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Levi’s Skateboarding: Jamie O’Brien Talks Skate World, Skate Africa

As Levi’s continues to get more involved in skateboarding, the brand has largely taken a cue from its audience in what it puts together, whom it works with, and how it spends its money. Now, it's partnering with South African builders to breathe new...

Photo by Jonathan Pinkhard

As Levi’s continues to get more involved in skateboarding, the brand has largely taken a cue from its audience in what it puts together, whom it works with, and how it spends its money. The ads are relatable, focusing on friends tearing it up together and having a hyphy time doing it, like in the recent “Oakland Nights” spot.

And now there are the recent projects fostering skateboarding in developing parts of the world. The first of these combined the efforts of skateboarding collective HolyStoked, well-known American pros, and talented German builders from 2er to create the first free public skate park in India within a few dirty, dusty weeks. Round two was partnering with South African builders from Dope Industries and Woodies Ramps to do a similar DIY project with local skaters in the Johannesburg area. Together, they breathed new life into Edendale’s Skate World park using new components that are difficult to be pulled out for scrap.


We talked to seasoned builder Jamie O’Brien about the project and his impressions of skateboarding in South Africa.

VICE:  Hi, Jamie. Could you please tell us the basics about reviving Skate World?
Jamie O’Brien: Skate World has been around for a long time, and many people have tried to manage the space, privatize it and charge an entrance fee, etc. I understand that—it takes money to maintain and look after a park that is made of wood or steel. But most skaters don't want to pay, or can't afford to pay, every time they go skating. So I think for this reason it didn't work out.

The sports complex where Skate World is located has not rented out the space again, which has added to its falling apart. And local skaters have built their own wooden or steel obstacles, which have either been burned or stolen by vagrants that have taken occupancy of the surrounding buildings. Levi’s was looking for a place to upgrade in the Johannesburg area, and it just made sense to rehabilitate Skate World. Seeing wood and steel were not going to work, we decided to build something solid that couldn't be stolen, so we went the concrete route.

Photo by Jonathan Pinkhard

Outside of the Skate World project, you're involved with Woodies and Dope Industries. What's the story with those organizations?
They are both projects that my mates and I started back around the late 90s. There were no parks back then, and we always had to build our own obstacles. We would set up ramps in the road outside my house, and on school holidays we were allowed to use the basketball court. Parents were stoked on what we were doing and asked us to build their kids ramps or obstacles for their homes, and that is how Woodies started.


Dope Industries is a clothing brand established in 1998 that is proudly Capetonian. Back then we didn't have many international skate brands available to us, so we decided to make our own skateboard clothing brand.

If you had to break it down by obstacles and the materials you had to work with, what did you accomplish at Skate World?
We went there with a goal to make one main piece, which was the bank, step-up, and two wall rides. We also wanted to take some of the existing obstacles and fix or transform them into better obstacles. There was a bunch of old concrete fence posts that we raised on bricks, and we built a little wallie wedge on one side. There was a bunch of old steel ramps that were in bad shape, so we cut them up and took them to the scrap yard. This paid for more materials, so we managed to build an extra ledge and manny pad.

We took a broken concrete rubbish bin and umbrella stand, made that into an angled wallie thingy, and cut a piece of the railing from one of the quarter pipes and bent and bashed it into some existing holes in the ground. There was also extra concrete left over so some of the local guys shaped that into a bump and worked on another little wedge on the side of the park. So yeah, we ended up with quite a few extra pieces.

How did the partnership with Levi's come about?
We worked with a company called And People earlier in the year and built them a park for an event. They were stoked on what we did for them, and when Levi's told them they wanted to do something skate-related, they gave us a call. We sat down and threw some ideas around and eventually came up with the revamp of Skate World.


As a builder, do you have any advice about how to get public or private funds for skate parks?
Our main goal was always to build our own private indoor park. We have put business plans together and send them to many corporates and have not had any joy. We work with the city, trying to make sure that the parks they are building are decent, but the way things work with city council, it is very hard to be the contractor, so we end up helping from a design and supervising position. If you have an in with a big corporation, go that route.

How would you compare putting together a park like Skate World versus one like Valhalla?
Skate World was a much easier task as we were there hands-on and got to build as we liked, DIY-building with the skaters and others who were keen to help out. Valhalla is the biggest park in the Western Cape (more than 43,000 square feet). It took a very long time designing and making many changes until the council was happy. It’s hard to explain to them what is needed in a park and what we are allowed to build.

There are restrictions on heights and depths and what the park is going to be used for, especially in a dangerous area like Valhalla Park. The gangsters use the bowls as bunkers to shoot out of. It is also supposed to be a multi-use space for skaters and pedestrians, so it had to be more of a plaza-type space where the community could come and hang out. It was also built by a civil company and another ramp-building company.


They clashed heads a lot on site, and we were supposed to oversee construction, making sure the obstacles came out the way they are supposed to, and that is where the blame game starts.

What conditions do you need in order to get skaters involved in the construction of their local parks?
For example, when we took on a project in a suburb called Edgemead, we built a wooden park for the council in 2003. The park did really well, but becauset it was built of wood, it got wrecked pretty quick. They didn't want to put any money into maintenance and decided to take it away instead of repair it. Six years passed, and nothing happened with the space, so we contacted the councillor to see if they were keen to build a new park there out of concrete. They said they would do a rand-for-rand match. So we started raising money on Facebook.

Once we raised 10,000 rand [about $930], we went back to them and asked them to match our 10,000. They then wanted proposals and designs. Knowing this was going to become a lengthy process, we decided to start building with the funds we had raised and hoped this would help get more people amped to give us some cash. We did get more donations, and a whole lot of problems from the council, but we carried on building and battling them. We eventually raised 30,000 rand [about $2,800] and didn't see a cent from them. So yeah, if you want to build your park, find a piece of land, try to get permission to use it, raise the cash, and build it. Otherwise, you may wait forever!


Some of the construction guys were older dudes who looked like they didn't skate. What did they think of the Skate World scene?
Yeah, we had a couple of laborers there to help out as we went up there from Cape Town for a week and could only have guys coming down after college or work. They were stoked and surprised with what they saw. Some even gave it a go.

Photo by Karabo Mooki

What is access to buying a skateboard like for kids in most of South Africa?
There is a lot of shops you can buy skateboards from now. Surf shops stock them, and even the bigger sports shops are now stocking them. But skateboards aren't cheap, and for guys who are living in shacks, it's obviously an issue; some of them don't even have shoes. Dallas Oberholzer has a skate camp called Indigo in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, and Element supports him and what he is doing there. There are companies like Revolution Skate Shop and Your Mom’s Wheels that collect old and used equipment and get it to the local underprivileged skaters too.

I lived in Africa for a bit, and I know like other places there's still a long way to go with racial and ethnic conflict there.  But seeing your crew in one of the pictures getting ready to leave the park, a mixed group that actually kicks it together and doesn't just say hello in public spaces—that looks like a group of friends who have progressed beyond their environment. The photo show that Karabo Mooki and Jonathan Pinkhard did with Levi's seems to point to that too, as a team-up by two photographers from different parts of the South African color spectrum showing work together. Is there something to my hunch about these skaters from different backgrounds avoiding the social separation that still exists in South Africa?
People always think that South Africa has these heavy racial issues and Black and White don't gel. Since 1994 we have had mixed schools. That’s 20 years of races being mixed. Loads of guys don't even know what it was like to not be mixed.


If people from other parts of the world want to use the internet to find out more about African skateboarding, what are some good sites for them to check out?
There's quite a few:, and

Last words for what's on the long red horizon for skating in Africa?
Things are looking good—the council is getting behind the sport and finally building parks. We have Gavin "Moses" Adams competing in an event at the Berrics in Los Angeles. Thrasher magazine is out here at the moment doing a tour. The Kimberley Diamond Cup event brings over 60 pros here for the biggest skate comp of the year, in October. Local skate brands are getting international recognition. So yeah, things are on the up-and-up.  And if there is anyone out there who wants to see our proposal for a private indoor skate park, hit us up—we need sponsors!

For more from Jamie and Co. and skating in South Africa, check out the Dope Industries' Vimeo channel.

To learn more about Levi’s Skateboarding, and to check out the collection, go to their website.

Follow Cameron Cuchulainn on Twitter.