Thursday, February 25, 2016

Brands and Being: We Are What We Have Been Becoming

     A recurring theme of this blog is “What does it mean to be a skateboarder?” and/or, “How does involvement in skateboarding, and skate culture, transform one’s Being, identity, and self-understanding?” This post is another dive into those questions, with an eye towards skateboard brands. Throughout my 31-year relationship with skateboarding, there have always been companies, brands, decks, imagery, etc. that I identified with, and others that I avoided like the plague. This is true with most skaters. These associations, and dis-associations, are extensions of our own self-understanding and being. We are who we have been becoming.

     “It [skateboarding] is as much the act of skating, as it is the discovery of what you are all about.” -Julien Stranger, Tent City, at 1min 5sec (2004)

     “There exists a longstanding argument that graphics don’t really matter. Those who harbor this glib opinion are shortsighted at best, because the importance of graphics runs deeper than inconsequential kiddy trappings—perhaps even more so now that corporate America has seized upon skateboarding and conveniently categorized, packaged and produced it for the masses under the Madison Avenue-approved banner of “extreme sports.”

     In the past, one of the most integral functions of art in skateboarding was its ability to create an underground camaraderie with global reach. Such cryptic icons was the Dogtown Cross and Vato Rat managed to sum up the rebellious allure of skateboarding in but a few simple strokes…Graphics came to signify an unspoken bond between skateboarders everywhere. Best of all, to anyone not directly involved with the subculture these images were meaningless, sometimes even threatening…Strip boards of their silk-screened soul and they become no better than any other performance-based sporting goods
.”  -Sean Cliver, Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art, p. 103. (2007)

     Cliver speaks to images, and the significance and power they have. While he mostly speaks of individual deck graphics, this post seeks to bump things up a level, to the graphics and brands of the skate industry as a whole.

     Brands. Branding. Brand identity. Brand loyalty. The cult of Independent trucks. The Nike SB backlash. The Bones Brigade. World Industries co-opting every image of pop culture. Spitfire logo tattoos. And so on. Skateboarding, more so than almost any other “sport” has a long, involved, and complex relationship to imagery, and concepts of brand identity. What exactly is a “brand identity,” and how does it impact the world of skateboarding, and the lives of skateboarders? Why do I even care?

     “As kids we get skateboards. After falling in love with the act of skating, we brand ourselves skateboarders. We find our niche within this culture, and it inspires and influences us to become the people we become. I look at skateboarding culture right now and see much brand diversity…Each brand has a distinct fashion sense to brand, and each brand offers a starting place to develop [in] taste and personal preference for art and music.” [Ed. Note: I would add, world view, politics, self-understanding, and even social theory to that list.].  -David Thornton, Luchaskate, Issue 10, p. 9. (2016)

    With that observation, Thornton bridges the gap between Julien’s comment on self-discovery, and Cliver’s missive on the significance of imagery. The two can feed into each other. Moreover, that quote opens the door to the heart of this post; “finding a niche,” and “becoming the people we become,” and how branding factors in our own self-understanding.

    Identity, and the way in which we exist in the world, and relate to the others around us have deep implications to our own sense of Being, and to the things that provide meaning in our lives. Identity, and group affiliation, can have profound impacts. It may mean the difference between being left in peace, or being heckled by jocks that view skaters as 3rd class citizens. It may mean life or death depending on what ethnic/religious/gender/sexual orientation/etc. group one belongs to. Turn on the news, and you will see the ramifications of identity (politics) across the globe. People die, and are slaughtered, over identity. Nothing runs deeper. The micro-politics of daily social interactions to the Holocaust are all rooted in concepts of identity. Skateboarders, and skateboarding, have always had a unique relationship to the world of identity, both to the world at large, and amongst themselves. Ask any life-long skater “who they are,” and most will likely answer, “I am a skateboarder.” It is very rare that, beyond high school, many adults would answer the same question with something like, “I am a football player.” Identity holds a unique place for skateboarders. It always has. It always will. Skateboarding permeates one’s sense of Being unlike anything else.
    Brand identity. It is what separates Nike from Consolidated, and Zumies from your local “core” skate shop. Branding is nothing without some type of message, be it told by text, graphics, or images. Without a larger brand identity, almost all skate company products are basically the same (“Strip boards of their silk-screened soul and they become no better than any other performance-based sporting goods.” –Sean Cliver). Branding is everything non-tangible. Branding is an assertion of identity, meaning, values, philosophy, and world view. It is a factor in who you decided to give your money to. It is something that resonates or repels. It is community involvement and support (or lack thereof). It is images of culture or counter-culture. It is a way to show proxy endorsement, and affiliation with a given concept, idea, or group; it is your “gang colors.” Branding is communication about what a company/person “stands” for, looks like, and acts like. It is an alignment of an emotional connection with life experiences, and a state of mind. It is identity attached to an inanimate object. It is the act of storytelling, and making yourself a part of that story. Of course, this is true of all brands, not just the ones in skateboarding. That said, there is a much greater sense of brand identity and development within skateboarding than almost anywhere else in the word. People just don’t have the passion for Kraft, Hormel, Oscar Meyer, Exxon, Samsung, etc. as they do for Santa Cruz, Girl, Spitfire, or Independent. Harley-Davidson may be one of the few comparative examples in the non-skateboard world (Well, there is that whole GMC v. Ford truck controversy. Out of fear for my own well-being, I take no side in the pick-up wars.).

