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They were once considered the ultimate outsider pursuits, so how did skateboarding, surfing and BMX cross over from the counterculture to the mainstream? We look at the places and people who helped push these sports forwards.
Summer in the City explores what summer means to us around the world.
On July 26, 2020, a collection of the world’s best skateboarders will gather at a skatepark in Tokyo to do something no one has ever done before – drop in for an Olympic final.
The inclusion of skateboarding in the famous five-ringed circus for the first time – along with its sister sports freestyle BMX and surfing – has not been without controversy. The comments section of YouTube (already a dangerous place at the best of times) is seething like a snake pit over whether the Games will act as a showcase that attracts new participants, or the final nail in the coffin marked ‘selling out’.
By far the more interesting question, however, is how these activities, once associated almost exclusively with the counterculture, arrived at this point. As pioneering skateboarder-turned-film director Stacy Peralta, of Dogtown and Z-Boys fame, put it when he spoke to Culture Trip recently: “It continues to blow my mind where skateboarding has gone in my lifetime.” So how exactly did we get here?
Myths abound in action sports. As with rock’n’roll, certain places later assume a significance that’s not immediately apparent in the moment. And like the infamous Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall (which supposedly gave rise to the entire Hacienda scene in a single night) there are often more people who claim to have been there than could ever feasibly have fit in the room at the time. In reality, the way these things develop is far more boring, involving incremental baby steps.
Despite all that, however, there really have been times in the history of skateboarding, surfing and BMX when a particular combination of talented athletes, brilliant equipment designers and lucky circumstances has conspired to create something revolutionary – instances in which a quirk of climate or geography has been exploited by visionary locals, moments when everything has come together with an inexplicable alchemy to give rise to a scene that is truly radical, in every sense of the word.
Here we look at three such legendary moments in the history of skateboarding, surfing and BMX, through the eyes of the photographers who documented them. These were all scenes that pushed these pursuits forward in significant ways and, intentionally or otherwise, set them on the path to becoming 2020’s most exciting Olympic sports. And the photographers? Well, they’re the final element in the alchemist’s formula – the essential ingredient that helped spread the word, cementing these scenes’ places in sporting legend. Because, like a tree falling inaudibly in the woods, if a skater does a trick and no one gets the shot, did it even really happen?
“‘Hey, cameraman,’ they would shout. ‘Get this!’” Hugh Holland, who was in his 30s at the time, is reminiscing about the period in the late 1970s that he spent shooting skateboarders around what was known as the Dogtown district of Santa Monica, in Los Angeles.
Among the skaters he photographed were the pioneers sponsored by Zephyr Surf Shop, known as the Z-Boys: the mercurially talented Jay Adams, Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta, who along with their teammates would later be immortalized in Peralta’s own documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, and the inevitable big-budget Hollywood follow-up, Lords of Dogtown. When he first started photographing them, however, Holland was completely unaware that he was shooting kids whose names would go down in legend.
“It was completely by accident,” he says, describing how he first came across a group of young skaters trying tricks in a dried-out drainage ditch one day, and just thought “it would be a wonderful thing to shoot.” Holland wasn’t even a skateboarder himself; he was “just there at the right place at the right time.” But the longer he spent photographing them, the more he found himself drawn into their world, and he soon realized that he was onto something special.
“Everyone was breaking new boundaries, going and doing tricks that they hadn’t done before, every single day,” says Holland, still sounding slightly awestruck, more than 40 years later.
Up until that point, skateboards had been viewed as kids’ toys – a short-lived fad that had all but fizzled out by the late ’60s. But in 1973, an entrepreneur named Frank Nasworthy started making wheels out of urethane, a material that gripped far better than the existing ceramic models. Two years later, a drought struck Southern California, forcing many people to drain their swimming pools.
“The swimming pools in the Los Angeles basin at that time were like nothing else in the world,” explains Peralta. “They were all modeled after the famous movie-star pools of the ’40s and ’50s – these big voluptuous shapes made popular by Hollywood.” When he and his fellow Zephyr teammates, all talented surfers, tried their new, urethane-wheeled boards in the empty pools, it was a revelation. Suddenly they could perform carves, cutbacks and slashes, like they would on a wave.
