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Keepers of The Faith: On Alv's Angels


   

Sometimes skate crews are so much more than that. These self-selecting groups of friends and like-minded skaters don’t just put out fun videos. Shrewd, diligent, dedicated, spontaneous, and well-read (skaters know their history), their internal conversation represents a new matrix by which to understand skateboarding. They are often stateless, not only moving seamlessly through the city, but also across boarders. They represent a diasporic imagination, spread across the world, and yet work toward a shared end. Together, they redefine the terms of a trick, and break the fourth wall, so to speak, widening the scope of where a skate trick takes place, and by whom. They expose the politics behind our most common assumptions (i.e. pants), and reexamine some of our most cherished tropes (i.e. shoes). Even when the outcome tends toward reduction and simplicity, it is motivated by the discovery of new potentials, as the elegance of the proof is quite often as significant as its conclusion. They skate, but they also skate about skating. For what, then, has skating ever concerned itself with if not the production of a unique ideology? The skate crew comprises a vast school of thought.

Many skate crews fall under this criteria, usually providing the basis upon which a brand bases its identity, but one of the nerdiest and most interesting is the group of skaters  shoe brand Last Resort has collected under its aegis. For proof, we can turn to filmer Daniel Dent’s latest video, Alv’s Angels, where we are treated to this heady style of skating. Overall, the video presents a fairly unified style, distilling the skater’s approach into a concise and exciting vision. These skaters, many of whom have achieved a cult following over the last decade or so, share a sensibility that have caused other media outlets, such as The Mostly Skateboarding Podcast, to accuse them of looking the same, but for me, this shared sensibility gives their skating thrust, framing the video as a tight, beautiful conversation among collaborators, so intertwined are the ideas of one skater with all the others. And what a school of thought it is. With Alv’s Angels, it’s not skateboarding that necessarily gets you excited to go skate, but spend enough time with it, and it will get you thinking about skateboarding in a more sophisticated and exciting way, able to locate new pleasures out from under the shadow of immediacy and the blunt aggression of athleticism and recklessness. It’s didactic, almost. But didactic in the best way possible, folding skateboarding back upon itself so as to reveal something about the esoteric nature of intention, and unleashing a new stylistic grammar. It’s skating that makes you appreciate skating more.  

Often, skateboarding of this type is ironically referred to as “creative skateboarding”, a term that suggests the skaters go out of their way to embellish their style with superfluous details—the purple prose of skating. It can mean that someone’s gestures are stiff and mannered, suggesting an unnatural posturing. They exaggerate the fit of their pants, or seek out obscure film references. Extra dangly bits adorn their wrists or they part their hair down the middle. Music direction can include house music or emo, or some long lost b-side that’s been re-recorded off a cassette tape. Usually, they substitute mood for skate culture’s lamest value, progression. The way they approach the spot is perhaps most telling: skating it backwards, the long way, or in some other oblique fashion, creative skating calls for the supremacy of intention over straightforward athleticism. In short, it’s a finicky matter of taste. But while “creative skating” often represents a learned trait, the through-line is the suburban surrealism that has, to some extent, always lived at the heart of skating, emerging and retreating at different periods over skating’s short history. Indeed, owing to a recent revival of 90s styles, and a kind of overall decentering of the skate industry, such creative skating has flourished into a veritable renaissance over the last few years, framing Alv’s acolytes as its own kind of sect, scattered about the globe (well, mostly just the white, Western World, anyway). Even company founder, Pontus Alv’s image itself sets the stage for this apostolic vision: in the video’s opening clip, he enrobes himself in a gray hoodie, pulling the draw string taught, as if to transform it into a kind of religious head covering. While his skating (and company) culminate a long and visionary career within skating, his fashion has managed to become even more austere, his skating, too, representing its sophistication through an incredible simplicity, as if to staple his theses onto the door of skateboarding’s commercialized spectacle, declaring a simpler way to do things, based on an individual’s right to translate the text according to their own terms.  

