Words by Anthony Pappalardo
A few weeks ago Parisian artist and skateboarder, Lucas Beaufort released a documentary titled Devoted: A Video Documentary on Skateboard Media. You can and should view it here, but for the sake of this written piece—spoiler alert—let's establish that much of Beaufort's digital documentary focuses on print media. In fact, as the ambient music drones away in the background, several men in their 30s and 40s seem to deliver a eulogy to print media, while simultaneously fetishizing it. Many of the people on screen are professional skateboarders, industry folks, and even editors of print magazines.
As you watch Devoted, Instagram and the World Wide Web become villains in what feels more like a tragedy than a documentary. It's sad. In fact, at the 100-minute mark, the project ends with Marc Johnson becoming so overwhelmed as he speaks to Beaufort, that he visibly struggles to express what skateboarding means to him. The reason Johnson and his peers speak with such passion, is because they realize that this simple activity they found as a child gave them a life, not just a career.
Beaufort's made a moving piece of skate media that focuses on emotion, rather than a historical dive into skateboarding media. After viewing it, someone mentioned to me that Devoted fails to explain why skateboarding magazines existed in the first place. That's a very good question. I reflected on it for a few moments and came to the conclusion that skateboarding media is much akin to the pornography industry. I don't mean this in a perverse way, but at one point lewd magazines existed as the only way to share these images and messages, which is the same as the origins of skateboarding. Now we get our porn and skateboarding from the internet for free and everyone is confused and sad, but also lowkey happy about the immediacy and availability of it all.
So, with some questions burning in my brain, I sought out one of the subjects of Devoted, former Big Brother editor-in-chief, David Carnie. Carnie's contributions to skate media are chronicled in Patrick O'Dell's recent Hulu documentary, Dumb: The Story of Big Brother Magazine. Carnie not only cries in that documentary, but also knows about porn, so he was helpful in filling in the holes I was trying to fill.
Here's my rolling conversation with David Carnie about print media, in digital format.
I’m not looking for a wikipedia / googleable explanation, but rather, what's your take on why skate mags exist?
Is there a hula-hoop magazine? I'm sure there's at least one yo-yo magazine? Yeah, looks like YO-YO World was a magazine at one time. I remember when Skateboarder got bought by somebody (Prime Media maybe?), simply because they wanted to have a skateboard title in their barn of magazines. I think the media company had half a dozen magazines devoted to Mustangs (cars) alone. They had a handful of fishing and outdoor magazines as well. Old white dude stuff. I guess they wanted to diversify their portfolio.
Skateboard mags originally began as a way to communicate and interact with the skateboard community at large. To share news, but also to show off. No one likes to admit it, but a lot of skateboarding involves a little, "HEY! LOOK AT ME!" It wasn't a sport, So it wasn't on TV. It was a fad. Paper was really the only technology available. But skateboard magazines became something so much more than the magazines that served other niches. Baseball card magazines were about baseball cards. Sailing magazines were about sailing. But skateboard magazines covered music, art, even food ("Skarfing Material"). The skateboard mag/zine was sort of an extension of skateboarding in that it was art. Look at me!
Skateboarding from early on was an outlaw activity. So since skateboarding was "wrong," shouldn't skateboard magazines be representative of skateboarding and be wrong also? Big Brother may have taken that idea a little further than others, but before Big Brother there was Thrasher and TWS, even Action Now and Skateboarder, all of whom dabbled in content that was, if not a little off message, sometimes just weird. I'm thinking of anything GSD did and Neil Blender in "Aggro Zone."
So a tradition was born. An ethos. A style. The magazine became the destination for everything skateboarding that wasn't actually the physical act of riding a skateboard. Makes sense. What other technology was available? The phone? That would be weird, a skateboard phone community? Oh wait. That's what's going on now. But I was thinking of a landline phone. But then even with the emergence of video, the power and the allure of the magazine was difficult to defeat. Why? I don't know. that's a question that requires network theory and shit. But I think the magazine, the zine, sort of grew up alongside skateboarding and has become ingrained in the culture even if it is a little old fashioned.
In Devoted, Patrick O’Dell said covering skateboarding isn’t journalism. In the sense that skating isn’t fact checked and put on the AP wire, I think he’s right, but I also think it has to do with it being so insular. Someone who isn’t considered conventionally “attractive” can be a beauty writer, but you have to be a skater to cover skating… I think. What do you think?
