Portland Skateboarders by Melissa Hood

When we pulled into the parking lot next to Madison High School and Glenhaven Skatepark, I was shocked at how many skaters filled the park. I got out of the car and leaned up against a tree a good distance away. I didn’t really know what Gabe looked like, and I wouldn’t know how to pick him out of the throng of fast-moving skaters. The breeze smelled like fireworks. Gabe finally rolled up to me, emerging seemingly out of nowhere; glasses, black pants, black t-shirt. He introduced himself, then went over to talk to a couple guys leaning against a length of metal railing in the grass.

Gabe motioned to me with his hand, so I walked over and joined the boys, sitting in the grass just a couple feet from the edge of the concrete of the skateboarding zone.

Gabe’s friend, Nikolai, had a plastic bowl of blueberries and strawberries sitting on the ground next to him. He was wearing a red t-shirt with the words FREE GEEK on it. A couple tattoos that looked like they weren’t done in a professional shop peaked out from underneath his shorts.

“Want some?” he asked me, picking up the bowl.

“No thanks.”

As we sat and began our conversation about skateboarding, a couple more guys took a break and came to sit against the pole next to us.

In the middle of our conversation, Nikolai opened up a messenger bag and pulled out cans of beer, passing them out to the boys around him. He offered me one, and I shook my head. He gave it to the next available outstretched hand.

Then, a few minutes later, a couple more guys strolled over to the railing.

Nathan, who had a collage of tattoos on his arms, including a portrait of Rat Fink on his forearm and the words declaring SKATE AND DESTROY on the inside of one bicep, was sitting next to Nikolai. He had rolled a joint and was passing it around. When it came to me, I shook my head, and it was passed on to the kid sitting next to me. Gabe continued to talk with me as if we were in a separate area entirely, no interruption in the conversation.

A couple more guys arrived and sat down. Few of them acknowledged my presence, but there ended up being a group of about nine or ten young tattooed guys lounging around the metal pole where I sat on the far side.

I remembered something Earl, from Cal Skate Skateboards, a notorious skate shop in Portland, had told me about what happens when a girl enters a skatepark: “You know how there’s this whole male macho thing. You know, girl shows up, everybody starts skating, you know what I’m saying? You straighten up….It's gonna change the dynamic of the whole lot. Not a bad thing it’s just, it’s just human nature.”

Slowly, the boys sauntered back out, dropping back onto the concrete to skate again.

Audio bellow: As Nikolai was trying to talk to me about his experience with working at an indoor skate park, the rest of the group notices a compelling hairstyle.

Gabe, Nikolai, and I overheard Damion talking to some other skaters sitting around in the grass: “I work at Vans, they sell those for sixty-five dollars.”

“See, that too,” Gabe said to me, pointing at his friend, “People...just live and breathe skateboarding. He works at a skateboarding shop, he skates, talks about skating, looks at skating-”

“Cries about skating,” added Nickolai.

“There you go.”

They laugh, then fall silent, looking out at the other guys skating around the park, the sound of boards and metal trucks scraping against concrete filled the air.

Damion continued to talk with his buddies about hooking them up with some discounted skate shoes; he was currently wearing a pair of worn-in Vans himself, along with a bright pink t-shirt, black jeans, and a hat that couldn’t quite contain his bleached, heavily fading dyed hair.

I watched skaters riding up and down the ramps, falling, getting back up, doing all sorts of fancy things with their boards that have all sorts of weird names I didn’t know.

But the thing is, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know.

“If you’re new to skateboarding, people will direct you,” Gabe had told me. “It’s like, don’t go down that ramp if somebody’s coming up that ramp, don’t go in front of other people when they’re about to do a trick. That’s called snaking, we don’t like snakes.”

“Just don’t be in the way,” added Nikolai.

“Yeah, that too.”

Gabe and Glenhaven; Madison High looms in the background.

Learning how to behave at skate parks is a lot of watch and learn, attempt and re-attempt action. There’s a lot of common courtesy that goes into how skateparks work. If there’s a group of guys taking over one corner, stay out of that corner. Wait your turn. Don’t be a dick.

If you aren’t courteous of other skaters, you will be chased out. Or, like a kid who was at Glenhaven recently, you and your father will receive a stern talking to and be demanded to leave. What happens when you run into other skaters or curse at them like a little shit kid?

“We like, sat them down just like yo, you guys fucking suck, like, you’re just hurting people. Like, you got some of the most chill people at Glenhaven to fucking like, get mad,” Nikolai said. “Don’t mess with our friends, don’t mess with our friends’ chill, like, life sucks, skateboarding is the only thing that we have that makes us happy, let us have it.”

