Any study of human origins includes an appreciation and understanding of the development of human culture. Typically, a study of humanity examines human needs: the physical aspects (travel, shelter, communication, defense, food) and the less tangible psychological aspects (art, ceremony, and spirituality). It’s how these needs are satisfied that qualifies and differentiates one culture from another, one type of people from another.
Thus, when skateboarding and skaters are considered an element of our contemporary counterculture, I find myself sensitized. It’s like feeling, well, suspicious. It’s a mental exercise–an intellectual pursuit, perhaps–but it seems to be happening with such regularity that maybe it’s time to take notice and acknowledge that skateboarding is, in effect, a microcosm of the future of humanity. Skaters are emissaries from the world of tomorrow.
This seemingly preposterous statement is best evidenced by two separate experiences I was able to enjoy earlier this month; they both happened on one particular Saturday–at an art show and a video premiere. The art show was in Santa Barbara, California, which happens to have been my neighborhood for the past twenty years. The premiere, Big Brother‘s second installment of video entertainment, was in Los Angeles–my home for the fifteen years before I ended up in Santa Barbara. One-hundred miles of driving was the barrier between two distinct interpretations of what skateboarding is and what it might become in its representation of humanity’s cultural future.
It was just a little more than a year ago that Armando Rascon first assembled a window on skate culture within the confines of a Santa Cruz art gallery, and now he has recreated a similar experience for Santa Barbara’s elite sophisticates. As Armando explained to those who joined him for his Santa Barbara Skatelore Expo opening, he grew up in the environment along the border between Mexico and the United States, and subversive counterculture images were part of his childhood experience. His daily life’s contemporary art icons came in the form of graffiti and political agendas thrown up against the wall. His personal appreciation of skate art, of skate statement, derives from his own particular culture. His appreciation and recognition is based upon his own experience.
When I heard Armando answering questions posed by a group of women about Mark Gonzales’ work in the art gallery, I couldn’t help but imagine that this same little coterie of women have probably seen Spike Jonze’s Nissan truck commercial featuring Mark in a recliner, and they must have thought, “Oh, how cute. Dogs do like trucks, don’t they?” There is an overlap taking place, and people don’t even know what it is. Skate culture is already part of their lives, whether they’re aware of it or not.
After all, what is art if it isn’t a measure of culture? Walk into any skateboard shop and ask yourself, “Is this art? Are these walls covered with decks representative of a statement on our contemporary culture, or are skate graphics simply commercially produced icons geared toward selling more product?” The value of Armando’s contribution to skateboarding is a true appreciation for what has been, what is, and what will be within the realm of skateboarding’s art. There is no question in his mind that there is importance in these images. As he explained during the show’s opening, skate graphics represent political and emotional issues for skaters and companies, and although they may be attached to retail products, they nonetheless do provide the skater a genuine iconographic identity that can relate directly to their lives.
Skaters’ lives and lifestyles are increasingly the substance of skate videos. The profile–the portrait–of the modern-day skater is perhaps best rendered in contemporary videos. Most skate videos rely on the true documentation approach to entertainment–go for the action and assemble what you get into a format that is at least informative, and at times entertaining. After sharing a moment in Santa Barbara with Natas Kaupas and Tommy Guerrero reflecting on skateboarding’s past, I drove to the El Rey in L.A. for Big Brother‘s documentary version of what skateboarding has become.
Clearly, there are sports that have become part of American culture. Baseball has been referred to as a microcosm of life itself. Basketball is truly an American event, and soccer is the one sport that has infected cultures around the globe–it’s crossed the cultural borders where political dogma cannot. These other sports, however, have adapted to our established cultures by becoming organized. These sports activities have become part of the world with their own seasons, their own leagues, and their own championships as they vie for their own niche in the world’s cultures.
Skateboarding has its own culture. The evidence is in art galleries, skate shops, on the street, online, and in the homes of skaters around the world. Language, rituals, ceremonies, images, and history are all part of our skate culture and our larger human cultural experience.
Within this cultural experience, the more mainstream sports are entering a crisis in their development–the night of the Big Brother premiere, Mike Piazza was booed by 45,000 L.A. Dodger fans disgusted not by his performance, but by his demands for more money. Eight-million dollars a season isn’t enough for Mike, but evidently it’s too much for his fans. Is our contemporary culture rejecting the models of the past in the search for a new direction?
As mainstream sports continue to adjust, adapt, and contribute in their own way to contemporary culture, skateboarding continues to provide a lasting experience for its participants while simultaneously contributing to the larger social order. The challenge, the fear, the pain, and the doubt of skateboarding are all overcome with the success of pulling a trick. Likewise, the success of any skate video, the success of any skate art show, the success of any skate image, product, or company is relative to our larger cultural environment, and skateboarding’s continued participation in it.