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Waxing the Curb

The Psychoanalytic Skatepark 
     Dan Graham, Skateboard Pavilion, 1989. 

A New Jersey Spiritual: On John Gardner’s Shoutout Earth


   

“That’s sort of the last stop for them,” jokes Marc Maron in his 2020 stand up special End Times Fun. He’s referring to yoga instructors, though the joke could easily apply to skateboarders. Both vocations are more of a calling or a practice than a traditional profession. Both are accepting of hard lives and traumatic backgrounds. And both reward people who foreground their passions, in spite of, or rather, because of their unconventional life experiences. “You’re kind of grateful they made it to wherever they are,” Maron continues. “You know that you being in their class is as important to them as they are to you.”

The bit came to mind while watching John Gardner’s Shoutout Earth part for DC Shoes, which exudes the same magnetic, just-happy-to-be-here sensibility. Released on Earth Day, the video is hard to talk about without resorting to New Age spiritualism and the language of self-actualization that accompanies most yoga studios, though that’s not exactly a fault. The guy’s from New Jersey, a world that celebrates men with a hardened, and somewhat emotionless exterior. But what we get from Gardner’s video part is the same spirit of gratitude underlying your favorite yoga class, his skating teaching us the lessons of flexibility and strength, style and power, and, with a wallie front board he shovels onto an iconic New York bank to wall, the downhome comfort and freedom of wearing overalls.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Gardner’s skateboarding is the deliberateness with which he approaches every gesture. You get it in the way he ollies up a curb in an early line, leaning into the quick turn required to stay on the sidewalk, as if the entire clip depended on the way his hands flair upward, and his butt nearly touches the ground. Or how he uses the boneless one: rather than ollie onto certain things—a tree, a handrail—he puts one foot down and smoothly places his board where he wants it to go, even if that is a 12 stair handrail with a kink at the end, which he clearly does twice. It even applies to some of the squirlier, more improvised movements: after back smithing a ledge in one New York-based line, he appears to lose control, powersliding into an alley-oop 270, though all he meant to do was make a simple right hand turn. The entire move is totally unexpected—not short for the calmness of his expression—but for students of the form, there’s a kind of genius in the way that such a minor component of the line suddenly becomes its most memorable, and inspiring choreography.

That same capacious spirit extends to other aspects of the video. He’s introduced by his buddy, and DC teammate, Evan Smith, with whom Gardner collaborates on a bizarre varial out of a ditch that, thanks to Smith’s assistance, threads the needle between two lengths of chain. Elsewhere, a handshake with one bearded friend turns into a tutorial on trust falls and balance. And overall, Gardner bridges the ancient divide between skaters and bikers, first, by leaping onto a handrail alongside two BMXers, and then by mounting a mountain bike himself, and launching over a downhill driveway (which he later ollies, too). Of course, this is primarily b-roll, often meant to show how “the fun never stops,” but within the context of Gardner’s skating, these gestures illuminate his unconventional perspective as part of a more expansively curious mindset. For example, he unlocks otherwise obstructed spots by borrowing the filmer board, the larger, softer wheels of which allow him to surf a concrete hillside blanketed with astroturf, and to kickflip a street gap similarly paved with the artificial grass, the deck’s cumbersome dimensions exaggerating his tenacious flick. 
Gardner’s penchant for the unusual and informal aspects of skating borrows a lot from forebears like Quim and Mike Cardona—and I don’t just say that because all three skaters are from New Jersey. Their version of skateboarding balances power and exuberance, and like other citizens of the Garden State who celebrate the area’s defining, post-industrial crust, the trio, as if belonging to some obscure monastic order, have dedicated themselves to a spiritual quest for beauty in virtually any scenario, reaching higher levels of enlightenment the more polluted, toxic, or fucked up it is. For the Cardonas, that meant becoming wall creepers, cultivating quick feet and wallrides that transcended any vertical surface. For Gardner, the same preternatural ability to go where others can’t or don’t have the vision to go manifests as an economy of gesture, particularly in his appreciation of ride-ons. Rather than exert more force than necessary, he cascades up two levels of a guardrail; rides onto a jersey barrier switch, and flicks back into the transition with a lipslide; and at the beginning of his video part, drops a half-story off a roof onto an electrical box, all without popping his board. Even when he slams, it’s elegant and contained: tumbling head over heals down a six-foot high drop, Gardner channels all that harmful force into a front tumble, as if flipping an aggressor by redirecting the momentum of their attack.
There’s so much more in this part to go over—his fearlessness about heights, his third-eye ability to identify spots, his rare talent to produce street and transition clips of equal quality—but it would be most true to Gardner’s skating to conclude on how he uses his hands. I’ve already mentioned the deliberateness with which he plies the boneless one, stepping himself onto a handrail as if transitioning from tree pose to archer. And he does a truly unique switch bertlemann on some rusty discarded scrap metal halfpipe. But these are not the only instances that show why we should consider skateboarding a full-body affair. He 5-0s a Portland-based handrail and quizzically grabs melon, making the trick look like a flying kick. He trellises a handplant on some ditch-bound DIY quarterpipe. He arches an enormous frontside wallride by leveraging a pullup on some scaffolding. And for his ender, he bomb drops onto a double-wide handicap access rail and miraculously, with all the focus of a yogi, does a handstand mid-5050.

