The Skateboarding Art


T. Jonathan Colberg is a skater from Washington, DC who has written a book. He has a scholarly sounding name and the subject of his book is skateboarding. Specifically skateboarding as art. Aaaaargh! But wait! It’s well worth the effort.

Colberg’s thesis aims to prove that skateboarding is an art as important, to it’s devotees at the very least, as literature, painting, sculpture, dancing or music is to “normal” humans. A tightrope subject above a dangerous literary bog this is a daunting task but one I feel that Colberg has traipsed with clarity and even maybe elegance. If you are a skateboarder who might on occasion be compelled to read a book then Colberg’s remarkable effort is worth your time and the fair cost of purchase. Do you ever feel bored by the incessant babbling about that one dude back lipped 21 and that’s like 1 better than 20 but you still like skateboarding generally? Do you have the sense that it played or plays an important role in your life, or you suspect it may be important in the life of someone close to you and you would like a clearer understanding of how this is possible? Then, my friend, the skateboarding art is for you. Colberg hails from a background in Classics from whence he has obtained a sharp linguistic sword. He has mounted the majestic Pegasus of his mind as skateboarding’s first Socratic apologist. I encourage you to journey with him through the labyrinth of skateboarding’s brief history on this quest to slay the great minotaur of ignorance.

Here’s a Q&A. The Qs came from the predatory bird (tpb) and the As came from Tait Jonathan Colberg (TJC):-

tpb) In casual social settings what first name do you go by?

TJC) Everyone calls me Tait. “T. Jonathan Colberg” is just a gag: when I was at university my friends and I noticed that all of the scholars whom we admired had these long names with piles of initials (ahem, especially the brits); we joked that, if any of us ever wrote a book, he’d have to use the most scholarly sounding version of his name. Hence, my ridiculous moniker on the book (though Jonathan is my real middle name).

tpb) Shall I refer to you simply as Colberg?

TJC) “Colberg” is fine, if you like. anyone searching around the internet for “T. Colberg,” though, may come across my more famous brother Todd, a rock’n’roller and painter now living in Brooklyn, NY, or even my sister Taryn, a notable in the Washington, DC area theater scene.

tpb) What and where did you “major”?

TJC) I majored in Classics (Greek + Latin), with minors in philosophy and religion, at The Catholic University of America here in Washington, DC. Class of ’96. no, i am not Catholic (i like to joke that I am a “CUAtheist”).

tpb)Did you write the skateboarding art with an imaginary reader in mind?

TJC) The person that I most aimed to please while writing (as while skating) was myself. Sometimes I addressed my younger self, who probably reached similar conclusions intuitively, but didn’t yet have the cognitive equipment to articulate his thoughts. The same remarks, I hope, will be useful for teenage skaters today; on other occasions, I was in touch with the man that I am now, who has a need to organize and evaluate his own past; ol’ man Colberg has his nostalgic moments, and he needs to make decisions about what skating will be like for him in the future. Last of all, I suppose, I was writing for non-skaters, both the positively curious and prejudiced naysayers.

tpb) Did this imaginary reader resemble MikeMo Capaldi in any way?

TJC) I do have some Italian blood in my veins, so Mike Mo must be a match in significant ways…

tpb) Sami Baca?

TJC) Mostly with respect to socks: as a pipsqueak freestyler in the ’80s, I too had reason to hike up my tubes–to cover my shinguards.

tpb) If there was an imaginary reader that you described then please provide your best example of their quintessential antagonist.

TJC) The quintessential antagonists are numerous and all too real. Every skater knows them: the jocks and incompetent, bitter “teachers” at school, naysaying parents at home, power-tripping local police, uptight religious leaders, shifty businessmen eager to exploit youth trends…

tpb) Please explain the prevalence of 80s freestylers as industry kingpins.

