Skateboarding: The Subculture that became an integral part of urban landscapes and an Olympic sport

Exhibition at Somerset House: No Comply: Skate Culture and Community

Skateboarder waiting for the drop at Hackney Bumps, London.

Skateboarder waiting for the drop at Hackney Bumps, London. (c) Julia-Carolin Zeng, 2021

I usually take this space to write about dance and occasionally other forms of art – so why skateboarding? The most obvious reason would be: Because there’s an exhibition at Somerset House (and they’re usually worth visiting!). Then, you could argue that there are parallels between dancing and skateboarding. If you ever watch a skater rolling, jumping and flying over concrete, you can see the choreography behind it. Just like a dancer, skaters have their own style and a particular way to use their body whilst constantly reinventing themselves.

And there’s the real reason: This one is special to me because it reflects a part of my own experience!

No Comply: Skate Culture and Community

The exhibition at Somerset House displays how the UK skate scene developed and transformed the urban landscape since the 1970s. There is a special focus on recent developments and the role it played during the Covid-19 lockdowns. The sub-culture that skateboarding once was suddenly became a refuge for many that provided not only a place to go and to practice sports outdoors, but also a community and mental wellbeing. That is what resonates with me. I was never interested in skating, but in surfing. During the lockdown, I got myself a surfskate to compensate for the lack of access to waves and I hit the ground rolling. (Well, I also literally hit the ground a few times.) At first, I only practiced by myself until I heard of a group of surfskaters and soon enough I would spend my Saturday afternoons at the skatepark.

A skater and the skateboard flying through the air during a board flip.

A skater and the skateboard flying through the air during a board flip at Hackney Bumps skatepark. (c) Julia-Carolin Zeng 2021

The City as Playground

The first part of the exhibition talks about the origins of skateboarding which lie in the Californian surf culture. It talks about the first skateparks in the UK and the original crew at Southbank which is until today the most iconic skate spot in London.

What many people might not see is that skateboarding also involves creativity. Skate poetry and a documentary movie emphasize this aspect in the exhibition: There’s only one way to sit on a ledge, but a million ways to skate it. For skaters, the city isn’t just a palette of grey, but a playground of cracks, curbs and surfaces. Skaters see the city with different eyes, roads are categorized by the quality of the tarmac and its skateability. (Just as a photographer sees the city by the opportunities of composition it offers.)

More about Streetphotography

My local spot

The part that touched me was the one about my local skate spot: Hackney Bumps. The images show the transition from a recreational drinking spot to one of the most popular skateparks in London. A few volunteers had come together in lockdown to give it a new face. Today it is a vibrant and welcoming community hub where people of different ages and skating styles regularly come together.

The spirit of community also becomes visible in their own logo printed on a T-Shirt. The latest designs are rainbow-coloured on black and white and a must have for every local skater. Wearing such a shirt supports the local community (all proceeds are reinvested in the project) and it provides a sense of belonging.

Discover Hackney Bumps Tees

The exhibition at Somerset House uses a much bigger brand as an example and shows the different designs of Palace skate clothing which by now falls into the category of designer clothing. But it all started with skateboarding. The exhibition also makes a connection to Hackney again, although I think it means something different for them than it means to the local crew at Hackney Bumps:

Palace Skateboarding T-Shirts and a quote by Neil Macdonald at the Exhibition at Somerset House.

Palace Skateboarding T-Shirts and a quote by Neil Macdonald at the Exhibition at Somerset House. (c) Julia-Carolin Zeng 2021

“Kids in all these sunny places all over the world now want to dress like roadmen from Hackney because of what a London skateboard company and their mates have done.” (Neil Macdonald)

Interview with Skateboarding Archivist Neil Macdonald

The overall exhibition

The other two parts of the exhibition focus on skateboarding’s D.I.Y. culture and skateboarding communities. Overall, you can see photographs that show impressive skateparks, graffiti, incredible street scenes and skaters flying high through the air. Apart from photography, authentic witnesses of the skate culture since the 1970s are posters, magazines, old skateboards, poetry, movies and documentaries and an early skatepark map.

A skater and the skateboard flying through the air during a board flip.

A skater and the skateboard flying through the air during a board flip. (c) Julia-Carolin Zeng 2021

I’m not going into details about all the photos I have seen there today that have inspired me. Because I probably wouldn’t stop, but there was one photo that I’m really jealous of. It’s the picture of two skaters sliding down the handrails of an escalator in a London Tube station. I’m jealous because every time I pass by the giant sign in one of the tunnels at Green Park station that reads “No skateboarding”, I think: “And it would make such a great photo.”

No Comply is curated by Somerset House and Tory Turk, from an original idea by Frankie Shea, with expert insight from acclaimed British skateboarder and Somerset House Visitor Experience Manager Helena Long. Contributors include Brixton’s Baddest, Henry Kingsford, Iain Borden, Jenna Selby, Leo Sharp, Long Live Southbank, Louis Vuitton, Lovenskate, Lucy Adams, R.A.D Archive, Reece Leung, Richard Gilligan, Sam Ashley, Science versus Life, Skate Nottingham, SkatePal, Palomino, Wig Worland and Winstan Whitter.

More about events at Somerset House

Still a sub-culture?

The curators of the exhibition clearly support skateboarding as a part of urban culture. From a stigmatised sub-culture, it has made its way to an Olympic Sport in 2020 and is an important factor for socialising and mental health in the city. I recently heard somebody say at the skate park: “I used to skate a lot when I was younger. My mum thought I was out drinking, but I had been skating all day.”

Up and down the country, skateboarding is thriving. Throughout the Covid-19 lockdown, skateboarding has experienced the biggest increase in uptake since 2000, with over 750,000 skateboarders and 1,500 active skateparks currently across the UK. Should we still refer to it as a sub-culture?

The exhibition “No Comply: Skate Culture and Community” is on display at Somerset House until 19th September 2021 (subject to change). Entry is free, but tickets need to be booked online.