The Skater Subculture: Its Representations and Misrepresentations

Matt Olivo

Northwestern University

Comm. St. 395

tony

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Introduction


My overall goal and positioning for this website is to change the perception and stigmatization of the Skater subculture in the eyes of the external and dominant culture through the lens of the visual, mediated self-representations of the subculture. In order to create an accurate and honest representation of the Skater subculture in the media, I intend to highlight the style and values emphasized and embodied in the images and videos created by and for members of the subculture. Through stressing the importance of images and videos to the heart of the subculture and linking them to the history and growth of the subculture, I intend to change the outside narrative and definition of the Skater situation from rebellious, anarchist, dangerous athletes to simply urban guerillas who are expressing their freedom and independence by repurposing wasted space. This paper and proposed artifact seek to objectively examine the totality of the Skater subculture and its representations, including external, internal, and scholarly representations in order to provide a means for the audience to form an accurate depiction and discourse of the history, style, and values of the subculture.

Artifact Proposal


Along this vein, I intend to propose the creation of what I am calling a Digital Scrapbook, or a massive collection of both external and internal representations of the Skater subculture, with the intention of allowing the audience to form their own discourse surrounding the subculture that is based on a totality of evidence, rather than just the media representations. My goal is for this to be the one-stop-shop for anyone who is interested in the style and the mediated representations of the skater subculture. Each image and video would contain a description of what is contained and what is represented, and some would include interviews with the people either in the media or who created the media. And while there would be a general list with every image and video in the collection, there will also be a video combining all of the images and videos in chronological order and narrated to explain their impact and relation to the skater subculture, giving the artifact the feel of an online museum exhibit.

Definition of a Subculture


Before I can delve into an analysis of the Skater subculture, I must first provide a general definition of what a subculture is, because the concept can be very ambiguous and lacks a clearly stated, universally-accepted definition. The definition that will be used in this paper for subcultures is similar to the definition provided by Stuart Hall, but with a few small variations. Despite popular sentiment, I do not believe that subcultures must exhibit ideologies and values that are rebellious against or in opposition towards the dominant cultural norms and values of society to be defined as a subculture. Instead, they must simply be focused on certain styles, values, or practices, which differentiate them from the wider parent culture and its style, values, or practices. Just because the members of a subculture act, dress, or think in a manner that is different from the parent culture does not mean that they are doing so rebelliously or in opposition towards the parent culture; they may be simply seeking to distinguish themselves and honestly express themselves. Therefore, my definition of a subculture is an imagined or socially constructed community, which exhibits a distinctive enough shape or structure to make them identifiably different from parent culture. While they must focus on certain activities, values, or ideologies that significantly differentiate them from the wider culture, there must also be subterranean aspects of their activities, values, or ideologies that bind them with the parent culture. Finally, the individual members of a subculture must be able to identify symbolic double meanings in seemingly mundane objects, which are known to each member of the subculture.

Style, Values, and Practices


The Skater subculture represents the aforementioned definition of a subculture, as evidenced by the values, style, and practices of its members. Like most subcultures, there is no official sign-up or membership application in order to be a part of the subculture. Instead, in order to be considered a Skater, one simply has to make salient in their minds and outwardly exhibit the specific values, style, or practices that are central to the subculture. Most importantly, to be considered a member of the Skater subculture, one must embody and represent the values that are central to the internal discourse of the subculture. The values of freedom, individualism, authenticity, and nonconformity form the backbone of the style and practices of the members of the subculture, and are the only requirement for membership in the subculture (Slee). Since the core values of the Skater subculture are freedom and individualism, there are very few rigid style guidelines for members of the subculture, as long as their style is an honest and accurate representation of themselves and the central values. For example, most skaters always wear hoodies and skateboarding shoes, which seems mundane but are symbolic among members of the Skater community of being ready to skate at any moment in time, and always being prepared to seize an opportunity. Similarly, the only guidelines for the actions and practices of members of the subculture are that they embody the values of freedom, individualism, and authenticity. These actions include being dedicated to improving one’s skill on a skateboard, as well as repurposing areas to become skate parks (Buckingham).

