Skateboarding Is Not Progressive
Poking Holes In Perception.
SKATEBOARDING IS NOT PROGRESSIVE
Skateboarding has traditionally been a vehicle for creatives, outcasts, and those seeking subculture. While there’s always an expanding and contracting sect who view skateboarding as a sport or an activity, it's become a community and almost a religion to some. Because of its attraction to outsiders, the myth was birthed that it’s progressive. We hear this incessantly in think pieces, specifically those written over the last five years. “I was attracted to skateboarding because it’s so progressive but… “
Part of removing the “but” in these conversations is leveling things and accepting the reality that once the skateboarding industry switched from toy companies to core companies in the 1970s it ceased to be progressive. Due to the accessibility, a global community has taken to creating their own version of it, skateboarding has changed to reflect those outsider voices that perhaps combine to equal its actual majority but the infrastructure isn’t progressive by any social or even economic standards. In fact, if we view “skateboarding”—the generic term we apply to a thing so broad no one truly can quantify how large it is—through the lens of how we see society or even the political landscapes across the globe, it’s muddy, complicated, and closer to Donald Trump’s brand of Republican “values” rather than anything close to progressive.
Trump’s strategy—not platform—is to allow wealthy white men in power to remain in power and enact policy driven by economic gain. He’s vile, he mocks those marginalized, he panders to those who want “less government” but also wants more rules against the marginalized. Bootstrapping, free market, and “if you want it, come get it” are the tenets and the “love it or leave it” sentiment could easily be subbed out for “shut up and skate.” In other words, if you disagree with his faux-policy, you’re not only wrong but should be silent about it and go about your business. This mirrors dissent in the skateboarding industry.
While there’s no lack of anti-authority sentiment, it’s mostly focused outward on police and security guards. We can almost mirror that to those who hate “big government” and don’t want economic regulation or gun control for example. In skateboarding, “shut up and skate” is a simple, dismissive and antiquated slogan, invented in the ‘80s and popularized by Zorlac Skateboards. It was never meant to be used in its context now, specifically in social media, where commenters throw it around whenever any gender, equality, or political issues in skateboarding arise.
To drill into this leap in thinking, we should break down the sectors of skateboarding’s industry composition to fully understand skateboarding’s historical lack of progressive action and thinking. This is not a referendum on those who have been progressive but rather a way to highlight those who strive to use their position to advance it and level set expectations.
Several conservative economists do not want universal health care, universal income, welfare, equal pay or a living wage. These are the most direct lines we can make to the skateboarding industry who treat most professionals as independent contractors who have to “work to get paid fairly.” Furthermore, partially due to their size, most skate companies aren’t publicly traded, therefore we cannot access their value making their profitability trivial.
Being an independent contractor means the company doesn’t owe you benefits, profit share or anything other than a paycheck—there is no structure other than “do this until we don’t want to pay you.” This allows companies the freedom to cycle through riders as they deem necessary. Unlike organized sports that have unionized, there is no retirement plan for a qualified professional. Conservatives dislike unions and would rather say that the money you make during your career is yours to invest in your future and competitive balance will create the best investment, health care, and housing opportunities. They’ll also claim that the reason this isn’t entirely the case is because of Democrats pushing back on this free-market approach.
This economic model not only cripples the actual talent who propel the industry but because of the expense of producing products in the United States, takes production to China, Mexico, and other countries with less regulated labor. In a sense, not only does the industry support child labor to produce goods but by encouraging minors to forego education by enticing them with a pro model, they are taking a less than progressive stance on child labor in their employee practices.
This splits things into “talent” (team riders) and “production workers” which is a much broader category. If we look at production as a large bucket, this can stretch as far as those working in factories to produce skateboards into the digital space where people create content for brand social media handles—it’s a massive expanse bound by a “free market” principle which is something central to the thinking of Economic Conservatives. The belief is that if an economy isn’t regulated with minimum wage, gender pay equality, or affirmative action, it will make the market competitive and reward those providing best-in-class services. While that may seem logical to some, we realize that this doesn’t work in the current economic structure in the US specifically.
