Remember when we wrote that article a few months ago about how it would suck for London if Southbank skate park was shut down? Well, it's been saved, if only temporarily. After months of campaigning from various groups (shouts to Long Live Southbank's 8,000 signatures of support, as well as the 60,000+ signatures on change.com), the undercroft has been declared "an asset of community value." However, while the planning application that would have destroyed it has been suspended, it's still at risk of being bought by any organization that might want to build a selection of coffee shops or a cupcake boutique on it. At which point, the fight will have to ratchet up through the gears again.
Andy Simmons has been photographing Southbank since the late 90s. Sadly, his exhibition of those photos at the Wayward Gallery in London finished this weekend, but given the news that the park has, for now, been saved, I decided to get in touch with Andy and ask him some questions.
VICE: So, the battle to save Southbank continues.
Andy Simmons: Yeah. To be honest, I haven’t been too involved with the campaign, but it’s strange that an arts council wanted to get rid of it in the first place. It’s a place that’s so culturally significant and as important as anything that’s happened inside the festival hall. So many artists, photographers, and filmmakers have come through there as skateboarders. I myself learned to skate and take photos there.
When did you start?
I started skating in the late 80s and skated there throughout most of the 90s, up until about 2006. I started taking photos in the late 90s; I used to film skaters and it was a natural progression, I guess, to start taking pictures.
Cool. I’ve always thought of the Southbank as being a bit maligned, even before the recent plans were announced.
A lot of media people avoided it; magazines didn’t go there because it was so oversaturated with coverage in the [Ipswich skateshop and clothing brand] ABD days. You know how you can’t take the same photo twice and all that? That kind of killed the Southbank getting any long-term coverage. It was more of a meeting place than anything else—skating from the Southbank into the city. If you speak to a lot of skateboarders who were around in the 90s, they’ll say the same thing about how they’d meet up at Southbank and from there you’d skate into the city because, at that time, the city wasn’t what it's like now—you couldn’t really skate there because you’d get busted all the time.
What did the Southbank security do to stop you?
When I first started skating they’d hose it down, making it so wet that you couldn’t skate. And the security guards would throw stones around all over the place, making it unskateable. Over the years the security got a bit more tolerant and the Festival Hall people realized that they couldn’t get rid of us. They tried their best to ruin it, though—they chopped into the paving slabs to stop people skating the smaller stairs by the National Film Theater [now the British Film Institute] entrance, and they put the bars up. But that didn’t stop people from skating—they just…
Found more inventive ways around it?
Yeah. The urban myth goes that Ben Jobe backside kickflipped the whole bar in Doc Martens—that’s the kind of stuff that was going on. They tried to stop it, but it just kind of adapted. That’s what skaters do—it’s what they’ve always done.
What other urban legends of British skating emerged around that time?
Dan Barnett, who was a legendary skater in the Southbank scene, didn’t get much coverage, but that was his own fault, really—he didn’t care about it, all he cared about was skating. If you talk to people who know about skating in London, they’ll say how talented he was and how he was the most talented skater to come out of London. His style was so far from what everyone else was doing—it was so smooth. If you think about skating as an art, he kind of embodied that more than anybody else. He could have gone to America in the 90s and killed it; he would have been like Tom Penny or Geoff Rowley or someone.
How would relocating Southbank have affected the vibe, do you think? Hungerford Bridge, where they were going to move everything to, is pretty close, I guess.
People used to skate there anyway. That used to be part of the Southbank, but they say that spot isn't as big as the Southbank, which I think is only because skating numbers have shrunk drastically. If they wanted to recreate it as it was in 1989, I don’t think people would have a problem with that—they’d think it would look better. But whenever people come over from America, Southbank is still the first place they go. The Spanish Vans team visited recently, actually.
Yeah, I’ve always thought that skating helps bring together a varied bunch of people.
That’s the thing: it was really diverse—black and white, rich and poor—and you only really knew people from skating; a lot of the time you wouldn’t even see people much socially. It’s like football—a different mix. Now it’s kind of a fashion thing.
Was there a friendly rivalry between everyone back then?
I don’t think so, no. It seemed a bit spiteful—everyone was a bit nasty to each other. People used to really go in on Alex Moul. You hear about Southbank as a really cliquey place, but I never saw anything like that. You’d also hear stories about the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, where—even if you were good—people like Mike Carroll and James Kelch would still fuck with you if they didn’t know you. There were also stories of people getting beaten up there.
The last photo in the exhibition was taken around 2006. Do you still take photos?
As and when, yeah. I’ve been photographing my friend's band, Breton, for the last year.
Who’s more hassle-free: musicians or skaters?
Rock stars. They’re a bit more professional—they don’t turn up stoned or just not show up, which is what most skateboarders tended to do. That’s why I leaned more toward a documentary style, because you could shoot someone all day and there’s no guarantee that they’re going to make it—you could end up with rolls of nothing. I was always interested in the kind of shots that you wouldn’t see in a magazine.
Great. Thanks, Andy.
More stuff about skating in London:
WATCH – Skate World: London