Presented in partnership with The Undefeated on ESPN+
The history of skateboarding, much like everything else in this world, has been pretty whitewashed for a long time. Skateboarding’s most recognizable figures and names—like Tony Hawk, Bam Margera, and Rob Dyrdek—have obviously done a lot for skateboarding, but lesser-recognized skaters of color, and particularly Black skaters, have long been the innovators and groundbreakers of the culture, but have not received the same household name recognition.
While that is changing a bit, with Nyjah Huston being the American poster boy at Tokyo 2020, it’s also important to remember the Black skaters that paved the way for him and so many others out there today.
Whenever race issues are brought up in skateboarding, a common refrain you see in Instagram and YouTube comments is “skateboarding doesn’t care what color your skin is,” as if to say we are all skaters first, and everything else second. As well-intentioned of a thought as it is, it’s a little misguided because it doesn’t acknowledge the breadth of experiences that skaters of color have had in the subculture.
This exact topic is explored in this month’s Black History Always special on ESPN+’s The Undefeated.
Exclusively on ESPN+ on Thursday, July 29 – MONOCHROME highlights and celebrates the Black experience in skateboarding – in recognition of skateboarding in the Summer Games and Black Olympians.
In the early years of street skateboarding, Black skaters were some of the biggest innovators and purveyors of cool but rarely got the center stage spotlight. A young Ray Barbee was featured in Powell Peralta’s highly influential 1989 skate video Ban This, but the video’s intro sequence suggests that the target audience didn’t necessarily include skaters who looked like him.
Skaters like Lavar McBride, Jovantae Turner, and Karl Watson were some of the local innovators in San Francisco’s ’90s street skating scene, but the most celebrated figures of that era looked nothing like them either. Whether intentional or not, it’s easy to see how young skaters of color could see these choices being made and feel like maybe skating wasn’t “their thing” like they thought it was.
And within communities of color, that sentiment is often reiterated. Growing up Mexican in Northern California, I couldn’t count the number of times family members told me that skating was “for white boys.” It’s a sentiment that Black skaters are familiar with as well. Things are starting to change in skating as it becomes increasingly racially diverse, mixed-gendered, and inclusive to people of all sexual orientations, and as a result, Black skaters are getting more big looks and support than they did in skating’s early years.
It’s well deserved, because just like in the ’90s and the 2000s, Black skaters are still some of the coolest, most influential, and most innovative of the bunch, and the world is getting brought up to speed. In case you aren’t in the loop, here are some examples of names you’ll probably see popping up everywhere from now on.
Sage Elsesser (a.k.a. Navy Blue)
Through his media presence, Sage comes off as someone with a low-key personality that keeps to himself, but funny enough, he’s spent the last half a decade as one of the faces of Supreme, arguably the loudest and most influential brand in skateboarding. He’s also one of Converse’s most recognizable skate ambassadors and has a couple of signature sneaker releases with the brand under his belt as well. For someone who seems to want to duck the spotlight, he often ends up in it anyway.
While his skate output has slowed a bit over the last few years, that doesn’t mean he’s been completely inactive. After retreating a bit into the shadows, he’s slowly begun re-emerging as a talented and respected rapper. He’s never pushed his music career too heavily on his skate audience, but his mega-fans will always dig for info on what he’s up to. He lets the releases themselves do the talking, but he’s already a music press favorite and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Whether it’s in fashion, music, or skateboarding itself, Sage will be a torchbearer of this generation.
Briana has done a lot to make skateboarding a more inclusive and welcoming culture. She’s spoken about the feeling of being intimidated about going out to skate as a newcomer, especially as a woman and queer person. She’s taken that energy and redirected it toward a series of queer and female-friendly skate meetups that she’s turned into a global affair, hosting events across The States, Europe, and soon Asia, pandemic permitting.
Aside from her work as a skate ambassador, she’s made major moves in the fashion and modeling worlds, starring in campaigns for brands like Dior, Prada, Jordan Brand, and the list just keeps going. A lot of times, skaters turn their nose up when they feel major corporations are coopting skateboarding to fit their agenda, but it’s really no surprise that brands of this size look for someone like Briana to represent them. She is a young, cool, and ambitious person who cares about creating safe spaces for those who don’t always have them, and the world would truly be better off with more people like her, so who wouldn’t want to get behind that?
Dashawn is a skater who has taken the more contest-oriented route and had a strong run during Olympic qualifications, but outside of that, he’s looking to make a mark elsewhere in the world by developing a non-profit (he’s dabbling in music himself as well).
He’s racked up a collection of cool legacy sponsors like Spitfire and Toy Machine, while also dipping his toe in the million-dollar TV deal side of skating through Street League, which is broadcast to millions of people worldwide. His fans are just as likely to be skaters who get kicked out of the local high school for trespassing and people who watched Game 6 of the NBA Finals with a big crew of friends, which is to say his appeal is about as broad as it gets in skating.
