Roman Mars: Article believes in delightful design for every home. And thanks to their online-only model, they have some really delightful prices, too. Everyone who’s listened to this show for years knows how in the bag I am for Article furniture. I love it. I have a ton of it in my home. But our sound engineer, Martín Gonzalez, just redid his whole living room with Article. He sent me a picture, and it was almost comical how much Article furniture he stuffed into his Brooklyn apartment. So, I’m gonna let him tell you what he thinks.
Martín Gonzalez: I am sitting here enjoying my brand-new Article living room set. I replaced my junky, free, and Craigslisted furniture with a very nice set from the Ceni collection. I got a sofa, love seat, and chair all in matching volcanic gray. They were delivered right to my door. All I did was pop open the boxes and screw some legs on. I am so much more excited to have people over now that I’m not embarrassed of my furniture. I did, in fact, use this offer code that Roman is about to tell you.
Roman Mars: Article is offering our listeners $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. To claim, visit article.com/99, and the discount will automatically be applied at checkout. That’s article.com/99 for $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more.
Apple Card: Reboot your credit card with Apple Card. It gives you unlimited daily cash back that can automatically grow over time when you open a savings account–a high yield, low effort way to grow your money with no fees. Apply for Apple Card in the wallet app on iPhone to start earning daily cash and growing it with savings today. Apple Card is subject to credit approval. Savings available to Apple Card owners subject to eligibility. Apple Card and savings by Goldman Sachs Bank U.S.A., Salt Lake City Branch. Member FDIC. Terms apply.
BP: When you have to stop but don’t really want to, stop at BP because BP has everything you need to keep it going–fuel to keep the adventures going, the BPme app to keep the savings and the commutes going, snacks and drinks to keep the crew going, and the BPme Rewards Visa to keep the rewards going and going and going. A stop at BP isn’t a stop at all. Keep it going.
Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. I love punk rock. I loved it since I was a kid in central Ohio, when wearing a Hüsker Dü t-shirt resulted in me being threatened by dumb jocks. I still wore that t-shirt every day because f*** them. First and foremost, I love the music. I love the power and the purpose it gave me. I loved reading about scenes from other cities that were way better than my dumb town. I loved everything about the punk scene. Okay, maybe not everything. One punk thing that I did not do that most of the punk and hardcore kids around me were super into was I did not ride a skateboard. In that time and in that place, punk was inextricably linked to skateboarding. But I didn’t have the athleticism nor the initiative to be an actual skateboarder. One person I know who loved skateboarding when he was a kid is 99PI producer, Christopher Johnson.
Christopher Johnson: Hell yeah. I was super into skateboarding, especially back in the late 1980s, I think when we were both getting into punk rock. I mean, I loved to skate. I watched all the skating videos. My mom got me a subscription to Thrasher Magazine. And I would lay on my bed and look through all those dope pictures of all the skaters. And I was just fascinated. I’m actually still a pretty big skateboarding fan, although now mostly just as a spectator. But you–Roman Mars–you are not into skating, and you never have been.
Roman Mars: Nope. Not at all. I mean, you know, I appreciate it. But no.
Christopher Johnson: And that’s totally cool. But I still think you’ll be into this story that I have for you today. It’s about the history of the modern skateboard as an object. You’ve never been a skater, but you are a design nerd. And this is as much a story about design as it is about your least favorite punk subculture.
Roman Mars: There are definitely less favorite punk subcultures.
Christopher Johnson: Fair enough, fair enough.
Roman Mars: But I get your point, and I’m very excited.
Christopher Johnson: So, when I watch skate videos today, it really strikes me that all of the skateboard decks that everyone is riding–they’re all shaped almost exactly alike. It’s called the popsicle design because the deck is narrow in the middle and rounded off at both ends like a popsicle stick. And today, that’s the shape that is the modern, standard issue, capital S skateboard. And this may seem stupid simple to you, but that basic, clean popsicle shape is actually the product of a billion design stages.
Roman Mars: A billion? Okay.
Christopher Johnson: Yeah, like, three or four. And each change in the skateboard shape came out of this back and forth and back and forth between, on the one hand, the athletics of this brand-new sport, which were evolving fast, and on the other hand, the design of the board itself, which was changing to meet the shifting demands of skateboarding. And this process of constant iteration went on for more than a decade. And then I remember it so clearly. In 1989, one skateboard came out that helped set the standard for the deck shape that we have today. And it totally changed the way its skaters have used their boards ever since.
Roman Mars: Okay. I am sold. Okay, tell me about this evolution. I cannot wait.
Christopher Johnson: Okay, so I want to go back for a second to when the sport of skateboarding really first started popping. That was back in the mid ’70s. Everyone was skating.
World Championships 1976: Skateboarding is now a new mode of motion here to stay…
Super Surfer 1975: Skateboards are here, and skateboarding is the hottest new sport to sweep the world. Every hill is a wave of motion.
Sean Mortimer: So, you have–in the late 70s–people are like, “Skating is big.” It’s this massive fad. And, you know, it’s a cool daredevil thing to do.
Christopher Johnson: Sean Mortimer is an ex-pro skater and a former skateboard magazine editor.
Sean Mortimer: Like, look at this new dynamic sport. And, you know, you can ride up in the air and be weightless, and it’s selling that aspect of it.
Christopher Johnson: Skateboarding was also being used to sell Pepsi and jeans and RC Cola, so there was a lot of money in skating. First ever World Championships, $20,000 purses–this was good money in the 1970s. I mean, this is good money now. It’s really good money in the 1970s.
