How Skateboarding Flipped it's White Male Image and Welcomed the Whole World

PUBLISHED: March 23, 2020

For many, skateboarding still conjures up images of Californian dudes called Brad and Jay tearing up sun-baked swimming pools in the 1970s, their tanned torsos and blonde hair contrasting perfectly with blue skies and billowing palm trees. Or perhaps, since the rise of street-based skateboarding in the 1990s, skateboarders are more commonly thought of as roving bands of risk takers, usurping public squares, stairs and handrails to create a punkish alternative to "normal" city life.

While both these versions of the sport still thrive, skateboarding is no longer the preserve of urban rebels. There are around 50m riders, thousands of skate parks worldwide , and skating has been officially recognised as an Olympic sport. From the testosterone-fuelled features of Thrasher magazine to the life styling of Vogue; from the skater girls and boys of Kabul to the Native American reservations of South Dakota; from the skate parks of Brazil to the streets of Shenzhen – skateboarding is everywhere, and it's for everyone.

Amid this burgeoning and diverse world, Pushing Boarders – the first ever international conference on skateboarding – was held in London in early June. Organised by skateboarding cooperative Reverb, SkatePal and Long Live Southbank, and hosted at the Bartlett School of Architecture and the House of Vans, the event brought together riders, activists, writers, city authorities, academics, charity workers and creatives to discuss the issues facing skateboarding, and its engagement with the wider world.

Perhaps the most pressing question raised at Pushing Boarders is who skaters actually are. There's a growing need to recognise the many riders who differ from "normal" white, straight masculinity. Author and educator Kyle Beachy showed that skateboarding is not without a "hideous strain" or racism, sexism and homophobia, and compellingly demanded that such attitudes be called out whenever they occur.

Breaking down barriers

Nonetheless, in its general outlook skateboarding remains open and inclusive. At the conference, writers such as Anthony Pappalardo and Marie Dabbadie, and female riders including Elissa Steamer, Jaime Reyes, Alexis Sablone, Danni Gallagher and Lucy Adams all argued passionately to give women and queer riders a much greater presence in the sport. Women-only sessions and diversity-focused magazines, such as Skateism, are just some of the ways that skaters and activists are trying to make the sport more inclusive for all genders.

Similar issues are also evident around ethnicity; in their session, academic Neftalie Williams and author Karl Watson explored how people of colour have made extraordinary contributions to skateboarding, culture and industry. "Skateboarding community embraces all ways of life, whether you are black or white, old or young … it embraces all people," declared Watson. These discussions showed how skateboarding's qualities of friendship, sharing and independence all help to break down barriers and overcome differences.

But there are also more structured ways that skateboarding is being used to help others. Social enterprises such as Skateistan, Girls Skate India, Make Life Skate Life, Skate-Aid, Skate Nottingham, The Far Academy and Free Movement Skateboarding fund skate lessons, design education, new skate parks and more, as a way of reaching out to disempowered youth and other disadvantaged members of society. Charlie Davis, founder of SkatePal – a non-profit organisation working to support young Palestinians through skateboarding – explained: "A skate park is not just for skaters. It's a community space, a safe space, which is even better."

Strength in diversity

Skateboarding is increasingly becoming a part of urban life, so the session on how to build a "skate friendly city" explored how enlightened places such as Malmö, Nottingham and Hull are positively welcoming skateboarding. In London, campaign group Long Live Southbank have successfully kept the skate park in the iconic "Undercroft" spot, and are now seeking to extend this space even further. It was particularly inspiring to hear from Malmö's official skateboarding coordinator Gustav Eden, about how the Swedish city became a "skateboarding octopus" with legs of skate parks, skateable sculptures, DIY construction and even the skateboard-centred Bryggeriet high school.

Pushing Boarders extended skateboarding's landscape into the creative world of photography, writing and academic research. Images by Fred Mortagne, Arto Saari, Samuel McGuire and others captured skateboarding culture in locations as far flung as Peru and Palestine. Work by authors and academics including Paul O'Connor, Åsa Bäckström, Gregory Snyder, Sander Ho?lsgens, Dwayne Dixon, Tara Jepsen, Becky Beal, Thom Callan-Riley, Ocean Howell and myself delved into topics such as videography, public space, skate competitions, education, age, regionalism and professionalism. This diversity and depth of experience showed how skateboarding operates in close relation to other exploratory and artistic practices, encouraging experimentation, innovation and even entrepreneurialism.

Above all, Pushing Boarders delivered a powerful message about skateboarding and its role in society as a whole: skateboarding is at its best when it openly questions, explores and welcomes – rather than when it is narrowly comfortable, judgemental or exclusionary. As the French-born, Malmö-based, transgender and non-binary identifying Marie Dabbabie asserted, "cool dude masculinity no longer defines skateboarding". Freed from the confines of California, having cast aside narrow stereotypes as to who a rider should be, skateboarding's new found diversity is its greatest strength.