Presented in partnership with The Undefeated on ESPN+
Skateboarding has exploded in popularity in recent years—and especially since the pandemic hit. If its continued presence across popular media and advertising is anything to go off of, it seems that skateboarding is only becoming more and more commonplace across the world.
These days, it’s totally normal to see skateboarding in commercials for everything from potato chips to luxury goods, or to see politicians and rappers trying their hand at it on camera for cool points. Within the cultural zeitgeist, skateboarding has seemingly shaken the negative stigma that it’s long been associated with. We’re seeing parents encouraging their kids to start skating at an early age, rather than shelter them from skateboarding and its supposed “bad characters”. We’re even seeing older people picking up skating despite—or even in spite of— their age, rather than wagging their fingers at skateboarding to keep it out of sight.
Skateboarding has made a lot of progress.
Its latest peak being its inclusion at the Tokyo 2020 games, but it’s worth thinking about what another 10 years of progress could bring about. Skaters are always looking to the future while being conscious of the past, always building on what has come before.
Now that skateboarding has seemingly peaked in popularity, reached every corner of the globe, progressed to super-human levels, and has started to include people of all genders, races, and sexual orientations, maybe it’s time to take a big look backward and figure out ways it can improve on its foundation.
But first – let’s start with the past. It’s important to consider how we got to this crucial moment in skater history. ESPN+ explores this exact topic as a 30-minute doc called MONOCHROME, the latest episode of Black History Always. You can watch it now on ESPN+.
MONOCHROME features skating legends like Ray Barbee, Sal Barbier, Atiba Jefferson, Kareem Campbell, and Stevie Williams explaining their own experiences as pioneers in the sport. This storytelling about the past is paired with the personal experiences of Adrianne Sloboh, Samarria Brevard, and Zion Wright – skaters who are leading the charge for a new generation of skaters.
For starters, how can skateboarding continue to be welcoming to the growing and diverse base it has developed in recent years? And how can skateboarding—an activity that relies heavily on lumber and plastic production—work to become more sustainable to help slow the decline of our planet?
Skateboarding has long been a boys club, and it only takes one quick glance at its storied history to realize it. The Z-Boys, the Bones Brigade, the Piss Drunx, the Trunk Boyz… the list of close-knit male-centric crews seemingly goes on forever, and while none of these groups necessarily excluded women by design, the optics don’t make a case for them being so inclusive in their heyday.
One of the biggest ways skateboarding has progressed in recent years is by becoming more outwardly welcoming to new participants—most notably young women of color, and looking at the podium for Women’s Street Skateboarding at Tokyo 2020 will help anyone realize that. There have been many figures that have been instrumental in bringing about that change, and one of them is Adrian Koenigs, the founder of the female and queer-centric skate magazine Quell, based out of New York City.
“I have seen so many more people get involved in skateboarding from all identities and ethnicities. The definition of a skateboarder is changing which is obviously really exciting,” she said. “I think the work we’ve done as started to open the doors in media for voices other than the traditional cis-male stories to be told by people in the community who look or sound like themselves.”
Although that may sound like a buzzy catchphrase you’d hear on the campaign trail, the growing number of women and people of color in skateboarding is evidence of that. Things in the skate media landscape aren’t how they were 10 or even five years ago, and having magazines like Quell and other major skate outlets showcase skaters of all skill levels and from all different sorts of backgrounds has helped make that difference.
“Specifically, in the queer BIPOC space, we’ve covered some amazing organizations and people who I have personally been so proud to boost,” Koenigs said. “We’ve learned so much about community from our friends at froSkate. Proper Gnar has changed the space for graphics in skateboarding that reflect and empower women of color. Our latest magazine featured an incredible skateboarder, Samantha Bolton. I think we have only scratched the surface on what we have covered and how many other stories haven’t been told, by us or anyone else.”
And thanks to the work that Koenigs and the others at Quell have done, the narrative and coverage in skateboard media have begun to shift overall. Skateism, another magazine highlighting diversity in skateboarding, has done important work in that regard as well. Skateism has featured prominent figures of skating’s LGBTQ community, like Brian Anderson, Leo Baker, and Jeffrey Cheung, proudly celebrating their sexual and gender identities. Having these stories resonate so strongly with skating’s expanding audience has prompted older other outlets to expand their coverage and continue to support and promote skating’s diverse community.