I tend to agree. I've always felt sort of uncomfortable calling myself a "journalist." Earl Parker's nickname, "Master Journalist," was said with tongue firmly planted in cheek and is perhaps the most indicative display of our attitude towards journalism: We laughed at it. To borrow Wittgenstein's image of "games," I think if journalism is a big blue, blurry circle with an indistinct edge, skateboard "journalism" falls in the region where the blue is fading into the background color. It's kinda journalism, kinda not. Mostly not.
Journalism is about facts. But skateboarding isn't about facts. There are no batting averages in skateboarding, no seasons, no practices, no coaches, no championship, no win/loss column… skateboard journalism is sort of congruent with skateboarding in that there are no standards by which it is measured. I think I learned to approach writing about skateboarding the same way I learned how to skateboard: There are no rules, you can do whatever you want, experiment, who gives a shit?
Experiment. Go with the flow. See where the writing takes you. You don't win at writing, so there's no way to lose at writing.
I've never been able to do frontside inverts. But I haven't lost anything because of this inability. I'm still confused by how one gets into that position and then returns to a standing position, but my lack of frontside inverts didn't cost me the championship. What's a championship?
Journalism has a goal: To accurately report and recount the facts of a story. The goal of participating in a sport is to win. Winning isn't really a part of skateboarding. Succeeding is, of course, but success is whatever the individual qualifies success as. For instance if I go skating today and I don't die, I consider that a good session. Doesn't matter how I skated, just as long as I don't die, that's success. If I actually make something? Well that's a feeling of elation that's difficult to describe. And so, covering skateboarding is congruent with that idea. Since skateboarding can be many different things, so too skateboard coverage. And that's been very rewarding.
In "skateboard journalism" you're allowed to try things you're not allowed to try in other subcultures.
Do you think skateboarding thinking it’s special has held its media back or at least from growing like other sports? Surfing isn’t really on TV and people don’t buy surf boards across the world the way they do skateboards, but those mags survive. I did a quick search and there are 18 fishing mags that come up…
I don't recognize "skateboarding" as a thing or an entity that has any power over anyone. What you're getting at is more of an economics, cultural issue. Media is always about money first.
As short as it is, I feel that was an important response. There are a lot of people who talk about skateboarding as "this thing." And it is a thing. But, again, I'll invoke the image of Wittgenstein's blurry circle of "games." What is a game? Baseball is a game. Chess is a game. What do they share in common? A child playing with a bottle cap in the gutter can be considered a game. How are all these drastically different things all "games?"
Same with skateboarding. There are a lot of components that make skateboarding what it is, but you can't define it as this one thing. Kind of like porn, we all know what it is when we see it, but how does one define it? So talking about "skateboarding" as being too serious or having control over its practitioners, as if it's a thing or an entity doesn't make sense to me.
Many folks in Devoted said skating got too serious, but it’s always been serious to some people and stupid to others. The media portrayed some guys such as Tony Hawk as serious or Rodney, and others as complete maniacs. Why do you think people say skating got too serious?
Yeah, the Big Brother staff is always asked different versions of this question. The one before was a version, "Would it be harder today to talk to the cool kids on the playground?" Yes, but we were never friends with the popular kids on the playground in the first place. And then this question is sort of the same question, but switch stance: "Why is skateboarding so serious today?" The other version is something like, "Would Big Brother be able to exist today?"
I generally evade these questions, but since I already answered one version I may as well answer the rest of them. I don't like to hear it, and I don't say it myself, but I think other people say skating has gotten more serious because it has gotten more serious. Again, Big Brother died in 2004 partly due to a climate that wasn't down with our mischievous clown, diarrhea party on wheels. And, again, I think a big part of the reason why is "money." I'm not amiss in saying that back when we all first started skating back in the '70s and '80s that it was "just for fun," because there was nothing else it was for. It was like hula hooping. We didn't get paid to shake our hips, we just liked shaking our hips. It felt good.
Now, however, there's a lot of money available (not A LOT, but a lot more) and thus, there's competition and it's hard to have fun and shake your hips with a smile on your face and not take anything too seriously when every fucking move you make needs to be taken seriously. One false move and you're done for. Even those who are doing it just for fun, and I would say most, nearly all, skateboarders are skating because they love it. But that's got to be in the back of your mind now, no? There's so much responsibility now with ads, video parts, social media, etc. We didn't have that pressure when we were kids growing up skating. And shit is more expensive now. Survival tickets (money) are hard to come by these days. This is a bigger issue that belongs to everyone, not just skateboarders. This is a crazy world we live in that we've handed over to banks and major corporations. Blah blah blah I'm a fucking idiot.
