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The Real Skatewives of New York: On Stephen Ostrowski’s Pro Debut


   

Few events in contemporary skate history compare with the tragedy that befell Stephen Ostrowski’s brainchild Gay Baker 3, a video dedicated to queer skaters, which was sadly never released. Still, back in 2018, the project’s evocative title had opened up a really exciting line of thinking for me, and I desperately awaited its release. Skating has always been about a kind of drag performance, pulling from various subcultures to form a pastiche of masculinity. Look at Reynolds’ leather jackets in Baker 3, and Greco’s numerous costume changes, including Long Island guido and New York Dolls glam rocker personaes. Antwuan Dixon’s tall tees are indelibly burned in my mind, as is his domineering posture: hands down, shoulders square, his unflinching style left you bodied with each trick. And then there’s the exultant braggadocio of Erik Ellington’s celebratory peacocking, which had him strutting across the lawn at Carlsbad High like Tom Petty imitating some inscrutable avian mating ritual.

The point is, by simply adding “gay” to the title of this canonical skate video, it transformed how I saw these iconic skaters, and positioned their identities as a masquerade of masculinity, which each team member had composited from his own network of disparate influences into something that approached camp. Now, if the video’s name alone can conjure such a fascinating reconsideration, the question remains, what form would the actual Gay Baker 3 take? What kind of fabulousness and degradation, beauty and filth, camp and restraint would be on view? According to an interview with Ostrowski in Thrasher, the project would have combined the over-the-top world of opera with footage of Cher Strauberry acid dropping off a New York City bus. It would have also featured many queer skaters that had previously quit skating owing to the culture’s underlying (or not so underlying) hostility toward anyone that broke the pretty straight mold of its subculture. And it would have premiered at a historic cruising theater. But beyond these scant images, in which a space of wild possibility begins to open up, the answer remains unclear. The tapes were stolen, and, though Ostrowski has since redirected that energy toward Glue, the company they co-founded with Leo Baker and Strauberry, they would reveal little about what happened. “If you know, you know,” they say.

I was reminded of the demise of Gay Baker 3 by Ostrowski’s pro part for Glue, which was released at the beginning of September. After all that has happened in the last 3 years since the video was meant to come out, I was surprised by this part. Glue is Ostrowski’s baby. And not only that, they’ve been an unsung member of the New York skate world for quite some time, with companies like Supreme and 917 passing them over for who knows what reason. But as opposed to a more declarative professional debut that demonstrates why they deserve their name on a board (or at least their stage name, “Sno”), they offer us something more listless, moody, and unresolved. The vibe is pretty well introduced by the opener: doing the same nollie frontside flip 12 times in a row, they seem to be building at some kind of triumphal climax, or to show off their perfectionism, but instead, it just trails off. The repetition has its own appeal—they’re hella good at nollie frontside flips—but the exercise comes off more like practice or rehearsal, with its meaning shifting subtly each time, and endlessly deferred.


If the opener can at least be construed as a form of modern dance akin to the repetitions and endless rehearsals of Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Steve Paxton, and the other members of the Judson Church, who were exploring the body as material, then the rest of the video colors the activity as a form of self-flagellation, with the damaged undertones brought forth by Arthur Russel’s particularly depressing track, “You Can Make Me Feel Bad”, and its dissonant, distorted cello, and moaning, baritone vocals. The remainder of the video is just as disjunctive and strange: some manual clips, a wall ride, a bail. Wherever they can, they draw out the tension for as long as possible, as when they manual into a 5-0, and then continues to manual after, all the way down a hill. But no matter how close they come to traditional bangers, the video still has a manic quality to it. They start the former clip with shoulders sloped in a druid-like posture, making themself appear guided by the skateboard and not vice versa; before 5050ing a ledge, they pirouette on their back truck adding a dramatic, if unexpected flourish. One of their most impressive clips is sick largely because they have to duck below reems of razor wire. Indeed, the whole video veers toward cringe, and appropriately dissipates into scenes from The Real Housewives of New York, including Aviva Drescher throwing her prosthetic leg onto a restaurant table decrying the fakeness of her peers.

Like I said, not what I was expecting from a pro debut. But how did we get to this dark and desperate place, with its macabre depiction of skateboarding? Many including myself were introduced to Ostrowski’s skating by their self-produced video Ether (2018). Unlike the melodrama we see in their Glue pro part, in Ether, they bring a musicality to their skating that appears to draw inspiration from ballroom culture, conveying all the self-possession in diva-like undertones. Throughout the video, their hands weave in and out of tricks, a snap of the wrist or a hint of a trellis giving the movement a jaunty accent. They lean the sloppy elegance of a Baker-maker into the showstopping, it’s-just-too-much fainting spell of a dip—only to rise again. Wall-rides are like duck walks, squeezing every drop of style out of the cramped motion. And, as if taking a dismissive turn in the face of an opponent in one dramatic moment, their hips take an about face, turning a manual into a fakie manual like they can’t be bothered.