“Everything changed so fast and developed so quickly in those years,” Holland says, and he was there to capture it all. Evenings and weekends would be spent breaking into backyards with the skaters and “lying in the bottom of these pools, you know, with skateboards flying all over the place.” He chuckles at the memory of one occasion when a landlord came home halfway through a session and the skaters scattered, leaving him alone in the pool. “I saw this treehouse so I just climbed up there,” he says. “Which was pretty stupid. I was busted.”
Like all good things, those halcyon days eventually came to an end. The original Z-Boys fell out and drifted apart. Sponsorships and rivalries changed the original, free-spirited nature of the sport. “Suddenly they were all wearing logos and helmets, and it just wasn’t the same,” says Holland.
By 1982, Jay Adams, the youngest and brightest star of the group, was doing time in prison for assault and battling a series of addictions that would blight the rest of his life. “He was the one who used to say ‘Hey, cameraman’,” remembers Hugh. “The ones who were good realized that style was everything, and Jay Adams had style. Incredible style.”
It seems amazing, given the richness of his archive (his second book of photos from the era, Silver.Skate.Seventies., comes out in October) but Hugh shot skateboarding for only three years – from 1975 “to about 1978.” Yet despite the brevity of his time behind the lens, his images captured a moment, a style, a scene that resonates down the ages. And it’s no exaggeration to say that skateboarding has never been the same since.
Hugh Holland might have been blissfully unaware that he was watching a revolution in action, but there was nothing accidental about John Witzig’s involvement in the revolution in surfing. As a young man living in Sydney in the ’60s, Witzig had become deeply involved in the local surf scene, ending up as editor of Surfing World magazine.
The sport was growing rapidly in Australia at the time, but when it came to worldwide recognition, the country remained a relative backwater. “There were several pivotal moments in surfing during the last century,” Witzig says, but until the mid-’60s, “they all originated in California.” All that was about to change, however, and Witzig would play a key role in making it happen.
As with culture more widely, surfing in the 1960s was marked by challenges to old orthodoxies. The idea that unwieldy, 10-foot (three-meter) longboards were the only thing to ride, and that ‘style’ consisted of nose-riding (running up to the nose of the board and back while on a wave), was being questioned. Shorter, lighter, more maneuverable boards started appearing in the water – boards that allowed surfers to turn more quickly, cutting back into waves and developing a more aggressive style unlike anything that had come before. In the epic waves off Sydney’s Northern Beaches, something particularly special was stirring.
“The credit for shortboards will be argued forever in surfing,” explains Witzig, “but none doubt the importance of McTavish and Nat in Australia. And they happened to be friends of mine.” Bob McTavish was a talented surfer and board shaper who began experimenting with new, V-bottomed shapes, all made far shorter than the conventional planks of the time. Nat Young, meanwhile, was the Jimi Hendrix to his Leo Fender – a ludicrously talented Sydneysider who helped McTavish test his new creations out in the water.
Witzig is also keen to credit the shaper George Greenough, “an expatriate Californian kneeboarder who provided constant inspiration to [us] Australians,” and there were other factors at play too. “The beginnings of post-war prosperity, which meant increased availability of cars; a huge coastline just crying out for exploration and adventure; and a feeling that we (relative youngsters) could simply take freedoms that our conservative parents (and governments) weren’t inclined to hand over.” But Witzig’s own role in the shortboard revolution cannot be overstated.
For starters, he took the photos you see here, immortalizing the idyll of the era. These were recently gathered together in an exhibition called (appropriately enough) Arcadia, and a follow-up book titled A Golden Age. But his writing played a huge part too, attracting the attention of the wider surfing world to Sydney in the most incendiary way.
In 1966 the Australians traveled to San Diego for the Surfing World Championships, where Nat Young beat the local favorite – his new, explosive shortboard style blowing David Nuuhiwa’s languid longboard nose-riding clean out of the water.
It was a significant turning point. And yet when the next issue of Surfer (the Californian magazine that was the surfing world’s publication of record) emerged, there was no mention of it at all. Witzig was incensed. “The Americans were refusing to accept that their hero hadn’t won the 1966 World Championships,” he explains. “And as for Australians claiming the radical developments in surfboard design… that was unthinkable.”
He penned an angry editorial (which, to its credit, Surfer ran in full) under the title ‘We’re Tops Now’ that has since gone down in legend. “Rubbish!” Witzig’s article begins. “That’s all that can be said about that story in the last issue. Rubbish, rubbish rubbish!” It only gets better from there.