style

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Becky Beal and Lisa Weidman deftly explore the importance of individualism, nonconformity, and authenticity to the style and symbols of the Skater subculture in their 2003 work, “Authenticity in the Skateboarding World”. The desire and freedom to express ones individualism in the face of and usually in opposition to the mainstream culture and values is the backbone for the style and signifiers of the skater subculture. There are very few if any rigid style guidelines for the skater style; rather, all that is required is for their clothing and expressions to accurately and honestly represent the person behind them. This leads to members of the skater subculture being very accepting of new members, as long as they are honestly representing their individualism and putting maximum effort into bettering their abilities (Beal & Weidman). The core values of freedom, individualism, and authenticity permeate through every aspect of the Skater subculture, from the style to the practices and, most importantly, to the mediated self-representations that are created.

On the surface, every aspect of the Skater subculture appears to run contrary to the dominant parent culture. The norms and values of risking everything to push your limits, as well as the practices of exploring new areas and new tricks, despite any laws or regulations prohibiting such actions, all seem to be in complete opposition with the norms, values, and practices of the wider overall culture in America. However, as my definition of a subculture requires, there are actually certain subterranean elements of the Skater subculture that bind them to the parent culture. In other words, there are certain values and practices that on the surface may seem different than and sometimes in opposition to those of the dominant culture, but that actually have many similar elements and run parallel to those of the dominant culture. For example, the ideology and practice of exploring new terrain and seeking out new opportunities in the face of adversity from a more powerful foe runs perfectly parallel to the dominant American ideologies and practices of exploration and curiosity, as well as seizing an opportunity that has been provided for you. Furthermore, the value of recycling and repurposing materials that have been deemed inefficient or useless runs along the same grain as the dominant culture, which greatly supports recycling and repurposing. The only difference is that the skateboarders are recycling and repurposing concrete and other urban areas, which the dominant culture does not agree are inefficient or useless. While many Skaters would not enjoy being told this, many of their values and practices are very similar to those of the dominant American culture, and hopefully the Digital Scrapbook will provide an insight into the commonality between the two cultures.

Skater individualism

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 History


The Skater subculture is a very unique and interesting case, because unlike many other subcultures, its origins can be traced and pinpointed to an exact date and a specific group of people: April 17th, 1975 with the Zephyr Skate Team. Due to this unique and specific beginning, the skater subculture has existed for many years but has remained almost exactly the same since its inception, because current members of the subculture have been able to look back on and respect the original style and discourse surrounding the Zephyr team after this time. Before the beginning of the Skater subculture as we know it today, skateboarding was just a sport, and many people in the country didn’t consider it a sport: they considered it a toy or a fad. Skateboarding was invented in the early 1950’s as a way for Surfers to practice their turns and form when the swells were gone, and early skaters would make their boards out of plywood and clay wheels, which were very dangerous. However, throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, outsiders, or those who did not consider themselves members of the Skater subculture, saw skateboarding as a toy or a fad, akin to the Hula Hoop or the Yoyo. This was the beginning of the divergence and disconnect between the external and internal representations of the narrative and discourse around skateboarding. Outside media representations portrayed skateboarding and skateboarders as childish and simply a fad, while the skateboarders saw themselves as dedicated athletes who were training and practicing for the sport that they loved (Dogtown).