Like aspects of ballroom culture, voguing, and drag, skating aims to tell a story through the body—a story about gender, amongst other things. And Ostrowski, whether consciously or not, puts forth a similar sense of self-expression in their skating. Other aspects of the production seem to be more deliberately drawn from the legacy of ballroom, too, such as the iconic portraits taken of them and a friend in a beret and denim dress (over top a pair of blue jeans), while they lurk around the Chelsea Piers, a scene which recalls the street interviews conducted on the same location over 30 years ago in Paris Is Burning, the 1990 documentary about the ballroom scene in NYC. Against the backdrop of the rundown and dilapidated piers, dancers, performers, and trans sex workers share their aspirations to break into the mainstream, hetero-normative worlds of music and fashion, or, in another case, ruminate about the labor done by a housewife to live in a home with a washing machine—for whom is sex a job then? They wonder. A far cry from the financial and architectural excess that now defines the neighborhood, these scenes belong to a time when the piers were a cruising ground, a place where gay life, and all sorts of other illicit activity could happen comfortably out of view from the oppressive gaze of the straight world—at least until the AIDS Crisis, which took the lives of countless gay men (for the record, the AIDS crisis is still ongoing).

In a way, I read a central interlude in Ether as a continuation of the legacy of forbidden activity and communion. Ostrowski and their peers skate 3-up-3-down on the westside waterfront, similarly seeking freedom through bodily interactions on the outer fringe of the city, albeit a wholly commodified one. Heelflipping up the first set of steps, they treat the elevated platform like a stage, riding for a moment, before they shuffle a shuvit into a nose manual on the flat—a truly unconventional innovation that shifts the tenor of the line into something more improvisational, imaginative, and dance-like. By the time they’re back on the running path that lines the waterfront, they unleash a seemingly endless array of flatground tricks, pushing the thrill as far as they can possibly go, splashing through puddles as they find a space miraculously free of runners, tourists, dog walkers, and other pedestrians to chase the emotional and physical momentum they’ve generated. Trick after trick after trick, the way they sound out the sense of possibility is both a triumph in its own right, as well as a tribute. To me, its exuberance harkens back to the self-determination of these bygone queer spaces that once occupied the piers, recuperating, and reinterpreting them in the present better than any institutionally sanctioned monument could or would (i.e. David Hammons’ vapid Day’s End, a sparse steel skeleton representing one of the former piers, which opened this year, and cost nearly $18 million to complete).

But since Ether, where we can see Ostrowski more boldly performing for the camera, and attired in a way slightly more typical to the straight skate world—namely, Dickie’s pants, with a shirt tucked into their waste, and a matching pair of Vans or Converse—their output has turned more introspective, lacking the same eclecticism, the same performative relish, and the just outright fierceness found in their earlier skating. As if to underscore the descent into dissipation and self-destruction, Glue’s premier video, Smut (2021), pictures Ostrowski smoking a cigarette, meanwhile teammate Cher Strauberry, decked in leopard print, does her makeup in the reflection of the camera’s fisheye lens. Captioned “Smoking kills,” the scene paints the duo less as glamorous club regulars or ravers, and more or as the skate world’s queer version of Sid and Nancy.