Skateparks News 1978: If you happened to be in the skateboard industry, your biggest worry is counting your money. The skateboard business is enjoying spectacular prosperity…
Christopher Johnson: And Sean says what really helped drive the skating boom was this wave of skateboard park construction. 50 parks opened in California and Florida in less than two years, and there was no end in sight.
Sean Mortimer: Dentists and all of these people are being sold, like, “This is a great investment for your money. You can go build a skatepark. Kids love it. They’re paying to skate.” So pretty much all over the country would be these large concrete skateparks.
Roman Mars: So, what kind of skatepark should I be picturing here? Like, what do they look like at this time?
Christopher Johnson: Picture gently rolling hills, but made of concrete, and these structures that look kind of like bobsledding tubes, but where skaters could go up and down and up and down. Compared to the skating that you see today, ’70s skatepark action was gentle–maybe a little dangerous. I mean, kids were wearing pads and they were wearing helmets because safety first. But it was kind of like roller skating. It was supposed to be for everybody. And like Sean said, kids loved it. It was super popular, and it was super lucrative. And then all of a sudden–womp, womp–all of that comes to an end.
Sean Mortimer: It had got really popular and then it bottomed out. So it was like a fad, like the hula hoop or the pogo stick. And the pogo stick–if you told someone you were, you know, a professional pogo stick jumper, people would be like, “What?”
Christopher Johnson: The same went for skateboarding. All of the skating kids had grown up, and they’d stop going to skateparks. And all of those parks had closed up in just a few years.
Sean Mortimer: It followed the track of youth. Then you skate, and you love it. And then you get a car, and you get a girlfriend. So, you know, you had the ’70s boom, and then it died in the ’80s.
Roman Mars: Okay. So that was the end of this first wave of skateboarding, when there was a notion that it would be this mass, widespread, mainstream sport. But obviously IT didn’t die completely in the ’80s because otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it right now.
Christopher Johnson: Right. Right. So, it died as this trendy, all the kids are doing it, money-making sensation. But there was a handful of hardcore believers who really wanted this. And these were the ones, in the mid-1980s, who kept skateboarding alive.
Sean Mortimer: You knew in the early ’80s anybody who skated was sort of on that same wavelength because there was no future in it. You weren’t getting girls. You weren’t popular because you did it. You did it purely because you loved it.
Christopher Johnson: At the same time, all the parks are closed. So, these kids are really focused on finding and building their own places to skate. Like, who needs a skatepark? We’ll do it ourselves. And ramp skating takes over. And it becomes this whole process of free discovery. They’re building halfpipes, quarter pipes, and launch ramps. And this is all happening in kids’ backyards and on abandoned lots and stuff.
Sean Mortimer: That’s when they start hopping over fences and riding things that nobody ever imagined or before. You have empty pools. You have banks and schools. You have people going to ride giant pipes. And that is all innovating skating, the culture, and the product at the same time because there’s new demands on all fronts.
Christopher Johnson: So, this is the first half of the ’80s, and it’s really different from the skatepark era. No more gentle cement curves. These skaters are riding monstrous 30-foot ramps and flying ten feet above those. This is the age of big air skateboarding.
Roman Mars: Okay. So, the terrain has changed, but I was promised to talk about skateboard design. And so, what kind of decks are these skateboarders riding to catch that air? Have they changed to sort of accommodate this new use–this extreme use case?
Christopher Johnson: Right. So, by this point, towards the mid-1980s, they’d left behind the skateboards from the boom years. Those skateboards were small. They were these teensy things where your feet usually kind of hung over the sides. They were like these little toothpicks. And when you’re flying in the air, you need something big to land on. The old boards were just too tiny for all of that. So, skateboards start to get longer, and they get wider. And skaters actually called these new boards “pig boards.”
Sean Mortimer: At the time, there was a regular size, which was a 10″ x 30″ board. And that was sort of the standard that had stuck around for a while–very flat with a kick tail.
Christopher Johnson: And that kick tail, which of course was at the back of the board, is where the skateboard turns up kind of at an angle, like a lever. Every skateboard deck had one. But even inside of that standard shape–that 30 inch long by ten-inch-wide board with a flat nose and that upturned kick tail–even inside of that template, the design of skateboard decks really varied. So, for example, back in the day, if you were to stand on my skateboard… And since you didn’t skate, hopefully you wouldn’t completely break your neck. You look down, you’d notice one shape where the board bulged and curved and tapered in certain ways–maybe the nose was rounded off and the tail fanned out. So that would be one shape. And then you stood on my friend’s board–you’d see that their board was cut totally differently. This is a completely different shape. So, in the mid ’80s, boards weren’t just getting wider. Board design got super creative and individualized. Boards were coming out in all sorts of weird, specific, sometimes even monstrous, and hideous shapes.
Sean Mortimer: I mean, there was actually a board called the “Nightmare Shape” that is infamous for the craziest shit. It had all these, like, jagged angles on the side. And people were like, “Okay, now we’re doing stuff that doesn’t even… It makes no sense.
Roman Mars: And so, what was driving this? Was it, you know, this is what you needed to do fancy tricks on? Was it just the extremist that was coming up as kind of this cultural force that was blending skateboarding and the punk attitude that was pushing boundaries in every way?