Ok, maybe this Lutheran vision of Alv is a little over the top, but what I’m getting at is that skateboarding, no matter how we seek to personalize it, extrapolate it into a community, or pitch it as discourse (as I’m doing here), is driven entirely by brands, and therefore represents a marketplace, the hope being that certain skaters will come along like some keepers of the faith, and enshrine style over all. In recent years, monasteries for this monkish appreciation of style have been located in Malmo, Portland, and Brooklyn, fringe cities (or boroughs) where a small, but dedicated coterie of skaters eschewed the drive toward bigger, more technical spectacles, and instead focused their intelligence on figuring out the internal physics of the skateboard, emphasizing tricks that remained low to the ground, but which were no less profound. This version of skateboarding often felt like a use-case about momentum, changing the relationship between the trucks and a given substrate. It convincingly argued for alternatives to the ollie. The way skaters like Dane Brady and Alv deconstructed skateboarding’s essential geometry was downright subatomic, even bordering on maddening. Their slappies, wallies, and no complies dispatched the traditional relationship between skater and board, and reconfigured this orbit according to new principles of gravity and speed. For the last ten years, their ascetic skating rethought the sport’s underlying mathematics according to a new, almost spiritual vision, refining the numbers so that suddenly the field in which skateboarding took place (i.e. the built environment), was expansively illuminated with myriad new possibilities.

The fundamental architecture of this skate theorem combined two antiquated calculus: the geometry of the slappy and the quantum mechanics of the wally. The combined result is a kind of contradictory form of skateboarding: it is blunt, aggressive. It eschews linearity for something more digressive. It thrashes through rough terrain. Yet, at the same time, there is an aura of weightlessness accorded to these skaters’ styles, as if, in confronting the material truth of their surroundings at such high speed, they are able to dematerialize, and become as light and fungible as any image of their surroundings. And Alv’s Angels is filled with prime examples: Nick Rios carves space where there had been none before, cutting a frontside slappy out of a meaty curb, before he gouges his board up a steep pole jam at the spot’s terminus. Dane Brady, perhaps the progenitor of this fickle style in the United States, cascades over a mountain of upturned sidewalk blocks, before settling into the narrow valley formed by a walking path and the privacy fence that guards someone’s backyard, effortlessly slipping between public and private space. These are fundamental examples of what can be achieved with this type of movement, reliant more on the fluid shifting of ones weight than on the brute force of an ollie, but other skaters in the crew have even elaborated on these theorems. Aaron Loreth is a prime example: he skirts shuvits and other flip tricks against the steep side of a jersey barrier, a kind of zero gravity orbit that invokes the multiverse. He spouts a switch pole jam off a slightly bent steel pole so perfectly it seems preordained, its benevolent geometry written in the cosmos eons ago.

How did it happen? And why those places? Perhaps certain quirks in the landscape, and a poverty of influence. Alv had the TGV train station, a narrow, overlooked footpath alongside a Swedish high speed rail line, which offered him a blank canvas in the form of a tall, perforated steel barrier. There, a concrete reef of subtle transitions, ledge shelves, and speed-generating channels slowly overtook the native ecosystem, allowing a quizzical type of skating to evolve within this isolated valley, unique from anything on either side of it. It is also worth noting that Alv had retreated from San Francisco, from the industry, and from a professional career in general, deciding instead to build out an ecosystem, to channel those resources into the overlooked borderland of Malmo. Clearly, he was looking for an alternative to the system, his first solo video, In Search of The Miraculous (2010), borrowing its title from the late Bas Jan Ader’s final art work in which he attempted the wondrous, and somewhat foolhardy task to sail across the Atlantic in a homemade sailboat, never to be heard from again.

In Portland, one wonders if the rest of the city felt invisible in the shadow cast by Burnside and the skatepark scene. It would not be the first time an artistic mind headed to this city for a little extra space and time and solace to work on something exempt from the typical market value—at least at the time. Much like the outfits Brady and his cohort wear, their spots and tricks seemed thrifted from previous generations, as if tricks were a finite resource. In both cases, these promethean landscapes caused a dramatic mutation within the language of skateboarding that quickly became the dominant strain, a new grammar that would be imitated by other out-of-the-way skate scenes in depopulated, post-industrial places, a key that reopened the door to skateboarding's collective imagination.

