Art, skateboards, and social impact

How The Skateroom is enabling access to education, one board at a time

When he was growing up in Brussels, Charles-Antoine Bodson was given a gift by his father: an old skateboard that Mark Gonzales, a pioneering skater from California, rode in the ’70s or ’80s. The board had an original Keith Haring drawing on top of it, which turned what would otherwise be an artifact of skate culture into a relevant piece of art history.

Bodson, an avid skateboarder, was hooked. He started building an extensive collection of over 5,000 skateboards while running the Bodson Gallery in Brussels. Eventually, though, his interest in the contemporary art world started to fade. “I was selling works to very rich people,” he said in an Artspace interview, “and it just didn’t excite or fulfill me anymore.”

Things changed for Bodson when he met Oliver Percovich, founder of Skateistan, and international NGO that uses skateboarding as a way to connect vulnerable youth to education in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa.

Percovich, an Australian, was inspired to start Skateistan when he moved to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2007 with girlfriend, an aid worker. He wanted to continue his work as a research scientist in Kabul, but from the moment he started to ride his skateboard around his new home, he was surrounded by young boys and girls who were fascinated by the sport and wanted to try it for themselves. It transcended social barriers and gender norms — anyone with a board could get involved. Percovich realized that skateboarding could serve as a fun, low barrier entry point to providing marginalized children education programs and an opportunity to build lasting friendships.

The idea took off, and in 2009 Percovich built an indoor skatepark and educational facility in Kabul. Kids are brought in by skateboarding, but they stay for educational programs like “Skate and Create”, an arts based curriculum that enables students to explore geography, world cultures, history, human rights, environmental studies, and more. They also run a Youth Leadership program and “Back to School”, an accelerated learning program that prepares out-of-school youth to enroll, or re-enroll, in public school.

“Skateboarding is only 35% of what we do,” Percovich told the Wall Street Journal. “Sixty-five percent is education. Skateboarding is just the hook”.

Bodson met Percovich in Berlin, and learned that he was trying to raise money to open a skate school in Cambodia. Bodson knew that he had to help, and began his foray into social enterprise by selling off some of his skateboard collection.

“I decided to sell a part of this collection to help fund them,” he said. “The year after I went to Cambodia to see the results. When I saw all those kids, I said, “Okay, this is what I want to do to give sense to my life.”

Bodson closed his gallery and started The Skateroom, a way for him to unite his passion for skate culture and contemporary art while supporting Skateistan’s mission. The Skateroom is a social enterprise that collaborates on skateboards with iconic artists — Ai Wei Wei, Paul McCarthy, the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the Andy Warhol Foundation, to name a few — and sells them to support Skateistan’s efforts.

Skateistan is the only non-profit that The Skateroom supports.

“We’ve decided to be totally dedicated to Skateistan,” Bodson told Artspace. “Our mission statement says that we are a social entrepreneurship project that backs the work that they do.”

Though Skateistan relies on a global network of individual, government, and corporate donors, The Skateroom is perhaps the most unique and interesting one of the bunch. They offer, for example, a Basquiat skateboard triptych, a 32-set of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, and a hand signed boards by Ai Wei Wei with his unique style of social criticism.

Warhol, who famously claimed that “making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art,” managed to simultaneously celebrate and subvert the world of contemporary art. The Skateroom, it seems, is aiming to do the same.

They sell these decks primarily on their website, at boutique retailers like Collette, and through select museums like the Tate Modern and the MoMA Design Store. While its not disclosed how much per year is provided to Skateistan, it’s clear that the Skateroom has become a crucial funding partner. They recently worked with well known — if not controversial — artist Paul McCarthy to fully fund the construction of a new facility in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“Through the sale of the Paul McCarthy boards”, Bodson said, “The Skateroom committed to pay $200,000 to Skateistan … We have paid for all the installations and classrooms that are just beginning to be built now.”

For aspiring social entrepreneurs, The Skateroom is an interesting case study. They bridge the gap between social impact, fine art and skateboard culture at a reasonable price point for contemporary art. Their offerings, one would think, are particularly interesting to a new wave of ethically-minded millennials, many of whom grew up skateboarding and are now starting to invest in art.

While social good is an increasingly effective branding tool, purpose-driven businesses can’t depend on their good intentions to make up for a lackluster product. The Skateroom has unique, compelling offerings — one of a kind, exclusive works from world-renowned artists on an interesting canvas— and they’ve bolstered their value proposition with a social impact model that’s authentic and well-aligned with their brand. That’s what makes their approach so successful — people would buy these boards whether or not The Skateroom has a social mission, but the fact that they do helps attract great collaborators, media attention, and customers.

Thanks in part to The Skateroom’s support, Skateistan now runs “skate schools” across Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa, and works with over 1,100 youth each week.

“Skateboarding, Percovich said, “is now the largest sport for girls in Afghanistan. The reason is simply because it was a brand new sport in a place where girls are prevented from doing a lot of other sports — they’re seen as activities just for boys. If a girl tries to play soccer, she’ll be told, ‘Don’t do that, that’s for boys.’ Girls don’t ride bicycles in Afghanistan, they don’t play volleyball, they don’t fly kites — any of the popular activities that boys do are very, very hard for girls to get into. Because nobody had seen a skateboard before, when I started to get girls skating right from the start it was actually seen as a sport for girls at first.”

The Skateroom, for its part, will continue to collaborate with artists across the world in a venture that’s bringing together profit and purpose in an entirely new way.

“It’s important to realize that there are so many young people that do think differently,” Bodson said. “It’s not like in the ’80s, when everyone wanted to make money on Wall Street. It’s different now. We’re global. We want to take care of people. We want to make the world a better place than what it is currently … I’m one small player among so many others, and we all really believe that we can change the world.”

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