TJC) The count of freestylers turned industry leaders is high: formerly Steve Rocco (World Industries), Rodney Mullen (World Industries, Almost), Per Welinder (Birdhouse), Pierre Andre (Euro distribution/sole technologies inc), Kevin Harris (Canada distribution), Reggie Barnes (USA, esp. east coast distribution). I like to call this phenomenon skateboarding’s “revenge of the nerds.” What accounts for it? I can only offer some armchair psychology, but freestyle demands an obsession with minutia and interconnectivity. In the absence of much rolling up or out of tricks, a freestyler has to imagine how can I get from here, maybe a truckstand, to there, perhaps railstand, to another place, both feet back on the deck’s topside. There’s an inherent problem-solving attitude in freestyle I think. Other riding styles require it as well, but there are more frequent pauses between one issue and the next. Also, freestylers tend to have an extraordinary work ethic. They don’t view their riding so much as “sessioning” as much as “practicing,” until some day when they reveal the fully realized work to an audience (in freestyle’s heyday, at a contest). Practice is often a solitary effort, too; you must be able to motivate yourself and maintain your concentration and discipline. All of these qualities become virtues while undertaking all sorts of other projects, including business ventures.

Intermission: Rodney Mullen’s part from Public Domain

Back to the Q&A:-

tpb) Did you have a literary editor or anyone who acted as such while you were writing the book?

TJC) I shared the earliest draft, less than a quarter of what the thing finally became, and wildly different in style and tone, to my brother. otherwise, no one saw nor heard one word of it until completion. I can count on one hand the number of people who were aware that i was writing anything at all. Certainly no editor, literary agent, or other consultant. I made this decision for a number of reasons. first, the secrecy (as other people call it; to me it’s simply privacy) helped me write; i was entirely free to go about it however i chose, without any worry about someone looking over my shoulder or fear that I might pander to some imaginary audience’s expectations. Also, I didn’t want talking about writing a book to begin to replace actually doing so. We’ve all heard people ramble on and on about their great creative enterprises that never seem to come to completion, right? I didn’t want to be one of those guys: put up or shut up. Second, I wanted to fully enjoy the artist’s privilege of doing any/and everything the wrong way. Orthodoxies are often so dull, and people take their truth for granted. Even if their is a right way or set of ways to go about writing and publishing and promoting a book, I wanted to learn that for myself, and violating what little I know of those conventions was a strong start to understanding them in a deep way. Also, I realized rather quickly that “writing a book” wasn’t an adequate description of what interested me; I wanted to MAKE a book, that is, to produce the entire artifact. I’m a visual thinker by habit, and I wanted a chance to design the look of the complete object. A few books on other subjects that I admire became models in this way. Finally, as all skaters do, I suppose that I simply wanted to test myself, to see if could really pull it off. Of course, lack of an editor is certainly the reason for all of the lingering grammatical mistakes and typographical errors. I did my best to clean ’em up, short of going crazy staring at the thing, but in the end i’m almost glad that some remain: the book retains that warmth of human imperfection; it’s clear that a single human made it, I hope, in spite of all of his shortcomings…

tpb) Are you familiar with or have you read Ian Borden’s Skateboarding, Space and the City? (I have not but it sounds interesting)

TJC) I ran across a portion of it online somewhere, but I’ve only seen a few pages of it (in fact, what I saw may have been an short article that later became the larger work). Parts I liked, parts not. I’ll confess, though, that i’m deeply suspicious of academic treatments of skateboarding generally; too often the authors hitch their own ideology (usually some tired social science-ism and all of its bloated terminology) to the skateboard. Maybe i’m guilty of the same in the end?

tpb) When we talked about freestylers who are now industry leaders you mentioned that “the one who’s intelligence I think produced as much trouble as it did good things is Steve Rocco.” Could you talk a little about what drew clear thinkers to freestyle and why you feel that “the man who souled skateboarding” is a spurious title for the Rocco documentary? (You mentioned “there’s quite a difference between intelligence and the degree of empathy you have with other people.” and  “He was very clever at giving kid’s self-destructive tendencies a great outlet” for example)

TJC) Analytic minds are often attracted to freestyle for reasons i mentioned above. Analytic minds, though, often have social deficiencies, hence all of those solitary practice sessions. If i may climb back into my [amateur psycho-analyst] armchair, Rocco seems to fit that pattern. Put him in charge of young people, and there’s bound to be trouble; he’s likely to have trouble recognizing, let alone meeting their needs. Treating them as if they were peers, equally intelligent, equally experienced, and therefore able to direct themselves, is the first mistake. I’m not convinced that he viewed the guys on his team as being in his CARE. I wonder what sort, if any relationship he still has with any of them, or even his genuine peers from those days, like Mullen…?

tpb) We talked about the lack of a media resource within skateboarding that’s diverse in it’s approach (the segregation of “disciplines” if you like). Why do you think that’s the case?

