or social isolation has dissuaded the endless hordes, who step onto an instrument built to resist control, and subvert what society tells us about the relationship between human locomotion and physics. Every year millions of people invest hundreds–if not thousands–of hours into gleefully hurling their bodies at fleeting-but-thrilling spectacles which complicate the oversimplifications that define human reality in the capitalist era. But these revelatory spectacles carry no inherent rewards or status within human society. Or at least, they haven’t carried much merit in society until now. Skateboarding’s most persistent element–across several decades, and around many versions of the globe–has been navigating the exchange that takes place when you commit yourself to the realization of a vision in your mind. When you start skateboarding you realize that your body can generate and manipulate energy in ways that fall well outside the realms of usefulness prescribed by a society of labor, production, and consumption. But the reward of an empowered body is received in direct proportion to the debt that is paid: as you’re learning to ride a skateboard you have to grow beyond the kinds of physical control that are taught in mainstream society, and so you can only learn to control a skateboard by entering a realm controlled by forces that exceed the normalized reality of society. It’s scary out there. When you step on a skateboard invisible demons, ghouls, and giants rush to mush up your soul, but when you’re part of skateboard culture you learn to not be afraid.
Skateboarding will settle for whatever you let it swallow, but everything is going into its mouth. What you can get away with is part of the sport of skateboarding: you focus your mind, you condition your body, and you execute. What you can do without getting hurt is part of the art of skateboarding: you go out into the world and you imagine things that may be possible and you try them in order to find out. We all choose how much art we want with our sport, or how much sport we want in our art, and nobody is just one or the other. Maybe there used to be more inherent art, or maybe there used to be less inherent sport, or maybe something else. Regardless of what does or doesn’t happen skateboarding remains the same and people across all generations deal with the same scenario: how much do I want to take, and how much am I willing to give; how much can I leave, and how much do I need; what’s it gonna take to get it done, and how much will it hurt if I accept that I can’t do this? Whether you were skating curbs all tech in 92, or you’re skating curbs all hesh in 2019 the negotiation with the ghouls is the same. Whether you were looking to go big in 98, or looking to make friends at the 8 stair in 2018 the endless possibilities are the same. And maybe the future never really gets here, which is how skateboarding remains the same? In a culture where the past and the present are constantly playing equal influence in the outcome of any given moment it’s difficult for things to move any faster than they need to. I think you could make a safe argument that our world has changed dramatically, but skateboarding has changed much slower, and that is a good thing. In our contemporary society the future has swelled to occupy the present moment in such gargantuan proportions that we can no longer confidently recall what happened before we started the thoughts we are trying to finish. Skateboarding on the other hand, remains clear and direct in its focus–which has not changed since its inception.