skating kids

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This trend continued throughout the 1960’s, and there still was not a definitive subculture surrounding skateboarding; instead, it had small pockets of popularity around the country, each with their own distinct style and symbols. This all changed in the 1970’s. In the early 70’s on Venice Beach, California, artists and surfers Jeff Ho and Skip Engblom created the Zephyr Surf Shop, which was where the modern style and values of the Surfer and Skater subcultures began. Jeff took aspects of the Southern California style and the Latin American style of the time, including graffiti and low-riders, and applied them to surfing. Jeff and Skip, along with a group of young surfers from Santa Monica, or “Dogtown”, would skateboard at night when they couldn’t surf, to practice their surfing techniques. Everything changed in 1973, when Skip met Frank Nasworthy, an inventor who had recently invented urethane wheels, which could grip the concrete and carve, just like a surfboard. This led to a massive second boom in popularity for skateboarding in the mid 1970’s, and Jeff and Skip’s surfing group became the Zephyr Skating Team, or the Z-Boys. The Z-Boys, and specifically Jay Adams, Tony Alva, and Stacy Peralta, are widely recognized as the fathers of the modern skater subculture. In 1973, they already embodied the style and signifiers of the modern subculture; they just hadn’t spread their image across the country, until April 17th, 1975 (Dogtown).

zephyr

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Del Mar Skate Competition


On April 17th, 1975, a skateboarding competition was being held in Del Mar, California, and the Z-Boys decided to enter it. This was the first time that the public was introduced to the style of the modern skater subculture, because until this point skateboarding was very clean-cut and, as the Z-Boys called it, “conformist”. They stepped into the competition through all of the well-dressed rich kids, and blasted Led Zeppelin and did tricks with a style and grace that had never been seen before. This video provides a good glimpse of this introduction to the world. The popularity of the Zephyr Skate Team, and thus the popularity of the budding subculture, began to spread after this competition, and finally reached a national audience with the help of a magazine article (Dogtown).

jay

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Dogtown Articles


The Dogtown Articles, created by artist and friend of the Z-Boys Craig Stecyk, were the first and most influential representation of the Skater subculture that was created by and for members of the subculture. Published in Skateboarder Magazine, the Dogtown Articles caused thousands of Skaters across the country to immediate pick up on and adopt the true style and values of the Skater subculture. These articles were a series of images captured by Craig Stecyk of the Z-Boys skating pools and other concrete, urban areas, representing to the world the exploration and freedom that are central values to the subculture, as well as images of the individual styles of the skaters, including the clothing they wore and the graffiti they created. The Z-Boys would frequently trespass on wealthy people’s property to skate in their emptied pools, and this rebellious nature was perfectly captured by Stecyk. All of this served to create a national presence of a subculture that is united under certain central values, and was thus a big part of the exploding popularity of the Skater subculture in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s (Dogtown Links).

stecyk

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From the Z-Boys to Today


The explosion in popularity of the Skater subculture following the release of the Dogtown Articles caused the Z-Boys to become instant celebrities, and provided all of the positives and negatives that come with celebrity. Each member of the original team was cherry-picked by a massive, international skateboard company, and while they were all making a lot of money, the Z-Boys were not a team anymore. Once the top companies poached the Z-Boys, competitive skateboarding really took off, as the individual members were now competing against each other. This increase in popularity combined with the subcultural value of pushing one’s limits and competing against one’s past performance, incited the rapid expansion of tricks and the abilities of skateboarders. By the 1990’s, with the emergence of Tony Hawk, many of the moves that the Z-Boys pioneered were now considered basic to many skateboarders, and an entire aerial element had been added to the sport. Yet it was the attitude and values of the Z-Boys that made this expansion possible, and this is widely recognized by many Skateboarders (Dogtown).This recognition will be shown and emphasized in the Digital Artifact, because the audience will be able to see the elements of the style and values of the Z-Boys that remained ingrained in the subculture.

Fan-Created Websites


The perfect way to show the recognition and respect that modern skateboarders have for the creators of the subculture is to take a look at some of the popular fan-generated websites surrounding the subculture. One of the most popular ones is ZBoys.net. This webpage is a place for skaters to come and express their admiration for the founders of the subculture, as well as see images and interviews with the original members. The website embodies the values and style of the Skater subculture, with quotes at the bottom reading “There was so much aggression…they were more like a street gang than a skate team” and “people did not f@^k with this crew”. They are emphasizing the rebellious nature of the subculture, and will be featured in the Digital Scrapbook to show the fan interactions with the famous members of the subculture (Dogtown Links).

zlogo996

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Mediated Self-Representations