TJC) I suppose that the lack of a “total skateboarding” publication, real or virtual, is no different than the specialization that occurs across the multimedia landscape. Any product like that would be a weak seller from a businessperson’s and advertiser’s perspective: “poorly targeted”, “product” would even be the wrong word for it, it would have to be an artwork, a labor of someone’s love pursued at cost to themselves.

tpb) What is it that the older generation dislikes about the current content in Thrasher magazine? (personally I get the impression that a dislike of present day Thrasher is in fact a dislike of aging and a dissatisfaction with the loss of youthful freedoms)

TJC) I’m certain that there are some long in the tooth who’s last pleasure in reading Thrasher is finding and criticizing every miniscule way in which departs from the magazine of their era. On the whole, i find the Phelps era to be mostly consist with the Thatcher years, if a little more strident perhaps. I suppose the old grumps are deflecting the horror of their own inevitable, irreversible aging onto today’s youth; watching the pros and trick you knew and loved from your own peak years fading away from the pages of Thrasher is a real trauma, i think. I’m more often turned off by the growing space dedicated to what i see as not necessarily skateboarding content; descriptions of everyone’s party habits on the road? Who’s got the scariest tattoos? 10 pages of crummy interviews with crummy bands? yawn. Plenty of teen lifestyle rags full of that dreck already. Also, i’m growing more and more irritated by the baldfaced sexism and homophobia in many issues; i can’t imagine trying to turn my young skater daughter on to Thrasher these days…

tpb) What are your thoughts on the idea that as a particular movement within art grows in time and popularity it’s avant-garde becomes more difficult to discern? (Because of subjectivity? Who dictates what the avant-garde is?)

TJC) Identifying the avant-garde is largely the business of art historians, critics, and other scenesters, as far as i’m concerned. A practicing artist is attracted to the work of another for reasons of his own, and needn’t concern himself with the object of his admiration’s place within some art world. Like the way this guy skates (or paints, or writes, or plays music)? Great! Keep your eye on him, and try to understand more fully what he’s doing, why you find it so compelling, and what, if anything, you might borrow from him in your own work. I like Barnett Newman’s words on art history and criticism, including, i expect, what it might deem to be the avant-garde: “I need it like birds need ornithology.” Have i made some claims, in the last chapter of my book especially, about the historical value of this or that rider? Sure, but i’ve tried to take equal pains to say that these skaters represent MY pantheon, and any other skater is free to assemble his own, or even none at all.

tpb) Can you articulate some reason for disliking the involvement of the distinctly non-skate corporate entities within skateboarding?

TJC) Simply put, they don’t care about us, or about skateboarding. We are an opportunity, they imagine, to penetrate youth markets more deeply. If skateboarding suddenly slips back into unpopularity, they will disappear, as they have done in the past. Good riddance.

tpb) Why is long-boarding better than skateboarding?

TJC) Ha, ha! see how these lifestyle peddlers pit us against one another? See, if you’re “skater,” you’re an energy drink and underage cheap-beer swillin’, tattooed, loudmouth punk; if you’re a longboarder, you’re a mellowed out, pot tokin’, dread-flappin’ hippie throwback. At some global diplomatic summit, perhaps, short boarders can teach longboarders how to ollie, and longboarders can show shortboarders the pleasures of a variety of different rolling experiences. Mark Gonzales will preside.

tpb) What’s to dislike about mainstream sports?

