To coincide with the release of ‘The Fungeon Tour‘ we’ve uploaded the accompanying article from Issue 31 to the web. Have a gander below for the full article plus a few bonus photos from the trip then watch the video if you haven’t done so already! Find physical copies of Issue 31 here and check the new Dungeon x Fun Is Dead collaboration here.
Words by: Jono Coote
Photography by: Clement Chouleur
Artwork by: Pierre Pauselli & French
Typography by: Pierre Pauselli & French
Videography by: Pierre Pauselli
“Marseille: The yellow-studded maw of a seal with salt water running out between the teeth.” Walter Benjamin’s visceral impression of France’s oldest city opens a passage indicative of the seductive pull which the area has long held for those of a certain mindset. It is a city which has for many years inspired those of artistic temperament, something to do perhaps with its combination of stunning architecture and riotous social life. Cézanne was massively influenced by the Provence countryside which surrounds it, painting the bay from the village of L’Estaque where, he enthused, “the sun is so terrific here that it seems to me as if the objects were silhouetted not only in black and white, but in blue, red, brown, and violet.” Stepping off of a flight from Heathrow and straight into the back of the van, I huddle amongst the boards and beers as we drive up through hills and valleys painted in the same sun-splashed colour tones of which Cézanne enthused. Signs warning of potential mountain goat collisions emphasise our distance from city life, even though we can only be an hour’s drive from the centre, as we zig zag our way to Carry Le Rouet Skatepark. Built by Vulcano Skateparks, a company started by alumni of the crew who built Spotter, the park uses the available space as pithily as you would expect if you’ve ever visited Barcelona’s premier DIY spot. It is the perfect way to ease into a skate trip after a 4am wake up to catch my flight, the place is for the most part empty apart from us, and the array of transitions keeps the crew happy until the sun sinks behind the tree line. This is when we are reminded that despite the daytime sun it is still midwinter, the cold bites through the sweat and sends us scurrying back into the concrete maze which springs up around the waterfront.
It is an urban sprawl that has captivated just as many over the years as the hills that surround it. Anthony Bourdain described it in a 2015 episode of Parts Unknown as “A victim of bad reputation, bad history… as it turns out, exactly the kind of place I like.” Walter Benjamin conducted his hashish experiments in the the 1920s, inspired by Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, agonising over menus in a stoned haze when he wasn’t staring intently at the punters in a bar (“I particularly recall an infinitely bestial and vulgar face of one of the men, from which the ‘wrinkles of abandon’ suddenly struck me”). Gawping at barflies in 1920s port towns is not an activity known for its high survival rate, but by all accounts the leery philosopher avoided getting his teeth knocked out and carried on his experiment unimpeded. His seal’s maw comparison (taken from a separate and less mashup piece of writing) was guardedly complimentary, as was the subsequent statement that, “When this gullet opens to catch the black and brown proletarian bodies thrown to it by ship’s companies according to their timetables, it exhales a stink of oil, urine, and printer’s ink.”
He was not the only one to focus on the city’s odours and, though Bourdain’s culinary descriptions are more appealing, neither are accurate in the whole; it is all these things and more, oil and urine and pastries and tagines and concrete dust and hash smoke and cigarette smoke and concrete dust and cold beer at sunset and bad coffee and petrol fumes and cypress pollen, myriad scents whipped up by the mistral wind to tantalise and repulse in equal measure. The port links North Africa with France, leaving the city with a multicultural mien that flavours all aspects of its cultural output. Reading his work, it is clear how much the place struck Benjamin. It is easy within minutes of arrival to see why this dirty, sprawling, beautiful mess was appealing to a thinker who drew such rich inspiration from the more labyrinthine elements of the urban milieu.
The combination of old and new elements in the architecture of the city, conducive as it is to flaneurism, is similarly essential to our own four wheeled activities. A reputation for lawlessness which keeps authoritarian hands busy seems to have also left older spots intact and for the most part skate stopper free. Its streets have been explored more widely by local skaters than Debord drifting through the streets of Paris could have dreamed of, while images of Wade Speyer and John Cardiel skating the Bowl du Prado are indelibly etched on the grey matter of all skateboarders of a certain vintage.
Of course, painting it as a place of rough and tumble fun is to do a disservice to the very real negatives of the city. A Guardian headline in 2017 called it “corrupt, dangerous and brutal to its poor.” Unemployment rates are high, scenes can become tense, the far right Front National has gained a stronghold in the city’s northern suburbs in recent years. Marseille’s municipal bodies are wracked by regular accusations of corruption and, when faith in government fails, there is a worrying trend towards a broader swing to the right of the political spectrum. Arguably the best defence against this is a display of community cohesion, the combining of creative forces offering an alternative to nihilistic stagnation or scapegoating and dog whistle politics; enter La Friche and Board Spirit Marseille.
