San José International Airport. Around six in the morning. “Nice rims,” I’m saying to the dreadlocked taxi driver as he is lifting my suitcase into the back of his tuned Japanese sportster. The sun is blasting with the self-evidence of a civil servant job and no more than 500 meters away from the airport, we’re already stuck in the rush-hour mess of metal boxes. I’ve learned my first two lessons about Costa Rica pretty quick: the sun rises and goes down at six all year – hence the boys are motivated to get going early in the morning to get as much done as possible – and you have to deal with that kind of traffic. We will spend a lot of time in it. Even the driving skills of my host, the filmer Francisco Saco, who sees lanes as a well-meant advice rather than normative limits and who zigzags his Hybrid SUV through every little gap that opened up a split second ago, honking like a madman, aren’t really helping us much. Nonetheless, it’s imperative to travel by car. Pushing from spot to spot? Forget it. Almost as fun as learning how to scratch on a cheese grater. There seems to be a ban on imports of smooth asphalt and marble slabs. Welcome to Crusty Rica!
So let’s talk about the obvious right at the beginning: the roughness. Even when the locals yearn for perfect ground from time to time, they are secretly proud of their raw skateboarding habitat and everyone has at least one story of full-blown pros just shaking their heads. Even Nyjah had to give up on a handrail here. Fine, he nollie crooked another one instead – after it had served him a furious sack for the beginning of his “Rise & Shine” part. “I think anyone who comes here despite their level, whether they are super mega mutant pros from the States or just traveling visitors from South America or Europe, recognizes how goddamn hard it is to skate this country because of the ground,” Francisco bluntly describes the circumstances. Plaza spots? No way! Banks covered with pigeon shit and cracks, ledges that are grinded to death on downhill sidewalks, and shoulder-high hubbas out of board-eating concrete? You can have as many as you want of those! Whoever wants to skate here has to be able to suffer.
I was gonna find out myself. But it’s these special spots that constitute this special vibe. You can only find this Caribbean NYC look here and Francisco captures it perfectly. Crusty spots filmed with a crusty Hi-8 camera. “HD is for car commercials,“ he declares with the confidence given by the Cuban blood pumping through his veins. The studied filmmaker is concerned with other things than the hi-tech fetish of Ty Evans. He partly works with storytelling elements. For example, he wanted to present the locals as wild natives in the style of ethnological documentation movies in his video Video Diays. He tried to exaggerate the wildness of the spots and the skaters to the extent of clichés that are connected to the image of the banana republic itself, an image that he likes to curse about rather fondly. Despite the previous descriptions, you shouldn’t fall for the fallacy that this is a third-world country in desperate need for a non-profit skatepark project to make the indigenous kids smile while they learn their ollies barefooted. This is the Switzerland of Latin America and the locals manage everything pretty good themselves. The scene there is pretty active. Skateboarding even has a long tradition in Costa Rica.
The country has bonded with America early on and started to import goods and lifestyle accordingly. Let it be surfing (yeah, although they have the best beaches here, they didn’t come up with it themselves) or later on skateboarding in the '70s. However, it did take till the mid '90s for the Chepesent crew to appear as an organization to open up the first indoor skatepark in Costa Rica. Yes, indoor – because during the rainy season, you better have a roof over your head. Even if the rainy weather isn’t comparable to the European winter breaks, a shelter like this is really useful. But outdoor skateparks have blossomed everywhere as well. There are 92 by now – and almost all of them are shitty, as the locals complain. The responsible politicians mostly hire planners who have no idea about skateboarding and the results of that are possibly well known all around the world. Just over the past couple of years, skaters were able to take matters into their own hands in order to build better parks. The government welcomes initiatives like these because they see skateboarding as a good way to keep the youth away from drugs (although they still don’t give the support that would be needed). Skating is pretty popular here in general.
"It’s weird in Costa Rica cause so many non-skaters wear skate brands."
