Skateboarding, Power and Change – an interview with Indigo Willing and Anthony Pappalardo


Skateboarding, Power and Change, Indigo Willing and Anthony Pappalardo’s project examining cultural, social and political developments within the global skateboarding community, is a powerful addition to the field of skateboard-focused academia. Jono Coote caught up with Indigo, Anthony and book illustrator Adam Abada to discuss what brought about the project, how it came together, and how skateboarding can be a catalyst for social change.

Interview by: Jono Coote

Illustrations by: Adam Abada

Earlier this summer, we received an email from someone who worked for a publishing company, asking if we would be interested in reviewing a new book by Indigo Willing and Anthony Pappalardo relating to themes of inclusivity, power dynamics and positive change within the worldwide skateboarding community. With Indigo part of a wave of academics finding new and insightful ways to discuss the culture we have built up around this most addictively frustrating of children’s toys, and Anthony a long time commentator on both the skateboarding and hardcore punk scenes for a number of top notch publications, the credentials were impeccable (unlike the barrage of emails I get asking me to review, of all things, fucking e-scooters – if you do PR for an e-scooter firm then please consider this notice given to stop hassling me). 

Wanting further insight into the project, I spoke to Indigo, Anthony and illustrator Adam Abada about potentially doing an interview, which turned into a sprawling email exchange taking place over a couple of summer months from our respective home countries. Discussing the projects, its influences and its aims around our respective day jobs, what emerged was a picture of a wide ranging book that, while overflowing with joy about, and respect for, its subject matter, isn’t afraid to tackle some of the wider questions that can be raised around gatekeeping and inclusion. Waiting for responses has made opening my inbox for the last couple of months infinitely more enjoyable. Hopefully you’ll find the words below, as well as the links to various exciting initiatives and projects worldwide, similarly inspiring. Get the kettle on, get reading, and get organised. 

First things first, where did the seed for the book first germinate?

Anthony: I met Indigo at Pushing Boarders, her enthusiasm and unique perspective stood out and we had some long conversations via email and Zoom afterwards. We had a sort of open invitation to work on something eventually and Indigo reached out a few months later with the opportunity to work on an academic text, which was completely new territory for me. I don’t come from academia, I read some lit mags occasionally but I don’t have the credentials to be considered an ‘academic’. If anything I’m an overthinker and that extends to skateboarding. I can’t help but watch a video and think, “Why did that person choose that spot? Why that trick? And why are their shoes laced that way?” It’s a problem at times but, on a deeper level, I’ve written enough about the act of skateboarding. I had been a lot more interested in trying to get into the deeper culture of skateboarding and, more specifically, this wave of skateboarders and creatives who were actively changing it. 

I think that last part is what makes people who have been involved in skating for a while uncomfortable. The idea that new people could come in and say “Why the hell did you paint the walls that garish-ass colour and why are you cool with it? Let’s fuck it all up, add more colours, and make it better – make it more representative of who and what skateboarding is.” That kind of thinking can be threatening not only because it makes people question why they accepted the status quo for so long, but why they didn’t do anything to change it.

At first, we had a rather broad idea and then we floated the idea of tightening the lens. The book still covers a massive amount of time but through our discussions, emails, Zooms, etc., we were able to mutually come up with a framework – an idea and concept centred around power – that allowed us to say, “Okay, this is what the book is, now let’s go.”

Indigo: I am so thankful to Pushing Boarders in Malmo 2019 because it’s where I got to meet Anthony and a lot of people we interview in the book. I already was in contact with people like Dani Abulhawa, Kim Woozy, Kristin Ebeling, Shari White and Ryan Lay through our various skate projects, but this was the first time I met many of these remarkable change-makers in person and many, many more – like Norma Ibarra, Christian Kerr, Chris Giamarino, Rhianon Bader,Timothy Ward, Ted Schmitz, and Prof. Kyle Beachy – who also feature in the book. There’s also been amazing predecessors to Pushing Boarders, like the Yeah Girl and Skate Like A Girl programs (we interviewed key people in relation to these, including Sarah Huston and Ashley Masters), and follow-on events too, like Ryan Lay’s Slow Impact in Arizona. The latter has featured guests like Douglas Miles Senior and Douglas Miles Junior from the Apache Skateboards team, who also feature in our book. Anthony and I talked about how this era’s amazing energy and revolutionary drive provides a perfect storm for change.

It can’t be understated how impactful it can be to hear and learn from so many skaters who aren’t afraid to push past the whole ‘shut up and skate’ attitude that buries a lot of important issues that hold skaters back, including their mental health; who put the same energy and love they have for skateboarding towards being there and standing up for others; and who have lived experience of being marginalised and just get shit done in the hope they can skate as freely as everyone else. 

I was at Pushing Boarders to launch Consent is Rad and to present as a sociologist on the ‘Support Your Local Academic’ panel with emerging scholars in urban studies (Dr Luke Cianciotto), performance studies (Dr Dani Abulhawa and Dr Adelina Ong) and with conveners from anthropology (Dr Sander Holsgens) and activism (Stuart Maclure from Long Live Southbank). 

In an interview with Ryan Lay for Vent City after the panel, I talked about wanting to write a book on the ‘new ethics of skateboarding’. I was keen to explore an ‘ethical turn’ in skating and work with a skateboarder who had a long and different history in the culture. From experience and as a lifelong advocate of diversity and inclusion, I feel the best teams are made up of people who have contrasting strengths, different lived experiences and complementary rather than identical expertise. Through this you find balance, and everyone’s bias (or thinking their way is the ‘definitive’ or ‘only’ way to see something) is also kept in check. Skateboarding has many cultures, not just one, and we can get tunnel vision and forget that.

Anthony was on a panel called ‘Editor’s Notes: Brutally Honest Skate Journalism’.  I didn’t really talk to him at the conference but liked his independent stance. He didn’t seem to just say things to fit in, and he had conviction to say unpopular (or lesser said) things, like how skating is not always progressive but could push itself forward. Anthony looked like he is one to always roll up his sleeves and shed light on skateboarding as a complex culture without seeing it through rose coloured glasses. When he returned to the US and I went home to Australia we emailed a lot, because COVID lockdowns prevented me travelling to the US to do research in person. 

I respect Anthony’s writing and journalism. He takes risks and doesn’t shy away from harder topics that women, trans, non-binary, LGBTIAQ+ and non-white skaters are forced to tackle as writers, when they skate, and basically in their everyday lives whether they like it or not. Plenty of men who have privilege could speak up around the value of inclusion etc. but weren’t. That’s understandable, but it leaves non-traditional skaters who are minorities across things like gender, race, sexuality etc. to do all the work with regards to highlighting the need for a better culture of consent, challenging racism or tackling homophobia and transphobia.

We had some really great conversations about creating a work that could honestly explore but also elevate the remarkable work we saw going on in skating. In 2020 the world had many heavy and hard to ignore occasions to work through where the world and all of us were failing each other in society, racism was systemic. movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate were at the forefront of public and personal lives, and this resonated right down to skateboarding as well. I feel skateboarders are some of the best and most resilient people, and knew there were so many people out there creating great things on how to make skating, and society, a better place for everyone. 

In 2020 on the day before my birthday we were offered a book contract with Palgrave Macmillan to create a crossover book that would bridge sociology and journalism. Our publisher let us go straight to paperback and eBook to keep costs for readers down. This is rare in academia, and meant we could communicate to a broad audience what kinds of social change-makers were out there and how they were going about tackling issues we all cared about as skateboarders. Our book deal also meant that the publishers knew we had a socially compelling story that resonated inside but also beyond the world of skating. 

Writing about skateboarding in an academic sense, whilst not exactly new, has grown exponentially over the past couple of years. This means that the body of work is still relatively small. With that in mind, whose work outside of skateboarding did you find particularly helpful in forming the ideas you put forward here?

