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Saturday, April 21, 2012
Skaters gain a world view

By Joel Rice
ESPN.com

Ty Evans
Ty Evans has filmed skateboarders across the globe but says the rhythms of such work remain constant.

In September of 2007, Greg Hunt, one of the skateboard industry's most influential filmmakers, spent 2½ weeks traveling across America with members of the Alien Workshop skateboard team. At the time, the Ohio-based company's full-length video "Mind Field" was due in a matter of weeks, and Hunt was hoping to capture some last clips. (Much like doctoral dissertations, skateboard videos are often the culmination of years of sometimes excruciating effort.) Now the deadline was rising before the travelers like a giant wave, something to either ride or drown in. For some of the skaters on the trip -- including Omar Salazar, Jake Johnson, Jason Dill and Anthony Van Engelen -- the "Mind Field" deadline probably felt like something almost physical, a knot in the stomach, a weight on the chest.

Nonetheless, Hunt remembers the "Mind Field" road trip as one of the happiest and most productive of his professional life.

Indeed, to hear Hunt tell it, travel, the Jack Kerouac rhythms of driving across the country, exerted a profoundly positive influence on his artistic process.

"We started in Ohio and went down to Atlanta. Then we drove through Texas, Arizona, and up into Sacramento," says Hunt in a typically measured fashion. "It was pretty long. We skated every day and every night. Everyone is there one night when one person is trying a trick for a long time and that's amazing and everyone is together when you go out to eat afterward. Then you get up the next day and go to the next town and meet the guide. When I see those photos from that trip, I always think that was a really good time. It was a constant adventure, just a really cool thing to share."

And lest you think that this "filming mission" was all work and no play, keep in mind that where you have skaters, you usually have antics.

"During the 'Mind Field' trip, one funny thing was we all got really into laser pointers. The entire van was laser pointing everything at all times," remembers Hunt. "People on the streets, highway signs, kids in restaurants, the guy at the motel check-in counter. Even cops, which is really stupid if you think about it. But there ended up being lots of photos of the lasers on everything, and that eventually ended up carrying all the way through to the cover of the video, the red laser cover. It all started with a random truck-stop purchase."

By any measure the journey was a success. The skaters were productive. Hunt got what he needed. "Mind Field" would go on to dominate skate-industry conversation and, in an era of increasingly disposable online footage, become something of a classic.

Travel, Hunt says, was part of the process, an essential element of the film, a kind of muse.

Travel is a big perk of skateboarding

Though not every filming mission results in as transcendent a work of art as "Mind Field," most professional skateboarders and those who spend their lives recording them have an intimate familiarity with the rituals of skateboard-related travel Hunt describes -- the mischief, the communal living, the shared excitement of getting a trick at a new spot.

Skateboarding seems to give you a better entry point into a local culture because you're immediately associating with regular people who are just skaters like you. Skateboarding gives you access to a place that just being a tourist or just being a business traveler might not.

-- John Rattray, professional skateboarder

Like Greg Hunt, noted filmmaker Ty Evans ["Fully Flared," "Yeah Right!"] speaks of the salutary effects of travel on the skater's psyche.

"There's that feeling of everyone being in the van, and you're out having a good time and you're out skating and skating for the film. And that's the feeling, whether you're in the van or whether you're on a plane flying out to China," says Evans, who recently returned from a Chocolate Skateboards tour of Central America.

Undeniably, whether it's a "hell ride" through a humid equatorial zone or a pleasant amble through Australia's many concrete skate parks, travel is part of the appeal of the skateboarding lifestyle.

It's one of skateboarding's eternal truths: Skateboarders see the world differently and, as a result, travel differently.

John Rattray, a veteran professional skateboarder and voracious reader who grew up in Aberdeen, Scotland, and holds a degree in physics from the University of Glasgow, agrees there is something distinct about the way skaters travel.

"Skateboarding seems to give you a better entry point into a local culture because you're immediately associating with regular people who are just skaters like you. Skateboarding gives you access to a place that just being a tourist or just being a business traveler might not," Rattray says.

[As for the motorcycle-based trips that have recently become so popular within the skateboarding community, Rattray takes a pass. "I drive in my two-door Honda Accord. That's as wild as I get on the open road. It's reliable. Motorcycles are dangerous. That should be considered," he says.] For Rattray, skate travel has been the superior way to become acquainted with U.S. culture, including some of the rudiments of American cuisine.

"Beef jerky. When I was a kid I didn't really know what it was. Then, when I came to the U.S., I was not really sure about it. It's good," says Rattray of the ultra-American delicacy he first encountered on the road. "It's a good source of protein. I probably got inspired for eating beef jerky by [author J.R.R.] Tolkien. In "Lord of the Rings," the elves give the hobbits these dried cake things that last for days."

Though not an avid fan of beef jerky, Hunt echoes this general sentiment.

"One of the best things about skate travel, whether it's domestic or international, is you're definitely not a tourist," Hunt says. "Generally the first thing you do is connect with a local. Because you need a guide. Whether you're in another country or you're in Alabama, you need someone to help you, to show you where the spots are. And generally that person will not only take you to the skate spots but 'Oh yeah, I'll take you to the best spot to eat' or 'I'll take you to the best local bar.' "

Additionally, unlike ordinary tourists, who tend to rush from monument to monument, skaters are often more attuned to urban details such as the unique texture of walls or the nuances of curbs and handrails.

"Croatia is really good for skating because, incidentally, along the Dalmatian coast a lot of marble comes from there," says Cairo Foster, one of the skateboard industry's particularly well-traveled pros. "Israel is another shocker. That place also has a ton of marble."

