Ten Thousand Days

The Mystery of the Missing Girls at the Skatepark

April 22, 2016
Photo: Jordan McQueen

Photo: Jordan McQueen

Gratitude, Joy, Oneness and Service (Day 606 – Day 611)

This week I travelled to Barcelona to re-visit the Miro art gallery and Sagrada Familia – two wonders of the world, as far as I am concerned, and two places of refuge that are so good for the soul – well, for my soul, at least.  The previous week, I had the opportunity to sit in the blue light of Gabriel Loire’s stained glass windows and to commune with Caravaggio in Berlin.

What I have been noticing, as I keep my eyes open for graffiti and street art, in these cities, is the tribalism of the streets.  Its a strange tribalism – I am not talking about the community and alliances that exist between street people, but the tribalism of the young men that hang out in the urban streets.

I went to the MACBA to see the contemporary art exhibition in Barcelona.  I love the building, but some of the art leaves me – meh.  What I found most entertaining was watching the skateboarders outside the building, practicing their moves.  I was fascinated with how they managed to skate along and suddenly, not only their feet, but the board was aloft.

Photo: Clem Onojeghuo

Photo: Clem Onojeghuo

You see, skateboarding was not a thing when and where I was growing up.  If it had been, I am pretty sure I would have been one out there practicing.  But then I noticed something – there were no girls or women practicing anywhere.  I thought back to skate parks I have seen in London and there are rarely women there, either.  Well, I suppose I was there, watching, but that was really the only role for a woman.  I find this odd.

When I was a kid, I was a tomboy and my first boyfriend was the boy I went skiing with and who was on the swim team with me.  We rode bikes, skied and swam together and he – to me – was the best friend I had.  It naturally became more than friendship as we grew into our hormones.

I don’t really think I have changed that much from childhood.  I am not athletic like I was as a kid but somewhere in puberty, being physical with boys took on a different connotation and so I transferred by natural tomboyism from the playground to the intellectual arena and I hung out with the boys in mathematics and physics even as I also rounded out my curriculum with English and Theatre Arts (acting, writing, directing etc).

I have often attributed my preference to surround myself with men rather than with women to my experience, at 17, of having my boyfriend cheat on me with (and marry) my best friend.  But, I think it started long before that.  Even in high school, my truest friends were boys.  I had good female friends, but my constant companions were boys – not as boyfriends, but as friends.  The first time my closest friend was a girl was in University and that ended tragically (see incident, age 17, above).  It probably only reinforced for me my preference to surround myself with boys and men.

Surely there are other tomboys out there who don’t buy makeup and shoes and gossip and really just prefer the company of boys and men.  So why are they missing from the skate park?

This fascinates me and so I watched the interaction of the boys.  They weren’t just practicing.  They were – well – showing off.  Much like peacocks, they would do some tricks and then sit down around the performance ring and wait to watch the next dude show his stuff.  It struck me as a place where masculinity (and not just the boarding skills) was on display and where boys could go to be “boys”, without having to impress the girls (because, frankly, the boys were too busy impressing other boys).  I wonder as I write this, whether there is also homophobia in this tribal display.

Urspo commented on my last post about the necessity of rituals and the sense of belonging.  I get this.  We go to school, we complete freshman year, we get through the sophomore blues and then we graduate.  Each is a passage and we are forever identified in some small way with the class of XX.  Communities have rituals.  The London art community has first Thursday art gallery openings.  The Street Art world has paint jams.  All of these rituals create, for the participants, a sense of belonging to a subgroup, somehow.

So what kind of community was this?  Tribes fascinate me because, although I participated in some rituals of different tribes, I never felt a part of one.  In school, I never had a ‘group’ – stoners, nerds, athletes, artists, band, cool kids, hockey kids – I floated between them all and never really stuck with one clan.  In my adult life, I have sought and then eschewed a sense of belonging because of the rules that being a part of a tribe imposes on behaviour.  My adult “tribe” has tended to be individual friendships with very intelligent people who were either artistic themselves or appreciated art.  My tribe is not a tribe, per se, because they are not a group that knows of one another’s existence but are a set of individual friendships that impose no structure or rules of conformity.

So, observing clan behaviour is fascinating to me.  I watched the boys sitting in groups around the skating area.  Newbies would come along, hand slap or fist bump their pals and then do a few tricks, and join a group of friends, to watch the others.  It seemed to me less about skating as much as hanging out together and participating in games of display.

Photo: Matteo Anvila Chinchilla

Photo: Matteo Anvila Chinchilla

In just about every skate park, you will see graffiti. It is no coincidence.  Graffiti is another boys club,  it is territorial and it has strict rules of behaviour.  It is dominated, and always has been, by men, even though there are some great women writers out there.

When I took my graffiti class, I said I would go out and practice my use of a spray can before I signed up for another class.  My instructors (a male graff and a female street artist) both advised me to take someone with me and not to paint alone.  Really?  Well, I didn’t need anyone looking out for the police, because I would not paint illegally.  There are many legal places to practice graffiti in London.  Still, they said, I should not go alone.  For safety’s sake.

