In celebration of the 13th Go Skateboarding Day, an annual event celebrating skateboarding around the world, Wieden+Kennedy Portland hosted a dynamic event and exhibit. The event featured 26 original pieces of art, representing each letter of the alphabet, by globally-renowned, London-based artist James Jarvis that celebrates the many influences of Portland skateboarding, including weather, art, architecture and natural icons that define The Rose City. In addition to the exhibit, hundreds of skateboarders made their way to the street in front of the agency for an evening of skating and the unique camaraderie that is the Portland skateboarding community.
Proceeds from the art, zines and t-shirts that were on sale at the event benefit the Portland Skatepark Alliance and their Skaters for Portland Skateparks initiative, with the aim of building a network of 19 connected skateparks, a project that has had a master plan, passed by Portland city council ordinance, since August 2005. Though there has been substantial excitement about the project, events like the one at Wieden+Kennedy can help Portland skaters realize the vision.
As a group, skaters are both welcoming and inclusive, but with one caveat.
“It's a weird one because there’s a dichotomy where it's an elite group that anyone can be part of,” said Joe Staples, Wieden+Kennedy Portland executive creative director, “As a skateboarder there is a little sense of superiority, of creativity, like we see the world differently. I've been skating for now, scarily, over 30 years,” said Staples. “The act of skateboarding forces you to think creatively. I've been practicing this thing, looking at things and thinking things regular people don't think for over three decades. It makes you good at skateboarding but it also makes you good at problem-solving and comedy and all the stuff we do here.”
The intertwining of skating and creativity makes tremendous sense, especially in Portland, where natural spots to skate aren’t nearly as defined as, say, southern California, with their smooth cement and, as Staples puts it, “perfectly painted curbs.” It points to a unique way of thinking and embodies Portland’s ideal as a DIY, crafty mecca.
“It's one of the worst places to live if you do skateboard, first of all,” noted Garrett Close, junior freelance designer at Wieden+Kennedy Portland. “The streets can be pretty terrible. It rains the majority of the year. We have things like the Burnside Skate Park that is rich in history. It comes from a do-it-yourself attitude. Building it up from the ground, creating a space for yourself, that definitely reigns through in Portland. The roughness that comes from being on a wet, dirty street changes the culture here a little — and is different than probably anywhere else in the world, the Pacific Northwest.”
Though true in many ways, Staples pointed out that, in fact, the skating cultures of Portland and London are remarkably similar and, growing up in Southeast London, Burnside provided tremendous inspiration.
“In South London I was a skater, a local at Southbank and at Stockwell,” said Staples. “Stockwell skate park was basically a beach. It was just pebbles but inspired by Burnside. Burnside is globally known for how hardcore it is but also for how DIY it is. That was a direct inspiration. We went to the council, we showed them Burnside and other skate parks and got we were then allowed to redo our skate park. Burnside's the center of some kind of skateboarding in the world that's been inspirational for I think it’s gone past twenty-five years. For at least twenty of those years it's been something that skaters around the world look to.”
The kinship of skateboarding and the intriguing Portland/London connection proved to be helpful in working with Jarvis on the journey to create the exhibit’s art — with both guidance, collaboration and intuition leading the way.
“James is a skateboarder from London, who's a globally-known illustrator, toy designer, but also skateboarder and bike racer,” said Staples, a long-time personal friend of Jarvis. “We thought that that connection was interesting. Garret's relationship with him was remotely downloading him on the intricacies of Portland, which makes you look at everything with that combination of insider and outsider view. He's going to have to inform somebody who can't be here — so Skypes, and calls, and photos. How do you translate what's anomalous here to an outsider, to attempt to give an insider's view?”
The results, however, according to Close, were outstanding, underscoring the unique bond of skateboarders and, by extension, creative talent, no matter the location.
“In looking at the world in a different way, even across seas he was able to see a photograph and instantly recognize how iconic that spot must be for the city and instantly point out how the geometry of this particular architecture and form is obviously something that stands out for [Portland] that's instantly recognizable,” said Close. “Breaking it down to simple forms and using that in a single piece instantly portrays an insight about Portland, something that breaks through it being just apparent about skateboarding and makes it apparent about Portland skateboarding and all the things that makes skateboarding what it is here in this city, in particular.”
Skateboarders may be a unique group and culture, but their individual sense of self, with skating as the lens, can be a source of strength. Like other people, who have deep passion about a sport, an art — anything, really — the “being yourself” part of the equation is vitally important to the ethos of the agency and its work.
“John Jay, a former executive creative director at Wieden+Kennedy, and I’m paraphrasing here, once said, ‘Our culture is culture and sometimes we get swept away in thinking that we're in the industry of advertising, which is a pretty crappy industry, but actually we are literally already part of things when we come to work.’ Part of our job, and I think Garret showed this amazingly well, is to not stop being yourself when you're at work," said Staples. "If you're a skateboarder outside of work and you're a skateboarder in work, try and merge those things so hopefully we can showcase skateboarding to the 600 people at Wieden+Kennedy and show some of the people of Portland what we do. As long as you don't stop being yourself at work, this will be a far better place.”