Skate of the art: can skateboards heal social divides in the developing world?

Can skateboards heal social divides in the developing world? One Belgian social enterprise thinks so – and is roping in some of the hottest names in contemporary art to help

On a sleepy morning in Ixelles, a chic suburb of Brussels, the empty, pristine streets are almost silent – save for the approaching sound of wheels gripping pavement. One solitary figure rolls into view, cruising down the centre of the road. He skids to a halt at 21 Rue du Mail, kicks up his skateboard into his hand, and steps between two slate-grey doors.

Inside, a stockroom is stacked floor-to-ceiling with polished skateboards, crafted from maple trees in Canada before being imported to the Brussels HQ. At first, you’re met with a wall of bright-beige wood – but start flipping the boards over and a kaleidoscope of colourful prints on their underside brightens the workshop. There are Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans printed in eight bold hues, and his Marilyn Diptych on a shimmering gold backdrop. Piled on the next shelf is a series of politically-charged decks designed by LA-based illustrator Shepard Fairey, whose iconic HOPE campaign poster for Barack Obama made visual history. And then there’s the pink-and-gold Kate Board – British artist Grayson Perry’s gilded depiction of the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton.

This is The Skateroom – a social entrepreneurship founded by Belgian businessman and gallerist Charles- Antoine Bodson. Each of the thousands of boards in this room will be sold as limited-edition art pieces, with a portion of each sale donated to skateboarding-focused NGOs. Bodson sold his gift voucher experience business six years ago in order to pursue a passion project in the arts, curating a private collection of skateboard decks painted by contemporary artists. It was around this time that he met Oliver Percovich – founder of Skateistan, anNGO with a focus on supporting children in the developing world through creative learning and skateboarding. The organisation has set up arts-based schools with attached skate parks in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa, providing access to education to over 2,800 children in total, 51% of which are girls – no mean feat in societies where learning is less accessible to them.

“I was convinced by their mission, but struck by their difficulty in raising the funds they needed,” Bodson recalls on meeting Percovich. “I decided to dedicate my collection to Skateistan.” A strong friendship and working partnership sprung from there; today Skateistan is The Skateroom’s primary funds beneficiary. By collaborating with artists – who are usually approached cold by The Skateroom, but who all have an interest in social impact – to create limited-edition boards starting at around €170 (signed editions can auction for up to €43,000), The Skateroom has constructed an economic model whereby at least 10% of its turnover goes towards Skateistan’s development projects.

It’s an approach that’s bagged collaborations with some of the biggest names in contemporary art – but it wasn’t easy to get off the ground. “The first artists we collaborated with were hard to convince,” Bodson remembers. “I had nothing to show them from previous collaborations. I just had to get them to trust me and to believe in Skateistan’s mission.” The first to collaborate was Belgian graffiti star ROA, but it was another project with a controversial artist that led to The Skateroom’s big break. “When we launched our project with Ai Weiwei, everything sold out within a couple of hours,” Bodson grins. But the political slogan-printed decks designed by the activist-artist were far from simple to produce.

“It took six months to get in touch with Ai Weiwei – he was still stuck in China under house arrest. But it was great to work with him once we made contact. He got back in touch when Donald Trump was elected, saying, ‘let’s do it again – with this visual.’” The image? Weiwei’s middle finger directed at the White House. Released on Trump’s 100th day in office, it sold out within two hours.

With such an artist to its name, The Skateroom now has its pick of creatives and has worked with some of the biggest institutions in the world, launching a Jean-Michel Basquiat collection with MOMA New York, and selling decks at the Tate and Serpentine in London. The latest collection, released in June this year, showcases the work of young illustrators Jean Jullien, Jeremyville and Steven Harrington – all keen to get involved in the social project. “It’s very important that this kind of project exists as a way to bring people closer via culture,” Jullien says.

With his background in business and fine art collecting, where did Bodson’s passion for skateboards come from?

“As a kid, I liked to skate,” he says. “And the do-it-yourself nature of skating and art… there are things about those worlds that look alike. You can skate everywhere in the world. It’s a kind of freedom and it connects you with people.” It’s an ethos shared by Percovich, who, having skated from the age of six, naturally brought his board with him when he moved from his native Melbourne to Kabul, Afghanistan, when his girlfriend got a job there over a decade ago.

“I didn’t have a job and I wasn’t tied to an organisation,” he tells us. “I’d skate around and within 20 seconds there’d be a group of kids around me interested in the board. It struck me that although half the population of Afghanistan is under 15, I didn’t see many initiatives engaging children. All those billions of dollars spent on international development, and very little of it was going towards children, especially girls’ education.”

He began to engage with the kids, teaching them to skateboard on the streets with two other volunteers. Before long, about 70 children were joining the sessions, and the effect was something very special. “What I saw was a microcosm of what I wished for the country overall,” he says. “Children coming together from different ethnicities that were otherwise very divided. Kids from middle class backgrounds next to kids who had been shining shoes on the streets their whole lives. It was a little community with a lot of potential.”

As the sessions grew in size, Percovich started paying one of the Afghan girls he’d met to teach her own group of skaters. The wage she earned paid her school fees – and it planted a seed. “I thought of building a school, with a skate park as well as classrooms where we can run classes based on creative learning and critical thinking – the types of skills they’d need to solve the very difficult problems they were going to inherit, to prepare them to be leaders in Afghanistan,” Percovich explains.

After gathering funds from international donors, Skateistan was born in July 2009. Three months later the NGO opened its very first Skate School in Kabul with space for 400 students. “It was definitely the most exciting day of my life so far,” laughs Percovich. Since then, four more schools have opened their doors, supporting the education already available to children with creative learning and a back-to-school ethos in places where access to education is low, or dropout levels are high. These include Johannesburg, the latest project to open in 2015, supported by a Skateroom collaboration with American artist Paul McCarthy.

The two organisations are now working together on their biggest project: opening a Skate School in 2020 in the Zaatari Refugee Camp, on the Syrian border in Jordan – home to some 80,000 displaced people. “A third of the Jordanian population are now refugees,” reveals Percovich. “We want to create opportunities not only for refugees but also Jordanians. We plan to welcome up to 1,200 children there weekly, creating opportunities for refugee children, healing rifts and investing in Jordanians too.”

For Bodson, this is just the beginning. “I would love to see 100 new skate and school installations around the world in 10 years,” he beams. “Skating will be an Olympic sport in 2020, so we have to spread the sport around the world so the US, Brazil or Japan don’t win all the medals!”

Supporting Skateistan also provides a way to address Western attitudes towards retail on a larger scale. “I’m convinced that with socially engaged products, we can change the world,” says Bodson.

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