On the way to a spot, the unverified claim pops up that skating might be the second most popular sport in Costa Rica after soccer. I see a huge DC billboard next to the freeway and there is even a show on cable TV called Sk8 Nation, which is all about skateboarding. It’s as mainstream as it gets and as cheesy as possible – it’s presented by two ladies that dress and behave like it’s some kind of extreme sports Playboy TV for teenagers – but its existence alone proves the relevance. The actual scene is small in comparison because not too many stick to it and immerse that deeply, but there’s a huge market (especially regarding the five million inhabitants of Costa Rica) as the photographer Olman Torres explains: “It’s weird in Costa Rica cause so many non-skaters wear skate brands. That’s why we have a big market for the skateboard industry. The distributors sell a lot of products, so it’s possible for me to do a magazine.” It’s called Stand By and Olman founded it four years ago. After studying photography, he started working for a surf magazine that featured a couple of pages of skateboarding and eventually started doing his own thing. He’s able to live off of it and photographs all over Latin America.
With welcoming understatement, he doesn’t think that he refurbished the scene from the bottom up, but the skaters let him sense the emotional value of his doings. They still want to see their photos printed, and Stand By is one of the few print projects in Latin America that focus on skateboarding (well, actually the numbers aren’t really that much higher in Europe). The consumer behavior has changed. Francisco thinks that there hasn’t ever been a big collector scene in Costa Rica, almost no skate nerds, no tradition of full-length videos. “That is why the Costa Rican audience is perfectly designed for this Instagram form of consuming skateboarding.” However, he still has managed to expose the scene to a wide audience with his Hi-8 videos – recently by making probably the best Costa Rican skate video so far called Canasta. Also younger skaters, like Kevin Mejia, appreciate it even though they’ve fully internalized the new consumer habits. “You watch skateboarding on your phone all the time, but I don’t think it influences me that much. What I really like to do is to sit down on the toilet and read a physical magazine.” Kevin has the last part in Canasta and his skating breathes new life into the scene.
Daniel Chacon – Ollie
While the dominant influence has kept on coming from the American West Coast for years – which explains why still to this day no one hesitates to get on a 13 stair handrail or to fly down a terrifying double set – brands like Magenta, Palace, or Polar are considered inspiring examples nowadays. People focus more and more on running local brands. Kevin, for example, produces shirts with his own artworks as a hobby and started Vagabond together with Miguel Castro. And the Columbia-born, half-Dutch Dani Vuurmans contributes to the vivid scene by running Solowood Skateboards. From a simple video, the brand evolved in 2009 and has turned into the biggest board company among the four existing ones within the country. Of course, he can’t survive off of it, but next to working as an architect, he’s pretty busy just running it. Still many kids only know about US brands, which is why he’d like to let his company grow in order to offer the scene something that is rooted in Costa Rica. Solowood has slowly started to outgrow the country’s frontiers or rather the ones of Latin America. He guesses that no Latin American company has ever made it outside of the continent because the region is associated with low quality.
But they produce at Generator and do everything else you cherish board companies for: they support local contests, cooperate with artists, do tours, and collect cash for DIY projects, which can still be improved as Olman laments: “We are very lazy in context of DIY. We don’t really have a DIY culture.” One of the most famous DIY spots, the El Caño ditch, was basically built by longboarders. Francisco adds with a grin: “Skateboarders here are a bit selfish, they expect everything to be done for them, they don’t do the work. No one knows how to fix a spot, how to use Bondo. Costa Rica is kind of a lazy banana republic, but I don’t mean it in a horrible way, this is part of the attraction. There are two speeds here: slow and stop. Pura Vida of course.”
Roberto Chaves – 50-50 Gap out
By now, we’re on our way to the airport and he’s stepping on the gas once again while saying that. His pace is a different one. He’s motivated, always ready to get things rolling, get projects running. And so he did during my stay in Costa Rica. He got the crew on their toes and made sure that we got enough footage. But it didn’t really seem like they needed extra motivation. Even if the spots are rough, they know how to handle them and are ready to squeeze one more trick out of them. After they dropped me off at the departure terminal, they’re on to the next street mission. Maybe I’ll join once again soon. Pura Vida Ticos!