Blood and Steel screens at the Roxy Thu., June 21, at 7 PM.
On a recent Sunday afternoon at the Mobash skatepark under the Orange Street bridge, my 5-year-old daughter stood on my tattered old skateboard, gripped my hands and let me roll her across the flat concrete at the edge of the bowl. Other girls, a few years older, sped past us, and a few dropped into the bowl with fearless ease. The occasion, an event called Girls on Shred, was part of a series hosted by longtime Missoula skateboard shop Board of Missoula and led by the shop’s Samantha Veysey Gibbons, with the aim of encouraging girls to get on boards early, build confidence and take on an activity that has been pretty dude-centric since its origin. There were boys there, too, and fortysomething men and women who had grown up street skating in an era when skateparks were nonexistent, or at least rare. In those days, skateboarders got cited for jumping stairs in front of downtown banks, and “Skateboarding is not a crime” stickers read like calls to arms. The Girls on Shred event, in contrast, felt like a blissful, sunny day at the playground. Inclusive. Family-friendly. Innocuous.
The history of skateboarding and, in particular, the history of the skateparks at which shredding pioneers first created the sport’s rules of etiquette (and broke them) is easy to romanticize. The skateboarding culture of the 1980s is especially compelling because it developed in the hands of kids disenchanted with the Reagan era and fueled by a soundtrack of punk rock and hardcore. The 2017 documentary Blood and Steel: Cedar Crest Country Club, which has its Missoula premiere at the Roxy on June 21, chronicles the creative, aggressive evolution of what might be considered the golden age of skateboarding. Footage shows boys doing tricks on ramps while their friends look on, mouths agape, eyes wide.
Specifically, the documentary captures the scene that developed around a large metal skatepark built in the woods of Cedar Crest Country Club in Centerville, Virginia — a seemingly unlikely location for an activity that was widely viewed as barbaric at the time. While straight-laced golfers putted around the course, skaters at the park were blasting Minor Threat and dropping into the half-pipe, sometimes three, four and five at a time. There were rules, but there was also room for chaos, and out of the chaos a culture of music and art was built. As one of the film’s former Cedar Crest skaters puts it, it was “a sanctuary. It was a place of peace and a place of rage.”
In Montana during the 1980s and 1990s, skaters were more isolated from the broader culture, but they were still tuned in through magazines like Thrasher and skate-centric zines such as NRG and Mental Violence. And when they came across each other, Montana skateboarders found an instant connection.
“Being on the fringe in a small town in Montana, pre-internet, it was like once you found that fringe, it was powerful,” says Missoula photographer and skateboarder Andrew Kemmis.
Several of those Missoula skateboarders, including Kemmis and Board of Missoula owner Chris Bacon, grew up to found the Montana Skatepark Association, which built Mobash, and has raised more than $1 million to help fund skateparks across the state. Most recently, MSA raised almost $51,000 at their annual On Deck skateboard art auction. That money is going to a new skatepark in Hamilton, which should be finished by fall. MSA and Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament, who also funds Montana skateparks, are also working on a new park with the skateboarding community of Livingston.
“It’s a million miles away from what anybody who grew up skating in Montana thought we would be, ever,” Kemmis says. “It went from getting chased off the campus of the University of Montana to being welcomed by the city of Missoula and the state of Montana.”
Skateparks still give rise to culture, but it’s a different kind of culture now. Today skateboarding is more mainstream, which means the people doing it come from a variety of backgrounds and bring wide-ranging interests with them. Not everyone’s listening to skate punk anymore, but skateboarding still binds people together. Type #mobash on Instagram and you’ll find plenty of videos showing people doing tricks and sharing the thrill of launching themselves onto a deck and barreling across the concrete. (Just 20 years ago, if you wanted to capture your tricks on video, you’d need to be either sponsored or have access to one of those bulky VHS cameras.)
What’s more remarkable than social media posts, though, is that a skatepark can only be experienced offline. In that sense, going to a skatepark for the afternoon can be akin to an act of rebellion. Studies show that people often respond to surges in technology by going the other direction, embracing tactile activities and finding real-life spaces to interact with others. Mobash is an example of that.
“To me, it’s like just having that meeting ground, that clubhouse vibe, you know you have a place to go,” Bacon says. “That really helps. It grows organically on its own, and instead of just always meeting up at a different spot, people go there and it becomes its own little world.”
Kemmis says that Montana’s skatepark scene is distinctive due to its isolation from big-city culture.
“We’re the frontage road of the highway of the world. It’s like we’re on our own program,” he says. “Everyone here is nicer and more down-to-earth, and so skateparks in Missoula, Stevensville, Havre, Glendive, Big Sandy, create this thread where everyone feels welcome.”
That’s true during Girls on Shred day, too. That day, after taking a ride around the park, my daughter and her friend sat on her skateboard to watch the action. Everything was fine until a runaway skateboard smacked her in the shin. She started crying, and someone handed her a cold can of LaCroix, which she held against the injury. Kim Peterson, MSA board member, came up, smiled, and told her, “You got your first shark bite.”
“Shark bite?” my daughter said, her voice still quavering. But she was clearly intrigued by the idea. Later, she went home and told everyone about it, showing off the rosy bruise with pride. You could tell the idea of the shark bite felt deliciously dangerous to her. She spent the next few days on the skateboard, balancing in the grass and on the carpet, telling me (though I already know) how to flip the board by stomping on the tail. She’s learning the language of the clubhouse, and she wants to go back.