The Sagging Rope Expert, or Ali Boulala And The Art Of Sketchiness

Skating is about a great many things, but it is not about perfection. Ali Boulala knows this, which means he knows a lot.
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Illustration by Arielle Davis.

We all admire the spangled acrobat with classical grace meticulously walking his tight rope in the talcum light; but how much rarer art there is in the sagging rope expert wearing scarecrow clothes and impersonating a grotesque drunk!” - Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, pg. 249

 

In the sunless small hours of March 7, 2007, professional skater Ali Boulala crashed his motorcycle head-on in to the wall of the Tram Way Hotel. His teammate and passenger, Shane Cross, would die in the hospital, while Boulala suffered severe brain damage. The two had spent the evening drinking at Melbourne’s Cherry Bar and a friend’s home before taking to Boulala’s bike. That is the terrible coda to everything to be considered here, and, aside from this opening, it will not again be mentioned, out of respect for the dead, the cloudy nature of the crash—Boulala remembers little to nothing about it—and my own cowardice.

Though the circumstances surrounding Cross’s death seem to easily—perhaps even properly—conflate with, and even be the natural climax of, much of what follows, it would take a certain kind of cobra-hearted individual to trace that line any more plainly than is being done here. It is dangerous to draw meaning or cultural relevancy from tragedy, particularly in the case of a comparatively personal one such as this. So let’s not do it.

The first time I saw Ali Boulala—saw him alive, in motion, not on glossy stock as a hanging action or some sort of Tralfamadorian centipede sequence, and not breaking a windshield or vomiting or with plastic breasts strapped to his pale chest or his hass hanging out—he was doing a trick that I myself could do.

Well, theoretically could do: it was an ollie. Skating’s building block, the first source of frustration and ecstasy after those early, newborn-fawn pushes, the beginning of all skater’s personal styles and, quite often, the hallmark of them as well. The ollie is the wellspring of the form, what makes skateboarding an act of physical art rather than mere transportation. And there was Boulala, in one of the most anticipated videos of its time, opening a fucking section with it. How … base … how … raw. It was blood and meat to the impressionable young skater. It was great.

Of course, this ollie was far from the simple one I’d spent countless hours and curses and tears upon in driveways and parking lots; this one took place along an edge—which, it was made clear, is where most all of Boulala’s skating took place—beside the primary topographic feature of the day, the robust stair set. Boulala perched there, on top of the kinked, multi-leveled ledge, to take flight over the set itself. He rolled down the first decline, snapping an ollie over the second—in effect, skating the stair set—but walking the plank all along, pushing the edge all along. This simplest of tricks and this most ubiquitous of skate topography was approached with seemingly guileless uniqueness, the resulting action so much more than its parts, and the whole thing capped with a goofy hat and a tremulous ipseity, a shaky quality that made you think he almost lost it, that he could have fucked it up.

That continual flirtation was Boulala’s signature, embedded not just in his skating, but also in the tales of sybaritic excess that were so much a part of his legend; the manic antic footage of beers and barf and falling out of trees. Most importantly, it’s there in his skating. Here he is hopping into grass—as quixotic an effort as any—in a suicidal attempt at a trick; here he ups the ante on his opener, this time snapping from a flat plateau and alighting on the edge, like a ballerina sacked on benzos, a little wobbly but still en pointe. And there he was, relentlessly elevating the old familiar ollie and the staircase and replacing novelty with flat, simple danger.

Whereas teammates like the masterful Tom Penny or the ramp god Rune Glifberg or the then-prodigy Bastien Salabanzi were irrevocably among the most talented men alive, Boulala was, while not without talent, always seeming to strive for something different. There were no cross-footed landings, a la Salabanzi (the goof-off tricks paradoxically show the most “skilled” skaters) or incredibly difficult aerial flip tricks like Glifberg’s, nor was he effortless and ethereal on the board, like Penny.

Instead, Boulala looked refreshingly unnatural. When he was not shaky he was a touch stiff, resembling, say, a cartoon vulture, or a semi-articulated O-ring ilium action figure. His tricks were maddeningly inconsistent: a flip fast and tight one moment and unfurling with the lazy grace of a falling leaf the next. He leapt down a double set, ollies hitching, with that pained final lurch, in mid-flight above the second flight, symbolizing that moment to be found in every one of his tricks, a little window into a place always on the edge of success and failure. He hippie-jumped bars, did kickflip tail drops destined for death, dropped in on some architecture switch; everything strange, everything raw. He embodied a word which up until that point had for me been an abstract concept at best and anathema at worst: sketchy.   

And that was it, really; that opening trick, the creativity, the embrace of aesthetics over technical proficiency, being sketchy. It changed how I would skate, how I would forever perceive art and motion and the panoply of human physical expression, in the same way a seminal novel or movie or album might have changed your life. It was like seeing a Basquiat for the first time, and also it was not really much like anything else.

