"Skateboarding 101 - The Art Part"
by Alyx Gorman
The Vine, Australia
The first thing you need to know about skateboarding is that it is not meant to be consumed in the moment. Unlike your typical sport, the most transcendent aspects of skate do not emerge from a second of play watched in person or broadcast live. The best way to appreciate virtuosity is not at a park, or on a street corner; it is in your living room.
As much a performance as a sport, skateboarding is perfect for video. Truly great skate films, the kind watched repeatedly and obsessively by fans of the genre from Brisbane to Vladivostok, come together over weeks of skating, months of travel and hours editing. People will wait years for releases from their favourite teams, and then ponder the minutia of every trick and stack.
The conventions of the skating genre were largely set by Spike Jonze. A typical film, or piece, lasts between 20 and 40 minutes, and features several skaters, each of whom star in their own 'part'. Set to a song that represents the skateboarder's particularities, a part acts as a ‘best of’ cut of that skater's work. When edited properly, parts combine the edge-of-your-seat terrors of a horror film (will the kid have an American History X moment with gravity playing the fascist?), with the triumphs of goal scoring in competitive sport. They are compelling - on occasions gut-churningly so.
At least some of the footage required to make a decent part must be shot by someone skating in tandem with the video’s star. Skaters are their own documentarians.
Given this unique form of distribution, it makes sense that skating is an inherently creative pursuit. Whether you're an actor mugging at the camera, rolling like a ninja when you fall, flashing a charismatic 'all okay' grin and playing to the soundtrack, or a film maker recording what's happening, skating has layers of construction.
"Whether or not skaters say that they care about how they look, we know they do," Eric Koston, one of the world's most iconic skaters explains at the launch of his new shoe for Nike SB, the Eric Koston 2 in New York.
His design partner at Nike SB Sean Carboy, adds "A lot of skaters really define themselves and they're style by the music they listen to."
The role of music in skating extends way beyond how skaters dress. Stefan Janoski, a teammate of Koston's who has also lent his eye and moniker to a shoe, says he hears a song in his head whenever he skates. This, he claims, is pretty typical. Skaters see in terms of lines, and whether that line is jagged or curved, smooth or jerky, is often informed by a mental soundtrack.
Unlike most subcultures that start in adolescence, skate exists as an adjunct to music. A kid whizzing by with his headphones in could just as easily be listening to hip-hop or metal or punk.
In addition to skating, Janoski is also a visual artist, working in cast bronze, and he also dabbles in music. In his diversity of interests, he explains he's pretty typical. "I don't know any skaters who are just skaters," he offers on a walking tour of Brooklyn, his recently adopted home. "There's always something else, like they're artists, or there's another sport there. Like Eric [Koston] with his golfing."
You can tell Janoski, an unselfconsciously goofy eccentric whose hair is currently a grandma shade of blue, is reticent to describe skating as 'a lifestyle', but for all its naffness you'd hard pressed to find a better term.
Wandering down global hipster epicentre Bedford Avenue, past McCarren Park, we spot two kids skating by a tennis court. Neither of them looks much over seven. Skating is not something you begin doing at eighteen. Skaters may no longer be outsiders, at least as far as Janoski’s concerned, but it takes a particular type of kid to pick up a board, and an even more particular type of adult not to put it down again. Right now, Janoski is captivated by Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, a satirical novel that celebrates the unsung value in immaturity. Though he doesn’t explicitly say so, it seems to be a philosophical view-point that could be aligned as comfortably with skating as with Poland on the brink of war.
A brilliant skate piece requires not just skill on a deck and with an editing suite, but also a really interesting location. Shooting in a skate park or plaza is typically frowned upon, and novelty is king. As a result, skaters are also scouts. Janoski casually points out the potential to grind on a metal-capped curb, and speaks wistfully of friends’ missions in Midtown Manhattan at 2am on Thanksgiving, in order to take advantage of the concrete sans bustle. His point of view is romantic, but it isn’t self-important.
After the Brooklyn tour, Janoski is reunited with his Nike SB teammates at a Lower East Side skate-park. Though they are working with the same material, they’re all doing completely different things. Sean Malto, who is 23 but looks about 16 and is currently considered one of the world’s very best, is speeding up a ramp and flying over what looks like a giant’s Red Delicious. Janoski is smoothly grinding his way around the park’s curved lip, and everyone is falling down a lot. The first trick you should learn on a skateboard (if you plan to keep it up) is how to spill without breaking your face open. They’re being watched by a large, wrapped audience of kids, and the whole thing makes even more sense snipped into four minutes of perfectly angled shots and loaded onto YouTube.
If skateboarding were a country, Lance Mountain would be a national treasure. He has been doing it for over 35 years and still looks exactly like Bart Simpson, hands stuffed in baggy pockets, when he rides. At the park he divides his time between riding and talking to a group of pre-teen boys. Skaters have changed a lot over the years, he says later on in the evening, “but they all still have that common thread… They’re still sarcastic.”
Mountain believes that the relative newness of skating is part of why it places so much emphasis on uniqueness. “When someone was doing something differently, they got rewarded, when someone came up with a new way of doing it or a new look, those guys were hugely popular. The creative ones rose to the top.” Mountain thinks that in many ways, skateboarding is not just influenced by, but also analogous to, music. He talks a lot about the health of skateboarding, something which he thinks is dependant on the scene’s variety. “When you narrow it down, well then that’s not good for anyone.”
“Do we see the world differently?” He repeats the question back a little incredulous. “Well, yeah but, all god’s people are very intelligently minded. How is skating any different from someone who has a passion to build a well in some little village that hasn’t had water before? We want to feel that we're special, but everyone has that passion in their makeup. We're skateboarders, so we apply that passion to what we do and how we see things, but everyone does it. Everyone sees things from a unique perspective.”
Alyx Gorman’s trip to New York was arranged and paid for by Nike SB. Look out for part 2 of the story, focusing on the commercial aspects of skate boarding, tomorrow.
Check out this story about Erik's tattoos... yes, it's on ESPN. Sorry. Still a good story!
Ellington's Tattoos Tell The Story Check Out
Jamie Thomas' Halloween 1998 Part Check Out
We'll keep the Love Letters going with this awesome show from earlier this year about curbs...