Chris Ray interview by Steve Gengrich
So how’s the new Skateistan Skate School in Johannesburg coming along?
We’re finally making great progress and it will be complete in a few more months!
How did Skateistan pick Johannesburg?
Our programs would not be possible without the support of a variety of individuals and organizations, and
we’ve had a lot of assistance and encouragement here in Johannesburg. The Danish Embassy has supported us in Afghanistan and one of their representatives, now working in South Africa, invited Skateistan to consider a new program here. We initially started Outreach sessions in 2014 in Johannesburg. There’s a local property development company that’s working to rebuild some of the old industrial inner city, and when they learned about our programs and what we were doing in the area, they offered to donate a piece of land rent-free. The architect who designed our education center in Mazare Sharif helped with a building design, along with local architects and engineers that came on pro-bono; and thanks to generous donations from partners such as The Skateroom, Tony Hawk Foundation and the Danish Embassy, we were able to make the Skate School plans a reality.
Any interesting hoops you’ve needed to jump through to get permission to build the skate park?
Having never worked in South Africa before we really didn’t know what the process would be like or how long it would take. Working in Afghanistan obviously presents a unique set of challenges, but once you have the funding and the blessing from the community, you are free to build whatever you want. In South Africa there are much more thorough building regulations and a complex bureaucracy to navigate, so 2015 was the year of jumping through hoops to get approval from all of these different departments and agencies that have to sign off on the project.
What programs do you have going on in the meantime?
Since 2014 we’ve been running after school programs 5 days per week, but without a facility of our own.
There’s an old skate bowl in a neighborhood called Troyeville where we run our Skate and Create program skateboarding sessions along with art-based classes. We’re also in partnership with a school in Jeppestown
where we’ve added skateboarding to their after school program along with similar classes that supplement their curriculum. So, if you want to skate, you have to come to class!
How do you tell kids about Skateistan?
It’s definitely not hard to find enthusiastic students here, just skate through any neighborhood where kids are hanging out on the street without much to do and you’ll have a bunch of them all pleading to borrow your board. They all know about skateboarding here – most kids can’t afford a decent board, but if you loan them yours they’ll jump right on and surprise you with their natural ability. We also do a lot of community outreach – meeting with schools, attending our local ward meetings, and posting information in some of the low-income housing in the neighborhood. I attended our last ward meeting with our Operations Officer Ayanda and they had us sit in front of the auditorium to present the project – the entire meeting was in Zulu but from what Ayanda tells me the response was positive.
Do they start skating outside of the Skateistan program?
They definitely do if they are able to, but generally the students we are looking to reach are the ones who can’t afford to get into skating. There is a small but dedicated local skate scene, and the kids know if they want to skate there will always be a session at the city library in the center of Joburg. We will also be holding public sessions at the skatepark at our new Skate School, when up and running, for all skaters, not just students of Skateistan.
Does skating make school more tolerable?
I certainly think it does because so many kids lack a healthy outlet for all their energy. We’ve seen students
that can be really wild and hard to get to listen or pay attention, but once they skate for an hour they’re much more calm and easy to work with.
What’s skating like over there?
People are really into skating, but I think it’s tough for them to keep it up. Streets are rough and sidewalks are worse so it’s not as useful as a form of transportation, and with the level of crime all of the smooth new spots have security guards 24/7. Skateparks around Joburg are pretty few and far between – they just demolished one of the only good concrete parks because it wasn’t bringing in much money, the Boogaloos park at Brightwater Commons Mall. I say ‘good’ but it was really pretty wacky, so we can’t wait to have a properly built free park for Skateistan students to attend, and all skaters during the public sessions. For-profit parks seem to be impossible to sustain anywhere except cold and wet places where people have money. Cape Town has a few decent parks, but Durban is definitely my favorite place to skate. The waterfront is a lot like Venice, and the crusty park on the beach has the best scene around – Thalente Biyela’s story is amazing and has inspired a lot of young shredders there.
What are you favorite spots? Is the diy scene happening over there?
The city has a few decent street spots, Library Gardens being the most popular for sure. For now we spend
most of our time at the DIY park in Edenvale. It used to be a for-profit skatepark with old metal ramps, but
when it went out of business the whole space was abandoned and most of the metal ramps were stolen for
scrap recycling, but we’ve since added a pole jam, manual pad, spine/bump combo, and a rainbow rail.
There are a few older guys into DIY stuff like Hartmut Martin out of Pretoria, but I think most of the younger skaters don’t know how and are so short on cash they don’t think they can. We’re trying to inspire them to get out and build what they want because the city certainly hasn’t – if you can get your friends together and raise $50 that’ll buy you a lot of concrete down here, and fortunately there’s an endless supply of broken brick everywhere you look to use as filler. There is a crazy mega pole jam volcano DIY spot out in one of the wealthier suburbs – someone invested a lot of time and concrete into it but it’s so rough now it’s almost impossible to skate. There’s an old snake bowl out in Germiston that’s also really rough but pretty fun. The RVCA guys put out ‘Elephino’ from their tour here, and it’s even more impressive when you
know how hard those spots are to skate.
Do you notice any differences compared to U.S. skaters?
I think skateboarders, like all people, are pretty similar everywhere, with the majority being really cool and
friendly. One thing I do notice is that since most skaters are on a real tight budget they care a lot less about
brands and image. Hip skaters back home might hate on the more ‘corporate’ brands, or maybe they’re really focused on looking fresh and repping the brands they consider cool, but down here skaters will take whatever they can get and be thankful for it.
Do you get kicked out of a lot of spots?
I suppose we would if we tried to skate the fancier new spots with security guards, but we’re pretty content to build our own spots.
Who are your favorite south African skaters?
Wandile Msomi is the dude to skate with in Joburg, he’s been a great friend of Skateistan. Moses Adams is the big star, probably the most consistent and technical skater in the country, he almost made it into Street League in Barcelona last year. I’ve been stoked to see Thalente and Dlamini Dlamini both make breakthroughs, hope to see more of them in the future. Got to shout out to Kelly Murray, the best female skater in South Africa and Skateistan’s Programs Officer.
What are the next Skateistan projects?
We’re focusing on building up our Skate School here and making sure it’s running as best as it can before
expanding, but as long as people continue to support our projects we’ll always be looking for the next
community that needs a Skate School and our programs.
Any closing words?
The best way for people to support Skateistan and help us grow our community is by becoming a Citizen of
Skateistan. It’s our monthly donor club, that is all about community and supporting one another. We are really thankful for our current supporters, including partners. So thank you to the Tony Hawk Foundation and The Skateroom for your continuing support, thank you to the Danish Embassy and thank you to New Line Skateparks for the help planning and building the skatepark – can’t wait to have their crew out here for the build soon. Thank you Skate Jawn, thank you Skateistan, and thank you skateboarding.