Photographed by Christopher Para Mccomas

Josh Perkins 
17 October 2018

On a narrow cobblestone street, the SoMa West Skatepark sits in the shadow of Highway 101, which cuts like a scar over the landscape of San Francisco. It’s a trapezoidal lot with an alien typography of ramps, stairs, curves and metal rails. It’s covered in graffiti, incomprehensible letters that meant something to someone at some time, like tattoos on the concrete, a gallery of urban life.

This is where I was told to go if I wanted an authentic taste of skate culture. It was a Sunday afternoon, a slight breeze emanated from the east and the occasional cloud rolled off the Pacific.

This park used to be a vacant lot until the city invested over 2 million dollars in clearing out the homeless encampments and the drug users and building SoMa West. South of Market used to be a working-class neighborhood, home to seamen, warehouse workers and a fair number of transients. Then it was a vapid leather district of sex clubs and dingy bars. In 1989, the Grateful Dead sang, “South of Market in the land of ruin / You get all manner of action.” Eventually, it became a heated center of tension and activism during the AIDS epidemic. Now, like most of San Francisco, SoMa is a relatively tame, banal neighborhood but it still has its corner liquor stores and electrical warehouses and dirty streets, clear remnants of the past even if the demography of its residents has changed.

Because I am generally uncomfortable going places with a pen and a yellow legal pad, playing the part of a journalist, I sat outside the skatepark on a metal planter box and peered through the black metal fencing. I got a couple of glances and stares from the skaters inside, but my presence went mostly unnoticed.

An empty 12-pack of Modelo Especial was my neighbor. An orchestra of wheels hitting concrete played continuously and I pondered a question: how are we to understand skating? It has meant many different things to many different people: a public nuisance, a sport, a fashion style, a community, a countercultural movement, an escapist fantasy.

Michelle Cárdenas photographed by Christopher Para Mccomas

Michelle Cárdenas started skating in high school. Her older brother had grown out of his board and passed it along to her. She describes it with adoration: at the center is the female bathroom symbol, and around are flowers in exceptionally bright colors.

“It fits me so perfectly, me being female and wanting to represent my femininity,” she said, sitting in front of me in an all-black ensemble. Her hair is a bright purple, so bright that at one point someone interrupts our interview to ask about it.

“How do you get your hair to look so purple by the way?”

“Um, I bleach it and dye it myself.”

Garden Grove is a city nestled between Long Beach and Anaheim and, like many cities in Southern California, it’s rife with skaters. It’s where Michelle first learned how to skate. “Where I’m from, there’s nothing much to do, so skating becomes a way to pass time,” she recalls.

She used to cruise around the neighborhood and remembers with fondness the first time she “ate shit.” Afterward, she just laid on the ground for five minutes, frustrated but undefeated. I learned quickly that skaters don’t take bodily injury too seriously. Michelle laughs when talking about busting her knee or scraping her hands. It’s just a part of the fun.  

I ask her to try to explain the essence of skating to an outsider like me. “For me, it means liberation and it means community,” she said confidently, barely stopping to consider the question.

Photographed by Christopher Para Mccomas

Skating can be thought of as the freedom of movement—it carries loaded connotations of western frontierism and California individualism.

Skating was born in the 1940s and 1950s when surfers in Southern California needed a way to get their thrills when the water was too cold or the surf too low. That’s why it was first known as “street surfing.”

It quickly became associated with juvenile delinquency, with dropouts and pot-smokers, with suburban teenagers who had nothing to do but rebel. Society looked on in horror and quivering anxiety. They tried to ban it from their parking lots, restrict it in their public spaces. To this day, most skaters have a story involving some sort of police harassment. Almost immediately after construction on SoMa West was complete, residents began complaining to the San Francisco Parks and Rec department that the noise was unbearable. They also alleged that skaters were defecating on their sidewalks.

Then skating slowly started to seep into mainstream culture. In 1966, Paul Van Doren and his brother James opened their first store at 704 East Broadway in Anaheim, California. Vans, as the company would be named, made millions selling the skate shoe to suburban kids, most of whom would never step foot on a skateboard. Along with it, they sold a watered-down version of skating’s ethos, its air of teenage rebellion.

As skating and its influence marched out across the country and then around the world, it has remained inextricably linked to California. It’s an integral part of California’s culture, it has been woven into our collective history, it has stuck around in a way few things have. Why? There are a couple of things you need to skate: good weather and good roads. California has both in excess.

Briana Courtney photographed by Christopher Para Mccomas

Briana Courtney knows this well. She’s from Encinitas, a beachy town in north county San Diego. A place where skating is valuable social capital, a de facto rite of passage. Surfing and skating culture are particularly pervasive, even by So Cal standards.