His most elucidating hand use for me, however, takes place at the beginning. On that long, curved, downhill ledge in LA that everyone skates, Gardner starts off with a boardslide before he squats down, grabs cannonball, and seats himself on his board, one leg on either side of the ledge. Filmed in Super 8, he looks like he’s goofing off, but rather than run out of the trick, as I would have expected him to do, he doubles down and commits, risking his fingertips and coccyx to land it on his bum. And, were it not for the nearby curb, he would have done it, too. The clip’s significance might not be immediately clear the first time you see it, but after repeat viewings, it comes to introduce Gardner’s unorthodox vision: that skateboarding is a repository for life and experience, particularly in all its New Jersey weirdness; that if you dedicate yourself to skateboarding, there can be no misplaced gesture, no energy lost. The part makes me grateful for whatever route brought John Gardner to skateboarding. Now, and in the future, I’d be happy to roll out my mat for any class that he’s teaching.
•••

Waxing the Curb

 A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Skate Again

   Eric Parry Architects, Southwark Gateway Needle, 1999. London Bridge, London. 

Idiot Mode: Jack O'Grady's "Pass~Port" Part


    

Idiot mode is what it sounds like: the general ethos of an exceptionally reckless kind of skating. The state of mind when someone has dedicated themself to cheap thrills. When common sense is thrown out the door for pure menacing glee, doubt given way for titillation, hesitation for plunder, debate for single minded pursuit of self-destruction. It’s not skating a handrail, it’s nosediving down one that’s extra steep. It’s not simply throwing oneself down stairs, it’s plummeting from the top rope. It’s not just hucking, it’s careening toward the ground with the death drive of a crash test dummy. Here, slamming isn’t an accident, it’s a welcome outcome, if not the point. Idiot mode is exhibitionism, and the delight in making you flinch.

I got a good dose of idiot mode in Jack O’Grady’s pro-part for Pass Port on Thrasher. The kid is peril in the streets, electing to skate the steep, the long, the tall, and the generally ill-advised, all while going extremely fast. His is the type of skating that immediately captures your attention, and captures it for good reason: because of the immanence of danger, because of one person’s full-on dismissal of reason, because of an almost libidinous understanding of the city and architecture as the explosive fulfillment of ego. Rock and roll is often compared to this type of shredding—the beat, the religious demagogues once decried, the beat, the beat, the beat, it immitates sex. (As a teenager, I even asked my grandma why someone like Elvis seemed so controversial, and she, too, cited his rhythmic gyrations). In skating, it’s similar: it’s the party, it’s catharsis, it’s release. All that energy, all that momentum, all building up to the point at which the board leaves the ground, the body coming down with or without it.

