Tinker Skater Portland Burnside: On Brent Atchley’s Satori


Portland skaters tinker. I don’t know what it is, perhaps the forced interiority of the city’s long, rainy winters causes this compulsive behavior. Sequestered to their garage or basement, Portland skaters analyze and scrutinize every detail. The same conditions have pushed them to the fringes—more so than in most American cities, whose scenes are often defined by obscurity. Here, they search for small pockets of cover, sometimes having to belabor a small patch of dry pavement, to dissect every angle of a crumbling, mishappen hunk of concrete that doubles as a grind box or quarterpipe. They know these objects inside and out because they almost always build them themselves. Any skatepark that offers cover has received a Portland skater’s most thorough attention. So beyond the basic configuration of the bowls, they retrace the skatepark’s original composition into a mandala-like overlay. A quick little tap can mean everything. Interludes and oblique angles abound. It can seem as though they have unlocked the hidden meaning of this manufactured ruin. As both Silas Baxter-Neal and Tyler Bledsoe have recently demonstrated—and as Matt Beach long ago pioneered—a Portland skater will take a plaza apart, and put it back together again—with their mind.

In Brent Atchley’s case, tinkering translates as refinement, his skating seeking to master the art of finesse. Since the 2000s, he has brought an unusual approach to the bowls and concrete skateparks that predominate in the Portland scene, eschewing the gnarly for something more languorous, atmospheric, lyrical, and even pleasantly glib. As he demonstrates in his recent part for Satori, a downtempo, but no less enjoyable affair, there’s a wittiness to his skating. In full command of his board, he’s able to pop out of tight quarterpipes, airing four feet from an involuted backyard bowl where others would confine themselves to the coping. Working the lip, too, he does not do your ordinary grind or slide. He bifurcates a rock fakie with a nose manual, and pirouettes 360 degrees on a razor’s edge—completely stationary, mind you. Elsewhere, he gerrymanders a tiny, decorative chunk of basalt into a functional quarterpipe, and lobbies the new district’s potential into a blunt to back disaster. The guy has some kind of third eye for this type of stuff, a hunter’s mindset that tracks vital details the rest of us are too oblivious, too course to pick up on, as when he wallies up a waist-high concrete pediment into a nose manual. Hardly a skateable object, the most obvious exit appears blocked . But, as if following some animal intuition, Atchley somehow bends his forward-moving trajectory into a hard left.
Though such tricks speak to a high level of skill and precision, Atchley is actually quite a casual skater. More than a decade ago, when I lived in Portland, I once saw him chug a 40oz, and then saunter around Burnside with the command of someone who knows every square inch of the skatepark. His somnolent cruising anticipated every rhythm, imparted gravity to every dimple and idiosyncracy, and reduced the oververt bowl to a mere a ripple. Sticking to the edges and interstices, his improvised route seemed to be an exercise in pacing, and I felt as if I were witnessing an expert jazz drummer reacquaint himself with the fundamentals before a session. Here was a street skater bringing his abilities to transition, but it was also more than that, too.

Though Atchley’s debut parts in Element’s Elementality (2005) and This is My Element (2007) demonstrated his abilities to launch into orbit, they also show how he chose a more lyrical route upward, as if wafting amidst an invisible updraft (notably, when his contemporaries were making careers out of a scrappier, more explosive approach to Burnside). Atchely’s understanding, like that of is Portland peers, such as Mikey Chin and Ben Krahn, sought to expose the nuances of Burnside’s geometries, highlighting the park’s subtler features, and more tucked-away corners. Their style was more cerebral, and looked at things from the bottom up, preferring the park’s mellow spine, its pyramid, and the tight angles of the crow’s nest. They popped their ollies, nollied the hip, and treated the sharp edges of the pyramid like a hubba. When they weren’t picking apart Burnside’s more cramped quarters, they skated the big walls switch (Chin, Mikey, Why Wouldn’t You).
Portland has changed a lot in the time since I saw Atchely at Burnside. Massive condos surround the progenitor of DIY, replacing the post-industrial muck that had made this an attractive, and relatively rain-free place to build something (personally, I always thought it was funny that a tea factory once neighbored the site). But Atchley’s Satori part shows that the tradition is still alive and well. Popping out of an axle stall on the western parking block wall, he recasts the simple 5050 into a crushing back lip. Several clips take place on the liminal space between the oververt bowl and the mini spine, a sort of no-man’s-land where Atchley finds an unusual runway for lines, bridging his transition tricks with a 360 flip, a switch heel flip, or simply a quick bit of stance maintenance. Most people generate speed on the hump that separates this overlooked alley from the parking block quarter, or else, they recognize it as a barrier. To Atchely, who flows right over it, the hump is the world’s shortest manual pad. 

Portland skaters have a tendency to fall off at a certain point in their careers. After starring in The Firm’s 2003 video, Can’t Stop, Matt Beach disappeared, only to resurface six years later in Transworld’s Right Foot Forward (2009), after a stint as a UPS employee. And it wasn’t long after Atchley’s second pro part that he faded from the spotlight, continuing to skate, but only in locally produced videos. Something about the Portland’s tinkering mentality seems to be allergic to fame or the skate industry. In my experience, the city has a darkside. It often feels isolated, making it an easy place to get lost.
Nonetheless, Atchley’s unique skating remains endlessly watchable. To see him cruise around is to watch a master craftsman in full possession of his tools, as if the board were an extension of his feet. The part has the taught, hypnotic effect of shows like New Yankee Workshop, or those YouTube videos that bring old and rusted objects back to life, narratives that portray the production process from start to finish, and which draw out the rich pleasure of going through all the steps to do something right. Such is the case, anyway, when watching him traipse a line through Portland’s defacto plaza spot. His nosegrinds in particular are so precise, it’s as if he fashions them with a jig. Curbs, too, really flex his abilities, like when he resolves the conflicting vectors of a fakie nosegrind, a revert, and a nose manual through some masterful joinery.

The same arch abilities are particularly on display when he chooses to skate the unexpected. He is slow, deliberate, and poised as he takes adequate measure of an overturned section of concrete drainwork, details that allow him to beautifully trace a nose manual over its parabolic curve. He applies no more pressure than is necessary, knowing the smallest measurement affects the whole. On the rare occasion that Atchley falls, it, too, seems to prove some kind of virtue. Attempting to nose manual the dented, slightly concave roof of an old roadster, he initially hangs up on the windshield wiper, landing himself well beyond the safety of the car’s hood. But he recovers quickly, and in the next clip, we see him float over the car’s hardbody exterior, light footedly dancing on the glass as if it were as solid as steel. Indeed, the clip is indicative of the part on the whole, showing that Atchley’s labor of love seems to follow one simple rule. The tinkerer’s creed: style is not simply a matter of force, but rather, possessing the patience and wisdom to know how much a given situation calls for.•••