Style in Skateboarding: An Interpretation

Style in Skateboarding: An Interpretation

Skateboarders seem to judge each other's style according to an undefined standard. The notion of style and its importance probably extended from surfing to skateboarding. Obviously, style is subjective. Then again, when you see it and recognize it, most people within the community would agree that a certain rider has "good style." I remember maybe Chad Fernandez getting interviewed at the X-Games in the late 90s or early 2000s and he was asked, "What's more important, style or technique?" A question that apparently divided skate fans in the 80s between rooting for Hawk or Hosoi. 

I always felt that style took priority over technique. But the subjectivity of style makes that black-and-white split kinda irrelevant. Consider Hawk and Hosoi. The height of their popularity was before my time, but I have consumed enough content involving them both that I believe I can form some kind of opinion. Hosoi is widely considered a master of style, because he went fast and high and expressed his rockstar attitude through a minimalist trick selection. Also because he marketed an image that relied heavily on a cool-guy persona and what seems like some bullying. He was a fashion influencer, too. Hawk, on the other hand, focused his expression of self on complicated technical maneuvers that required a deeper understanding of skateboarding terminology to be fully appreciated. He also went fast and high, but his attitude was not as bad-boy, it was more nice-fella intent on proving his worth by way of pure skill. 

The public images of Hawk and Hosoi, interpreted through skateboard lore, form a classic good vs evil dichotomy. If you wanted to be gnarly and sexy and high on substances, you supported Hosoi; if you wanted to listen to obscure New Wave bands and were a skate nerd, you liked Hawk. Hosoi would have been the epitome of style and Hawk of technique. But this, in my interpretation, is too simplistic.

I've heard Hosoi talk about how he measured greatness on a skateboard as a vert practitioner by analyzing how close to the coping someone landed on their way back into the ramp after an aerial. When I watch old videos of Hosoi, he was clearly an expert at that exact positioning. Which is to say, he perfected his aerials from a technical standpoint, in addition to executing airs with attitude and flair, like a dancer. Hosoi's stylishness is undeniable, but the viewer or fellow skater has the option to buy into its reality or not. You are allowed to question if the character of Hosoi is what you want to believe in. Personally, not being part of the 80s skate scene, his persona seems very cartoonish. But I like watching Hosoi's skating because it's fascinating to analyze his technique. Even if his trick selection was considered simple, relative to other approaches, the precision that he possessed with regard to launching and landing is difficult to fathom. His relationship to physics and speed appears to be mathematical and obsessively calculated, even if he played it off as innate. What supports this theory is that he doesn't seem to have slammed a lot, even when he was at his peak. His style, as people understood it, was as a carefree, high-flying rocker who lived in a hedonistic atmosphere, but he wasn't nihilistic. The simplicity of his trick selection, his prioritization of precision, his lack of acceptance of failure and injury, and his disinterest in taking chances actually translates into a sort of artistic conservatism. 

Hawk, meanwhile, was not as interested in repetition and perfectionism as much as progression and differentiation. His obsession in the 80s seems to have been fundamentally challenging the physical assumptions of the practice of skateboarding. Rather than honing in on a small batch of maneuvers that were guaranteed crowd pleasers, because of their obvious impressiveness to the informed or uninformed, he sought to build a new physical vocabulary. As Rodney Mullen said, the language of skateboarding literally defines the action, which is similar to science. Hawk was not only fluent in that language, but was intent on adding to it. His commitment to advancing the possibilities of the discipline appears to be focused on the technical aspects of skateboarding, but that is just from a surface-level perspective. By virtue of his total commitment to expanding the language of skateboarding, using technique foundationally, he ultimately developed a more nuanced style overall. His style comes through his skating via the complexity of his trick selection. Hawk relied on his intense focus with regard to execution and landing, which nearly eliminated the need or reflex or expectation of emotiveness. His stoicism and utter dedication to progression and differentiation is, from a stylistic point of view, extraordinarily compelling because of the richness of the creativity behind the skating. And, Hawk is known for his horrible slams that are a result of his total acceptance of the consequences of the infinite risks he takes. He seems to thrive on the thrill of possibly failing and getting annihilated because that's the space he must inhabit in order to push himself further. Which is actually a sort of definition of gnarly. 

Some skaters believe style is defined by minimalism, attitude, and persona. Others see style as that indefinable quality a certain skater has by virtue of their approach in totality - their uniqueness. Like with any other product-based industry, marketing trends have a major impact on these perceptions and judgments. What is style today will not be in a year. Style and its interpretation fluctuates. And there will likely always be those who just go by "I know it when I see it." 

