Let the good time roll

“Don’t look back”, is a skateboarding slogan. Shouldn’t keep us from having a look back. An “ollie” through seven decades of skating culture.
Text Tim Maxeiner & Wiebke Brauer
Photo Doug Inglish

Wasn’t everything better in the good old days? Wrong question. At least, when it comes to skateboarding. Because skateboarding re-invents itself again and again. Young kids around the world don’t care what came before them, they do their thing without inhibition. Skateboarding is not a just a form of movement but also a form of expression. It’s an attitude and a lifestyle. Now as in the past.

When talking about skateboarding back in the day, we need to return to Southern California in the 1950s. Surfers fused together their younger sibling’s roller skates with wooden planks they had pilfered from nearby building sites. Shortly after its invention, the “rolling board” went “viral” as we would say today. The idea was “shared” und “liked” as much as possible. However, not digitally, but via the old-fashioned method of seeing and copying. There were very few pictures and surely no marketing programmes, advertising or media. And still, the board had its breakthrough: suddenly, all of America went surfing without waves and turned tarmac into the beach.

»Maybe skateboarding will be the first and last real youth culture. Because when you’re old you just don’t want to break your damn bones anymore. «

John Severson, publisher of “Quarterly Skateboard” (later “Skateboarder Magazine”) wrote in his 1964 editorial: “Today’s skateboarders are founders in this sport – they’re pioneers – they are the first. History is being made now – by you (the reader). The sport is being moulded and we believe that doing the right thing now will lead to a bright future for the sport.” Despite John Severson’s visionary thoughts, skateboarding first had to endure a setback. In many cities, the dyed-in-the-wool conservative middle class saw to it that skateboarding was banned. But the ban was also based on the fact that the rather wobbly construction of the boards and the wheels made from steel or clay had led to numerous accidents. Just one year after the Severson quote was published, his Skateboarder Magazine vanished from the shelves and skating from society. Only the hard core continued to roll through the alleys and backyards of America.

»It’s for good reason that the first skaters were called “asphalt surfers”. California’s surfers wanted to use the time when the surf wasn’t up.«

It was the invention of wheels made from polyurethane that gave skateboarding a new lease of life and finally ensured its breakthrough. The new wheels meant they could be ridden differently, which would eventually make it possible to do tricks. And as is often the case in any youth movement, first there was the attempt to domesticise and regulate it. The scene’s mainstream organised skateboarding contests where judges awarded points. Judges! A large group of outsiders didn’t know what to do with any of this. So, the then famous, now infamous Dogtown skate crew (named after Venice Beach, which is nicknamed Dogtown) simply disrupted the now legendary skateboard contest in Del Mar / CA by surfing through the crowds and jumping off the competition stage with their boards rather than doing the pirouettes expected of them like well-behaved mainstream boys. The tiny problem was that the judges had no plan for confronting this. How should they scrutinise it? Award points for bad behaviour? Kick them all out?

What the Dogtown boys also did was they started skateboarding in empty swimming pools – the predecessor to the half pipe – of which the area had plenty in those days. Venice Beach was considered a “seaside slum” on the way down, with many homes empty. Craig Stecyk, a photo journalist who covered the group, asked the right questions even then: Why is skateboarding not considered a real sport? Art? Lifestyle? In one of his articles about the Dogtown boys, he wrote: “Skaters by their very nature are urban guerrillas – they employ the handiwork of government / corporate structure in ways the original architects could never dream of.” To this day, his statements have lost nothing of their meaning.

Since then, skateboarding has changed. Or shall we say, nuances have. Skateboarding will be an Olympic discipline for the first time in 2020. In Tokyo, the best boarders will compete in “vert” and “street” categories. A giant halfpipe will be built as well as an extensive obstacle course. It will be all about perfect manoeuvres, tricks where the skater and his board pirouette twice in opposite directions are the norm today. The pioneers would never have dreamt that. But there also will be a rigid points scheme – and people opposing it. Which proves once more that everything needs to change so that it can stay as it is.

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