Skaters have been a fixture of London's Southbank for decades. But that didn't stop developers trying to move in on the brutalist undercroft beneath Queen Elizabeth Hall a couple of years ago with the intention to "refurbish" the area that's become the UK's most important unofficial skatepark—by which they meant replacing it with sandwich shops and bars where you can spend £6.50 on a pint.
Luckily, the battle to save the space—led by pressure group Long Live Southbank—was successful, and it's still much the same as it's always been.
Over the past seven years, photographer Alasdair McLellan has been documenting the scene on Southbank, focusing specifically on the Palace Skateboards team Palace Wayward Boys Choir. Collated in a new ICA exhibition, "The Palace," the photographs are a series of intimate portraits that show the camaraderie, focus, and dedication of the team. There's also a video installation from Palace founder Lev Tanju on display, filmed on VHS and looking like those videos from the 90s of Rodney Mullen doing weird flatland tricks in school yards.
"Alasdair has been a photographer that we have been following closely for some time," explains Matt Williams, curator of the exhibition. "This [project] is a real insight into a younger generation of independent skaters, who have taken on a response to the environment around them. Palace have built their own brand and authorship over the past few years and really stand apart from the more generic elements of popular culture. The aesthetic of Palace is omnipresent both in graphics and visuals—and we've recently had a strong focus on DIY culture at the ICA. The idea that something special can evolve very much from a hand to mouth existence; that crossover between contemporary culture and more niche culture past and present, you see it in Lev's video work and designs. We felt that there was a nice parallel between what Palace are doing and DIY culture in other forms; they very much started off as a DIY thing and they still create for themselves first and foremost."
Working with them for seven years, McLellan got to know the Palace team well and documented both their professional team and amateurs, capturing a sense of camaraderie among them all that comes through best in his personal black and white shots.
"Alasdair has been working with them since 2009," says Matt. "You see someone like Blondey McCoy back then—he was just a kid, and now he's a key member of the team and an artist himself. He built up these personal relationships over a period of time and, I think, was very keen to represent that bond that you get with people who spend night and day together; the passion of skating; people trying to challenge the parameters that modern life puts upon all of us on an everyday basis.
"Also, the Southbank was in a precarious position for quite some time. But the campaign was strong; there was a petition that carried over a million signatures. Actually, in terms of a key part of underground London culture—global underground culture, in fact—I guess you'd think about the Southbank in relation to something like the 100 Club or CBGB. It carries the same kind of cultural weight and importance. For so long skaters have existed as a subculture, but they've also ended up manifested in popular culture."
Collating the photos into a recently published photo book (also entitled The Palace), McLellan was particularly attracted to the very British aspects of the Palace team, as he explains in the book's introduction:
"When I think about skateboarding pictures I always used to think about America, and then I met Lev and PWBC and they all looked really good, and it was very British, and they all dressed more like they were going to a football match than skating in Waterloo. The fact that they were aged 15 to 30, and it looked like they could be in Fagin's gang; it was like something out of a Dickens novel. I liked that the names they all had sounded like they're out of Brighton Rock, too; Nugget, Blondey, Edson, Snowy. Most brands don't have a history like theirs, born out of hanging out on the Southbank. The exhibition at the ICA and The Palace book are a very honest and charming document of what this is all about."
See more photos from The Palace below: