How do you look at a city landscape? Perhaps your eyes are opened by your interests or job. An architect or surveyor may view a city block with the possibilities of modernity and regeneration. Maybe if you are a history or classical art fan you bemoan the glass monstrosities and old buildings turned into shitty Weatherspoons or McDonalds. Maybe you like looking for the trees or green spaces, the garden areas; roots cracking through the pavements.
I guarantee nobody looks at a city like a skateboarder. The way a skateboarder perceives the world is completely unique. Once you have been a skateboarder, the way you look at even simple urban architecture is completely changed and you never look at things the same way again. Suddenly modern art sculptures have a whole new layer of possibility, dirty car parks start looking attractive, concrete banks become years of solid fun and not an eyesore. Painted kerbs become a holy grail. You develop opinions on kerbstones, salt bins and picnic benches. I have not skated for twenty years and I still look at my driveway and picture backside ollies.
The only other cultural movement that looks at city space in a similar, although very different, way is a graffiti writer. They may look for flat surfaces that are out of the way, with no security cameras or night guards and return these places at odd times. Much like a skater, they will often climb fences and gates to get to the place they intend.
I spent my teenage years in these places, exploring every back alley, car park, school playground, street and dead end in search of a different spot to skate but we’ll get to the reasons for that. This article was meant to be an interview with veteran Australian skateboarder and filmmaker Chris Coleman. Chris lives in Melbourne and it’s been a few years since I’ve seen him, but last year we talked for over an hour online on this unique relationship between skater and the city. It was most enjoyable and good to catch up, however my luck ran out this time, as I expected it would at some point. I either forgot to switch on my voice recorder or deleted it by mistake when I went to listen back to it. What follows is my take on some of the things we talked about, based on my shoddy memory and the scant notes I made. My apologies of course to Chris for the article this could have been.
We started off talking about how good lockdown has been for skateboarding, which is something I hadn’t considered before. In Melbourne, and probably in most cities worldwide, skaters now had access to 100% of everything. There was no bars open so the streets and pavements weren’t covered with tables and drinkers. The city was suddenly completely available during the day; every day. And this seems a major positive to come from lockdown. Cruising the streets with little or no traffic, like it was film set or New Year’s Day in Scotland but with better weather. Very quickly the spots that were totally inaccessible before were now fully skate-able. To the skateboarder, the city was finally open.
Then I remembered a brief time during lockdown when West Lothian was on the same tier as Edinburgh. I took the family into the capital and was able to park in the Grassmarket with no problem. We walked up the steps to an almost deserted castle parade ground. Normally at this time of year it would’ve been full of visitors. In fact you probably wouldn’t have been able to see the castle due to the enormous seating for the military Tattoo. There was less than 10 people in the whole area and I doubt I’ll ever see it that quiet on a summer’s afternoon again.
This constant search for new spots, different places and general exploration of the place you are in for me was key to the understanding and also the fun of skateboarding. I was never one to stay in the same place for long and always enjoyed tearing up the streets like a Mike V video part. It is this interest in the lesser known places and the unknown that I believed was important.
Urban exploring seems to not be quite so much a thing anymore with the plethora of skate parks available, something that was completely lacking when I skated. Chris and I agree on this and he is always looking for new and untouched skate spots, not just to skate but also to film. A drive to work on a different route becomes a chance to scout for new spots. It is an excuse to go checking out different suburbs and areas. There is an element of effort in this that most people won’t realise if your concept of skateboarding is at the local park, the X-Games, or more likely on the X-Box.
The search and particularly the discovery of spots is exciting and addictive. Chris prefers the more obscure and crusty places and admitting the influence of Rick McCrank in this (see links). Skateboarding is not perfect. The majority of skaters, at least when they’re staring out and learning, do not have the amazing Californian weather or an expensive park on their doorsteps. You therefore learn to use your eyes in your surroundings, and your imagination. Utilise whatever is around you, whether it is filling in concrete gaps, using public items such as grit bins or picnic tables, or stealing kerbstones from building sites and transporting them to your own spot. Once the spot is found or created it echoes through the entire skate scene quickly. We once swept out an abandoned fish shed and stole some kerbstones and planks of wood to act as ramps. It didn’t last long, but it was worth it.
For Chris, it took moving from Brisbane to Melbourne in his early twenties to recognise one of the most important aspects of skateboarding that again may not be obvious to outsiders, the social aspect. Homo sapiens are a tribal species, and nothing pushes the individual more than a positive group influence. A good crew forces progression and everyone improves; feeling like a team in what remains an individual activity. Again, a difficult concept maybe for non-skaters to understand, but it exists in many other pastimes and sub cultures from climbing to combat sports.
This certainly worked for Chris, he’s been hanging around with the same bunch of dudes that he has for years, many of whom have been very successful, one of his best friends even skating for Australian in the Tokyo Olympics. So perhaps I’m way off the mark here and what is important to skateboarding is not the connection to place at all, but the connection to people. And it makes spending hours and hours in a manky car park all the more enjoyable.
“Skateboarding is whatever you want to make of it.” Chris Coleman, June 2021.
Currently listening to: Tales of Realms Forgotten by Tyrant
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And watch some of his videos here:
If you’re not convinced skateboarding has a place in an outdoors blog check out this video of Rick Howard directed by the inimitable Spike Jonze: