I was eleven in 1985 when "Back to the Future" came out. In the film, Michael J. Fox's aloof character Marty McFly zipped around on a skateboard, holding onto the backs of moving cars to accelerate through his otherwise dull suburban town. When he traveled back in time to the same town as it existed in the 1950s, he found himself in a provincial place and a provincial time, being harangued by provincial rubes straight out of the Archie comics. As they prepared to chase him through the old town square in their giant finned convertible, McFly grabbed a scooter from a kid, broke the handlebars off, and launched into a series of comically exaggerated skateboard acrobatics that sent his pursuers crashing into the back of a manure truck. The rubes were enraged; the girls were in love; everyone was shocked. I was sold. Having just reached the age when many kids begin exploring public space for themselves, I had become wary of the southern California military base town where I was growing up. It seemed provincial, even compared to McFly's suburb. Southern California urban design is notoriously unwelcoming to young people and I'm sure that being a longhaired child named Ocean among the sons and daughters of Marines didn't help my perception that public space itself was hostile. But here was a way for me to make something interesting of all those parking lots, while simultaneously asserting that I couldn't care less what the rubes thought. I read the skater magazines and fantasized about flying above the vertical walls of giant pools, the way Tony Hawk or the other big pros did. But the entrance fees to the purpose-built skateparks were a little too steep and, in any case, they were starting to be bulldozed and replaced with miniature golf courses. America's explosion of personal liability suits was the main problem, but the "sport's" popularity was waning anyway. I'd only caught the tail end of the craze.
The Urban Jungle
By the time I began junior high school I couldn't imagine what else I would do with myself so I continued to skateboard during every spare second, along with a small core of other kids with similarly obsessive personalities. Up to this point, pool riding was considered the only real skateboarding; street skating was mostly just for transportation, and there were only two pros who actually did interesting tricks in the streets. During the late 1980s you would never see skateboarding on television, and the magazines had become little more than gussied up zines. The only people who would invest in skateboarding back then were older skateboarders: the people who still couldn't imagine what else they would do with themselves.
In the absence of sanctioned places to practice, the few remaining devotees became highly creative in their exploration of cities. We began skateboarding not only on hills and curbs, but also on walls, planters, benches, handrails, fire hydrants anything we could get our wheels on. In the walled-in schoolyard and the strip mall parking lot, I cultivated an intimate knowledge of the textural qualities of various cements, the cold smoothness of metal, and the countless hidden possibilities of the common restrictive circulation pattern. In the search for more varied terrain, we lower-middle class suburbanites began bussing long hours into urban centers, where we would skateboard in the sculptural wastelands of old redevelopment projects with the inner-city kids.
Skateboarders stopped listening to new wave music and started listening to hip-hop. What was once a fairly wholesome, solidly middle class and mostly white diversion suddenly became much darker. Anti-urban gang paranoia was alive and well in the early 1990s, and the minor property damage caused by skateboarders provoked xenophobic tirades against "skateboard gangs" in local and national newspapers, replete with hysterical comparisons to muggers, looters, and drug dealers. It was unnerving, but also exciting, to be thought of like this I had never dreamt that I could be so inscrutable as to inspire genuine fear.
Nothing short of physical deterrence could have stopped me by this point, and my devotion to skateboarding was so complete that I became rather good at it. At 18, I turned pro for a skateboard company owned by my old hero Tony Hawk and by Michael J. Fox's stuntman from "Back to the Future" a retired Swedish pro named Per Welinder. Their company, Birdhouse, sold skateboards, wheels, stickers, and even T-shirts with my name on them. I had arrived. I was being flown to Europe and Japan to compete in contests and give demonstrations. I was ambivalent about the spotlight, but I loved having such a terrific "in" with young people all over the world. The money was modest, but it was enough for me to live comfortably in an apartment in the city, and when I finally decided to go to college it paid for my expenses. I couldn't have been happier.
