Skateboarding first developed in California in the 1950s, around the same time that surfing became popular (Martin, 2006, p. 11). Since its first wave of popularity in the early 1960s (Martin, p. 7), skateboarding has undergone numerous periods of increased popularity (Beal, 2001, p. 50). Skaters, as a group, constitute an important subculture of modern life. Bordon (2001) defines a subculture as “a social world in which self-identifying values and appearances confront conventional codes of behaviour” (p. 137).
In this essay, I examine several components of the skateboarding subculture – visual arts, fashion, language, and music – in order to demonstrate how these elements have been transformed through time, usually in response to their being appropriated by mass popular culture, as opposed to the smaller subculture of skaters. Visual Arts The visual arts intersect with skateboarding in several areas, notably board design, stickers, and graphics on clothing. In the 1970s, many of the motifs in skating graphics featured the sun and the ocean.
These surf-related themes relate to skateboarding’s origins in the surf community (Bordon, 2001, p. 52). In the 1980s, the skull became the most popular skateboard motif (Bordon, p. 152). Since the late 1980s, much use has been made of slogans and political imagery, an outgrowth of punk’s influence on skating (Bordon, p. 153). One manifestation of the importance of these visual designs is how present they are at skating events. Indeed, when Beal and Wilson (2004) describe the All-Girls-Skate-Jam that took place in San Diego in September 2000, they note that “the venue was littered with stickers, posters and merchandise, and with the marketing hype came the promotional t-shirts” (p. 1). Stickers make a large component of skating paraphernalia.
There are numerous places on-line where skaters can browse and purchase available stickers from the companies that also produce skateboards and accessories. One particular distributor of these stickers contains a selection that can appeal to the various subgroups of skaters. There are stickers featuring aliens, monsters, and skulls for the more hard-core skaters, and stickers featuring animals, comic-inspired designs, and smiley faces for those less hard-core skaters (outlookskates. com).
The importance of the visual aspects of the skateboarding subculture can be seen in the fact that 80% of these graphics are designed by skaters themselves (Bordon, 2001, p. 155). These designs have been presented to a larger public through several large-scale exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London), Thread Waxing Space (New York), the Blue Note (London), and Hyde Park (Chicago) (Bordon, p. 155). These exhibitions would seem to indicate that people outside of the skating community are interested in seeing this important element of the skating subculture. Fashion
Since the late 1980s, skaters have typically worn baggy clothes (Bordon, 2001, p. 150). This fashion choice is quite functional, as the baggy clothes make it easier for skaters to perform their moves (Bordon, p. 150). Bordon notes that a typical skateboarding fashion, showing boxer shorts over the waistband of pants, was popular in the mid-to-late 1990s (p. 148). Many elements of skate fashions are found in punk fashion as well: baggy pants, Vans, and long-sleeved T-shirts featuring the names of punk bands (Palmer, 1999, p. 109). Vans, the producer of specialist skateboarding shoes, was founded early on, in 1966 (Bordon, 2001, p. 59).
Stussy is a brand of clothing that was originally marketed towards skateboarders in the 1980s (Bordon, p. 160). When skateboarding became more popular in the late 1980s and 1990s, skateboarding clothing became popular in mainstream culture (Bordon, 2001, p. 160). One sign of this trend was the increasing availability of specialist shoes and clothing in mass-market stores (Bordon, p. 160). As a result of this, many skaters have given up wearing such clothing (Bordon, p. 160). Indeed, Beal investigates a particular subgroup of skaters – those who resist the commercialization of skateboarding.
Her description of this subgroup highlights those areas particularly prone to being marketed in mainstream culture: “[They] decorated their boards with their own symbols, which, in a few cases, included poetry. They no longer bought the ‘right’ clothes or commercially produced stickers; instead, they were more innovative with their clothing and often created their own stickers” (Beal, 2001, p. 49). This change in skating fashion that coincided with the increased mass-market appeal of skating clothing seems to me to be an outgrowth of one of the commonalities that has been noted amongst skaters.