Make do with less. That’s the mantra overall. But more, it elevates this mantra to something beautiful. More will come from less. It motivates street skating, as when Jesse Alba garbage picks his spots, but it also drives these skaters to reevaluate what they consider a viable context, finding the familiarity of home in terribly designed skateparks. By now, in an age of widespread social support for skateparks, where they are replacing other recreational facilities, and further normalizing skateboarding as a sport, there nonetheless remains a generation of skateparks built by local general contractors that simple won the cheapest bid. Little input was ever gathered from local skaters when they were constructed, and at the time, these Certified Pieces of Suck, as Thrasher Magazine dubbed them, represented massive disappointments. But in 2022, against a backdrop of state support for skating, these monstrosities have been recovered by the likes of Loreth and others, in particular the Avenue Skatepark in Ventura. There, Loreth tucks a switch varial into the impossibly steep vert wall—at least that’s what I think it is, based on my cursory knowledge of old vert tricks. And David Svenstrom invokes Plan B-era Colin McKay with a 180 fakie 5-0, his knees buckling as if he had just done the trick on the tight angles of a jersey barrier. Amidst the impossibly steep transitions, ill-proportioned hips, coping-less quarterpipes, and generally awkward, pit-like layout, the clips advance the emotional thrust of a crusty street spot into an Ozymandias-like lyric about the ruins of misguided intentions, a bitter romance with such pointless community engagement. The same willful boneheadedness speaks to Billy Trick’s explosive style, as well. Attired in a collage of styles drawn from early 20th century American labor movements, he caterwauls through the streets like a one-man protest, armored in his dungarees and trucker cap. There is an utterly blunt stupidity to Trick’s style that stirs my deepest fondness and affection. And there is a class consciousness about it, too, demonstrating the value he can generate with a single brute gesture, plummeting off the roof of an octagonal news kiosk onto a curb, or barreling through the corridors of London with a liberatory mix of rage and jubilation.

Obviously this type of skating would have widespread impacts on the culture. Franchises sprouted up in other locations. But then, other conditions of life prevailed, and like most young people around the country, economic realities cordoned them off in major American cities where the creative jobs and media are more concentrated. Hence, much of the video primarily takes place in LA, condensing the diasporic imagination to its sunbleached environs (to me, it recalls the historical irony of Frankfurt School members, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, author’s of such seminal texts as “The Culture Industry”, who fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s, only to land in Santa Monica, on the doorstep of their own worst nightmare, the dark heart of American spectacle—i.e. Hollywood). The same industriousness is there, with the skaters rifling through the world’s 19th largest economy for some strange places, but the isolation also makes one very aware of the gender and racial make up of the team. Indie-inflected skate scenes have long tended to be exclusively white guys, and like their musical counterparts, were given a pass based on economic limitations, their inherent awkwardness, and the humbleness of their overall ambitions. They are not trying to speak to everyone, even if that modesty has historically masked a lot of bad behavior in certain pockets of the skate scene and elsewhere. The reality is, it’s 2022, and while Last Resort clearly has modest goals, I still wonder what changes when it’s some one other than a white guy wearing these shoes? Where would someone else steer this discourse? Would it suddenly feel less flimsy, even if preciousness, silliness, and wit are the point?

In any case, other parts of Alv’s Angles are nothing if not fascinating and heady, informed as they are by skating’s ability to fold back upon itself. In some cases, that means a turn toward the esoteric and synthetic. Take Ludwig Haakenson: his skating, which partners stylish street dancing with a kind of lounge act, tends toward an art for arts sake argument—or skating for skating’s sake. His deliberateness plots an impressive, almost rhetorical style, as if to position skating as something lackadaisical, leisurely, a dandy-like critique of all this striving and effort that skateboarding has become post-Olympics. But with a frontside 5050 to frontside bigspin, the tone shifts. It has a formal allure, and even an geometric logic to it. A straight line paired with a sweeping gesture, it echoes the geometric reductionism of the Bauhaus, recalling Oskar Schlemmer’s beautiful Triadisches Ballett (1921-29). There’s also a potential reference to Ed Templeton’s version in Welcome To Hell (1996). But then as now, its gestural rigidity feels unnatural to the organic relations of everyday street life. What I mean is, it favors the concept over the act entirely. Skating as an idea, a game played for its own sake.


Elsewhere, personal lives and a welcome sense of cynicism also punctuate the conversation, bringing a biting bit of humor. For Alba, his skating borders on the sarcastic. It’s playful, but perhaps because his father is an ex-pro skater, the younger Alba always appears to be wrestling himself out from under something. In certain ways, he is quite similar to his dad: where the elder Salba offers a caricature of a macho 80s skater by famously doing push ups on the edge of the drained swimming pools he still, in his 50s, seeks out, young Alba wags his dingdong in ironic cellphone edits. The latter also indirectly borrows his father’s punk mindset, insofar as he prefers to remind us that skating ought to be useless and, to some extent, deliberately sabotaging its profitability. Sometimes its hard to take him seriously: manual combos pulled from the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater score a lot of points, though they exist at the low end of the low-impact spectrum. Still, with sweeping slappy grinds, and a quizzical nose wallie, the charm is there of someone who lives and dies by the joke, a position that belies the world-weary self-awareness of a skater who grew up too close to the limelight, and for whom success seems entirely besides the point.
Sometimes a school of thought can put forth an archetypal character. For earlier movements, like the Frankfurt School, we might find it in Walter Benjamin’s fascination with the flaneur, a figure he in many ways embodied, traipsing around the streets of Paris for more than a decade, wandering with a kind of idle attention, and lavishing in the many associations and contradictions invoked by this public marketplace. It’s a figure I have long thought of as a historical precedent for the skater, someone who embodies their time and place, but who also has one foot in and one foot out, both an active participant and an observer, fashionable and yet out of step, anonymous and yet utterly themself, a lover and critic in one.

