Practical Approaches, Broken Noses
Morning, high school shop class. My doe-eyed project partner stumbles in with a bruised cheek and a broken arm. What happened, I ask? This boy, so cautious with the drill press and circular saw, had skated off his garage roof, sailed onto a trampoline, and bounced into the swimming pool. Well, halfway in. It was 2002 in America. Skate culture had attained new heights of popularity, and everyone was talking about MTV's Jackass. My project partner was not the only kid with a broken bone as the punch line of an absurd story. What do these kids get out of it, I wondered?
Recently, at the Bicycle Film Festival, a couple of films impressed me with very different interpretations of pain in the sport of BMX. The first, Kostya B.'s Incident A-171, wove shots of BMX riders tricking off everything in Irkutsk between images of trash and faceless individuals in hopeless squallor. Most of the stunts ended in failures ranging from a graceless stagger to a little lost skin, from an epic nutting to possible organ damage. The aesthetic communicated an urban flavored meaninglessness dulled by the high of occasionally flying on your bike, but mostly anesthetized by crashing into concrete and steel structures at speed from a height.
On the other extreme, Philip Kölsch's Venture Further followed professional BMX bikers on a group trip to Southeast Asia. This film strung together inspirational yet condescending soundbites from the riders with shots of successful tricks. The evidence of injuries appears silently on their bodies, a broken nose, a patch of missing skin. Not one crash and only a brief vebal allusion to injury gets airtime.
Necessarily, pain plays a role in the BMX/skate subculture, though the place of pain seems to be in dispute. At the Bicycle Film Festival, I wondered again about the average skater's relationship to pain. So, I took a tour of Helsinki's skate parks, asking, "What does the pain involved in skating/BMX mean to you?"
I arrived first at the skate park in Eläintarha off Nordinskiöldinkatu. If the park isn't covered in snow, it's busy. Young skaters gather here, from preschoolers to teenagers. Enthusiastic children rolled and tumbled over the concrete. No one attempted anything too wild; the focus was on the basics. The littlest ones seemed fearless, bouncing back from falls with the elasticity of the young. I interviewed two of the oldest.
Sakari, 16 Has ridden BMX quite a few years.
"Well, it doesn't bother me that much because, I mean, it's great at the end when you've learned something new. So, I'm cool with it."
Peter, 15 Has ridden his skateboard about 3 years.
"Well, pain. Shit happens. Pain is one part of it, and if there's no pain, no gain. You have to have pain. If you have not had pain, then... You have to just like, get over yourself. Yeah, it's just like, no pain no gain."
Peter and Sakari's outlooks struck a similar chord. They both came across as a little unreflective and goal focused, quite normal for teenagers, really. Would pain morph from a learning experience into something different for an older skater? I headed for Baana to find out.
The city-built skate structures in the long, tunnel-like path were empty, but Eetu and Max had constructed their own ramp by leaning debris against the high stone walls. They took turns skating up the shakey plywood ramp and spinning off of it in fanciful patterns, sometimes imitating each other, sometimes focusing on the same trick until satisfied. They seemed both amused and confused by my question, laughing at one another's responses.
Eetu, 16 Has ridden his skateboard for 2 years.
"I don't know. It's just normal."
Max, 15 Has ridden his skateboard for 3 years.
"When I fail, I fall and shout, but it's ok. It's worth it. You always learn something new when you fail and slam into the ground."
Their attitude, the nonchalance and fixation on pain as learning, echoed the other boys I had talked with. Then again, I'd found skaters of the same age. I decided to visit the skate park between the old power plant at Suvilahti where I'd noticed older skaters congregate. Here I found what I was looking for, riders with 10 plus years under their belt, scars and tattoos, and Vladimir, rolling gamely about the park with his wrist in a cast.
Nikolas, 26 Has ridden his skateboard for a long time.
"Well, when you hurt yourself, you try not to do it the next time. So it's really fast learning. It's like a kid who just likes to play with fire. After he burns himself, he's just not going to do it like that anymore. Something like that, kinda. When you hurt, of course, it hurts. You just try not to hurt anymore. Pretty much that's it. I think it's important. If you don't fall, it means you're not doing enough. If you don't hurt yourself, it tells you you're not doing what you should do."
Vladimir, 27 Has ridden his skateboard for over 10 years.
"You mean physical pain? You deal with it. You love doing it so much that you learn to accept the pain as part of the lifestyle. so you just get over it because it's part of it. You can't skateboard and not get hurt in some way. So you just accept it as part of the lifestyle, whatever you call it, part of the sport."
Pekka, 24 Has ridden his skateboard for about 13 years.
"Ah, I've learned to fall. And being able to deal with pain, knowing that it's a risk, well it's a risk that I'm willing to take, to skate. It's worth it, but mainly because I haven't got hurt seriously in 13 years, which is a bit amazing, I think. But it's good!"
Everyone I spoke with had a very practical relationship with pain. For them, it represented a necessary part of the learning process in their sport, or simply an aspect of the lifestyle. Neither Kölsch nor Kostya B. quite captured the outlook of Helsinki's skaters. As with my shop partner of long ago, pain was neither directly sought nor hidden. Films might valorize or marginalize pain against an exotic background, but here in Helsinki, if you fail and slam into the ground? Just deal with it, it's normal. And do better next time.