Mike Vallely : On Not Being Broken

A promotional photo of Mike Vallely

Sleetswept post-industrial cityscapes and the re-purposing of inhuman urban architecture for joy and funtimes.

If it were merely a case of dustbins with googly eyes painted on, we’d piece together something on Art is Trash and consider the visual aspect of citizens retaking the streets thus satisfied. A picture of Art is Trash by Francisco Pajaro

Instead, we focus on a skateboarding clip. Not even a new one, but a piece of film and music that niggles at the consciousness too insistently to be dismissed as another choppy product placement typical of the skate-clip genre.

Culture is an agglomeration and reflection of that which we are and aspire to be, its forms of expression the word, the image, the musical phrase, the visual sequence. That its dominant form is tending towards the five-minute YouTube clip is not the erosion of a more refined society, but the redistribution of the conduit to its primary source of material. As a complementary element, neither the selfie, the retweet, the GIF, the Mpeg, nor the meme pose any danger to the high cultural aspirations of the human race. That only comes when one replaces the other.

Which is one of the reasons why Trebuchet’s otherwise lofty culture section is, on this occasion, being devoted to a somewhat grandiose promotional video from a skateboard company.

Mike V’s full-body,

aggressive approach…

has always teetered

on the edge of

bonecrunching disaster

Some backstory is needed at this point. Mike Vallely, the protagonist, has never been as easy to pigeonhole as other skaters. At 44 years old and still skating hard enough to be relevant, Vallely’s force majeure approach to the sport does not have the technical precision of a Nyjah Huston or the huge airborne aplomb of Tony Hawk.

Even twenty years ago, Vallely’s defining style was not in boosting 720 degree spins out of thirty-foot megaramps, but instead the ability to somehow force overhead airs out of knee-high kickers.

Like his skating style, Vallely himself is somehow out of step with the general flow. Temporary frontman for Black Flag, ex-professional ice-hockey player, prizefighter, and spoken-word activist – the New Jersey searcher has made his own interesting times. In appearance more Wyoming bullrider than scrawny kickflipper, an unwillingness to play the compliant competitive skater role has seen him featured in ignominious walkouts from sponsorship deals aplenty.

And so, unsponsored, older, and with a reputation for being difficult, in 2012 Vallely launched Elephant Brand Skateboards. Reflecting their creator’s mien, the boards didn’t conform with the shapes and styles most common in the industry. An uncommon juxtaposition of 1980s outlines with the technical features of the modern popsicle shape, the decks reflect a dip into skateboarding’s past that pulled out some shred of its soul.

For retailers, marketeers and distributors, it was  a non-standard product fronted by a talent that, at best, could be described as ‘cult’. A gamble.Elephant Brand Streetaxe

The video opens with Vallely’s journey to the Bright Trade Fair in Berlin, with flesh to press, flowcharts to be perused, marketshare projections to be assessed.

At which point the narrative flow of the clip becomes tonal, implied. We follow our protagonist wandering the trade fair, alone: a grizzled veteran backgrounded by the pubescent faces of sponsored pros leering from a DC Shoes poster. We are given to infer that there is nothing of lasting worth to be found here, nor even the vestigal traces of old-guard loyalty.

Ben Harper‘s lyrics lay it on thick:

Give and you give and you give till it’s gone,
Then the people you fight hardest for
Say you’re wrong

Action-sports megacorporations duly demonized, Vallely takes to the appropriately bleak and inhuman streets of Berlin. For those unaware of such vagaries of fashion, the tricks performed are hefty, physical manouevres: a boneless lofted out of a pedestrian underpass, a grudging handplant onto an architectural pillar, an unadorned railgrind.

The pernickity multi-rotation tricks of pampered teens on polished-surface pay-to-play skateparks are the implied contrast; a section of the skateboarder’s art that, whilst valid, suffers from overexposure and dearth of flow/soul.

In keeping with Elephant Brand’s lowtech marketing approach, the penultimate section of the clip sees Vallely connect with his potential customers, taking a cue from Music 2.0 (or is that vice versa?) and making those connections from the bottom up. Perform, perform, perform. Mike V’s full-body, aggressive approach to skate furniture has always teetered on the edge of bonecrunching disaster, which is what makes him so compelling to watch. Credit goes to the video editor for synching that no comply/tailslide over the halfpipe gap with Harper’s OTT guitar crescendo.

At which point, the traditional promo skateclip would have finished. So well-worn is the visual vocabulary of the genre that skateparks worldwide resound with the cry of ‘that’s an ender!’ at any moment a kid captures a new trick on their ubiquitous GoPro camera. Established rule of thumb: end the video with the big manoeuvre – the moneyshot.

Which is where things get interesting on this example. With the promotional keythemes of the clip fully nailed (the outsider status; the maverick loner reclaiming the sport’s street roots; the triumphant proselytism of committed skating embraced by the newly-devoted brethren; the heavily-daubed subtext of defiance; the spectacular end-move of the skater who Will Not Be Broken) the narrative arc takes an unexpected twist.

Vallely, now the lauded champion fresh from fist-bumping and autograph-signing, makes his way to a dingey exit door, out into the sleety city, and into a dispiriting U-Bahn carriage. Darkness, consumer junk, longhaul flight, SoAlone.

Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things?

Fade to black. A skilled marketeer’s artfice, certainly, but an effective one at that.

Art Is Trash Image: © Francisco de Pájaro
Much-loved Elephant Brand Skateboards Streetaxe Image by the author

Sean Keenan
About Sean Keenan 164 Articles
Sean Keenan used to write. Now he edits, and gets very annoyed about the word ‘ethereal’. Likely to bite anyone using the form ‘I’m loving….’. Don’t start him on the misuse of three-dot ellipses. Divides his time between mid-Spain and South-West France, like one of those bucktoothed, fur-clad minor-aristocracy ogresses you see in Hello magazine, only without the naff chandeliers. Twitter: @seaninspain

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