Skateboarders never want to talk about religion, unless it’s to praise their favorite ‘switch god,’ show off their burning nun graphic, or ridicule an aging, born-again pro. But, as a skateboarding sociologist that focuses his research on religion, I wanted to take a different approach and ask the question: Can skateboarding itself be a religion?
People have struggled to define skateboarding, arguing that it’s not a sport, not a subculture, more than art, beyond fashion. Similarly, many of us devote our lives to skateboarding, following codes, maintaining a community. So it only seemed natural to pursue this commitment we share and test one of the greatest taboos: religion.
That question might seem ridiculous to many of you. We skateboarders tend to imagine some sort of separation between church and skate, to the point where even talking about the two together sounds blasphemous. But doesn’t that reaction say something about how sacred we consider skateboarding? We see ourselves as privy to some special, esoteric knowledge, something that can only be understood through painful practice and devotion, indecipherable to the unenlightened.
One of my work colleagues came along to a skateboarding event and said, “When I hear you talk of skateboarding, it sounds like a cult.” Cult is just a four-letter word for a religion someone doesn’t like. If they could see the cult-like, religious elements present in the skateboarding community, why can’t skateboarders?
First, we need to figure out what we’re talking about when we say “religion.” Often, the concept of religion is over-simplified to simply a church and a book. But if we reconsider the function and formation of what we consider religious, we can see that it is a means to organize community and express deeply held beliefs about origins and traditions.
Of course, we have to acknowledge how traditional religions have tried to use skateboarding for their own purposes. There are Christian board brands, annual conferences of skateboard ministers, and even a Skaters Bible–no, not Thrasher–published by the Australian Bible Society.
It’s easy to criticize these groups as appropriators, seeking to infiltrate, expose, or exploit skateboarding. Some are. One decided to give up skateboard ministry and pursue scooter ministry instead as he felt it was easier to reach those kids. Skateboard ministry is about turning skateboarders to Jesus. None I spoke to were even slightly interested in converting Christians to skateboarding. Most interestingly, none of the skateboard ministers I spoke to saw anything inherently “spiritual” in skateboarding at all.
Skateboarding, though, is actually already full of religion. Skateboard graphics employ religious elements in order to lampoon, shock, or pay homage. Think of the Natas 101 devil board, a whole collection of Jamie Thomas’s Zero boards, or the intricate and layered satire of Jeff Grosso’s crucified board with Antihero.
We talk of skateboarders as gods, sages, philosophers, and gurus. We study skateboard videos like scripture, focusing on the smallest of details. More often than not, we congregate at special places, locations we think of as hallowed ground. We perform our acts amidst a community. For years I have listened to skateboarders talk of the “skate gods” as watching over them, of visiting the skatepark as “going to church,” or, more poignantly, marking births, marriages, and deaths through skateboarding in some way. The shallow connections between skateboarding and religion may be deeper than they seem.
There’s also plenty of religion in our everyday skateboard practices. A simple way to observe this is through the creation and reproduction of standardized skateboard mythology: the glory of the legendary Californian surfers who decided to cruise the sidewalks when there was no surf. This origin story replicates the features of other religious mythology, and some would say it is just as questionably truthful.
Didn’t skateboarding originate from kids riding trolleys in Brooklyn in the 1890s? Or, as one academic suggests, didn’t it originate in Japan in the 1960s? It doesn’t matter. The truth is secondary to the legend. I spoke to a devout Muslim skateboarder in Malaysia who skates in a part of the country which is so conservative that all the cinemas must show films with full lighting in the auditorium, and even he was able to reproduce the origin story of Californian surfers starting skateboarding.
Then there are our anointed saints and holy folk, a pantheon of venerated skateboarders lauded for their contributions. SOTY is like an annual honors list where the brave are canonized and a new saint is made afresh. While there are no shortage of wrinkly skaters who are alarmingly aligning Jay Adams with Jesus in repeating the phrase “what would Jay do?,” I also found a skateboarder in Hong Kong who referred to Leticia Bufoni as her “Goddess.”
