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Waxing the Curb

The Psychoanalytic Skatepark 
     Dan Graham, Skateboard Pavilion, 1989. 

London, as told by Tom Knox


     

Most people imagine lines when they hear the name Tom Knox. And it’s true: his lines are masterful. But I would recommend to anyone—particularly those seeking a better understanding of why Atlantic Drift dedicated the entirety of episode 11 to his 10-minute long video part—that they first consider his approach to stairs. The sheer number of examples is proof enough: dozens of clips depict Knox taking the leap regular, switch, and fakie; out of a manual, just after a flip trick, or simply multiple times in a row. I resorted to stair-counting after witnessing his ender, but that’s all I’ll say about that. The point is, Knox on stairs requires us to zoom in and out on the map of London, offering sweeping vistas that frequently atomize into gritty detail. And vice versa. The perspective frequently shifts throughout the part, vacillating between the individual and the city, the spot and the trick, street-level and omniscience, the everyday and dreams. It represents Knox’s poetic ode to city life—or, at least, the virtues of skating this ancient capital.

To a foreign pair of eyes like mine, the way Knox skates stairs summons a charming, and irresistible London accent, but his disorienting shifts in scale take place in other vertically-oriented spots, as well. For his opening clip, he backlips a streetside parapet alongside an iconic red telephone box—clearly, the postcard fixture is meant to do more than give a sense of scale, rather, announcing London, broadly speaking, as the locus of operations. Other times, the stakes are localized to the roofs of bus shelters and neighborhood tube stations. He brings intimacy to a canopy that covers a dumpster by scaling up a slappy 5050 (a curb trick) to its ribbed metal roof. Earlier in the part, he similarly acid drops onto a utility box, and back 180s out, as if he were skating a knee-high ledge.

Perhaps the most notable plot on the y-axis of his spot

graph is represented by a back 180 switch 5050 down a cascading, waterfall-shaped tube station, which he mysteriously, beautifully pops out of. Here, as elsewhere, there is no misplaced gesture. The smallest movements are as important as the biggest banger, the difference with Knox being his knack for cadence and rhythm. This tendency frequently comes to bare on street gaps: a kickflip up a curb is arrested in space by an ollie over a sizable crosswalk; a switch heel to switch 5050 on a curb makes for a delightful anticlimax. But it’s not all quick-footed syncopation. Over another stretch of pavement, he kickflips into a nose manual, holding the latter trick across a rather long stretch of sidewalk. Knox ordinarily jams as much as possible into similar spaces, but here, he braces us against the ending, drawing out our attention for another beat or two. Though a less-than-heroic spot, you can’t not root for him by the time he reaches the other end, and nollies the second street gap.

To some extent, the way Knox approaches space marks him as a formalist, particularly when he relies heavily on repetition. A back 180 on a bizarre concrete volcano evolves into a backside big flip. After a smith grind on an Escher-like set of stairs introduces a line, he goes back and adds a kickflip. In some clips, repetition evolves into assonance: a 360 flip at the top of a bizarrely pitched bank is directly followed by a fakie 360 flip back into it. His hermeneutic, skating-for-skating’s-sake is most beautifully explored in a line that begins with a triple 5050, which he spreads across a line of modular fencing units. Tumbling one bar to the next as if delivering an incantation, he suddenly transitions to the street, slant rhyming the triple 5050 with a back 360 off the curb. He riffs for another 3 tricks, only to find his breaking point with a bailed fakie flip some distance, both physically and conceptually, from where he started.

Knox’s constant travails with bricks are perhaps the only time we question the reliability of his narration. A nollie flip into a brick pyramid tugs at his back truck so hard that he seems all but sure to fall. Somehow, though, Knox wobbles through it—a shaking of the knees conveying that he felt it too. Emblematic of the role skating often plays in city life, the lightness of his approach allows him to tackle the crustier, or less welcoming aspects of London’s infrastructure, which also dovetails with Knox’s mea culpa in the form of a pair of curb lines at the end of the video. The first comprises a nosegrind, an alleyoop 180 5050, and a switch front shuv 5-0 revert. The second: a front blunt, a front 5-0, and a big flip 5050. Honing his talents to the curb-level, it’s possible that these clips instruct us not to mistake bangers as distinct from flatground. That skating London is its own trick—perhaps even the trick he’s trying to get us to understand.

