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Blake Hannan, Hack, Joe Hollander, Owen Madden

Photo: Joe Putrock

Ride and Shine

A multigenerational Albany skateboarding community rallies around the arrival of pro skater Kris Markovich

By Josh Potter

When Blake Hannan describes the way Kris Markovich skateboards, he gets a distant look in his eyes. You can almost see the highlight reel flashing across his retinas, an endless series of ollies, kick-flips and board-slides set to a charging soundtrack of Dinosaur Jr. and the Butthole Surfers. It’s the way an artist describes one of the great masters, whose work stands as the medium’s apotheosis, whose technique approaches the ineffable. When he finds words to describe it, they come out in short blasts before receding to nonverbal awe. “He skates faster than any fucking human on the planet. It’s just absurd.”

No doubt, most who are familiar with Markovich as an athlete and icon of skateboarding culture would find similar things to say about him. In the early ’90s, Markovich exploded into the world of professional skateboarding with a fast and fearless style that helped liberate the sport from the parks and pools of California and make street skating a popular and progressive discipline nationwide. But when Hannan speaks of him, it’s less in reverence for the icon Markovich has become than in appreciation for his style, an abstract quality that owes as much to his personality and prowess with a paintbrush as his ability on a skateboard.

In the late ’90s, Hannan was team manager for Element Skateboards, a brand that has its roots in Albany, was popularized by the likes of Markovich, and has grown to be one of the largest names in skateboarding’s history. For a couple of years, the two traveled the country together between demos and competitions. Hannan handed logistical concerns like getting the team’s skaters to the ER when needed and keeping them out of the backs of cop cars, while Markovich flexed his star power.

When anyone reminisces about athletic achievement, it’s easy to assume that, at the core, there’s some remorseful nostalgia, or at least the need for vicarious aggrandizement. Skateboarding, though, isn’t a sport where athletes hit their prime, win championships, retire into coaching gigs, and get fat with the memory of glory days. It borders on cliché, but skateboarders of any age will tell you that what they do is a lifestyle. Greatness is judged not by the stunts of a spry body, but in the assertion of a personal style over the course of an entire lifetime spent within skate culture. In this sense, Markovich is less sports hero than cultural ambassador, and his jump into the world of graphic art was a remarkably natural one.

Katie McKrell

Photo: Joe Putrock

At the helm of his own independent Atlanta-based skateboard company, Given, Markovich is on the road much of the year, showing paintings and skating, but since their days with Element, Hannan and Markovich have remained friends. When Markovich arrives this weekend for a skate demo at the Shelter Skatepark in Albany and the Taken for Given art show at the Ninefourlex Gallery on Lexington Avenue, Hannan and the sizable community of local skaters are heralding it as a sort of homecoming. For some, the events are occasion to reunite with those who remember skate culture of the late ’80s and ’90s, and for others they function as a window into Albany’s little-known skateboarding history.

Despite the level of mainstream appeal that skateboarding has achieved in the past decade due to superstars like Tony Hawk, media events like the X-Games and video games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, the sport originally was viewed as a deviant activity, discouraged by the police and relegated to a place in society that might authentically be called “underground.” By the early ’80s, skateboarding had become conventional in places like California, due to the prior presence of surf culture and municipal funding for skate parks, not to mention the publication of Thrasher magazine, which delivered images of the culture all across the country. But skating in Albany was still relatively unheard-of. The story of skateboarding in Albany, then, is a circuitous one—a true oral history full of discrepancies, contradictions, hearsay and way too many figures for this account to be considered comprehensive. The closest thing to an authoritative document, though, came out this year in the form of a four-part documentary about Element Skateboards founder Johnny Schillereff called Make It Count: The Element Story. His friends, in this case, fill in the rest.

Before Schillereff moved to Albany with his military-officer father in the ’80s, skateboarding had experienced a small boom in the late ’70s. According to Hannan and another early skater named “Hack,” the story was that a kid named Nick Miller (aka Nick Grind, later the frontman of Albany glam band Lethal Lipstick) brought his board to the Altamont Fair, where a company had set up a demo halfpipe. After demonstrating his skill, Miller scored sponsorship from early skateboard manufacturer Kryptonics and Pepsi. Shortly after, Miller’s father funded the construction of a concrete pool-style skate park called Sonic Wave in Albany’s West End, where the Polish Community Center now stands. The park was short-lived. The owner allegedly burned the building down and filled the pools with dirt.

One of Hack’s earliest skateboarding memories is collecting tools with Hannan and Schillereff to go dig out the fabled skate oasis around 1984. The effort was ill-fated and ultimately insignificant, as street skating was about to become the next big thing.

