Blood and Urethane, or Skateboarding Shows Its Work

Skateboarding videos showcase dizzying acts of grace, and increasingly also the work it took to get it right. Slam videos are... not that.
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Photograph by Mike Santangelo.

Here he goes, Erik Ellington, all cigarette limbs and slicked back hair and cartilaginous ipseity, sangfroid savagery in slinky, slightly entropic motion—looking, always, as if he may be running hard off the rails before snapping mind, body, and board together at the last, breathtaking instant and snatching victory from defeat like a looping brown bat. He's moving towards, dear God, a looming cascade of jagged concrete; the sound, that distinct sound of purpose and urethane bears down, before being interrupted by a quick rasp, as if a scaling knife had been brought against the sloping coast of California.

A great, pregnant pause—the skateboard rotates like a helicopter, wheels still whizzing in the air; a camera unfurls ferociously,snapsnapsnapsnapsnapsnapsnapsnap—and Erik does it, he pulls that lawnmower blade beneath his feet, he’s done it again!—except no, he hasn’t. He definitely and definitively hasn't, he hasn’t landed four to the floor and is not rolling away as triumphant subverter of architecture.

Ellington instead comes down a little too much on the nose, his legs folding beneath him, and he tucks and somersaults and challenges the chasm again, flies down its angular face again, and again, and again, well over a dozen times, until he hits the mark, rolls away, pirouettes into adulation… Okay.

***

Skateboarding, unlike most self-identified sports, has always evinced a respect and admiration for varying aesthetics that puts it more in line with music or the visual arts than the narrow, results-oriented world of sports-with-a-ball. There is a set of guidelines, of sorts, which constitute what certain tricks are, and how they are generally to be performed, but this stems more from the requirements of shared language and social framework than a rigid scoring system.

This, in short, is not figure skating or gymnastics—a clean landing is not always the best one, and so on from there. Indeed, I distinctly remember watching Sorry, a seminal skate video of my youth by the cosmopolitan Flip team—whose most famous members could be found, at roughly the same time, dancing as little plane-faced videogame puppets, curiously desiring to spell S-K-A-T-E with floating letters—and being heavily influenced by Ali Boulala’s part; he was rough, wild, perhaps not as “skilled” as his teammates, but he landed his tricks dangerously. This was my first understanding that style, perhaps over everything, made the pro.

This love for the uncouth and sketchy and raw veers into stranger territory when taken to its logical extreme: There is a curious publication of the miscarriages and mistakes and other injurious biffs that comprise the better part of skating, one which goes beyond tacit admittance or showing how the eggs were broke, and which can veer into something approaching failure porn. With every success a small miracle—go ahead, you who have never once set foot on a board, or done so only briefly, try to make it ollie, get it to leap off the ground and hug the soles of your feet; frustrated yet?—and the finest upper echelon tricks a transcendent dovetailing of aesthetic and athleticism, why bother showing what we, the aspiring viewers, know all too well? That is, the pain, the frustration, the mental and physical anguish. That is, the thing that most people associate with skateboarding every bit as much if not more than the tricks actually seen through to their successful conclusions.

To understand, it must be established that, just as a myriad of styles and terrains and personalities constitute skateboarding, this failure porn, too, exists along a spectrum, from the seemingly benign to the depraved. On one end are attempts, footage—either interspersed into the video or cut together on its own—showing the skater attempting a trick, once or multiple times, until completion. These do not center around particularly gruesome incidents; many are just the average fails any skater has accrued in a career—wheel bite, landing off-center, sliding out, schussing to a stop, paralyzed at the top of a flight of stairs.

Similar in nature are the brief bails, single shots of bollixed tricks with varying degrees of severity, which mainly seem to serve either as filler or a way to break up a video, the rhythm of which is important. On the far end, the dangerous end, are the slam montages, horror show meat-parades of twisted ankles, face-shattering scorpions, compound fractures, and occipital bones rudely introduced to pavement. All three serve a purpose, some darker than others. All can serve as a window into the strange relationship between the vast majority of skaters—and non-skaters, for that matter—and the supremely, unfairly gifted people they observe.