We can draw a parallel by thinking of skateboarding as a cousin of the entertainment industry. Many aspiring actors, writers, producers, and set workers would work for free in order to build their bodies of work which is a massive reason why unions exist. The unions not only de-privatize pay but also ensure that “scabs” cannot take the jobs of those who pay into the unions. It’s the same thing in professional sports. In 1994, The Major League Baseball Union voted to strike, refusing to finish the 1994 season, canceling the postseason and postponing Opening Day in 1995. The owners were ready to use replacement players, dubbed scabs for crossing the union’s lines, who were willing to play for whatever they’d be compensated for.
Because skateboarding has no union of any sort, a professional or anyone employed in the industry can be paid as much or as little as their employers feel is right. This has not lead to best-in-class services being rewarded but instead, the economic disparity in skateboarding. Take a look at the Global Rankings at The Boardr. Are these the highest-paid skateboarders? Does an artist or designer at Element make more than one at Plan B or WKND? Few really know the answers.
So let’s talk about employees. No one knows the percentages or pay scale for women and LGBTQ workers in skateboarding but by scanning the landscape and speaking to activists such as Kim Woozy and Mimi Knoop, we can estimate it at less than 10% over the past 30-40 years. This also means that the majority of the product, strategy, promotion, media, team management, event production, and video content has been overwhelmingly not only male but dominated by brand involvement.
For most forms of media, corporate or at least brand interests are first. Many have joked that there is no such thing as journalism in skateboarding for this exact reason. There’s no reporting only promotion. There are no formal checks and balances against skateboarding’s labor practices or social behaviors, only reactions when behavior has gone into the red. This form of media specifically is the opposite of the free press and exactly why we as a community rarely know anything as fact in skateboarding.
In looking at the late-Transworld Skateboarding Magazine and Thrasher Magazine as examples, they were both started by truck companies looking to promote their riders, while the defunct but beloved Big Brother Magazine was not only a vehicle for World Industries’ brands but was essentially a satire publication not a source of news or traditional journalism.
Additionally, those involved in skate media—print and digital—have historically been CIS males who rarely have the instincts to cover what’s outside their sphere of skateboarding. While this patriarchy is beginning to change, the money structure makes it largely difficult for smaller publications to secure the ad money to raise their profile.
Who was the first African American to turn pro? They’re not recognized in the Skateboarding Hall of Fame, they’re not mentioned during Black History Month, and even a Google search—if you actually care enough to look—won’t produce a clear answer immediately. What’s interesting is that the only responsible bodies in skateboarding are the corporations or larger organizations such as the Olympic committees who conversely are the most dissected and distrusted. They have to be accountable whereas a core skate brand can pivot, ask for a post to be deleted or just ignore hate speech or any real controversy.
Despite the lack of inclusion in skate history, minority-owned companies are where skateboarding has fared well, especially since the 2000s but it was only in the mid-90s that entire teams were comprised of black, Latinx, and Asian skaters in the Mark Gonzales led 60/40 that was backed by John Falahee as well as the smaller scale Profile Skateboards team. Due to the industry’s historical base in California, Latinx men have been major contributors to skateboarding but their discussion has historically been agnostic of their heritage, emphasizing their on-board contributions only.
If we drill back into skateboarding’s visual history, it’s a rather shallow dive, with illustrated graphics only being mass-produced at the tail end of the 1970s. Prior to that, skateboards mostly had simple line art or bore text with a company or rider’s name. Wes Humpston and C. R. Stecyk III were pivotal in skateboarding’s new graphic direction in the 1970s, drawing from surf, graffiti, and hot rod culture to craft more illustrative board adornments.
Surf culture, specifically the Surf Nazis of Southern California had a massive impact on the Dogtown Duo’s work, where swastikas, SS-Totenkopfverbände skulls, and iron crosses often appeared in neon-repeats. Though they weren’t intended as declarations of White Nationalism, they were hardly signifiers of progression or acceptance.