In any case, if there is any kind of thought leader to this otherwise complementary crew, it would likely be Chris Milic. A skate world guru of sorts, this child of the Arizona suburbs gained a cult following for the charismatic nonsense he brought to skating. His is an ecstatic vision, in which the lamest, worst- planned aspects of suburbia are given a kind of purpose, a bit of sense. He uses absurdity and inversions to take an ordinary suburban street and animate it with something more, as if it were a stage for some kind of mythical drama. Ethereal music often lends his footage a kind of 8-bit effervescence, a sense of calm and forbearance. He attires himself in a saintly mix of working clothes, and drapes himself with the faded dress shirts of a suburban father. When he shaves his head, he looks downright monkish. He speaks with comical intonation of a Pokémon. For a time, he went by the name Mango. And, as if these details did not already paint enough of a picture of the innocent vision with which he sees the world, elevating the skate world’s general state of arrested development to a kind of saintly disposition, he worships the oddest of god’s creatures: the green eminem, a child in a cow’s costume, the frog. For him, these latter figures seem to be proof of some discarded divinity, though the constellation of how they relate might only be in his possession. In It’s A Secret (2014), he convinced us all (and by all, I mean Hjalte Halberg) that he kicked a soccer ball that wasn’t there. Watching Milic skate can often feel like skateboarding’s answer to the best parts of New Age spiritualism: a kind of secular revival that finds god’s grace in the banality of commodified existence, a soothing vision that reframes all this shuffling about as a dance.

So much of this style of skating is about reigniting the spark after all these years: on the one hand, to return us to a childlike perspective vis a vis the curb, but also to dig into that sense of alienation and estrangement, with much of the emo music driving the video toward the inaccessible familiar. Such is part of the mystery in Milic’s part in particular. In one line, he captures the revivalist tenor of the Talking Heads’ track, “Once in a Lifetime”, with a pair of varial flips repeating across both ends of a line like the song’s bewilderingly ambiguous refrain—same as it ever was, same as it ever was. He makes elegant use of the quadratic on a front board up an immovable pole jam, invoking the flummoxing humor and bespectacled joy of your favorite high school math teacher. And it’s nice to see him skate handrails again: a frontside noseslide or a hurricane beef up the stakes of his charming style, as if he sometimes feels called by some internal force to test his knowledge, and prove his devotion. This time, though, he braces himself on the handrail with both feet for a two-footed bean plant, a cringe-worthy bit of clowning that will catch even the headiest, most serious aesthete off guard. The same goes for his two enders, both of which starts with him boardsliding a chain, popping out of the other side with all the disarming flair of an amateur magician who just pulled a coin from behind the your ear.

To quote the poet Keats: Skating is beauty, beauty truth. That is all ye in the skate scene, and all ye need to know. Or something like that. What I mean is, skating represents its own body of knowledge, and the crew presented in Alv’s Angel’s are the true keepers of the faith. Their aesthetic is thorny, irreducible, scrounging, and thrifty. A diasporic imagination that looks at the vast horizontality of the map, and the harshness of the contemporary marketplace, adn still manages to carve out little spaces that feel like home, be it a curb or a skate park. They skate bad spots at high speed, and loaf around crappy spots because they won’t be bothered, allowing them a little extra time to think. Wherever they can, they embrace outcomes that make you laugh, and at the same time, they take their subversive humor seriously. Their landings can often be harsh, and occasionally sloppy, and yet, there remains an ethereal quality to most of it, one that sublimates the aggression with which some much of the skating is undertaken. To this crew, hammers are fascist. Instead, they put forth something that is far more knotted and contingent, more approachable and democratic. In the end, pried from all the pressures, economics, and trends of the world. On the fringes of social media and the general public perception. Out of reach of fame. Tucked away for initiates who are themselves seeking something more. Birthed from a very contemporary ennui. And sometimes difficult to understand. Here, is a unique glimpse of skating. Call it whatever you want, be it “creative skateboarding” or pretentious or beautiful, what is certain is that this crew puts forth a gorgeous, contradictory politic, and seem to abide by another of Alv’s video titles: I like it here inside my mind. Don’t wake me this time. •••