Skateboarding structures the worldview of those who practice it
Several stories could be told about skateboarding as a social practice. In this brief account, I have chosen to spotlight a few motifs through which it still holds allure. I won’t speak only from the perspective of a discourse reasoned from the abundant sociological literature about this action or lifestyle sport. I will also consider those socio-cultural, performative and kinetic concerns of skating that could possibly shape a social choreography, an artifact derived from observing skateboarding as a spatial and communal activity.
It begins with the history that most studies recount as a legend. Born one day when the ocean was calm and the waves low, skating enabled surfers to continue to exercise sliding albeit on the sidewalk in Los Angeles. The peculiar arrangement of coupling the body with a tool, which is also a vehicle, owes its invention to a hybrid of the scooter with torn off T-handles and the surfboard.
Once the third element in the assemblage board-body-sea became a solid surface, the opportunities skating afforded became unpredictable, fragmented, and the material resistance of its surface was more varied and impure than the oceanic surf. In fact, the challenge was reversed: instead of composing with a wave and gaining wildness from it, the skater generates a wave as their movement smoothes the urban space full of obstacles, irregular and whimsical, but also hazardous details.
Furthermore, the cultural history of skateboards follows several waves of rise and fall over four to five decades. At first popular among the surfers in the 1960s when skateboards closely resembled surfboards with rolling wheels, skating separated from surfing and moved into the city in the 1970s. Several innovations helped it spread, especially the development of the faster and more maneuverable polyurethane wheel and the introduction of the raised back end of the board that makes kickturns possible. Having gained speed and safety, skaters appropriated deserted swimming pools, drainage canals, and schoolyards for skateboarding. The skaters of this time predominantly descended from the working-class background. Or as one of the Z-boys from the famous Zephyr team in Dogtown, a run-down neighborhood in Venice, said, »we came from broken families«. As part of the mainstream repertoire of sports and leisure activities of youngsters today, skateboarding no longer bears the mark of the social underclass. It still holds the promise of a temporary escape and sense of empowerment through movement and speed, where an individual’s passion also enables a flight from a situation whatever it might be, being stuck at home, school, in one’s age, in the ghetto…
Encroaching on the private property of the rich L.A. residents raised citizens’ complaints and led to the construction of the skate parks that were meant to contain and isolate skateboarding as a recreational sport in the U.S., and later in Europe. This marks the point in which skateboarding as a social practice forks into street and skatepark skating – the two practices that co-exist today but once alternated in a game of cat-and-mouse between trespassing and surveillance. When the entry tickets for skateparks rose due to the costs of lavish landscape architecture and high insurance fees in the early 1980s, skateboarding declined, but only to resurrect in as something underground, and to reclaim the street more fiercely under the punk slogan »Skate and Destroy«, found, for example, in the street skateboarding magazine Thrasher (1981).
The difference between skating the city and skating within a park designed and designated for skateboards, reflects at least two different kinds of social production of the space. When they cruise the streets, skaters are seeking out resistance of surfaces and objects and the joy stretches between discovery and attunement. Repurposing rails, benches, walkways, or stairs or crisscrossing corporate plazas, they are intruding on the territories and breaking rules of the public or property-guarded space. While this may not always be a sign of witting opposition to public order, the public opinion condemns it as »antisocial behavior« and »reckless operation« (in the words of the Republican New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani) that must be prohibited. From the skaters’ perspective, by contrast, street skating is about the sensuous pleasure of using their body to experience the city through sliding, jumping and kicking, while the traces of damage and the noise are only collateral effects.
Turning the city into a giant playground is a kind of nomadism and deterritorialization, flânerie intensified by speed, for the skater scans the city through the details others might not see. Their movements say, »I can skate that, if I hit it like this, I can get all the buzz out«. Wandering so swiftly through yields mindless moments of thrilling disorientation. »It’s kind of like getting lost in your own song. To me, riding around with my skateboard, I don’t even need any music; I can stroll down the street having a cheeseburger smile on my face. You just keep cruising; I don’t need to do any tricks. I am roaming back and forth on the street, and it is a great time.«
Skateparks were originally provided in order to marginalize skaters as »a force to reckon on the streets«, and to tame their power to subvert the rules governing the use of public space. At the same time, they helped to convert skateboarding as a subversive, rule-breaking lifestyle into a more rule-bound activity, i.e., sport. Confined in an area like a skatepark, skaters focus more on tricks and controlled stunts. Since the 1990s and even more today when technology is so accessible, filming and sharing videos is part of the game. While they come and leave as individuals preoccupied with honing their own skills and their performance, emulation binds them into a community. Practicing means being together alone and watching others for inspiration, moving the level of one’s mastery to an always slightly higher edge of virtuosity. Like in a punk concert where moshing might appear as aggressive and dangerous anarchy to an outsider, in the skatepark, too, skaters are taking risks while also coordinating with, and protecting each other from injury.
Individualism in the skatepark is mitigated with the social rules of the place. A salient characteristic of the skatepark is that it is one of the rare urban sites reserved for teenagers. Western society doesn’t tolerate well teenagers loitering in public space unless they are engaged in a team sport like basketball. Thus it speaks to their distinctive attraction that skateparks have managed to keep alive an oscillation between order and disorder, mastery and excess, competition and having fun. For a transitional age rife with conflicts with authority and feelings of shame, skatepark is a rare oasis for a teenager’s self-performance, a battleground for gaining self-confidence and social capital.
Artist and skater, Raphaël Zarka wrote that »skateboarding structures the worldview of those who practice it.« His statement tacitly compares skating with habitus, which in the definition of Pierre Bourdieu is a bodily disposition acquired through a practice of repetition and imitation and a relationship between individual agency and social structure. Habitus structures perception, entangled with a social structure. The moving composite of the body-board-surface produces vertigo, the thrill of temporarily disjoining the body from the board, which must be done with controlled effort. Observing the kinetic force and performative styles of skating in an urban area, Mette Ingvartsen approached the skatepark as a site of social choreography from an artist’s viewpoint. Choreography here highlights skating’s kinesthetic and acoustic expressions as social forms in rehearsal, and underlines the collective potential of individuals joining each other in trials and errors. And for a spectator, this might be an opportunity for a vicarious experience of vertigo and social empowerment.
 From an interview with a skater, quoted from Chihsin Chiu Contestation and Conformity: Street and Park Skateboarding in New York City Public Space Space and Culture 2009 12:25.
 Raphaël Zarka. The Forbidden Conjunction. Editions B42 & Raphaël Zarka, 2011.
Essay by Bojana Cvejić
Comissioned by the Ruhrtriennale