Skateboarding and Creative Space

March 31, 2016

by — Posted in Peer Edited Submissions

As a youth I frequented the University of Victoria campus. Not as a student, but as a skateboarder. An urban menace. A threat to the order, boundaries and primary conceptualization of this academic environment. My friends and I; a group, a skateboard crew, a faction of youth subculture. Occupying and re-negotiating the intended use of the architectural space, momentarily disrupting the habitual usage patterns and tracings of repetitive behavior [1].

Skateboarding is a vastly popular activity and its culture is nearly ubiquitous to adolescence in the Global North. The immensely creative art of skateboarding currently exists as both an activity limited by government discipline, as well as a youth subculture that promotes active resistance of state regulation. In this blog, I examine some of the basic concepts post modern thought has put forward regarding power, resistance, and discipline, through skateboarding. I am inspired by the Deleuzian perspective of unfolding creative force in bodies [2], which I see revealed through the imaginative art of skateboarding. My intention with this entry is to not only draw attention to the insidious nature of the regulatory neoliberal state, a regime that appropriates and standardizes even the most fringe activities, but to also demonstrate that resistance exists in the face of this discipline. I hope to show that, when unregulated, skateboarding holds the possibility for young people to actively resist state regulation of public space and, in the words of Scott Kouri, “disrupt hierarchies through bold, creative experiments” [3].

The Subject Who Skateboards

            Skateboarding is an intrinsically creative activity. Unlike traditional sports such as baseball and hockey, with skateboarding, rules, regulations, or requirements are absent (outside of access to a relatively inexpensive skateboard). Also lacking are large scale regulatory institutions, fees for participation, or structured coaching models. Those who skate are free to use their skateboard in any way they desire. Considering this, it is of little surprise that skateboarding is primarily considered a youthful activity and a culture that many young people adopt. Childhood and adolescence can be considered an inherently creative time. It is a juncture in human development when society grants the subject a certain latitude to creatively produce themselves [4].

Because a creative lifestyle often occurs outside of regular restriction and boundaries, Western society considers creative self-expression as something of a secondary or even undesirable trait. Creative endeavors or activities are granted legitimacy only when performed in sanctioned mediums and locales and only by those deemed to have extraordinary talent [5]. This flippant regard for the creative force of the youth subject merges exceedingly well with the underground and often criminalized spaces of skateboarding. Furthermore, the location that skateboarding takes place in greatly determines the value given to the activity. It is either perceived as an impressive and awe inspiring display of agility when observed in a sanctioned skateboard park or inversely considered dangerous, destructive, and criminal when performed in an urban environment.

Due to a monumental surge in popularity, North America has seen a massive growth in the number of public skateparks built in the last decade, with over 2100 in the United States as of 2006 [6]. In addition to providing a structured space for the art of skateboarding, a community skatepark administers disciplinary power over creative expression through regulation of the space that skateboarding occurs in and the bodies that perform it. Public skateboard parks will regularly have structured hours of operation, requirements to don protective padding when accessing the facility, and a written code of ethics instructing users of proper skateboard park etiquette. The skateboard park environment has also been observed to encourage self-regulation of those who use it with parks often posting signs instructing users to ‘police themselves’.

These thoughts regarding the physical and psychological regulations that are applied to skateboarding bodies through state-sanctioned skateparks are very much inline with a post-modern perspective of power. Throughout his work Foucault supports a reconceptualization of power and invites us to move beyond viewing power in the sovereign totalitarian sense. Instead he believes that modern power is found in all spheres of life; social, political, economical, cultural. Power is within the relationships we have with structures, institutions, others, and even within ourselves [7]. This form of state power disciplines by molding and shaping individual’s bodies through institutions such as schools, prisons, hospitals, and as I argue within this blog, skateparks.

Resistance in the Streets

There is mutuality in the existence of power and freedom. “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free” [8]. In skateboarding, those who perform in the streets can be understood as exercising the greatest amount of freedom.

Street skateboarding can be conceptualized as spatially and ideologically opposite of skateboarding in a skatepark as it departs from the prescriptive, state-sanctioned mandate found in the skatepark setting. This form of creation through skateboarding is free from regulations that govern time, body, and space and therefore exists as a resistance to disciplinary power exercised by the state.