I was the only girl on my team for the Physics Olympics in high school, the only woman studying Advanced International Finance and Monetary Theory at university, and the only woman in many of my workplaces in the entertainment business.  I have travelled across the world, ridden night busses in India, travelled through Africa and Asia all as a solo female traveller with a rucksack. I am certainly not going to be intimidated off the streets of my own city.

I told my friend Addila about this and she told me about some research her son had done on the gendered nature of language on the streets.  One of his findings was that the language of females adjusted to the language patterns of the males on the street, in order to be accepted into the tribe.  I thought about this and realised that whenever I speak to Street Artists and Graffiti Writers on the streets and photograph them, I adjust my language.  I didn’t think it was specifically male – I thought it was more a younger generation thing and I desperately hope not to be caught out  as terribly un-hip or rather, un-hip-hop.  But then I realised that my natural tendency to shake someone’s hand became adjusted and morphed into the fist bump.   And so, I too, had adjusted myself to the language, symbols and rituals of the masculine tribe.

What all this means, I don’t know.  I have long been fascinated with the graffiti culture.  But, that culture has changed since I was growing up.  I am from the era of punks and protest.  That came after the New York subway writers and before the hip-hop generation.  I don’t recall punks being particularly dominated by a male tribe.  I used to go dancing and moshing on my own – always dancing with myself – and so I never really was a part of the tribe then, either.  I never spray painted the walls but visited both East and West Berlin and wrote messages of political protest on both sides of the wall, in ink.  Things have changed.

I wonder about all the boys who skateboard. I hope that the Tribe is accepting of them whether they conform to the confines of ‘masculinity’ or not.   And, I am mindful of my sister tomboys who seem to be missing from the skate parks and (to a lesser extent) from the walls.  I have developed a habit somewhere in life of looking at a group and thinking about who is missing in that group, whether it be artists on a wall in an art history gallery or skateboarders in a skate park.  I know the tomboys exist and are somewhere, and I hope they resist the shackles of gender, and gender identity and that they and subsequent generations of girls and women will find – or continue to stake – their place to skate and paint.

Photo: Jevgenij Voronov

Photo: Jevgenij Voronov

I know that many of the younger generation will say that feminism is over.  Perhaps that will change for them, if they find themselves coming up against promotion barriers and pay disparity in the workplace.  Or, if they are sexually assaulted and come up against the institutional abuse that women who report a rape suffer.  I hope that they will not come up against this and that their lives may be ones of basic as well as subtle equality and the inclusion of the feminine face of the divine in what we celebrate.  And perhaps we will see the next generation break all the rules.  Personally, I certainly don’t believe that feminism, the struggle for marriage equality or transgender rights is over, simply because a few rights have been precariously won in Western society.  But, we are all free to disagree.  For what its worth, I will keep speaking up about what I see, and more to the point, I will keep breaking the rules and perhaps the next generation really will have the luxury of thinking that their struggle for equality may, in fact, be over.

I am grateful for the sunshine in Barcelona that had me stop and watch the skaters and realise that like London, it was a male domain.  I am grateful for my friend Addila who affirms for me the existence of a subtle patriarchy on the streets and who – when I told her I was warned not to paint alone didn’t miss a beat in encouraging me to be defiant in staking my ground.  And, I am grateful that I have chutzpah and had a mother that defied, in many ways, gender stereotypes on what a woman could do, because I have always been one to break gender stereotypes while reclaiming my feminine identity in my nickname: Pink.  It was a joy to watch the boarders do their tricks and it made me wish that we’d had skateboards as kids.  I think I would have enjoyed that.  I guess this week, I feel a sense of Oneness with all those girls who played with boys and studied subjects that were mostly considered boy’s subjects.  And, I feel a sense of Oneness with the missing tomboys in the skatepark and with all the sexually fluid and gender fluid boys and girls out there, on and off of their skateboards.  My service this week was to take some time out to fill the well and to spend time in solitude and communion.  Sometimes we need to take a step back and let our curiosity begin to take us into some interesting directions.  And the meaning in all this?  I really don’t know.  I am sure this is not the end of this subject for me.  It is, in many ways, just the beginning.

And so, it remains for me to simply ask:

 

For what are you grateful this week?

 

 

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2 Comments

  • Reply Urspo April 24, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    When we deprive the young of meaningful rituals and tribes they create their own. I sense the skateboarding is a ‘sort of tribe’ although if you told them that or asked what are the entry requirements they would balk at the notion either exists. People are starving for meaningful and satisfying ritual and tribal membership.

  • Reply Tania D. Campbell April 25, 2016 at 7:48 am

    I agree, I totally see tribal behaviour in the skate park. What I don’t understand, yet again, is why the tribe is gender exclusive? Where are the girls? I am certain there must be some who, like me, when I was their age, enjoyed physical challenge and practicing a sport. When we take into account the presence of both graffiti writers and skateboarders in the same locale, the fact that they are both largely lacking female members seems non-coincidental. Tribes – if we are talking about actual tribes – include both genders or they are doomed to die out. In fact, after I wrote this piece, a friend posted on Facebook a photo of a friend – a woman – who is a professional skater. Proof they exist, so where are they practicing? Xx

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