The reverence and admiration for the originators of the subculture has persisted into the modern realization of the skater subculture, because it is remarkably similar in style and values to the way it was in 1975. Along this vein, the visual, mediated representations of the Skater subculture that have been created by and distributed for members of the subculture have embodied and embraced very similar stylistic elements and values. The internal representations of the Skater subculture, pioneered by Craig Stecyk and the Dogtown Articles and continued through the peak of popularity in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s and to today’s independent skate films, have characterized the members of the subculture as concrete and urban guerrillas, who are simply taking advantage of a bad situation to put wasted things to new uses. David Buckingham, in his paper for the Institute of Education at the University of London entitled Skate Perception: Self-Representation, Identity and Visual Style in a Youth Subculture, explores the importance and substance of the numerous visual mediated representations of the Skater subculture, and how they have been used since the subculture’s inception to attempt to provide an accurate and honest representation of the values and style central to the Skater subculture. Buckingham argues that ever since the creation of the Skater subculture in 1975, its members have been attempting to change their inaccurate representation by the media and by members of the dominant parent culture through the use of visual, mediated self-representations. He argues that these self-representations have always embodied and emphasized the true values and style of the Skater subculture: the surfer/punk style with core values of freedom, individualism, and authenticity (Buckingham). This research and analysis by David Buckingham is the reason that a Digital Scrapbook will be the perfect artifact to present an honest and accurate representation of the subculture to the outside and dominant culture. Due to the prevalence of self-representations of the Skater subculture, and the importance of authenticity and honest expression to the heart of the subculture, a Digital Scrapbook will show both the progression and stagnation of the values and style of the subculture.

Media Representations


Examining and analyzing the outside media representations of the Skater subculture is essential to understanding the internal representations of the subculture, because of the stark contrast between the two. Many of the internal mediated representations of the subculture are created as a way to accurately and honestly represent the style and values of the skater subculture, in the face of the inaccurate, negative representations from outside. Ever since the 1950’s, when outside media sources characterized and stylized skateboarding as a children’s toy or a fad while skateboarders characterized it as a way to practice and extend the sport that they love, there has been a stark contrast between the external media representations and the internal mediated representations of the skateboarding and skaters. This trend continued through the beginning of the skater subculture in the 1970’s, when the media-generated moral panic surrounding skateboarding was at its height. A moral panic was created around the sport of skateboarding and the new skater subculture when they began searching for and skating in empty pools that were dried out by the severe drought in California and owned by wealthy homeowners (Dogtown). The outside media characterized the skaters as criminals and hooligans who were simply trespassing and destroying people’s property. Many of the images and the entire style of the Dogtown Articles and the other mediated representations were in direct contrast with the images and style represented by the media, which helped fuel the popularity and growth of the subculture around this time. Fans and supporters of the subculture around the country saw the inaccurate external representations of the subculture and experienced the accurate, internal representations first hand, so they agreed with the subculture and its representation. This contrast between media and mediated representations of the Skater subculture will form the heart of the Digital Scrapbook that I am proposing, in order to provide the audience with a more honest and accurate representation of the subculture.

pool

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Analysis of Previous Representations


Analyzing previous media representations is much easier for the Skater subculture than it is for other subcultures, because of the Skater style and value system. Due to the importance that is placed on honest expression and authenticity, one of the key practices of being a member of the subculture is creating “skate videos”, which showcase both the skills and style of the individual skater. The first mediated representation that I chose to analyze is the feature documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, created by original Z-Boys member turned filmmaker Stacy Peralta. This film is the perfect first-hand explanation of the origins and progression of the subculture, told by its original creators. It includes interviews with almost every member of the Zephyr Skate Team, including Jeff Ho and Skip Engblom, and they explain the motivations and attitudes behind the inception of the subculture (Dogtown). I would highly recommend this film, as well as the accompanying fictionalization of the story, Lords of Dogtown, if they have any interest in learning about the origins of the style and values of the subculture, and many of the interviews and first-hand images will be included in the Digital Scrapbook.

