The Aesthetics of SkatingShare
Skaters have a unique aesthetic perspective on their own activity and on public space — a perspective we shouldn’t ignore.
Skaters are either pests or eXtreme dare devils (or eXtreme dare devil pests). Either they’re scuffing up a beautiful public planter box or handrail, or they’re engaged in some death-defying, oooh-aaahhh-inspiring spectacle on ESPN. Either way, they’re insufferable, crass, misanthropic, self-endangering underlings (even if they’re undeniably pretty cool). Either way, it would be strange to think that skating requires a high level of skill in aesthetic perception, judgment, and action.
By “skaters” I mean skateboarders and rollerbladers. Although rollerblading has fallen out of the public purview—being more-or-less stricken from the list of mass-media-worthy “alternative sports”—it hasn’t stopped progressing, growing, diversifying its repertoire of tricks and styles, and solidifying its cultural independence. Over the last decade rollerblading has truly come into its own.
One sure sign of this is the gradual acceptance, and even burgeoning respect, among rollerbladers for “mushroom blading”—an almost alien-seeming style of rollerblading first developed in the late ‘90s and often looked upon with suspicion by rollerbladers and incredulity by outsiders. (It’s called mushroom blading because when it first appeared on the scene skaters thought it looked like its practitioners were skating while under the influence of a naturally occurring mushroom that contains the psychedelic substance psilocybin.)
Mushroom blading is a strange hybrid of high-stakes rollerblading, dance, and improvisational play. Mushroom bladers wholly embrace rollerblading in all its (sometimes awkward) glory. In the early days (1994-2000ish) most rollerbladers, perhaps insecure about their subcultural status, tried to look as much like existing “extreme” sports (read: skateboarding) as possible and disavowed the parts of their practice that looked too “rollerbladingy”. As a result, a culture of anxiety emerged within rollerblading—an anxiety aimed at anything that looked too much like those “pansy” recreational rollerbladers in spandex doing “gay” dances (it was a culture laced with a truly odious and shameful homophobia).
Mushroom bladers refuse to indulge in such anxieties. They aim to express the forms and movements uniquely available to rollerblading. Partly as a result, mushroom blading often looks like dance; it has a beautiful, dance-like spontaneity and control. It’s also playful, surprising, and fun in its highly creative use of almost any environment, including many environments that most would consider unskateable. Mushroom bladers boldly call on classical tropes from figure skating and recreational inline—two main sources of widespread disdain for rollerblading’s common aesthetic—and make them their own, showing others how the very aspects of rollerblading that they disavow or disrespect are the aspects that, when handled correctly, lend it a unique and beautiful artistic power.
The dance-like quality and highly creative use of public space is enough to show that the common conception of skaters is wrong, at least for this specialized group of rollerbladers. As someone who is familiar with the general character of mushroom blading’s movements and tactics, I was excited by this recent video from the venerable skateboarding publication Slap Magazine. I was struck by the similarities between mushroom blading and the style of skateboarding depicted in the video. Most of the individual tricks have strong precedents in the history of skateboarding, but overall, the video seems to contain something highly original and exciting. It seems to unearth an unexplored mushroom-like territory for skateboarding.
Insofar as mushroom skating is a kind of art, and its practitioners thereby artists, skating is, to that extent, a form of street art—since street art is art whose significance depends on its use of the street (that’s a claim I explain and defend in my paper “Street Art: The Transfiguration of the Commonplaces”.) It’s important to highlight the common thread that runs through skating and other (more recognizable) artistic practices like street art, for it highlights the many rich ways people use their public spaces for aesthetic and artistic ends.
It’s no wonder that many skaters are also skilled artists. The highly creative use of public space is common to skateboarding and rollerblading in general—a fact that the common conception doesn’t acknowledge. This isn’t just a public relations problem; it extends to the way the misconception shapes city planning and architecture, and suppresses legitimate pro-aesthetic attitudes towards public space. Skaters and street artists emphasize the thought that public space ought to be considered aesthetic space—and they think (/demonstrate) that this is compatible with a thriving public life. To the extent that architects acknowledge the presence of skaters, it’s largely indirectly by trying to prevent them from using the spaces they create. This results in, among other things, hideous architectural alterations intended to prevent skating.
It’s ironic that the clash between these two groups that have strong and compatible aesthetic interests often results in ugliness. My (informed) view is that prevention is futile. Skaters will be skaters, and even the most clever architect cannot cloud the skater’s creative vision. When you know how to look, you can find mushrooms anywhere. Maybe we should all learn to see with the skater’s eye.
Featured Photo: Kevin Yee, x-grind, San Francisco. Credit: Matt Rice (http://dealwithitsf.tumblr.com/)