Until fairly recently, skateboarding was an unviable career option. It was a hobby practiced mostly by people too young to vote and a few adults with zero ambitions for wealth or recognition beyond their city limits. It was fiercely loved by many but also not taken too seriously, and even the best skaters knew that the most they could hope for was fun and some free product until—at the latest—their early 30s. As a result, the skateboard media mirrored that attitude. Skate magazines were dumb as shit, printing anything the editors thought was funny or weird or gross or interesting, often regardless of whether or not it had anything to do with skateboarding.
In 2016 skateboarding is shifting into a more mainstream place. It was announced a couple weeks ago that it will be in the 2020 Olympics, contests with purses upward of $100,000 are a regular occurrence, and "skate coaches" are a thing. These changes aren't necessarily bad, but they are changes, and as is often the case, the media reflects the culture it covers, making the wonderful weirdness found in publications like Big Brother harder to come by these days. That's why outlets like Jenkem, a New York–based site founded in 2011 by Ian Michna, are more important now than ever.
Jenkem sits in that space on the Venn diagram where top-notch skating meets dick jokes meets legitimate skate criticism. Articles offering support to balding skateboarders sit next to explorations on gentrification's effect on skateboarding and investigations into the origins of the dreaded mall grab. In some ways, it feels like a throwback to those simpler days when we could all laugh at ourselves and know that, like most things, at its heart skateboarding is very, very stupid.
For some reason, Michna decided to print out his favorite articles from the last five years of the site and stick them in a literal book, a copy of which you can order here. I asked Michna some questions about that and the future of skateboard media.
VICE: Why would you put words and pictures from a website into a book in 2016?
Ian Michna: Because you can smell a book. You can rip pages out of it, write on it, show it to people, use it as a coaster on your coffee table, wipe your boogers on it… After five years of working on the website, there's no better feeling than creating something tangible. No interview or article or video I've published online has been as rewarding as opening the first box filled with copies of a 240-page hardcover book that myself and a team of friends and contributors dreamed up and made.
What made you want to get into the lucrative and glamorous world of skate journalism? What were you doing before this?
I never really planned to get into this, it kind of just happened. Jenkem started more as an outlet to vent my frustrations as a skate nerd and explore, interview, and touch base with the skaters and people I've always admired or looked up to. It was a hobby (that I secretly took kinda seriously), and it grew slowly, article to article, week to week, year to year. Eventually I found more people that believed in it and wanted to make it grow, and now I work with Alexis [Castro], Christian [Kerr], Justin [Parkhurst], and a bunch of amazing humans who are down for the cause and make this whole thing what it is today.
And obviously, it's not a big-money gig, I don't own a cool car or a house. I live with three roommates in Bed-Stuy, but skateboarding pays back in things that can't be quantified. I get the opportunity to meet so many different types of people, travel the world to cover skate contests, drink beer, bowl, skate, hang out, and document stuff with the people you've always looked up to. Working in skateboarding pays back in life experiences.
Skateboard media can often feel one-dimensional. At Jenkem, you have a knack for exploring stories with depth, stories that go beyond who dropped a new clip online or left one company for another. What are you trying to do here?
I guess what most attracted me to skating when I was a kid were the crazy personalities and the skate mythology around the culture. The stories behind the tricks and skaters you'd see in the videos. Did Jamie Thomas live as a homeless beach bum to become a pro skater? Did Rocco really try to motivate his riders with hookers and booze? How does Fred Gall not die? As a kid, I was always curious about stuff like that. All these pro skaters seemed like highly functioning lunatics in their own way. I love watching them skate, but always wondered what it was like to be in their world, to do these inhuman things on a skateboard and then party all night. So now I'm just trying to satiate my inner skate nerd by being around these people and reporting back via Jenkem on what the experiences are like.
Did you see this year's Dime Glory Challenge? That sort of goofy attitude that doesn't take itself too seriously is one of my favorite things about skating, and I think it was missing for a long time. Contests like that, and publications like yours, seem to be bringing a bit of that back. Is that part of a conscious effort?
Skate contests are 90 percent boring, but the Dime Glory Challenge has been such a refresher to that stale-contest format. That attitude was definitely missing for a while in skating, especially around 2007 through 2009, I think. At least on our part, it has definitely been a conscious effort to try and bring that fun attitude and outlook back into skating.
What would you say is the quintessential Jenkem story?
Uhh… I don't know if what we do is that well thought out. These questions are hard. It's more of a gut feeling. When we discuss stories here, we always try to find the "Jenkem way" of going about something, the jenky angle. It usually turns out to be the more work intensive, impractical, and foolish way, but that's us. I also think it's really important to balance the silly with the academic and to do it all with some sense of self-awareness. And if we can cram all of that into one piece somehow, that's the ideal.
Jenkem was one of the first outlets to do a feature on the transgender skater Hillary Thompson. As the intro to that piece admits, skateboarding hasn't always been the most LGBTQ-friendly community. Why do you think that is, and do you think those attitudes are changing?
I have to give credit where credit is due. KingShit was the first mag I know of to do something with Hillary. We tried to do our story about her in a much different way than them, but they were definitely the groundbreakers there.
Sadly, I don't think it's really all that surprising that skaters aren't on the forefront of embracing the LGBTQ community. Skaters love to think of themselves as an open-minded and experimental group of outsiders, but it's no secret that the skate industry is still a big boys club, made up mostly of a bunch of guys from working-class homes with relatively little formal education and even less exposure to culture outside of skating. And it doesn't help that a lot of people in the culture got into it when they were in middle school and haven't really had to mature much since then. I think it falls on the industry and the media to start shining a light on these topics to normalize them. It's pretty bad when the NFL has more openly gay male athletes than skateboarding does, but that's where we're at now. Pretty crazy.
What do you think about skateboarding becoming an Olympic sport in 2020? Is it the death knell for the culture as we know it or no big deal?
I once asked Pontus Alv (the head honcho of Polar Skate Co.) how he feels about skateboarding getting corporatized, and he had a really surprising response. It was something like, "Thank you, Monster. Thank you, Street League. You only make the underground grow stronger." And I happen to agree with him. On one hand, skateboarding the sport is gonna be wack as fuck, and you're gonna have soccer moms talking to you about Nyjah's [Huston] gold medals and the best tricks to try to get into the 9 Club or whatever. You're gonna have skate-coach dads at the parks pushing their kids down vert ramps and yelling at them to man up and land that 1080. But, on the other hand, you're going to get a few kids who start with Nyjah and then stumble upon Baker 3 or Yeah Right! on YouTube, and maybe they discover the aspects of skating that got me into it way back when.
Skateboarding will never be just a sport, and most skaters know that. We won't let one competition that happens every four years hijack or define our culture. Skateboarders are too dedicated and too stubborn to let that happen. The Olympics, and everyone pushing for it, can try to cage us in in a million shiny new skateparks, try to bribe us with TV time and big-sponsor checks, but there's always going to be dirty skate crews mashing down the streets, ollieing over bums and onto cars, yelling at pedestrians and one another, destroying property, and loitering in parking lots and on curbs across the world.
What's next for Jenkem?
More physical editions of the mag, more merchandise, more stuff that you can hold, and more of the same old good shit on the website. But more seriously, buying a standing desk is next on the agenda for sure. Or maybe one of those bouncy balls you sit on? I'm trying to keep my legs alive here. My ollies are getting soggy from sitting all day.
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