In the second of our ‘Swansea Skate’ series, we catch up with filmmaker and cultural lynchpin Jono Atkinson about his definitive Swansea skate history documentary Over Ply Wood and a new Girls’ Jam he’s pioneering in the UK’s grubby California.
With a natural swell rolling in from the Atlantic, Swansea became a surf Mecca in the 60s and skating arrived soon after, “literally crawling out of the sea with the surfers of Langland [beach],” according to Jono. Without any industry to support their embryonic culture, Swansea skaters were as resourceful as they come – even breaking down empty beach huts to make boards.
Now, with the Exist Skatepark at the centre of the community, a new outside skatepark hopefully in the works, a tide of new grassroots skate-related projects like Furr Skateboards, and Jono’s mission to open things up for the growing girls’ scene, it seems like Swansea is refreshing its stoke for the next generation.
When did you start making Over Ply Wood and why?
I moved to Swansea almost five years ago knowing very little about the place and no one who lived there. The only fairly local skater I knew was an old friend from my formative skate years Ally Barr who worked for Independent a few miles away in Porthcawl. He had a ramp in his warehouse and there was a regular Thursday evening session so I started going over there. There was always a good crowd from Swansea and I slowly got to hear about the 80s scene. It was here I got my education in the history of the Swansea vert scene that culminated in them building what was at the time the largest and well-made vert ramp in Europe. For a few years Swansea attracted the best skaters from all over the world and the Morfa ramp was in every magazine.
The story of Swansea skating was a long one with its roots in the early days of surfing in the 60s. Surfing brought skateboarding to Swansea early so the 70s was full of ramp building and Langland even had a homegrown professional skateboarder. Talking to the skaters I had met I realised there was a good story here and also everyone had a ton of photos and video to go with the stories. I did my first interview two years ago and the material has been rolling in ever since.
How did you find all your interviewees? Are they still all in Swansea?
The people I have interviewed are from every era of skateboarding. I have talked to guys in their sixties all the way to teenagers starting skating now. Skaters who were using metal and clay wheels in the 60s and 70s, pro skaters, the vert skaters of the 80s, mini ramp and street skaters of the 90s and present day skaters who seem to take something from all the previous eras and styles. Anything goes now. It seems like the perfect time to tell the story as there is interest across the board. One of the great things about putting the whole project together is that everyone is still into skating, in one way or another. The Exist skatepark [founded in 2011 by local skater Ric Cartwright who co-founded the DIY skate company Exist in 2001] has had a great impact on the local scene and brought it all together under one roof so this has been a focal point for my project. The building of the park brought many older skaters and ex-skaters out of the woodwork to help with the construction or to skate again at the finished skatepark.
Why do you think Swansea has such a rich surf/skate heritage despite it’s distance from the birthplaces of those cultures?
As the project has progressed and I have got deeper into the history of skating in Swansea I have found that surfing at Langland began in the early 60s parallel to the beginnings of the scene in Cornwall. Bilbo was the first UK surf shop down in Newquay and not long after they opened there they started another shop here in Mumbles. Swansea was part of the global birth of a surf scene and skateboards were always a part of that culture. When Bilbo closed the Mumbles shop manager Dave Friar stayed and opened his own surf shop which supplied surfers and skaters here from the mid-70s well into the 90s. Dave imported some of the very first urethane wheels into the UK from the states in the 70s.
Skaters in Swansea always had a strong local identity but also made great efforts to be part of the wider world scene. Dave Friar’s skate team in the 70s travelled far and wide to compete and demo and Paul Conibear became Swansea’s first professional skateboarder who travelled the world and rode his own pro model board.
In the 80s the UK vert scene was pretty small, a handful of ramps nationally and not many more actual skaters. Swansea became an integral part of the contest circuit with well-made ramps, friendly and enthusiastic locals, and the party town of Mumbles. Practically every vert skater in the UK at the time competed at one of the many ramps in the Mumbles area. California was where it all started and Swansea skaters made regular trips out there to skate and came back with new tricks and big ideas that eventually gave birth to the mighty vert ramp at Morfa stadium.
Skin [Phillips – global Adidas Skateboarding team manager] was instrumental in the whole Swansea scene, building ramps, fundraising, publicising the scene and bringing some of the biggest names in skateboarding to skate here. He went on to take some of the most iconic photographs of the best skaters in the world and become editor of Transworld magazine. To those in the know, Swansea has always been at the cutting edge of skateboarding.
Can you tell us a bit about your new project the Girls’ Jam? Why did you feel it was important to put on a girl-specific event?
The Girls’ Jam really came about because of my daughter Ione who has been getting into skating recently. She is six and I have been taking her to the beginners session at Exist skatepark for a while. There are a few girls her age and a bit older down there and I thought it would be a great idea to get something going just for girls in Swansea. There is a really strong UK girls skate scene and I thought to kick off a regular girls night locally it would be awesome to get some of national skaters down here to inspire the girls and show them what is going on elsewhere.
Hopefully it might also mean that girls will travel down to Exist for the regular girls night when it gets going. Having a specific event for girls should also get people into skating who might be put off coming to a regular session or may not even know the skatepark is there. The front door of the skatepark can be a big barrier so an event just for girls will hopefully highlight how inclusive the place actually is and get more girls skating.
Rogue Skateboards are coming down on the day with some of their team alongside a good crowd of female skaters so the standard of skating will be high. There will be plenty of prizes and giveaways to get everyone motivated. There will be room for complete beginners to come and give it a try too so whatever anyones ability come down to Exist and give it a go.
What’s the future for Over Ply Wood? Do you have any other film projects in the pipeline?
Over Ply Wood has been all but finished for a little while now and has had four screenings locally. I have raised some money with the screenings to get the sound professionally mixed ready for a DVD. I have also been colour-correcting the video so there is some technical standard in there. The job seems never-ending but that is okay by me as I am enjoying the whole process. There is going to be an online screening of the film on Caught In The Crossfire soon for a limited time and then in mid-June there will be a show at Oriel Bach in Mumbles to finally release the DVD and show archive material for the film in the gallery. This may bring the project to a close but somehow I doubt it. As for future projects I am considering a few ideas but as there is still more to tell of the Swansea story it might be sometime.
You can keep up with Over Ply Wood updates on the Facebook page.