It was already dark and the breeze was chilly when I arrived at Beaverton Skatepark, but it wasn’t raining, and that’s all that mattered. Despite the impending evening hour, more than a dozen skaters still rode around underneath the lit-up park as I stood in the parking lot with pro skater James “the real” McCoy.

The first question I asked him was: “I know very little about skateboarding....what would you say is like, really important that I need to know?”

He answered: “Not all skateboarders are assholes I guess, we’re not all punks,” he made air-quotes with his fingers at the word “punks.”

“A lot of us, fuckin’, have normal lives, kids, normal job,” he continued. “A lot of people have warped views of skateboarders. At least, not so much anymore. I mean, still, but back in the nineties, I mean, people used to come out with fuckin’ bats and fuckin’ come attack you and try to fight you and it’s like dude, we’re just trying to skate, just tell us to leave nicely, we’ll leave, we’re not trying to fuckin’...anyways, yeah. So that’s probably the most important. We’re nice, just be nice. We’ll be nice back.”

Soon, another truck pulled into the parking lot, and the O.G. Barryn Makapagal came up to join us.

“OG-Wan Kenobi,” James chuckled as Barryn walked up to join us, wearing a white sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over a baseball cap on his head, faded jeans, and tan skate shoes.

Barryn is considered an O.G., traditionally meaning “original gangster,” because he started skateboarding back when it was still taking off, with skaters like Tony Hawk and Tommy Guerrero, when people were beginning to form teams and have competitions.

“What year did you start skating? When did you get your first board?” James asked Barryn.

“Seventy-one. In Hawaii, because I knew that I was gonna come back to the mainland and there weren’t any waves to surf, so I learned in a garage parking lot and it was just one hill and then another hill, so we had to get good to turn. We had clay wheels back then so you got good quick.”

California Precision Skate Team

Barryn was part of the very first skateboard team in San Fransicso; California Precision, organized by the first skateboard shop in San Francisco with the same name.

“That’s why I took to skateboarding. Not only ‘cause I needed an outlet, but when I surf the waves, you know, it’s free, it’s mother nature, and you can feel it... and so having that feeling out there like that? I wanted to bring it to the ground, and so I would mimic the same moves, you know, like I was riding a wave, and so I could pretend like I was practicing, like I was surfing. When I went to California first they were like, why are you riding like that? This ain’t a wave. I’m keeping my skills honed, you know?”

Although no one person can be credited for inventing the skateboard, they started to appear as early as the 1950s. In the 60s, skateboarding companies started hosting real competitions. In the 70s, the urethane wheel was invented. The Zephyr skate team made skateboarding something that could be taken seriously rather than just as a hobby. Then, Alan Gelfand invented the Ollie, a trick involving pushing one’s back foot on the tail of a board to pop up into the air, which became integral to the art of skateboarding. The most important invention for skateboarding in the 80s was VHS. The legendary Bones Brigade team started recording skateboard videos that became widely distributed to kids internationally. The Bones Brigade consisted of the skaters Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen, Tommy Guerrero, Steve Caballero, Mike McGill, Lance Mountain, Stacy Peralta, and Kevin Staab, who brought to the world The Bones Brigade Video Show. In the 90s, the popularity of skateboarding rose with the emerging punk scene and the first ever X-Games in 1995. Skateboarding continues to develop today with the help of video games, influence in fashion, and the continued popularity of the X-Games.

“Give it to the surfers,” Earl said, pointing to the bottom of a skateboard featuring a vividly colored photo of a wave. This board was just one among many others, stacked on racks clear up to the ceiling. Cal Skate Skateboards was packed with boards, along with other skateboard related memorabilia: posters, stickers, hats, shirts, Vans shoes, and even art made from slices of old boards. The skateboards perched at the top of the wall were, apparently, from the 1950s or 60s, when surfers started to attach wheels on the bottom of boards and started riding concrete when the waves weren’t rolling.

Earl setting up a board for my friend and skate-buddy Brennan, surrounded by boards and other skate gadgets and tools.

Earl began skateboarding in the 80s, and now in his late 40s, continues to skate.

“It’s the same feeling exactly, same feeling. Skateboarding’s the only thing where you can have a five year old and a fifty year old do the same activity and not have it be weird. See what I’m saying?”