The Frenzy Begins
In the mid-1990s, as city real estate became desirable again, urban culture became cool again. Advertisers wanted to celebrate all things edgy, and skateboarding looked like the newest, edgiest, most urban thing happening. In 1995 ESPN launched the "Extreme Games" (later renamed "X-Games"), with skateboarding as the flagship event, and with televised adverts for Mountain Dew and Doritos and, a few years later, the Marines. Most of us who were serious thought of skateboarding as an everyday activity that allowed us to make something interesting out of an alienating environment. It was a culture with its own language, aesthetic, and systems of references; to us it was much more of an art form than a sport. But the "Extreme Games" represented skateboarding as intensely competitive, puerile thrill-seeking. Tony Hawk was considered by most skaters to be the best of all time, and he was articulate and non-threatening, so espn focused attention on him, anointing him "The Birdman."
"The Birdman?" I protested. "No one ever called you that! And 'Extreme?' What kind of bullshit is that? Who talks like that?"
Tony acknowledged that this was all a misrepresentation but argued it would benefit skateboarding. I couldn't have disagreed more. But Tony owned a business and had a family that he had struggled to support during the slow years. I understood his embrace of the new attention, but these contests gave me the creeps. I was grateful to Tony for not making me enter them. It also helped that, as the skateboard industry grew and in spite of my own recalcitrance, the size of my checks increased considerably.
Tony did suggest, in subtle ways, that I should perhaps seize this opportunity to guarantee my future. Maybe I took my counter-cultural image of myself too seriously. Maybe he was right he and my former teammates certainly didn't have to worry about finances anymore anymore, which is an enviable position, especially when you've gotten there by doing something you love. Deep down, Tony had always loved a spectacle. But looking at those bronzed, smug ESPN skateboard sportscasters, and hearing them miscall tricks, I knew this was not a world in which I could be comfortable.
A friend of mine was approached by Nike and told they would make him, and skateboarding, more legitimate by turning him into a "Nike athlete." I've seen contracts from other corporate skateboard shoe producers, and they scared the hell out of me. There's often a "No Disparagement" clause stipulating that you won't ever say anything bad about the company, even after your association has ended. One contract I saw had a "Morals" clause that stipulated that the contract could immediately be terminated if, "the athlete tends to offend people." This was big-time sports marketing, where "edgy" was a salable commodity and a litigable one. Whether or not my aversion was motivated by immature romanticism, I needed out.
Marketing in the Extreme
By 1997 I had broken my ankles a few times and was graduating from college. I retired and took an entry-level job at a publishing house, became an editor for a series of books on non-profit and public management, started a subseries on community building, and became a Ph.D student in architectural history at Berkeley. I still skateboard recreationally it's the only exercise I enjoy. And I still supplement my income by writing for skateboarding magazines. In turn, I've had a front row seat for the continued mainstreaming of this culture.
There is now "Extreme Pizza" in my neighborhood. Nissan sells an suv called the "X-Terra." For those who are edgy and concerned that they smell, there is now "Extreme Deodorant." There are firms that offer "Extreme Consulting." One can read about "Extreme Investing" in online publications. There is even a mutual fund called "Synergy Extreme Canadian Equity Fund."
Popular advertising strategies will always be embarrassing: Remember the procession of rapping grandmas from the late 1980s? But what I've really objected to are the Orwellian market research tactics used to develop the campaigns. Focus groups are one thing but much more invasive tactics are becoming standard practice. Hoping to pay down his student loans, a friend of mine left a job at a skateboard magazine to work at one of the major US clothing companies desperate to target skaters and other young hipsters. Its design rooms were filled with long-lens "sniper photos" of skateboarders walking down the street, riding their boards, sitting around drinking soda. This went a bit beyond the aggressive wooing of public figures by paparazzi. Ordinary skaters were now subject to menacing levels of surveillance.
The truth was that most skateboarders felt much more ambivalent than Tony did about whether our newfound popularity was a blessing. Having been thought of as impertinent little thugs for so long, they had a healthy skepticism about the motivations of Nike and Sprite and MTV. When, in the early 1990s, Levi's ran ads in skateboarding magazines featuring acid washed jeans and electric guitars, a skater-owned company called Shorty's scatologically parodied the ads in the following issue of the same magazine. Corporations wanted to sell to skaters, and they wanted to use countercultural imagery to lend their brands a gritty urban authenticity. But they found that skaters were fiercely loyal to skater-owned companies, and that skateboarding is a complex, highly contextual culture that they could not readily penetrate.
