How Bali Became a Skateboarding Mecca

The events hold captive audiences
The events hold captive audiences | Melanie van Leeuwen / © Culture Trip
Henry Guyer

In recent years, Bali has established itself as the epicenter of Indonesia’s skateboarding scene. Across the archipelago skaters are headed to the self-proclaimed ‘Island of The Gods’, where their talents are celebrated to roaring international acclaim. Yet with great popularity comes great responsibility, as the once sacred space of skate bowls and halfpipes risks losing what made it special.

When a skate bowl appeared in the heart of Canggu‘s rice paddies, (one that pays its skaters a salary) it was seen as the final step in acceptance for Indonesian skateboarders. There was a sense of validation about it, that in Bali they are not only welcomed but actively encouraged to do what they love – skate. Pretty Poison isn’t just a skate bowl, however. It’s a self-proclaimed arts space, bar and live music venue. But most of all, it’s a theater. Here, skaters perform on a nightly basis for numerous onlookers and tourists who sip on trendy cocktails – all against the beautiful Bali night sky.

Pretty Poison isn’t just a skate bowl
The name up in lights
Skateboarding since its very inception was a way of articulating creativity

In a country known for its shredded roads, extreme traffic congestion, and just all-around poor infrastructure, skating on the street is a very limited endeavor compared with the resources skaters enjoy in the West. People would build their own mobile rails to bring with them; sometimes planks of wood would cover up gashes in the sidewalk. Away from the roads, salvation came in the way of skateparks, a validation of the sports increasing popularity and acceptance. As a result, skating has been pushed away from the streets and into a handful of skate parks in the few cities that actually provide them. And with it, a new style of skateboarding emerged, one that imitated the various aspects of street skating.

A skateboarder prepares to launch off
There are over 15 skateparks, bowls, and halfpipes in Bali
The wide expanse of Pretty Poison
The venue attracts a young crowd
Spectators watch the live action
Hang out with a skater and see how they interpret a new space

Since its very inception, skateboarding was a way of articulating creativity and identity onto a certain space. Hence its popularity among youngsters as a tool to navigate and claim a space that was never intended for them. Using a space creatively, especially where it was illicit, is part of the essence and joy of skateboarding. Just hang out with a skater and see for yourself how they interpret a new space, what possibilities some places provides them, what a handrail or a staircase means to them.

In Bali these days, there are over 15 skateparks, bowls, and halfpipes. However, as Bali continues to provide more and more spaces for skaters, it is also quickly becoming a spectator sport, a cool tourist destination as popular as its surf spots, vegan restaurants, and cliff-side temples.

The events hold captive audiences
A boarder takes a break
A skater’s speed is captured as a motion blur

In Pretty Poison, skaters are paid to skate in their bowl. It sounds like a skater’s dream. On the one hand, it has provided much needed earnings and space for skaters, with the skate-bowl simultaneously acting as a social/community gathering and source of income. On the other hand, like the dancers that perform exclusively religious ceremonies on a nightly basis for the tourist gaze, it feels like another contemporary form of cultural appropriation.

Without doubt, Pretty Poison has magnified the popularity of skateboarding. On skate nights, the crowds are as big as they are wild. Skateboards clatter the concrete, applause rings in the air, and every seat in the bleachers and spot on the concrete floor is filled with onlookers. Music blares in the background, beers and cocktails are downed, every now and then a drunk tries his luck.

Resident skaters get paid monthly salaries to drop in on the bowl three times a week. And the performance is genuine. It is filled with adrenaline, sweat, and, sometimes, even blood. Medical coverage, I was told, is minimal though.

With only a handful of skaters compared to the giant crowd of tourists, there is a stark contrast between performer and spectator. It becomes an exoticized performance and venue, an insight into a subculture that has become open to consumption rather than becoming immersed in it.

Relaxed spectators watch on
The Canggu haunt has proved very popular
Pretty Poison has quickly become a cool tourist destination
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