I've been skateboarding about as long as I've been walking. My older brothers (7 and 8.5 years older than me) got me into it because it's what they did. As a kid, skateboarding was just another way to get around and have fun outside, same as a bike or scooter (and I don't mean razor scooters; we had one with 8" inflatable tires we could ride through the yard!). It never seemed unusual to me to skateboard; it never had that outsider status to me because it's just what I did and what my brothers taught me. And yet, there was nobody else I knew of who skateboarded while I was growing up. I was riding in a vacuum, but because my brothers skated sometimes and because I constantly watched the McGee and Me video "Skate Expectations," I never really noticed the lack of community.
Don't be fooled into thinking that I'm actually talented as a skateboarder just because I've been doing it so long. I'm not. While other things certainly play into it, I think a big contributing factor to my lack of talent is the lack of community described above. Without other people to skate with, it can be hard to progress. There's nobody to push you forward, nobody whose tricks you can build off of, and nobody to benchmark against.
There's a lot more to my skateboarding story moving into high school and especially my college years, but I think we'll stop here for now because I want to spend a little more time on the importance of community in skateboarding.
Rodney Mullen is a professional skateboarder, a true innovator and undisputed leader in the sport going back to the 1980s and lasting even through today. Recently he has found additional success outside of skateboarding as a speaker at tech companies, bringing a skateboarder's perspective to traditionally technological ideas such as Open Source movement. As someone who tends to straddle the line between geek and nerd, I've really enjoyed watching some of those talks and gaining a new perspective on how my seemingly disparate interests are related. Recently, however, I came across a video of Rodney talking to a group of skateboarders; his peers. He was presented with the question "What is skateboarding?" and his answer was the best I've ever heard:
Being a skateboarder: I think it starts with a sense of community; something that we seek - I think all of us as skaters feel a little bit like outsiders. I certainly did, and a lot of my friends feel that way too. And so, in an effort to both be an outsider - that inner sense of not belonging - and yet with a deep yearning for belonging (which I think all human beings have) - how can you do that, how can you find a sense of community? In this sort of multidimensional platform that we have with skateboarding, that we can create on our own terms with never-ending (and I think it’s safe to say never-ending) possibilities. And even atop the possibilities each one has a style through which we can define ourselves through what we do and a voice that we have that’s specific to us. The more we individuate ourselves and separate ourselves, the more we get a sense of belonging, because that’s what the community itself seeks - is to be separate and yet belong. So the more we individuate ourselves through what we do, the more we are embraced by the community around us, and we leverage what the community gives us (that is, the tricks; that is, the ethos imbued through the arts) and when we give that back we are recognized by our peers and that only brings it up higher, and all of this together creates that synergy that really is skateboarding.
In this, Mullen sums up the core dichotomy of skateboarding: it is by culture's definition an outsider's sport, yet we all as humans feel a deep need for a sense of belonging. Skateboarding serves both needs - the need for individual differentiation and the need for community acceptance - and in fact these two factors work together to advance the sport. As new tricks are conceived and new innovations are realized, they are fed back into the community and expand the palette shared by all skateboarders.
At its best skateboarding is about a group of individuals pushing the boundaries of the sport, each in their own way, in order to constantly redefine and elevate what it means to ride a skateboard.
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