Revolution Houseby Daniel Friedman, images by Gavin Scott / 10.01.2011
A grungy, old building in the Maboneng District is buzzing on the Day of Reconciliation, there are skaters testing moves on the ramps on the bottom floor, and a Christmas party at the top. It’s called Revolution House, and is set to become the home base of Joburg skate culture. For now, though, it’s thoroughly dilapidated and derelict. But its four stories plus basement and rooftop will, in time, boast a fully functioning skate park, which will be free to use, as well as a new Revolution Skate Supply warehouse, band rehearsal rooms, artist studios, live-in studios, event spaces, a coffee shop, a rooftop bar and more.
Which all seems particularly ambitious when you see what the space looks like at the moment. Travelling up the stairs my olfactory senses tell me that they had, up until now, been used as a toilet. Up at the top we find an exhibition of skateboards designed by various artists and Crash Car Burn performing an acoustic set to a handful of punters (it’s pretty early in the afternoon). Across the road, at the Bioscope, there are screenings of local skate doccies throughout the day. Later on Rambling Bones will be doing his thing. While one gets the sense that there’s quite a way to go, there’s clearly a vision being implemented here.
This vision is the gentrification of local skating culture, and sees wiz-kid 27-year-old property developer Jonathan Liebmann, the driving force behind all the developments at Arts On Main and its surrounds, acknowledge young people and skating culture, and include them amongst the arty shops, studios, restaurants, loft apartments and concept stores that form an impressive, bourgeois oasis amidst the chaos of the Joburg CBD. To this end, he has partnered up with Clayton Peterson, a very logical choice – Peterson founded Revolution in 1999 and has been skating for 23 years (since he was 11). “Everything I’ve ever done revolves around skating, music and the arts”, he says.
Liebmann’s eagerness to bring youth culture to the area coincided with a plan Peterson had been wanting to hatch. “I had this idea, it was something I’ve always wanted to do, and Jonathan had just acquired the building and wanted to bring skate culture to the area, so it just came together, it was a marriage of thought. Jonathan had been to Venice Beach in Los Angeles and he’d seen what the skate parks there had done for the culture in the area. We’re trying to achieve something similar here”.
I head downstairs and check out the skaters. Man, some of them are young. In a way, they look the same as skaters always looked, edgy, unselfconscious and focused on their boards – they’re there to skate, foremost, any socialising is secondary. I smile at a kid, he doesn’t smile back. I suddenly feel old, until I realise that, even when I was their age, I was an outsider when it came to skate culture. I was never hardcore enough and, more importantly, had way too little co-ord to pull off any moves. One thing that has changed, though, is the demographics. When I was a kid skating ‘round these parts seemed very much a disenfranchised, white thing. Now it’s far more representative of Joburg’s different cultures.
Thinking aloud, I mention to Peterson that it’s impressive how multicultural this all is compared to when I was growing up. To me, these kids epitomize the whole post-apartheid, born free thing. It’s not that they’re trying to be mixed, it’s that race isn’t an issue. But Peterson says that’s just the way skate culture has always been. “I’ve never noticed race being an issue in skateboarding, there was always so much adversity and resistance towards the culture from outside, so the colour of one’s skin was the last thing people worried about. You bond over skating, you’ve got that commonality, and that transcends those boundaries. It’s always been the kind of culture that if you’ve got nowhere to stay other skaters will take you in, it’s shared in the surf culture I think, that sense of brotherhood and camaraderie. I can’t remember one racist incident involving skating in my whole life, it’s not even an issue. When ego comes into play race comes into a play, but if people bond over creativity, whether its artists or musos or skaters, then that stops being a point of difference”.
But Peterson concedes that it’s more mixed now than when he started out. “I think it was largely seen as a white man’s sport because boards were really expensive,” says Peterson. “Because of sanctions it was really hard to get a good board, there were huge duties you had to pay, and it was hard to get your hands on the magazines that influenced us and exposed us to skate culture. Also, the different races didn’t mix that much in those days so all the different cultures were kept separate. Now they can influence each other. It’s awesome that it’s now so much more accessible and mixed”.
But if skating is more accessible these days, it has also lost a significant chunk of its rebellious edge. “It seems it skating was more punk in the 80s and 90s because it was more white” explains Peterson. “Now you’re being exposed to a lot of influences you wouldn’t in the past, and skating is far more influenced by hip-hop culture. I wouldn’t say that takes away from its edge. I think it’s just a different edge”.
But I think what I’m trying to get at, rather than the hip-hop thing, is that while back in the day you had to be really committed to skate, because it was so much harder, now you can just head to the nearest mall, get decked out and become a skater. So surely that makes the culture softer, more accessible and corporate. “It’s true that people are a lot more catered to and spoilt for choice now, and from that perspective the market is a lot more passive” says Peterson. “But by no means is skateboarding fully accepted and respected, we still get guys trying to fuck us up, security guards and cops giving us shit, and as long as authorities remain negative to the culture skating will always remain rebellious. I think the commerce of it has changed but not the culture”.
All images © Gavin Scott.