Christopher Johnson: It’s kind of all of that. I mean, some of the boards were ugly just for the sake of being ugly. Just ugly for ugly’s sake. But some of it was functionality. There were skaters who had really specific shapes that were cut to help them skate better–at least that’s what they claimed. And then there was the whole marketing side. A lot of boards were and still are associated with pro skaters–kind of like basketball shoes. And sometimes you could identify boards just by their shapes, like, “Oh, that’s a Christian Hosoi!” or “That’s a Tony Hawk!” And of course, the more distinct your pro model design, the more your deck stands out, the more a kid can walk into a skate shop and point right to your deck like, “I don’t recognize your graphics, but I know your deck shape, and I want it.” I’m telling you, in the mid to late ’80s, some of these deck shapes were, for skaters, as iconic as the Air Jordan Jumpman logo.
Sean Mortimer: A big part of your identity as a pro was every board began to look a little different. So, it had a bit of character in it. It went from basically a generic, uniform 10″ x 30″ shape to a lot of personality on the side–all different sizes and shapes.
Christopher Johnson: But this wild and crazy world of diverse skateboard shapes–it would all soon be over. And that’s because the sport itself was changing so fast. And towards the end of the 1980s, a whole new form of skateboarding was blowing up. Kids start to realize, “Not only do I not need a skatepark, I don’t need a halfpipe or a homebuilt ramp or an empty swimming pool or anything. I can just go find a curve or a wheelchair ramp or an embankment behind a school. And I can just go nuts and come up with some cool tricks just using my city.” This was the beginning of what came to be known as “street skating.”
Sean Mortimer: All of a sudden, anybody–no matter where you were–you can get a skateboard. And you can go open your door and go skate. So, all of a sudden, if you lived in the city in a cramped area, then you had a skatepark right outside your door.
Roman Mars: So, is this still coming from, you know, that Southern California, Dogtown and Z-Boys, peroxide blond, floppy haired kids from the West Coast? Or is it spreading out to more of the populace at large?
Christopher Johnson: That’s a good question. I mean, that’s of course, where it begins. But then street skating, as this new thing, starts to get pumped out to the world. And that’s largely thanks to media. Big skate companies were putting out VHS tapes of street skating. Skate magazines were featuring street skating on their covers. There were even Hollywood movies. You remember Gleaming the Cube, Thrashin’, and even Police Academy 4? Well, they all had big street skating scenes. And so now more and more kids around the globe are seeing street skating. And this is when I got into skateboarding. And by the way, I have never been, nor will I ever be, a skinny, white kid with peroxide blond hair and Southern California vibes.
Roman Mars: Okay. Noted. Quick question. Okay. When street skating was first getting started at this time, what did it actually look like? What were the skaters actually doing?
Christopher Johnson: So, looking back to that era, as you might imagine, it was pretty humble. There were a lot of imitating ramp moves, like this one trick called a “streetplant,” which was an adaptation of a ramp trick. It’s sort of a one-handed handstand that you do on a street or on a curb. But the main thing was that for a lot of their tricks, street skaters were kind of just tethered to the ground. And that was mostly because street skating hadn’t quite adapted this one core trick called the “Ollie.” And this is where I have to get a little into the mechanics of skating, and I’ll try to make it quick.
Roman Mars: This is what radio was made for–to describe the mechanics of skating.
Christopher Johnson: Absolutely. Skateboard gymnastics. Exactly. It’s going to be great. The Ollie is the heart of skating. It is the most fundamental trick. It’s actually so essential that I don’t think it’s actually even considered a trick anymore. Basically, to do an Ollie, you have to snap the tail down with your back foot, which makes the board pop up in the air at an angle. And as the board rises, you’re also jumping, and you’re using your front foot to kind of guide the board as it lifts. This is why you need that angled tail to get that first pop in the air. So, it takes a little coordination, but the Ollie is as central to skateboarding as dribbling is to basketball. You just can’t do much without it.
Roman Mars: So then how does this trick–the Ollie–become integral to street skating?
Christopher Johnson: The Ollie was created on ramps and in pools. And for years, that’s mostly where it lived. Ramps gave skaters an extra little bit of jump for their Ollie. It was very hard to do one without a ramp. And that’s why the Ollie wasn’t really part of street skating until, sometime in the 1980s, a pro skateboarder, named Rodney Mullen, figured out how to do an alley on the flat ground.
Sean Mortimer: Rodney made a whole other plane that you could do tricks on because before, you were just kind of stuck to the ground. So, you’re doing maneuvers with your wheels on the ground the whole time. Rodney makes it so you can pop into the air.
Rodney Mullen: There was evolving a new kind of skateboarding where guys were taking it to the streets.
Christopher Johnson: Here’s Rodney Mullen giving a TED Talk in 2012, where he describes how skateboarders in the late 1980s were adapting his innovation.
Rodney Mullen: And they were using that Ollie–like I showed you–they’re using it to get up onto stuff, like bleachers and handrails, and over stairwells and all kinds of cool stuff. So, it was evolving upwards. In fact, when someone tells you they’re a skater today, they pretty much mean a street skater…
Christopher Johnson: It seems so basic now that most skaters today probably don’t even think about it. But Mullen helped street skaters figure out how to jump up into the air–high into the air–and onto things and over things. Mullen also infused street skating with all these really sophisticated, complex tricks that he’d invented–flipping and spinning and jumping in the air on the board in a million different ways, mostly just using your feet.
Roman Mars: Okay, so this is inspiring a whole new approach to skateboarding. The athletics of the sport have changed again. So, what does this mean for the shape of skateboards themselves? Like, at this point, how did they evolve thanks to these innovations?