Beyond these declarations, there are various skateboard videos that present skateboarding as a philosophy, lifestyle, or set of ethics. The Search for Animal Chin, which suggests skateboarding is a philosophy of fun, to the more recent We Are Blood, that frames skateboarders as a globally connected tribe. There is clearly no shortage of mythmaking in skateboarding past and present.
CULTS & DEVOTION
Additionally, I found a variety of groups that equated skateboarding with fullfilment, transcendence, and joy, some of the hallmarks of religious salvation. People spoke of freedom and meditative states whilst on their board. Others spoke of the lifelong community that skateboarding had given them, and plainly seeing something deeply emotional about their time on the board.
I spoke to one middle-aged skateboarder who described Mark Gonzales as Yoda, and committed to watching one video (“A weekend with the Gonz”) at least once a week. Another spoke about business trips to San Francisco where he would always book a room overlooking EMB in order to pay his respects, while a third confessed to having a parking block altar in his home.
Take, for example, the Barrier Kult, who have constructed a religion around skateboarding in everything but name. Even if this is demonstrated through Black Metal, balaclavas, and a rigid commitment to only skating Jersey Barriers. Ba.Ku. have made a big impact with devotees, which they call Hordes, across the world. Their influence has also spawned numerous curb cults, some of which have their own websites and apparel.
Then there are the skateboard pilgrims and fetishists who travel to iconic spots simply to be in their presence. Some, like Frank Gerwer, collect the relics of skateboarding’s past, a chunk of concrete from the Hubba Hideout, a brick from EMB, and part of the Cardiel Rail.
Much of what I saw were obvious attempts to mark skateboarding as special, and to mark special moments of life with skateboarding. One member of a skate cult organized around a DIY bowl said that they “jokingly referred to weekly sessions as ‘going to church’ and members as ‘sinners.’” He would go on to suggest that by framing their sessions ritualistically, it made outsiders cautious of joining in and kept the group unique. So, while this might not be an example of spiritual fulfilment, skateboard cults work like many other religions. They create a boundary, are organized around a community, and have some ideology to uphold.
Why would skaters want to cordon themselves off like this? For many older skateboarders, the Olympics, big shoe brands, and energy drink companies signal the end of the way things were. Concerned that our special club has folded for good, perhaps some of these attempts to make skateboarding sacred are a way to hold on to those more ineffable, secret elements of skateboarding, expressing commitment that simply can’t be bought in a Zumiez.
Perhaps the most convincing way that skateboarding and religion are connected is through ritual. If you remove ritual from religion, it is empty. It is through practice, repetition, or worship that religions remain alive and meaningful. Similarly, the physical act of skateboarding is the chief requirement of being a skateboarder, and the main motion of our religion.
Skateboarding is vibrantly ritualistic, and these rituals relate to all areas of life, from gripping your board to mourning the dead. When one of my skateboarding friends died, his wife scattered his ashes in our local skatepark. This seemed the most meaningful way she could mark his death. Another skateboarder in New Orleans had his casket pushed up a quarterpipe to do a final rock to fakie.
We use our skateboarding achievements to mark the contours of our lives in ritualized ways as well. The rites of passage of dropping in, landing your first kickflip, or for some, getting a photo in a magazine, become pivotal moments in a practitioner’s life, like the Christian sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist.
Skateboarding also appears to remake festivals and celebrations, as we have our own holidays now like Go Skate Day. We’ve also transformed older religious festivals into our own traditions. Halloween at Tempe park in Arizona has become a ritual, and Yom Kippur for Israeli skaters is a time to skate empty streets because no one is allowed to drive on that day.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
The truth is, our modern world seems pretty slim on magic and meaning, but for some, skateboarding provides precisely that. It generates a shared cultural bond amongst a diverse group of individuals, and creates a celestial communion for those that otherwise might feel alienated in our increasingly secular world. So, when you start hearing people say stuff like, “skateboarding saved my life,” or “I can’t live without skateboarding,” you might still roll your eyes, but you can do so with the understanding that, for that person, skateboarding fills a spiritual void in the same way religion does for others.