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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.
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