by Tafadzwa Gambiza
GET YOUR POPCORN READY FOR THIS ONE! – We are so “stocked” to give you an exclusive with Canadian skateboarding veteran, Vaughan Neville (A), who sought out to transform the skateboarding scene in his home country and abroad through advocacy and lobbying. The following is a transcript of the conversation he had with our SPoTLIGHT writer, Tafadzwa Gambiza (Q). *Some words were censored for your reading pleasure*
Vaughan nose sliding
Q: It’s such a pleasure to host you on SPoTLIGHT, thank you for making the time. You are generally considered a skateboarding veteran in Canada, you helped change the skateboarding culture in Taiwan for the better and recently made efforts to connect with skaters spreading the shred across the world. What motivated you to start?
A: I would say my father instilled my passion for politics and activism from as far back as I can remember. He was very active in his generation, read a ton of heavy books, of all kinds, wrote a ton of articles, for union magazines mostly, he wrote poetry, and eventually a book – a politically charged murder mystery right before he died. He was very progressive, a democratic socialist basically. He took me to various protests all the time. I clearly remember sitting on his shoulders looking over the crowds. They were mostly for issues around women’s rights, racial injustices, labor rights and so on. He taught me all about the importance of activism and advocacy in general. He definitely made me who I am today in terms of social awareness.
And I guess my motivation comes mostly from a sense of wanting a better world, just knowing one is possible – a tolerant, supportive, just world. And from seeing positive outcomes when the effort is put forth and sacrifices are made, even if it seems like things takes forever and you hit road block after road block. Every improvement, every benefit, every civil right, every advancement in our collective daily existence came from people who fought shoulder to shoulder together, and sacrificed their time, and in some cases even own their lives, to achieve something better, not just for themselves, but for everyone. So it is hugely important to stay vigilant, be aware and stand ready to step in and help move conditions forward and keep them forward as much as possible. “When the people do well, we ALL do well”… that kind of thing.
To me, I “identify” as a skateboarder first and foremost. Skateboarding is something I have come to understand well, and I have seen with my own eyes how it can literally save lives and improve lives…because of course it very likely saved mine. More than once. It’s not just a sport or an art, it’s a lifeline for so many, and fit’s those that need it like a glove. It’s efficacy is clear as day. So naturally I want to see it become accessible to all that could really use as it as a lifesaving medicine, and grow healthier, both mentally and physically. The benefits are limitless.
Oh….and …well…. also because it’s just so damn fun….that too you could say!
Q: Wow, that’s definitely inspirational! I understand that you have been skateboarding for many decades now, what changes have you seen from your early days till today?
A: My Dad gave me my first skateboard in the summer of 1986. Vancouver had just hosted Expo ‘86, and with its main theme being transportation that year, it included skateboarding as one of the events. I think as a result of this, skateboarding in Vancouver saw a brief boom in its popularity, not seen since the first country-wide boom of the 70’s. However the act of skateboarding on the street was a bit of a PR nightmare. It was still viewed by the media and the general public as an actual menace to society, not the accepted and healthy activity it has come to be seen as today in most places.
Admittedly however, many of us liked it that way because it was the “bad boy” characteristic that made skateboarding extra attractive to those of us who were individualists or the rebellious type. It simply fit some of us, like a favorite pair of shoes.
The mid-eighties were a time when skateboarding was cool again, and took on an even more anti-establishment tone than the hippy/surfer vibe of the 70’s before it.
Municipal governments were implementing more bans and restrictive laws, and wanted nothing to do with building “skate parks”. They’d rather see skateboarding die out like some short-lived fad and go back to team sports like hockey or basketball. But all the banning mentality did was make skateboarding even more popular in the eyes of the youth. The irony of this punitive approach was that conflicts were exacerbated, mainly because there were not enough “skate parks” built to facilitate its sudden growth and popularity. We spilled out on to the streets everywhere. Besides the old-style bowls leftover from the 70’s generation, by 1990 Vancouver STILL, after almost a full decade, had no skate parks that satisfied the needs of modern skateboarding (a kind of skateboarding that had advanced way beyond the tricks of the 70’s and most of the 80’s.) The public streets and private property of businesses were the only places to skate at that time, and there were mounting tensions between us and the authorities. Fights with security guards and police issuing tickets and even arresting kids were a weekly, sometimes daily occurrence.