Anthony: I feel like we’re seeing the entire space in skate-related writing being pushed into new areas and exploring ideas that haven’t been discussed or documented in skateboarding. If you look at Paul O’Connor’s and Dani Abulhawa’s work as well as the writing of Kyle Beachy, Walker Ryan and José Vadi, there’s a much broader range of writing and storytelling around skateboarding.

As far as forming our ideas, it’s interesting because as a culture, skateboarding has kind of skipped the broader documentation that other cultures and subcultures seem to have almost built into them. There are few books that talk about its history, but most of it is documented in real time or in the typical media cycle. Of course the advent of video has tightened the gap, but if I were to recommend a few texts to people interested in skateboarding, there aren’t really any “primers” if that makes sense. That being said, we weren’t trying to create that primer but rather trying to establish some of its history to set up the new wave of ideas we’re seeing now.

I can’t say that any particular titles or writing informed the book alone, as it’s much more about the stories of the people inside it and how those stories intersect and share some commonalities. The goal was that you could pick this book up and get a sense of where skating came from, where it went and where it’s going, while still being engaged with the narrative.

Indigo: It’s important to note we are not ‘the first’ or ‘few’ skaters to write a book about skating. We join a diverse and growing cohort of skateboarders who are also academics, journalists and creative writers who we highlight in Chapter 2 of our book (about 30 plus names at least). Also some of the best writing I’ve ever read is by skateboarders, the likes of Cole Nowicki, Jose Vardi, Andrew Murrell, Adam Abada (who is also the illustrator for this book) and many others. The level of craft, humour, beauty and elegance and wit that these writers have is on par with individuals from any other community or disciplinary background. 

There are definitely a lot of academics who are skaters that I’m also inspired by – it’s not about NBDs but more community and a new kind of legacy that’s hopefully as progressive as it is expressive. Iain Borden, for example, is like a silent ninja in bringing his gravitas to all kinds of skate activism and spot preservation in the UK and abroad. He is an awesome, very generous and kind dude, not at all stuffy and there’s no ivory tower bullshit. Ocean Howell is a former pro skater and embodies how it makes perfect sense for skaters to be doing hammers one minute and carving a space in studies of architecture the next. How skaters see the city and spaces is both wildly creative and clinically precise – we see cracks, bumps and angles with the micro-precision of a diamond dealer.

I want more skaters who are into studying because, if skaters aren’t talking about what the city and skating means to us, non-skaters will. And we are good at academia because we often overthink, are obsessive and go through things in our head a lot! Our memories are often encyclopaedic; I mean, ask any skater to list some great 90s videos or shoes and you’ll get a history lesson and a half.

The work of the Skatepark Project is great and we talk to Alec Beck in the book about their BIPOC Fellows program and how skaters on the margins can get together and keep city planning real and skater-centred for a change. CSEF gives scholarships to skaters, and we talk to Tommy Barker and Keegan Guizard about how that can get skaters into opportunities that would otherwise be potentially hard for them to reach. We also talk to Chris Giamarino, who was one of their scholarship recipients. He just finished a PhD that addresses the needs and rights of homeless people in LA. Really necessary stuff that skaters are in touch with, as street skaters and as people who are usually outside the mainstream.

The sociological framing in the books draws on the work of Borden, Howell, Paul O’Connor, Dani Abulhawa, Gregory Snyder, Neftalie Williams, Bethany Geckle, Cayla Delardi and others. I’d also say from the conceptual side no one helped the book have more shape, heart, form and direction than Tommy Carrol and Luke Cianciotto with their beautiful and instinctive work on the idea of ‘radical empathy’. In short, every time we skate a spot with others, we practise empathy because if we can’t anticipate what another skater is thinking and what they are about to do then we’ll probably crash into each other. Giving space during someone’s line, cheering when they land a trick and understanding we all share a lifelong obsession with this funny wooden toy are all part of this. But I was also inspired by studies of punk and hardcore music cultures and subcultures and, most importantly, the writings of Indigenous and Native writers on sovereignty and de-colonizing or anti-colonialism. Along with the writings and creative film works of Douglas Miles Senior and the Apache Skateboards team, such as The Mystery of Now, our book engages with First Nations writers from Australia and the US.

