The Legacy of the Skate Video Lives on in TIKTOK

CATEGORIES: SkateSkateboarding
PUBLISHED: September 09, 2020

The last professional skate video I remember getting excited about was Lakai’s Fully Flared. Featuring a roster of top talent at the time — Mike Carroll, Eric Koston, Guy Mariano, plus up-and-comer Mike Mo Capaldi — paired with a fittingly pretentious soundtrack, I remember thinking it was the closest thing to art a skate video could possibly attain. It was co-directed by Spike Jonze, and the opening featured a series of slow-motion stunts and explosions set to M83’s “Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun.” It was absurd and awesome, all at once. It was also the last of its kind.

The video debuted on November 16th, 2007, a little over one year after Google bought a fledgling video-sharing site called YouTube and a few months after the release of the very first iPhone. In my unprofessional opinion — I stopped skateboarding seriously at age 17 and fell out of the culture shortly after — I consider it a swan song of the skate video as a cultural artifact.

The idea of waiting with anticipation to buy a DVD put out by a shoe company feels so alien to me now that I have trouble remembering when and where I first watched Fully Flared, other than inevitably on a television connected to a disc player. It was probably at Krudco, my local skate shop.

Now, a decade and a half later, I find myself getting back into skating because of a very different type of video that lives mostly on TikTok. Arriving at skateboarding TikTok isn’t hard to do. Like a couple of videos and follow a few accounts and suddenly, by way of the mysterious black box of an algorithm that governs the platform’s addictive delivery mechanism, you’ll find the “For You” tab inundated with skateboarding.

All of these clips feature short bursts of activity, usually with some catchy modern song attached — a far cry from the days of Fully Flared and its 90-minute runtime and what I imagine were rather costly music licensing fees.

Many of these TikTok clips showcase obscenely talented skaters doing mind-blowing tricks, the stuff I thought you could only pull off with your thumbs and a PlayStation controller. Part of the beauty of platforms like TikTok and Instagram is that they not only democratize distribution, but they also help shrink the world down. Skaters that will never get their own video game can still go viral pulling off a trick you may have never seen before in your life. And now you know their name.

I occasionally go back through my like history on TikTok to rewatch some of these clips, like this one showcasing the world’s cleanest 180 gap. Or this just absolutely preposterous switch tailslide to 540 heelflip out, originally part of pro Luan Oliveira’s 2017 Nike skate part (the shoe giant is one of the few companies still making big-budget skate videos) but resurfaced for a new audience on TikTok, where it’s found a second life years later.

I’ve learned about “coconut wheelies,” where a skater rides on the thin edge of the board turned sideways using only a sliver of the two bottom wheels. And I discovered the Merlin twist, the magical name for a switch front foot impossible frontside 180 that is as ridiculous-looking as it sounds on the page. It turns out a whole legion of skaters can inexplicably do it, and many have TikTok accounts. You can spend hours and hours on TikTok creating your own algorithmic skate video out of spliced-together clips and whatever music happens to be overlaid on top.

But because of the robust editing tools TikTok offers, alongside the unprecedented access to licensed music it provides, many savvy skaters have turned short TikToks into a new breed of short but enthralling skate videos. Young internet culture-fluent pros like 16-year-old prodigy Dylan Jaeb and Santa Monica park mainstay Haden McKenna have earned millions of likes and video views featuring spliced-together tricks, ample use of slow motion, clever on-screen overlays, and catchy and meme-appropriate music.

In a recent interview to celebrate the release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, remasters of the video games that helped catapult skate culture into the mainstream at the turn of the century, legendary pro Rodney Mullen told The Verge he lamented the death of the skate video. “There are no more big videos, barely. People come out with videos, but you’re right, everything is Instagram-related, everything is a stream,” Mullen said, “rather than those chunks of progression that genuinely made an impact on the culture.”

He has a point — many TikTok and Instagram videos feel unconsidered and spontaneous, like they were filmed only moments ago and fired off into the void. Few videos today carry on the tradition of carefully choosing a song and working with professional editors to craft perfect highlight segments around a skater’s cultivated style, in a way fans can talk about and dissect for months or, in some cases, even years to come. While skate videos haven’t totally disappeared today, they’re on the periphery. Without those slices of media as cultural events released at distinct moments in broader skate culture, you could argue it’s harder to see who’s really pushing the limits and leaving their mark on history.

But there is much to appreciate about how skateboarding has evolved in the last decade, and the way it now lives predominantly on social platforms. The culture is more inclusive and supportive than ever, with scores of accounts dedicated to tutorials and shoutouts and just celebration of someone else’s killer trick.

It’s also more resilient, held together by the glue of an online community that skating didn’t have during its cyclical booms and bursts in the pre-smartphone era. And it’s a growing subculture on TikTok — the skateboarding tag has amassed 4.6 billion views to date, surpassing tags for tennis and movies, and the most popular accounts have more than 1 million followers and tens of millions of likes. And it’s not all street or vert tricks like you used to see in the skate videos of old. There’s longboard dancing, pump track skating, and even pet dogs pulling off impressive park lines. Skating TikTok is an online portal to a world of like-minded creators no matter where you live, where you can easily share your love of the sport with the press of a button.

One video I came across the other day featured 19-year-old Brazilian pro Dora Varella dropping into the steep end of vert skating legend Bob Burnquist’s mega ramp. She’s clearly anxious about the height — she’s standing on an artificial cliff the likes of which you might not survive if you fell straight off.

But after she psyches herself up and takes a deep breath, she steps on her board and sails down the pipe and over to the other side of the ramp. She wasn’t doing a trick or showing off. Verella was conquering her fears, for everyone — especially the legions of young female skaters coming up on TikTok — to see. The video has more than 7 million likes and counting and more than 50,000 comments overwhelmingly showing support.

The skate culture renaissance on social media isn’t restricted to just TikTok, either. Many pro skaters, like Olympic team member Nyjah Huston, have excellent Instagram accounts updated daily with clips, some more polished and well-shot than those on TikTok but impressive and endlessly entertaining all the same. And when a video of freestyle prodigy Isamu Yamamoto, a Japanese skater who pioneered a style involving riding two boards simultaneously, went viral in late July, it did so thanks to a Twitter clip. It felt like watching a young Mullen get discovered all over again.

I certainly share Mullen’s nostalgia for the early days when a skate video, like Fully Flared or Jonze’s much more influential Video Days back in 1991, could leave such a lasting impact on the culture that they still land on online listicles today. And it’s reasonable to worry that social platforms, with how they’re engineered today, don’t lend themselves well to the quiet competitive trail blazers like Mullen. To succeed on skate TikTok and get noticed, you do need to think at least a little bit like an influencer — or have a friend or editor who can do that for you.

But I also know that every time I open up TikTok and stumble upon a skate video, I’m seeing a whole new generation of younger skaters who are doing exactly what I did as a teenager. They have better technology, sure, but they’re out in the streets and busting their asses and recording with their phones for the same reasons. They love to skate, and part of that is documenting how far they’ve come and what they can accomplish in their corner of the world. But more importantly, it’s because they know there are people like me out there, ready with the like button and in awe of what they’re able to pull off with just four wheels and a plank of wood.