Bordon (2001), for one, notes that the subculture of skaters is directly defined as being in opposition to conventional societal norms (p. 138). Thus, it would make sense that once society accepts elements of skateboarding, the skaters would want to change those elements to make them less appealing to conventional society. Language The importance of language and slang in the skating subculture is highlighted in a letter to the editor written by a teenaged skater: “Skaters have a completely different culture from the norms of the world’s society.
We dress differently, we have our own language, use our own slang, and live by our own rules” (quoted in Beal, 2001, p. 49). Bordon (2001) contends that the creation of slang is an attempt on the part of skateboarders to resist the commodification of their lifestyle. In his opinion, these words are non-commodifiable and thus serve to keep the skateboarding world separate from that of business (p. 157). In his brief history of skateboarding, Martin (2006) lists some of the terms associated with skateboard slang and provides definitions of those words.
Examples of these words include “hodad,” “bongo,” “rad,” “grommet,” and “sick. (Martin, p. 8). Some of these terms, especially those like “rad” and “sick” that entered the vocabulary after 1980, have become often used in social circles outside of skating culture. Music In a study examining the relationship of punk music to extreme sports, including skateboarding, Palmer (1999) notes that punk’s emergence in the mid-1970s coincided with the growing popularity of extreme sports (p. 109). Aspects of punk music that appealed to these groups include loud volume, absence of a clear melody, fast tempo, intricate rhythms, raw lyrics, and lack of high levels of studio production (p. 109).
Additionally, both punk musicians and skaters often had problems with drug and alcohol abuse (p. 110). Some important punk bands for the skating community include Black Grape, The Prodigy, The Happy Mondays, White Zombie, The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, Green Day, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana (p. 109). Punk’s importance for the skating scene can be seen in the fact that the famed Marina Del Rey skate park was the site of many regular punk rock concerts (Bordon, 2001, p. 149). By the mid-1980s, punk had gained a wider audience, and as Weyland (2002) remarks, this larger appeal made the music less popular amongst skaters (p. 83). In this sense, the trend in music parallels that of fashion.
Weyland’s commentary on this change is important as it divulges one member of the skating subculture’s views on something that was considered an essential part of the culture: “As the music I listened to gained a wider audience, it altered my attitude toward the movement that had earned my fanatical devotion. My gradual metamorphosis from zealot to slightly detached observer was partially because the shock was over. Innovation had declined, and most of the revolutionary bands had come and gone. If punk wasn’t exactly dead, it was terminally ill.
The banality of repetition had dulled my senses, and the music wasn’t only mine anymore; there were thousands of punkers and other people into so-called weird stuff in San Diego alone. Punk and its progeny were becoming institutionalized” (p. 283). Several musical styles attempted to take the place of punk in the skating subculture. In the late 1980s, “skate rock” music was created. This style of music blends together hardcore, rap, and other styles of music (Bordon, 2001, p. 155). Examples of bands that play this type of music include Beach Blanket Bongout, McRad, Skatemaster Tate and his Concrete Crew, and Tupelo Chain Sex (Bordon, p. 55).
Another genre of music that replaced punk as being of importance with skaters was rap (Weyland, 2002, p. 285). In Weyland’s estimation, rap’s popularity with skaters had less to do with its underlying racial messages than the fact that “rap reflected a reality that wasn’t pleasant or understood by mainstream society” (p. 286). Aside from “skate rock” and rap, another style of music that replaced punk in the skating world was speed metal by such groups as Metallica, Motorhead, and Slayer (Weyland, p. 286).
Another important intersection between the skating subculture and music would be those skaters who themselves were musicians. In fact, the professional skater Chuck Treece was the guitarist for skate-punk-reggae bands (Bordon, 2001, p. 141). In conclusion, the areas of visual arts, fashion, language, and music form important part of skaters’ identities. These aspects of the skating subculture have undergone numerous changes since the invention of skateboarding in the 1950s. As I have shown, some of these changes were prompted by mainstream culture’s acceptance of elements of skating culture.