Blood, Sweat & Tears

From an acrobatic sport to a death-defying lifestyle, skateboarding has evolved dramatically over the past forty years. A new book takes a look back at skateboarding culture in Denmark – a cuture that has survived commercialistion and which continues to define success by the ability to confront and overcome fear

Rough and bloodied hands, dirty clothes and torn sneakers – my memories of being a skateboarder are visceral. From the age of 15, I wouldn’t go anywhere without my board. I explored the city, looking for ledges to grind on and stairs to do tricks down.

Some days I’d head to a skatepark and wait my turn to tackle the obstacles. It was an opportunity to be among my Danish peers, though they weren’t always friendly. Skateboarding was cliquey and the different groups kept to themselves. But we all knew who each other were, and when I’d eventually land a trick, I’d often get an appreciative clap. One of those clapping was Henrik Edelbo.

“Skateboarding is a struggle. It hurts and it will keep on hurting until you succeed. And when you do, you can feel invincible,” he tells me in his office in Sydhavn.

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Few people have done more to document skateboarding in Denmark than Edelbo, a photographer and filmmaker who recently published the book Dansk Skateboarding together with journalist Rasmus Folehave Hansen. The book charts the rise of skateboarding in the 1970s and 1980s, its fall from grace in the early 1990s before a revival in the late 1990s and the flood of corporate sponsorship in the 2000s.

It is a historical document, with hundreds of photographs from Edelbo’s catalogue and contributors from across the country. But it also tells the larger story of how an independent subculture was built through inventiveness, bravery and competitive spirit.

“Skateboarding is self-created and not interested in profit. The book is a perfect example of that. It has taken me almost a whole year of full time work and we will probably not make any money from it. But that’s how this culture works,” Edelbo says.


Remembering the roots
Sitting beside Edelbo in their Sydhavn office is Jacob Birch, who designed and laid out the book. A former skateboarder who moved over to graphic design and graffiti after becoming frustrated at his lack of progress, he remembers how skateboarding allowed him to develop a new identity.

“I’m a terrible skater – I used to skate a lot but I wasn’t really good at it,” Birch says laughing.

“When I was skating in the suburbs, we got beat up all the time. We had our own little skatepark but we were the outcasts. But when you come from a small city and you don’t want to ride a scooter or play football, skateboarding is the natural thing to do. You can do it on your own, you don’t have to be part of a team and you can decide when you want to go skate.”

What differentiates skateboarding from other subcultures is that looking the part isn’t enough. To be a member, you need to pluck up the courage and apply yourself. You need to stare down obstacles and risk broken bones and abrasions.


Corporate interests
Not that skateboarding is immune to trends. Fashion permeated everything in skateboarding, from wheel size to board width, styles of tricks and clothing trends – even when skateboarding was unfashionable.

“In 1993 we looked like clowns in our baggy clothes, but you had to look like that to be a respected skateboarder,” says Edelbo. “We had fashion police who said we weren’t cool if we didn’t comply. But while people who didn’t skate thought we looked like idiots, we knew that they didn’t know shit. Skateboarding fashion has since become much more diverse, especially after skateboard fashion became mainstream. Skateboarding had strict rules until the end of the 90s. The rules are looser now, also with regard to tricks – it’s much less rigid.”

Skateboarding has never been more mainstream and corporate than it is now. When I volunteered to build ramps for the Scandinavian Open competition at the age of 16 in 2001, I showed up at Forum exhibition centre in central Copenhagen and was given a nail gun in one hand and a joint in the other.

Back then I would risk getting fined for skating on the cycle path. Now city officials recognise that skateboarding is a cultural asset. I grew up skating in Copenhagen’s biggest park, Fælledparken, where throughout the 1990s and 2000s, skaters had built an array of weather-beaten wooden ramps. Now it’s northern Europe’s biggest concrete park, paid for in part by shipping giant Mærsk.

Corporations such as Nike and Adidas have also broken into the scene, displacing the smaller skater-owned companies that enabled the scene to develop in the first place. But Edelbo isn’t worried, for while some professional skateboarders have embraced the glamour of TV-broadcast and energy-drink-sponsored competition skateboarding, many continue to explore the possibilities of the urban terrain.

“As skating became more mainstream, it spawned a grassroots counter culture. The radicals have become far more radical. They’re out building their own concrete obstacles in alleyways. These kids are keeping it real and emphasising their realness so much more than 10 years ago,” says Edelbo.

Not that there aren’t commercially successful Danish skateboarders. Nicky Guerrero won the 1986 European Championship before moving to California to skate professionally. Rune Glifberg followed in his footsteps, becoming an elite vert professional and appearing on the legendary skateboarding game, Tony Hawk Pro Skateboarder.

There have also been tragedies. In 2009, Denmark’s most promising professional street skateboarder Kristian Bomholt died in his sleep aged 29. Bomholt suffered from a heart problem that was exacerbated by hard physical training and a partying lifestyle.

“He was the only pro Danish street skater at the time and was completely dedicated. He embodied the story of skateboarding – that it wasn’t about competing with others. He was so good because of his competition with himself.”

One possible story
Bomholt was one of a handful of Danish skateboarders singled out in the book for their impact on the local scene. But Birch stresses that the book is not the final say on who and what is, and is not, important.

“This isn’t the story – it’s a story. Some people have disagreed about our priorities, but the book is just supposed to spark memories and provide a platform for their own storytelling.”

Edelbo (above) adds that while the book focuses on key figures and locations, it was important to cover the entire scene.

Edelbo (above) adds that while the book focuses on key figures and locations, it was important to cover the entire scene.

“We thought it was important not just to include the heroes, but to also have the ordinary kids. These are the people who made the scene,” Edelbo says, adding that it’s important that the current generation understand how skateboarding became what it is now.

“In the beginning of the 90s, there were maybe 50 skaters in Denmark. It’s so commercial now.”

Often trivialised in mainstream culture, the success of skateboarding is its unique mix of creativity, athleticism and community. It’s a sport without a central administration to guide its development. If it had one, it’s unlikely it would have evolved from an acrobatic balance-based sport reminiscent of figure skating in the 1960s, to the modern and aggressive style that unfolds on public infrastructure around the world today.

“Skateboarding is like a martial art: there’s blood sweat and tears,” Edelbo says. “But what separates heroes from cowards is how you deal with your fear. This can’t be commercialised. Because being on a skateboard is a constant battle and this will never change, regardless of how much money you make.” M

Features, Culture

By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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