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Pontus Alv Interview

A place with spirit

When Pontus Alv released his first iconic video The Strongest of the Strangein 2005, he unintentionally started a DIY boom. It was only out of necessity however because there was a lack of spots in and around Malmö at that time, so he and some others, like John Magnusson, started building their own spots in abandoned places. After people saw that, they got inspired and it felt like all of a sudden concrete was mixed in every little village throughout whole Europe. If nobody does it for you, then do it yourself. DIY is the easiest way to get a spot, fix, or improve existing ones. Sure, it’s not really legal, but like the saying goes, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” Nowadays, Malmö is one of the skateboard-friendliest cities in the world, with its own skateboard school, spots all over town, and great skateparks, where skaters like Oski have grown into what they are now. So if you want to get things started in your municipality, DIY might be a good first step. You might lose some of the spots to bulldozers, but some will remain. Like Pontus’s kinda private project TBS, which is still there – although Pontus moved to Portugal in the meantime.

How and why did you start building your own spots?

In Malmö, we started in the early 2000s when pool and transition skating was kind of getting attention again. The crew in Malmö rode down to Bilbao every year and, on the way, they started skating all the old concrete parks. That’s how John Magnusson started the revolution in the North by building the Stapelbäddsparken. Everybody was like, “Let’s build something!” That’s the backstory of Savanna Side, which was the first DIY spot in Malmö. That was a joint collaboration between all of us, it wasn’t just me. Maybe I was the guy that was like, “Ok, let’s start tomorrow!” There’s always bartalk and then it never happens, but when you start, all of a sudden you have 15 guys. It’s not only about creating, but it’s creating together, creating a community, creating a social place, and of course, the fun of skating it.

How does the city benefit from people who build DIY skateparks?

A good example of that is Christiania in Copenhagen, and that’s also why Berlin is so popular, all these alternative clubs, all this “Hey, there’s this abandoned building, let’s turn it into a restaurant”. It is a different thing when people build it with their own hands, exactly how they want to do it with the resources they have. It creates a different look and maybe gives it a unique human touch. In Malmö, places like TBS are now a tourist attraction that make the city money. We have all these public skateparks in Malmö, but this strip with all the graffiti that is crazy and weird and made by this dude with his own hands, it’s something that is attractive and has quality. It creates something that is special.

There are those clean-cut cities that are not really inviting and then there is a city that attracts young and creative people and benefits from that.

Exactly! If everything is built by the books and by the laws and it’s built perfectly by a company, then it becomes sterile. There is no graffiti in the park, everything is this perfect concrete landscape and all the walls are clean… You need a human touch. We like when it’s a bit organic. It doesn’t have to be a full-on hippie town but something in between.

What are the pros and cons of DIY compared to building regular skateparks by a company?

First of all, the most important thing with DIY versus a public park is the atmosphere. Most of the time, a public park is a public space, and it’s normally located next to a football field, a sports park, or a school. If there is a DIY spot built inside an abandoned building or an industrial area, however, there is an urban feeling. Just like TBS, you have graffiti and there’s the fence, you have the train tracks with trains passing by every ten minutes. It’s a natural atmosphere. Maybe skaters feel at home there – I feel at home there. DIY spots are the people that build it and the guests that are using it. If you go to a skatepark, it’s a public place and everybody uses it, so it takes away some of the spirit. There is also no spirit when it is built by a company – those companies come, they build, and then they go away. It’s not like the people who built the thing are also using it and keep building on it; like organic places such as Burnside. You have the locals there, some kind of rules or whatever, there is a spirit in that place, there is life in it.

"It’s not only about creating, but it’s creating together, creating a community, creating a social place, and of course, the fun of skating it."

How did it start with TBS and how long did you build there?

When Savanna Side died, me and a friend were like, “We’re going to find another place!” and that’s when we started Steppe Side right away. While we were building there, we were like, “We’ll have several spots going on at the same time.” That’s when we started TBS – because TBS has always been there, the bank was there but with the curb. So it was like, “Let’s start working on that thing and Steppe Side and let’s do the barrier spot as well” – three spots at the same time. If one got destroyed, we would just focus on the other ones more. We did TBS in an afternoon basically. We did two things: made a wallride and a China Bank-thing. The day that Steppe Side got sketchy, I decided to go all-in on TBS. It think that was in 2008, but the first things were done there in 2004 already.

