The mainstream of modern street skateboarding, if you define it by what the media is selling, has a pretty high barrier to entry. There’s something perverse in the fact that what we now call “street skating” has developed (devolved?) to a level where it seems as if you can’t drop your board down just anywhere and start doing it. Skateboarding has matured to the point where there’s no longer an expiration date on a persons’ skate lifespan, but it often seems as if the queue up to the street skating section of the subculture is blocked by a sign that says: “You must be this young or this skilled to enter.” Videos transmit the latest, most skull-perforating tricks and create an orthodoxy of what high-impact, terrain qualifies as a legit skate spot, and what tricks are “real”. If the ledge ain’t knee high it doesn’t count, and anything less intense than popping a double set or hitting a handrail at mach 12 is mere “cruising”. “Cruising” I hate that fucking term. Its called street skating, folks, even if all you’re doing is rolling down the block and floating up curbs. In some ways street skating is a victim of its own success: in becoming the pre-eminent cutting edge venue for skateboarding, modern street skating can seem narrow, highly specialized and, competitive. In short, street skating is in constant danger of veering away from all the things that made it so crucial to start with.
This is not the industry's fault, or the skate media’s fault. Its our fault, or, actually, our loss. Parks have become common in the last 2 decades. Nothing rouses old timers out of years, sometimes even decades of skate-free dormancy than the appearance of a public skatepark with a bowl and a flow area. Suddenly, guys who cut their teeth doing slappies and no complies are oozing out of the woodwork to do their best Z-Boyz imitations on the local tax-funded transitions. Too few of them ever take the step of getting back in the actual streets. For veterans re-vitalized by the appearance of a local skatepark, there’s an understandably entrenched reluctance to forego a day at the skate park in favor of the local parking lots or sidewalks. You get four hours a week to ride, you don’t want to spend it scoping out strip malls and schoolyards. Parks are easier, safer. They’re what we all wished we had back in the day. But this is a boondoggle. Parks can disappear, they can become kooked-up stagnant, repetitive...and let’s face it, people like me didn’t fall in love with skateboarding riding around the confines of pristine government sanctioned skate ghettos. The streets are still out there, and I don’t mean “streets” as defined by those dozen or so hot spots in your town where the young and reckless go to get their youtube footage. I’m talking about the stuff you can find on any suburban or urban city block. It’s time to rediscover the parking blocks and manhole covers; The sideways traffic cones and ankle high curbs, The chunky, the gnarly, all the mundane things that used to be the soul of street skating; the things that are too often seen as invalid by skaters living in the era of park perfection and video edits packed end to end with unobtainable “bangers”.
There are all sorts of reasons to stay locked in park mark mode, especially for the old and rusty. For most mature skaters there’s a sort of sad subliminal spectre of embarrassment that lurks in the primal high school regions of the cerebral cortex. You are a grown-ass man, so you can’t just go out in public and flop around on your board right? It’s best to keep it in the skatepark, where geographical categorization provides a sort of cover. In the park you may not be the raddest guy on the crete, but at least you belong there, and any gawkers that happen by seem a bit less likely to judge you, or perhaps, they will simply be distracted from your micro-ollies and bonelesses by the 15 year old doing waist-high kickflips over the pyramid.
It’s an easy fallacy to fall into, but I’m gong to let you in on a little secret: to most of the world you never looked cool anyway, not even when you were twenty years old and had bones of carbon fiber and vulcanized cartilage that flexed like high impact rubber. So many people are caught up in all the things they “used to do”. Honestly, was the bag of tricks you could throw down at age 21 really any more comprehensible or impressive to the average square than the ground hugging ollies and rudimentary curb tricks you can pull off today? 10 stair handrail or 5 foot long parking block, either one is equally irksome to the average outsider. As for what other skaters think, well if you are worried about what some delinquent with graphic griptape and a 30 inch vertical pop thinks about your slappies, then you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking their judgements are any less harsh in the skatepark. Think about it this way: At the end of the day, how much closer were you to being Eric Koston when you were 21 than you are now? Measured by that standard, all those things you “used to be able to do” shouldn’t weigh so much on your mind. And here’s another fact: re-learning to ollie sucks, especially when you are focused on the trashcan popping, banister-boosting glory days, but re learning is a whole lot easier than learning the first time, and even 6 inches of pop can open up a whole world of possibilities.