dogtown and zboys

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To show both the progressive and constant nature of the subculture, I also chose to analyze a more modern, commercial “skate video”, Baker 3Modern skate videos have maintained the same aesthetic and attitude that were present in the visual representations of the Z-Boys in the 1970’s, yet the difficulty level of the tricks has risen exponentially. Baker 3 shows a glimpse of the intrinsic values of authenticity and nonconformity to the heart of the modern subculture, and also shows the freedom and exploration aspects of the value system (Baker). While it may seem odd to compare and analyze the similarities between a skate video like Baker 3 and a documentary film like Dogtown and Z-Boys, they actually both exist to serve the same function: accurately and honestly representing the style and values of the Skater subculture.

baker 3

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Stigmatization/Contradictions


When analyzing the stark contrast between external media representations and internal mediated representations of the skater subculture, it becomes obvious that it has generated a stigmatization in the dominant culture. Ross Haenfler explores the various ways that subcultures can be stigmatized, and through his analytical lens we will view the skater’s stigmatization. Beginning with the trespassing and destruction of wealthy homeowner’s pools, the media has created a narrative that has caused the Skater subculture to be a “tainted group” in the eyes of the dominant culture. Since the early 1970’s, the national rhetoric and discourse surrounding the skater subculture has been related to the criminal and influential aspects of the subculture on the youth of America. This has led to the subculture becoming “discredited” by dominant media culture, which has led to skaters being stereotyped and stigmatized because of this lack of credibility and respect (Haenfler). Furthermore, some of the disrespect and lack of credibility towards the skater subculture can be traced to its perceived contradictions. The main contradiction in the values of the skater subculture that is perceived by external sources is that skaters rebel against the government and large corporations because of their conformist influences, but large, multinational companies sponsor all the best and most popular skateboarders. This rebellion against the dominant culture began with the founders of the subculture, the Z-Boys, and continued and was magnified after commercialization of the sport and subculture caused the Z-Boys to break up. However, DC Shoes is one of the most popular clothing manufactures for skateboarders, yet they are a multinational, multimillion dollar company that makes the majority of its profits off of people who do not actually skateboard. Eric Obre, global men’s footwear director of DC Shoes was once quoted as saying, “The idea of looking like a skateboarder without participating in the sport is the reason why the explosion happened, and allowed a company like ours to grow beyond the core scope.” The rationale for this contradiction among members of the skater subculture is that the select few large companies that are popular among skaters still represent the freedom and honest expression that are central values of the skater subculture. The proposed digital scrapbook will show this stigmatization and hopefully show the underlying value system of the subculture that causes its members to become stigmatized.

Conclusion


Through highlighting and analyzing the contrast between the media and mediated representations of the Skater subculture, an honest and accurate representation of the style and values of the subculture has emerged. Since the values of authenticity and individualism are so crucial to the Skater subculture, a Digital Scrapbook of media and mediated representations of the subculture seeks to embody the same values.

Bibliography


1. Baker 3 [Motion picture on VHS]. (2005). Baker Skateboards.

2. Beal, Becky and Lisa Weidman. 2003 “Authenticity in the Skateboarding World”. Pp 337-352 in To The Extreme: Alternative Sports, Inside and Out, edited by Robert E. Rinehart and Synthia Syndor. Suny Press.

3. Buckingham, David. Skate Perception: Self-Representation, Identity and Visual Style in a Youth Subculture. Academia.edu. Institute of Education, London University, n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2015.

4. Dogtown and Z-Boys. Dir. Stacy Peralta. Prod. Agi Orsi. By Craig Stecyk. Perf. Jay Adams, Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva. Sony Pictures, 2001. Film.

5. “Dogtown Links.” ZBOYS.NET. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2015.

6. Haenfler, Ross. Goths, Gamers, and Grrrls: Deviance and Youth Subcultures. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

7. Slee, Thomas. “Skate for Life: An Analysis of the Skateboarding Subculture.” Thesis. University of South Florida, 2011. Print.

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