TJC) Like many other activities, i’m sure they’re a source of genuine fun for many people. At their best, they produce physical fitness, coordination, and teamwork, and they relieve stress and provide relaxation in their own ways. I’m simply opposed to the worship of sports: when they become escapes from life, rather than enhancements of it; when teamwork and esprit de corps mutates into conformity and tribalism; when friendly competition turns cut-throat. Sports don’t seem to have the same built-in safety valve as art: artists, skaters and otherwise, question themselves and their activity as part of the creative program.

tpb) When, in your opinion, is the business of selling skateboard products sinister and when is it good?

TJC) Good business is good business, and bad is bad, no matter the particular product or service. Good business means delivering the highest quality with complete honesty and minimum impact on the environment (in the broadest sense of the term). Doing good business is rewarding in itself; profits are important, but secondary. Bad business is hocking cheap, dangerous, destructive crap through misleading ads and promotions. The almighty dollar is the one and only concern. My principal complaint these days applies to ordinary products and services, like razor blades or car insurance, that hope to somehow atach themselves as vital to skateboarding. I mean, come on…

tpb) Some things can be explained, some things cannot and some things lose their heart when they are. Your thoughts?

TJC) Mystery is no match for understanding as a source of wonder and profundity.

You can get the book over at Lulu by clicking here or clicking that picture of the book.

And you can get involved in the skateboarding art over on it’s facebook page.

14 thoughts on “The Skateboarding Art”

  1. Iain Borden's book is the best scholarly treatment of skateboarding I have encountered (beyond Howell of course, who is a joy to read). Borden, an architecture prof at the University of London, skates, as the layback on the wall of some British behemoth pictured in his book illustrates. It is an excellent read though and positions skateboarding as a critique of capitalism and the devotion of "public" space to the flow of commerce. I highly recommend it.

    1. Thanks Zach,I'd like to track down a copy one of these days. I'm especially interested in how exactly skateboarding is a critique of capitalism. Seems like it would depend how we look at it.

    1. Looks like you just brought it up yourself, no need to complain. Amazing essay which lucidly confirms what we intuitively know from experience of modern cities, I remember hearing Ocean Howell had written this but never tracked it down so thanks for sharing. My only complaint is about my own pessimism: I can never escape the thought that writing such a well crafted piece is an exercise in futility. A tree falling in an empty forest. I wonder if any of the points Ocean raises have ever been taken into practical consideration by "urban planning commissions" anywhere?

      1. Also, bearing in mind I'd only read 3/4 of the essay when I replied above, this bit "IBM recently graffitied the public sidewalks of San Francisco and New York with a cryptic stencil—in the style of political graffiti" is hilarious.

        1. I love that your reply shows up in my email as an "intense debate notification."
          As far as the usefulness of Ocean's writing, it's hard to say. I'm actually going into urban planning (hearing back from masters programs at the moment), but I'm still pretty new to it. The field as a whole does seem to be very concerned with “social justice” as a vague principle, probably to make up for all the horrible things urban planning has been behind in the past (like “slum” clearance). There are definitely scholars out there that study public space, and some of them have written about things like the “privatization of public space”. I can't really say whether it ultimately affects policy, but I'd imagine that at least the youngest generation of city planners would be a little familiar with critiques of “public” space and exclusive urban design. I read this book recently:… written by a prominent planning professor at UCLA. It only has a sentence or so about skateboarding, but it shows an awareness of the issues Ocean talks about and tracks the history of how our streets (sidewalks) came to be this way. So maybe all isn't futile? Google scholar has the article cited 6 times..… …not too bad? Maybe Ocean will be able to enlighten his students over at U of O:

  2. Rodney Mullen made the point about all the freestylers being the head of skate companies now. He even called it
    "revenge of the nerds" in his book "The Mutt: How to skateboard and not kill yourself". Plagiarism anyone ?

    1. The Skateboarding art doesn't cover that stuff. We just happened to talk about it in that interview there. I like to call it the revenge of the nerds too. Seems that copying Mullen is unavoidable. Even just with words on a blog post.Sent from wherever

  3. good interview – i'll check the book out. i'm sure it's great. skateboard industry needs to see more and more that this is in fact creative activity.

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