"Can a commodified and centralized subculture remain an outlet for the weird and uncanny?"
This provocative question concludes the introductory paragraph to the special section on Skateboarding in Vol 4 no. 2, of Portable Gray, published in the Fall 2021. Portable Gray, edited by Zachary Cahill and published by the University of Chicago Press, is the magazine of The Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago. The Gray Center "is a forum at the University of Chicago for experimental collaborations between artists and scholars. The Center seeks to intervene in existing structures that keep scholarship and the arts separate from each other, and to help reimagine new relationships between them."
Aram Sabbah, "It's fun to see the child in each adult when they try skating here and make them forget how miserable the world that we live in is. For a second, they're okay. It's nice."
Three contributions make up this special section. I just want to give folks a sense of what are in these articles, all of which are enclosed, unfortunately, behind a paywall.
The first is an inter-generational conversation about art, use-value, design, and how to survive and thrive the "olympicization" of skateboarding, titled, "'It's the Hard Flip': Kyle Beachy, Alexis Sablone, and Mark Gonzales." It's a ten-page conversation coming from questions posed by Beachy, with photos and a glossary for the uninitiated to skater-lexicon. "In the 60-some years since its emergence as a post-war American plaything, skateboarding has found its way into every facet of American, and eventually international, culture. With Mark Gonzales, it was ushered into gallery and museum exhibitions. With Alexis Sablone, skateboarding entered the discourse of design and the built architectural environments. In Kyle Beachy's work, it becomes a facet of literary theory, memoir, and identity."
Then, boom, the question above: "Can a commodified and centralized subculture remain an outlet for the weird and uncanny?"
Mark Gonzales on art and the creative process: "Sometimes I have something in my head that I have to create, or, like someone has asked me to do something…So, I build types of things in my head like a competition with myself. It's hard though because then I'll go to it, right, and then midway through it, and yeah, this looks good too, and soon we find out I'm making something else and not doing what I was asked to do. Which is the essence of skateboarding kind of. It just kind of goes and then before you know it, you're doing something else."
Alexis Sablone on design, intentionality, and power in response to Mark Gonzales pointing out that women have been skating since the beginning: "But not everyone saw it that way. For every person that was like you [Mark], I think there are probably a lot of other people that were like, what are you doing on a skateboard? Just look at social media comments—it's the lowest of the low. Look when someone posts a girl, look at the comments there. It's like, how is this still supported in any way?"
In "The Good Juice," Ryan Lay and Aram Sabbah, supporter and founder of SkatePal respectively, discuss skate spots in the West Bank "to springboard into conversations about how to get to those spots, what those places mean as a skateboarder and as a Palestinian." In other words, to get to a spot to skate—whether the skating rink, a plaza, or a skatepark—means to navigate the geographic and social politics of living in occupied territory. Smooth concrete and buttery ledges are the stuff of dreams and monied-designed spots. Sabbah points out that the smooth stones around one of the spots highlighted are because "It's known that we have a lot of good stone. It's the only thing we can produce. It's the only thing we are allowed to do: Get stones out of the ground."
This exchange gets to the crux of skateboarding's power of play and community-building.
Ryan Lay: "The work you do with SkatePal, as the manager there, is to help grow a new skate scene in Palestine. What's interesting is that kids just come up to you and they want to learn, and there's no formal skatepark there in Ramallah, so it's a great entry point for kids to learn about skating for the first time. Step on a skateboard, skate around. You see a lot of that, and with adults too, right?"
Aram Sabbah: "Yeah. As well as adults, and they're funny. It's fun to see the child in each adult when they try skating here and make them forget how miserable the world that we live in is. For a second, they're okay. It's nice." For images and videos about SkatePal, click here. For an essay written by Lay about SkatePal, "Wellspring," click here.
The third contribution, "In the Hands of Skaters: Nich Shirratt and Mike Shuh," tells the story of Palomino skate shop, "a necessary alternative source for products produced by and for skateboarders at a moment when the influence of large corporate entities grows with each entry into the network of shoe sponsors and energy drinks."
The thing about capitalism and skateboarding is that they have never not been connected, for the simple fact that US cultures is a capitalist culture, contested to be sure, while often reproduced in that same contestation. Just ask Steve Rocco. Or better yet, ask any professional skateboarder, who is essentially an independent contractor without insurance and in a tax bracket that often demands an end of the year payoff. The commodification of bodies for sport is a founding logic of western civilization.
The conversation between Beachy, Sablone, and Gonzales is vital, particularly concerning the policing of identity and who can be a skateboarder—specifically by other skateboarders—as well as the consequences of policing for community-building that provides those necessary alternatives. Understanding the relationship between place, space, and identity, as presented in "The Good Juice", and projects like SkatePal or Skate Witches centers DIY imaginaries and the circulation of culture and community-grounded ideas of safety, health, and play. Check out the late Jeff Grosso's Season 11 of Vans' Loveletters to Skateboarding for more on the discussion of inclusion, toxic masculinity, and skateboarding, as well as an example of personal transformation. "Vans' Loveletters to Skateboarding Series Dedicates 11th Season to Voices of the LGBTQ+ Skate Community featuring stories from skaters Cher Strauberry, Breanna Geering, Chandler Burton, Leo Baker, Brian Anderson, Elissa Steamer and many more.