Just like watching the punk couple’s descent into oblivion is equally thrilling and disturbing, Ostrowski’s part in Smut pushes us toward a similar state of abjection, though much of their gorgeous skating still resonates with this goth veneer. An all-black outfit gives a funereal quality to a switch crooked grind, heightening the melodrama. Approaching a wallride on some crusty brick wall, they sway a little back and forth, as if caught in a swoon by the likes of Bauhaus or some other goth delirium. A wallride to nosegrind scratches out its own innate rhythm on the abrasive concrete retaining wall, as does a bomb drop onto a guard rail that they yank up and over into an unkempt asphalt drainage ditch, wearing a chain around their neck fastened with a chrome pad lock. But while these clips retain some of the musicality Ostrowski put forth in Ether, another more aggressive image also emerges, one more pointedly angry, fueled by a mixture of rage and shame. Wearing a black zip up hoody, they pitch themself down the steep, beveled edge of a San Francisco-based retaining wall, barely making it. They acid drop off of a flimsy iron railing over a chain link fence, bludgeoning themself with the impact to the delight of those around them. Perhaps most pointedly of all is the clip in which they wear a fitted backwards hat, a ring tee, and some shin-length, wide-legged khaki shorts. Adorned like some late 90s Nu Metal jock, they scale the rusted face of a 10-foot high iron plate that seems to be part of some artistic landscaping, and drop into its menacing slope, once again game for the harsh angle, and blunt impact more akin to the brutality found in the NFL, than to the eloquence of their typical skateboarding. It’s off-putting how, like a good soldier, they keep a straight face and just shake it off.
What are the stakes of Ostrowski’s angst? And in particular this final gesture? I’ve always wondered why Ostrowski wasn’t in the spotlight sooner. They make cameos in Bill Strobeck and Johnny Wilson edits, and were seemingly on the 917 program early on. These scenes were clearly going to the same parties, and were largely fueled by a newfound appreciation of house and techno music (e.g. Detroit techno world wound up in their videos); both Supreme’s art directors, and 917 founder Alex Olson were indebted to queer culture, the latter in particular appropriating numerous symbols of gay nightlife, such as Paradise Garage and Fire Island, and printing a board with the word “VOGUING”. Sadly, part of the explanation for why, in the 2010s, Ostrowski still didn’t fit the dominant skate paradigm may be obvious. Legacy pro Brian Anderson was being lauded for coming out in Vice documentaries, and Leo Baker was slowly entering into international stardom as a trans sports celeb, but both with the support of Nike, and the former after a long and illustrious career. What they represent in the world of skateboarding, and beyond is significant, and not without its own struggles (i.e. according to one interview, constant death threats), but the underground simply does not face the same level of public accountability, and is more reliant on small, and largely opaque social networks.

Another reason is that skating, as a cultural pipeline, has not always been bi-directional. When Ostrowski dons their most Nu Metal looks, and performs their most Bam Margera-like antics, they draw upon a late 90s and early 00s image of white masculinity, a revanchist one that sought to blame any and everyone for its directionless rage, and failed promise of recognition, in particular targeting groups that do not resemble them (i.e. anyone that isn’t a cis white man). At that time, the situation in skating was congruent with the situation in music, both of which were in the business of marketing Black culture to white suburban audiences. As Moby says in the HBO Music Box documentary Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage (2021), “[a] lot of times, when white people have embraced Hip Hop, they’ve ignored the Funk, they’ve ignored the R&B, they’ve ignored the subtlety, and they’ve embraced homophobia and misogyny.” For a clear picture of what this meant, and how this manifested in pop culture, one need go no further than Woodstock 99 headliner Limp Bizkit, and their cover of George Michael’s 1987 hit, “Faith”. A gay icon and sex symbol, he was everything the Nu Metal world resented about popular culture—they read his identity as inauthentic as compared to the palpability of their rage. As if to take revenge, the new version is mocking, its thinly veiled homophobia evident in Fred Durst’s sneering vocals, which interpret Michael’s affirmations like a teenager mocking his parents, before commanding they get out of his room.

The skate world was no less affected. Reynolds and Greco knew their appearance originated in the gender bending looks of 1970s glam rock, and the slippery sexuality of Lou Reed, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, New York Dolls, The Cramps, and Roxy Music, but most of their fans did not connect with the leather daddy, the sci-fi junky, the disco regular, the rockabilly madman, or the louche bisexual they were referencing. Instead, at one step (or two or three) removed from their roots, and translated through the “Piss Drunx” antics of the Baker crew, these images only touched on and enabled these suburban white kids’ yearning to break stuff, hurt themselves, scream at authority figures, focus their boards, and take out their rage on any and everything that crossed their paths. And it wasn’t just about physical harm or property damage, the effects transpired in the language, too. “Gay” was an eptithet, and in Baker 3, the company levels it against what they saw as artsy, including a “Gay Bird Moment”, which was meant to clown on productions like Alien Workshop’s Photosynthesis (2000), and its evocative b-roll, a gesture with strong echoes of Limp Bizkit’s cover of “Faith”, and its defining of queerness as inauthentic, and thereby worthy of derision, exclusion, or worse. To really underscore how prevalent this mindset was at the time, it’s also important to show how this was embedded not just in the culture, but in the structure of the industry. In the early 2000s, I worked at a skateshop called Phatman in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, where I met a rep who explained that he couldn’t sell anything branded with Marc Johnson’s image, because too many people suspected the otherwise straight skater’s quirky brand of creativity and intellectualism marked him as gay, and wouldn’t buy the product—true or not, that’s fucked. Another adjacent, but no less significant factor here is the ongoing religious fundamentalism that contributes to this atmosphere of abuse and discrimination. Ostrowski has gone on record about their experience with conversion therapy, which they were subjected to as a teenager at the behest of their conservative Christian parents. Unthinkable.
So, what does it mean when Ostrowski turns their hat backwards? Part of how ballroom dismantles patriarchy isn’t just through the feminizing gestures of vogue. Historically, it also stages events for who can pass as business class and other forms of straight drag that call into question the sexuality of these normative identities, putting forth a different image of who can occupy them (i.e. queer people of color). It’s a matter of empowerment, too. And that is part of what we see when Ostrowski adopts the Nu Metal identity: a queer person at the helm of this aggressive look, and the stunt-like, ultra-dangerous gestures accompanying it. But doing so also requires Ostrowski to take this rage seriously, to meditate on it through the poetics of movement. To try and understand it from the inside out, somatically, and through the body, and, in presenting such a shame-ridden, problematic image, to offer something if not lovable, at least worthy of care. Simply put, it’s a lot, and their ender in Smut shows just how much it takes to wrest beauty out of this image, with this therapeutic critique pushing Ostrowski to their breaking point. After they land a cave man boardslide on a handrail in front of some suburban church, we can see that the back of their shirt reads, “God’s favorite faggot”. Cobbled together from kitschy bubble letters and a repurposed Supreme sticker, the letters cling to their shirt, requiring Strauberry to reattach them before they fall off.

One of the handful of times I visited YouTube to watch Ostrowski’s part for Glue, I received a bizarre targeted ad. “Am I gay?” it asked. Fortunately I knew better to fall for this click bait, which had appropriated the provocative question, along with the rainbow Pride flag, to attract customers to a quiz site, but it was nonetheless interesting to see how a single skate video by a notable queer skater could tip the algorithm toward this type of advertising content (albeit a ploy on the part of some faceless corporation to capitalize on Pride Month, and two months late at that). It made me think about what acceptance and recuperation might actually mean for Glue, which has deliberately adopted a punkish, reactionary aesthetic, and revived much of the angstiness for the queer scene, angstiness that, in the wrong hands, might have kept them away as kids or teens—in any case, there were not many avenues for queer folks to publicly vent back then (and, we are a long way off still). Or, perhaps, in adopting the late-90s revanchist masculinity, the point has nothing to do with redemption, and is, in part, meant to refuse normalization, and to cause a more irreconcilable sense of discord—they’ve worked through the violent influence of this identity, but have you, fellow skater? The ad also echoed a scene in the pro part, in which Ostrowski films their friend at an art opening as they parody the expression “gay rights”, performing it like the catchphrase of some ultra-slick game show.

Or perhaps the pro part is simply a reaction to the obsequiousness of a professional announcement, which, in the last few years, has become an annoying, self-serving, and sycophantic spectacle within the skate world—”pro as fuck”, the industry says, once again echoing a jockish mindset. And really, does it make sense to refer to everything they have done over the last several years as their amateur period? Is that really what they were, just another hungry up and comer? Was all that just their sponsor-me tape? Whatever the protocol, what is important is that, yet again, Ostrowski insists on themself, and doesn’t wait for the industry to catch up. Their part is studded with friends, including collaborator Cooper Winterson, and perhaps my favorite skater in New York, the style god, Beatrice Domond. Glue am, Akobi Williams adds another cameo, bringing her apocalyptic approach to a crag-like concrete bank. The new, professional board with “Sno” on it, too, is designed by Will Sheldon, an artist with a penchant for finding the cute in the sinister and grim.

At the end, we also get a glimmer of Ostrowski’s early ballroom influence. By the end of the part, another of Ostrowski’s friends takes to the piano and plays a wistful interlude. It scores a scene in which they delicately roll themself onto the ground for a kind of floor routine, complete with interlacing, figure-eight leg exercises and dramatic hip moves. The exercise they do is usually done to acquaint vert skaters with the feeling of scooping airs, and finding control without the resistance of gravity. Here, however, Ostrowski once again tows the line between doing stunts and rendering these manifestations as a form of camp, miming a body in flight, as they simultaneously tumble on the crusty New York asphalt. Recalling the lightness and musicality of their earlier days, the trick falls somewhere between writhing and dance, transcending its circumstances, but just barely. It’s ultimately abrasive, and a bit gross, but there are moments of effortlessness as they sway on the ground, adjusting themself underneath their own pro model skateboard, swinging it back and forth through the air. •••


(Special thanks to JK and DY)