            Concrete ledges running off flights of stairs, brick banks fringing the edge of a planter garden, an oblong handrail jutting through space. To most these are simply descriptions of various architectural structures that make up the everyday physical urban environment. But to skateboarders these objects exist in a space with nearly limitless creative potential, constantly available for visionary construction and reconstruction though acts of riding, sliding and grinding. Reclaimed and reconfigured to continuously create and re-create ourselves through the innately unique and personal ways each of us conceived to use the space.

            It seems all too fitting that these spaces of resistance, thick with creative potential and not yet defined, stratified, or territorialized, be labeled with the simplest term: smooth space [9]. For smooth surfaces are ideal surfaces for the tribulation of four urethane wheels. A smooth skateboard session. One free of friction. And yet skateboard sessions outside of sanctioned space are rarely absent of conflict. Seldom are street skateboarders uninterrupted by the sentries of the space, the security guards of order and boundary. Representatives of authorities that, had long ago defined the types of bodies appropriate for use of this space.

Municipalities tend to view street skateboarding as a nuisance and liability: a cause of property damage, an impediment to traffic flow, and a potential danger to pedestrians and the skateboarders themselves [10]. Simply put, the street skateboarder is often viewed as an unwelcome urban menace who is actively excluded from public spaces and often criminalized through restrictive legislation. Those who choose to skateboard outside of space dedicated specifically for this activity are often criminalized and viewed as bringing disorder and destruction to the urban environment. This creative resistance by a street skateboarder validates the presence of disciplinary power within the skatepark setting for relations of power require the possibility of resistance.

Street skateboarders re-appropriate the urban environment: essentially using the space for something it was not designed for. Through this re-appropriation street skateboarding can be seen as a form of resistance delivered through the creative force of the subject. Through street skateboarding the subject produces performances of time, space, body practice, and identification that Deleuze and Guattari [11] refer to as lines of flight. Skott-Myher, aptly describes lines of flight as “escape routes from the structuring effects of dominant social forms…[that] are composed of creative force and provide avenues for movement across and within even the most repressive or oppressive societies” [12]. Through this descriptor we see that the skateboarder, as a creative subject produces resistance to sovereign power through the creative forces and spacial re-appropriation found in the act of street skateboarding.

This post has presented some of the fundamental tenants post modern scholar Michel Foucault defined as inherent to power, resistance, and discipline in our current times. Aligned with Skott-Myhre’s [13] thoughts on youth creativity as a force of resistance, I have argued that the creative energy intrinsic to human beings is very much present in the simple act of riding a plank of wood secured to four wheels. Through movement, creativity, and in seeking to use the urban landscape as their unregulated concrete playground, young skateboards are actively demonstrating resistance to state regulations of body and space.

[1] Skott-Myhre, Youth and subculture as creative force.

[2] Deleuze & Guattari, A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia.

[3] Kouri, Politicizing CYC praxis: An invitation to conversation.

[4] Skott-Myhre, Youth and subculture as creative force.

[5] Skott-Myhre, Youth and subculture as creative force.

[6] Skateparks, Skateboarder Magazine.

[7] Taylor, Michel Foucault: Key concepts.

[8] Foucault; The subject and power.

[9] Skott-Myhre, Youth and subculture as creative force.

[10] Howell, Skatepark as neoliberal playground.

[11] Deleuze & Guattari, A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia.

[12] Skott-Myhre, Youth and subculture as creative force.

[13] Skott-Myhre, Youth and subculture as creative force.

This article was peer-edited by Hans Skott-Myhre

About Matty Hillman

Matty Hillman is a graduate student in the School of Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria. As a Child Protection Advocate for the West Kootenay / Sinixt region of BC, he supports individuals in navigating Ministry child welfare investigations. Through his involvement in the Changing the Culture of Substance Use initiative on Selkirk College campuses Matty has become interested in researching and promoting student well-being in post-secondary environments. When not reading, writing, or advocating Matty tries to make time to conceptualize and perform creative acts of resistance through art.

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