There was mad beef.
After years of advocacy work, by myself and others, pleading and pleading to the city about the need, and trying to educate whoever would listen, a few parks FINALLY started getting built in the late 90’s, slowly, one by one, each one an epic battle, by skaters and bikers for many years to get the government to approve and build just one new modern park. And still we needed to keep pushing them for more. And more came once they too saw the need. But there were immediately more problems. At that time of course, there were no “skateboarding architects” or “skate park contractors”, as there are today. Back then they simply did not exist!
Jim Barnum, who would grow up to become Spectrum Skate Park Creations was still a teenager, slowly learning AutoCAD from his dad. Kyle Dion who would grow up to become what is now New Line Skate Parks was still building half pipes, out of wood, in run-down warehouses for basically nothing while chairing the Vancouver Skateboard and BMX Coalition (the VSBC) [now the VSC], advocating intensely for parks to finally be built.
As a result of not having skateboarders at the design table or supervising on the construction site, the parks that got developed by non-skateboarders were totally dog sh*t!! Some almost not even worth going to sadly. So we mostly stuck to the illegal street skating which still had much more to offer us. So saying that we had some growing pains back then would be an understatement!
But….by the early 2000s, and after years of organizing, and maturing as a whole, learning from the past disasters and mistakes, we had mostly fixed these problems of design and construction, with the invaluable help of skater-owned companies like Spectrum Creations and New Line. These companies continue to innovate even today, and bring on new designers, and from what I’ve seen (and skated), the future is bright for parks and plazas all over the world!
Shang Ollie Channel WinHs in Road Park
Q: It’s actually interesting that you’ve such a vivid memory of how the skate scene has developed over all those years. Skating is one of the fastest growing art forms, sport and culture (all in one). In Zimbabwe the pace seems to be a bit slow, how was your experience like in Taiwan – was it the same?
A: In short, yes. But each country is so different, the reasons for a scene being “slow“, differs from country to country. Each country has its own unique challenges in growing its skateboarding popularity and population. Zimbabwe’s skateboard journey, if I had to guess, is going to be more similar to the way skateboarding grew to become what it is today in Canada. In the beginning you’ll likely be faced with long drawn-out struggles to get the public to respect and understand skateboarding. It will take time and energy to convince the public that it is, in fact, a very healthy and sometimes essential life-saving activity!
However the difference between Canada’s skate history and Taiwan’s are immense.
As a Canadian, what I saw in Taiwan was very different, and a very interesting case study on corporate exploitation and expropriation of our beloved culture of skateboarding. Skateboarding was growing naturally in Taiwan but was managed from outsiders and “harvested” prematurely, in an attempt to profit off the street credit we possess by default.
I first arrived there in 2001, I was 21 years old. Out to see the world by earning a living teaching ESL. I brought years worth of skate stuff, 5 pairs of shoes, couple trucks, bunch of wheels, a shit load of decks, not knowing if skateboarding even existed there. Turns out there were indeed some Taiwanese skaters and there were some skate shops, and some pretty decent ones too. However, skateboarding in Taiwan, as one might expect, was very small, almost non-existent.
There were even some skate parks already, mostly steel framed structures covered in plywood and sometimes with a top layer of a plastic-based sheeting. And the weirdest thing was, they had these really intimidating and advanced competition-style courses and were pretty intimidating for the talent that had existed at the time. 95% of skaters in Taiwan we’re just beginners or intermediate at best.