He doesn’t let anyone put him in a box because he might place in a contest and film a gnarly clip for his next video part in the same weekend, and not many skaters out there can hold a candle to that. He’s a role model in the way someone like Lebron James or Steph Curry is; they are all driven, successful, unafraid to have fun in the limelight, and are always eager to give back to their communities.
Skateboarding has gone global over the last decade, and one of the biggest names outside of The States is Lucien Clarke. As one of the faces for Palace Skateboards—a brand that has taken on a Supreme-like level of hype and crossover appeal—Lucien has been cemented as a style icon for hypebeasts and skaters alike. His unique personal style eventually caught the attention of Virgil Abloh who tapped him to appear in a Louis Vuitton runway show for Spring/Summer 2019. The relationship between Lucien, Virgil, and Louis Vuitton has grown since then, recently culminating in a signature sneaker for Lucien with the fashion label.
While the sneaker is probably not finding its way onto many skaters’ feet due to its price tag, the partnership itself still marks a significant milestone for skateboarding. Previously, it took a mega-star name like Kanye West to perk up the ears of the people in charge over at Louis Vuitton. Now, the creatives in charge have shaken things up and are looking to skateboarding for their influence, where a mere 20 years ago they probably wouldn’t have given a skater the time of day. Funny how those things work out.
Lucien is even venturing out and working on his own clothing line, DCV ‘87, which is an intersection of his own art and photography and his personal style. It draws from retro inspirations, like graphics you’d see on old Betamax and DV cameras or old video games, blended with Lucien’s own streetwear influence and style. Don’t be surprised if you see it on the backs of people like Rihanna or ASAP Rocky in the near future.
Like a couple of others on this list, Beatrice is probably most known through her affiliation with Supreme, as well as other notable skate brands like Fucking Awesome and Vans. She’s helped bring a strong female presence to those brands, which have long been staples of the male-dominated streetwear crossover world within skateboarding. Recently, Vans even gave her the opportunity to put her spin on their AVE Pro and Skate Style 53 silhouettes, showing that their support is more than a short-lived symbolic gesture. She was also prominently featured in Vans’ all-female skate video Credits, which was a true milestone for the brand and skate culture as a whole.
Aside from skateboarding, Beatrice has her own set of artistic endeavors and is constantly working on art and zine projects on the side. She’s the type of skater that is constantly working on something new, whether it’s a video project, personal art project, special product collaboration, or something else entirely new to surprise us all.
Samarria was a part of Team USA for skateboarding’s debut in the Olympics, but despite not qualifying, she’s been serving as a true role model for all the young girls out there that have been turned onto skating in the last few years. The pandemic brought in a surge of new skaters looking for something to occupy their time in isolation, and Samarria is a perfect role model for those newcomers to aspire to be like. She’s vegan and eco-conscious, is on the cover of skate mags, and is supported by notable brands like Enjoi Skateboards and New Balance Numberic.
She’s also been an ambassador for the Skate Like A Girl non-profit, hosting virtual meetups through the pandemic, and always seems to have a beaming smile on her face, making her a warm and inviting figure in a culture that’s often known for its brooding and even troubled personalities.
Putting it simply, Ishod Wair is a skater’s skater. He dresses cool, has a cool bag of go-to tricks, has a chill persona, and generally seems like a fun person to be around. He’s the type of person you want around to bring good energy to a skate session.
But beyond skating, like so many others featured on this list, Ishod is making his influence felt in pop culture through his fashion connections. Recently, he was featured in a campaign for Drake’s collaborative NOCTA imprint with Nike, which is notable considering how powerful the Drake cosign has been for so many people’s careers (not that Ishod needs the bump). But in the end, Ishod is a true skate rat, and you can bet on the fact that his feed and focus will always be skateboarding first.
Tyshawn is possibly the closest thing to Michael Jordan in skateboarding today. He cemented himself as one of the greatest ever by winning Thrasher’s 2018 Skater of the Year at the age of 20, he has a successful (and coveted) line of signature sneakers with Adidas, he’s the owner of a Caribbean restaurant in The Bronx (Taste So Good), and to top it all off, he’s a full-blown model signed to DNA. All at the age of 22.
Tyshawn is a full-blown icon that (maybe unlike Jordan) is not shy about speaking out against racial injustices in the world, as well. Skater, athlete, businessman, model… there are fewer people out there that can or will do as much as this young man from The Bronx has done so far in his life. We’ll be lucky to witness what comes next for him.
Alexis Castro is a Brooklyn-based managing editor/videographer for Jenkem Magazine