On the site of what was formerly the Seita tobacco factory, a sprawling maze of restaurants, bookshops, graffiti walls, meeting spaces, art studios and exhibition spaces also embraces skateboarding in the form of its own skatepark. After all, part of its manifesto states that, “La Friche is a political experience, a place for thinking, in which ‘doing and making’ renews the relationship of art with a territory, with society, and with the world.” Skateboarding is indelibly intertwined with physical space, with the terra firma on which it takes place, but also with the social, political and economic frameworks within which it takes place. Claim an apolitical outlook and a ‘shut up and skate’ mentality all you want, but if you’ve ever built (or skated) a DIY spot on an abandoned plot of land, given a board to a kid skating a barely recognisable plank of wood, made a conscious choice to shop at a skater owned business rather than one that isn’t or even just moaned about your local council built skatepark and gone street skating instead, then you are engaging with these frameworks – entering into a dialogue in which you can be either a passive or active participant.
Board Spirit Marseille, born 20 years ago and run out of La Friche for 16, has chosen to facilitate the change it wants to see. Organising skateboarding events, hosting gigs and combining skateboard lessons with photography, video and graffiti workshops, they are gently nudging the next generation of Marseille rippers in a direction which embraces the creative and cross cultural aspects of skateboarding. They employ local skaters, steer local youth towards skateboarding in lieu of potentially less wholesome activities, and work with Vans, Volcom and Element to ensure a steady flow of products and prize money for events. They even sort out our accommodation and the nine seater van for the trip, giving us not only a place to crash after the day’s skating but the means to travel to the more out of the way locations on display in these pages.
“We have a duty of restitution towards the people living at La Belle de Mai,” says Pierre Pauselli, BSM skate school’s art director. “Marseille’s 3rd District is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in France, with the people living in this area the grandchildren of all those women who used to work in the factory. That’s why the skate lessons are free for all the kids that live in the 3rd District, along with all the workshops – we spread skateboarding as a culture, not a sport.” He highlights the blue banks (based on Copenhagen’s Charlotte Ammundsens Play Plaza) which you encounter as you enter La Friche, nestled amongst basketball courts, a library, cafe and exhibition space, as indicative of the group’s aims; “This particular place is where all different types of social class mix and for us that is a really important thing.”
This bringing together is something written into La Friche’s manifesto;
“You must take your time, contemplate, and sense the cultures that populate it before being invited to go along with its infinite possibilities. From that moment, the windows and doors will fling wide open in this “cultural, societal and sustainable” project that speaks of today and questions tomorrow. From then on, all those with an irrepressible desire to build a common future are welcomed with open arms. In fact, their participation is vital.”
Pierre, whose collaborative project with Richard ‘French’ Sayer FUNGEON (Dungeon x Fun Is Dead) is the reason for our visit, holds a position which encompasses a wide array of jobs; teaching skate lessons, running workshops with kids during the school holidays, helping to run events and also producing the flyers for said events, filming and editing them and running the organisation’s social media accounts. He also, alongside photographer Clément Choubrey, takes on the duties of tour guide for the week, and thus the former tobacco factory becomes the epicentre of our trip exploring the streets, parks and bars spiralling out from the Vieux Port.
The next day we eschew Cézanne’s rural muse for the city streets, starting off with a collection of banks and stair sets arrayed around a tower block. These are of ‘North of England council estate’ roughness, we are warned to be careful and polite if the locals approach us, and if it wasn’t for the Mediterranean sun and the two sketchy looking dudes smoking tabs playing French hip hop rather than UK grime from their phones while they watched us it would have felt pretty much like home. After years of skate video propaganda convincing us that the Med is a land of marble, it’s strangely comforting to know that you can go and skate spots that wouldn’t feel out of place in Bradford or Barnsley. We cruise through the city streets, stopping for lunch at a cafe where the woman behind the counter quickly pegs us for English despite my best “Bonjour, je voudrais cafe creme s’il vous plaît.” She had moved over from London twenty years before and speaks with a beguiling Cockney/Marseillais hybrid accent of how much she misses the pubs back home, though personally the cheap street beers and bread and cheese lunches hold far more appeal than overpriced pints of Carling and stale Scampi Fries.
Jumping on a bus to a hill above the centre, we find ourselves at one of those illusory spots that looks absolutely incredible from a distance and which becomes a crusty nightmare on closer inspection. A mellow brick halfpipe with a curb on one side looks appealing, until you come off of a frontside pivot straight into a crack and hit the flat bottom with your elbow under your ribs, creating a new contour on the bone; it isn’t until the sun begins to set and the shadows lengthen that the light picks out in sharp relief potential pitfalls awaiting the unwary. A perfect street transition is half blocked by an uphill, soft playground floor run up. A giant blue concrete slide sweeps into a steep bank which runs almost straight into a wall. I’ve apparently missed a few heavy slams in the days before my arrival, with Rikk Fields and Dead Dave especially fragile – and Rybo having electrocuted himself in a light fixing incident, leading me to add ‘bad wiring’ to Bourdain’s assessment – but this spot takes the most victims during my stint. After Dave is taken out full pelt by a hole in the bricks, Zombie Stu winces and sits down – “Fuck this… Warhammer don’t hurt.”
