Friday, December 14, 2012
The Lords Of Duct Tape: A Manifesto
Skateboarding has finally gotten old enough to be introspective. Its history is varied and vast enough now that people are making efforts not just to preserve it but to contextualize it, mostly through biographies and documentaries of the subculture’s elite innovators. If you really want to understand modern skateboarding though you can’t get the whole picture just by examining its superstars. Those stories are important, Sure. In the 80’s skaters like Christian Hosoi, Mark Rogowski, Tony Hawk and his Bones Brigade counterparts expanded and defined skateboarding but they were also over defining it. The road they paved was destined to be a dead end because what they did was fundamentally inaccessible to most of the world. It was anchored by contests no one outside of a few geographical areas could see and dependent on an infrastructure of for-profit parks that were destined to evaporate at the first financial hiccup.
In the 1960‘s skateboarding was born in the streets. In the early 80’s it almost died because it outgrew them. To survive it had to both devolve and evolve. It had to go back to the streets but not just back to the streets of California. It had to hit the streets of middle America and the deep south and all the other places where you couldn’t make it to a beach or a bowl without a plane ticket or a week's vacation. For skating to become what it is today it had to become something anybody anywhere could grab and take possession of and help define. It not only had to move beyond being something surfers did when the surfing sucked, it had to become more than something you did in a concrete pool or a half-pipe.
Since the latter years of the 1990’s Skateboarding has maintained a stable level of popularity only dreamed of in the culture’s first three decades. Boom and bust cycles are gone. It is now a global subculture. In the years that skateboarding rose from a regional curiosity to a worldwide phenomenon street skating was what drove the sport. Street skating was also the only type of skateboarding the vast majority of people had access to, the only form that couldn’t be taken away by the fluctuations of economics and mass appeal of skating. None of these things are coincidental. Skateboarding became what it is today because of an absence of rules and surplus of regional isolation.
This blog is about my experiences in skateboarding but I am not writing it because I ever did anything important in the sport, or because my story forms some sort of highly dramatic narrative. I am writing because my story lacks all these things. I am writing all this down because the true story of skating, the best way to understand how it has become what it is today, is through the experiences of people like me, not just the rank-and-file skate dorks but a very particular type of skate dork: one on the margins of what was an already marginal part of American culture. Skateboarding couldn’t be what it is until it embraced people like me and my friends or, more properly, until we embraced it.
Despite the often misguided efforts of large corporations and media networks skateboarding has never been and never will be a spectator sport. Its center has never been competitive. It is communal. It has carved a niche in mainstream culture while still appealing to the alienated, marginalized fringes of society. It defines itself as being something everyone with a skateboard possesses and shapes in their own context. Unlike other sports you can’t really be a part of it unless you do it. And if you do it you can define it however you want.
Before street skating, without a pool or a half-pipe you couldn’t really consider yourself being part of the “real” skating culture, especially if you lived in the flyover states. The magazines, with their beautiful shots of gigantic airs and vert contests, defined skating as a fantasy for us, something we couldn’t even badly imitate. What was possible on the flat blacktop in front of my house and on the streets of my city had nothing to do with that world. At that time you could have all the clothes, equipment and magazines money could buy. You could have all the talent and drive of any pro, but without a skatepark or a half-pipe the best you could ever be was an admirer of skateboarding. Your skateboard was just an (extremely bad) form of transportation or a toy you could use to pretend you were carving the big bowl at Del Mar when you were really just carving your driveway.
When Street skating filtered out to the interiors and far corners of America it wasn’t just the gods of skateboarding showing off some new, unobtainable curiosity for the landlocked masses in the sticks. It was more like a total system re-boot. Street skating was something no one had really mastered or defined, something that seemed discovered instead of invented. Skateboarding was now open-source. For once, the skaters in the centers of the culture in California had only a modest advantage over the rest of us in terms of access to terrain and development of tricks. Any kid in any small city could find a curb or a loading dock or a set of stairs somewhere. The development of street skating was, for kids outside of skating’s nerve centers, the difference between sitting on the curb across the street from the cool kids’ party, and crashing it. The California skate gods had the jump on street skating basics, but once those basics became public domain via magazines and the early videos anybody anywhere could stumble onto the next big innovation. Street skating didn’t just sneak into the party and play the wall, it kicked in the door, knocked over the stereo and raided the liquor cabinet. The gulf that separated the culture’s elite from those who followed them was, for once, infinitesimally small.
Skateboarding’ historians have done a very good job of documenting the who's and the when's of skating, but less so with the why's. Old skaters are a sentimental lot. They can talk for hours about the days of way back. They can also spout half-assed poetry and philosophy about their lifestyle like nobody else (except maybe surfers. those guys can go on and on...) Few have much interest in analysis. That’s probably because skateboarding at its best defines itself as something that bridles and shudders at definitions. Nevertheless, the nuts and bolts of the subculture and how it has evolved can really lay bare the soul of something that is more than loved by those who practice it.
I have been wanting to write about skateboarding for a very long time. I always felt that there was something important in the experiences of my friends and I growing up as skaters in the midwest but there was nothing that happened to me in particular would make a very good biographical story. Likewise, I find the aesthetics, the evolution of the subculture, fascinating and revealing on so many levels. The more I think about these rather dry academic points the more I realize that not only is skateboarding’s development unique and compelling, but something of a cultural miracle. Still, a drawn out academic treatise on skate culture might be nearly unreadable and arcane in ways that would test even the patience of skaters.
I came to the conclusion that maybe combining the two would be a way to talk about all the things I’ve wanted to in a complementary way. There are experiences I had skating that can communicate concepts more naturally than pages of analysis, while the analysis, the discussions about the nuts and bolts of the subculture, can help show why the experiences of a bunch of no name skateboarders in the middle of skating’s wasteland are relevant.
This blog is about myself and all the other skate dorks I met and skated with over two decades of being an average skater in the trenches of middle america. It’s an attempt to not only create a sort of counter-history of skateboarding, but also to create an analysis of skateboarding's evolution. Skateboarding never really came to its own until it not only separated itself from surfing, but when it ceased to be an activity primarily driven by vertical skating. There were certainly members of skatings professional elite who facilitated this change but their efforts only met with success because they were reflective of what all the kids in the heartland and the flyover regions and the inner cities needed and wanted. It is a process not only important in and of itself but important because it represents the way skateboarding is a subculture and art form that not only constantly evolves but often evolves form the bottom up.
The story begins somewhere around 1984-85 when I got my first skateboard. I’m not sure where it will end, maybe 21 years later when I returned to my hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, the city where I spent my formative years hoping, just once, I would carve a pool transition before I died, and I realized there were 5 concrete skateparks within a two hour drive of my childhood home.
I’m going to make a lot of assumptions in this blog, assumptions based on my experiences. My ultimate goal is to try to create something more permanent, like a book, a real record of this time, something we can show or grandkids when they are zipping around on their cybernetically controlled hover boards and say: “hey, this was what it was really like for all the kids who never got their name on a deck in the days when skating came into its own”. I would certainly appreciate input from everyone when I screw up the details, especially midwestern skaters from those early days of the 1980’s. Hopefully I won’t annoy you too much with my personal anecdotes, or bore you too much with my labored analyses. If my tale doesn’t mirror yours exactly I hope, at least, there will be enough intersections to take you back, for better or worse, and enough to make you sit back and appreciate just how special skateboarding is.
Posted by Dadmiral Ackbar at 8:38 AM