***

We came in on an up-swing, at perhaps the most dangerous boom in skating. By the early 2000s, the X Games had gone from sideshow to legitimate locus of national attention, a pivotal aspect of the sporting calendar for those inclined towards this sort of thing. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 found regular insertions in our Nintendo64's, its soundtrack assembled piecemeal via Kazaa collage and spun on the way to Friday night skate park sessions, those most Holy Nights.

CCS catalogues were passed and hoarded as pornography; I remember pursuing each new issue for the new board graphics—board graphics! (Christ how I fucking loved them, love them to this day.) A communal feasting upon new skate videos was a prime social event, the cornerstone of any gathering once it was too dark or too wet or too cold—this was in Rochester, New York, where it is commonly too dark or too wet or too cold or all three—to skate ourselves.

The generation of skaters directly ahead of us, with their black t-shirts and backpacks and buttons and hats depicting stylized skulls and horned hellbeasts and leering, stiletto fanged wisps of flame, were consciously and unrelentingly outside. We came into a skating world tolerated—perhaps, even, a little bit, maybe?, venerated—by the culture at large, even becoming downright cool. But there was an insidious underside to the eXtreme culture being built up around us, unwittingly carried with us.

The X Games and THPS taught us, super-liminaly, that skating was something to be measured, rewarded, done properly or improperly. There are of course “correct” ways to do kickflips or crail grabs or fakie frontside bigspins, but these conventions are predominantly established for the sake of shared language. They exist so that the art form can advance and grow, and the idiosyncrasies of one’s iteration of a trick from another’s is a fundamental aspect of skating as a pursuit. Favorite pros are determined by style as much as, if not more so, than the amount of tricks getting done. There are always the empirical pursuits, bigger drops, longer rails, wider gaps, but these are usually regarded as on par, at most, with the stylistic ones.

While I do not remember setting foot on a board because of the X Games or THPS—if I remember right, I did it because my closest friends in the world were already doing it, and I wanted to be with them—I would be lying if I did not admit to picking up large swaths of skate culture and terminology, for better or worse, from those mainstream sources. I like to remember us as skating for the generally accepted “right” reasons, the old Griptape Catechism: to express ourselves, to hang out, to just plain have fucking fun, although of course I would want to remember that.

Our respective progressions were, for the most part, natural, pulling each other along, developing our own styles and favorite tricks. We skated because we loved it, and we improved not to be sponsored, but to film our own stupid videos, for us to enjoy. Our last one premiered my junior year of college; I made a weekend road trip from Philadelphia to Fredonia, NY for the event.

The stratification, when it came, was quick and apparent. As my friend’s skating left mine behind, that looming sense of failure, that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t a real skater because I’d never crack a ten point scale or perform a 360 flip darkslide, began to set in. I contemplated quitting, snapping boards and fraying nerves and, in the end, forcing myself, over and over again in the driveway, the street, the church parking lot, to learn how to kickflip before breaking down into anguish or rage.

***

Epiphanies arrive slowly; Boulala showed me that I need not be the “best” among my friends to stand out, or have fun, or simply bring a little energy to the session. I began to strive to see spots differently, to skate handmade wall rides in the back of the park or snap ollies to fakie on the vert wall rather than hit the ledge or the stairs. I tried to ollie everything as stylishly as I could, lofting thigh-high snaps over short flat gaps for the sheer thrill of floating and the novelty of stupid excess. Eventually, I stopped attempting to “progress” at all. I learned how to skate transition, and I embraced my own sketchy tendencies, even if they were born from deficiency rather than mode.

Weird, stupid tricks became my way of bringing something to the party. I championed the fakie frontside shuv-it, which proved a surprisingly effective letter getter in games of SKATE; to all my fellow terrible skaters out there, learn this trick and watch the shutouts drop dramatically. One of my favorite tricks was a double rock wherein I fucked up the second motion and rode down a decent portion of the side of the ramp face in an ad-hoc 50-50, collapsing and swerving at the end like a push puppet, my hands on the poured cement rolling miraculously away.

The lack of perfection—the sacrifice of technical skill and adroit proficiency and claims to some kind of objective superiority in pursuit of a more singular style—is an artistic theme that skating, starting with Boulala’s Sorry section, has helped me to embrace. It is perhaps why I don’t mind defending Oscar Murillo or Riff Raff; why my favorite shot in the NBA is Joakim Noah’s pectoral-powered shot-put; why watching Johnny Manziel or Yasiel Puig snatch ugly victory from certain collapsing doom seems and feels more compelling and more beautiful than Peyton Manning putting it right on the numbers or Floyd Mayweather’s perfect defense.

I began to accept this quality in myself and in my skating, and I have never been happier to be on deck, terrible as I may be. It is in my writing, too. It is everywhere, although of course I never really had a choice but to accept it.

***

Boulala’s part of that Sorry video ends the only way it could. He flies fast at a massive stair set, floating with impossible beauty for what seems to be an eternity, then landing twice as an artillery shell, with complete and utter destruction the end result. His board snaps on one attempt and his heels liquefy on the other.

It’s a nasty way to end, and I’m no fan of slams, but embracing failure and fun seems increasingly to be what skating, and everything else, is all about. So he didn’t land it. Do it again.


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