Schillereff had been skating for years, as his parents moved from one military job to the next, and a stint at Virginia Beach’s fabled “Mount Trashmore” skatepark had him hooked on skate culture by the time his father’s divorce brought him to Albany. As his home life fell into further dysfunction, Schillereff skated more and more, rapidly becoming a ringleader in the fledgling skateboarding community.

As Hack says, “We found ourselves constantly looking for new terrain on our skateboards. We all came from different places, but skateboarding brought us together.”

Albany’s unique downtown architecture offered a veritable amusement park of possibilities for skaters growing hip to the idea of street skating, a discipline more creative than its predecessors, and rapidly began drawing crowds of young skaters. Early videos show a young Schillereff grinding curbs at the Empire State Plaza, jumping barriers on State Street and sliding handrails in Quakenbush Square with the Palace Theatre marquee in the background. Hack recalls hauling a T-bench from the third floor of the legislative building down to the stairs outside, and sneaking into the tunnels underneath the plaza and below SUNY Albany when the snow came.

In the documentary, Jeremy Fish, a pro skater and artist who was raised in Saratoga Springs, says, “In some of these smaller metropolitan areas, after five o’clock it’s a skateboarder’s paradise because the whole fucking city shuts down and everyone leaves.” Suddenly, through street skating, you didn’t have to be a suntanned kid from Venice Beach to be a skateboarder. “We were, for the first time, almost coming close to having pride in where we were from.”

“Before the cops really started cracking down,” Hannan says, “there would be crews of 50 skateboarders at a time, from all different cities, with jump ramps dragged out there. In the ’80s, cops didn’t really know what was up with skating, but they caught on quick after we started destroying shit.”

After Schillereff was arrested a couple of times on vandalism charges, his father kicked him out of the house. The young skater moved to an abandoned apartment downtown where he siphoned electricity through the closet and took the bus uptown everyday to try and finish high school. While Schillereff’s situation was severe, it was not uncommon for teenage skaters to come from challenging family situations. If anything, this fact may have been responsible for how cohesive the group of skateboarders became.

“Shit was less than desirable at home,” Hack says. “You didn’t want your mom or dad in the game because neither of them were going to fucking show up. Albany’s got a shitload of that. We were mentored by somebody other than our parents. We were feral street creatures.”

“We were the weird kids who didn’t want to be on the soccer or football team,” Hannan adds.

Kris Markovich

“There wasn’t even the thought of the soccer team,” says Hack. “We’d just meet at the plaza. The lights stayed on well past dark. My whole understanding of companionship and dependency is based on the cheers of my friends, the ones I looked up to who said ‘I’ll teach you. I’ll foster you. I’ll fucking raise you.’ ”

Nick Hartman, a somewhat older skater at the time and early skateboarding entrepreneur, cites the statistic that, as of the late ’90s, 90 percent of “successful” skateboarders came from broken homes. Having come up during skateboarding’s first boom in the ’70s, Hartman is revered as the scene’s father figure, who convinced Schillereff to finish up at Shaker High and reportedly could execute a fine skateboard handstand.

“Nick Hartman saw something in skateboarding at a time when it was so underground,” says Hannan. “Even before Concrete Beach, he saw that there was this awesome thing going on. He grabbed that energy and somehow threw some money behind it. The guy at the Downtube was just cool enough to let him do it.”

In 1986, Hartman was allowed one corner of the Downtube Bicycle Works to sell skateboarding gear. Shortly thereafter, he opened a shop of his own called Concrete Beach on Lark Street, next to the Ben and Jerry’s where Hack worked and across the street from a gallery where Schillereff was a receptionist. The shop became headquarters for the local skate scene and sponsored a team that included the aforementioned riders, as well as Ross Hannan, Blake’s younger brother, whose natural skill the group reveres to this day.

Musician Katie McKrell, who began to hang out with skaters as a teen in the early ’90s, is quick to point out that there were plenty of girls involved in the scene. “When I was younger, skateboarders hung out with Betties. It’s a horrible name, but these guys would all be skating the [Washington Park] monument, and we’d be hanging out. We were all in the shitbag together, wearing flannel before Kurt Cobain, getting spit on. It was us against the world, and that’s what’s kept us together.”

If ever there was a golden era, the late ’80s seemed to be it. Concrete Beach was an unabashed eyesore to the Lark Street neighborhood, with crowds of kids skating the curb out front for hours or ducking into the Ben and Jerry’s to hassle Hack for free ice cream. Other skate shops opened in town, but Concrete Beach prided itself on throwing the biggest events, including a number of demos and contests in Washington Park featuring professional skaters, which drew crowds of more than 200. The details of these events are subject to debate between Hack, Hannan, and S.M. Smith, a skater who migrated to Concrete Beach from Delmar, and exact years are determined by who was old enough to drive at what point in time. Hannan established himself as a mentor figure early on, gaining the trust of some younger skaters’ mothers to drive them back and forth from events. The hardcore punk scene drew droves of skaters by night, and if there wasn’t a crew skating the plaza or lower State Street by day, there would be at the 1950s-era concrete pool at Burden Lake, a nationally recognized skate spot Hannan calls a “skater’s paradise,” the exact location of which is still closely guarded by local skaters.

