An Essay on the History of Freestyle Skateboarding by Bob Staton

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In the early days of skateboarding, imitating surfing was the only "style" of skateboarding that existed. Most skateboarding was done by west coast beach city kids under 14, known at the time as gremmies, short for gremlins. For the first year or two, no respectable surfer would spend any real time on a skateboard. However that quickly changed as the gremmies started showing style on the clumsy 2x4's and also bombing big hills for the rush. I saw kids in the late fifties that were doing hot "all about surfing" routines on their 3 ft plus long 2x4 boards with steel wheels. I never saw anyone in the beach cities riding one of those now famous little red boards, that were considered a toy and a joke if you rode one.

In 1960, a friend of mine named Jeff, told me about a skateboarder (actually we were not called skateboarders at the time but rather "a guy with a skateboard") that could with his feet "make his board turn around by lifting one end up and setting it down then lifting the other end up and keep going". Jeff could only describe the guy's skateboard as "a shorter 2x4". For me historically, and I have not heard of an earlier such story, this marked the beginning of freestyle skateboarding as being clearly and distinctly different than surfing imitation or hill bombing skateboarding. I was very excited about this news, and the idea of the skateboard taking on a creative form of its own and now being exploratory in nature. I rushed right home and started designing my first freestyle board, which I believe to be the first true freestyle board ever. My board was a 6" by 18" by 1" cedar plank that was perfectly round on both ends and had perfectly straight sides. I got a really fresh top quality roller skate sawed it in half and attached it to the bottom and started out thinking up anything I could, if was really fun. However, I never rode it in front of my skate buddies for fear of ridicule.

With the introduction of the clay composite wheel in 1962, freestyle technique flourished and spread to other areas around the world where the surf culture was active. Soon skateboarding teams were developed by major surfboard companies to do demos and promote the skateboard products. Makaha was the first real skateboard company, that is, a company that was serious about the engineering and quality of the skateboard and its functionality. Makaha Skateboard Company put on the first skateboard contest ever in the school yard of Hermosa Beach Jr High in 1964. This was considered just a skateboard contest, the definition of freestyle was not around yet, but that is what it was, flatland freestyle. Back in that day you were either one of those guys that did tricks and 360's or you were still bombing hills. Many basic freestyle tricks were developed by the team skaters of the early and mid 1960's, and what we would now call freestyle remained the dominate contest form for the rest of the decade. The later years of the 60's saw the Viet Nam war draw a lot of young men from the beach culture and skateboarding went into a slump. A few surfer skateboard riders remained active to stimulate new paths of creativity in freestyle, downhill, pool riding, slalom and bank riding. It was around this time that the term skateboarder emerged as an identity separate from the surf culture. Freestylers like Russ Howell and Bruce Logan were blazing trails through the remaining days of the clay wheel era introducing music and routine and setting the stage for the revolution of the urethane wheel.

After the invention and marketing of the Cadillac urethane wheel in 1973, and the power of self-expression it gave to the emerging artists of the early 1970's, Freestyle then entered the "Golden Age" and remained the dominate art form in skateboarding until the end of the decade. This was the era of Ty Page, Steve Day, Ellen O'Neal, Stacy Peralta, Russ Howell and many others whose signature moves gave them a lasting identity in freestyle history. This decade of rapid improvement in product design and manufacturing allowed talented freestylers to develop to higher artistic and skill levels so that some of the fundamental tricks and techniques invented by champions like Bobby "Casper" Boyden and Steve Day, are still a part of today's street, vert and freestyle skateboarding. Around the end of the 1970's, mostly due to the laws effecting skate parks, skateboarding in general was starting another slump. Freestyle however, remained healthy as a competitive activity and then produced some of its greatest innovators in the early 1980's such as Steve Rocco, Rodney Mullen and Primo. This period also saw the rise of exciting new international stars such as Per Welinder, Pierre André, Shane Rouse, Kevin Harris, Frank Messman, YOYO Schulz, GoGo Spreiter and others.

The intense commercialization of street style and vert in the late 1980's, as a means to shore up the again slumping skateboard industry, lead to the near disappearance of freestyle by the year 1991. With the contest scene gone and sponsors almost non-existent, only a handful of true die hard freestylers remained active in the 1990's. Among these heroes who carried the torch through the dark decade, please stand up when we call your name, were Kevin Harris, Primo and Diane Desiderio, Dr. Bill Robertson, Russ Howell, Stefan "Lillis" Akesson, Richy Carrasco, and a few others, some of a lesser God like myself, and an occasional lone individual from some dark corner of the planet who never knew the difference.

In 1996, Stefan "Lillis" Akesson went on-line with the International Network of Flatland Freestyle Skateboarding. The INFFS became the place for the remaining freestylers of the world to gather, and soon a small but steadily growing forum developed. By 1999, a few of the top freestylers in several countries were again doing demos and appearances. This was a flicker of new energy so Dr. Bill Robertson decided to put together a World Freestyle Skateboard Championship and Reunion. This historical event was held on the evening of November 11th 2000, in a dark damp warehouse on the docks of San Francisco Bay. Twenty or so proud, but somewhat rusty freestylers competed in several events that night. Only one light burned and a funky radio was the sound system. What little light and warmth there was seemed to come more from the skaters that the feeble equipment.

The energy and excitement generated by the 2000 San Francisco Reunion led to the founding of the WFSA, World Freestyle Skateboard Association, in January of 2001, by Bob Staton with Lillis and Dan Gesmer. The WFSA was the pro-active extension of the INFFS and was intended to be a vehicle for the revival of the freestyle world. As the INFFS, WFSA and the F-forum grew the revival picked up momentum. A new generation of freestyle activity emerged as numbers of both young and longtime freestylers began to again produce modest contests around the world. Demos and jams sprung up as new freestyle based companies such as 360King, YOYO Skates, Reverse Freestyle and Casper Industries began to play a more significant role in the expansion and re-popularization of flatland freestyle. By 2002 a number of freestyle web sites had come on-line to further fuel the growing interest and meet the demands for more knowledge, imagery and comradery. The production of new freestyle videos by Lynn Cooper of Reverse Freestyle and Darryl Grogan of Casper Industries began the process of developing the new image of flatland freestyle by blending stars from the past such as Pierre Andre and Rodney Mullen with emerging stars like Tim Byrne and Terry Synnott. New national freestyle organizations and groups are now forming like the British Flatland Skateboard Network and the German Freestyle Skateboard Association, to assist the development of local freestyle activities and bring attention to top emerging international freestylers and activists such as Boris Schwemin, Lele Barbato, Lewis Hand, Bernhard Kuempel, Paul Bakker, A.J. Kohn, Uffe Hansson, and others. Because of the dedication of many new freestylers and the introduction of the world wide web as a means of instantaneous communication, and just because it's a great art form, and is so darn much fun, the dynamics, creative possibilities, stylistic variables from classical 70's to contemporary flatland, will insure that the art of flatland freestyle will become a much wider spread and practiced activity than it ever was before.


Bob Staton, May 2003