The writings and creative works of women, non-binary, trans and Queer skaters are also nothing short of a revolution. It gets ignored, but we knew it was out there and we spoke to some of the people who ensure those skaters are on the pages and shelves. Who better to capture this under-exposed scene and history, right? We talk to skate media pioneers like Kim Woozy, more recent contributors like former Skateism editor Denia Kopita, and zine creators like Izzi Cooper. Some of the greatest articles about skating have also come from pro-skaters like Kristin Ebeling and Alex White, who we also interviewed. Their work on everything from challenging sexism to sexual violence is pivotal and ground-breaking.

Adam Abada’s illustrations are the perfect visual accompaniment to the text, how did his involvement in the project come about?

Anthony: Adam’s help with the project really spoke to the spirit of the entire project, he not only provided the visual voice of the book but he was down to get on our meetings and riff on anything. He was there during the entire process, even when we needed help outside of illustrations. Having his input on the book’s direction and content as well as providing the visuals added so much to the process, especially in the beginning when we were trying to tighten up our ideas and land on a concept and narrative that would work.

Indigo: I first met Adam on #skatetwitter where we talked about art, and funnily enough he really liked this painting I did for a zine of skaters as cats just for fun. It was one of Koki Loaiza doing an ollie over the 145th St. subway gap photographed by Alan Ying (later made even more famous by Tyshawn Jones photographed by Atiba Jefferson). Adam is a super generous person to get to know, as any skater will tell you, and he was also one of the first skaters supporting the work I was doing with the team at We Skate QLD and Consent is Rad. That gave me faith my crew’s idea for the latter might resonate beyond our own small scene in Australia.

I got to meet him in person at Pushing Boarders, where he did a moving and beautiful spoken word piece for an event Kyle Beachy organised for skaters who write. He’s so chill, I had no idea he wrote serious stuff. We looked at a few street spots together one day before all the talks and he did some sketches of the skate spots for me as a present. I really respect how his landscape, built environment and street spot art is so spot on; easy to identify and yet unique all at once. 

When it came time to do the book, our publisher wanted photographs but there’s already books with all the historical stuff and Instagram for skaters to look at themselves now. I wanted the book to be unique and so getting an illustrator became a key decision. Anthony had worked with him before on Skaters Vote, and we both agreed on him being the right choice. Anthony is also trained in art, so I trusted and had faith in him to come up with a few designs for our cover. The red and yellow one was from one of his pilot designs. The publishers wanted to have the final say so they did the final book cover design, but it has as much input as we could give. I’m so lucky to have collaborators who are so creative and talented with the visuals.

How did you originally become involved in the project Adam?

I originally became involved in the progress because Anthony and Indi decided some illustrations would be a good way to add a little more depth to the concepts and ideas they were discussing. I had known both of them already from various skateboard related things and had done some artwork for Anthony’s Skaters Vote campaign during the last US election. They kindly thought of me, hit me up and I became a part of the project.

Your illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to the text, was there much in the way of a brief to work to or did you have fairly free reign?

They didn’t give me any form of brief but I had a lot of discussions with them. One part of the process that I was grateful for was that I got to be involved in a lot of the meetings and reviews of some of their original research and drafts, so I got to get a good picture of what goes into making a book like this. That was hugely insightful and informative for me. Based on those discussions I was able to contribute and feel a part of some of the concepts and ideas they were getting at, so that helped me be in a good place to illustrate some of what I felt about those concepts and ideas.

As someone who also writes about skateboarding, do you find that skateboarding as both an act and a culture inform your writing in the same way that they do your artwork? 