Another interesting call out in skateboarding is intellectual property. Defined as “a work or invention that is the result of creativity, such as a manuscript or a design, to which one has rights and for which one may apply for a patent, copyright, trademark, etc.” this is something skateboarding has traditionally given two shits about. Riders often have no contracts and can be stolen, graphics and logos are stolen, riffed on, and repurposed without regard to the original artist, rider or creator, and it wasn’t until videos predominantly began to live online where they’re subject to copyright law, did anyone view using an artist’s song in a video without permission as stealing? Steve Rocco once said, “Fuck you, I bought the CD at Tower Records so I own the song—sue me.”
Not only are songs typically not used with permission but very questionable choices have been made from GG Allin and Skrewdriver to Death in June and whichever misogynistic song you’d like to include of any genre. Technically, you have to be an adult to purchase or hear these songs on internet platforms but in skateboarding you just put them in the video, without regard for what language is being used.
Furthermore, there’s no concern that minors will be consuming songs that contain racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic language repeatedly, indelibly impacting their opinions subconsciously. The sentiment is that stealing without giving credit is OK and often encouraged.
THE FALLACY OF SELF-POLICING
There is the argument that at its core, skateboarding is self-governing which can be viewed as progressive if that self-moderation was creating balance. From factory production dominance to gender pay imbalance it’s easy to argue the lack of success.
By now we can see that part of skateboarding’s resistance to being self-aware is that of censorship but that observation is somewhat of a ruse. Those who have been “fighting” have not been promoting a progressive agenda but rather their agenda as it relates to their point of view, business model or personal interests. The base argument of regulation versus deregulation is central to the political situation in the United States and United Kingdom—big government or small government; liberal or conservative.
Most people in skateboarding don’t want regulation—that’s not seen as progressive. We’re punk, remember? Regulation is seen as the opposite of punk and why some of his supporters view Trump as a “punk president.” Now do you see why skateboarding is not at all progressive? Instead, it’s similar to the Wild West where money is hidden under mattresses and any possible offense is met with “so what?”
There are no mandates, no structures, no bodies that govern skateboarding to ensure it survives as an industry and culture and why it has been decimated several times. Skateboarding is often vulnerable to the larger market trends as its not involved in trade policy, tariffs, or labor laws in the same way it’s not involved in social policy, charity, or reform.
The one caveat is that skateboarding and skateboarders have been vocal and active in preserving and creating public spaces to ride skateboards, often aided by brands—transparent advocacy. If fewer kids can skate, fewer kids and parents can buy products so providing places that foster the activity is a sales strategy for larger brands.
On the non-corporate or branded side, there has been plenty of progressive movement and even brand funded initiatives and many are meant to create community and connectivity in a positive way. That is the spark of progression but the division between those who seek progression and the gatekeepers in the industry is wide. It’s more than showing up to a skate park like Robin Hood with free product or funding a trip to somewhere that lacks a skatepark. It’s more than collaborating with smaller, trending brands to create relevancy, and it’s more than tapping into new markets because spreadsheets see their value this fiscal year. Progression is a redistribution of power and wealth for the greater good.
Understanding the baseline—that in 2019, the industry is not progressive—is the first step in dialog and change. Ignoring this history or being ambivalent to puts skateboarding in the same position Americans are dug into politically. Skateboarding doesn’t have any Confederate statues to take down but we do have truck companies that utilize divisive icons akin to the Confederate flag.
Not understanding or allowing ourselves to challenge the establishment in counter to progress and exactly what gatekeepers want. Furthermore, it enforces the trope that skateboarders aren’t intelligent and intellectualism has no place in it, allowing inequality both socially and economically to thrive.
Without history, reporting, organization or any governing body, skateboarding is and always has been a rogue activity but don’t mistake that for being a progressive one. This isn’t anarchy or a collective push against the mainstream, it’s marketed dissent.
In its innocence, it was a loud “fuck you” to societal norms but as we close out a decade it feels naive and lazy to cling to that salvo. Of course, we can all easily “shut up and skate” or voice our disdain in small circles but all that does is perpetuate a broken system and ultimately frustrate an entire community, regardless of how you engage in it or even view it.
Things don’t have to be broken to be fixed and improving something because you respect it and the opportunity it’s given you and presents is essentially the essence of progression.
*Thank you to Christian Kerr for his editing help and insight.