Exhibits / February 22, 2018
The sport and art of skateboarding advanced rapidly in the 1980s, as did the subculture surrounding it. Though limited mostly to the contest circuit and empty pools and reservoirs (a Southern California discovery brought about by drought) in the previous decade, the invention of the polyurethane wheel and other advancements—wider, lighter, concaved decks with a pronounced kicktail—allowed skateboarders to go faster and develop new tricks. Thrasher magazine, first published in 1981, helped to establish skateboarding’s renegade credentials, and has served as the pursuit’s primary historical document ever since.
Modern skateboarding originated in working-class Venice and South Santa Monica—nicknamed “Dogtown” because the area had “gone to the dogs”—as an alternative to surfing: when waves were fickle, surfers took to the streets. The Z-Boys, a local surf and skate team sponsored by the Zephyr surf shop, swept the Del Mar Nationals skateboarding competition in 1975—and changed the sport forever. Instead of the laid back, gymnastic techniques established in the 1960s, the Z-Boys went for speed, spontaneity, and attitude. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, however, that what we know as “street” skating came into its own. Skaters like Natas Kaupas and Mark “Gonz” Gonzales manipulated everything they found in their environment—curbs, docks, benches, angled walls, fire hydrants, handrails—which soon led to an influx of anti-skateboarding measures. Natas’s segment in Santa Cruz Skateboards’ video Wheels of Fire (1987), which shows him skating around his house, turning every obstacle and edifice into a new trick, was a turning point, a revelation that instantly evolved the sport. Ramps and skate parks were few and far between at the time, but anyone with a board could find a schoolyard or a parking block.
By March of 1986, the skateboarding lifestyle had assimilated elements of punk, surfing, Los Angeles car culture, street art, DIY, and metal. The Circle-A symbol for anarchy was prominently displayed on decks, on shoes, on body parts: there are no rules in skateboarding, and skaters tend to dislike head-to-head competition. At the time, they also tended to be territorial, the legacy of Dogtown’s aggressive “locals only” policy; those who “didn’t belong,” especially those with expensive gear and little talent, were labeled “posers” or “kooks.” At the same time, commercialization of the hobby was kicking into high gear, and skaters started to develop their own brands and open their own shops to combat what they perceived as corporate meddling. Skateboarding films like Thrashin’ (1986) and Gleaming the Cube (1989), which employed high profile skaters for the action sequences, further complicated the relationship between the radical individualism of the scene and the always lurking danger of selling out, of being exploited, of becoming the poisonous root of yet another diversion for rich kids.