I am sure that skateboarding, both as an act and culture, informs some of my writing and artwork in similar and different ways. Often I write about skateboarding, so of course the act and culture of skateboarding literally informs a lot of that writing. In terms of artwork and writing I do outside of the ‘topic’ of skateboarding, however, I feel I must be informed by it, but it is on the same spectrum of how I am informed by anything else in my life. I feel that all aspects of how I live my life informs my art and writing and whatever-else-have-you, but since skateboarding is a huge part of my life it certainly informs it more than others, intentionally or not. At times I feel as if I push against this a bit, but the jig is already up. I’m a skateboarder so most of how I go about the world is done through the lens of a skateboarder, though it’s certainly not the only thing I am…

Indigo, you’ve said in an interview in the past that “I’d rather carry a skateboard than a briefcase and learn as much as I can in the streets as I learn in a library.” With the widespread privatisation of seemingly ‘public space’ an unavoidable feature of modern life, how do you both feel skateboarding can reclaim urban space for social purposes?

Anthony: Shoot. That’s a tough one, because what is skateboarding other than what a person defines it as, or an Emerica video?

I really think the answer to your questions is tethered to the environment skateboarding is happening in. You have some cities and towns where skateboarding is still criminal and other places where skateable sculptures are being installed so that people can interact with skateboarding.

Sometimes I think it’s important to zoom out and think about things if you weren’t a skateboarder. What I’m saying is, what if your town had a huge scooter community and the town plaza became a scoot haven? Did that happen because the scooter community pulled together and worked with local government to create a space to scoot? I mean, look at fucking Pickleball in the US. It pisses off a lot of people who liked going to their public court and now a bunch of people are pounding alcoholic seltzers and tapping around the place.

If we’re looking for answers you have to look at the need. Maybe a park below some random bridge outside of town makes the most sense for a park and that’s cool, or maybe you can look at Leo Valls’ Skate Urbanism approach and integrate skateboarding into city design. It’s not a one-fit thing. What I think any skateboarder can do is claim space and make it productive, and it should be their right to do so without any fear or harassment. Obviously that’s a very utopian view, but I feel that skateboarders need to work with the people in the places they inhabit who don’t skate. Maybe a bunch of locals don’t want that amazing skate plaza you have planned in your head above their apartment or outside their business – it’s all about finding a balance and working on what makes sense.

I also come from a time and era where most of us felt powerless and a lot of things happened when I was a minor and didn’t have a voice or allies who would help out. I was used to a spot being a bust and moving on to the next, it was a challenge. I guess it was an unnecessary one, but part of my skateboarding experience is figuring out what’s next. We’re in a different time and – thankfully – people are more aware, more organised, and see skateboarding as more than just this thing you do somewhere, so it’s really hard for me to say, “This is what you can do.” It’s very much determined by what you can do, how you can compromise, and what scale you want.

Indigo: Anthony raised great points about context. If we can generate more understanding of what skaters do and who else can benefit too, then it’s win win. Skateboarding can be so insular and not interested in how others might enjoy objects and spots we want to skate. Multipurpose spaces, sharing times to skate and not always being narrow minded about how we do things might unlock new ways skaters and non-skaters coexist (e.g. rather than removing tactile surfacing, making it potentially dangerous for people who have a disability, we could be lobbying to co-design new designs that work for both skaters and blind and low vision individuals).

In the book we highlight some really great activists, advocates and academics pushing for more skateable cities and towns. L Brew is a young change-maker who was Vice President for froSkate and is currently a BIPOC Fellow for The Skatepark Project. They are looking at how to co-design a skatepark in an area that hasn’t had much love and by skaters who can really get marginalised. Definitely read their contribution and follow what they’re up to. Alec Beck, a senior member of The Skatepark Project, is pivotal in engaging in activism to save iconic spots like LOVE Park and Stoner Park, and builds skateparks with local communities across the US. We also interview Chris Giamarino, who has just graduated with a PhD from UCLA which considers the needs and rights of homeless people in LA. Chris’s work has also been vital in recognizing the value of sacred street spots like the West LA Courthouse.

