The Bird Man flew and the young guns knew true skating was afoot. With corks and kicks he made landed tricks in a bowl of pale blue.

This month I was in Sydney for a bit and for a few days searching for something to look at other than Manly Beach, my dank youth hostel bunk bed or more colonial architecture.  When the advert for what appeared to be a fiendishly wayward skateboarding competition caught my eye, it was also cheap to go to, so off I went.

Upon further examination I realized this was no minor session, but instead the annual Bondi, Vans Bowl-A-Rama.  It is Australia’s most fiscally significant skateboarding event with the largest pool of prize money. It also attracts the greatest names in vertical skateboarding.  They include Tony Hawk – the Birdman – who defended his Master Class Title this month with a solid victory over runners-up Pat Ngoho USA and Sydney’s own Renton Millar.

Choosing between the younger pros and the old legends I decided to take in some old Gnarly_Hands1school skating and went to the Master Class semi-finals on Sunday the 21st.  The more competitive Men’s and Women’s ‘Pros’ divisions would have been good, but I wanted watch the legends of shred before the Bird Man falls of his perch and starts pushing a Zimmer frame around the bowl.  The contest I did see however, was the best possible incarnation of the true anarchic skateboarding spirit.

Bowl-A-Rama takes place at the Bondi Beach Skate Park, which looms elevated over the sand and with panoramic views of the surf. Everything of the park other than the 12-foot bowl was buried under scaffolding and podiums. Sydney’s tumulus weather had shifted from the staunching humidity of the previous day. Instead, hopping off the bus from the city centre I was battered by wind and rain.

Walking around the event complex scoping out the scene, I was followed by a metallic sounding commentary booming out of the stages internal P.A. system. A cheesy Californian was reminding the small crowd of spectators who had arrived early of the power of positive thought and not to go “nelly” on him. The weather did in fact clear and that night I itched terribly from the surprise sunburn I acquired.

The commercialization of skateboarding has been considered a long-time threat to the anarchic street spirit of the sport. Many fear that the rise of large corporations into the skateboarding merchandise market will result in professional skateboarding becoming more centred around showboating competitions as control of the skating industry leaves the streets. Says pundit Lurper, writing for Junkem mag: “Instead of inefficiently, creatively, and collaboratively creating skate videos, skaters will efficiently and competitively enter into the highly predictable, standardized, quantifiable, and controllable world of mega-contests.”

Gnarly_Hands2Vertical skating has been the style most heavily criticized in terms of abandoning the original spirit of skating in favour of commercialized competition. The criticism is mainly due to the fact that it revolves around the constructed skate parks, not the ever-changing city environment of the street.

This criticism continues to be flung at the vertical skate world even though street skating owes its existence to the evolution of Vert skating in the 1970s, when the “ollie” was first invented. It is also the case that street skating itself has, in the previous decade, become thoroughly commercialized – party to a multitude of competitions including Street League which is comparable to the X games in the Vertical world.

What I saw at the Bowl-A-Rama master class was in no way uncreative, predictable and non-gnarly. Instead, skaters regularly mixed up their sets to personally challenge the previous performance, creating an atmosphere of internal competition between the athletes. It was gratifyingly clear they go out of their way to outdo each other’s personal tricks, where a larger score may have been achieved with a more reliable set run. In one instance this took the form of a hand plant grudge match between all those in the top five of the contest.

This was the whole purpose of the master class division. A calculated effort by the competition coordinators to maintain an atmosphere of skating that was more reminiscent of the original skating mantra, the pursuit of gnarliness. It would be impossible to expect the under-25-year-olds in the pro division to forsake maintaining competitive performance, and the favour of their sponsors, to maximize risky creativity. Their careers are so young, fluid, fragile and dependent on consistency.Gnarly_Hands3

Only the veterans whose professional careers are largely over are fit for this task. Tony Hawk, whilst trying to ensure he won the contest, was visually superb. Unloading an arsenal of aerial manoeuvres in each set that one would only think possible in one of his video games. His 540-degree corks in particular were a paramount performance, which none of his competition attempted. All the while he followed his personal creed of expanding the known world of gnarly skating whenever possible. So was Bowl-A-Rama rad? You bet your nelly ass.

Words by Reuben Wylie

Art by Clare Moran