In a highly individualized country, America’s youth turn to a highly individualized sport. Skateboarding, by accentuating the skill set unique to the individual, provides an outlet for youth unsatisfied with organized sport. With few stipulations surrounding the development of skateboarding, the skateboarder is granted free range to explore his or her creativity—a quality most traditional sports cannot provide. Though it developed in California and is in many respects still specific to California culture, skateboarding has spread to surfaces all over the globe. 4.8 billion dollars worth of skateboards are sold each year; it’s no longer uncommon to see a skateboarder rolling through even the most rural of villages.
The extension of skateboarding to new terrain has transformed the sport.
There exists an implicit specificity of place, as new styles and approaches to the sport continue to develop outside the original context of California. As a skateboarder having grown up among the rolling Green Mountains of Vermont, I am forced to adapt to my natural setting. The hard, polyurethane wheels designed for smooth pavement are not fit for the eroded surfaces of Vermont–in the winter, when the water freezes in between the cracked sidewalks, the surface is broken up and mutilated, making it difficult to use a standard skateboard. What follows is the evolution of the skateboard: a more forgiving type of polyurethane wheel is born, one not designated to slide on smooth California blacktop, but used to access surfaces previously designated “unfit” for skateboarding. This reflects the terrain of New England, a landscape constantly shifting due to the seasons’ tendency to manipulate surfaces.
Standing in direct contrast, the Californian deals with cleaner and more consistent terrain.
Compared to the east coast, the west coast serves a purpose similar to that of a gym: in a gym, all machines are designed (though quite ironically) to make your job of working out as easy as possible. The treadmill jogger doesn’t have to worry about natural impediments; no roots or stones obstruct his path. Nor does the Californian skateboarder need to worry about natural impediments eroding the face of man-made surfaces. Everything is smooth and unblemished, providing an avenue for the development of a relaxed and graceful style. The New England skateboarder, on the other hand, does not run on the treadmill–he runs in the woods. His style may not be as graceful, but he displays a subtle sensitivity to a variety of surfaces. Both west coast and east coast skateboarders interact with place, and thus develop a style specific to place.
The effect of place transforms our definition of skateboarding.
Maybe it’s wrong to define skateboarding as a sport. Yes, a competitive side to skateboarding exists, which technically defines it as a sport, but aside from competition there is a sense in which the skateboarder engages in a form of creative expression that reflects a particular environment. This type of skateboarding is therefore not a sport, but rather a form of landscape art. The primary purpose of landscape art is to creatively depict a specific place–the skateboarder, though perhaps unconsciously, also reflects a specific environment by working with both the restrictions and the benefits of a particular place.
An objection to this claim would argue that the skatepark neutralizes the playing field for all skateboarders. With a company like Grindline, a major corporation at the forefront of skatepark design, building parks filled with concrete features that are generally non descriptive of place, it is impossible to pinpoint the style of a skateboarder as specific to place. This objection does not hold, though, for there is still a sense in which the ecology of place implicitly effects the creative process of a skateboarder. Some theorize an “ecological unconscious”, stating that our mental processes are to a certain extent influenced by ecology.2 The ecological unconscious of a skateboarder therefore affects the creative decisions of a skateboarder. Even the building of a skatepark is often influenced by place: Grindline recently built a park in Denver, Colorado with a large quarter pipe shaped like the range of the Rocky Mountains. When skating this feature, the skateboarder tackles the grandiosity of the sharp angled slopes of the Rockies, both literally and figuratively. The Coloradan adapts to his environment; his style is crafted by everything grandiose: bigger boards, more amplitude, and increased speed.
The point is, skateboarders are often interacting with something bigger–something more grounding and earthly.
Skateboarding emphasizes the strengths of the individual, with little focus on the team dynamic offered by traditional sports, but perhaps the skateboarder is not as alone as we might think. The small wooden plank of a skateboard serves as a medium to directly interact with place; through movement the body manages to emulate natural setting. “We live amid surfaces and the true art of life is to skate well on them”, says Ralph Waldo Emerson. The implications of this observation, though not anticipated by Emerson himself, are taken quite literally to a new extreme within the development of modern man’s art of skating.