Hitting the streets again after a long hiatus, a person may very well never progress beyond what are, by today’s standards, the bare basics. Fair enough. But here’s the thing, the bare basics are incredibly fun and they don’t require specialized architecture and ridiculous bodily and legal risks to pull them off. There are just as many challenges and venues for expression and fun hovering 6 inches off the pavement as there are in the 20 step staircase, the 12 foot bowl, or the waist high ledge. Standard curbs, parking blocks, curb cuts and manual pads aren’t especially hard to come by. Drive into town on a Sunday morning when everything is closed, drop your board down in a strip mall, and go for it.
It can be hard to put self-consciousness aside, but it’s worth it. The glory days can be a a blindfold, especially for skaters who peaked during the rise of street skating. In a lot of ways, the more street skating defined itself in those years, the more limited it became. The rapid progression that swept up everyone from the late 80’s to the mid 90’s meant whole styles of street skating came and went within a few months, and some of those styles were pushed aside by the next innovation so fast that not only did skaters rarely get time to enjoy them, there was not nearly enough time to exhaust them. I’ve never thought that constant progression was the prime motivation of any skateboarder, but in those wonder years, when the bars were being raised faster than anyone could keep up, it was really easy to lose sight of the fact that how much fun a trick is, how satisfying it can feel, has nothing to do with how difficult it is. What feels better than a nice slappy? Still, most people discarded slappies as soon as they started ollieing into grinds. The pop of an ollie, followed by the sliding resistance of trucks on concrete, or the barking scream of wheels pushing a lipslide, give a primal kick whether the angle of crete you are doing it on in is 6 inches off the ground or six inches above your knees. Nevertheless, once skaters started hitting benches and ledges, a plain old curb didn’t seem worth anyone’s time anymore. These are all fallacies. A board slide on a curb or bench is no less fun just because somewhere, someone better than you can do it down a handrail. Do you really think you are going to run out of challenges with just a curb and some flat asphalt anyway? Have you mastered every curb trick Tom Knox throws down in Speed Freaks yet? All of Ray Barbee’s flat ground lines? Got Brian Lotti’s steez from Now ‘n’ Later locked?
And on the subject of videos, now that practically every street skating video segment ever filmed can be found on youtube, skaters wanting to take it back to the street have a priceless resource right at their fingertips. There is so much more than wistful nostalgia to be found in these snippets of tape from the early eras of street skating. Doing research for the autobiographical entries of this blog, I found myself watching hours and hours of early street skating footage. I quickly realized that those clips were getting me pumped to skate in ways that the sickest bangers from today’s best and brightest never could. If you are cynical you can chalk that up to middle-aged nostalgia and a pining for glory days, but nostalgia isn’t usually enough to actually get you moving, and those vids always made me pick up my board, even when all I was looking for was source material for rambling on about the old days.
It’s not just the back-to-basics aesthetics that make this sort of footage so inspiring, and it’s not the simple accessibility of the tricks either. The style and sheer beauty the masters of skating injected into their classic maneuvers in these videos elevates them to a level that transcends nostalgia. When you see the legends in their prime doing classic, simple tricks so superbly the archaic maneuvers cease being “old school” tricks and become living, valid tools for fun and expression. The key is to not think about the classic vid edits and the skating they contain as quaint little time capsules. You need to block out the historical context and see them as depictions of alternate styles with their own merits even today. Honestly, that’s how a lot of younger skaters today see them. Dressen throwing powerslides in Speed Freaks, or Hensley stepping and hopping and not complying in Shackle Me Not aren’t mere historical footnotes, they’re living resources that are still valid to anyone who skates.
