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New England American Studies
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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dani Abulhawa's (Pop Culture and Identity) Post

In a broad sense, my area of research for the conference is in looking at how specific topographical features and landscapes produce and are visible within cultural narratives. More specifically, I’m using skateboarding and it’s origins within the physical landscape of 1960s LA as my example.

The cultural myth at the centre of my research is the documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001). You can have a look at the trailer for the film here: 'Dogtown and Z-Boys' trailer on YouTube

In the documentary, the origins of contemporary skateboarding begin not, as you might expect, with the production of the skateboard, neither with the Z-Boys themselves – this comes a little later. Rather, it begins with a place, ‘Dogtown’, which is defined as an area within Los Angeles county consisting of three beach communities: South Santa Monica, Venice and Ocean Park. 

When I began analysing the documentary, as a sub-cultural creation myth, I expected to discover inherent codes of behaviour and attitude, which corroborated the range of existing research into skateboarders and skateboarding and my own experiences as a British skateboarder. Things such as, rebellion against a perceived mainstream, the rewriting of dilapidated or ‘edgeland’ (Shoard 2002) urban locations as productive play spaces, participant control (Beal 1996) and supportive/competitive homosocial group dynamics (Borden 2001). I also expected to learn more about the relationship between skateboarding and surfing, since what marked the Zephyr team as different from mainstream skateboarding in the 1960s, was their crouching, gliding and generally surf-inspired approach to movement.

What came as a surprise was a particular strand of the narrative that suggests the major significance of simulations of topographical features and landscape to the progression of skateboarding, and an inescapable sense of ‘flow’ as a defining characteristic of the subculture.

As someone whose first-hand experience of skateboarding is based entirely in the UK, when analysing Dogtown and Z-Boys, I couldn’t help but feel like somewhere between LA and the UK, this particular narrative strand had become transformed.

This has led me to consider a number of questions, which I’m hoping to explore in more detail in preparation for my paper in November. These questions are quite broad; I was hoping that perhaps people reading this might have ideas about some of these questions and examples they could raise either inside or outside of a skateboarding context:
ª      How might place contribute to the development of cultural identity?
ª      How might the topographical features and landscape of a place appear within cultural narratives?
ª      If specific cultures are closely linked to landscape, what happens when these cultural narratives are adopted in other places?
Also, because I’m thinking about how place relates to cultural narratives and identity, It’s tricky for me to think about the larger scope of national narratives, since nations consist of such a diversity of places and landscapes.

These are the main questions and concerns I’m working around at the moment, and I’m really keen to hear any perspectives.

Dani Abulhawa, University of Chester


  1. Hi Dani,

    Your questions about the connection between landscape, cultural identity, and cultural narratives reminds me of surfer culture. In the U.S., surfers are sterotypically California or Hawaii bred, blonde, tanned, with a certain way of speaking. It's not realistic-- people surf all over the coasts of the United States, and not everyone looks-- or even desires to look-- like that mythic surfer, but the myth persists nonetheless.

    With skateboarding, having grown up on the East coast, I hadn't identified it as a California cultural phenomenon. Here on the East coast it is a bit goth, a bit edgy, and skaters are in constant search of space to skate. The contentious relationship between skaters and their communities, and law enforcement, sort of defines the identity of the sport.

    So, with your work being transnational, it would be interesting to see if such a thing as a "skate culture" exists, or if it is a culture of subcultures, in which skaters and their identities are always dependent upon their landscapes. As with all cultural narratives (religious, ethnic, region, etc.), I suspect it will be the latter, though there may be some overarching similarities across regional, and perhaps even national, borders.

    Laura D'Amore
    Roger Williams University

  2. Hi Laura,

    Thanks so much for your response.

    Your comment about whether such a thing as a "skate culture" exists made me think of a couple of sources I've explored, which talk about skateboarding developing through four 'waves' from the 1960s to today. These four waves are marked by a shifting skate culture that moves through 60s surf-inspired 'sidewalk surfing', to the second-wave invention of vertical and ramp skateboarding in the 70s (through the innovative use of backyard pools during periods of drought). In the third-wave, Throughout the 80s and 90s, skateboarding became more focused on the streets, rather than sanctioned spaces, and was defined by the aggressive 'skate and destroy' mantra. The fourth wave is said to be defined by an 'extreme sports' mainstreaming (Lorr 2005 and Brooke, 1999). In terms of my own experience within the UK scene, it feels as though there is a tension between a mainstream co-option of skateboarding and a 'skater-owned' grass roots subculture. And, like you've mentioned, there is a definite contention over skateboarders use (or abuse) of 'public' urban space.

    This over-arching description of skate culture's four waves does tend to neglect the detail; the subcultures within this well-defined temporal narrative. In the research I've done so far, there is a sense that UK skate culture has followed a similar run of waves, except at a delay from the USA-orientated chronology put forward by Brookes and Lorr.

    I'm really interested in the micro-narratives that might come out of focusing on relatively small geographic and localised areas, and in seeing how the imagery within the 'Dogtown and Z-Boys' narrative plays out when it's extended beyond that specific physical LA landscape.

    I've not found anything that contests the 'Z-Boys' narrative of skateboarding's history, I don't suppose you know of anything deriving from the East coast that might offer an alternative view?

    Kindest Regards,