With summer having been all too frequently a parade of washed out skate plans and days spent nursing pints whilst watching the raindrops bounce off of pub windows, arriving in Paris for an event at the tail end of September to be greeted by blue skies and 27 degree days was a more than pleasant surprise. The event in question was the launch of the Dime X Vans Rowley XLT, including a dose of the OTT skate jam format that Canada’s second favourite sons (the first obviously being Red Dragons) have made their own, and everyone in attendance was intrigued by the possibilities inherent in the long weekend ahead.
With the event itself taking place on the Sunday, the preceding three days were our own – and a city full of Vans and Dime riders, along with assorted members of the skateboard media and a solid portion of skaters who happened to have caught wind of the goings on, meant that we were unlikely to be bored. I had as my guide Louis Aragon, the giant of surrealist literature whose book Paris Peasant acts as both an elegy to the arcades being cleared by the Hausmann redevelopment and as a clarion call to exploring your surroundings, and the most sensible approach to the trip seemed to be hitting the city streets and seeing what I could stumble across in the process.
Things get started in a fairly relaxed manner at Arrow & Beast, where an exhibition of Dime-related photos and a few free drinks are on hand to get the celebrations started. After a beer and a browse, I feel the pull of one of my favourite Parisien spots; Skatepark Léon Cladel, a pedestrianised alleyway with banks, ledges and a whippy quarterpipe. An anomaly in inner city skatepark design, it blends into the urban landscape in a manner that shows incredible forethought from the designer. Most importantly, it sits across the road from a supermarche on hand for lukewarm beverages to keep the session going. With no plans beyond a solo roll around for half an hour, I’m stoked to run into Sergej Vutuc and Ben Koppl working out skate plans for the rest of the week. A mutual crust fetishism soon emerges, and a transitioned brick sculpture on the east side of the city is pencilled in for the following day. In the meantime I head for dinner, where the main subject of discussion is whether events held at street spots somehow cheapen the spot in question without contributing sufficiently to the local skate scene; which is why you shouldn’t invite more than one skateboard journalist to a party. Post-dinner bar plans are made, but I’m too excited by the possibilities inherent in curving brickwork to want to get too loose so head back for an early night.
The night before, skating back with Helena Long, we discussed why the city holds such an appeal. “Paris is always the biggest stereotype of itself in the best way. It feels Parisian wherever you are in a way that London doesn’t.” The next morning I skate past a man on a stool sketching from a bridge over a canal, and a woman cycles past with half a bottle of red wine in the side pocket of her backpack, which does nothing to disregard her observation. Does anything feel more Parisian, however, than popping over rivulets of piss on the way to the spot? Avoiding urine splashback under your wheels is one of the great joys of street skating.
By the time me and Sergei arrive in Montreuil the weather has worsened, so we have an espresso and wait for the drizzle to pass, which it has by the time we find Ben and head for the council estate in question. It is huge, and we have found multiple spots before we even reach our planned destination. A warm up skate at a tarmac hip gets us ready for the main event, which is a brick sculpture shaped like surrealist melting bells, the tops adorned with huge metal antlers – a fitting pilgrimage to take in the city of Aragon, Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault. The run up is short, the ground adorned with broken glass, rocks, a dead pigeon and a used nappie through which Ben accidentally powerslides.
We are surrounded on three sides by looming tower blocks but, surprisingly, the locals aren’t phased. In contrast to the usual water/piss balloons being chucked from on high, the worst we get thrown at us from the balconies around is a lighter. We leave happy, if slightly nauseated due to the various odours emanating from the darker corners of the square. On the way out we hit another metal sculpture, stop again at some planters which aren’t a spot but which see Sergei go full Magenta mode, and head at length toward the metro. Sergei goes to set up for an exhibition at Le Bal and we have lunch by a metal skatepark which, in an interesting quirk of architectural planning, has been built through the middle of a functioning car park. An abandoned silver shoe sits in front of a silver driveway, like a Man Ray sculpture or a still from a Chris Atherton video, but that is about the most exciting thing about it. The shoe sadly isn’t close enough in profile to the XLT for me to work it into a serendipitously on brand video clip, so we sack it off, jump on a metro down to the river and skate across the Pont de l’Alma to where a container ship contains a pop up replica of the Dime shop in Montreal.
