Life on the Half-Pipe: How Skateboarding Became an Anti-Establishment Subculture

Culture |

As countercultures go, the ‘80s were no ‘60s. There was no flower power, no free love, no Woodstock.

But there was skateboarding.

Skateboarding was not invented in the ‘80s. In fact, it wasn’t even most popular during the ‘80s.

But it was in the ‘80s that skateboarders themselves began to see their favorite activity as more than just a sport. It became a cultural phenomenon with its own fashion, art, music, movies, and lifestyle.

A Brief History

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Skateboarding first rose to prominence in the 1950s in California. It seems a group of surfers wanted to find a way to surf on land, so they attached roller skate wheels to 2 x 4’s and surfed the streets.

From there, the sport had its first golden age in the early ‘60s. It became wildly popular. However, the original wheels used on the boards were made of clay and were dangerous. The injuries they caused contributed to skateboarding losing popularity as the decade came to an end.

Then two events in the 1970s revolutionized the sport. In 1973, a man named Frank Nasworthy invented polyurethane wheels. These were safer than the clay wheels and a lot smaller. They made a whole new battery of tricks possible.

The second event was a trick move called the Ollie, created by Alan “Ollie” Gelfand. This maneuver involved jumping and popping the skateboard into the air by kicking the back of the board. It became the foundation for many of the board tricks done to this day.

The ‘70s were also the heyday of the vertical (or “vert”) style of skateboarding. This was more or less invented by kids using empty swimming pools and cylindrical pipes that came to be known as half-pipes.

Skateboarding once again gained popularity. Concrete skateparks were built. Vert skating was all the rage. New maneuvers were invented, and skaters became more skilled.

Then once again, the sport experienced a decline. Because of the high risk of injury, insurance prices skyrocketed and the skateparks closed.

Skateboarding was wounded but certainly not dead. The more hard-core skaters took their sport “underground.” They began making ramps in their garages and backyards.

And once again, they took to the streets. 

“Vert” Skating

Gelfand’s invention of the Ollie in 1978 and Nasworthy’s polyurethane wheels had opened up a whole new world to skaters and made possible a new style of street skating that revitalized the sport and carried it into the 1980s.

It was at this time that skaters began to forge an identity and a culture all their own.

The invention of the VCR in the 1980s played a major role in this phenomenon. In 1984, a team called the Bones Brigade, a group of 6 teenagers led by Stacy Peralta and George Powell, released the first skateboarding movie. 

’80 Style – Back to the Streets

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It was seen by kids all over the world and was the first of four movies they would make. There would be many more by other artists.

Skateboarders were getting exposure. In the mid-80s, skateboarding went mainstream and professionals began to emerge. Skaters who had made their names in the ‘70s began opening skate shops and merchandising their own boards. 

In 1981, “Thrasher” magazine entered the scene. This publication quickly became a chronicler and influencer of the culture with the tag line “Skate and Destroy.”

As more riders transitioned from vert-style to street skating, they were increasingly seen in public. Business owners and municipalities began banning skating in public and privately owned places. This helped to create an identity of rebelliousness among the skaters.

Making it Their Own

Music also contributed to that identity. The skateboard scene had its own music. Kids were skating to music called “skate punk,” with groups like Suicidal Tendencies, JFA, and Big Boys. This style of music originated in the 1980s with help from the skateboarding movies of the era.

The boards themselves gave rise to a new visual art form. The “deck art,” or graphics painted onto their boards, offered another opportunity for self-expression. It was in the ‘80s that deck art exploded, eventually becoming a collectible commodity.

Skating was not just what skaters did anymore. It was who they were.

Skateboarding is about a sense of freedom and celebration of the individual. It’s a completely different way of thinking than the “jock” mindset of organized sports, where many skaters felt they didn’t fit in.

Individualism

Skateboarding is a sport where the participant is rewarded for trying new things. For being creative. For being different.

Maybe it’s not that far removed from Woodstock after all. 

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Paula Clark

Writer

Paula lives in Maine with her significant other, Gary; their dog, Jackson; and their cat, Isabelle. She’s still waiting for the trickle-down effect to kick in, and she’s crazy about cheesy ‘80s movies...but shhhh! Don’t tell anyone!