A short history of skateboarding

Invented somewhere in LA sometime in the 1950s by bored surfers lacking waves and needing an adrenalin fix, skateboarding was a slow burn at first. It was 1964 before the first skateboarding magazine was published; its editorial said: “Today's skateboarders are founders in this sport—they're pioneers—they are the first.” But in around 10 years’ time, the first skate parks would open and big money would start flooding in. Here’s the short story of a truly modern sport.

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‘Sidewalk surfing’ emerged in 1950s California as surfers short of a wave found a way to mimic surf on land, by slapping metal or clay wheels onto the bottom of a plank of wood. Spills and injuries were rife, and by 1965 the emerging sport was being labelled as a dangerous fad.


Everything changed in 1972 with the development of urethane wheels – still used to this day – that allowed a smoother and safer ride. The stage was set for skateboarding to hit its heyday.

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In the run-down LA neighbourhoods of Santa Monica and Venice, a bunch of under-supervised kids who congregated around the local Zephyr Surf Shop in the mid-70 pretty much invented what we know today as skateboarding. The 2001 documentary film ‘Dogtown and Z-Boys’ tells the story.


The 1976 California drought left lots of empty swimming pools lying around LA, and roving Z-Boys found they could skate them. ‘Pool riding’ in these improvised skate ramps was fertile ground for the invention of vertical (or ‘vert’) skating, with its thrilling jumps and dangerous tricks.


The Del Mar Nationals, the first world championship skateboard contest, was held in 1975, and the Zephyrs blew the crowd away and changed the course of skateboarding with their inventive, aggressive freestyle moves. Bob Mohr (above) placed third.


Ty Page placed second in the same competition. By the age of 17, he was pulling in over $100,000 a year and making ads for Wendy’s hamburgers. In 1978 he performed for over 300,000 people at an Aerosmith concert. The age of the skateboard superstar had arrived.


Tricks, the more spectacular and death-defying the better, became the defining element of skateboarding. The ollie, invented in the late 70s by Alan ‘Ollie’ Gelfand, is a fundamental, a jumping technique where the board clings to the feet of the skater.


The first motorised skateboard hit in 1975. The Motoboard was gasoline powered, pumping out both pollution and an unholy racket. They were soon banned, but are the mutant grandfathers of today’s electric boards.


Skate parks were few in the 1980s and street skating took off. Shopping centre forecourts and public squares were the new skate ramps, and new tricks like the kickflip and the impossible emerged to make the most of these urban spaces. 


By the 1990s, the size and shape of skateboards had standardised, derived from the freestyle boards of the 80s – narrow, with a fairly symmetrical form. Most modern decks are 18 to 27cm wide and between 71 and 84 cm long. Wheel sizes are small, making boards lighter and tricks more manageable.


Skateboarding today is dominated by street skating. The fashion, language, music and design surrounding it are just as important as the moves, and the board itself has become a place for creativity and self-expression. Skateboard art is a recognised design genre with its own unmistakable slacker-punk-horror aesthetic. 





Main Image: Photo by Christoffer Engström


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