Christopher Johnson: Okay, so a couple of things. First of all, street skaters didn’t need those giant boards anymore. They weren’t concerned with sticking the landing after flying 100ft in the air. For them, the Ollie is the main thing. So, what they really needed was a better tail that was more precisely angled so that you could get that good snap and lift. And because the street tricks were getting more sophisticated and technical with all the spinning and the flipping, the board shape needed to be way less fussy and cumbersome. It needed to be less weird and more streamlined and smooth. The skateboard was evolving fast from a big, clunky piece of self-expression to this elegant tool. So now it’s the end of the ’80s, and there’s been all these skateboard design shifts that have happened over the previous decade, decade and a half. And this is when it all culminates in a single skateboard model that arrives and becomes the template for the skate decks that we know today. There were three guys who really made this happen. First, there was this teenager from Edison, New Jersey who comes on the scene. His name is Mike Vallely. Fellow ’80s skate heads, chill! I know that we grew up calling him “vah-LAY-lee.” But “VAL-ah-lee”…
Mike Vallely: Hello, my name is Mike Vallely.
Christopher Johnson: Is how he says his last name. Mike was huge back then. He embodied that shift from SoCal surfer kid vibes to this grittier, more salt of the earth, East Coast energy.
Mike Vallely: I started skating the streets. That was the most exciting aspect of discovering skateboarding.
Christopher Johnson: Here’s Mike in a documentary about his career.
Mike Vallely: You didn’t need a swimming pool. You didn’t need to be in California under some palm tree. You could do that in Edison, New Jersey.
Sean Mortimer: He was this skinny, ratty kid who was obsessed with skating. And he shaved his head, which wasn’t common at the time. So not only did he have the skill set, but you looked at him and you’re like, “Oh, he’s not like any other skater.” So, he represented the new generation of what skating could be.
Christopher Johnson: And Vallely had other skaters around him who were pushing him to try new things. At the time, he skated for a company called World Industries, which was run by some very young skaters. World Industries was aggressive at taking on all the dinosaur companies like Powell Peralta and Santa Cruz. And they did it by poaching their star skaters and taking shots at them in their ads–just grimy stuff. And they were rubbing everyone the wrong way except skaters. We loved World Industries. This was the new energy, Roman. It was edgy, and their pros were sick, including Mike Vallely. He was amazing.
Roman Mars: So how did that World Industry’s aggro, punk attitude–did that affect the skating?
Christopher Johnson: Yes. So, the owner of World Industries was this guy named Steve Rocco. And he was really pushing Mike to try new things when it came to the way that Mike skated. Mike talked about this moment a few years ago on a skateboarding podcast called The Nine Club.
Mike Vallely: It starts with Steve Rocco believing in, you know, switch stance skating or skating in both directions as a future of skateboarding very early on.
Roman Mars: Okay. Switch stance skating. What is it? Can you explain it a little more?
Christopher Johnson: At this point, most skaters could only ride with their right or their left foot forward. And that’s called “directional skating.” Being able to do both–that’s switch stance skateboarding. It’s like being able to write with your left hand just as well as your right hand. If you could right switch, you could really expand your bag of tricks. And Mike wasn’t really into switch skating. And I don’t really blame him to be honest. Skating that way is very hard to do. And that’s partly because of the way the boards were shaped. Yes, they were getting a little smaller. And they were also more streamlined than those massive pig boards of old. But they still had a lot of the traits of the old school skate decks, like the flat noses in the front and the kick tails in the back. Those boards just weren’t built for switch skating. But despite Mike being kind of lukewarm about all this, Rocco–it probably won’t surprise you–would not let it go. And he saw an opportunity for World Industries to go all in on this idea of switch stance skating as the future of skateboarding. And he decided, “Let’s drop a pro model skateboard design that will really push the sport and, of course, his own brand forward.” And Mike’s name was big enough to get real attention and make kids believe in something that looked really different.
Roman Mars: Right. Right. So, Rocco was like a dog with a bone when it comes to this idea of switch skating because he’s got this thing that he wants to make and sell. So, what did they come up with to sort of push this idea of switch skating out in the world?
Christopher Johnson: So, Rodney Mullen was also skating, and he was designing skateboards for World Industries. He kind of took his expertise as this highly technical skater, and he merged that with his knowledge of other skateboard prototypes that were out there. And then in 1989, our star is born. Rodney created a pro model skateboard from Mike Vallely that has come to be known as “The Barnyard.” So, I’ll get to that name in a second. But there are two remarkable things about this deck. First of all, the shape. Instead of that traditional design with the flat nose in the front and an upturn kick tail in the back, this skateboard had two tails–one on each end–no more nose. The Barnyard had two kick tails, which is a design style called the double kick. And it was the prototype for the skateboards that we have today.
Sean Mortimer: It was such a large leap. And it kind of leapfrogged it over these incremental steps to get there that it took a while when you held it in your hand because you’re just so used to going, “Here is sort of the silhouette of a skateboard. You know, it tapers here. It’s directional.” And then you had this thing that to a certain extent looked like an uncut piece of wood.
Christopher Johnson: I have to say right quick, Roman, just as an aside, that this shape of The Barnyard–it was kind of a beast. Like, it was cut like a big rectangular slab of laminated wood with these slightly rounded edges. And both ends were turned up at an angle. No one had ever really seen a pro model like this before–definitely not Mike Vallely. And when Rodney brings it to Mike and he shows it to him, he’s all proud, like, “Hey, bud. Here’s your new pro model skateboard. What do you think?”
Mike Vallely: And I go, “I don’t know, dude. It’s hideous.” He goes, “Just try it. Just try it.” So I go, and I skate it. And it functions, and I dig it. And I skate really well on it. And I go, “Okay, let’s do it.” And man, there is no turning back. The board just went. It’s the best-selling board I’ve ever had.
Christopher Johnson: When Vallelys Barnyard Skate Deck came out in 1989, it was the first ever pro model, double kick board. And it was the first double kick that was mass produced.