This is the point at which Schillereff’s story leaves Albany. In 1989, Schillereff was noticed by pro skater Andy Howell and asked to join the New Deal team. However, only a short time into his professional skateboarding career, Schillereff broke his ankle in Brooklyn and was cut from the team. Determined to make a career out of his passion, he stayed on with the company, learning the design and business components of the industry, factors that would prove intimately connected. In 1992, Schillereff moved to Atlanta, where he started Underground Element, which later became Element Skateboards. The first skateboard brand to embrace both hip-hop culture and environmental consciousness, Element ultimately became one of the most recognizable names in skateboarding.

If Schillereff’s story suggests that the world of skateboarding has little use for orthodoxy, Kris Markovich’s story confirms it. Raised in Atlanta, Markovich turned pro in 1990 and made a name for himself as an aggressive street skater. The point at which Markovich decided to leave his prior sponsorship and ride for Element is considered the beginning of that brand’s rise to prominence. However, Markovich and Schillereff had their differences from the start.

“When I rode for Element, the artwork and graphics were a huge roadblock for me,” Markovich says. “Looking back now, I understand what [Schillereff] was going for, but at the same time [the other skaters and I] wanted to be more individual with our graphics.”

Element is known for its sleek, computer-designed logo, a factor that’s been critical to the company’s success in branding, but Markovich thought the style had a homogenizing effect. Ever since an elementary school art teacher told him it would be a good idea to carry around a sketchbook, he drew and painted everywhere he went, especially on tour.

“As a kid, being able to decide what you put on the bottom of your board is like the ultimate honor,” he says, “so I knew that if I was ever allowed to paint my own graphics, I would.” With Given, a company he runs with his wife, Markovich now has full creative control, an expressive outlet as important as the actual act of skateboarding. Beyond skateboard design, he now works on large pieces of canvas as well as mural projects. Not coincidentally, his painting style is often compared to his skating style.

“I’m a little bit art-retarded, but I didn’t know they made rolled canvas, so I’d always buy stretched canvas, nail it to the wall, and paint so hard the canvas would bounce off the nails.” In contrast to Element’s sleekness, Markovich’s style has a hand-painted quality owing to graffiti, tattoo design, and Mexican iconography. Huge faces emerge from cityscapes and sugar skulls dance in bright solid colors.

Ross Hannan

Photo: Joe Putrock

The rigors of skating, painting and running his company keep Markovich on the road much of the time, but he says that travelling to smaller skateboarding communities is one of the things that he enjoys most. “California is the Mecca of skateboarding, industry-wise, but it’s so oversaturated with skateboarders that it’s really hard to actually go skateboarding.”

It’s been 10 years since Markovich last skated in Albany, but he remembers liking it. “I’ve seen footage of [Shelter Skatepark] and it looks really good. It all depends not on the caliber of skateboarder, but skateboarders that are true to skating. They’re going to make that park really good and that generates the whole scene.”

Despite its countercultural orientation, it’s still tempting to gauge success in skateboarding according to the careerism of American society and view figures like Schillereff and Markovich as the ones who “made it.” Both have been successful in making their personal articulation, or style, of skateboarding accessible to the masses through design and branding, but this, it seems, is a process that every skater takes on, regardless of whether they’re getting paid for it. If this dynamic can turn divisive in the culture’s highest ranks, it can be deeply unifying on the street.

When Hack dropped Nick Hartman off at the Rensselaer train station for a job in Manhattan around the same time Schillereff left town, the torch was passed to a group of Albany skaters intent on fostering the community that had sprung up in the late ’80s. Concrete Beach folded, a few skaters tried the college thing, but skateboarding held this group of friends together.

On a recent day, Hack, Hannan, Smith, McKrell and Laetitia Hussain—all of whom will be showing their artwork at the Taken For Given show—gathered on Lark Street to rehash memories and genuflect at the site of the old Concrete Beach. Hannan shakes his head at a chewed-up step in front of the building that now houses EB Essentials.

“We would skate this curb for hours,” he says. “People on Lark Street fucking hated that.”

