I can spot a skater from a mile off. Identification doesn’t rest on something as simple as the clothes they are wearing or the hair they are styling. And it isn’t because they are carrying a skateboard. It’s something...different; not quite an attitude, more a “type of movement”, as freestyle/street legend Rodney Mullen put it (1). Mullen believes there is an authenticity to skateboarding which transcends the annual fashion trends and is embedded in skateboarding’s rebellious genetic constitution. I happen to agree with him - but this isn’t a philosophical blog post - this is historical.
It was around the age of 9 or 10 that I began, what would evolve into, a permanent passion for all things skateboarding. Somehow (I don’t recall how) I came into possession of a ‘Penny Board’ - a narrow fibreglass and plastic skateboard, the type of which you see at any toy store. Mine had a ‘Stars and Stripes’ design on the top but I don’t remember the colour of the wheels. This was the first in a long line of boards that I would purchase and ride over the next 12 years. I still purchase decks (at the age of 44!) but now I buy them for the nostalgia and the artistry of each deck. My first real full size professional board was a Santa Cruz, Rob Roskopp ‘Target IV’. I had begged my parents to buy me one for my birthday. When it arrived, it became my most prized possession - I remember vividly the shape and the feel of it under my feet. I recall spending hours ‘designing’ my grip-tape pattern on the surface of the board. But this isn’t a blog for the sake of nostalgia - this is historical.i]
Iterations of Santa Cruz's Rob Roskopp 'Target' Deck.
Identifiable origins on the evolutionary timeline of skateboarding can be found in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The evolutionary ‘single-cell’ of skateboarding must be the ‘crate scooter’ or ‘crate-skate’. American children (or, as is more likely, their parents) took empty fruit crates and nailed them to planks of wood, which themselves were set atop metal roller skate wheels. If you have ever watched the first Back to the Future film, you will see Michael J. Fox steal a kid’s crate scooter, rip the crate from its plank of wood, thus creating a skateboard. You then see him (actually his skate-double, professional rider Per Welinder) evade Biff and his bullies by using his 1980’s skills on his 1950’s board.
Undoubtedly, these crates carried within their rudimentary design, the DNA of their future progeny, but skateboarding (as we know it today) was really a product of the 1960’s surf scenes in California and Hawaii. Looking for ways to occupy their time and energies when waves were not forthcoming, surfers began transferring their skills to land. Roller skate wheels were screwed to simple planks of wood that surfers would ride barefoot along the sidewalks - thus ‘sidewalk surfing’ was born. Surf companies, quick to pick up on the new trend, began building complete set-ups for sale - some of the more influential being, Hobie, Bing’s and Makaha. Embedded in the genetic blueprint of this early incarnation of skating, was the 1960’s counter-cultural philosophies of rebellion and independence. Skateboarding has changed since then - the boards, the wheels, the fashions, the tricks, the appeal, the marketability, have all evolved beyond measure. One absolute constant, however, is the non-negotiable nature of what it means to be a skater - a dedication to self-improvement (in skateboarding) and a comfort with remaining outside of mainstream social, cultural and political trends. Perhaps the earliest successful embodiment of this ‘nature’ was the Zephyr Team (known more popularly as the Z Boys). Immortalised in the film, Lords of Dogtown (directed by Christine Hardwicke and starring Heath Ledger), the Z Boys (Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva and Jay Adams, to name a few) oversaw an evolution in skateboarding, with their low, fast and aggressive lines pushing the domain of skating into the air and into empty swimming pools.
As mentioned in the podcast, there were a number of turning points in the development of skateboarding - I’ve picked three which I believe to have had tremendous impacts: 1) The invention of urethane wheels, 2) The creation of the ‘ollie’, and 3) The use of VHS recording technology.
Until the invention of the urethane wheel, skateboards ran on metal wheels with little to no grip or control. When Frank Nasworthy introduced this new type of wheel in 1972, creating the company Cadillac Wheels, he revolutionised the emerging sport. With the grip and speed afforded the rider, skaters were now in control of their boards in a manner impossible with metal wheels. This pushed the envelope of technical ability and accelerated trick development. None of today’s tricks would be possible without the ‘ball-bearinged’ urethane wheel. It also ushered in the era of wearing sneakers to skate, instead of riding barefoot.
In the 1960’s, skaters would ride their board barefoot and, should they wish to jump, would either simply leap from their board over an obstacle (think of a high jump where the rider goes over the bar and the board glides underneath it) or, by gripping the board with their toes - the ‘gorilla grip’ - and pulling the board with them when they jumped. This, as you can imagine, limited the trickset that any rider could master. That is, until Alan Gelfand invented the ‘ollie’ in 1977/78. Gelfand was able to air out of a vertical section of Solid Surf Skate Park in Florida without holding onto his board with his hands or feet. This was a truly staggering development as it introduced a new range of aerial tricks that were possible, as well as enabling skaters to ‘pop’ much higher out of the half-pipes, bowls, and pools. The trick was immediately monickered the ‘Ollie Pop’ after its inventor, whose nickname was ‘Ollie’. In the 1980’s, Rodney Mullen was able to recreate the ‘ollie’ on flat land - and thus street skating was born. Pretty much any street skating trick you care to select, is dependent upon the ‘ollie’.
Skateboarding was very much an American phenomenon and, as a result, other than Americans who exported the sport abroad when they travelled (American soldiers did this very thing when serving in Germany during the 1970’s), it remained largely bound by the borders of the United States. That is, until, the development of VHS recording technology enabled skate companies to film their teams and market their brands abroad, relatively cheaply. Early pioneers of this format, were Powell-Peralta, with their wildly popular Bones Brigade videos, H-Street, who produced low budget, gonzo-style videos which introduced the world to legends such as Matt Hensley, Danny Way, and Tony Magnusson, and Santa Cruz - the original home of the near-mythic Natas Kaupas. All of a sudden, these brands and their skaters had a global reach. Consequently, new tricks could be learned by kids all around the world, companies became multinational (and wealthy), and skaters like Tony Hawk and Mark Gonzales emerged as superstars. Let’s not forget that directors such as Spike Jonze got his start directing skate videos (see the groundbreaking Video Days starring - the now famous actor - Jason Lee). My passion for skateboarding and push for proficiency in new tricks was, in no small part, due to the availability of a steady stream of skate vids on VHS. The success of shows such as Jackass owes a great debt to both the culture of skateboarding and the media through which it was transmitted.
This has been very much a rapid-fire exposition of some of the core elements of the development of skateboarding - most of which have been selected because of a selfish interest in those particular areas. If you are interested in how the modern form continues to inspire and push boundaries (some of the street skating happening around the world currently, is beyond what I could have comprehended thirty years ago), then you could do worse than to visit www.theberrics.com, try and catch a Street League show, or get yourself a copy of Transworld Skateboarding or Thrasher Magazine. If you want to see how boards and designs have changed over the decades, I would recommend The Disposable Skateboard Bible, by Sean Cliver.
Dr. Elliott L. Watson
Co Editor of Versus History
News from Patrick (@historychappy), Elliott (@thelibrarian6) & Conal (@prohistoricman)