Skateboarding Is About More Than Just Landing Tricks

As recent films 'Skate Kitchen', 'Mid90s' and 'Minding The Gap' show, skating is often about creating a community away from a troubled home.

by Ryan Bassil
17 May 2019, 7:45am

Screenshots via 'Mid90s', 'Skate Kitchen' and 'Minding The Gap'.

Keire Johnson started skating in his early teens, as a way to escape being beat on by his dad. He skates a board with the phrase "this device cures heartache" sprayed across the grip tape, and sleeps in a room littered with so many takeaway Slurpee cups and clothes that it wouldn't look out of place on a Channel 4 show about hoarding.

Keire's best pals are Bing Lui and Zack Mulligan. Stuff also sucks at their respective houses, so they develop their own home away from home: skating from day-to-night while smoking weed and drinking on their downtime. "We formed a family together to look out for each other, because nobody else was looking out for us," says Zack, with equal amounts of optimism and sadness.

The three are the subjects of 2018 documentary Minding The Gap, where the above quote is taken from. If you're into things with the approval of armchair critics, it's got a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Even better, Barack Obama said it was one of his favourite films of the year and it got a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards. Last month, it dropped on DVD in the UK, joining the UK release of another skateboarding film – the Jonah Hill-directed Mid90s.

Like Minding The Gap, the fictional Mid90s looks into the reasons why its subjects spend the majority of their time rolling around on pieces of wood together. For main character Stevie (‎Sunny Suljic, the ill kid in The Killing of a Sacred Deer) it's a sense of belonging. He’s also physically abused at home, by his white-rap-fan older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). Their family environment is fucked – the two brothers dine with their single mother in silence; nobody gets along or has compassion for one another – so Stevie finds solace and connection by hanging out with the older kids he meets at the local skate shop.

Stevie's life reminds me of my own, and maybe it reminds you of yours too. Being the young kid hanging out with older kids is a near-universal experience: a by-product of being forced to grow up too fast. I remember moving to a new school after my parents divorced and, aged 12, hanging out with the 16-year-olds at the skate-park. Skating was the easiest way to escape the monotony and depression of being in the house, and heading to the park each day filled a void in my life. The sense of community it fosters is why the subjects in Minding The Gap and the characters in Mid90s head out on their boards every day, too.

Plenty of teenagers find similar respite in different activities – screaming at each other on Fortnite, nutmegging one another on a football pitch or brushing soft horse hair and writing poetry. So what makes skateboarding so different? One thing is the diversity. As the cast of Mid90s and Minding The Gap attest (the former featuring a Mexican, a poor white kid, two black dudes; the latter, an Asian kid, a black guy and a white guy), it’s one of the most diverse activities going. Whatever your background, going to the park is about working through your shit on wheels.

Skate Kitchen, another recent film about skateboarding, offers a similar portrait. Though its main character, Camille (Rachel Vinberg), is lonely, she finds belonging through a group of skateboarding girls – real-life crew The Skate Kitchen (they play themselves, and were "discovered" when director Crystal Moselle heard them chatting shit on the NYC subway). Differing from Mid90s and Minding The Gap in that it represents an often ignored part of the subculture (e.g. lonely women, instead of angry men) it still centres around a similar theme: many skaters are fucked up in some way, missing something, and repeatedly eating concrete together provides a weird kind of solace.

That just hanging out is one of the prime tenets of skateboarding isn’t a novel idea. You see it in films from Kids to Lords Of Dogtown. In skate promo flicks (think: Pretty Sweet, those very 2000s videos from Pharrell’s Ice Cream skate team), the bonding between team riders is the glue that keeps things together, the comedic stitching between each perfectly executed run of tricks. But while the casual binge drinking and unhinged personalities prevalent in skate promos hint at the inner turmoil running through most skateboarders, they don’t offer the burrowing insight of films like Skate Kitchen, Mid90s and Minding The Gap: fictional and non-fictional, yet all true to life.

Like all activities that foster togetherness, skateboarding teaches you that you’re not alone in going through something. After Stevie gets beaten up by his older brother, him and Ray (played by pro skater Na'kel Smith) sit on the roof of the skate shop. "I just can’t take this shit sometimes," says Stevie. Ray replies: "A lot of the time we feel our life is the worst, but if you looked in anybody else's closet you wouldn't trade your shit for their shit."

Ray, we learn, lost a brother to a car accident. "After he passed away, Fuckshit dragged me out to go skate with him," he says of their friend, so-named because he says "Fuck! shit!" every time he bails a trick. "It felt good to have somebody there." Then he turns to Stevie: "So let’s go." Cue a long montage of them skating together through traffic at sunset, two people from different backgrounds and of different ages, breaking up their grief together.

These are the moments when skating connects as much as landing any trick. As Keire says at the end of Minding The Gap, having worked through some of his family relationships: Doesn’t skateboarding hurt you? "Yeah, but so does my dad. And I love him to death."