An age-old question: what is skateboarding?
From the 1950s to the present, skateboarding has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry that has impacted millions of lives around the world as an art form and a sport. Throughout its history, skateboarding has opened its own museums, awarded its own hall of fame, and curated a self-documenting history, cementing a special place at the heart of the culture of freedom.
The California launch pad of the 1950s lit the torch of skateboarding that would be passed on to each new generation for eras to come. During these decades, skateboarding went through the ups and downs of economic prosperity and mainstream popularity, as different faces and personas shone in the limelight or dominated the back alleys of urban performance.
Between the youth of the world and those aging skateboarders who have seen it grow and change, the question ‘What is skateboarding?’ has undergone a metamorphosis with each passing of the baton. As we do our best to answer that question again, we take our first step into a bigger world. A world defined by the ultimate expression of freedom, movement and an intimate look at the history of skateboarding.
The origin of skateboarding is as ambiguous as the origin of our universe. There are many reports from self-proclaimed skate historians about who, what, and where the first skateboards appeared. It is widely believed that skateboards originated in the United States, first as wooden boxes with roller skates attached to the underside of the foot. Early models had attached handlebars, like modern scooters, but eventually the boxes were replaced with wooden planks and the handlebars were scrapped for a more surf-like experience. These scooter boxes were seen as early as the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that wooden paddles with clay wheels were popularized on Southern California’s downhills.
Skateboarding’s first slams
It’s hard to imagine us back in the DogTown era of the 1950s or 1970s, the birthplace of skateboarding. It would be even harder to imagine how much skateboarding has changed since its conception. In the early 1960s, skateboard companies like Hobie and Makaha began advertising skating as “sidewalk surfing” or an alternative to surfing when the waves were flat. In 1963, Makaha formed the first professional skateboarding team, competing in the first-ever skateboarding competition later that year in Hermosa, California. While remnants of the downhill skateboarding competitions of the early 1960s take the form of modern death-defying San Francisco hill bombs, the freestyle competition formats and most tricks performed during the Hermosa competition are no more. only a distant memory of contemporary skateboarding.
Even with its newness to American sports, skateboarding’s popularity finally collapsed in 1965. People were more likely to go to a roller derby competition than a skateboarding competition. Skateboarding in the media began to advertise skating as a dangerous activity, while dirt wheels and handstands became as boring as watching a hula-hooper for hours. To understand how skateboarding nearly perished is to finally understand why its first forms are no longer seen. But, more importantly, comparing where skateboarding is today, we see one of the greatest transformations of a sport from the 20th to the 21st century.
Reinventing the (skateboard) wheel
Not figuratively, but literally. The skateboard wheel was reinvented by Frank Nasworthy, who introduced the urethane wheel to skateboarding in 1973. The new wheel, replacing the clumsy clay wheels of the 1950s and 1960s, gripped asphalt and the walls of the pool like cleats on the grass. With the invention of the kick-tail alongside it (a raised rear end of the skateboard), a new definition of a professional skateboard was born. Skateboard magazines sold in the local surf shop now had a horse to promote as a new skateboarding craze began to grow around the world. Just three years after the new skateboard wheel, the first skatepark opened in Florida in 1976.
Before the end of the decade, skateparks started popping up all over North and South America, and soon after in Europe and Asia. The 1970s rise of skateboarding into mainstream culture was best popularized by the 2005 film Lords of DogTown. In 1975, as seen in the film, the Zephyr skateboarding team led by Tony Alva showed the potential of world skateboarding at the Ocean Festival in Del Mar, California. This moment in skateboarding history is the cornerstone of its history and how skateboarding competitions will change in the decades to come.
However, skateboarding would eventually suffer another near-fatal crash as the 1980s approached. skateboarding collapsed in favor of a hermetic group of freedom seekers who ruled the empty backyard swimming pools of America. Skateparks were no longer being built, as skyrocketing insurance costs clung to the injury-prone aspect of skating. And so, no longer accepted by SoCal parents or corporations looking for the next big fad, skating became the calling card of anti-establishment culture and the growing punk scene of the 1980s.
What Zephyr Skateboards did that year in Del Mar for the skateboarding world would not be seen again until Tony Hawk landed his 900 at the 1999 X-Games. On June 27, 1999, Hawk showed up for the 11th time to the Summer X-Games green ramp to land the most recognizable trick in skateboarding history. At the time, no skater could imagine how Hawk’s two and a half spins would propel skating into a new orbit of popularity. But by the time Hawk had officially brought professional skateboarding back into the spotlight, skateboarding had already undergone an immense transformation during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Most skateboarders and non-skaters alike will attest to the importance of Tony Hawk’s 900. But most non-skateboarders have no idea how important the 1980s and 1990s really were to skateboarding. At that time, street skateboarding was designed by the outcasts of society. The blueprints for professional street skating were drawn and everything we learned about skateboarding media claimed their niches in the skate world.
With the help of a new skateboard designed for aerial maneuvers, Rodney Mullen had invented several flip tricks in the 1980s, after Curt Lindgren invented the Kickflip in 1978. Early street skateboarders Natas Kaupas and Mark ‘The Gonz’ Gonzales raised the bar again by sliding the first handrails. Skateboarding has gone from the backyards of ramp builders to grocery store parking lots riddled with red curbs.
As the mainstream media turned a blind eye to skateboarding, skateboarders were given the opportunity to document their own culture through their own lens. This allowed skateboarders to wield the power to produce their own media culture, fighting against the exact reasons why skateboarding suffered two major crashes in popularity in the late 1960s and early 1980s.
With skaters fully mastering the factors of production of skate culture, the golden age of street skate blossomed in the years 1993-2006. We’ve seen over those years the rise of Shorty’s and Chad Muska, videos like Mouse and Yeah Right! by Girl Skateboards, leading international skate teams like FLIP Skateboards, the famed LOVE Park era and the THPS video game franchise, as skateparks have become synonymous with public park planning.
The thing heard around the world
As skateboarding evolved into the post-Hawk era, skateboarding’s interaction with society changed. Skateboarding deepened its roots in street skateboarding, as the definition of being a professional skateboarder shifted from competitive skating to video parties, while mainstream skate culture saw itself in new forms of entertainment. Bam Margera would go on to parody a professional skateboarding career with a reality TV show, Viva-La-Bam. As companies came into the fold, skateboarding gained recognition and the skating elite began earning palpable salaries.
Today, Street League and the X-Games have drawn the biggest crowds in years. With more eyes comes more scrutiny, as today a youthful disgust and adolescence are still associated with skateboarding in mainstream forms of media. That being said, the offshoots of skateboarding have also grown tremendously to tip the scales in the hands of skateboarders. Over the past five to ten years, female snowboarders have been the fastest growing demographic in the sport. Skateparks can now be found on every major continent in the world with countless clips being filmed and posted daily on social media. Skateboarding remains one of the most inclusive and accessible expressions of freedom in the world.