The skateboarders fighting for a better future

In partnership withVans
The skateboarders fighting for a better future
From skate sessions for refugees to zines that champion every identity, skateboarding is emerging as a transformative tool – a home for all kinds of outsiders.

Kabul has sat beneath the Hindu Kush mountains for over 3,500 years, held between snow-capped peaks and the Kabul river, making it one of the world’s oldest cities. From the Mongol Empire to the British Occupation, the Soviet Union to the US-led Invasion, the Afghan capital has been endlessly besieged by various powers vying for control. Its architecture is a record of those who tried to rebuild it in their own image – and those who wished to see it burn.

Between countless bullet holes and mortar craters, smooth ground is in short supply. Oliver Percovich knows this all too well. In 2007, the Australian found himself in the city after his girlfriend landed a job as a researcher in the Afghan capital. In between job hunting, he did what any skater would do: cruised around to explore his new home. Skateable spots were in short supply, but after using his spare boards to recruit two local kids, he started skating the city’s high-school yards with his newfound skate scene of three.

It was a different experience to skating in Europe and the US, with crowds of fascinated people amassing at every session and the police regularly interrupting the skaters to ask for a turn. But the excitement was undercut with a tension that pervades the city, one where bombings are an everyday reality and where women are almost entirely absent from the streets and civil society.

“It’s hard to explain what happens after a couple of months of living somewhere where you see virtually no women,” says Oliver. “Overall, it’s just more aggressive and in your face.”

Oliver started holding skate sessions for local kids in an old Soviet fountain. It wasn’t much, just a smooth dish-shaped piece of concrete, but it provided a space where he could positively discriminate and give extra time to the girls.

The fact that no one in the city had seen a skateboard before meant that girls weren’t barred from using them in the way they were barred from traditional sports. When the time came to introduce a competitive element, the girls routinely smashed the boys. “They’d reclaimed that little space, that part of the city,” he says.

One skate session in particular, when all the girls came together and started holding hands and singing, led to an epiphany: “I realised that all the girls came from different ethnic groups, different socio-economic classes, some were more middle-class kids, some were street-working kids and somehow the skateboard had brought them together and carved out a space for them in this hostile environment. What I saw there was a microcosm of what the whole country could be.”

This realisation, that skateboarding can be a vehicle for social change, is spreading. Across the globe, numerous organisations and activists are using skateboarding as a transformative tool. In doing so they are challenging conceptions of what skateboarding culture can and should be – and it’s catching on.

Skateistan – the groundbreaking non-profit organisation that Oliver went on to found – today boasts projects in South Africa, Cambodia and Afghanistan, offering skate sessions and back-to-school programs at five sites around the globe, reaching thousands of children a year. But Oliver is not alone.

Build it and they will come

It gets cold in Pittsburgh, well below freezing with two feet of snow in winter. But in summer it hits 25 degrees and the hills lend themselves to bombing, which is what Kerry Weber did every summer growing up.

Pittsburgh is an old steel town, hit hard by post-industrialisation and a 40-year economic slump. Kerry witnessed the fallout first-hand as he weaved in and out of neighbourhoods, searching for things to skate. At first his core crew were a diverse bunch, made up of both boys and girls. But one by one, the girls gave up. People moved away and, without the backing of a solid group, they started to feel uncomfortable at male-dominated parks. It’s an experience which has stayed with him ever since.

Last year Kerry quit his job as a developer for Apple, moved back to Pittsburgh from San Francisco and spent his life savings on an old disused bowling alley, ripping out the lanes and using the joists to build an indoor skatepark. To the casual observer, Switch & Signal looks like any other park – but this is a space meant to tackle some of Pittsburgh’s deep-set issues. It’s a skatepark with social justice at its core.

“Many people like to claim that we as skateboarders don’t care if you’re a woman, or gay, or trans, which is simply not true,” says Kerry. “That’s the perception that we as skateboarders like to have, but we need to identify the prejudices that we have within our community and continue to challenge them.”

Kerry’s response lies in creating a safe space for people who don’t feel comfortable in traditional skate domains: from organising all-female and non-binary sessions, opening the space to queer-friendly events, to providing skate-camp scholarships for those who can’t afford it.

“The goal is to empower youth, empower people that are on the margins,” he says.

For Kerry, positive discrimination is key to building a more inclusive future – though this hasn’t always been well received. One of his managers was recently punched in the face after refusing a man entry during a women-only session. But for Kerry, safe spaces are a must.

“They rip,” he says. “They’re better than most of the men who skate there, they just don’t want to have some guy come up to them and say, ‘Hey let me show you how to kickflip properly.’”