Roman Mars: And what was it that drew skaters to The Barnyard? What made the arrival of this board so explosive–such a huge deal?
Christopher Johnson: So first of all, it was Mike Vallely’s star power. Plus, there was that innovative new shape. I mean, skaters immediately saw endless possibilities. And then on top of all of that, it had these wild, unforgettable graphics. So much of skateboard art today can be traced back to The Barnyard. Just like the deck shape heralded something new, so did The Barnyard’s artwork. That’s because up until The Barnyard, a lot of skateboard graphics had been like, “Oh, that’s a cool design. A hand that’s also a screaming face that’s got its tongue sticking out?”
Roman Mars: I know that one.
Christopher Johnson: Or you might see these grotesque, kind of goth style graphics, like heavy metal skulls or bulging eyeballs or flames shooting every which way. This was nothing super deep, but these graphics were totally different. They depict a barnyard scene with a bunch of happy, fluorescent farm animals. There’s a bright yellow rooster, a glowing magenta pig, a duck with a boombox– It’s a party. And all those bright, happy animals on Mike’s board–that art was a nod to Mike’s avid vegetarianism. In fact, one part of the artwork actually even says, “Please don’t eat my friends.” So instead of snakes or gargoyles or monsters, this was social commentary. This was a political cartoon on the bottom of a skateboard.
Mike Vallely: And when you look at the board and you look at the colors and you look at the lines and the energy of it, there had been no graphic–no graphic like this previously. This was the beginning of a different era in skateboard graphics.
Christopher Johnson: The Barnyard deck had been the catalyst for this whole shift. From that point, skateboard art really started to change. Graphics got more ironic, more irreverent, and sometimes more political. So, you can see why so many people–us skaters, the industry, everybody–we were all totally sucked in.
Sean Mortimer: You had this very strong personality coming through on a very strong graphic, in a very strong shape of a board. And so many people just wanted to be like Mike Vallely. They didn’t want to be like Michael Jordan–skaters–they wanted to be like Mike Vallely.
Christopher Johnson: So, in all of these different ways, Mike and his Barnyard skateboard–they help kick in the door and really change our sense of what a skater could look like, what skateboard art could be, and most importantly, what the board itself could help you do.
Sean Mortimer: The Barnyard announced that there was a new era of skating. And that was a really bold announcement. It was the extreme that came into the industry.
Roman Mars: So, it sounds like a perfect moment where there’s this business culture around, you know, innovation. There’s, like, new stars with different attitudes all coming together to sort of create this thing and push everything forward.
Christopher Johnson: Yes. And The Barnyard also supercharged this shift in the athleticism of the sport. Most skateboarders had learned to do tricks like the Ollie with only their left or their right foot in the back. Now, with two tails, maybe you could learn with both feet. And that’s just the beginning, right? And anyway, forwards and backwards kind of become meaningless with a skateboard like this. So, you’re really becoming kind of… What’s the foot version of ambidextrous? Ambipedstrous?
Sean Mortimer: By the time you get to The Barnyard, that is one that’s truly saying you can skate both ways. You can Ollie on your nose instead of just a regular Ollie on your tail. All of these tricks became different directions. You know, they always talk about the difference with humans is the development of tools and what that does to your brain. If you think of it that way, then you think of a double kick inspiring a skater’s brain in a different way.
Christopher Johnson: So, Roman, I remember–plain as day–when I first saw The Barnyard in real life. It was back in 1989. I was at my favorite skate spot, which was this place in Silver Spring, Maryland called the Armory. Today it’s a parking garage, but the old heads know we used to shred that place, Roman. We used to shred it. And then one day, this kid named Jack, who was already an excellent skater, showed up with this new board. And it blew everyone’s mind. I mean, we were all like, “What the hell is that that Jack is riding?” It looked like something from, like, the woodshop scrap pile. And then I remember Jack riding it, and he killed it. Like, he was doing old tricks in new ways and new tricks in crazy ways. It just upped his game amazingly. I was 13 or 14 at the time. And of course, I had no idea that I was basically looking at a huge design shift that was going to help reshape the sport and the design of decks for the next three and a half decades.
Roman Mars: Yeah. That’s amazing. Okay, so you were 13 or 14 when you first saw The Barnyard. And now it’s, you know, 30 something years later…
Christopher Johnson: Something, something, something…
Roman Mars: And so, was this the final step before we get to that popsicle shape that you described in the beginning–the standard skateboard design that you see everywhere today? Like, did The Barnyard really set the agenda from here on out, or was there more variation to come?
Christopher Johnson: So, before The Barnyard, skateboards came in all sorts of shapes and sizes. But then The Barnyard drops, and what had been this soft, malleable clay of skateboard design really starts to stiffen and become more fixed. The Barnyard became a prototype, which designers did still futz with, rounding out the tail and the nose and making the board a little skinnier.
Sean Mortimer: So, they made minor adjustments incrementally until you get what you get now, which is the popsicle. You could say the popsicle is the offspring of the double kick, and that is the stable. Basically speaking, most people ride popsicles. So, the double kick was sort of the parent of what we have now.
Roman Mars: And it really is just a pure design story. Like, the needs are pushing the tool, the tool is pushing what people can do, and this is feeding back into what people create. It’s so interesting. And then obviously the big leap is you take this thing out and you put a second kicktail on it, you know? But it does make me wonder if other things are possible. Like, is there something out there on the horizon that could change skateboarding again in a big way for another 35 years?