Looking back now, Witzig says: “That’s a horrible article, isn’t it? [But] the US magazines, especially Surfer, had pissed me off so badly that I just kept amping it up…” And yet, while it might not be his proudest work, the central argument still stands up. As his photos from the time show, there was something particularly special about that generation of surfers from that particular time in that particular place, and that fact deserved recognition.
As with Sydney’s epic waves and Santa Monica’s proliferation of pools, local geography had a part to play in making Austin the BMX capital of the world in the 1990s – a title it arguably holds to this day.
Slap bang in the middle of the city sits Ninth Street Park, an area of low-lying land that floods regularly. “In the early to mid-’80s [when BMX racing was first blowing up] some racers started building a load of jumps down there,” explains Sandy Carson, a pro BMX rider-turned-photographer who calls the city home. “Then they found out it was a floodplain and they couldn’t put buildings there.” As a result, the jumps stayed and “just evolved from there.”
Austin has exploded in size in the years since, with the population of the wider metro area more than doubling, from around 850,000 in 1990 to well over 2 million today. But this small patch of centrally located, prime real estate remains untouched by property developers. In their absence, BMX jump builders have had a field day. Different crew have come and gone down the years, but “there’s always new jumps every time you go down there,” according to Carson.
Another important factor in the development of the local scene was the climate. Austin enjoys an average of 228 days of sunshine every year, so it’s usually dry, ideal for riding. Temperatures in the winter are mild too, so you can ride year-round, and when it does rain, it comes in short, intense bursts. “We have these flash floods that can just tear through the city,” explains Carson – a threat that the authorities have countered by building an extensive network of concrete drainage ditches. Most of the time, of course, these are bone dry, offering an array of banks and obstacles that could almost have been built for BMXers. “Everyone just uses them like mini-skateparks,” Carson says.
It was in fact the warm, welcoming climate that attracted Carson, an expatriate Scot from rainy Lanarkshire, to Austin in the first place. But once he got there he discovered there was more to the city than just dry days and drainage ditches. “There’s just a different vibe here,” he says. “There’s the Southern hospitality, there’s art, there’s music, there’s everything.” Austin has, after all, been home to Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Willie Nelson, and is the location of the South by Southwest Festival. On top of that, when Carson first moved here in the ’90s, the building blocks of what would become a legendary BMX scene were all already in place.
After an initial explosion in the ’80s, BMX’s popularity was on the wane by the turn of the decade. As big bike manufacturers pulled out of the sport, rider-owned and -run brands sprang up to keep the flame alive. Among the best-respected at the time was Homeless Bikes, which came from Austin. It was swiftly joined by the Trend, which later changed its name to Empire but is still owned by a self-proclaimed “close group of weirdos that love BMX” to this day.
Companies like these built from the ground up, fostering a DIY culture that continues to define the scene in Austin. Legendary riders like Joe Rich and Taj Mihelich played their part in popularizing the city, as of course did Carson himself – both as a rider and from behind the lens. But perhaps the defining moment in Austin’s development came in 1998 when Jimmy Levan, a young BMXer from Louisville, Kentucky, rocked up to ride “the church gap.”
Locals had been eyeing up this spot, which would involve jumping around 35 feet (11 meters) over a road flanked by two concrete staircases, for years. But it wasn’t until Levan arrived with crew to film Road Fools 1 that anyone actually summoned up the minerals to give it a go. The consequences of failure were huge, but somehow he pulled it off, riding away cleanly on his first attempt. Years later, he summed up his thinking for Props BMX with typical frankness: “I said fuck it, just go fast as shit and pull the hell up!”
Even in that pre-YouTube, VHS-dominated era, the footage went round the world, sealing both his and Austin’s place in BMX history forever. “Now when people come to visit, they want to go on an homage tour, like ‘Where did Jimmy Levan do that gap?’” says Carson. “You know, like if you go to Vegas you’ll go gambling or whatever? In Austin it’s like that with BMX.”
Culture Trip’s Summer in the City explores what summer means to us around the world. Discover, among other delights, unlikely summer retreats, US state fairs, the great British seaside and how to re-create an Italian Job-style road trip.
A version of this story appears in Issue 4 of Culture Trip magazine: Art in the City.