When I asked him if he still skates today for the same reason that he began skating, he replied: “Yes, yes, yes. The satisfaction I get from being on my skateboard and knowing that I could see something else that nine out of ten people don’t see, and that’s as far as like, environment I’m in, situations I’m in, people I encounter, and the physical skateboarding...just the satisfaction that it’s an indescribable feeling, literally. But ask that question to anyone that’s been skating for I’d say, a few years, or anyone that's really gotten on a skateboard and tried to skate, and has taken a really hard-” he gently hit the table with his fist “-slam, which you’re going to do, anyone that rides. I’m serious, you take that and you get up instead of getting honestly hurt and bummed embarrassed, but you really turn around, and be like-” he paused again for two more table hits “-I’m gonna do it again, but I’m gonna not fall, and do it right over again, back to back, that’s what I did.”

Skateboarding takes guts, a hefty amount of pain tolerance, and an incredible load of patience. If you’re at all interested in doing anything besides cruising down the sidewalk to class, get ready to scrape knees, bruise your rear-end, and probably break a bone.

Or, if you’re super serious and really want to get noticed, get some sponsors, and eventually become a professional, you could quite possibly break nearly every bone in your body. At the skate park in Beaverton, I stood in the artificially lit parking with James McCoy, who has been skating since 1989, and has his own board in Cal Skate Skateshop. Wrapped up in a black hoodie against the chilly breeze, he spoke lengthily about his many, many skateboard related injuries.

“I have a broken wrist right now. Gotta break your shit to fuckin’ get somewhere,” he said.

I asked him how many bones he’s broken.

“Countless. I’ve been in the hospital over one hundred and fifty three times and counting. I break my wrists, each wrist roughly ten times a year...I’ve had two reconstructive knee surgeries...I got a forty-five year old dead guy’s ACL. Had a wife, two kids, ironically died of a heart attack, ‘cause he was in great shape and he was a professional soccer player,” he took a deep breath, “and I got his ACL.”

Among these injuries, James has also cracked his head open, broken all of his ribs, bit a piece of his tongue off, broken a piece of his collarbone (“see how it sticks up here?” He pulled down the collar of his shirt to point. “This got pushed in and up and cracked in three places.”), he’s spider fractured both of his heels, torn all his tendons, his MCLs, meniscus, ACL, broken his feet, his toes, his wrists, knocked teeth loose, knocked himself out a couple times, dislocated all of his fingers at once….

“Is there a part of your body you haven’t broken?”

“I don’t know.”

So, why they hell would anyone skate if that means probably getting banged up constantly?

“It’s an outlet for everything. It’s a form of expression. You can get your anger out, you can fuckin’, get your happiness fuckin’ in and your...it’s just an outlet, like a creative art form I guess,” James said after I asked him why he continues to skate.

“After a year and a half of skateboarding, I was sixteen and a half on a Saturday morning, still in high school, and I woke up that morning and I realized, I even said it out loud, I’m like, ‘skateboarding is no longer what I do, it’s who I am, I’m gonna skate ‘til the day I die.’ I just knew it. And it’s like an addiction, but a healthy addiction.”

Later the same evening, sitting in the grass after the skaters decided it was time to go out for one last run of the night, Barryn talked about how getting injured can strengthen the bond of skaters.

“They become my family. Once they get injured, and I gotta go pull my paramedic box out. Have to do CPR or anything. That’s one thing I had to get was my certificates, being in skating, because you go with groups and I’m like, oh no, now we get injured, and so I had to take it upon myself to actually go out and get the first aid CPR certified. I carry a splint and ice and everything, just in case.”

People who skateboard tend to have friend groups that consist mostly of other people that skate, they spend most of their free time with people who skate, and maybe even live with other people who skate. Groups of friends and skate teams spend a lot of time travelling around to various skate spots, so there is always plenty of bonding time. Everyone knows everyone who skates; the longer you hang at a park, the more people you’ll meet.

At Glenhaven Skatepark, the first thing that stood out to me, other than the surprising amount of skaters in the park, was a very colorful car sitting in the parking lot. I was later informed that it belonged to Damion, who walked over with me to take a closer look at it.

“How long did it take you to do this?” I asked, pulling my phone out to take pictures of the spray-paint-coated Toyota Camry.

“I didn’t do any of it,” Damion replied, dropping his skateboard on the ground to open up the trunk. I got just a glimpse of the inside as he grabbed one strange object out of a myriad of unidentifiable strange objects (was that a small Victorian style portrait of a woman?) before closing the trunk and moving on to the driver’s side door.

“It’s on the inside too?” I raised my camera as he motioned to the seat, inviting me to look as much as I wanted.

The doors, the seats, the steering wheel, the ceiling; everything was covered in paint, marker, and stickers. Most of the colorful additions were skateboarding related, mixed in with names, lyrics, indiscernible words, and drawings. And Damion didn’t do any of it; every creation was a little gift from his friends. A collection of words and memories of their little skate-family.