Of course, you don’t have to dig deep into the archives to see skaters turning the foundations of street skating into incredible tools for self expression. Jason Adams is still blowing minds with nothing more than a red curb and a lot of style. Look up “slappy curb your enthusiasm” on youtube and you’ll see Dennis Busenitz grinding out an ollie free manifesto. Then pull up the highlight of the 151/Landshark parking block contest for dessert. Mike Vallely still rides hard, and when he releases a new edit, its usually got as many boneless variations and parking block tricks as burly park footage and killer ditch skating. Do I need to even mention all the modern clips of Gonz rolling around for fun, making just pushing look like the raddest thing in the world?
Hey, maybe the basics are all you’ve got, but guys like Lance Mountain, GSD, Eric Dressen, and Tommy Guererro did pretty damn good with the basics. Are these classic styles less intense than skating’s mainstream? Yes. They certainly are. The slappy, the schralping of a low curb...the boneless, the step-off shove-it: Its easy for some to argue that these things are not “serious” skateboarding. Fair enough. So what if they are not. If a lack of seriousness in skateboarding is problematic for you I respectfully invite you to get the hell out of our subculture.
It really is a wonderful time to start hitting the streets again. Despite the intimidating difficulty of skateboarding’s cutting edge, skating is more diverse than ever. Hell, even The Berrics has a slappy curb, and, in terms of gear, Innovations in wheel technology have radically changed the game on what kind of terrain you can actually ride and varioations in deck styles have made learning again very user friendly. Disparage the longboard trend if you must, but one thing the fad has contributed to skateboarding is a wealth of technical development in the area of all-terrain, soft durometer wheels. Currently There are several companies putting out functional street style shapes in very soft durometers. The best have virtually eliminated the squishy, speed killing flex that used to occur in soft wheels when you popped an ollie. 80d wheels that you can pop a real ollie on open up a whole new realm of street skating. The soft 80 a wheels I take to the streets can handle anything short of bare gravel, and I get no significant reduction in my pop (and, trust me, at my level, any little reduction in my limited pop would be real noticeable). There’s no more looking at some cool embankment or curb-filled parking lot and then rolling up only to find rough pavement that makes it impossible to skate.
Deck shapes are more diverse than they have been since the beginning of the pospicle era in the early nineties. There is a lot of nostalgia branded junk out there, re-issue boards with wood more suitable for wall hanging than wall riding, and a lot of trendy, lazily conceived “cruiser” shapes, but among the money grabbers there are several companies, companies like Welcome, Elephant, Fickle Boards, and Deck Crafters, that are doing extremely innovative and functional things with shaped decks. If you haven’t popped an ollie in years nothing beats a nice, long, fat tail with a flattened base for stability and elimination of the dreaded “ghost pop”. The best shaped deck designs beautifully balance the added stability of a nice, wide front pocket area, with the need for a more agile, weight reducing taper toward the tail. On the right board you will be amazed at how quickly a functional ollie can return. You won’t be able to stop yourself from popping manhole covers and parking blocks whenever you’ve got any time to spare.
Really, all of this validation is beside the point. The real point I’m trying to make is that the great gift guys like Natas Kaupas and Mark Gonzales gave to skateboarding was the idea that a spirit of fun and creativity could make riding accessible to anyone anywhere. Let me re-iterate that: Riding could be accessible to ANYONE, ANYWHERE. Parks are great. Parks are safe and fun and anyone who has one nearby need to kill it whenever they can. By all means, keep going to the park. Continue to make it the staple of your skateboarding diet, but never forget the satisfaction inherent in knowing you can have a killer session anywhere there’s pavement. Think of how much more skate time you can clock in on days when you don’t have the time to schlep to the park if you embrace classic street skating. Think about how much you can sharpen your basics by rediscovering the joys of squeezing in a driveway or neighborhood street session for a half hour or hour after work. Street skating is not a puzzle. It’s not a video part. It’s value has nothing to do with the amplitude of the tricks, the age of the participants, or the orthodoxy of the terrain. You just go out your front door, push, and see what you run into. Young or old, gnarly or nerdy, it will be worth it. I guarantee.