For example, in almost every skate park there was this huge vert ramp just rotting away in the rain, and bleaching in the hot sun, in a place where not one person had ever dared dropped in on one let alone skate one coping to coping! Here was a government, building these monsters waaaay ahead of demand! It was a strange thing to see.
On the surface it looked as though the government was this really progressive fun-loving, health-conscious type that was down with helping skaters but clearly just needed some outside help to perfect it. I was thinking, “Great!”, they could really use some help with better, more appropriate designs and materials, and right away I started gearing up for some of the same advocacy work I’d done in Vancouver. I was very upbeat in the beginning, hoping to greatly improve their designs and thus build a much stronger scene there. I was confident they would greet me, (and the VSBC), with open arms!
I immediately asked the local skaters who I should start talking to. They said that’s easy, you just need to talk to the “Chinese X-treme Sports Association”. (A weird name for a Taiwanese Association…. but OK…)
To make a long story short, they were not even skateboarders, nor were they BMXers, or rollerbladers, or anything of the grassroots variety I was used to back home. They were the opposite of us. They were literally a top down operation with no apparent connection with the youth or skateboarding culture. Just a bunch of phoney government chronies with cushy loyalty appointments. In this case, the “X-treme Sports” division?
To put it simply, they appeared to want nothing to do with outside help or input, and everything to do with holding on to their lucrative government position, taking corporate sponsorship money from the likes of Mountain Dew, Phillips, LG, Addidas, companies that long to be associated with skateboarding’s coveted street credit and unparalleled youth appeal and typically expropriated our naturally-occurring “cool kids” image.
This blew me away! I was shocked and horrified, frustrated beyond belief. But most of all I was deeply offended. The money for these fake parks kept going down the toilet, and curiously never seemed to stop flowing. Each one a worse design than the one before it. Some designs, like old and outdated versions of bootlegged “X-Games“ courses (all with a full-sized vert ramp included), were just copied from one small town or city to the next, like a cookie cutter, so there was literally no real reason to travel to any of them. Seen one, you’d seen them all. A huge waste of money, I could not believe my eyes! None of these kids could skate this stuff yet, and here they were putting on these contests, some of which were televised, and treated skateboarding like we were monkeys in some kind of circus act, all with the end goal of helping sell ad space to these non-skateboarding companies trying to profit from our cool vibe as “sponsors” of “our” scene. It’s was exploitation, and expropriation mixed with classic corruption. A triple whammy!
The kids didn’t notice it happening but I could tell the skaters were losing confidence as time went on. This was not helping grow skateboarding in Taiwan, it was actually hurting it, sucking the life blood out of it, and holding back a lot of precious progress. That’s when I and some local skaters started the Taichung Skateboarders’ Association – The TSA. All in an effort to simply be heard, that’s it, that’s all we basically expected out of the situation. Then maybe down the road we could attempt to turn the situation around, and essentially take our rightful power back. It was essential for these CXSA **** to go.
Vaughan – Nose Sliding
Ironically, a place where there is no government support may help a place like Zimbabwe. Skaters in Zimbabwe may not have to wrestle for control like in Taiwan, as in many respects, without corporate sponsorship, the power is still in your hands. The downside of course is that you have to find almost all the money for a park, all on your own. This takes more time but is more meaningful and appropriate to the local needs when you finally get achieve a park or plaza.
Q : We hope the best for the Zimbabwean skate scene as it embarks on this long journey, I hope the skaters are geared up for it. Moving on, every skater out there wants to be tagged Pro [ Pro Skater ] but you choose to dedicate your time to spread the culture throughout the globe. What are some of the challenges you are facing?
A: The challenge is in communication. Not just language, but culturally too. Some countries, where skateboarding is very new, often only view skateboarding based on what they see on TV, usually from the big international televised events like the X-Games, SLS or Red Bull competitions. They see a very small aspect of what skateboarding can be and is. But the longer they participate, the more they realize it’s so much more and is so much richer in culture than first meets the eye. For many skateboarding becomes their daily medicine.