***

So great is the gulf between the average skater and the professional/highly talented amateur that the talent gap is nearly insurmountable. Most anyone can can cross-over a non-existent opponent with all the viscous fluidity of overheated Swedish Fish and see Allen Iverson in their mind’s eye; can scramble right, throw a deep ball across the driveway with the hitching arm movement of an AII-V6 arcwelding robot and throw said arm up in the air with its brother and yell “Here comes the Boston College team!” But for many skaters, even a passing attempt at performing a move seen in a skate video, in any iteration or environment, is practically impossible; they simply do not posses the talent to even offer up a facsimile. They will get hurt.

The constructing of a gossamer bridge across this gap is why skate videos even bother with the attempt footage. Watching a skater fall, get back up, and try again, the veil of perfection is lifted; to see it is to be reminded, not that we could ever forget, that trying and failing are universal in skating, from the very first day you step on a board. Our hearts rise and breaths stop with each attempt, each unceremonious slide across the ground. We finally have something to share with these stuntwood deities: the mounting frustration, the jarring body blows, the desire to just stop, to let it go for a day, and the knowledge that last time was so close, so fucking close, that it would be a crime to quit now. And when they finally land that trick—when we finally roll a few feet without falling, land that first ollie, flop that first shuv—we share, too, in their joy.

Chaz Martinez, a skater for Jamestown Skate Products in Jamestown, New York, with whom I have wiled away many an afternoon on the shores of Old Lake Erie, and whose picture you see at the top of this article, summed it up best: “Shows the people how hard you worked for that trick.” 

Where the attempts montage can be seen as plying the common ground of everyone on griptape, the slam video seems to cater to the non-skater, for whom the spectacular injuries and most vicious bails function as pure rubbernecking of a culture they do not understand and an artistry they cannot fully appreciate. “I don’t think skateboarders like bails and slams,” Chris Nieratko, skater and writer, says. “If you’re a skateboarder you’ve had your fair share of falls and no matter if you’re a beginner or a pro falling sucks. And if you’ve ever broken a bone you know you wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone, nor do you want to see footage of it happening to someone else.” 

The prevalence of full-on slam montages in skate videos seems to be waning—this is based on personal perception, I should note, both mine and Nieratko’s, and not any kind of empirical evidence, which, really, is anathema to skateboarding anyway. But they've found new life now, on YouTube and SportsCenter and those weird leering anti-highlight shows that air on Sunday afternoons on channels blacked-out by NFL broadcast rules. So they're still on the menu, these little slices of gratuitous violence and brutal exercises in schadenfreude. They're just not pitched at a skateboarding audience, which after all knows this pain too well already.

“I just think it’s very similar to NASCAR,” Nieratko said. “Ask a real NASCAR fan about their favorite crash and they’ll get angry. They hate crashes. They don’t want to see anyone hurt or paralyzed or possibly die. But for non-NASCAR fans, they only watch, waiting for a crash. Same with non-skaters. America breeds and enjoys violence, and so for a non-skater… [the slams are] the ‘coolest’ part or their favorite thing about skating. There are over 6 million combined views of Jake Brown nearly dying at X-Games Big Air a few years ago,” Nieratko wrote. “It speaks volumes about how pathetic and cannibalistic our society is.”

The irrepressible pro skater Clyde Singleton once wrote in the pages of Skateboarder of his distaste for failure porn; to paraphrase, he likened seeing bails in a video to buying an album and hearing the rapper fuck up his bars. But skateboarding is nothing if not idiosyncratic—consider, for example, the rampant practice of destroying the skateboard, both in retaliatory and, paradoxically, celebratory situations. Indeed, the sport's embrace of/disgust at misfortune and frustration are in line with its mercurial, peculiarly inclusive-yet-exclusive nature. (It’s a club, to be sure, but one whose only admission requirement is a genuine commitment to skating; I am absolutely atrocious, and never have I been vibed out of a park or spot; Kyle Beachy masterfully describes this aspect in the second graph of this story.)

All of which raises the question of why, in videos we watch to be inspired at something done right, we still see so much of things going wrong. The answer, as with most things like this, is that it's recursive—it's there because it always has been. But the stumbles and falls are also a peek behind the shroud, a look at the frustrating work of a part being laid. It's a part that could, very likely, inspire some skater in the way an album does a musician or a book does a writer—a reminder that the inspirational final product is an end result, that there is a process that leaves bruises.

That or it's just playing to our basest, vilest instincts, the ones which sat in the Coliseum or on the grass at Bull Run, where subculture and culture conflate at the intersection of blood and urethane. It says more about those of us watching then the ones in the ring, and mostly it says to us the thing we're trying to hear.


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