Paris, Berlin, and London – Europe’s holy trinity: crowded, alive, and packed with spots and opportunities. These cities would arguably stand out as the places to be if you chose to entertain a skateboarding career in Europe. From the group of individuals making up Carhartt WIP’s team, one in particular has gathered a decent share of experience, calling all three his home of choice at some point during his career. So while the WIP crew is busy gathering clips for an upcoming video project, this time around in the region of the French capital, Sylvain Tognelli reflects on his experience of being a Paris local at the moment while dealing with each cities’ peculiarities.
It doesn’t take much to convince a former sociology student that humans are mainly products of their environment, so when Joseph Biais (Carhartt WIP TM) invited me to write this article about «how certain cities build a certain type of skater», I felt compelled to put down the iPhone and raise the dusty intellectual flag. However, I couldn’t possibly start to seriously answer a question as complex as that, we’d need actual experts… Below are just opinions and a few things I’ve noticed from living in three cities (Berlin, London, and Paris) over the years and trying to film for skate videos in each of them.
When I moved to Berlin a while ago, I remember wondering if the city made the Berliners so tolerant or the opposite. A lot of rules I had learned in France, not just for skate tricks, seemed suddenly irrelevant: “You can’t do this!” – Why? “This is the way to do that!” – Why? My theory was that Berlin’s last hundred years had been a succession of hard times and that it could explain, at least partially, why the city seemed so relaxed: when you’ve been through so much, you tend to let people have a little fun. I have no idea if I was told that or if I made it up, but it seems right even though scientifically unfounded. There is a wall near Tempelhof Airport with bullet holes, and in summer, people lie in the sun and have picnics next to it, life goes on, carefree. Besides being an absolute masterclass on how to avoid learning a language properly, my time in Berlin was spent trying to answer the question, “How did a land of discipline and frugality give birth to this island of freedom?”
Plans for the next day were often drafted at the bar, and like all promises made at the bar, they would evaporate at dawn. I was happy to just go and aimlessly ride my bike around or skate the Hasenheide skatepark once more. I rarely felt bad for being paid to skate and not trying too hard to film or shoot pictures where I lived, I felt in tune with the city.
After nearly eight years of too many good times, I then moved to London, a city of constant struggle and profusion of activity, sheltering confident and self-deprecating souls. So much energy and a lot more money around. Skateboarding took on a different meaning for me there, oscillating between being 1.) an unconventional way of reclaiming public space in a city where everything seemed privatized and 2.) an activity trapped in the wheels of the production aka a job. Anyone who’s been trying to skate around the city on a weekday can testify: there’s no room for us there. Thankfully, the regimented nine-to-five work week creates plenty of empty spaces for skaters to fill the gap and become the antithesis of white collars: spending weekdays in residential neighborhoods and weekends in business plazas. For the first time in a while, I felt guilty when I wasn’t out filming or getting pictures, I felt like I had to take part in this big turmoil happening outside or I wouldn’t exist. The rough surfaces and lack of general comfort, the high rent and busy buses made me tougher and I felt that confidence in my skating. I knew what I was doing and I always wanted to do more.
Now Paris. I’ve always been visiting, but living here the last two years, I’ve discovered new sides of the city.
As a skater, you notice the careful organization in urban planning. In opposition to other European capitals, Paris seems precious, almost obsessed by its looks. That makes the city very uniform in terms of skate spots, which can be a positive when you look at the repetition of certain spots but also a negative by making the whole city’s architecture more predictable than its European sisters.
The second thing you need to know is that Paris is very small and densely populated – a pressure cooker for creativity, or even better, a particle collider. Everything that can be done in that limited space will be done. You don’t find spots by exploring new areas of Paris unless you go to the suburbs, which needs to be done sometimes in order to cool down. In the city, you’ll find spots by passing the same place a thousand times until a new idea comes to mind. These days, rub bricks, Bondo, and lacquer spray cans keep opening new possibilities in this extremely competitive environment. I often see different people trying to film the same trick at the same time, which was unimaginable before I moved here and still is a bit strange. I’ve always thought that creativity came from being able to isolate yourself and make room around you. It works in most places, but I’ve discovered that the opposite, which is putting yourself in the middle of the particle collider and waiting to get hit, works too.
France has been the birthplace of countless art movements and most of them were established in Paris. Parisians have a sensitivity for aesthetics, or at least, many seem to believe. Add a touch of Mediterranean culture and everything becomes debatable: skate tricks, fashion, who did what, where and how… It can take a while to get used to this type of thinking, but it also has its good sides, especially if you like wittiness and second-degree humor, I know I do – well, I’m French. A friend was recently telling me that after hours of battling a trick, as he was lying on the ground in disbelief, another friend came and commented on his socks.
In the last ten years, skateboarding has changed a lot, so my observations are also altered by this change. While productivity has increased (it would be interesting to have statistics of tricks filmed per year for each pro skater through history, but including phone cameras, I’d bet that it has been multiplied by a hundred in the last ten years), social media also made everyone a little bit more self-conscious and aware of their image, not just Parisian skaters.
There are a lot of different skaters in different cities and I can’t say that I’ve ever been sure that certain cities tend to build a certain type of skater. However, we can agree that there’s more interaction with the environment in bigger cities, and rubbing ourselves against its walls day in and day out, we’ve become tainted by the city’s specific colors. Like lab rats trying to find a piece of cheese in a maze, we’ve learned a way to move our bodies which must be showing through our skating in a very physiological way.