Q: You mentioned culture, and in Zimbabwe skateboarding is still not recognized as a sport later alone a culture or subculture. In our effort to bridge this gap, we run a project called Skate Zimbabwe and I understand you have been supporting similar efforts across the globe. Tell us more how you’re doing this?
A: Honestly? My advocacy across Africa never would have happened if it wasn’t for a totally random live video stream that showed up on my Facebook feed one morning. It was of Gose Gerald from Uganda showing the skateboard contest that he and his volunteers put on at the Skate-Aid park there. I couldn’t believe my eyes and immediately reached out by typing out messages of support and telling him how much of a great job they were doing with what little they had. It truly touched me to core, and lit an old flame in me that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Shortly after that exchange I started the Worldwide Skateboard Advocacy Platform in the form of a Facebook group to help connect all these worldwide efforts to grow skateboarding and promote its efficacy as a societal and social problem solver. Now we have about 200 members checking in weekly for all the updates and they fellow all the progress that’s been happening, learning more about helping their own scenes the process.
Q: Among other great guys, Gose has definitely been doing major things not only in Uganda, but even for the good of African skateboarding. Skateboarding in Zimbabwe is seen as a culture that has a bad influence to the community because it may seem reckless sometimes. How can we improve the attitudes of people towards our skate culture?
A: The longer skateboarding grows without a legit place to go practice, the more intense the conflict with the general public will become. Before a park arrives, you will be forced onto private property or onto the street.
As you know, skate parks take a very long time and a lot of energy to actually succeed in being created. But that doesn’t mean you need to wait for that day to gain the much deserved respect. In fact, you can greatly expedite the process a number of ways. Besides learning from other places around the world, you can simply start by putting on fun events, proving you are organized and fun for anyone and everyone. Include yourselves in other unrelated events as well wherever possible. Show that you are just as much a part of the community as everyone else. That you ultimately belong, and that the community benefits from you existing and is in no means a sign of it failing. You must win their hearts and minds, and if done well, it is relatively easy when you put your best foot forward. And teach! ALWAYS teach skateboarding to those around you!
Q: Those are some great gems of wisdom there!
The world is facing a global pandemic. We are seeing more virtual games and conferences. Is this is a positive trend for the culture or for the culture to spread does it require purely physical interaction?
A: This interview happened because of the internet and the good it can do. On the other hand, if you are only in there to play Skate 4 and not actually skate then we have an obvious problem. It’s give and take there. All I can say is the African skate scene has recently benefited hugely from internet friendships like this one. And will continue to!
Q: I can’t agree any less with you, the power of internet has proven to be very significant during these pandemic times. In Taiwan there are quite a number of pro skaters who are also sponsored and we can see big brands in Taiwan like Levi’s and Vans. What do the skaters in Zimbabwe need to do to get these brands sponsoring skaters?
A: Time, exposure and a market for the goods sold in your country. For now I would strickly focus on having FUN instead of clothes or shallow imagery. What you don’t want is a whole crew of handsome looking posers.
As the age-old saying goes “Shut up and SKATE!” Only then, do the sponsors come!
Front Side 180 – Zhong Xing
Q: You mentioned earlier that there are a lot of positive things that come with skateboarding, how has the culture influenced Taiwanese society?
A: Impossible to say for certain, I would like to think it has helped hundreds of kids, boys and girls, find their passion and learn never to give up on their goals and not feel like they need to fit within the mould set out and predetermined by traditional society. I hope it has given some youth a fresh and inspiring perspective which in turn should benefit the country as a whole.
Q: Thank you once again for taking your time to speak with us man, we are so pumped to have you feature on SPoTLIGHT! Any last words or words of encouragement??
A: Don’t stop learning, knowledge is power. Connect with like-minded groups, organize and most importantly ACT. And never give up no matter how slow progress seem to occur. Progress is always a process. Follow through all the way to the end… and then keep going.
Keep up the fight!….the future of skateboarding is always bright!