Decamot of the month

30 Nov 2019-The Nearly True Story of a London Skate Park

One man's act of vandalism is another man's freedom of expression.

I first became aware of the Southbank Skate Park near the IBM office shortly after I started working there over 15 years ago, although at the time it was little more than an abandoned covered market. I’d gotten into the habit of getting to work early and having a run along the Thames before breakfast. One morning I noticed that an impressive amount of graffiti had appeared on and around the building virtually overnight.

I've been interested in creative and artistic graffiti for quite a while: I'm a fan of Banksy's work and have even taken a holiday in Berlin specifically to look at the graffiti painted on what's left of the west side of the Berlin Wall. The East Side Gallery, as it’s known locally, boasts everything from Dali-esque melted clocks to the iconic East German Trabant apparently driving through the wall.

Southbank’s outdoor artworks may not yet be quite up to those standards, but I’m sure they will be in time.

I went back later that day during my lunch break with a camera, and that’s when I first encountered the skateboarders. I was approached by the largest and eldest of them (who called himself “Hawk”) and had to assure him that I was interested only in the artistry, cared not at all about the illegality, and wasn't a drug lord touting for business.

I subsequently found out from Hawk that they had broken into the site expressly for the purpose of practising their skateboarding. “Seemed a shame to waste the space,” he explained. The graffiti that had originally interrupted my morning’s run was another of their creative hobbies.

Since that first meeting with the skater-painters, I’ve regularly been an inspector of their work and play as I go for a lunchtime stroll. Over time, they’ve added props and equipment to skate and jump over. And, of course, they’ve become ever more ambitious with their wall art. Soon, it was not just me that came to enjoy the performance art: Tourists started to stop and take photographs of skaters and artwork alike. Consequently, the site became better and better known. Soon a parkour crew turned up. They liked the potential of the site for practising their urban gymnastics, and also liked adding to the graffiti.

Interestingly, both groups (skaters and parkour participants) got on quite well, each watching and applauding the other’s athletic talents, and happy to wait their turn to paint on the wall. The site is conveniently situated alongside a broad pedestrianized pathway running alongside the Thames, so there’s plenty of waiting room and plenty of space and obstacles for the urban gymnasts to leap, vault, balance on, and somersault over. Before long there were plenty of “Yo, bro!” greetings and appreciative fist bumping, much to the delight of the awaiting tourists.

This led of course to more and more tourists watching. To try to cope with the numbers, the council initially installed a rope to separate tourists from performers. That rope has long since been replaced by a more solid and more permanent low metal barrier, which in turn provides an excellent rail for BMXers to perform peg slides.

For at least five years the popularity and scope of the renegade Southbank skate park grew and grew. But then things nearly went horribly wrong. The Southbank Centre wanted to build on the site. They boarded up the skate park and painted over the graffiti.

What happened next was truly remarkable. An organisation calling itself Long Live Southbank sprang up and they started a campaign to preserve the site for skating, parkour, and painting. A piece of graffiti appeared on the newly whitened wall. It depicted a stylised skull (made up from the underside of a skateboard) and underneath skull, the unofficial slogan of the campaign: “Death comes to those who wait”, i.e. if we do nothing, the park will close.

The key to the success of the campaign to save the skate park was Long Live Southbank’s petition. It was widely supported by the local residents and businesses alike. The petition ultimately got over twenty thousand signatures (I signed it, as did many of my work colleagues). It should really come as no surprise that the skate park is popular with local businesses: it attracts tourists, and tourists spend money.

Due to the popularity of the cause, the London Mayor finally stepped in to declare it a protected site. This should really come as no surprise: it attracted local support, and the locals vote in London Mayoral elections! The Southbank Undercut is now recognised as one of London’s skate parks, and Southbank Centre's development work has had to be re-planned.

As for Hawk, the skater-painter that I first befriended, he departed the scene several years ago. He enjoyed liberating the unused space below the arts centre but lost interest when it became acceptable, saying it no longer felt “edgy”. He was last spotted breaking into an abandoned supermarket in East London.

Inspired by the following Decamot items: key, abandoned supermarket, drug lord, brother, rope, a wall, broken clock, inspector, waiting room, "death comes to those who wait"