The spot is still quiet, but we sit and have a pleasant couple of beers in Fluctuart before my lack of attention span begins to bully me into movement. The sun, shrouded in autumn evening light, is sinking past the banks of the Seine as I head back into the city. I am joined by Ben, who has some boards to pick up from Odilon. The owner enters the shop from across the way where he has been getting a beer, offers us some gorgonzola which he produces from a pocket somewhere wrapped in tin foil, hands over the boards over with a theatrical flourish and a round of happy birthday, and completes the performance by spilling his pint all over the display case. A lengthy chat then ensues and we arrive late at the gallery Sergei has been at for the afternoon, catching Paul Grund‘s photo work but missing the zine fair downstairs, so I decide I’ll return in the morning. I instead head out into the night, internally toasting the ghost of Aragon with the glass of wine which keeps finding its way into my hand. Talk at one point that day had turned to the school of Brutalist architecture which left us with street transitions, brick banks and the like, and the changes in planning regulations which have made new iterations of that kind of spot increasingly unlikely. It chimes improbably closely with certain passages of Aragon’s;
“Although the life that originally quickened them has drained away, they deserve, nevertheless, to be regarded as the secret repositories of several modern myths: it is only today, when the pickaxe menaces them, that they have at last become the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and professions. Places that were incomprehensible yesterday, and that tomorrow will never know.”
The arcades are long gone, but the sentiment still stands; on the outskirts of the City of Light, we have uncovered repositories of myth and spilled blood for the cult of the ephemeral.
Walking back from a more extensive look at the exhibition the next day, I pass an unexpected skatepark under a flyover. A selection of ledges end up in a long, mellow quarterpipe, with gouges in the metal that we can only posit have been caused by someone trying to drive a car up it. Above these deep scratches in the metal, the coping is torqued upwards from its bed in abstract, the destructive urges of the disenfranchised turned into auto-sculpture by aesthetic quirk. I immediately put a price of one supermarket price beer on a frontside grind along and up the razor’s edge, but am met with a blanket reticence.
The next day, heading out of the city centre, I find Aragon, in the context of potentially insalubrious uses for the public baths of the city, muse that “the simple hearts of architects are free of all perversity.”
This was presumably not the case when the architects at La Defense designed a perfect four foot quarterpipe, out of cobbles just slightly too rough to ride up without soft wheels. This isn’t obvious in photographic form, so I make it to Pont de Neuilly, skate across the bridge and delve into a Brutalist maze rendered in stark relief by the midday sun. After some searching, I end up at a spot that isn’t, in fact, skateable with my current set up. While the spot might not be what I hoped, I am now in a new corner of the city with a few hours to kill before the weekend’s grand finale. I conjure the spirit of another local great, Guy Debord, whose concept of the dérive – “a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances” – has fuelled many a day’s delving into the shadier corners of the urban milieu. With Debord as my guiding angel I embrace my lack of geographic reference and quickly find a two foot wide U pipe on a wall, a foot high brick bank with a curb on top, and a Wallows-style bank which sadly funnels any skater eager enough to try straight downhill into the Seine.
Celebrating with a grease-soaked pizza in Bois de Boulogne, I remember that I have work to do beyond just farting about the city skating bad spots, and so head to Aubervilliers and the container’s final form.
The set up consists of the pop up shop which has until today been sat on the banks of the Seine, reconfigured to create a series of changing obstacles – a ledge becomes a bump to ledge becomes a bump to rail, an ever changing Transform-a-spot. With viewing space at a premium, and my physical height not, I don’t bear witness to much of the event itself but I get to see Pfanner late shuv a bin from the flat. The beers flow freely enough, the flat ground session keeps up momentum for the whole afternoon, a techno remix of Sum 41’s ‘In Too Deep’ drills its way into the brains of the assembled and isn’t even the most questionable music choice on offer. There are a lot of ‘Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element’ haircuts on display, but I don’t know if that’s down to Dime, fashion week, or just a standard Parisian paradigm. Towards the end the crowd thins out, a clothes rail featuring the latest drop is used as a bank to rail (first to grind, then turned sideways to turn it into a gap), the sound of smashing flowerpots echoes through the courtyard, Zion Wright appears from somewhere to back three the fuck out of the bar, Doobie is ollieing as high and fast as possible, Korahn Gayle is skating it switch, and Pfanner shuts it down with a kickflip melon grab. There is a distinct lack of the pyromaniacal normally on display at Dime events, apparently due to Parisien fire safety laws, but the level of skating on display more than makes up for it. Anyway, the scorched tenement frontage on display just down the road speaks to the wisdom of such rules.
The beer runs out, the session comes to a close, the pack down begins and, with one more afterparty to attend, I join Louis and “set about discovering the face of the infinite beneath the concrete forms which were escorting me, walking the length of the earth’s avenues.” Which is probably a sign that I’d been drinking in the sun for too many days on the trot.
Big love to Vans and Dime for providing such an enjoyable structure to the surrealist adventures of their assorted visitors. Viva la dérive.