Christopher Johnson: You know, actually, I talked to someone about this exact idea. Her name is Betsy Gordon, and she’s a project manager at the Smithsonian, where she’s co-edited a book and done an exhibition on skateboarding. And Betsy brought up that skating right now is being influenced by these huge international competitions, like the X Games and the Olympics. And she said that might actually shape the future of skateboard design. So, when you’re not just skating with your friends outside of the DMV downtown, but you’re in these intense contests that demand super precise writing.
Betsy Gordon: That’s one way now to be a skater–to compete in this incredibly high, trick-oriented, performance-oriented level. And will we see something completely different? I think of, like, those ships now that sail in America’s Cup. They don’t look like a boat! You know what I mean? You’re like, “What the–?” Because you’re talking about wind and speed and velocities, it’s completely changed. They don’t look anything like a boat. So, I wonder–as performance starts driving skating, are we going to see a very different skateboard? I wonder.
Roman Mars: Oh, you could totally imagine some performance style skateboard that is as different from a regular skateboard as an America’s Cup sailboat is to a sailboat–that goes up like 100ft in the air if you go up a ramp or something like this. I never really thought about this. I mean, I’ve always sort of enjoyed the art and the athleticism of skateboarding, even from afar, as we established earlier. But it really is a good object to think about design as a whole. Like, I’m really happy about this. So, this was fun. Thank you.
Christopher Johnson: You are welcome.
Roman Mars: Every skater dreams of a great skate spot. Philadelphia had one for decades. It was called Love Park, and it was perfect until the city tore it down. That story after the break. According to Forbes, January is the hottest month for hiring. And business owners and hiring managers are on the hunt for top talent, which is no easy task. If you’re currently hiring, you can probably relate. It’s challenging to find qualified candidates. That’s why you need ZipRecruiter. ZipRecruiter’s powerful matching technology finds the right people for your roles fast. And right now, you can try it for free at ziprecruiter.com/99. How is ZipRecruiter so effective at finding top talent? Immediately after you post your job, ZipRecruiter’s smart technology starts showing you candidates whose skills and experience match it. And to encourage top candidates to respond to your job post even sooner, ZipRecruiter lets you send them a personal invite to apply. This month, find the talent you need to fill all of your roles with ZipRecruiter. See for yourself why four to five employers who post on ZipRecruiter get a quality candidate within the first day. Just go to this exclusive web address right now to try ZipRecruiter for free. It’s ziprecruiter.com/99. Again, that’s ziprecruiter.com/99. ZipRecruiter–the smartest way to hire. This is a 99% Invisible story from 11 years ago if you can believe that. It seemed appropriate to revisit it. Enjoy.
Edmund Bacon: Oh, God! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! My whole damn life has been worth it just for this whole thing.
Roman Mars: So, I was once walking the city with my friend, Kathleen, who is an environmental scientist. And she was pointing out the spray-painted markings of letters and arrows that you see everywhere on the street. The markings indicate where utility lines are running underground, so they’re not damaged by construction. And it turns out they’re color-coded by the American Public Works Association. Red spray paint means electrical power lines, and yellow is natural gas. And I’m looking this up now on Wikipedia because I don’t remember all the details. Green means sewage and drainage lines. So public works people and construction crews have their own lo-fi augmented reality scribbles right on the street, like a giant map in plain sight. It’s a different way to see the city. But it’s not just utility workers. The city also reads differently depending on your knowledge, your experience, or if you happen to be standing on a rolling plank of wood.
Andrew Norton: I’ve been lucky enough to go to these amazing places like Taiwan or LA, but I only ever get to see, like, the weird places the skaters go to, like industrial parks or some handrail in the middle of a school somewhere.
Roman Mars: That’s our guide today, skateboard photographer and radio reporter Andrew Norton.
Andrew Norton: My friend, Ariel, and I are skating in downtown Toronto, kind of carving through the big empty corporate plazas.
Ariel: It’s hard with the backpack. I’ll give you one of these, though.
Andrew Norton: To a skateboarder, the city looks different.
Ariel: Something I definitely always do is look for opportunities to skateboard. I can’t help myself.
Andrew Norton: We compulsively look for things like ledges or curb cuts–mundane stuff that people walk right past. But to a skateboarder, even a pole that’s been bent by a car is a thing to skate. So, you’re always on the hunt. Like, I’ll make my wife stop the car if I see something new. Dude, I even, like, when I’m watching movies, will be looking for spots.
Ariel: You look for spots in movies? Whoa. Andrew.
Andrew Norton: Like, I’ve watched The Simpsons, and I’m like, “You could skate that hubba.”
Ariel: You know what? I guess I do that, too.
Roman Mars: Wait, what’s a “hubba”?
Andrew Norton: A “hubba” is what skaters call a ledge that runs down a flight of stairs parallel to the stairs. And it’s named after a famous spot in San Francisco called Hubba Hideout. “Hubba” is slang for crack. So, I guess people used to hang out there–used to gather there–just to smoke crack.
Roman Mars: It’s particularly skateboard worthy?
Andrew Norton: Yeah, because it’s this perfect ledge that runs parallel down the flight of stairs. I mean, ask any skater. Go to any skatepark. You know, every skater will know what a hubba is.
Roman Mars: And that is how I’m going to exclusively refer to them from now on.
Andrew Norton: I’m always looking for things like that. Black wax caked on a ledge or wheel marks on a wall–these are little breadcrumb trails left by my people. And once you start following these trails, they’ll lead you to a turf war between the city and the skaters.
Ariel: Oh, this spot here. Have you ever skated this? This has long been known as a spot to meet up. And more recently, they put some stoppers on it to prevent people from skating.