For a while, it felt like you would go there every day during your lunch break and build some stuff. Was it like that?

At first, I didn’t see the potential of the place, but then I started with a little curb and a few other things, and they worked really amazing. From then on, it was full-on. Now that I live here [in Portugal, editor’s note], I obviously can’t build there anymore, but I’m still planning on finishing it from start to finish, the whole strip. In 2008, there were still people around to help a little bit, but from then on for ten years, I was pretty much alone there. Of course, I had people come in helping from time to time. In the beginning, it was strange because you start building with all your friends, it was a community – and then it turned into me being the solo member left. I was really sad and bummed because I lost friends who stopped skating, got injured, or the crew just split up and not much of the old spirit was left. I kinda kept the spirit for myself and I was also on a personal mission to keep it going because I like it.

What does TBS mean to you?

For many years, it was my psychologist, if that makes sense.

In what way?

I run a global skateboard company and go through a lot of crazy things. Sometimes I would hang in front of the computer for six or eight weeks straight, just doing videos, ads, graphics, and collections – and sometimes I needed to get away from this. TBS was my place where I was outside, could see the sun, and got to work with my hands. For me, it was like holiday. Like, “Now I’m gonna take one week off work and be at TBS every day.” I got there at eight in the morning and was there all day until eight in the evening. Every day, you see the locals passing by with their dogs and I’d be like, “Hey, how is it going?” You get to see the routine of the people using that place. I was there on and off for ten years.

Did the city ever try to get rid of you? Or did they allow you to build there?

In this case, they kinda see through their fingers. There was never an official license saying “It’s cool,” but after Stapelbäddsparken was built and was a huge and massive success, Malmö became a “skate city”.

"The problem is not what the city is doing, the problem is that skaters are spoiled brats"

Where do you see the differences between doing pure DIY and skateboard-related city planning?

The DIY movement is more about people occupying and the place being illegal, so you are doing something criminal, which feels like you’re a bad guy – [laughs] this rebel punk feeling. Everyone is giving their own money or doing concerts or parties to support it. The hustling and the outlaw feeling creates a gang vibe. You want to be associated with it, you want to be a member. You feel like you and your friends have your own turf. You set the rules there, it’s your space – that’s the difference. Because everything that is public is legal, it’s financed by tax money or sponsors. It’s okay to skate it and it’s made to even if it doesn’t look like it. Think of it like you are a kid and you are like, “Here is the playground, it’s built with all these things that you can play on.” Or you and your friends go to the woods and play hide-and-seek there and make up your own rules, your own things that you decide are fun, like building a secret tree house or something. When someone is visiting, they might be like, “Am I invited or will they kick my ass?” We always hear these stories about Burnside and those classic, big DIY projects, and then you go and maybe it’s the opposite and super cool. This feeling of going to a place like that is like trying to get into a nightclub, you don’t know if you are going to be allowed to go in.

Like a secret society.

Yeah, exactly! Think of when you go to a place like Love Park. It’s an amazing plaza. When skateboarding is in the city, it’s used by skaters and by others, and it’s the mix that we like: because you have the traffic around, you have people eating their lunch there and drinking their coffee, there’s some normal life around. Comparing that to the new trend, the skate obstacle parks in the city that don’t look like a plaza, they are only occupied by skaters. You don’t go there to have your lunch, because it’s still not natural enough. The way they place these things is a bit off, like, “Let’s build a skate plaza in the park.” A plaza, however, is in the downtown city, where you have a coffee shop next to it, and the pulse of the city is in the plaza; and you’re skating in the pulse, that creates the real feeling. You don’t have that in the skate plaza things.

What is the best way cities could approach skateboarding?