If you see it, you can be it

Photo © Anne Leroy

Growing up in Hossegor, a surf town in the South of France, Marie Dabbadie, 26, never identified with the beach-blond men and women they were exposed to as a child. Nothing about their clean-cut persona resonated with how Marie felt inside. While surfing didn’t feel like the right space for someone whose identity didn't fit with society’s gender norms, skateboarding – surfing’s younger delinquent sibling – felt like the perfect home. “I never identified as a woman, I just identified as a weird person,” says Marie.

At first Marie – whose pronouns are they/them/their – travelled to the local skatepark to simply observe the assembly of strange locals, becoming increasingly fascinated with the identities on display: “It was all these outcasts and weirdos and I am weird too. I thought, ‘I can fit in there,’ so the next day I went back and started skating.”

The skatepark became a space where Marie felt comfortable. It offered a community where they were exposed to all sorts of different people. But as Marie matured, a creeping unease began to rise. Suddenly, skateboarding started to feel less welcoming. There were incidents of sexist comments and a lack of action from the skateboard community. The space to be different no longer seemed to extend beyond skateboarding’s cisgender borders.

Realising there wasn’t a skate community they identified with, Marie Dabbadie launched Xem Skaters, a zine that’s carving out a space for trans skaters. “I think it probably helps them have a sense of belonging to the skateboarding community, to see that there are others in the world.”

Eventually Marie left France for Malmö, Sweden, where they discovered a queer scene that helped them understand their identity: “I couldn’t grow from a lesbian woman to a genderqueer non-binary person within skateboarding.”

But Marie refused to leave their passion behind. After submitting photos for a skate exhibition in London themed around ‘community’, the skateboarder fell upon an idea: “I thought, ‘Where was my community?’ Because I don’t identify as either male or female. I do belong to skateboarding but I don’t know where.”

In true DIY style, Marie created Xem Skaters, a zine that’s carving out a place for trans skaters within skate culture. “I think it probably helps them have a sense of belonging to the skateboarding community, to see that there are others in the world,” says Marie.

Issues around gender, sexuality and race aren’t confined to skate culture alone. But as a microcosm of society, skateboarding is the perfect place to push for change. This is something that Oisin Tammas and Moch Simos realised when they started Skateism, a premium bi-annual magazine championing those overlooked by mainstream skate magazines.

The pair met by chance when Oisin moved to Athens to study for a year. Oisin remembers how, back in the UK, he felt like he had lost touch with skate culture and never belonged to any particular crew. The undercurrent of piss-taking and homophobia meant that the only thing keeping him skating was a love of the board.

But in Athens, a city stricken by 10 years of economic collapse and the largest migration of people since the Second World War, he found a scene which was open and welcoming – where skaters were taking matters into their own hands, and the absence of a functioning state meant that it was either ‘do it yourself’ or don’t have it at all. It was this environment that provided the inspiration for Skateism, ‘The diversity skateboarding magazine’.

“The skateboard is just a toy and while it’s built a culture around itself – and that’s beautiful – if that culture is in any way homophobic or racist, then it should be thrown in the bin so that we can start again,” Oisin says.

That’s exactly what Skateism is doing – giving coverage to skaters of every shape, size, age, gender, colour and religion: skaters that the world of energy drink-sponsored competitions overlook. With openly queer cover stars such as Lacey Baker and Jeffrey Cheung of Unity Skateboards, and articles covering scenes in Nigeria and the Middle East, the premium mag is reshaping the culture by challenging our image of the average skater, helping to create a movement that anyone can identify with.

“It feels like you’ve got this job ahead of you which you didn’t know how to deal with, but then someone came along with a bag of tools,” says Oisin. “And you’re like, ‘Okay, well, I still don’t know how the fuck I’m going to deal with this, but at least I’ve got a hammer.’”

From the bottom up

When utilised as a unifying force, skateboarding can prove invaluable in encouraging integration and collaboration.

For instance, the British town of Luton, home of the right-wing anti-immigration EDL (English Defence League), seems like an odd birthplace for a charity working to integrate refugees. But it was here that Will Ascott, at the age of 14, first experienced how transformative skateboarding can be.

“It was such a socially levelling thing, skating with people who are not from my class or race background,” says Will, who grew up skating local abandoned warehouses. “Hanging out with them on an equal level was something that none of my peers at school would have had, ever.”

It’s this experience that Will is working to recreate in Athens, where he co-runs Free Movement Skateboarding – a skate school working with refugees in the Greek capital.