“There was an exodus in the ’90s,” Smith says, “but there is a core of people who never left, not for a lack of talent, but because it was a conscious life decision.” In fact, the ’90s were a time when the group became more fully conscious of its identity, developing artwork (often collaborative paintings) alongside their skateboarding, mentoring younger skaters, and throwing notoriously rowdy shows. “We said, ‘Alright, we’ve got something here that’s good. Let’s see if we can make it better.’”

While Hannan did leave to tour with Element from 1997 to ’99, and later helped Markovich develop his first company, Crimson, in California, his dedication to the area remained. It’s something he literally wears on his sleeve. “I’m on tour in ’97, we’re in New York City on the Lower East Side, probably hungover as hell from the night before, and I’m like, ‘I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna put “Shiner” on my fucking arm.’ ”

At mention of the story, Hack and Smith roll up their sleeves to reveal matching tattoos, but, when asked to define the term, words escape them in the way words escaped Hannan in describing Markovich’s style. It’s clearly something holy, a term that would lose its vitality if strictly defined.

“I think it’s a fucking black eye,” Hack says at last.

“. . . and all that encompasses,” Smith adds.

Finally, Hack tells the story: “When I was a kid, I used to go to the movies by myself a lot. It was largely because I had a massive crush on this gorgeous girl with a pillbox hat who worked the popcorn counter at the Spectrum Theatres. I used to go all the time, sweated the piss out of her. One night, when I was older, I was out and a friend said, ‘Hey, there’s this girl that wants to meet you.’ And it was the girl from the concession stand. Well, we hit it off, which was like the biggest prize, but I was young, immature, and got myself into a situation where this guy just boxed me out. I wake up in the ambulance with my mom and my sister. So, the next day I have to recoup myself, figure out who I am, and start taking pictures of my eye, working it into my drawing and painting. It represented that it was time to put up or shut up, and completely resonated with other people. ‘Shiner’ is kind of a rallying cry. I’m sure everyone has a different interpretation, but that would make the most sense.”

“There’s a dichotomy in being a Shiner,” McKrell adds. “There’s the black eye and then shining in life.” She rattles off a list of names the Shiners have mentored over the years, many of whom have gone on to become professional skateboarders and artists. Jeremy Fish, an artist who’s done design work for rap artist Aesop Rock as well as Nike skateboarding shoes. Phil Frost, whose coffee table book you can find in Borders. Kenny Reed, a pro skater who opened the first skatepark in Kabul, Afghanistan, to share the sense of unity he found in Albany. Curtis Rapp, a young area skater who just won Slap magazine’s coveted One in a Million national amateur skate video contest. John Marshall, who pulled second. And Owen Madden, a 21-year-old whose Shiner tattoo hasn’t even healed yet.

“There’s snow on the ground six months of the year, and some of the gnarliest skateboarders who have made and changed the industry come from here,” says McKrell, the group’s reigning matriarch. “The guy who wins the Slap competition still has an idea where he came from because these guys are around saying, ‘Let’s be humble and remember why we do this.’ ”

In total, the group estimates there are around 30 Shiner tattoos in the world, one of which is on Kris Markovich’s arm. The demo on Friday and the art show on Saturday, then, are more than celebrations of skateboarding and painting, but rather of a community and its social code. Al Aviles, vice president of the Shelter Skatepark (a large warehouse space on Commerce Street that celebrated its sixth birthday this year), has given the group access to another building he owns, 94 Lexington St., for the art show Smith describes as a sort of “happening.” Markovich will display a number of large canvases, along with the work of 10 local artists. If all goes well, the group hopes to make such events a regular thing.

Regarding Albany, a city that these skaters still carry deep resentment against for never building a municipal skatepark or otherwise fostering their sport, Smith says, “You can either make it something good or complain about it and be miserable. More than anything now, it’s about raising my son here and trying to improve it.”

Smith has begun teaching his 7 year old the tricks he first saw on Tony Hawk Pro Skater. “I put a ramp in front of my house and all of a sudden there are four kids I’ve never seen hitting it. That’s what skating is. It brings people together. They’re all trying things at their own ability, but already there’s community.”

As if on cue, a teenager wearing an Element hoodie walks by the group of Shiners, only feet from the curb where it all began. Hannan calls after the kid excitedly, but he walks on toward Lancaster Street.

“To the curb, to the bank, to State Street,” Hack jokingly commands, rehashing the familiar route. “Boards were dropped right here, and then it soared elsewhere.”

jpotter@metroland.net

Pro skateboarder Kris Markovich will conduct a demo at the Shelter Skatepark (35 Commerce Ave., Albany) tomorrow (Friday, Dec. 11) at 5:30 PM. The Taken for Given art show is from 6 to 10 PM on Saturday (Dec. 12) at the Ninefourlex Gallery (94 Lexington Ave., Albany).


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