Surfing the Haussmannian Wave

A couple of kids pass around a joint rolled with the best weed from Amsterdam, swigging occasionally from a cheap liquor bottle. They’re marking their presence on the walls with their respective spray-painted tags, but they’re not dressed in rebellious wear, sporting normal outfits of skinny jeans and hoodies. The scene is quiet and eerie, and it’s well past midnight. Either the most dedicated of the dedicated of the Parisian skate scene or the stoned kids who are looking to spray paint on the walls of Skatepark de Bercy, one of the largest skate parks in Paris, convene here on a Saturday night.

The young teenagers continue to paint over previous street art like it’s a fresh canvas. Brent*, 19, the leader of this gang of artist-skaters, gives me a smile and assures me, “graffiti is legal here.”

Skatepark de Bercy is one of the few places where graffiti is illegal in Paris.

A young man who is skilled at kick scootering practices alone, focused, rarely looking at the teenagers who are just here for a good time. Each push is calculated. Each turn is gracefully maneuvered and without error in form. And each time he graces the ramps, he gains more air, and subsequently, the respect and awe of the stoned kids who have frozen in sheer admiration, their spliffs withering in the cold air. This is the only time these kids go silent—in respect for another’s ability to shred the concrete wave with such prowess.

Another skater sits by himself, older, and clearly not a part of this young rowdy skate group. His skateboard rests by his feet and he watches the fearless Brent with respect as he skates up and down the ramps, becoming bolder with his tricks after each time he lands. He hasn’t said a word other than answering that the weed in his joint was from the same place he was: Amsterdam. This man’s skin is wrinkled and he carries dreadlocks on his head, but he’s older than 50.

Brent perfects his skateboarding tricks at Skatepark de Bercy.

The rest of the French/American skate crew playfully diss each other in French and carefully ride down ramps while clutching onto their skateboards with their hands. You’d be hard-pressed to find a skate scene like this in the United States, where crews of boys hesitantly ride down the metal slope, butts glued to their their skateboards. In America, the birthplace of skateboarding, riders are all about the ramp: for them, it’s a bowl of possibilities to impress your friends and maybe even get lucky enough to be picked up by a sponsor. Here, on this cold night in a skate park in Paris, the skate park is barely used, even though there are quite a few men with skateboards hanging around.

There are similarities between the blooming skate culture in Paris and its inception point in America, whether it is the shared connection over a tightly-rolled joint, the overwhelming respect for the rapper Tupac Shakur, the metal band Black Sabbath, skate legend John Cardiel, or the street art culture associated with the sport which has spread throughout the streets of every country hit by skateboarding fever.

However, as that inevitable love-hate relationship of culture importation goes, American sports, food, and clothing adapt to the international cities they reach. If McDonald’s will change their menu to fit the French standards of high-quality food, then skateboarding was bound adopt a certain “French touch” as well.

Skaters hang around Skatepark de Bercy on Saturday.

The general concept is the same: a board with wheels hits the ground, but what you do with that board varies from culture to culture. In America, there’s a constant looming possibility that what you can do with your board will take you to every skateboarder’s dream: surfing the concrete wave for a living.

In Paris, the majority of skateboarders aren’t looking for sponsorships, and maybe that’s because there’s not many established European skate companies. Most people aren’t looking to make a career out of the sport. Skating is a ticket to making friends and a cooler method of getting around town.

Skateboarding is a relatively new activity—it’s really only developed within the past half a century or so. “Surfing the concrete wave” developed literally from surfing: a bunch of bored California surfers in the 50s decided to slap some wheels on a board, and voilà, a fad was born.

Skate videos that were mass distributed through VHS, like The Bones Brigade Show, transported the idea of skateboarding to the homes of kids across the U.S. in the 80s. Early videos like these highlighted skateboarders like Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, and Lance Mountain showing off crazy tricks and acting like goons, which became associated with skate culture. The Bones Brigade Show documented the wild behavior, graffiti, slang, and beach culture that all were associated with the sport.

The Bones Brigade Video Show, complete with a depiction of the culture of early skateboarding and a showcase of early famous skateboarders like Tony Hawk.

Nowadays, kids may have shinier and higher quality cameras, but skate videos have remained a strong influence on spreading the sport across the world to this day. Simply search “skateboarder” on Youtube and you’ll be presented with a sea of hits, from amateurs on the cul-de-sac to aspiring professionals from around the world.

Jonathan Jean-Philippe, a professional French skateboarder who goes by the name “JJP,” said that skateboarding has only become popular within the last few years in Paris. According to JJP, the recent popularity is due to bored kids at home surfing the internet, opening up an American skate Youtube video, and becoming inspired to learn to surf what they can in Paris: the streets.

Jonathan Jean-Philippe’s own Youtube skate video.

And how the sport has grown. The French newspaper 20 Minutes recently called Paris “a city made for skating.” Take a look at the Haussmannian streets that make up this iconic city: wide paved roads, ledges, and benches galore make Paris a playground for skateboarders in France. Granted, new parks are continuously in the works in the city of light, but Parisians buy skateboards not necessarily to learn fancy tricks on ramps: skateboarding has weaved itself into French culture as a practical mode of transportation, playing off of the natural skate park that the city provides.

Getting your driver’s license is not easy in Paris. At the least, it’s a two thousand-dollar commitment: from paying for driving classes to the inevitable first failure of the license test (only the extremely lucky will pass on their first try), putting the pedal to the metal just isn’t a feasible reality for kids in Paris as it is in the States. Not to mention the struggles of parking in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world.

Parisian kids have learned to adapt. Public transportation has always been a reliable method of getting around town. But for shorter distances, like the daily commute to school, skateboarding is “top,” as the French would say.