Skateboarding is not a team sport, so rules and inbuilt hierarchies need not apply. Free Movement tries to emphasis this sense of mutual encouragement in its skate sessions: no one cares who’s the best or worst, it’s about pushing each other to get better. By creating sessions where local kids mix with refugees, the charity is working to eliminate barriers, providing a forum for integration that is rare across Europe.

It’s not always easy. Many of the kids are dealing with the effects of trauma brought on by war and exhibit some heavy behavioural issues. But skateboarding too can help them deal with this. “Merely the act of skating in itself is therapeutic and requires a certain degree of mindful focus and self-belief,” says Will.

It’s a similar experience in Palestine, where Charlie Davis has been running SkatePal since 2013. “The way that I saw the Palestinian mindset coming through in the skating was that the kids were fearless,” he says.

Kids who live under occupation are forced to grow up fast. When Charlie first introduced them to skating they would bomb any hill in sight, drop in on any ramp, regardless of whether they’d ever skated before. “At the beginning, a few of them were breaking their arms and stuff,” he says.

But like Will, Charlie saw the impact that skateboarding could have. At the skate sessions he started in Zebabdeh, Muslim and Christian kids would play together, often for the first time in their lives.

The same thing occurs across Skateistan’s five sites, allowing kids in totally different socio-economic situations to come together. In a role reversal, it’s often those from poorer backgrounds who progress quicker and are willing to take the biggest risks. The respect they gain from their skateboarding ability changes the dynamic they have with other kids, who culturally may be seen as above them.

“They take those relationships they develop in the skatepark back into the classroom,” says Oliver. “Then those more educated kids that are not as good at skating look up to them as skate stars.”

Taking skateboarding into new countries with no history of the scene often involves a complex navigation of cultural norms. Skateboarding is a sport heavily laden with cultural baggage; a wooden toy with a cult-like following heavily influenced by its Western roots. Transplanting these to radically different social settings can be not just insensitive but dangerous, as Skateistan quickly learnt.

“I realised that we can’t just bring along [Western] skateboarding culture and have that somehow develop itself. That would be dangerous,” says Oliver. “I didn’t show any skateboarding magazines or videos. I tried to dress as much like them, rather than them like me. We had skate shoes, that was kind of it.”

When Skateistan opened a centre in Mazar-E-Sharif, north Afghanistan, stories spread like wildfire. Local mullahs claimed it was a ‘disco’ and the community started to rise up against the park. Since then, Skateistan has removed all foreign nationals from frontline positions and Oliver himself stays in the background, allowing the kids themselves to shape the projects.

By listening more than they spoke, Skateistan realised that outside ideas don’t always fit with what’s happening on the ground. What does fit, however, is this really fun wooden toy strapped to four urethane wheels.

“You don’t have to say what skating is,” says Charlie, having learnt the same lesson at SkatePal. “You don’t have to describe the culture, the lifestyle around skating. You just have to say, ‘Here’s a board!’”

Free Movement, on the other hand, has added a further tweak: involving the established Athenian skate scene to facilitate a cultural exchange. “These kids are in such an interesting position because they are having to integrate within European society,” says Will. “They’re being exposed to stuff that they absolutely haven’t seen before. They’re in Greece, a country with a shitload of nudist beaches. Most of them haven’t seen a woman’s hair before.”

Will and his co-founder Ruby Mateja are trying to make links with other skate scenes around Europe so that when someone is given asylum in another country, they can hook up the newcomer with a local skater to help them settle and integrate faster. Sadly, this has only happened a handful of times, not due to a lack of volunteers or good will, but the glacial progress of the asylum process.

Coming back around

From the young Afghan girls dancing around a fountain in Kabul, to the trans skaters producing their own parts, as skateboarding spreads, as more and more people from different walks of life get drawn in, it affects the movement as a whole. And as the culture spreads and grows, so too must our image of the average skater.

“Skaters aren’t listening to the same music and wearing the same clothes,” says Charlie of his new home in Palestine. “You get into a car coming back from the skatepark and they’ll have the Koran on the radio, and they’ll go off to get falafel, then to the mosque, then back home. And that’s a skater.”

If there’s one thing that Xem Skaters, Skateistan and all the other groups using skateboarding can teach us, it’s that skateboard culture is not static, and we better start evolving.

It isn’t going to solve global warming, nor will it ever stop demented politicians from going to war. But skateboarding does bring people together, helping to break down perceived differences – and in today’s world, that matters.

Thank you to the organisers of the Pushing Boarders conference, without whom this article would not have been possible.

Read more stories from This Is Off The Wall, an editorial partnership from Huck and Vans.

This story was originally published in 2019.

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