Ramping It Up: How the Art World Came to Embrace Skateboard Culture
Originally published with Elephant Magazine (Online)
16th August 2021

No Comply, Somerset House’s survey of skate culture, opens with Henry Kingsford’s black and white photograph of Helena Long - British skateboarder, filmmaker and the exhibition’s consultant curator - traversing a deserted Trafalgar Square on a skateboard. Taken during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, this photograph symbolises the recent surge in popularity experienced by the sport as we sought alternative outdoor leisure activities, exercise regimens and modes of transport during the lockdowns. Now, with skateboarding recently making its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, fresh recognition of its worldwide popularity and enduring cultural influence, No Comply charts the history of UK skateboarding since its advent in the 1970s.

The exhibition’s three overarching themes - the importance of skateboarding’s DIY ethos, skaters access to immediate independence and ability to take control of their urban surroundings, and the prominence of collectivism and community engendered by skate culture - may go some way to explaining the activity’s allure to visual artists, with many contemporary artists coming of age amongst skate communities or maintaining a multi-disciplinary passion for skating.

“In its quest for perfection of form for its own sake, skateboarding is to pavement what [Clement] Greenberg argued paint is to canvas.” - Hamza Walker, Director of LAXART

In 2010 Dan Colen presented his latest solo exhibition, Poetry, at Gagosian Gallery’s 555 West 24th Street space in New York, following the death of longtime friend and frequent collaborator Dash Snow the year prior. During the preparation and installation of the exhibition, considered by many to be an artistic eulogy to his late friend, Colen built a large skate ramp in the gallery space and invited members of New York’s skate community to skate the plywood half-pipe. Afterworks, Colen upturned the ramp to create Overture ("Two Minutes in Silver Wells, Two Minutes Here, Two Minutes There, It Was Going to be Over in this Bedroom in Encino") a mournful sculpture that formed the centre point of the exhibition and allowed visitors to walk beneath its bridge-like facade and gaze-up at the skid marks created by the skateboard wheels. Demonstrating a unique consideration of mark-making, a permanence born from transience, the artwork also serves as an homage to Colen’s teenage obsession with skateboarding, an activity that he credits with not only introducing him to art and art-making but also to a community of friends and colleagues such as Snow and artist/photographer Ryan McGinley.

Colen, Snow and to a lesser extent McGinley were all championed during the early stages of their careers by Jeffrey Deitch, former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), Los Angeles and curator-extraordinaire famed for presenting innovative and disruptive exhibitions at his erstwhile gallery Deitch Projects (1996-2010). Deitch, frequently ahead of the curve, had noticed the growing community of skater artists and in 2002 ‘Session the Bowl’ opened in New York with a performance by the 5Boro Skate Crew. The exhibition, featuring paintings, drawings and photographs by over thirty artists who either skated themselves or engaged directly with, and were inspired by, the skate community, is long-renowned for the sculptural/architectural intervention Free Basin by artist collective Simparch, a large skate-bowl that filled almost the entire gallery space and foreshadowed Colen’s Overture.

Alumni from ‘Session the Bowl’ include Snow; Ed Templeton, a skater, artist and photographer who alongside being inducted into the Skateboard Hall of Fame in 2016 has also exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, and publishes the community-orientated arts magazine ANP Quarterly; Martha Cooper, photographer recognised for her documentation of the 70s and 80s graffiti scene and later the burgeoning skate culture; and Kaws, the former skater and graffiti artist whose 2020 survey at Brooklyn Museum sold out in advance of the opening and whose auction record currently stands at $14,800,000.

Skateboarding has long been saddled with associations to graffiti and street art, its fellow subcultures and countercultures, but with artists such as Snow and Colen plus curators/institutional figures such as Deitch exposing skate culture to the wider art world, it wasn’t long before contemporary artists were clamouring to align themselves with the skate community. Supreme, unarguably the most famous and celebrated skate brand in the world, has an extensive history of artistic collaborations, with Colen, Snow, Cooper and Kaws all early adopters. In 2000 Ryan McGinness, also of ‘Session the Bowl’, became the first artist to adorn Supreme skate decks with his designs, and two decades later the list of artists who have followed suit reads like an enviable institutional collection. Mike Kelley, Marilyn Minter, Damien Hirst, Cindy Sherman, John Baldessari, Nan Goldin and Jeff Koons, to name but a few, have all contributed artworks to Supreme skate decks, and proof of the series’ artistic credentials came in 2019 when Sotheby’s auctioned a complete set of 248 decks for £800,000.

Jeffrey Cheung, an Oakland based painter of joyful liberated and playful nudes, too recognised the power of an artist-designed skate deck and believes that since founding Unity Skateboarding he has hand-painted well over a thousand. Unity, a queer skating collective and publishing press, aims to promote skating amongst the QTPOC community and provides space and resources to those interested in taking up skateboarding as a means of self-expression. Cheung, a passionate skater in his youth, hadn’t skated for almost a decade prior to starting Unity and hopes to foster a community and culture of acceptance and inclusivity that he felt was lacking during his teenage years. Since its inception Unity has encouraged its members to pursue creative endeavours alongside skating, and in 2018 Cheung co-curated ‘Pave’ with Unity co-founder Gabriel Ramirez, a group exhibition at New Image Art Gallery in Los Angeles consisting of work by queers skaters and artists.

Artists such as Cheung, and earlier Colen, demonstrate that, outside of the inescapable commodification or commercialisation of both worlds, there will always be a strong affinity between skateboarding and visual art, as generation after generation of young people look to both cultures for liberation, acceptance and community.