In the end, the fact that we are in Tom Knox’s London is underscored by the dreamlike quality his labyrinthine lines add to the part. And many are pleasingly on evidence, meandering through myriad contexts as if guided by some subconscious dream logic. A favorite involves a series of downhill, washboard-like steps into which he fakie flips, fakie ollies, and fakie heels, respectively, before cranking a switch front shuv over a low brick barrier. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ollie he boosts over a trash can to back lip on a curb, which he uncannily links to a bump to bar across the street, and finally concludes with a flatground frontside heel flip. Like adding a fried egg to a cheeseburger, he indulges every option. It might be too much of a good thing, but to me, it’s satisfyingly perverse. 

But the part’s most stunning segment is dedicated to a single spot,  wherein Knox finds the material counterpart to his
lines in an ouroboros-shaped public park. The first sequence in particular induces a dizzying relation to space. Physically, he loops around twice, bookending the line with a 360 flip and switch 360 flip down adjacent 4-stairs. The remaining tricks he crams into the space also help to convey us through this involuted dream world, and though they are too numerous to elaborate here, suffice it to say that even the 5050 pop up to 5-0 that he does on the long, curving granite bench mid-line contributes to an inversion of sense. It’s no surprise that an image of the late Ben Raemers pops up here. In this underworld of a spot, left is right, up is down, and regular is fakie.

No matter how enigmatic the line gets, Knox never strands us in his recursive loop. Yet, he never shows us the full picture either. Each disorienting shift of perspective is always countered by its opposite: a line that twists and turns throughout a single block is inevitably complemented by the sheer quantity of tricks he fits in; a clip on a set of stairs undoubtedly forces us to consider this otherwise generic spot in situ. As such, Knox conveys us throughout his version of London, where spots beget tricks, tricks beget spots, and lines emerge from the centuries of infrastructure that have piled up over time. Occasionally, it can seem as if Knox’s lines hold the key to London: they are so complex, that they appear to represent the full scope of its maze-like streets and spaces. But in so doing, they also represent a natural horizon: true to Knox’s dreamlike vision of the city, the beauty of his skating derives from that fact that we will never know the metropolis in full.  
•••


Board-breaking for Emotional Pretend: On the Trope of Breaking Skateboards


     

It probably wasn’t the first time I saw someone break a skateboard, or the most aggressive, but watching Mike Carroll’s part in Yeah Right (2003) revealed to me the full emotional complexity of focusing—aka breaking—one. The introduction is a fast-paced montage of destruction. He spears his board nose-first into the ground, intending to splinter it. He pitches it headlong at a picnic table, the board spinning end to end like the menacing rotors of a helicopter. He slaps it on the ground so hard, it bounces back up head high. In perhaps the most emotional clip of the entire montage, he doesn’t actually throw the board. Instead, he throttles it, clasping it to his person like some Shakespearian character wracked with betrayal. Throughout the montage, Carroll’s performance runs the gamut of masculine rage, but in the only depiction of him actually breaking a skateboard, he eschews emotion for violent efficiency, as if to merely illustrate that he can, and that it is as simple as foot meets board. At fourteen, I was mesmerized by all of it, as much, and perhaps more than the skateboarding that followed.

There were many things that attracted me to Carroll’s performance. He was loud, aggressive, but most of all, the outcome of his behavior resembled a performance, meaning whatever personal consequences he sustained—such as a broken skateboard—were part of the act, even coming off as playful. Somehow, it connected to the anger I experienced at home: my Dad yelled, and sometimes he yelled at me, but his short-tempered anguish would ultimately be considered out of character, an outburst. Here was an arena that granted me the same privilege as my Dad enjoyed at home, a masculinity that didn’t require me to take my anger seriously—like my constant recitations of Simpson’s quotes during the same period, these emotional expressions could always be dismissed or celebrated as playtime, artful, witty, or ironic, as the case may be. Other factors contributed as well: first, it felt good. Second, it represented an escape. And third, I was slow to advance at

skating. Learning flip tricks was as difficult as tying a shoe with my elbow, but such pantomimes of anger, along with breaking boards was a trick I could always do.

