Conveniently timed for its debut at the Tokyo Olympics, there’s an exhibition about skateboarding at Somerset House, that looks at the associated skateboarding culture rather than sporting prowess.
Skateboarding arrived in the UK in the mid-1970s as an American import and although based on US surfing culture, it quickly developed a very British style of its own. It’s eye-opening to learn that skateboarding nearly died out within a few years of its arrival. A burst of enthusiasm saw around 100 sites built for skateboarders, but by the end of the decade, only 20 remained. Possibly a combination of poorly designed ramps based on Californian aesthetics and the awkward attempts by dry council officials to appeal to “the youth” made the whole thing very unappealing to the very people they were designed for.
Much better was the makeshift and accidental appropriation of rundown spaces for skateboarding, and slowly it seemed to recover some of the countercultures airs it once enjoyed, and still does.
Where in the USA, skating was aspirational sun/sand/surf, in the UK it became grittier, sometimes literally, with the use of run-down estates, post-industrial sites and rebellion.
While skateboard parks are back, and designed properly this time, with input from the users, there’s also a growing backlash against the unauthorised use of municipal spaces. Many a long wall in a public area now come with small notches or metal inserts to make skating along with them difficult. Sometimes as part of the annoying tendency by landlords to control how spaces are “appropriately” used, but also an understandable recognition that while skateboarding is great to look at, the noise it causes can be quite annoying if you find yourself living next to a piece of architecture that’s been appropriated.
Some of the more amusing aspects of the exhibition are how Adults try to understand the Youth, with slightly befuddled patronising reports being produced and some of them are on display. The controversy over the Southbank skateboard area is much easier to understand when you read some of the reports commissioned into how “young people” regard heritage and how obviously alien it is to the older folk. An academic’s paper in the “theorized history of skateboarding” is written in the sort of academic waffle that comes when someone has no idea what they are talking about but knows lots of long words to hide the ignorance.
The rest of the exhibition wanders through a mix of the history of specific sites, through the aesthetic culture of skateboarders and the rise of early Zines, and later more commercial magazines.
Today it’s estimated that there are over 750,000 skateboarders and 1,500 active skateparks currently across the UK. Skateboarding has become mainstream – not just an exhibition in Somerset House of all places, but heritage listings for early skateboard parks to preserve them for future generations. And yet managed to retain its own unique design without feeling overly commercialised.
And now it’s an Olympic sport.