A surprise appearance from Rogie, fresh from another trip, bolsters the session, which ends with Taylor Jones battling a frontside grind in what is probably the most unlikely lip of the entire spot (which is saying something). The kids wanting to use the slide are entirely unimpressed with the lot of us, one attempt by Pierre to get them to clear the run up resulting in a middle finger from a particularly angelic looking tot. The grind didn’t work out that night, but a return on the final morning before the flight home was a success and means you can see for yourself in visual form. You might eye it up and think you have something for it – but trust me, you don’t. The hill bomb down is a high point, despite the no fucks given attitude of Marseille’s drivers nearly seeing Charlie Gush shuffling off this mortal coil. As French muses the following day, “Marseille is pretty Mad Max, init.”
In fact, while it is day number three for me, the others are almost a week into the trip and conversation is taking on that looser, free associative feel that seems to regularly be brought about by a few days of too much sun, skating and booze. French’s thoughts on the habits of Marseille drivers, for example, are followed by Stu exclaiming, “Imagine how sick it would be to have a Lord Humungus flask?” We start the day in sphincter-clenching style at Skatepark de Fuveau, where the main feature is a kidney with a nine foot deep end, kinked five foot shallow and pool coping the size of my forearm. The sounds of frontside grinds echo through the hills as everyone is forced into waking up fast to avoid further injury. In the words of Humungus, “There has been too much violence, too much pain,” but remnants of lactic acid from previous misadventures ensures that at least some blood is still spilled.
The park, like the one I started my trip at, was a way out of the city in a scenic countryside locale. Although I had missed the first few days of the week this seemed to be an established pattern; a dichotomy where a jaunt into the Provence countryside found a counterpoint in a journey into the underbelly of the city the following day. Pool coping itch solidly scratched, we carry on down the road and find ourselves at a huge, mellow U-pipe. There is metal coping, so it is clearly purpose built, but it is buried so deep in the lip it seems to be retreating into the ramp, like your dick on a New Year’s Day swim disappearing into your urethra. The whole thing has the feel of a 1970s skatepark boom oddity, though it is apparently less vintage than it seems. Alongside this anomaly is a rough, kinked and legitimately ‘not made to skate’ ditch spot. Cracking a beer, befriending feral cats and cruising the endless sun dappled transition, it was hard for me to imagine how I’d reconcile my new Mediterranean lifestyle with the grim, drizzle soaked realities of Brexit Island. If everyone who appears in these pages disappears from the UK scene over the next couple of years, please forward our post to La Friche.
After a mellow session in the U and some caber tossing with a log Dead Dave unearths, Charlie somehow finds the energy to carcass toss himself into the banked ditch from the high rope. It is a masochistic battle which draws a crowd of strolling families and elderly dog walkers and when he emerges – pale but victorious, cigarette shaking violently between bloody fingers – the onlookers seem more relieved than stoked. We head back to La Friche, where I am still buzzing enough from the day to attempt a final session in the bowl. Charlie joins briefly but frankly by this point shouldn’t even be walking, and after ten minutes I realise that skating a whippy bowl after drinking a six pack in the sun has only one logical outcome and retreat to safety and the bar. In fact, I realise how waved I am when I have no idea how to get from the skatepark to said bar; but, as founder Philippe Foulquié puts it, “If you’ve figured out La Friche, it must not have been explained to you properly.”
We have one final night time wander through the city streets. Rough sleepers, beggars and other denizens of the night wander the same streets, imploring us for change or staring resigned into the middle distance. La Friche and Board Spirit Marseille are an example of how things in Marseille could be, if the government could be relied upon to act in the interests of its citizens; but the gleaming new luxury builds of the Euroméditerranée project, spread across the city like glass and concrete toadstools, paint a picture of a group firmly in the corner (and pocket) of big business interests. To return again to Benjamin, the creative inspiration he found in the reality of the streets was tempered with a humanism which informed his sense of outrage at, and critiques of, the ways in which an ever more streamlined capitalist society has of abandoning its most vulnerable. The corrupt politicians and urban developers whose myopic visions of regeneration offer shelter only to the wealthy, the demagogues stirring up division and hatred, would do well to take heed of his Angel of History; “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
Shop the new Dungeon x Fun Is Dead collaboration here!
Thanks to Pierre, French, Clém, Board Spirit Marseille, La Friche and all the crew who kept the session fired up all week long.