Yes, nonskaters are probably used to hearing phrases like "the rise of China" or "the rapid industrialization of China" or have learned that it's the world's "fastest-growing economy" on news programs. But these journalistic phrases are rather vague, sterile. In contrast, someone who reads Thrasher or The Skateboard Mag has a better, more intimate, literally street-level sense of what contemporary urban China looks like. (China has become a popular destination for skaters over the past several years.) Without necessarily intending to, skaters have gazed at Beijing's new plazas and staircases and have studied the handrails and strange, pristine embankments with an attention to detail that would put many architecture critics to shame.

If you want to know what "globalization" really looks like from the ground up, open any skateboard magazine or watch a skateboard video. There you will see the new increasingly concrete, urban environments in which much of the world's population now resides.

"China and Spain are basically giant skate parks," Hunt says.

Some professional skaters have actually become so enamored by the lure of travel that their domestic efforts have slackened.

"Some people will put a whole part out locally, here in Los Angeles," Evans says. "Then there's guys just waiting to go on these trips. They're going, 'I can't wait to go to China' or 'I can't wait to go to Barcelona.' It's kind of a weird dynamic now, where some of the guys will just skate skate parks and indoor parks the whole time and just be waiting for these trips to happen. I feel like that's kind of weird because I feel like we should be skating all the time every day, whether it's at home or Australia."

Ty Evans
Ty Evans gets back in the van while on a recent Chocolate Skateboard tour of Central America. "I got that haircut in a shack in Nicaragua," Evans says.

Good morning, Vietnam

Despite these drawbacks, it seems -- at least to those of us tragically confined to cubicles -- there may be no better way than skateboarding to get to know the world.

"I went to Vietnam, like 12 or 15 years ago, and no one had seen skateboarding," Foster says. "People were freaking out. We were just carrying it, and people were like, 'What the hell is that?' We skated a handrail and like 300 mopeds just stopped and blocked traffic for an hour while we skated. They were just shocked. In Vietnam they're just staring at you in amazement and asking, 'How does he make it levitate?'

"It's a good feeling. As skateboarders we take skateboarding for granted. You go to a country like that and see their amazed and perplexed expression. It allows me to think about the essence of skateboarding. It truly is this amazing thing that brings a lot of joy to people regardless of whether you're on the board or you're just watching it."

You go somewhere [outside the U.S.] where no one's skated, the likelihood that you're going to get something there is so much higher. You can be really productive. … If it's a spot no one else has ever seen or skated, you can literally shoot or film anything there and it's usable. If you go to a spot that has been skated for years by the some of the best skaters in the world, you're really limited. That is the real benefit of going to another country.

-- Greg Hunt, skateboarding filmmaker

But before you order a copy of "On the Road" from Amazon or download "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" to your iPad and hastily forsake the mortgage/kids/Volvo for a carefree life of globetrotting skate videography, remember that professional skateboarding trips by and large are work trips that come with real responsibilities.

"When I am at home, I go out skating almost every day," Evans says. "I drive an eight-passenger van around with the guys, and it feels like we're on tour, you know? So whether I am doing it here in Los Angeles or going up to San Francisco for a week or grabbing all the guys and going across the country for three weeks, it's really the same."

"I don't think it's as much that you're in another country, though that's part of it. It's more that you're getting work done," Hunt says. "You can be in a hotel and be 10 minutes from these perfect spots where you can skate all day."

"You have demos and you're shooting an article for a magazine," says Rattray, describing a dynamic common to more conventional, less gnarly workplaces. "But then the skaters just want to hang out and eat pizza with the locals while the boss wants to get things done."

Pack up and leave distractions behind

Remember also that it is not merely a thirst for novelty that has increasingly driven skaters abroad over the past 10 years but sheer necessity.

"When I was younger, it was easier to skate in the U.S.," Evans says. "People would talk with you and actually appreciate it. Now a lot of that has vanished. People are concerned about lawsuits and more annoyed with people skateboarding here in the U.S. It's not about traveling to these different locations [just for the sake of it]. I don't think you need to go [abroad] because of all these epic spots. It's more about going to these different locations because you can skateboard all day without the hassle."

Hunt agrees with this assessment. Like Evans, he emphasizes the practical motives behind much global skateboard travel.

"You go somewhere [outside the United States] where no one's skated, the likelihood that you're going to get something there is so much higher. You can be really productive. Because it's like an open palette. If it's a spot no one else has ever seen or skated, you can literally shoot or film anything there and it's usable. If you go to a spot that has been skated for years by the some of the best skaters in the world, you're really limited. That is the real benefit of going to another country. Skaters can get distracted when they're home. They have things to do. Girlfriend. Cat," Hunt says with a laugh. "But theoretically, when you're traveling there's a lot less distraction."

So on the one hand skating is a great way to see the world.

On the other hand the pleasures of skate travel do have limits.

"For me, on Zero tours in the South, there would be a preponderance of Waffle House. We would eat there constantly. I was like, 'I will eat there once or twice,' " Rattray says. "I would be maybe the only one who's not that psyched on Waffle House."

"I think skateboarders just look at things differently. You'll be watching a movie and you'll see a [random shot] in a foreign country and you'll know where that is," Evans says. "That's something that is definitely cool about travel. But at the same time you're on such a busy schedule to film, skate, and shoot photos. You can be in such an amazing place and never get to know that place. Like someone asks, 'Were you in China? Did you get to see the Great Wall of China?' You say, 'No, but I know where there's this really good ledge spot.' "