Photos by Jonathan Mehring
As the saying goes: “Skateboarding is so hot right now." And thanks to skating's newfound global popularity, more and more outsider companies are trying to target that youth demographic. Historically speaking, most major brands that dive headfirst into the industry leave as quickly as they came. A large part of their inability to make it in the skate world stems from their failure to become a part of the skate community, to give back and help it grow. Instead they try to make a quick buck off the blood, sweat, and tears of the people who have been in the game since the very beginning. (It doesn’t help that their products often look and function like dogshit.)
One of the larger brands that has managed to avoid the typical corpo-pitfalls is Levi’s. Instead of throwing ridiculous amounts of money at skateboarding superstars to wear their jeans, they decided to put that cash into building skateparks for impoverished communities around the globe. Last year VICE reported on the skatepark they built in Bangalore, India, and recently they followed up that effort with a massive 21,500-square-foot park in La Paz, Bolivia. A 20-minute documentary on the building of the park premiered in Berlin earlier this week, and Levi’s was kind enough to fly me out for the premiere. Afterward I caught up with Erik Wolsky, brand manager of Levi’s Skateboarding, to ask about the campaign.
VICE: How did building skateparks around the globe become the cornerstone of your marketing campaign?
Erik Wolsky: It was a pitch from the Svire guys, the building crew out of Germany. They did a project in Hanover a few years ago. That was a huge success, and then they pitched the idea for the park in India because they met a guy who skated for Holy Stoked, the skate collective there. That idea was originally for a really small, easy, cheap build, and when we were asked if wanted to get involved I was like, “Why don’t we make that our whole platform?” And so we went all in on that project and made it three times the size of the original pitch because we wanted to get in and be like, “This is what we do. We build skateparks now.”
That was in India, and now you have one La Paz, Bolivia. How do you choose the locations for these builds?
It’s based on the person who wants to do something in their community. I meet these people, and if they have a reason for being there and a reason they want to do the park and continue to maintain it after it’s built it just makes sense. Just dropping in a park and then walking away and leaving it to the general public to keep it going doesn’t make sense to me. With Milton Arellano from Asociacion de Skateboard de La Paz and Make Life Skate Life he was like, “Bolivia needs a free skatepark for these kids, and we need to provide a community center for them so they have the space to skate and learn.” Once somebody like that gives me their story, that’s when we get involved.
You went down for the build; what’s La Paz like?
It’s crazy. Up in the hills is basically the ghetto and then down in the valley is where all the rich people live next to lots of amenities. The park sits between the two. It’s epic because you’re sitting in this skatepark looking out at massive snow-covered mountains and this huge city sprawled out below. You’re up 14,000 feet; it’s amazing.
What were the conditions of the build?
We had roughly 100 people working on the park from 15 different countries and nobody spoke the same language – people communicated through hand gestures and eye contact. We all camped on the site of the build. You had the park area down below, and all around it you had these little huts. They actually pulled the plastic up from the existing drainage space and used it to wrap around all of these huts, and that’s what we lived in for the five-week build. There were seven or eight of us in every single one of those huts, crashing on mattresses or palettes.
What’s the reaction from the locals been like?
Oh, it’s great! Milton is so stoked! He’s got kids out there every day skating it, and I think it’s only going to get better. I think Milton will build a really solid community out of it.
Where’s the next build?
Here is the online premiere of the Levi’s La Paz Skatepark video:
More stupid can be found at ChrisNieratko.com or @Nieratko.