“I believe in the next ten years skateboarding is going to explode,” Koenigs said. “I think brands and marketing are going to need to start varying their audience and their products to match the growing landscape of what skateboarding is.”
That marketing shift is already slowly starting to take hold. San Francisco-based Deluxe Distribution—which distributes skateboard brands like Real, Krooked, and Anti-hero to skate shops around the world—has recently brought Cheung’s queer-centric brand There Skateboards under their umbrella. Glue Skateboards, another independent, queer-centric skateboard brand started by Leo Baker, Cher Strauberry, and Stephen Ostrowski has quickly gained steam among skaters as well. And corporate footwear companies like Nike, adidas, and Vans are putting energy behind their female and queer riders by producing signature products or full videos promoting them and positioning them as central to their brands.
Ten years ago…
The only way skaters from these sub-sects of the culture would have ever heard of these brands and communities of support would have been by word of mouth, probably only in big skate hubs like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York. Now, kids all across the world can see their favorite skate outlets and brands showing their support, and hopefully, that trend continues.
All of this progress, though, would be for nothing if the world can’t figure out what to do about our impending climate disaster. There’s no denying that the world keeps getting hotter year after year and that natural weather disasters are becoming more common and more damaging. In fact, many of skaters’ most popular global destinations would be among the worst affected by rising temperatures and sea levels, so it’s in skateboarding’s interest to do what it can in this fight.
With its reliance on lumber and plastic for hard goods like skateboard decks and wheels, skateboarding may be contributing to this problem more than we’d think. Skateboard decks are traditionally made of seven plies of maple that are pressed and shaped into all sorts of unique shapes and sizes, but there is no active effort in place currently to replant or help maintain the forests that this maple is gathered from.
“Every box we ship out is a collection box [for the Keep It Rolling program] that shops can use to collect old gear and pass it on to people that could use it. All our products now come with a sticker or top graphic that says pass this product on to someone who can use it,” Thiebaud said. “One step of sustainability is extending the length of time that the products are used instead of just throwing them in the trash.”
On top of being made from a resource that has a long regeneration period, skateboard decks and other skate goods like wheels and bearings are often shrink-wrapped in non-recyclable cellophane packaging as well, which leaves a long trail of waste behind every skateboard assembled.
The reliance on plastics doesn’t stop at the packaging. The wheels used for skateboards were originally made of hardened clay, but have evolved over the years for performance purposes. Today, they are made out of polyurethane, a type of plastic that is cheap yet durable enough to survive the beatings that skaters put their boards through.
Many factors have gone into the decision to switch to this hard plastic, most notably how easy it is to use in bulk manufacturing, and it would take a big paradigm shift in the skate industry to curb this reliance on polyurethane. It’s not enough to just have one or two brands out there offering wheels made from alternative materials if a real impact is to be made. Unfortunately, unlike skateboard decks, wheels are not very recyclable, and once they’re thrashed there’s not much that can be done with them besides move them to landfills.
“We’re looking into alternate better plastics for the packaging of our products,” Thiebaud said. “The pandemic sort of put us on pause, but we definitely are looking into and sampling and learning about different shrinkwraps that would be better for the planet. We all have to do much better, period.” Some brands, like ACE Trucks, have already switched to biodegradable packaging for their products, but as the world continues to go through economic recovery due to the pandemic, the additional cost for these types of materials may have to wait just a little longer.
Skaters have grown accustomed to polyurethane wheels, so much so that they’re even a bit of a signifier within the culture. They’re responsible for that familiar screech we hear from skaters power sliding down steep hills or that click-clack we hear when a skater is rolling over sidewalk cracks. It will take a lot for skaters to give up such an identifiable and defining characteristic of skateboarding, but the brands have to be the ones leading the way if they want skaters to keep it rolling.
“Skateboarding like everything else has to constantly improve in everything that we do,” Thiebaud said. “We need to be better stewards for the planet and the future. It’s something that we are working on and acknowledging we have to be better at.”
The future of skating is looking bright, and the diversity of thinking within the culture is helping guide us in the right direction. Skaters have helped set trends for a long time across fashion, music, and fine art, but maybe most importantly, they are now positioned to set trends that will help make the world a happier and more habitable place for everyone.
Alexis Castro is a Brooklyn-based managing editor/videographer for Jenkem Magazine