Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Submit To The Grind: Examining Skateboarding's Original Sin

There are things in life so ingrained that we never notice how weird they are unless we take a big step back. Skate culture is full of these sorts of things. In fact, you could say it is built upon them. After all, we're a culture obsessed with finding ways to further complicate riding what is already the world's most dysfunctional vehicle.

Take grinding, and by grinding I mean all the related acts of board sliding , tail sliding, nose sliding, whatever, as well. Grinding, be it trucks or decks, is as essential to modern skateboarding as urethane wheels and precision bearings. But, step out of your skater consciousness and really ponder the grind for a moments and you will quickly realize our obsession with the grind is really fucking weird.

Granted, all of the elements of modern skateboarding's aesthetic are unique, but most of them can be easily traced back to common urges that are expressed in many other athletic and artistic activities. Blasting a huge air or ollieing a big gap ties to the inherent desire we all feel to defy gravity and fly through the air, an urge that goes all the way back to cavemen watching birds circling overhead. Bombing hills is just another permutation of the eternal need for speed, a primal urge that runs through everything from track and field sports to street racing. Technical tricks, the flips and varials, they have an inherent beauty, the same beauty found in the precision movements of a great dancer, gymnast, or juggler.

But grinding? It's an activity that is both unique, puzzling, and totally mad. What we do when we grind our trucks, be it on curb or rail or coping is basically take an already hazardous, poorly controlled vehicle, and intentionally ride it in the worst way possible. We forgo locomotion via the finely engineered, free-rolling wheels, in favor of forward movement by a friction inducing, scraping crash that not only robs your board of forward momentum, but also destroys it.

 And we do it on purpose. For fun.

Carry this impulse to other sports and past times and you'll see it for what it is. It's like a stock car driver suddenly saying: "hey, lets' try to run this race without tires." Like the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi ballet deciding she wants to dance the lead in Swan Lake wearing Doc Marten creepers. It's like a baseball player stepping up to the plate and attempting to hit a home run using his glove instead of his bat. In any other context, the impetus that drives us to grind makes no sense.

Even in context, grinding seems in direct opposition to many of skateboarding's other obsessions.Grinding doesn't make you go faster, it slows you down. It doesn't give you the feeling of flight either, in fact it it gives you the diametric opposite. Grinding is about feeling the ground underneath your trucks with enhanced and perilous intimacy. It's not about separation through speed or weightlessness, its about connection; A destructive and dangerous connection.

Beyond that, grinding, and all the related disciplines...boardslides, tailslides, have basically guaranteed us the eternal scorn of society at large. Not only does our obsession with the grind defy logic, it also puts us in the crosshairs of the rest of the world. Isn't grinding more trouble than it's worth? Isn't it an element of our culture that has, in all conventional ways, held us back? Wouldn't we be better off if it we left it behind?

The logical, rational answer, the answer someone who has never rode a board would give is "yes". You know it. I know it.

At the end of the day, the norms out there could probably get over the inherent danger of skating. They could get over our weird clothes and strange slang. They could get over the skulls and disingenuous allusions to satanism, the weed references plastered over everything, but the one thing they will never let slide is the damage and defacement, no matter how inconsequential, all that grinding leaves on property public and private.

Does that mean we'll stop?

No. Never. Not for a second. We love it. We are compelled in service to the grind. But why? Why is it so important to us?

If you trace the grind back to its origin and chart its evolutions, how the grind became so central becomes clear. even if the why remains elusive.

Ironically, the grind was born as a side-effect, a by-product of pushing skyward. It was neither a means nor an end. When skateboarders began to test their limits on the vertical walls of pools, the goal was to push as high up as possible. Once skaters breached the tile, the lip was naturally the next place to go. In that push to get radder and radder, eventually, skaters took their kickturns to the very limits of the wall and wound up going three wheels out. Pushing above the lip had a side effect: it put the strip of metal between the back wheels in contact with concrete. What ensued, if the lip was level, was a little click...a little pivot, a split second where the board was turning, not on its wheels, but on the metal between them. Enough forward momentum would also result in the tiniest of scrapes as the axle actually moved along the lip. If the pool had nice coping, that pivot was a jarring bump and a more robust grinding of metal. It took skill and daring to keep riding in opposition to that bit of friction and the shock the lip could serve up. A new rite of passage was created, a new gauntlet thrown down.

Jay Adams says it all without saying a word. Photo by Glen E. Friedman
Even when skaters started giving gravity the finger and sticking aerials, the grind, the ground-connecting, speed stealing, anti-matter opposite of the air remained. We  needed to shred aluminum and plywood just as badly as we needed to fly through the air.

The park era soon followed, and the serendipitous act of brushing axles on coping mutated and propagated into a whole vocabulary of tricks. Skaters got rad, and truck manufacturers got rich. One day, a skatepark dissident named John Lucero got booted from Skate City Skatepark and, in an earth shattering moment of dorkery and defiance, Lucero decide to amuse himself in the parks' parking lot by jamming his trucks onto a nearby curb in an earthbound parody of a 50-50 grind. The slappy was born, and forever after the unstoppable urge to grind aluminum was exported into the public domain. The next few generations of streets skaters took it from there, creating an exhaustive array of grind variations on all manner of urban terrain.

This solidly established in the minds of the public that destruction, not fun, not expression, was at the heart of skateboarding. Today, the love of the grind has become our original sin: A forbidden fruit tasted in the primeval days of the first pool skaters that we can't lose our taste for. It has caused our culture more trouble than any thing else we've created. The lord Gonz himself said it: we're vandals. And we're vandals because we're slaves to the grind.

Maybe You can simplify the appeal of grind as merely the appeal of destruction, but I'm not sure this explains it. I think the idea of "skate and destroy" was born form our love of the grind, not the other way around. The variations of the grind encompass much more than brute force. I think we'd all be bashing our trucks on whatever we could even if it didn't wreak havoc on our boards or the environment. An outgrowth of some juvenile need for vandalism is not a sufficient explanation.

From a purely visceral standpoint, If someone were to ask me what the appeal of locking my trucks into a nice slappy or a long 50-50 around a bowl corner is, I think I might start by comparing it to sliding along a patch of ice on a snowy street. Who can't relate to doing that on a cold, snowy day? It's a feeling of forward momentum that, once started is not totally under control, an act which requires you to balance poise and concentration with the knowledge that the slightest leaning in the wrong direction or the most incremental change in the slickness of the ice under your your path will pitch you to the ground. It's about seeing how far you can glide without hitting the pavement, about moving against the odds.

Perhaps you can find the soul of the grind in skateboarding's surfing origins, in the way surfers crave not just the momentum of the ride but the feel of the waves beneath their feet, the way they challenge and express themselves by pushing against the tidal forces of the waves that propel them in cutbacks and other turns. Grinding is also largely about the "feel". As earlier stated, its an act of connection, of "being grounded" on your board in an almost literal manner. It's, like, about connecting to the Earth, man...

In a more philosophical sense, though, it is the fact that grinding is the exact wrong way to ride a skateboard that may be the key to it all. The skateboard itself is nonsensical vehicle, and for many of us just standing up and pushing around on a board was enough for our peers and parents to ask why on earth we would ever bother.  The secret power of the skateboard is that it's meant to be ridden "the wrong way" because riding it at all is wrong. Every trick, whether it is a 60's freestyler inverting himself in a handstand, or a modern skater riding switch, is about riding a skateboard "wrong". The grind is as wrong as it gets, but we do it anyway to show that we can, to show we are not bounded even by the basic limits of the skateboard itself. In that context, grinding your trucks will always feel right, original sin be damned.


  1. Great freaking article Kyle. Perhaps the best one yet. Cant wait for the next one.

  2. The sound of forcing the trucks to move along like wheels. It's the best sound on earth. So much of skating to me is sound from the wheels over seams in the sidewalk to bashing the truck onto a hand rail. It's visceral and primal. I always feel better about the world after doing it.

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