    But, so what? Brand identity is a “thing” that is out there. A lot of what I am saying is common sense and obvious to anyone who puts any thought into it. So, what of it? Why does it matter? For a blog that is primarily based on the “existential and metaphysical interrelation of skateboarding and life,” this is about as deep as it gets. How does the ether around skateboarding impact identity? How does identity shape skateboarding? Skateboarding, and the culture around it, impact great portions of our lives, at least it did to mine. Almost any life-long skater will say the same. Much of the “shaping” comes not only from the life-lessons that the pure act of skateboarding provides, but also from the ethos, mores, and “storytelling” advanced by various skateboard companies, self-branding pros, and skate culture itself. It is a culture we are immersed in. To say we are not affected by that, is, as Cliver says, short sighted at best.    

     It is not as if we only ascertain these ideas about our own identity. We also seem to have them about others. How many expressed confusion when Chris Cole join the ranks of Plan B? People often said he just didn’t seemed to “fit” on Plan B (coming off Zero). Could anyone see Jeff Grosso riding for DGK? Caballero on Chocolate? Scheckler on Creature? The problem with all of these fictional match-ups is a clash of identity and brand. Nyjah’s flashy diamonds and cars just don’t quite seem to mesh with the virtual freelance vagrancy of Anti Hero’s “Tent City.” It’s almost laughable to think of these pairings. But why? A skateboard is a skateboard, right? Would Nyjah really be unable to skate if a Black Label deck was under his feet? Would Birdo be unable to walk in a pair of Nike SB shoes? It is laughable because the identity of these people/companies are so vastly different from each other. With time, we develop an intuitive sense of our personal identity, and that of others, and the ontological “places” those identities do, and do not, coincide with. We find our niche. We gravitate toward that which resonates, and avoid that which does not. We build a picture of the world, and ascertain where, and how, we fit into that picture. The picture is not entirely of our own making. We use the tools/influences around us to contextualize ourselves within it.

    While we could certainly take a look at larger trends, and examine the lasting influence of people like Gonz, Neil Blender, Eric Kosten, P.Rod, or companies like Powell, World Industries, Alien Workshop, etc., but, such an analysis misses the mark. Another common theme of this blog is the focus on individual, common, everyday-experience. Ultimately, experience is always an individual, and personal one. There is more truth in the 24-hours of a man’s life than there is in all of philosophy (or skateboard trends, for that matter). Larger trends are not important. The personal experience is. The lives of others are not our own. It is only in, and through, our own being that we can work out the ways in which we are Be-ing in the world, and ways we become the people that we are. Larger trends will always be subordinate to individual, actualized, experience. By way of example, I will forgo a meta-look at skateboard trends, and larger-than-life personalities. Instead, I will look at how various brands impacted my world view, and sense of identity…an expedition into personal archeology, if you will. Skateboarding, or parts of it, made me who I am today. Skateboarding leaves an existential residue. What resonates becomes ingrained in our sense of selfhood. What we internalize, and project out, becomes who we “are.” Skateboarding teaches things about life, and skateboard brands play a role in that. We all have our own story. The brands mentioned below were all players in my story. They taught me something about the world, about myself, and they way the two are interwoven. I leave these descriptions short, and somewhat vague, as my experience is ultimately insignificant to how others relate to the world around them. I could cite countless other brands, these are just some of the ones the provided me with lasting impact.       

