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CALIFORNIA ICONS : it all started so innocently...bust your buns, bust your buns. : Thrasher Magazine and the Art of Exploiting the Universe of the Skateboardable

January 28, 1996|Kristine McKenna | McKenna's last story for the magazine was a profile of artist Mike Kelly

"By the end of the '70s there were more than 200 parks in America, but many of them were so poorly designed that they were dangerous," Thatcher recalls. Then in 1980, the sport went into another major slump when many of the parks were closed. Liability insurance had become prohibitively expensive, but that wasn't the only problem. Skaters had begun to boycott skate parks because the parks violated the true essence of skating. The parks had rules and regulations that forced skaters to conform, and skating is a renegade sport that's vehemently anti-elitist and anti-conformist. Skating's initial popularity was based on the fact that anyone can afford to do it. Paying to skate just wasn't happening.

"In 1980 skateboarding was considered dead, but we knew it was the cockroach sport that would never die," laughs Thatcher, who chose to launch Thrasher that year. "Skateboarding tends to run on a 10-year cycle--maybe because every 10 years there's a new generation of kids--so we started Thrasher with the idea that we were buying stock when it was low."

He and two partners started the magazine with $20,000 and a small office in a San Francisco shipyard. The first issue was a 32-page tabloid; they printed 10,000. At the time, their only competition was a magazine called Action Now, which had changed its name from Skateboarder in 1980, but it folded a year later. "They were ahead of their time in that they were covering all kinds of extreme sports," Thatcher says, "but most skaters felt Skateboarder sold out when they became Action Now--and that ready-made audience came to us."

Thatcher's belief in the indomitability of skateboarding was vindicated when the scene started picking up steam again in 1983. Enthusiasm for skating dipped still another time in the late '80s, then exploded when the street revolution hit in 1990.

"What we're seeing now are the fruits of the idea that everything is skateable," Thatcher says. "Hand railings, bus benches, hills--everything is terrain to be skated."

Adds Thrasher's advertising director, Roger Browne: "Vertical skating [commonly referred to as "vert" and done on ramps and in pools] has been replaced by street skating, because lots of kids didn't have ramps in their backyards; many didn't even have backyards for that matter. So the move to the streets made skating accessible to many more people."

Though the accessibility and freedom of street skating have been a boon to the sport, Browne predicts that "skate parks will come back, because cities don't like skaters on the streets. Society sees skating as an outlaw sport, and that's one of the reasons skaters tend to go out at night: the streets are less crowded, and they don't get hassled as much."

Skateboarding is still generally considered a pastime for juvenile delinquents; the miscreant teenagers of Larry Clark's controversial film "Kids," for instance, were skaters. Thatcher says, however, that the skating community has an unusually acute social conscience. "Other than marijuana," he says, "there aren't many drugs in skating, because kids use skateboarding as an outlet instead of turning to drugs. Lots of skaters are vegetarian, too, and they tend to be very conscious of environmental issues.

"Because of its suburban origins, skating seems to be dominated by white kids," he adds, "but when the heavy sessions go down, it's every skater for himself, and you see a really diverse racial and social mix."

And the influence of skating is spreading to the non-skating world.

"We have a wide crossover readership," says Kanights of Thrasher, which now has a paid circulation of 135,000. "Some people read the magazine for the music coverage; music is important to skaters because it's what gets them going, so we always have lots of music coverage. Other people read it for the fashion trends. A lot of fashion innovations come out of skating Baggy pants, for instance, are identified with the hip-hop scene, but they actually started with skaters who wanted loose clothing that didn't restrict their movements."

Although snowboarding--the mutant offspring of skateboarding--has surpassed skating as America's fastest growing sport, skating has succeeded in establishing itself around the world as a legitimate sport. Moreover, skateboarding has come full circle from its beginnings in that surfers now do tricks developed by skaters.

Skateboarding's season in the lives of young boys, how ever, will always remain brief. "Skateboarding is a bachelor sport," concludes Browne. "It's not like a family thing or a couple thing; it's a solo thing. It's always going to be dominated by young teenagers, because most kids leave skating behind once they get a car and a girlfriend."

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