The first time I saw Burnside Skatepark, it was a little after 8 p.m., already dark, and I didn’t get out of the car. There was an orange Volkswagen van parked on the curb next to the wall of the park with a Spitfire Wheels logo sticker grinning menacingly at our approach. An ambulance passed us going the opposite direction. The inside of the park was lit, but the street was bathed in darkness. It was difficult to see over the wall, but there were definitely at least a few guys skating in there. There were a couple guys sitting on the wall and about four or five just lingering on the sidewalk. They turned to look at us as we drove slowly by, which was understandable, since we were a slow moving car with people peering out, gawking at them. There was faded graffiti visible on the back wall. We got out of there quick, after finding out we had to turn around in the darkness and pass it again. It was intimidating, yes, but I didn’t feel scared. Just intrigued.

“I moved here to Portland, Oregon after I was in Alaska for twelve years, ‘cause I figured it’s kind of in between cold weather and crowded hot weather, you know, perfect. Come to find out, Burnside was first being built. The first bag of concrete was being thrown, and I heard about it [and] I went into Cal Skate and was like, oh, cool. I went down there and there was nothing; there wasn’t much, you know. It was a flat area and a couple banks and that was it. And then over the past three years, you know, I was gonna...settle down basically, and in three years time, I started to hear that parks were being built and they were free, and I was like, what? That’s never happened, you know, we used to have to pay for every park that we went to down south." -Barryn

“I went to Burnside when I was like, thirteen and i just didn’t really know what I was doing and I just had like, glass thrown at me, like...throwing bottles and stuff and I was like, alright, well that sucks. I didn’t go back until I was like, sixteen, but now like I can go there pretty much any time and it’s like, nobodies gonna say anything because I understand, like, the rules, how to skate, how I need to like, be around certain people,” said Nikolai.

“We’ve gone to burnside enough to like, we can usually hang out there,” said Gabe.

“It’s more who you are, too,” added Nikoai.

“If you’re not a chill guy they're not gonna let you hang out there."

“Burnside’s the shit, dude, if you can skate Burnside, you can skate anything. And every skater will say that. It’s basically the most raw fuckin’ spot you can go. It’s legit, you better know what you’re doing, and if not locals will get in your way and fuckin’ run into you. It’s cleaned up, most people are pretty chill, you know, they look all gnarly and hesher lookin’ but a lot of them are real nice, just like us,” said James McCoy.

“I’ve also been jumped there, too. But then...you learn, you start getting to know the locals, and they start getting your back and shit. It used to be a lot gnarlier back in the day. Now like, if some stupid shit will happen usually a local will step in and tell some crack-head to get the fuck outta there, if someone’s too scared to do it, I don’t know, some newbie or something. Now, I’ll just fuckin’ beat the guy in the face, I don’t give a fuck.” He chuckled.

In the late summer of 1990, a group of skateboarders had cement, the urge to create, and the need to skate. Without any permission from anyone but themselves, they chose to pile up some dirt and cement up against a wall underneath Burnside Bridge on the East side of the Willamette River in Portland. The choice of location was partly because underneath the bridge would stay mostly dry when it rained, and, as any Portlander would know, it rains often. Soon enough, more skaters started to get in on the gig, more cement was added, and a few years later it began to look much like the skate park that still stands today.

Although the concept of Burnside started during the late summer, it’s birthday is celebrated rather extravagantly every year on Halloween. An artist is hired every year to paint on the walls, and many costume-adorned skaters gather to celebrate the glory that is Burnside.

Burnside is so popular, in fact, that it’s been featured in the 1993 movie Free Willy, the 2007 movie Paranoid Park, and multiple skateboarding videogames, including Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, and Grind Session.

When Burnside was built in the 90s, eventually becoming sanctioned by the city, it triggered a major rise in the popularity of skateboarding and the building of skate parks in Portland as well as all across America.

However, skateboarding is not limited to America; there are people who skate and famous skate spots all over the world.

“Skateboarding’s everywhere like, I was in Greece recently, visiting family, and...I saw like, skaters there, it was pretty cool. I was like, what’s up, I went and talked to them. Even though my Greek’s pretty weak I could like, get through to them that...I live in Portland and I skate from there and they were like, that's super sick that you skate in like, one of the biggest states, ‘cause it’s like Oregon, probably Washington, California...those are like, some of the biggest,” Gabe said.

We were sitting in the damp grass at Glenhaven, surrounded by the other skaters. Another guy pulled a silver paint pen out of his pocket and started writing on the black metal railing.

“If you meet somebody who is a skateboarder you basically have an instant whole thing with them, so you automatically have something to talk about, like I didn’t know these dudes, [but I] automatically got to talk to them.”

Created By
Melissa Hood

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