On the personal side, my style and approach to skating has also changed over the past 25 or so years. The clothes I wear, the tricks I do, the spots I pick, the frequency of my skating. That's always changing. I would say most people interpret my skating as style-forward, but I actually conceive of my skateboarding as very technical. Maybe the sign of a mature skateboarder is learning how to match your style to your technical capability within the limitations of your skill level. One thing I do aim to accomplish with my skateboarding is subtle variation. I am not a consistency enthusiast. I do not get a rush out of doing the same tricks. I find joy in chasing a new skate experience, even if I skate at the same few venues. The challenge for me is coming up with a different way of approaching the same obstacle or obstacles, and trying to see how long I can do that before I run out of ideas. At the same time, I maintain a purposely minimal repertoire of tricks to cycle through, because I value the pairing of stylistic simplicity with complex maneuvering. I try not to repeat myself as much as I can, unless I am trying to expand my capability with a certain trick on a specific type of obstacle. But, as a whole, my approach has always been a bit of rob the bank and get the hell out of there. Once I do the trick, especially if it is physically risky, I don't intend to do it again for a long time, or ever. 

Like anyone with any interest, I go through phases and I don't have control over their duration. Sometimes I want to do big stuff that can lead to injury, other times I don't feel like getting hurt at all so do what I anticipate won't put me out of commission. I usually encounter some pain no matter what level of skating I told myself I would sign up for on a given day. I fall quite a lot. If I don't sustain an acute type of injury from a single fall or a couple, I'll walk away from the session with a fatigue-related injury, like an overworked muscle. Even though I am not as hard on myself as I used to be when it comes to performance expectations, and I assess the way my body feels before I skate and consider how I want to feel after in relation to the rest of my life, I still usually get hurt. A skater's creative intent seems to be tied directly to their style and therefore also to how prone they are to injury. 

I probably used to consider the various levels of injury I endured as a meter for reading my progression. Like, if you're not hurt you're not skating hard enough. Now, I have more of a read-the-room view on my skating. If I'm up for going for it, I will. If I'm not, I won't. If the wind is harsh on a cold overcast day, I'll adjust my trick decisions based on those conditions, because they affect my mood and my motivation. The less force, the better. Finding harmony with my body, the weather, the trick, and the obstacle is my ultimate goal. It's difficult because the factors are unpredictable. Sometimes I'll be pushing through discomfort with a trick for so long that I just keep going because of the time I've already invested. Ideally, I can stop myself from going too deep before it gets to that point of no return. Sometimes that works. I change it up and respect the failure. Sometimes I fail knowingly and want to test myself to see if I can accept the failure without feeling disappointed in myself. I believe that is a good practice, too. 

When I am evaluating style, I interpret a skater's movement on the basis of deliberateness, willingness, and the unknown element. By deliberate, I am referring to the aspect of their physical execution that suggests the most control. What is the skater negotiating in the moment with some essence of consciousness? Willingness is the depth of the skater's commitment, evidenced by a certain absent and nearly-blind affect in their eyes. Do they appear to inhabit the moment so consciously that they are almost not present at all? And the unknown element is that force of the body's movement associated with the coda and/or landing of a given trick. Are they surrendering their body to the natural rhythm of the movement, or are they working against their innate rhythm to convey a mannered flourish? 

I also want to acknowledge that looking at skateboarding through such a filtered critical lens of context and embodiment is not required. If you don't break down another skater's movement in that way or a similarly complex way, you can still undoubtedly enjoy and appreciate skateboarding. One of the more intriguing qualities of skating is that any given rider's personality is conveyed through their skateboarding. It doesn't matter what level of experience. However, the difficulty and awkwardness of the skill of skateboarding requires that you engage in embodiment. If you are not present, especially while learning the basics of how to move on a skateboard with fluidity and comfort, you will fail. In this way, it is possible that skateboarding demands the rider to present an honest version of themselves. If a seasoned skater adds a mannered flourish to the end of their trick, to the trained eye, that unnatural addition reveals their desire for approval or acceptance. That is what skaters call "fake style." Even with fake style, which could be termed dishonest, you can see pretty deep into who that person is. With those less experienced, you can see their style when they stumble or adjust in search of fluidity of movement. How you hang on, how you survive on the board, especially outside the zone of comfort, shows a truer style, an honest snapshot of the skater.

There is no correct way to define style in skateboarding. That said, the culture of skateboarding seems to attract people who wish to argue over topics like style, as if there were an actual standard. Style is important to skaters because it is a gauge of their personality, artistry, courage, and mindfulness. In some instances style is connected to the breadth of a skater's imagination and creativity. The precision, wildness, or haphazardry of a skater's style allows others a glimpse into the human behind the movement who is temporarily obscured in the moment of expression. That unknown element of humanness mixed with the transformation that comes with embodiment in motion reveals an honest form. For some reason, that temporary final form inspires passion. Perhaps all human beings crave this type of embodied consciousness, which is why games or arts involving athletics appeal to such a wide audience and stir deep emotional responses. 

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