Have you seen those shows that are called shit like "Island Life"? Yeah, I want to move to an island. Or Europe. We've been thinking about moving to Germany for a few years now (Tania's father is German and we both love it there) and I'm considering raising that interest level to "maybe" or even "probably." But then we were both born and raised in California and I think California is the greatest country in the world. Fuck America. Fuck the Red, White, and Blue. Even as a child, the National Anthem and patriotism reeked of falsehood and bullshit to me. I love it here in California, but this nation is toxic. So, yeah, everything seems way too serious to me nowadays. Angry white men are allowed to buy military rifles and put holes in other people. Why do you think people say skating got too serious?
I should also say that I'm excited by the growth of skateboarding. As we all know, it's one of the greatest things in the world—stoked that so many females are skating now. I sometimes wish I was a little kid growing up skating now. There is so much shit to skate these days. And I don't really care what happens to skateboarding. I would be bummed if it stayed the same.
I think this ties into something you said, although I could be being presumptuous, but you talked about not giving a fuck about skateboarding, specifically writing about what it “feels like."
No, you're not making that up, I've said that many times.
This attitude/ethos we had was there from the beginning. We never really wrote about skateboarding, because that just seemed like what you were supposed to do in a skateboard mag and doing what you're supposed to is never any fun. But later, our detractors, who felt we didn't take skateboarding seriously enough (we didn't), even began to accuse us of being ignorant of skateboarding itself. That's the origin of my outspokenness on the subject of not writing about skateboarding.
Imagine if a music writer reviewed a piece of music and he broke it down into all its different components? He listed the notes, the tempo, the type of instruments the piece was played on, etc. "He played A# followed by a long D."
Would you say he wrote about the piece of music? Sure. Did he provide a good description of it? Probably not. And that is essentially what we were rebelling against: Listing the minutiae of skateboarding. A clinical description of skateboarding feels inadequate to me.
"Bill Weiss, 540," isn't as interesting as "Bill Weiss did a 540 nude." I saw him get a masonite burn on his balls, by the way. Can you imagine a masonite burn on your scrotum?
We were criticized for not talking about the "notes" in skateboarding. We didn't play journalist and report the news. We didn't describe the way people skated or name the tricks they did (for the most part). And that's because we found it tedious: It's like describing a progression of notes in a musical piece. If I were to write about this one cool part in this Bach concerto where he played an E-minor chord after an F-minor, I don't really know how to impress that information on you—or whether it even matters. And listing the tricks that skaters do, whether on tour or in a contest or an interview, I don't think does anything for anyone either.
It makes me think of that Chris Farley sketch where he's the interviewer and he's just shitting himself over his subjects,”Um, memmer that time you did a switch heel flip at El Toro? That was so cool!”
I also, always use this argument in a more romantic way that kind of indirectly pays homage to skateboarding, in that "you gotta pay your dues" kinda way. And that's in saying that you can't describe skateboarding any more than you can describe the color red to somebody. The only way to describe a color is with an ostensive definition—by pointing at it. Or at least at a thing that is inhabited by said color. And that to me has always been the most sensible way to describe skateboarding. You can't understand what's happening on a skateboard unless you ride one of the things. There. It's that thing. Go step on it and see for yourself.
Do you have any feeling on skate cliches. Like, I can’t fucking read “style for miles” one more time. I don’t even know what that means…
"He's down to skate anything," and its variations always bothered me. Who isn't down to skate anything?
And #thankyouskateboarding. Fucking hate that one. One of the reasons I love skateboarding is that it's not a thing that I can thank.
And any story that involves an airport or an airplane bugs the shit out of me. Look, man, everyone has been delayed, or missed a flight, or lost their luggage, it sucks, but it's not fucking interesting at all. What a sad fucking trip you went on if that's the only thing you remember about it—actually, I shouldn't blame the trip, I should blame the writer: what a sad existence you lead if that's the only thing you can remember to write about from a skateboarding trip. Or that you even have the space to mention that crap. At that point, writing about foot placement on a switch heel flip is more interesting to me.