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7/7/2020 / Issue #031 / Text: Gaia Gragnolati

Skateboarding in 2020: Reclaiming Authenticity in the City

Skateboarding in Amsterdam

The current pandemic has forced many of us to live in a period of self-seclusion. Amsterdam’s neighborhoods were left to themselves, devoid of action. The frenzy of daily negotium1 got replaced by a spirit of otium2. Silence and absence of dynamism turned the urban space into a non-place, a space devoid of intrinsic quality. But, these spaces can also become places for new action.

Normally, the frenzy of the rhythm of everyday life makes us interact frantically with the ordinary functionality of the infrastructures of the city. Yet, the recent lockdown prompted me to look beyond these conventions. As with many cities around the world, the urban scape of Amsterdam turned into fertile ground for experimentation. The lack of presence, action and business of people transformed the city into something to be explored. In particular, for me, the absence of traffic became an opportunity to experience the city in a different way: through skateboarding. In fact, not only myself but a great part of Amsterdam’s community decided to fill the vacuum of the streets through the use of alternative personal transportation methods (BMXs, wave boards, hoverboards, kick bikes, monowheels, scooters, roller skates). But, there is something unique about skateboarding. Skateboarding allows to live the city in a different way. It is about living the quality of the concrete materiality of the urban space in a completely distinct way from its original function.

The Personal Dimension of Skateboarding
Skateboarding turns the fabric of the city and its infrastructures into a space for imaginary play. A skateboard is a means to appropriate space, to discover a space’s hidden potential. With a skateboard, you can make up new rules for experiencing a city. The lack of intrinsic purpose in the activity of skateboarding is what encourages the development of a positive attitude of genuine creativity. Balance and momentum, both important in the act of skating, are physical skills developed through an attitude of self-determination. That is why skateboarding acts as a good tool for cultivating a personal teleology. It involves self-confrontation; skateboarding will always be about falling and scraping knees. It cultivates resilience. The attitude of pushing the boundaries of “safety” by practicing ollies, kickflips, or dark-slides releases a personal striving, and the aspiration to master new skills. It teaches you to confront your individual boundaries by projecting them on the concrete world. Being on a board teaches a way of redefining yourself through physical means.

A way of Negotiating Public Semiotics
That personal willingness of taking risks motivates the formation of an authentic engagement with the city. Skateboarding teaches to derail from any predetermined track. Living the fabric of the urban space on wheels transforms the city’s structural limits. It disrupts the hidden transcripts of architectural semiotics. By going beyond the functional design of things, skateboarding strips the objects of their conventions. It is a means of re-imagining the conventional representations of space; a tool for rethinking the relationship of urban structures and space. For a skateboarder, streets and buildings turn into white canvases. A vacuum where to seek new forms of experience. For this, skateboarding recreates objects, thus, enriching the urban configurations with a multitude of purposes. In this way, a skateboard represents a powerful means to build new relationships with the topography of the city through a form of self-expression.

Every skateboarder in its own idiosyncratic form contributes to the evolution of an authentic street culture. They reject to be mere spectators of the public life and urban geographies. Skateboarding teaches to not be commanded by external regulations but instead to stop perpetuate them; it is an implicit reclaim of space. Its anti-mainstream attitude overcomes mass consciousness by refusing identification. To skateboard represent a way to call into question the most sedimented prescriptions of the city’s infrastructures. It is choosing for agency and self-expression.

The Political Dimension of Skateboarding
The characteristic aspect that distinguishes skateboarding is its authentic commitment to freedom. Its activity founds on an inner resistance to the rigidity of systems, identification and uniformity. This spirit of individual revolt recently came together on American streets to initiate a bigger change. Skateboarders of San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Portland, Philadelphia joined in peaceful protest of Black Lives Matter in the social endeavor to combat racism. They decided to oppose to oppressive representations of ethnic diversity. Here, skateboards became versatile gear for political action. Board’s grips and decks turned into air slogans (“BLM”, “No Racist Police”), into destructive baseball bats and, even into heavy drumming sticks.

From the reinvention of a wooden board to the one of a material space, what skateboarding teaches is that things can always be changed. No matter how sedimented in the material nature, landscape, or collective imaginary. Skateboarders are spokesmen of an authentic striving. It is their willingness to resist oppressive normativities. From a personal negotiation of space and public objects, skate protests transform skateboarding into a symbol of collective identity.

Here skateboarding became a symbol of political resistance. Crowds of skaters came to the streets to push the boundaries of cultural biases. In a spirit of collective revolt, skaters came to question the relationship with public space and the mediacy of the political system. These protests legitimately manifest skateboarders’ subcultural identity. Here, skateboarders come together as a conglomerate of diversity: different cultures reclaiming their place in the world. The physical act of skating turns into a symbol of urban identity which, being heterogeneous in nature, manifests as a claim for inclusivity. From the most intimate strive for personal freedom skateboarders wish to reclaim principles of universal freedom, demanding social inclusivity, and political equality.

The multidimensionality of skateboarding renders it a fascinating subcultural phenomenon. It represents a response to one’s personal condition that has the potentiality to evolve into a collective striving. For me, skateboarding only started as an attempt to break the deadlock of my solitary confinement. But, without doubt, this experience marked only the beginning of a stimulating personal journey that transcends the boundaries of a mere physical activity. Skateboarding can leave tangible signs and amplify our individual voices. It is fuel for our imaginative potential, our earthly vehicle to creatively respond to social oppressions and political struggles.