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Living: The Irresistible Lure Of Grabbing Air

6 minute read
Jay Cocks

No wonder it is irresistible. Equipment to do it is relatively cheap. You can hone your skills on a grand backyard ramp or in a special park, but a downtown sidewalk will do just as nicely. The action is fast, furious and decidedly funky. Uniforms are not required, but style is vital, and the available styles are great. You can talk about it in resonant slang whose references to half pipes and acid drops, crackin’ Ollies and catchin’ air can be as arcane as a Rosicrucian oath. You can do it in the country or city, by a beach or across some asphalt. It’s risky but not all that dangerous. And the cops don’t like it. Perfect.

Skateboarding, once a skill practiced mostly by becalmed surfers and, later, a teen fad, has entered its third phase, bigger, badder, radder and more streetwise than ever. For proof, drop by the Fallbrook, Calif., backyard of Tobin White, 15, and check out the ramp: 32 ft. wide and 12 1/2 ft. high, the Fallbrook ramp is a commanding curve of wood built last summer by Tobin and his father. It has turned into a challenging arena where amateurs like Tobin can mix it up with seasoned veterans, all of them working up thrombosis- teasing speed as they turn the course and leave the ground, grabbing glorious air.

There are now an estimated 20 million riders hitting the decks. Skateboarders speed and rumble all around the Picasso sculpture in downtown Chicago. They come from as far away as Scotland to maneuver Milwaukee’s Turf Skateboard Park. Georgia’s Savannah Slamma is an annual springtime ritual for boarders to show their stuff. Says Scott Oster, 18, a pro skater out of Los Angeles: “Kids are ripping all over.”

It isn’t just kids, really. Teens are tuning in, but older skaters have been hanging in as well. “The popularity of skateboarding has run in cycles,” says Brad Dorfman, 38, whose Vision company, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., pulled in over $30 million in revenue last year by making outstanding boards and a lot of good duds to go with them. “But every time around, the foundation and following of skateboarding keep getting stronger and broader.” Down in Atlanta, Mark Lawrence, owner of Crazy Lou’s Skateboards, is similarly optimistic. “Because of the skaters who’ve been around a while, the consensus is that this is no longer a fad,” he says. “It’s gotten to be a life- style.”

All this pan-generational enthusiasm fires up an industry for equipment and clothes that is reckoned to be worth, overall, about half a billion dollars a year. It says something about the devotion the sport engenders that with such big bucks at stake, skateboarding remains a pretty straight-ahead endeavor. It has its own magazines (Thrasher and Transworld Skateboarding are the most successful), its own lingo, its own half-mystical lore and its own concepts of < cool. No thrasher excessively applauds another for an especially rad move. Miss a trick, and another skater will say, with offhand censure, “That was totally lame.” But get it right, and the same comment or a close variation (“You’re such a dweeb for making that”) will be offered, but delivered this time with an admiring irony. “Basically, it’s a fun thing,” smiles Competition Skater Don Hillsman of Atlanta. “But harassment is big with skaters. I mean, this is not a ‘nice’ sport like golf.”

Clothes are important, and a thrasher turnout has standard components: oversize T shirt, baggy shorts, high-top sneakers and, often topping it off, a kind of revisionist Huntz Hall cap. Those basics allow for infinite variations in color and design, and the skateboarding T shirts sold in stores like Rip City in Santa Monica, Calif., have a heady graphic punch that combines elements of biker insignia, psychedelic coloring and underground-comics’ goofiness. Surfers favor light colors, but skaters go for darker hues. “Dark colors make more of a hard-core statement than bright surf wear,” says Santa Monica Artist Jim Ganzer, whose Jimmy’Z regalia for beach and board will pull down sales between $25 million and $30 million this year. “When you fly up into the air and land on concrete — that’s not water.”

When urethane wheels, which give a smooth ride and solid traction, began to be used around 1973, the streets turned into open thrasher territory, and there were pressures brought to institutionalize the sport. Says George Powell, president of the Santa Barbara-based Powell Corp., which makes the coveted Powell-Peralta skateboards: “People who had power in the industry tried to make skating a Little League sport. But kids want skating to be their sport, not their parents’.” Skateboarding languished until it burnished its outlaw image anew. Now “skaters are the punk rockers of the sport set,” says Thrasher Editor Kevin Thatcher. But aside from a taste for heavy metal-tinged rock, this is a matter more of appearance than substance.

Skaters may not be front runners for the high school citizenship citation, but there is an easy and equitable racial mix among thrashers. Rivalry seems to occur along geographical, not blood, lines. Eastern skateboarders smart about skateboarding’s being seen as another sunny fad from Southern California, while the folks on the West Coast tend to rise above the controversy — smoothly, natch — as if they were crackin’ an Ollie (standing on the board and bouncing straight into the air) over a large fire hydrant.

Powell believes the new boom in boards occurred because everyone recognizes the “legitimacy of the street terrain.” Longtime Skateboarder Thatcher speaks to a deeper appeal: “The skater doesn’t have to rely on anybody or anything to do his sport. He doesn’t need a wave, a ski slope or a team, and he likes it that way.” The police, of course, do not, and the buoyant banditry of skateboarding can lead the law a merry chase. “To skateboard you’ve got to be aggressive, and you’ve got to be a little crazy,” says Roger Mullen, 17, of Ventura, Calif. Law officers get heated up over potential noise, traffic, safety and property violations. Explains Mark Wynn, 12, who skates in Atlanta: “Cops always think you’re tearing up places, and they’re wrong . . . well, sorta.” Police policy about skaters seems to have only one common denominator: chase ’em. In Chicago, authorities tell skaters to get off the sidewalk, while others tell them to get out of traffic.

In the end, of course, it probably doesn’t matter. “To have fun, we have to break the law,” says Atlanta’s Don Hillsman. “Skaters don’t like rules.” What they do like, when something like the Fallbrook ramp isn’t right handy, is swimming pools: big, high-sided, kidney-shape swimming pools — drained, naturally, to allow for the most radical coasting up and down the sloping concrete. Skaters aren’t much on giving out awards, but there is one sure way to reckon the most bio (for bionic, meaning best) skater in the neighborhood: count the trespassing tickets received for skating empty pools. In the world of thrashers, that beats a blue ribbon every time.

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