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More focus on skateboarders in academic discourse

There are approximately 60 million skateboarders worldwide. And yet in the academic world, this culture is not always looked upon seriously. Visual anthropologist Sander Hölsgens believes that this has to change. Last summer his book 'Skateboarding in Seoul' and the accompanying film 'Reverberations' were released OpenAccess. 'I want to eliminate the stigma that exists around skateboarding. There are so many stories to tell about skateboarders. Those are just as valuable as any other subject within sociology or anthropology.'

Hölsgens himself has been riding the board since he was ten years old. 'Often skateboarding is seen as a toy or something for children. Or people talk about skating as if it is a single subculture that is identical worldwide.' During his travels and fieldwork, he noticed that this is not true. 'A lot of different places have many different skateboarders. They are just like people, actually.' Hölsgens believes it is important to increase awareness within academia for one of the world's biggest subcultures. 'There are maybe 35 scientists worldwide doing long-term research on skateboarding, and they're definitely not all anthropologists. That isn't a lot if you know that there are about 60 million skaters out there.' 

Skater Eugene Choi - Photo by Jin Yob Kim
Skater Eugene Choi - Photo by Jin Yob Kim

Skating in skate parks in Seoul

He conducted six years of ethnographic research in Seoul to map out what is specific about the skaters there. South Korea has 50 million people and the National Skateboard Federation estimates that there are about 20,000 skaters. Who are they? And how do they relate to the social norms? What struck Hölsgens most was that skaters are primarily skating in skateparks and not as much in public spaces. 'That went against everything I had read about skateboarding: namely that skaters use and see urban architecture in a particular way. For many skaters, certain stairs are not a utilitarian object to walk from, but a skateable place with history and meaning.' In Seoul, this is also true, but skateboarding mainly occurs in an enclosed space: the skatepark. 'There are about twenty-five of these parks in Seoul, and not all of them are used for skateboarding. They are the places where you take your family, where you have a barbecue, and where you can be, even when you're not skating.'

'Worldwide, there are 35 scientists doing long-term research on skateboarding. That's not much when you consider that there are 60 million skaters.'

Relating to global skate culture

In his book, Hölsgens describes the intimacy of the parks and the camaraderie among the skaters. South Korea is in some ways a controlled environment. This is reflected in the country's sports history. Sports are primarily regulated by the government and take place in designated areas. The development of skateboarding also took place within that setting. It's striking that more and more counter-movements are occurring. Hölsgens: 'In recent years some skaters in Seoul have tried to relate to skate culture in the rest of the world. They consciously don't go to the skateparks anymore but deliberately seek out public space, partly also to express social criticism.'

Street Skating South Korea - photo by Jin Yob Kim
Street Skating South Korea - photo by Jin Yob Kim

Skateboarding as an Escape from Hell Joseon

Another phenomenon specific to South Korea is one called "Hell Joseon". With this term, a growing group of young people refers to the socio-economic situation in Korea as being hell. Skateboarding is a way to escape this or criticize it. Additionally, skaters have a lot of value for a city because they look at the use of a city differently, Hölsgens says. 'Skaters make a city more beautiful, more dynamic and more interesting. Public space doesn't have to be purely functional. Although it is often said otherwise, skaters think frequently and critically about how to create and take care of meaningful public places. They do care for their city.'

Cover Skateboarding in Seoul
Cover Skateboarding in Seoul

Film and book OpenAccess

Both the book 'Skateboarding in Seoul - A Sensory Ethnography' and the film 'Reverberations' are OpenAccess. 'I believe it is very important to not just keep the results of my research in the academic world, but also give it back to the community with whom I have done research. That's why I believe it's important to publish my work OpenAccess, as well as to share it through, for example, Vice and critical skate platforms like Jenkem.' Hölsgens followed around 15 skaters over a long period and worked closely with photographer Jin Yob Kim. The film takes place in the three largest and most important skateparks in Seoul. The film doesn't show so much the skate tricks, but rather the everyday life and the rhythm in which the skaters live.

Activist research

Hölsgens is currently working on an NWO-funded research project: Documented Complexity. This project deals with the interaction between film and activism and the question of how documentary filmmakers use media to cause social change. Recently a collection of articles was published "In Whose Name?", which was assembled by Hölsgens. 'The research I'm doing now is about injustice. And how you can question that from the position of a researcher and make it understandable.'

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