Skateboarders have an uncanny understanding of space, and their ability to physically navigate, respond to, and try to control a portion of the urban landscape is unparalleled. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they are resourceful builders too.
Photographer Richard Gilligan has spent five years documenting the DIY concrete venues, parks, and spaces that skaters have cobbled together for themselves. He traveled all over the country and across Europe, snapping portraits of storied skateparks from Brooklyn to Belfast and from London to Warsaw. Gilligan’s lens not only captures the gritty beauty of these untamed landscapes, but they also pay testament to perseverance and to the scruffy DIY ethos that drive these skating communities.
Unlike most other subcultures that embed themselves and their activities easily within a city’s spaces (or if need be, move their operations underground), skaters rely on the above-grade, asphalt-and-sidewalk fabric of the urban environment. The open-air geometric concrete plazas, the intricate webs of infrastructure, and street furniture are all inherently skateable, even if that eventuality had been expressly designed out. What may seem to the pedestrian, say, a needlessly long interval of hardtop or treeless expanse, or an overly fragmented set of spatial transitions, are for the skateboarder a series of skateable moments linked together.
But this creative license of urbanscapes has rarely gone appreciated by city planners, district politicians, corporate entities, and preservationists who, citing property damages and disruptive behavior, have driven skaters from city centers. Where cyclists have been embraced (admittedly, after much struggle) as "legitimate" urban constituents and given their own traffic lanes and protected by laws, skateboarders have been forced to operate at the fringes. Cast out as undesirables, they’ve learned to fend for themselves, Gilligan tells Co.Design: "It takes time, dedication, and a great deal of stubbornness to become a skateboarder."
Given this turbulent context, the culture breeds a camaraderie that makes such homemade skateparks possible. "These skateparks have all been built by the hands of the skaters themselves, often illegally and in locations off the beaten track," Gilligan says. Places such as Philadelphia’s FDR skatepark—where skaters were driven out of downtown five miles south to a ravaged site in the shadow of an interstate overpass—were literally built from the ground up, often exclusively through the efforts of the skaters themselves. (In the case of FDR, the city had initially built a small park of haphazardly scattered concrete pyramids but it was virtually unskateable.)
FDR followed the DIY example of Portland’s landmark Burnside skatepark, which has become a kind of concrete mecca for skateboarders around the world, including Gilligan himself. His interest in photographing the landscapes of skateparks began at Burnside almost a decade ago, and it would prove a guiding inspiration later when he launched his "DIY" project.
As he traveled from site to site, Gilligan noticed certain similarities that linked the geographically disparate parks. In many cases, the "skateparks" were actually isolated cement elements cast into a natural landscape. He recounts: "What I found interesting as a photographer was the ramshackle nature of these humble structures in direct contrast to everything that surrounds them." In Oxford, a concrete bowl, poured on-site by skaters themselves, is grafted onto grassy hilltops, while in Hanover a series of ramps are fenced in by tall grass.
"Some people have likened it to wild animals building dens in the wild," the photographer says. "I really love that comparison—skaters have been turning shit situations into positive outcomes since day one. They look at the world around them with a cunning and imaginative eye."
For Gilligan, whose formative years were shaped by skateboarding, the culture helped him forge his own path in life. "I would never have picked up a camera had it not been for skating," he says. His photographs offer a privileged look into the skateboarding world; the images, notable for their detail and for the perceptive grasp of the sociocultural divides that shape urban life, are colored by his own experiences. "I have met most of my closest friends and have experienced adventures and cultures in all four corners of the world as a direct result of skateboarding. For better or worse, it made me the person I am today."