O’Grady has his own approach to idiot mode: his preternatural board control, and slam-dance-like commitment expressing themselves in the petty impulse to tap, slap, spank, bonk, and jostle everything with his board. In his opening line, he nose bonks some wonky plastic DOT stanchion, giving it a good whack the way some crooked cop in a movie wraps his billy club off a street post. Depraved, the trick is impossible to take your eyes off of, because we know someone is going to get it, even if, or, rather, because the gesture is just about O’Grady getting his kicks. His second line, too, partakes of this same engrossing cruelty: a gap to back noseblunt on a pair of benches is smooth in the way he glides from one into a two-wheeled slide on the other, but it is all a ruse. The tenderness and finesse is merely a set up for the room-silencing whap of a wally off a trash can, which he wantonly carries into the street, indulging its full follow through, as though he had just slapped us back to our senses.  

What makes O’Grady’s skating true idiot mode is that it scales up infinitely. Yes, its nuances are best appreciated at ground level: careening off sidewalk fixtures like a dog in heat, leaving his stink everywhere. But the fact that the kid can bring the same energy—and, counterintuitively, finesse—to big stunts elevates him to the status of idiot king, effectively turning his sidewalk-style hijinks into full scale theater, and translating the infrastructural tap dance into a penchant for the narrow, the steep, the repetitive, the attenuated, and the just-barely. Handrails generally don’t seem to be enough: he has to gap out to them, gap off of them, or pop out of them, as we see multiple times in various scenarios. He gaps to lipslide a 5 flat 5 with the nihilism of Heath Kirchart; he gaps to noseblunt down a rough hewn concrete hubba, landing so precariously, it looks like his extra wide board is as slender (and wobbly) as a tightrope suspended over a deep chasm; and like a veritable monkey, he dips himself into a front smith before vaulting over a bit of sidewalk and curb, an about face of momentum that makes a fool of whoever proclaimed inertia an inviolable law of physics. Tying these clips, and their surly acrobatics, together is his ender, a miraculous ollie from one rail to another. When he lands on the second one, he sits on it like he owns the place.

The point is, these are clips you don’t just behold with your eyes (or, which force you to close them, should the situation get too harry). You feel this type of footage in your loins, a gut reaction. That’s definitely how I feel from the innumerable downhill clips, in which his takeoff point or landing lends extra levels of treacherousness and hostility to an already breakneck amount of risk—I mean, the one with the moss-covered ground. This same boundaries-pushing harrying, however, can also extend into discomforting territory. It’s disturbing to watch O’Grady end a line by pump-faking a heelflip at a motorist. Sure, the driver’s in their vehicle, but who wants to be flexed on by some gym-socks-wearing bloke? Who wants to be a bystander to this entitlement, this aggressiveness? It’s enough to make you feel vindicated when, after a bit of b&e, O’Grady ollies over some homeowner’s house gate, only to get served on impact with the street.
Senselessness, however, is small sacrifice for the way O’Grady’s skating injects liveliness and excitement into the city that surrounds him—the way he keeps you on your toes. It is an affirmation that the city is still an interesting context, his mischief proof that they aren’t entirely sanitized. While O’Grady’s version of idiot mode comes off as PG when compared to forebears like Dustin Dollin, who laid bare the cravennes at the heart of this skating, and though one senses everywhere the subtle censors of O’Grady’s shoe sponsor, Nike, we nonetheless get treated to a healthy level of sketchiness—a sense that the reptilian underbelly of libido is coming out for some overdue sun, and cares little for the stir it causes by being out in public. Basically, that O’Grady’s skating is out there for everyone to see—and to be frightened by. It is perhaps for this reason that, when I think of O’Grady now, I picture a crooked smile smeared across his face. The expression is everywhere in his part, less a mood and more a scar left by a good punch in the mouth. I see it toward the end his part, when he kickflips from a parking lot into a steep, concrete bank, putting a hand down, as he steers out of a powerslide. All his friends erupt in surprise—surely they thought he was getting tossed. But with such a shit landing—or, sort of shit, anyway—O’Grady gets both the trick and the reaction that he wanted. Pleased with himself, he sticks out his tongue, and skates away. •••

Kids Born Out of Fire: On Ari Marcopoulos’ Polaroids (92-95)


      

Skate photos take on an unusual mystique in Ari Marcopoulos’ latest books, Polaroids 92-95 (NY) and it’s companion volume, Polaroids 92-95 (CA), both out from Dashwood Books. In these publications, we find a tender, if disjointed montage of images: the past, but more ambient, interstitial, and awkward than anyone remembers it. Your favorite pros, but greener, skinnier, and more self-conscious. A primary document, but made up of curious outtakes. A handful of skate photos, but nothing was landed (except, maybe, an ollie over a bike by Julien Stranger, and a Japan air by Max Schaaf). It’s skateboarding’s golden era, but as three years worth of empty afternoons, and a guy with a new Polaroid camera—part of the fascination arising from the irony that it took 25 years for these images to come to light, when Polaroids develop instantly.  

