The four wheeled sideshow under the big top of the five ringed circus
On Sunday, August 21, 2016, the Olympic Games in Rio came to a close. Those fans and armchair athletes who spent two weeks enwrapped in the fanfare, competition, and patriotism may still be feeling the comedown from that high. Before football and the return of fall television fill that void for some, they can take solace in looking toward Tokyo 2020 where skateboarding — alongside surfing, climbing, karate and baseball– will join the Games.
It’s been a long storied road for skateboarding from the seedy sidewalks, abandoned urban plazas, and lonely parking lots to a place in the limelight, beneath the Olympic, rings elbow to elbow with spandex-clad gymnasts. Many of the urban-raised old guard of this thing of ours loathe this latest development passionately: their distain muttered in barroom conversation and screamed across social media.
The dissenters, not a small minority I’d note, neglect to remind themselves that no matter what way skateboarding gets presented to the masses, it can always mean and be whatever it means and is to you, individually. Sure, skateboarding will lose a degree of its outsider, subculture cool: The Olympics means big business and big business by its very nature, no matter the guise it takes, is the antithesis of cool. But skateboarding, like it or not, has been big business for decades. Somehow, without a hint of self-awareness to the irony of their words, the voices of skateboard company owners and paid professional skateboarders are those whose frustrations get the largest platform and the biggest microphone as they bemoan skateboarding’s steady climb toward mainstream assimilation and wider acceptance.
Here’s the thing though, when you willfully accept money for and from other skateboarders for goods, services, and performance, your cries of cultural theft by big business are made moot.
Skateboarding, by the duel nature of it being an individual “sport” and a subculture, means that you generally have to buy in. From the start, you’re in need of equipment: board, trucks, bearings, wheels, and shoes at a minimum. The skateboard industry grew out of the necessary need for equipment. As the subculture grew successfully, more goods appeared to service the needs and wants of a burgeoning market. It is not because skateboarding remained small and unpopular that there now exist dozens of shoe, clothing, and accessory companies made by and marketed toward skateboarders. No, skateboarding, despite peaks and valleys of mainstream popularity, has grown as a mainstream-adjacent subculture for over 40 years.
In the beginning, the means of production was not controlled by skateboarders themselves — Boards were produced by furniture companies and surf companies identifying a fledgling market that could be exploited. In 1966 the Van Doren Rubber Company, an Anaheim, Ca. boat shoe company noted that surfers were purchasing their shoes for sidewalk surfing when the waves were down. The Van Dorens began to market to that local demographic. While Vans has gone on to develop a deep and supportive history with skateboarding, it needs to be noted that neither of the founding Van Doren bros were bombing down Santa Monica’s Bicknell Hill with the Zephr team in ’75. Even the late Fausto Vitello, founder of the exalted stalwart Thrasher magazine was not himself a skateboarder prior to identifying business opportunity in the space. To paraphrase Lt. Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, “Charlie don’t skate.”
Then something special happened. Skaters, a traditionally rebellious and savvy bunch, recognized that they were being exploited to shill product for manufacturers who didn’t themselves skate. Many abandoned their early sponsors and began their own businesses. Original Z-Boy Stacey Peralta deserves credit; when he and his partner George Powell’s company Powell Peralta took off, he was one of the first skater/owners with a keen eye for identifying talent and style that couldn’t be rivaled by those who were not themselves skateboarders.
As owners grew older, more business oriented, or drifted from the core, their sponsored team riders (the true reflection of a brand’s ethos and personality) in turn would leave and begin the process anew. This has continued to the present day where behemoth hard goods skateboard companies, with their associate teams, bloat and topple every decade or so. Newer smaller brands take up the mantle as the bastions of what’s considered cool for the next generation.
In the ’80s legend-in-the making and original Powell Peralta Bones Brigader Tommy Guerrero left his top-shelf spot on that team to help start the then fledgling Real. In the early ’90s, San Francisco Embarcadero plaza legends during the dawn of modern street skating, Mike Carroll and Rick Howard did the unthinkable when they split from the uber elite Plan B squad to start Girl. In the ’00s an exodus from Alien Workshop spawns F**king Awesome and Quasi. The wheel keeps turning.
But today many big brands have improved at appealing to the “core” and the “core” has grown more accustom to higher quality, faster turnaround of product, and more niche, tailored taste (Thanks Internet). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the shoe game. Nike, Adidas, and even New Balance now have skateboarding exclusive programs that dominate a market that once shunned mainstream offerings in favor of skater owned brands. The result has been a sea change in the formerly most reliable markers of true skateboarders: the make and wear on our shoes.
In the not so distant past, a skater visiting a new town could spot other legitimate skaters instantly by maintaining an emo-like shoe gaze. Abrasions along the toe box of a skate-specific shoe from Etnies, Emerica, DC, or Lakai didn’t come from anything but skateboarding. Instantaneous friendships were often sparked on little else.
Today, Nike Skateboarding’s Stefan Janoski pro model is one of the company’s most popular shoes worldwide. Most Adidas skate shoes are modeled on classic tennis and soccer templates from the past. Skaters, once the obvious outsiders, appear more than ever like everyone else. Skater-owned shoe brands are struggling to keep up with the production value, speed, and scale these bigger brands have dialed in. Some have been trampled and others are justifiably fuming as they cling to territory by the fingernails while watching their former pro riders and market share eaten up by brands that had little interest in this “alternative” subculture when it was small, grimy, and insular.
As these outside corporations take an interest in skateboarding — either as a market to sell to or a market to exploit — the growing-pain-induced moans from within should be reasonably expected. The people who grew up in, built a career during, or weathered through skateboarding’s low periods — heckled by jocks, shunned by the opposite sex and employers, regarded as immature at best and deviant at worst– they’re allowed to feel chafed when some of the world’s largest beverage companies and shoe manufacturers are now showering affection on the latest rising star of a pampered generation. However, if these laments — espoused in the name of defending the culture — are founded in revenue loss as a business owner? Well then, you’re not defending skateboarding. You’re defending your pockets.
Skateboarding is not a business. Skateboarding is not an industry. Skateboarding is what you do with your feet, your heart, and your brain. If you do it long enough and love it truly, skateboarding is you. There are no rules except to roll. What you do on your skateboard can’t be dictated by anyone or anything.
I listen to people who complain about change, espousing dissent in the name of protecting the culture. But, to a man, the ones who complain the loudest are always the farthest removed from active participation in the physical act of skateboarding. It’s very easy, comfortable even, to sit on a barstool and wax poetic about the good old days of the late ’80s, the early ’90s or the early ’00s. It’s a little harder to get your arthritic knees moving in the morning and, in the spirit of Zorlac’s Texas-sized heyday, “Shut Up and Skate.”