Tepid take: skateboarding is an art. That’s a refrain you’ll hear a lot of skateboarders use, and it makes sense. Like art, skateboarding can be interpreted in any way one sees fit. It’s a fluid, beautiful thing. Different styles and subcultures appeal to different people (see Graf vs. Portraiture or Magenta’s fisheye, powerslide heavy video approach in comparison to Nyjah Huston’s Red Camera, stuntboarding, sensory onslaught of a Nike part).
I think we forget its fluidity, though. We’ve created a rigid structure of what it “is” and “isn’t.” Which leaves weird divisions in the skateboarding world, like in the arts. Some street skaters don’t like transition skating and vice-versa. There’s a demographic that sees skateboarding through the lens of a certain Thrasher Magazine brand credo: go fast, eat shit, fuck authority, etc.––a lifestyle that stems from skateboarding’s emergence as a counter-culture darling. Others just want to skate some curbs and talk shit with their friends after working a 9-5.
There is one thing nearly all sides seem to agree on when it comes to defining skateboarding: it is not a sport. Which is why when it was announced that skateboarding would be in the Olympics for the first time in Tokyo 2020, there was an uproar and a fear within the community. What is more pro-establishment than the goddamn Olympics? How does one remain counter-culture when you’re participating in nationalist spectacle? How do we keep skateboarding pure?
That last one is easy to answer: it never was. Skateboarding has always been a toy designed for mass-market sale and promotion––it let that purity ring circle and plunk down the drain on day one. A common argument amongst my friends and on message boards (hi Slap) is that there is now going to be a new generation of skateboarders whose only purpose for picking up a board is to be an Olympic athlete. That they won’t get skateboarding and that they’ll push the industry in the direction of “sport.” I’d say they’re right. But reaching the pinnacle of professional skatedom has always been a kid’s dream and has been promoted as much within the culture (sending in sponsor-me videos was a near right-of-passage and attaining professional status is the premise of the nearly every skateboarding video game franchise that inspired my generation). When I started skateboarding I immediately fantasized about being sponsored, Ed Templeton doing the graphic for my imminent Toy Machine pro-model.
This is where I’d contend that skateboarding is having an identity crisis. It’s struggling to see itself as a potential sport, a title it raged against for decades (the oft stereotyped jocks vs. skaters conflict). In 2016, I was asked to take the minutes for the inaugural meeting of Canada’s Olympic Skateboarding committee. The committee is made up of a who’s who of the country’s skate legends and luminaries, from pro-skaters to industry leaders. The general atmosphere in the room was ecstatic. There were some reservations about how the Olympics would affect skateboarding on a whole, but everyone felt that as long as actual skateboarders were involved in the process, that things would be all right.
It was exciting and there was lots to be excited about––we were on the ground floor of something big. But towards the end of the weekend of talks and gameplanning, it was agreed upon that we wouldn’t publicly reveal who was a part of the committee, for various reasons (it was still early on in the game at that point); a part of which was a fear that it could be damaging to people’s images for taking part in anything Olympics related. Which, I understood and even felt myself at the time. Because even after taking part in this meeting and realizing that the committee’s heart was in the correct place, there was still a part of me that firmly believed that skateboarding was an art, a refrain I also used often, and that the five grubby tentacles of the Olympics would sully its form. That’s an opinion I held until I got a job doing research for Post Radical, a documentary series exploring the different subcultures within the world of skateboarding (full disclosure: it’s a VICELAND project).
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In my research, I talked to skateboarders from all walks of life and corners of the planet. Freestylers competing for world titles in a curling rink in the middle of a small-town rodeo, longboarders risking their lives on BC’s formidable mountain highways, fingerboarders thriving in a remote Bavarian village, skaters from Israel and Palestine living drastically different existences mere kilometers apart, Todd fucking Falcon and many, many more. Only after working on this project did I realize that my vision of skateboarding as an art was small and skewed. The Olympics won’t change how I see skateboarding. The Olympics won’t change skateboarding, because as saccharine as it sounds, skateboarding isn’t any one thing, skateboarding is, as we often forget, whatever you interpret it to be––just like art.
The people I talked to for the series were doing something beautiful outside of my scope of what I thought skateboarding was. Realizing my short sightedness was like sitting in a sauna for eighteen-years and finally taking off my wool sweater––relief. Previous biases were making my understanding of skating a small, sweaty, smelly thing.
I’m not advocating for the Olympics; this is just why I don’t care about skateboarding being in them. I’ll admit that I have no idea how the Olympics will affect the industry, but if it inspires more people to skate, how can that be a bad thing? Even if their initial intentions are the podium, it’s likely they won’t always be. I wanted to be a professional skateboarder on day one, now I love skateboarding because it’s fun, cathartic, it brings my friends and I together, and I’ve seen it be a real tool for social change.
There’s art on the cover of a Wheaties box, it doesn’t mean you have to put it up on your wall.
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This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.