The problem is not what the city is doing, the problem is that skaters are spoiled brats. Even if you take a city like Malmö, we were excited about concrete parks in 2001, but then they give you ten of these and you’re like, “I’m bored!” and then you want something else. They can give you all these skateparks that are great for the kids and beginners, but then you have the street skaters and all the other categories of skaters. In Malmö, they built the Mushroom and there were no skaters involved. It just happened that this round thing became great for skating, and the city decided to put those benches there, which are built for skating. This is pretty good example where it works because this place is outside of an art gallery and a lot of people are using the benches. It’s cool when you come to a spot and you have to ask, “Could you please move to the other bench?” It’s also cool when they say, “Fuck yourself, it’s a public place!” It’s not yours, it’s a real public space, which happens to be good for skating. What I’m trying to say is that cities can give out spaces for DIY. Like in Malmö, there is the Pig Barrier, a block away from TBS, there’s still Stapelbäddsparken, and they built another new skatepark in the same area. I don’t know, I lost count in Malmö. I lived there for so long and before I left, I was biking home and I’d see a skatepark that I’ve never heard about. Just a little thing they built in a school. It’s insane, there’s so much skateable stuff there that it’s overwhelming.

"It is a different thing when people build it with their own hands, exactly how they want to do it with the resources they have"

Can it be too much? Some of the people in this issue were like, “Sometimes we want to have it illegal, we want the thrill – it’s no fun when nobody kicks you out!”

Yes! It’s a part of the skate vibe! Right now, my guys are in Madrid filming and they tell me, “It’s really tough here, the cops are kicking us out everywhere…” – but it’s also cool, you know? The struggle, the feeling when you go to a spot that you want to attack and you make it a mission: go there early, watch out for guards, get in, get the trick, and get out again. Just like you see in the States, all those crazy missions. The Tyshawn [Jones]clip in the Supreme video with the big triple set – they went several times in the morning and dodged the security guards. That struggle is sick too! I think it can all coexist, but if a city really wants to do something like a “perfect project”, it would be building a plaza in some downtown prime location, which is built for living and skating, so that all people can use it. Good benches combined with good sculptures and shapes, like I recently saw in Vigo. There’s this crazy plaza that is fucking amazing for skating and still doesn’t feel like a skatepark. That feels like the next step for me: taking away the skateboarding part as much as possible, dealing with it like regular city planning but making it good for skating – but not too good. Just like Love Park, it was great and it felt natural with the fountain, the stairs, the ledges, the ground you could pop up to make kickers, and the trash cans. Sometimes it’s just finishing with the right heights, having the right materials and the right ground. I think it’s better to tell an architect what materials to use to make a plaza and let them do it. Because if they know it’s for skating, then they will study skating and it will look like a skating thing. I don’t think that the guy who designed Love Park had skating in mind.

But he actually loved that it became this skateboard landmark!

Isn’t this the whole goal of a plaza? It’s a place for people to use and it’s supposed to be used!

You were talking about Madrid, there was this thing going on about banning skateboarding in the city. I didn’t keep track, did they actually do it?

I don’t know, I just got text messages from Tao [Tor Ström]. He said it was pretty tough there with the cops. Those cities… same with Tokyo, to try and go skating in the daytime in Tokyo was impossible. Those places, it’s just tough – but then again, skaters are creative, they make it happen. At night, there is a gap in the system where they can attack all the spots. Skaters get around things. They find a way, go there on Christmas or whatever, when the guard is not there.

It’s a bit like graffiti writers planning their moves.

I love the graffiti scene for that sense of mission. They know when the trains are coming and when to attack the yards. They see and study all these things, they are taking it to a whole other level. Skaters are nothing compared to that, but it’s still very inspiring because you can see some similarities between those cultures – and there’s many cultures. Think of burglars planning a bank robbery! [laughs] There is something really fascinating about this planning and the whole mission of making it possible. Just on a smaller scale, I’m gonna skate this spot, I’m gonna find a way. So what’s the future of the cities: building public spaces and not thinking about skaters, using nice polished granite ledges and not making them too sharp, having nice flat floor that is strong, and planning it as you would normally plan a nice plaza in your city? There are a few examples like EMB that you could get inspired by. Don’t get skaters involved, don’t ask the skaters what they want, build it nice, and do a good job. Once it’s public space, don’t put a shitload of security there, let people use the public space. There were many great plazas, like Union Square in San Francisco, that got destroyed – or Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., one of the few original plazas left. EMB is sick now. Here’s a message to Supreme and Nike SB and all those brands: they should try to make it okay to skate there and then rebuild the original block around it because that is one of the few really historical places.

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