Powell: As a young kid, they first taught me the power of (underground) symbolism, and non-verbal communication. If I saw Powell imagery, I knew someone was part of the “tribe.” 

Santa Cruz: After Powell, came Santa Cruz. They were crass. Punk. In your face. Screaming Hands. Slime Balls. Gruesome imagery that was not far from shock value. I learned merit in being bold.

World Industries/Blind/Etc.: Extreme sarcasm. Humor. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at others. Nothing off limits.  

Anti-Hero: Dark. Nihilistic, with a subtle humanism. Came out in/as backlash to the early 90s. No glitz/glam, rather, an out-right rejection of it. Just pure skateboarding and raw, gritty, existence. To this day, no “brand identity” has ever resonated with me more than AH. 

Fancy Lad:  Pure fun. Creativity. Avant-gnar. There is so much more than the traditional approach, to anything. Art is how you exist, and existence is itself an art.   

DGK/Menace/Etc.: I was/am a “white suburban punk” (Repo Man). These brands were things I just couldn’t relate to. They helped me learn what I was not

Girl: Sanitized. Safe. Boring. Again, help in understanding of what does not resonate.

Nike, Adidas, Monster, etc.: When I hear, or think of these companies, I will always think of team sports, large box stores, and the “gang colors” worn by the people most likely to harass skaters (aside from cops). Nike and Adidas have been involved in skating for a long time now, but I will never lose that gut reaction. In my world, they symbolize is everything that skating is not. This helped me grasp my own ideals of what it means to do something “for the right reasons.”  

    Yet, there also plain truth in the assertion that nothing could matter less than a given brand when it comes to actual skateboarding. I could walk into a skate shop blindfolded, stand on all the decks, and find something that “feels right” under my feet, and have a great time with that deck. Brands are meaningless when it comes to the pure act of skateboarding. Yet, with this dismissal of their role, we enter into the “short sighted” land that Cliver speaks of. More is going on, if we choose to look. I often hark on what I view as the two utmost extremes in modern skateboarding, Street League and the Barrier Kult. I often cite these two because they represent two totally different, polar opposite, takes on skateboarding (and thus life), and personal choice. Skateboarding provides extremes in life choices, or possible identities, which is not found anywhere else. Traditional sports do not provide such differing life views. Sure, a coach/players can set the “tone” of a team, and make it very different from all the others (thus providing different vantage points on life). But for the most part, the choices of what to identify with between different team sports is often little more than what color uniform you like. Is there really much difference in the mores and core values between the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and the SF Giants (aside from a contrived geographical conflict)? Yes, you can join a competitive, or recreational, softball league, but the “rules” are almost exactly the same (and I’ve played outfield on both type of teams). The main point here is that skateboarding, it seems to me, provides vastly more existential doors to choose from. A Barrier Kult or Street League philosophy? Somewhere in between? That type, and extent, of variety just doesn’t exist outside of skateboarding (Maybe in motorcycle culture… in that there is everything from casual riders, to international racing, and outlaw gangs). Once you are exposed to the openness, and possibilities of seeing, and existing, in a multitude of different ways, the world is forever changed. This, I think, is one of the core reasons that once you are a skater, you are skater for life; it fundamentally changes the way you see yourself, and your environment. Some lines can’t be re-crossed over. There are some places you can’t come back from (a future blog post will zero-in on this exact topic).     

    Yet, interpretation of these, or any, brands, and their “identity” does not fall into “correct” categories. Life and existence just isn’t that simple. One person may see Nike as a great “legitimizer” of skateboarding as a sport. Others may see Nike as parasitic outsider. Neither is “correct.” We are beyond right and wrong, good and evil. I could cite equally contrasting viewpoints for any of the companies/brands mentioned above. 

    The truth is there are no right answers. There aren’t even any answers. There never has been. There never will be. That is the answer. There is only experience, and the choices of association we make. Those choices, and our interpretation of those choices, often help define us, to ourselves, and to others. Those choices provide a window to our passions, to our self-interpretation, and they are what allows us to differentiate ourselves in our surroundings. To come full circle, and end with metaphor, “Strip boards of their [silk-screened] soul and they become no better than any other [performance-based sporting goods].”