Nike made a breakthrough in 1998 with a print and television campaign that finally showed some cultural sensitivity. Public spaces in cities all over the world are being filled with architectural deterrents to skateboarding, like metal brackets on the edges of benches that are intended to keep people from sliding across the surfaces (municipal architects call these brackets "pig ears"). The Nike ads showed metal bars obstructing home plate on a baseball diamond: "What if all athletes were treated like skateboarders?" the copy challenged. Skateboarders everywhere were deeply appreciative. Maybe Nike wasn't just trying to exploit us? Maybe Nike even employed skaters? Maybe Nike really cared?
Thomas Frank, the editor of the Chicago culture magazine The Baffler, attended an advertising convention where he heard a "best practices" presentation on this "grass roots" campaign. It turns out Nike's ad agency had hired anthropology PhD students to conduct ethnographies on skateboarders. Nike recently created a skateboard shoe company called Savier but the only place the two names are ever mentioned together is in the pages of business publications. Cultural sensitivity? Or furtive, smarmy manipulation? It's unsettling to think the line between the two should be such a fine one.
There are now successful market research firms, including one named Look-Look, exclusively devoted to providing "24/7 coverage: accurate and reliable information, research, news, trends, and photos of global youth aged 1430." Look-Look promises to let the corporate advertiser who can afford their services "in on the secret." This isn't simple voyeurism; the employees of these types of firms routinely describe themselves as "cool hunters" and "guerilla marketers." They use the tactic of the hunter and the guerilla an invisible presence in their opponent's territory. The metaphor is troubling not only because it sounds clandestine, but because it's violent. If they think of themselves as guerillas, then do they think of youth culture as the enemy? If they are hunters, is youth culture prey?
From a corporate marketing perspective, popular youth culture like skateboarding, as it existed in the early 1990s, is problematic. These kids were not spending time and money in the mall; they were out in the streets damaging the plazas that the same corporations built. Perceived as exploitative, impersonal, and institutional, skateboarders found these companies no more trustworthy than the police. The smart marketers, like Nike, realized the best way to deal with this resistance was not to argue with it, but simply to assimilate it. This was totally unlike the 1980s, when marketers still asked consumers to wholly identify with their brands ("I think, therefore IBM"). By the early 2000s IBM was doing cryptic stencils on sidewalks, political graffiti-style, to advertise their new Linux operating system. I saw one in my neighborhood in the Mission district in San Francisco next to a stencil demanding "US Out of Vieques," and another advertising a dyke march. These days, you don't have to bother resisting corporate marketing: Your brand will do the resisting for you.
The new Tony Hawk Pro Skater video games are the zenith of this dynamic. To make them, Activision paid pros to skate in full-body sensor suits, digitally mapping every microscopic gesture of a skater's style: how far down he crouches before doing a trick, whether her elbow is bent or straight at the peak of the trick, how close together his feet are when he lands. I know these people. The video simulations of their body gestures are uncannily, disturbingly accurate. Using these surrogate spatial practitioners, you can misappropriate famous skateboard "spots" in cities all over the world. As you roll through this nowhere space, passing adverts for clothing manufacturers, you hear an angry cry of, "Truth devoured / A silent play on the shadow of power / A spectacle monopolized / The camera's eye on choice disguised." The overwrought lyrics to "Guerilla Radio," a song about corporate media manipulation by the anarchist band "Rage Against the Machine," serve as theme music.
The thing about trendy marketing, though, is that it never lasts. Skateboard companies are posting losses for the first time in half a decade. The Tony Hawk Pro Skater games are likely not long for this world; the consumers of the game will forget about skateboarding the same way they forgot about the XFL. But some people will still love it so much that they won't know what else to do with themselves. I hope the coming peace and quiet will allow them to come up with something new. Something that shows them, and others, that the images and objects that surround us are not foreclosed stories. Something that shows them that any ordinary street in any ordinary town is filled with possibility.
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