Indeed, breaking boards looked fun, and it was a whole lot easier to pretend to be angry and break my skateboard, than to actually spend the countless hours trying to learn flip tricks, or to work up the bravery to jump down a set of stairs, or to re-evaluate it all after having thrown myself against the ground. These are the other means of expression that skateboarding offers, but they were little in my command at the time. It required a certain desire, and a certain confidence in that desire, both of which I lacked. Or, rather, an actual, kneejerk expression of anger at my own failure, and the subsequent sense of humiliation and disappointment readily stopped me at the start—little familiar with these overwhelming feelings, I asked myself, why endure? Friends often tell me they quit skateboarding because they weren’t any good at it, or that they didn’t advance quickly enough, but clearly they didn’t understand the full emotional scope of the sport. I didn’t continue because I was good—and I wasn’t—I continued because it was a forum for emotional pretend. The pathos of a broken skateboard was enough to defend the physical consequences of a broken hand, three broken wrists, a broken foot, a black eye, countless sprained ankles, and a few knocks on the head. 

Hence, every broken board offers a marker of who I was, or wanted to be at that time. The first one was a nearly unbreakable Lib Tech, a counterintuitive choice that showed how easily I was convinced by the theatrics of one part of the culture, as by the salesmanship (and gimmickry) of its opposite. It was so durable, I nearly sprained my groin attempting to rend the indestructible plastic sub layer, and even after I managed to crack the thing, I could still ride it all the way home. Later, an Andrew Reynolds Baker pro model

was perhaps  doomed from the start—the company’s image was so notoriously destructive that, if an instruction manual came with one of its products, focusing your board would have been step 2, even if it was a t-shirt. Years later, the disapproval of some older skaters—how old could they have been, 20?—meant irreparable damage for a Zero skull board, though I didn’t break it in front of them, waiting a day or two to do it privately.

That incident was likely the last time I deliberately broke a skateboard. My abilities started to improve, even though I still couldn’t do very many flip tricks, or ledge tricks, and the nearest mini ramp was an hour away. But my ollies were consistent, and the theatricality of breaking boards eventually evolved into the bravado of jumping off tall things. I had also begun dating around the same time, too, though my relationships were often incompatible with my activities on a board—rage had been thoroughly sequestered to skating, and with it a range of difficult emotional responses, which unfortunately meant I was too embarrassed to include women in that world. I no longer broke boards on purpose, but severing a relationship played the same role in my love life as it did in the skate world, offering a quick way to deny access to the theater of my inner world. The subsequent disappointment, anger, and dismay I had with myself over this act of self-preservation was readily processed back through skating, as in the breakup with my first real girlfriend, which was immediately followed by an ollie down the local big-four, the measure of stair-jumping for me and my friends at the time. Taking the leap was also how a Habitat team deck and a SEEK both met their end.

There’s not really a happy ending to all this. It’s telling of my adolescent frame  of mind that after I sustained a sprained ankle kickflipping off a bank (rather than *into* the bank, or even riding on the bank whatsoever),
it remained sprained for an entire year, because I just couldn’t stop skating. Nonetheless, my relationship to the board evolved during this period of time. An ankle brace at least scared me off from gaps, stairs, and drops, and considering I had injured my front foot, I finally set about learning to skate switch. Broken boards resulted from actual tricks: I snapped the nose on a Brian Anderson Girl deck learning frontside big spins; a Polar board snapped right in half after a poorly aimed dismount from a fakie 50-50 front shuv. I had come to trust skateboarding, perhaps because the playful destructiveness of breaking boards matured into a more complex appreciation of persona and performance. The culture inspires a kind of humility in the face of its own destructive impulses: though it might celebrate individuality, skating starts from a position of we.

As the last clip in the Carroll montage demonstrates, skateboarding recuperates such emotions into a theater of aggressive energy—somewhere between play and reality. The other clips would lead us to believe that another bit of violence is coming after Carroll bails a front board down a handrail, but rather than retrieve his board after it rolls into a fountain, and enact some kind of punishment on it, he expresses his disappointment by leaving it there. It’s a moment of catharsis: unlike the rage that froths throughout the preceding montage, the last clip repositions our relationship to Carroll, asking us to reconsider this spectacle of angst as a portrayal of the skater’s humanity, as abject as it may be. Similarly, after I broke these last two boards (my last two to date), I did not experience rage, but a kind of warm, existential relief. The flipside to skateboarding’s respect for destruction is a comic appreciation of impermanence. Even if you break your board on purpose, you’ve got to let it go.  
•••

[This text originally appeared in the eponymous zine co-published with Michael Worful. See more of his work here and here.]


Waxing the Curb

Image/Music/Skate

     Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen, Dropped Bowl with Scattered Slices and Peels, 1984-1990. Metro-Dade Open Space Park, Miami.


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Waxing the Curb is ︎ by Sam Korman. 

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