Andrew Norton: So, skate stoppers–anything that someone might add to something we’d want to skateboard on to stop us from skateboarding on it. So, in this case, on these long kind of S-shaped granite benches that we’re looking at, they put strips of granite kind of running the width of the bench so that we can’t ride along the top of it.
Ariel: Normally people would be sliding on this and then hit this or grinding on this and then come to a stop against these. I imagine most people don’t know what they’re there for. So as skateboarders, I think we’re hypersensitive and very aware of these small things that get added.
Tony Bracali: Well, one of the most traditional types of things you’ll see will be some kind of a metal peg or raised metal attachment that is either built into a wall or attached to a wall afterwards. And what that does is it creates a discontinuous edge.
Andrew Norton: Tony Bracali is an architect from Philadelphia. He’s fascinated with how skaters interact with the city. And though he’s not a skateboarder himself, Tony’s always kept tabs on the types of anti-skating measures the city can deploy.
Tony Bracali: And then it gets more extreme and more ridiculous where, you know, there are companies that sell things that look like metal seashells and metal crabs that, I guess, for some reason are meant to be more aesthetically pleasing. I don’t know.
Roman Mars: Those aesthetically pleasing skate stoppers are all around the Embarcadero in San Francisco.
Andrew Norton: To Tony, the reason why modern cities are so perfect for skateboarding goes back to a French dude named Le Corbusier.
Roman Mars: Tony Bracali wrote an essay called Thanks, Le Corbusier, from the Skateboarders. In it, he contends that Le Corbusier–as the platonic ideal of the modernist architect, with his cool glasses and love of concrete–is the patron saint of skateboarders.
Tony Bracali: Modernists were the ones that reinterpreted a bench in a park as a slab of granite, reinterpreted, you know, kind of flowing landscapes, grassy areas as these kind of paved open plaza spaces. And it just turned out that wide open space with nice granite ledges at the edge made a really good skateboarding space. And who would have known?
Andrew Norton: The prime example of modernist landscape architecture that’s inadvertently perfect for skateboarding is Philadelphia’s Love Park.
Roman Mars: Its real name is JFK Plaza, but it’s called Love Park after Robert Indiana’s giant love statue with that slanted “O” that was put there for the United States Bicentennial.
Tony Bracali: In the center of Philadelphia’s City Hall. And if you draw a line from City Hall to the art museum, there’s a diagonal boulevard that connects the two. And along that axis is where Love Park was placed.
Andrew Norton: The two-tiered plaza takes up an entire city block. In the center, long, wide steps cascade down to a giant circular fountain. Above, on the main level, granite planters surround the plaza as well as lots of rectangular marble benches. It’s a space only a modernist or skateboarder could love. And it’s awesome for skating because you can do what we call “lines,” which is, like, a series of tricks. So, you could do, like, a switch crook on one of the benches and then a fakey tray flip. And then if you wanted to, you could do, like, a switchback tail on another part of the park. Oh, and the granite tiles can even be pried up to make little ramps to launch off of.
Roman Mars: The park was conceived by the late Edmund Bacon as part of his undergraduate thesis at Cornell. He later made the park a reality as the executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, with the help of architect Vincent Kling.
Andrew Norton: Ed’s been a big deal in the architecture world since the ’50s, when he shaped how Philly looks today. His vision for the city even put him on the cover of time magazine. He also happens to be the father of Kevin Bacon. Really.
Tony Bracali: Now you’re one level away from Kevin because you’re talking to me. Actually–wait–that’d be two, right?
Roman Mars: Actually, I think that’s four degrees.
Andrew Norton: This is the closest I’ve been in that game. That’s very exciting.
Tony Bracali: So, there you go, my friend. I’m happy I could help you there.
Andrew Norton: Bacon’s design turned out to be perfect for skateboarding. And in the ’80s, when skating took to the streets, the timing was perfect for skaters to claim Love Park as their own.
Tony Bracali: You know, there was kind of a suburban migration. There was less interest in density. And so, places like Love Park were kind of sitting there, not being used.
Andrew Norton: In the early ’90s, skaters started filming themselves at Love Park. And the videos found their way to the epicenter of the skate world: California. Suddenly, Philadelphia was a destination for skaters. And as the skateboarding industry grew, so did the popularity of Love Park. By the late ’90s, pro skaters moved to Philly just to skate it every day. They built their career shooting photos for glossy skateboard magazines of the park. You could even virtually skate there in Tony Hawk’s famous video game. So as an awkward 14-year-old passing through Philly on vacation, I was like, “Dad, we gotta go to Love Park.” So, I got to skate the ledges and stairs I saw in videos and on my PlayStation while my dad read the newspaper by the fountain. I wouldn’t be that excited again until I got my braces off. Even though Love Park was like Mecca, it was never legal to skate there.
Roman Mars: I don’t think it’s legal to skate at Mecca either.
Andrew Norton: Skaters would get tackled by cops, ticketed by undercovers, or have their boards taken away.
Police Officer: This is the Philadelphia Police! Leave the area immediately! Leave the area immediately!
Andrew Norton: And the area was gentrifying. Finally, in 2002, Philly Mayor John Street took the skateboard ban a step further and renovated the park.
Tony Bracali: The major thing that they did was they removed all of the granite benches–these great skateboard elements–and they replaced them with, you know, kind of Williams-Sonoma-ish-looking wood benches that look like they belong in an 1890s kind of park.
Andrew Norton: Disguised as decoration, the new features were meant to make it harder for skaters to use the ledges or to cruise from one end of the park to the other.