A Penny board and a traditional skateboard parked outside of a Parisian apartment.

Paul Jeanson, a 14-year-old Parisian, keeps a red Penny board at home. Penny boards have blown up in the past few years, and their iconic look makes them recognizable with one glance as a fast-riding teenager whizzes by you: the boards are plastic, colorful, and look almost like a child’s toy. Many professional skateboarders also use Penny boards for their difference in riding style to a larger, wooden board.

Jeanson only knows how to ride the miniature plastic board. The harder and bigger skateboards are for Parisians who are focused on developing a skill set of fancy tricks, he says. His little red skateboard is faster, making it perfect for skating straight to school with his friends every day. And plus, it’s easier to make quick turns on the tiny boards, avoiding the elderly woman on the sidewalk you happened to look up and see at the last minute.

With this tiny and inexpensive means of transportation, Jeanson and other newbies to the sport can easily enter the world of skateboarding, without having to pay for lessons or invest much time in learning the art of skateboarding on a traditional board.

But how is skateboarding perceived by those who aren’t hit with concrete-surfing fever?

There is certainly a skateboarding “culture” that accompanies the sport. In the United States, this culture has traditionally been associated with the rowdy tattooed teenager stereotype who breaks the rules and looks for trouble. The culture is also associated with weed, rap and punk music, and bitterness towards the police. Many skaters also are also known for their “high jinks,” otherwise known as boisterous and rowdy fun.

An example of “high jinks,” or a part of skateboarding culture that includes lighthearted fun and pranks.

The graffiti, the music, and the way you present yourself as a skater in France certainly draw influences from American skate culture. Rémy Walter, the shaggy gray-haired founder of Paris Skate Culture, an organization that offers skating lessons and advocates for new skate parks in Paris, said that skaters all over the world have a lighter attitude on life.

“Skateboarders just like to have fun, you know? We like to get laid, we like sex, we like food, like anybody. Skateboarders are eager for life. They have a big appetite.”

You don’t have to stick to the delinquent stereotype to be a skateboarder in Paris. Jonathan Jean-Phillipe, although a professional skater, has many additional side jobs: he works full-time as a skateboard salesman, a skateboard instructor, and a mental coach on top of it all. He doesn’t smoke weed or cigarettes.

“They don’t interest me,” he said casually.

Another American skater living in Paris, Blake Williams, hails from Los Angeles, the birthplace of this lifestyle and sport. Williams usually spends his free nights skating around the streets Paris with his friends, drinking and exploring new areas of the city, while studying math at La Sorbonne by day. His friends who skate have relatively normal jobs; for example, one of the friends he’s made while skating works at SNCF before heading to the skate parks, and another is an art history major at the American University of Paris.

“In California, you have these dudes who say, ‘Oh, I wanna skate for the rest of my life,’ and these Frenchies haven’t adopted that manner — they skate all the time but it’s a hobby,” said Williams. “And they’re not ashamed to call it a hobby.”

The young skater said he has made many connections and French friends by through riding around Paris. In Paris’ newborn scene of street-skating paradise, skateboarders are apparently friendlier than those in the United States.

“In California, they’re always asking, ‘How good are you? Who do you ride for?’ It’s so poisonous and polluted by magazines and shit. And here it’s like, oh, you have a skateboard? That’s awesome. Let’s fucking ride and shit.”

Parisian skaters may be warmer because skating is less of a competition here. It’s a means to escape the body-odored metro and feel the fast air on your face. Skating is less about what tricks you can do on a ramp and more about whether you can get from point A to point B with a little added flair.

This is most evident when you look at some of Paris’ professional skaters. JJP has a completely different riding style in comparison to American professional skaters. His is clearly adapted for the city: JJP covers mostly flat ground, while playing off of the ramps and ledges that a natural city scape would offer.

“I don’t do ramps,” JJP said, while fitting the trucks onto a new skateboard at his day job at a Parisian skateboard shop. “They’re not my thing. I started on the streets and I didn’t have the infrastructure to learn them.”

Video projects like Parisii have also developed in recent years, perfectly capturing the essence of skateboarding in Paris. A mix of joking with random passerbys to tricks playing off the cityscape, these videos aim to capture each arrondissement’s skating potential for skateboarders. As the project’s website states, “More than the sum of its skaters, a city is the totality of the opportunities it offers,” which nicely bottles up the philosophy behind this functional skate scene: that Paris, the city itself, is the skate park.

A segment from the Parisii project, which captures the skateable cityscape of each arrondissement of Paris.

According to JJP, the majority of his fellow skaters in Paris don’t practice “real skating;” skateboarding is rather a lifestyle accessory. Many of his friends will hold a board and hang around other skaters, their shared interest in the fad serving as the bond between each of them. Carry a skateboard, doesn’t matter how good you are, and you can make friends with any other skateboarder “qui chille dans la rue” (who chills on the street).

Brent’s gang of friends seems to be bound together in this way. Each of them sat on their underutilized skateboards, fooling around and watching Brent perform his ramp tricks he imported from his hometown in Detroit, Michigan.

“I haven’t seen anyone here who’s better than me,” said Brent, before descending the ramp to show off for his adoring fans. Although his friends could barely make turns properly on their own skateboards, they were all bound together by the attitude that accompanies the skateboard culture here: the light-hearted, “chiller” mindset.

Paris’ skate scene may be more relaxed than that of America’s, but it’s certainly adapted to the French values and cultures. French skate culture and style is less competition to be the best, as it is in the States. Here, everyone gets a share, as long as you’ve got your board.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.