Marcopoulos has been shooting skate photos for decades, and his idiosyncratic style of image making clearly borrows from the mythologizing eye skaters turn to spots: granular, obsessed with inscrutable details, highly attuned to place, attracted to the fringes and other peripheral places—materialist, but still chasing a spectacle. In other words, Marcopoulos will hone in on the most mundane, obscure, in-between places—airports, the underside of bridges, stairwells, gutters, litter, youth—dipping in and out of the all-consuming flood of images that already populate our world. 
The same maleability plays into his publications, as well, perhaps best represented by Anyway (Dashwood Books, 2012): no stranger to the expediency of self-publishing and zines, the unorthodox tome collects a few dozen of these saddle-stitched booklets, and presents them in a beige archival box, mounting a de facto catalog raisonée as a figment of coherence, a monument to the gloriously incidental; easy to store, impossible to archive.

How that slipperiness fits into these books is quite interesting. The Polaroids were taken between 1992-95 in New York and San Francisco, respectively, but were subsequently lost for the last 25 years, only to be rediscovered in 2020. Yet, despite what we might hope for such a momentous rediscovery, as Marcopoulos explains in his dedication, much information remains forgotten. This detail is important, because it’s what I imagine aligns these books with skateboarding’s fundamental antipathy toward officialdom, and its predisposition to such lost tales and minor histories as ABDs, NBDs, BGPs, sticker-based memorabilia, the Slap Message Board, and a world of conflicting opinions about who did what when, and why Ricky Oyola claims that Vinnie Ponte was not the first person to ollie down Love—basically, all the bullshit that marks skateboarding as an oral tradition.  
The result, however, is that fact and fiction narrow significantly when we look at these images. On the one hand, we get a semi-factual account of street skating’s prelapsarian period, prior to its eventual corporatization—a real time, and a real place. But on the other, the kids in baggy pants and skate companies ripping their logos from athleticwear; hats worn exclusively backwards with offensive t-shirts; the mishmash of street and vert, East coast and West; and the gawky body language of adolescence, together frame out a version of Neverland, wherein all the details of this world are stand-ins for desire and yearning—a world of profound moodiness and affect. 

It’s this elusiveness that makes me think of Hollis Frampton’s 1971 film, Nostalgia. For one, like Marcopoulous, Frampton starts with the discard pile, focusing on 13 images from the filmmaker’s early days as a budding artist/photographer. And two, the film brings memory into question, pairing each image with a voiceover in which Frampton remembers the photograph’s various failures to launch as art, editorials, portraits, evidentiary documents, posters, and even objects. The trick, however, is that the subsequent montage is totally out of synch: the voiceover never corresponds to the image on screen, though it doesn’t prevent a certain sentimentality from blossoming as we watch the photographs slowly burn up on the coils of an electric hotplate. Nostalgia, it reveals, works on everyone.
In the end, as much as I still have questions—where is Ethan Fowler these days? And who are the 2 or 3 women that occasionally populate these images? Dirty overalls, bushy ponytail, impassive expression, as angst-ridden and adventurous as any of the boys—their presence is so powerful, that all the other images seem to pile at the womens’ sneaker-clad feet—I bring up Nostalgia in relation to Marcopoulos’ Polaroids not to suggest that we will find answers, but rather, to describe how, everytime we look at them, our gaze seems to be drawn elsewhere—to the fringes of an image, the edges of an era, the heart of myth, or simply into a fairly normal past. In other words, in skateboarding, there’s often no difference between myth and fact. And that’s the fun of it. •••



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Waxing the Curb is ︎ by Sam Korman. 


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