Tony Bracali: So, they took away the wide-open paved areas and tried to replace them with grassy spaces in between. You know, adding some landscaping–adding an actual lawn–was a good idea, but the design result was kind of horrible. It’s just a very uncomfortable space and not a space that people want to use.
Andrew Norton: People protested the renovations. There were rallies and newspaper articles. One story read, “The mayor blindly took a route of time-honored Philadelphia tradition in destroying a source of pride and fame hard-earned by its own citizens.” A big skateboard shoe company called DC even offered up $1 million to keep the park the way it was and to kind of offset any damages skaters might have done over the years.
Roman Mars: The city of Philadelphia declined the offer.
Andrew Norton: City councilors and architects like Tony spoke out, too.
Tony Bracali: There would have been a way to make some significant adjustments to Love Park that would accommodate other kinds of activities without totally compromising skateboarding and come up with a successful evolution of the space. I think that that would have been possible. I think politically that would have been too difficult.
Andrew Norton: Love Park drew people to the city. Philadelphia even hosted this big skateboard competition called the X Games the two summers prior to getting rid of Love Park. But, you know, unlike traditional sports, skateboarding is kind of hard to control and difficult to monetize. And that’s usually a little scary to the squares–but not to Ed Bacon.
Roman Mars: Bacon was thrilled that his space was evolving. Here he is from a 2006 documentary called Freedom of Space.
Edmund Bacon: I think skateboarding is a far more profound revolution than people give it credit for. The wonderful thing to me is that these young people discovered that they themselves would creatively adapt to the environment they already found and that it was their joy to adapt themselves physically to what was already there.
Andrew Norton: Bacon was so against the renovations and crackdown on skaters in his park that he staged his own protest. On October 8th, 2002, with the media there, two people propping him up on either side, and a blue bicycle helmet on, a white-haired, trench coat-clad, 92-year-old Ed Bacon rode a skateboard in Love Park.
Roman Mars: “Held up and pushed along on a skateboard” might be a more accurate description.
Edmund Bacon: And now, I, Edmund N. Bacon, in total defiance of Mayor Good–oh God–in total defiance of Mayor Street and the Council of the City of Philadelphia hereby exercise my rights as a citizen of the United States. And I deliberately skate in my beloved Love Park. Oh, God! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! My whole damn life has been worth it just for this moment.
Roman Mars: The ugly pink planters and William-Sonoma benches still grace Love Park. But so does a plaque memorializing Ed Bacon. And people still skateboard there. And they still get chased by cops.
Andrew Norton: Skaters now figure out ways to work around the redesign–something Ed Bacon would probably be proud of. Love Park isn’t the iconic spot it used to be, but skateparks started copying features from its original design. There’s a good chance that if a skatepark was built in your area in the last ten years, it’ll have a knee-high, modernist style bench–or maybe even those same cascading long steps, like the ones at Love Park. You also see things like hubbas, like we talked about earlier, or even a low block of concrete beside a small set of stairs. We call that a “Pier 7” ledge, named after another San Francisco spot. These are all design elements that were dreamt up by some well-meaning city planner. And they’re now worshiped by skaters.
Roman Mars: Tony, the architect we heard from, is now working on a skate friendly city plaza that’s right near Love Park.
Andrew Norton: I got to admit, part of me thinks these designated places to skateboard kind of missed the point. It’s like running a marathon on a treadmill. It’s not exactly the type of thing that’ll get you on the cover of Runner’s World. But guys like Tony are legitimizing skating to designers and to architects. He gets it. A skatepark is now something that real architects can have a hand in. But part of the excitement of street skating is happening upon that spot that wasn’t meant to be skated but seems like it was built exactly for a certain trick. It’s like found art. That’s why we’re still hunting for spots in the streets. Pro skaters now fly to China for three weeks at a time to skate the new, sprawling, marble plazas that seem to pop up there on a daily basis. And because skateboarding isn’t as popular there, the war on skaters hasn’t seemed to reach China yet.
Roman Mars: Modernist architecture appears, then skaters, and then skate stoppers.
Andrew Norton: And in a way, without really knowing it. We’re kind of critiquing the design. Skaters say, “We don’t care what you made it for. This is how we’re using it.” And when you land a trick there, it’s like a secret victory. You put your own mark on a place.
Roman Mars: And now even us squares can read those marks, too. That story originally aired in 2013 and was produced by Andrew Norton and Sam Greenspan. 99% Invisible was reported this week by Christopher Johnson, edited by Emmett FitzGerald. Mix and sound design by Martín Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Joe Rosenberg, Gabriella Gladney, Kelly Prime, Sarah Baik, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. I also want to give a quick shout out to The Nine Club podcast. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. If you haven’t already, pick up your copy of The Power Broker by Robert Caro, and you can join our Power Broker discussion book club. New episodes come out every month right here on this feed. You can find us on all the usual social media sites. Plus, we’ve just added a new 99PI Discord server. So come and join me and the rest of the team to talk about Power Broker. You talk about architecture, talk about books, and talk about movies. As long as you’re nice, you can talk about whatever you want to. You can find a link to that as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.
LeVar Burton: Hi, it’s LeVar Burton. I’ve got a brand-new podcast called Sound Detectives. It’s a comedy adventure about the magic and mystery of sound, and it’s fun for the whole family. In this world, sounds have gone mysteriously missing. Follow Detective Hunt and his sidekick, Audie the Ear, as they track them down and find the nefarious Sound Swindler–all with a little help from me, LeVar Burton. You can listen to Sound Detectives on SiriusXM, Pandora, or wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to follow the show so you never miss an episode. Sound good to you? Sounds great to me.