I know because I am also from Encinitas. We unknowingly grew up within five minutes of each other. The town has birthed some of the world’s greatest skaters. Tony Hawk, perhaps one of the only skaters to become a household name, lives in Encinitas. Need I say more?

But Briana started skating in Berkeley. At night she would steal study breaks and practice in an empty parking lot with her roommate and her friend Leah McMillan. “Leah and I went through a phase when we would get pretty intoxicated and skate and eat shit,” she said with a laugh.

To her, skating is “therapeutic,” a form of escapism that allows her to forget her cares. “When you’re on your board, you’re just focusing on where you’re going and trying not to fall. Those aspects keep you glued to the moment so you aren’t thinking about anything else.” She’s wearing a red NSYNC t-shirt and checkered Vans, the uniform of a true skater.

Indeed, skating is an idiosyncratic fashion style and an increasingly commodified one at that. Leah explained to me the practical origins of skate fashion. “I can’t wear my Nike sneakers because they crease when I skate so I have to wear my skater shoes at all times. I don’t like to wear tight pants because I have cuts on my legs so I wear baggy pants. And I wear baggy shirts because they’re easier to move in. I’ll cuff my pants so they don’t catch on my board.”

When she looks in the mirror she sometimes thinks, “I dress like a guy that I would date.” We both laugh at that.

Around a year ago, Leah and Briana bought boards together. Leah’s is a simple lavender pink. Briana’s has a stock photo of people laughing in a hot tub while a tornado looms in the background. She enjoys the imagery, the ominous foreshadowing of destruction.

In the beginning, Leah said, “We would go down these giants hills and we had no idea how to slow down or anything. We would go as fast as we could until we would either have to fall or jump off.” That kind of reckless self-endangerment seems to be a theme with all the skaters I talked to. I can guess it’s for the adrenaline rush but I can’t help but wonder if perhaps skaters take the natural human tendency towards masochism to its logical extremes.

Leah McMillan photographed by Christopher Para Mccomas

Leah grew up in a suburb outside of Philadelphia. She told me it was completely unheard of for a girl to skate. “I don’t know a single girl who skates on the East Coast.”

And that’s something they all told me, that the skating world is masculine. “It is such a male-dominated sport,” Briana said as she gestures to the 5 or so men behind her skating across the plaza, taking turns grinding along the side of a concrete post. “When I started and saw all these guys, it’s pretty intimidating” she went on. Once, as she got on the bus, a man laughed and told her, “I have to laugh every time I see a girl with a board.”

They’ve all been catcalled on their boards, yelled at by passerby men. That experience is unfortunately common for all women, both skaters and non-skaters alike but Leah said, “I get catcalled a lot more when I’m skating.” “Do a kickflip,” is the most common epithet.

Then there is the sexist assumption that women skate for the look of it, or to get with men, that they aren’t real skaters. It’s not helped by the fact that movies, TV, and magazines almost exclusively portray male skaters.

“People who judge girls for skating are mostly the outsiders,” Michelle said. Most skaters understand that being a girl doesn’t define your ability on a skateboard, what matters at the skatepark is your relationship to the board.

“It’s just a piece of wood with wheels on it,” Briana said. “Anyone can do it.”

At this point Michelle chimed in again, “it’s not just men, it’s also women, it’s non-binary, it’s trans-women, it’s trans-men. It’s open to anyone.”

When I arrived at the SoMa West Skatepark, I counted one woman among the throngs of beanie-wearing, Dickies-clad men. But the longer I stayed, the more women began to trickle in. There were carefree teenagers in baggy hoodies and then on the far side, I saw a young girl maybe 5 or 6 years-old wearing a pink helmet, and riding a fittingly small board. She was hopeful proof that that in a few years the skatepark can be an entirely gender equitable space.

What is skating? What does it mean to those who love it? Everyone I talked to had trouble explaining it, describing the sense of pleasure they get from it. But here is what I’ve got, what I was able to divine from my conversations:

Skating is a tangible physical sensation. Skating is the feeling of wind in your hair, of sun on your skin, of music in your ears. It is the satisfaction in mastering something difficult, the liberation that comes with moving, the adrenaline that comes with danger. The skateboard becomes an extension of the body, wrapped up in memories and inseparable from the person. It’s rebellion, it’s escapism, it’s therapy, it’s empowerment.

But what united Leah, Michelle and Briana’s thoughts is that above all else, skating is pure, unadulterated fun. It is the California dream.