Themes in their work and by skaters in urban planning, design and architecture all point to similar issues; how to make the public and officials see the value of having skating in common and public spaces, like we see in countries like Barcelona and Copenhagen, while not being the ‘shock troops of gentrification’ that Ocean Howell warned of. That can lead to our pushing out of people we’d normally be allies with – like people who are homeless, those with addictions and sex workers. We need to be careful not to get pushed off the streets by non-skaters with power, while not pushing out non-skaters with little or no power. 

I like how both your answers there hinge on the idea of nuance needed with that discussion, something that it’s easy to lose sight of when it’s something you are passionate about (I’m definitely guilty of this sometimes). So to bring things back to the beginning and also towards a close, in the preface to the book you draw parallels between writing about skateboarding and the act of learning a trick; stating that, “…like skate tricks, there is always room for progression and ‘next tries.’” With that in mind and with the project completed, how would you like to build upon this work in the future, or even take it in a different direction?

Anthony: Well, to use that parallel you mention, the book was like making a video – so for me, it’s done and now the excitement is how people react to it. I’m really interested to see how the work will be regarded and if it delivers on any of our intentions.

As far as future work, I’m at a stage where I’m focusing more on what I can do on a community level rather than taking on a big writing project again… unless the perfect fit arrives. I’m still writing newsletters and having fun exploring the history of skateboarding through the objects and ephemera from it, although doing these eBay/collector dives has led to a lot of possibly unnecessary purchases.

Indigo: I really hate the colonialist anthropological approach of journalists and academics who jump in and rush out of alternative scenes and communities after they do their studies. As such, it was highly important to me that the book’s creative team, meaning me, Anthony, and Adam, are all ‘insiders’ and have real ties and long term involvement in skating. Even when we just do what we do in our everyday lives as skaters, it’s usually community driven and connected. I’d love to work with more artists too, in consent education through some new visual approaches.  

As a part of a community of changemakers and as an advocate for the study of skateboarding I’m also super stoked to keep highlighting all the amazing work being done by my friends, peers, and emerging scholars. We featured 42 people in the book yet there are so many more skaters who are doing projects that are bold, brilliant, innovative and needed. 

It’s also important for people like women and People of Colour to believe in their writing! Don’t wait for things to be perfect and let procrastination take over, just get to it and you will progress like we do in skating. Many of us are absent or barely on the book covers and bookshelves; and, if we’re not writing books about us, others are. That’s okay if there’s variety, but not if that’s the only way we have stories written about us. I’m totally into encouraging more and more people who might be on the margins to write articles and books. A few years back the Skate Witches and Vans did a collab, and Kristin Ebeling and Shari White asked me and others like Alex White to do a free lecture on how to pitch articles to magazines and zines. It’s free to watch online so I encourage any budding writers to check it out.

There’s also a project I’m working on called SSHRED (Skating, Sustainability, Health Research and Environmental Design) with skate researchers, some of whom are in the book and others who I met at Pushing Boarders. We already have a seminar series I convene with Dr Ben Duester and with hosts like Dr Sander Holsgens, and there’ll be a zine, conference and more for skaters dedicated to pushing for scientific advances around sustainability and exploring a kind of philosophical environmentalism that the community is fostering. 

I’ll also be working a lot more with artists, architects and designers on really exciting, blue sky thinking as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Sydney in 2024. The project is called ‘Skate, Create, Educate and Regenerate’ and as part of that I will be co-hosting an international skate research symposium and co-designing workshops.

People can feel despondent and helpless about things ranging from cleaning up the planet to building cultures of consent, but on the flip side it’s also possible to be filled with optimism and energy once you open the window on what the world of skateboarding has accomplished so far and will continue to accomplish. Skateboarders’ imaginations, sheer tenacity and willpower, empathy and ‘can do’ attitude never fails to leave me in awe. I hope our book captures some of that beautiful energy and our shared, brighter futures.