Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Lunatic Fringe: An Open Letter to Anyone Who Sucks at Skateboarding

[Every so often social media bubbles-up with complaints that some skaters post “boring” or “sub-standard” skate footage of themselves (e.g. “Do we really need to see, or cheer for, someone doing a kick turn or footplant?”). Not long ago another of these incidents occurred. It was time to throw down a gauntlet.]

Skateboarding was once a crime. In 2020 it will be an Olympic sport. A lot has changed. Skate parks are often now sandwiched between soccer and little league fields, adjacent to a dog park, and next to some other iconic metaphor of affluent, white, suburban America. Yes, we have “made it.” Skateboarding is no longer a (social) crime. Big corporate money. Video games. VICE TV shows. ESPN. Red Bull. Monster Energy Drink. Target. Nike. The Olympics. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, with this new normal(ization), aspects of more traditional social structures and attitudes (“sporting” and otherwise) have also emerged within skateboarding (even if they are often unspoken). Fit in. Do what your peers are doing. Don’t stand out (too much). Score more points than your opponent. Go bigger. Go longer/further. Be more tech. Use your skateboard as an extension of your ego. You aren’t “relevant” if you’re not dropping the newest “banger,” or trying your best to mimic (or fawn over) the type of skateboarding shown by modern hype media. Sure, facets of this have always existed in skating, but it now seems amplified. I am not, in anyway, trying to make the “old days” sound utopian. They certainly were not. That said, there is no denying that there are now more “normies” within skateboarding than ever before. Moreover, they are bringing their version of “normal” with them. Today there are some people in skateboarding whom likely would have been the very ones yelling “SKATE FAG!!!” at us in the not-so-distant past. All of this I find very disheartening. It is completely alien to what first drew me to the “outsider” world of skateboarding.

Personally, skateboarding has always been a means to “opt-out.” It was (and still is) my revolt against pop culture, and the standard mores of organized sport and organized society. Granted, I come from an era when skateboarding was nothing more than a cheap form of social suicide. Being a skater once automatically made you an outcast, and a target of contempt and ridicule. Now that skateboarding has become normalized, it has also become its own facet of pop culture—Thrasher apparel is now available at mall kiosks, everyone has a DC Shoes t-shirt, and there is that whole Supreme/Huf/Diamond thing, too. It almost seems as if the “goal” of skateboarding has become to post the most NBDs on Instagram. Fuck that. “Opting out” suddenly also means opting-out, or rebelling against, certain aspects of skateboarding itself. Irony always wins in the end.

As skateboarding becomes more and more of a social norm, and skateboarding’s own social norms become less and less distinguishable from gym class, a trip to the mall, or a large scale sporting event, I find it more important than ever to be a visible, and vocal advocate and representative of a lunatic fringe. A fringe that embraces an outcast status from both popular culture, and popular skateboard culture. A fringe that, as Lance Mountain once said, “Represents that skateboarding is fun to do by being terrible at it.” Why do I embrace this role? Because skateboarding is more than simply outshining others at the park, out-scoring an opponent, buying placed products, or fitting in with the cool kids at the DIY. As I understand and experience it, skating is a direct insurrection against those tired social tropes. That is worth defending and fighting for.

Skateboarding is at its absolute worst when it closes doors to participants because of an ability-based social hierarchy. This is especially true, and atrocious, when it occurs on the local level. Skateboarding is at its best when it opens doors that are substantive and meaningful alternatives to a typical consumer/competitive/jock existence. With more of the latter seeping in, there also needs to be more overt counter-points. It is more important to be a dissident within skateboarding today than it ever was before (well, the mid-1990s certainly could have used some, too).

This is not to say there is, or should be, an “us v. them” dichotomy—we have far, far too much of that in the world right now. What I am saying is there is no “right,” “correct,” or “valid” way to engage with skateboarding, only different ways. Once some things are seen as “good” or “acceptable” (back tail down El Toro) others are seen as “insignificant” or “trivial” (kickturn on a micro ramp). Yet, they both stem from the same Stoke. But all of this is common sense, no? I would think so. Then why does it even need to be stated? Because sometimes there is great force in speaking the unspoken. I simply want to add a voice to an existing chorus. Moreover, if you go back to the first paragraph of this post, there are some that may benefit from hearing differing perspectives.

Skateboarding needs visible counter narratives—ones that show “skateboarding is fun to do by being terrible at it.” Narratives that show skating is not only about ledge NBDs, triple kink rails, 15’ high gaps, and mega ramps. Of course those are all valid pursuits, but they are not the only valid pursuits. The counter-factuals (that’s us) are equally valid (I would argue even more so, but I’ll save that for another post). We tread dangerous waters if NBD/banger-based skating is represented as the only legitimate face of skateboarding. It is important that skating’s other faces also have a seat at the table. What are those “other faces”? I leave that intentionally open and vague, but I will say this much; they certainly include kick-turns.

Some stoked, unknown, skater.

For all the kooks out there—to all the skaters not trying to be the next Jaws, Nyjah, or Shane O’Neil, to all the people who are just beginning (adult or kids), to all the skaters who pad-up just to skate a curb, to all the people who are rolling just because they love it, and are not trying to prove anything, or impress anyone, to all the people who are following their own path, and their own Stoke, I salute you. I will always applaud your efforts no matter how small others may think they are. You are valid. You are the counter-point. You are skateboarding in its best form.

So, get stoked on your kick turns. Skate at the same spots. Do the same simple tricks. Learn nothing. Maybe not even do tricks at all. Just carve and roll. Impress no one. Have fun. I will always cheer for you. Not just because at 8, or 48-years-old, that you just did your first carve, but even more significantly, because you represent the most important thing I know in skateboarding; a place outside a “sporting" norm, without any rules, judges, or point-scale gradation. A place where we follow our own Stoke, on our own terms, with our own meaning and purpose, free of anyone else telling us how anything is supposed to be done.

So, yes, absolutely share that footage with the world, because it will unequivocally inspire others. Moreover, it is the counter-narrative. Every “non-banger” clip and photo is a chink in Olympic armor, and shows that skateboarding isn’t as vapid as Street League, Thrasher, and many others make it out to be. Even better, your clips and photos show that skateboarding still has a place for people who want to opt-out. This version of skateboarding, the one that remains an “outsider,” is the skateboarding that is important to me. It is the skateboarding that I fell in love with. It is the skateboarding that I will always champion and defend, above all else.

Post-Script: To be clear, I am not in anyway knocking tech dogs, stunt men, or their fans. I was once one myself in younger days. Further, there are plenty of skaters with pro-level ability who embody everything written above. I am also not knocking anyone that wants to pursue the dream of Olympic gold, or to be the best competitive skater in the world. If that is your path, I wish you the best of luck in those pursuits. What I am simply saying is that there is far more depth and soul to skateboarding than standing on a podium, real or imagined.