Dogtowns of the North East
Skateboarders look at the world around them differently. By using their skateboards, they interact with the urban environment in a more expressive way than the rest of us. Since the 1970s, they've been reimagining the possibilities of town centres, city streets, barren spaces and rundown neighbourhoods — the 'Dogtowns' of the world. The original inventiveness, brotherhood and fearlessness of these skateboarders crafted a new way of life. This unique skating culture spread out across the world and I recently ventured out to catch a glimpse of it here in the North East.
If there is one thing that my eight year old self remembers well, it is an older brother whom I adored. The kind who was unfazed and effortlessly good-looking, with just the right amount of sensitivity to balance off a distinct aura — the aura of a Leonardo DiCaprio Romeo. Or a Jay Adams. Hawaiian shirt, cigarette dangling, long sun-bleached hair, a bottle of beer sweating in his hand. Leaning against the door of a beaten down car in the glaring sun with a skateboard under his arm. In my attempt to inch myself closer to his approval, I skated with dreamy determination up and down our driveway. Every afternoon. While he was out drinking and smoking with his friends.
Eventually, I abandoned the skateboard. I abandoned the cluck, cluck, cluck of the wheels struggling against the bricks and had forgotten all about it until I met skater and bass-player Sam McKenna, who introduced me to the Hartlepudlian skateboarding scene.
Hartlepool got its first skatepark in 2001. Before then, the older generation of Hartlepudlian skaters gathered in areas like the town centre, practising new tricks on urban furniture while the public looked on in disapproval. At the time street skating was mostly seen as disruptive and dangerous, but for the skaters there was nothing better than defying physical pain and power relations by pushing themselves beyond their limits.
“Its an unexplainable feeling landing tricks on things that weren't designed for that use,” veteran skateboarder, Andrew Pike, and active promoter of the scene, tells me, “we look at the urban world around us differently, stairs, benches, rails, ramps, ledges, even curbs all give us ideas of what could be.”
Although, they still venture out on ‘street missions’ in places like Newcastle and Middlesbrough, the increase in skateparks has provided safe spaces for skateboarders to exist free of public scorn. The building of gathering points like Rozzy Plaza in Hartlepool and Preston Park Skatepark in Stockton has helped grow the skateboarding scene in the North East by providing an established base for the community to organise events, provide coaching and use social media to promote skating.
While skateboarding might be more widely accepted nowadays, especially in anticipation of its inclusion in the 2020 Olympics, and as long as it remains within the bounds of ‘designated areas’, skating in its true form, adopted by a young urban culture seeking to challenge the status quo, still belong in the streets.
The North East Riders — Sam McKenna and Olly Stoker
Skating is not a sport. Often associated with street art and hip hop music — underground outlets of deviance and deviation — the skating scene has a defining set of values that heralds inventiveness, intrinsic motivation and authenticity above competition and measurable rewards. At its heart, it represents a blatant opposition to the dominant masculine values of popular sports. There are no rules, referees, set plays and teams and most skaters would not want to be called sportsmen.
Yet, the skaters I met from Hartlepool and Darlington dispelled any illusion of skaters being careless, destructive or lazy. Because of the challenging and creative nature of the activity, they have the potential to become positive role models and impact on their communities in unexpected ways. For riders such as Olly Stoker and Sam McKenna, what motivates them is a strengthening and sharing of a sense of belonging and the gratification of overcoming mental barriers and pushing themselves beyond what they think is possible.
“It just became a huge part of my life, and it’s dictated major aspects of who I’ve grown into (my friends, other hobbies, even how you look at the world in general),” Sam says. When asked what the biggest challenge is, Olly responds, “overcoming that fear to do a trick, to stop thinking about what could go wrong and instead concentrate on landing the trick. Once you can get past this mental barrier, you’ll find yourself learning more tricks. The biggest joy is landing a trick you have been trying for ages, you get such a sense of relief.”
Skateboarding is much more than just doing a series of cool tricks. The execution and invention of new tricks in new locations gives it an artistic edge. This is why moving beyond A.B.D (Already Been Done) is so important in skating. The real moment of creation in skateboarding does not take place in skateparks but in unfamiliar spots where skaters use the architecture around them like a canvas and their boards like a paintbrush. Most skating communities will have a ‘filmer’ to capture these moments, like Ryan Welsh in Hartlepool, who plays an essential role in capturing and disseminating skateboarding as an art form.
The Networker — Drew Pike
Called by younger Hartlepudlian skaters the father of the Hartlepool skateboard community, Andrew Pike has been skateboarding in the streets of the North East for 17 years. As a veteran skater, his role extends far beyond this. “I try to pass on any advice, anecdotes and ideas and also help spread the hype and be enthusiastic, encouraging people to push themselves all the while having the fun times”.
From Andrew’s own experience he tells me that you don’t start skateboarding and automatically become part of the scene. You have to find the scene first. He started out at 15 in the front street outside his house with a friend. It was only when they began venturing beyond the front street a few months later that they realised there were more skaters than just the two of them. “It was daunting and almost intimidating to meet all these older lads (who smoked cigs, swore and spoke skate language we didn’t understand) at the Hartlepool War Memorial, the local meet up spot.”
Those with a common interest were readily welcomed into the circle of older skaters, a circle that expanded and shrank over the years as the veterans got caught up in day-to-day responsibilities, and younger skaters joined with unbridled enthusiasm. A common interest that set itself apart from mainstream culture by the very fact that it defied rules, locations, competitions and embraced an uncluttered freedom of expression and creativitySkateboarding might have been born in the streets, amongst the school outcasts and the youth from broken homes, but for many of these young people it became a positive outlet and gave them a sense of purpose and, above all, freedom. The challenge now is to keep skating in the streets, to keep some of that freedom alive, a freedom that is near impossible to find in any other facet of our lives, strongly dictated by societal traditions and consumeristic trends.
After all, “Why do you have to be 'Something' when you can be ‘Anything’?”, Andrew asks. His question captures the skateboarding community’s core values. It captures the ‘distinct aura’ I remember from my older brother, an aura that still hangs, intensified and beating, over the skater hang out spots of the North East. An aura in danger of fading if skateboarders abandon what they love best: to physically reimagine unexpected places in unexpected and awe-inspiring ways.
Andrew runs the ‘Tryin' to ride a skateboard’ Facebook page which aims to highlight and push the Hartlepool and Teesside skate scene to the wider community. They have recently organised the first ‘Tryin’ to Jam’ event at Rozzy Plaza Skatepark in Hartlepool — a summer get-together of the skating and BMX community with food, music and ‘challenges’.