Interview & portrait: Kingsford
Tell us about your Brexit road trip.
After living in Berlin for six months, my tenancy was coming to an end. I knew I had a bunch of trips coming up, so I didn’t want to commit to a new flat. I had thought about buying a van and converting it into a camper in the past but I’d talked myself out of it for various reasons. In March I found myself with enough money to either put down a deposit for a new flat and pay two months’ rent or buy a van and convert it. I was like: “Fuck it, I’m just going to do that,” so I bought the van without really having a solid plan. I had a loose idea that I wanted to try and drive it to Portugal to go surfing, but my plans changed because one of my friends was having his 30th birthday in Berlin in July. I decided to drive the van there, then do a little road trip through Europe with some friends. I spent two weeks sleeping in the van in Berlin then left it there while I went to Malmö for Pushing Boarders and back to the UK for that Nike tour (The UK Boardwalk Tour). At that point, I’d spoken to some friends and we’d come up with a plan to drive through Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and down into Croatia to go to Vladimir Film Festival.
I had hoped to stay on in Europe after Vladimir. The original plan was to carry on driving through Italy, France and Spain and then into Portugal. I wanted to spend November, December and January there, learning how to surf. Unfortunately my insurance company told me that I couldn’t have the van in Europe longer than three months because of changes to my policy relating to Brexit, so I started calling it the Brexit Road Trip because my route was redirected back to the UK. I was made aware of this change during Vladimir, so instead of driving to Portugal, I decided to drive back to the UK via Italy and France. My travel companions all had to leave after Vladimir, so I asked you to join me for the last leg and we came up with a plan to try to shoot some photos for this interview.
The trip had a melancholy feel for me, maybe to do with autumn arriving but I think also to do with Brexit approaching at the end of October, or so we thought. I didn’t feel that sad until I got back to the UK. I was driving out of Folkestone and it was pissing down with rain when I saw this massive banner hanging from a bridge on the M20 that said: “Prepare for Brexit.” I definitely felt quite upset at that moment. It finally dawned on me that I wasn’t going to be able to live in my van in Europe like I had planned.
What inspired you to convert the van in the first place?
I had wanted to do it for years. I travel a lot, and although I get free time between skate trips, it’s unpredictable, so I can’t really commit to much. I’m not very good at being idle, so the van seemed like a great project to work on over the summer between trips. I liked the idea of being free to move location, so if I wake up one morning and the weather is nice, I can just drive to the beach or the mountains and sleep there for a few days. That kind of freedom is very appealing to me. My friend Palermo (Julian Weigand) in Berlin was also a big inspiration. He’s got a van in Portugal, where he goes surfing every winter to escape the terrible weather in Berlin. He showed me pictures and gave me some advice on which van to buy and the best and cheapest ways to convert it.
Did you do most of it yourself?
Yes, apart from the electrics.
We spoke a lot about what to do in the future while we were away.
I definitely think a lot about the future and it usually gives me anxiety. Whilst I am so happy to be a professional skater and understand how lucky I am to have my hobby as a job, I do get caught up in the same cycle of questioning what I want to do after, or what I think I am capable of doing after skating even. I definitely have a rough idea, but I’m aware it will be a big transition. Naturally this makes me nervous. Actually I feel like the trip was a way of trying to escape this way of thinking and help me concentrate more on the present. I reckon we were having those conversations because we were on our way back to London and I knew I was probably going to end up spending the winter there. I don’t deal with being idle in London very well.
I definitely get the impression that you’re quite restless lately and unsure where to settle.
You can be based anywhere as a professional skater, as long as you can still get coverage and do your job. I am aware that I won’t always have this opportunity, so I want to try to get the most out of it while I can. When the time comes to get a job that ties me somewhere, I don’t want to regret not having made the most of this freedom. That’s why I travel a lot and try to get involved in various projects. I am always asking myself where I want to be based in the future though.
As climate change is topical, was there an environmental motive to driving around Europe this summer as opposed to flying further afield?
This is a good question. I actually questioned whether buying the van was a mistake because it is diesel and is obviously bad… that’s why you’re not allowed to drive them in the centre of some major cities, like Paris. But I went ahead and later convinced myself that if I had enough people in the van driving over to Europe, that would be better than us all flying over. The rest of the time there were only really two people in the van though, and a friend of mine calculated that my CO2 emissions were actually not that much better for the environment than flying. I’m definitely going to take this into consideration for future trips with the van.
When I interviewed you back in 2013 you said that skateboarding wasn’t the most important thing in your life and that you preferred working as opposed to skating full-time. In your Free interview last year you seemed more at ease with being a professional skater. Where are you at with this now?
I guess I accepted that my job is just to skate so I’m enjoying that for the time being. I suppose I’m feeling a lot more settled in that. I’m also aware that it’s possible to have other interests alongside skateboarding, which allows the chance to organically transition into whatever I choose to do after I’m no longer able to live off skating alone.
You always seem interested in other things. Lots of skaters seem completely immersed in skating. I am actually quite envious of that.
There are times when I am fully immersed in skating, usually if I’ve got a project to work on. So when I did that Free interview and that project with Jake (Harris), I was really immersed because I had a focus that I really cared about… When I don’t have a solid project I’m working on that occupies my day-to-day, that’s when I need to do something else. Otherwise it’s easy for me to go down a bit of a hole and start worrying about things.
On the Boardwalk Tour this summer you spoke about being scared of hitting your head again after a bad slam in Barcelona a few years back and also being knocked out in Peckham when you first moved to London. Can you talk about that?
Yes. I’ve had a few small head knocks in the past, which I’m sure most skaters have, but like you said, there have been two heavier ones that still worry me today. One being from that trip in Barcelona where I got a concussion and the other time when I was jumped walking home after a night out in London. On both occasions I had scans and was told there was no bleeding on the brain and that I was completely fine and would make a full recovery, which I did, but I still find it easy to convince myself that I’m likely to develop a particular illness or disease in the future that will ruin my life. A recent one was chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). I read an article just before that Nike tour on Jenkem about the condition that made me worry about developing it later in life. I haven’t hit my head as much as Pedro Delfino, but I definitely want to avoid hitting it again. These worries are a little more complex than me just being a hypochondriac. Back in 2012 my dad had an accident and hit his head, which has resulted in him needing continuous care ever since. This alone has made me worry more about head injuries. To add to this, over the years I’ve become increasingly aware of my mental health, which I’ve definitely had problems with. I know that there is a direct link between head injuries and mental illnesses. All this can make skate trips difficult – my worries can make me hold back more than I’d like to – and I do find it easier to convince myself not to try something scary because I could hit my head, so I’d be lying if I said this hasn’t changed the way I skate at all.
I really respect Mike Vallely, who is urging kids to wear helmets. It has such a stigma within street skating, which is a real shame because although it’s not something you should worry about as much as I have, people should be more conscious of the problems caused from continuous knocks to the head. I’m almost sure in the future we’ll see something similar to what is happening in football today, where you see loads of retired professionals developing CTE and dementia. I think there should be more awareness of these issues within skating. Aside from that Jenkem article, the only time I have read about this stuff was after Dave Mirra committed suicide.
You mentioned problems with your mental health. Can you talk more about that?
As I mentioned earlier, it’s easy for me to start worrying about something. When I start to experience symptoms, I usually think the cause is the worst thing imaginable. For example, a few years ago I reached a bit of a melting point at a festival with some friends. Although I had been experiencing very low self-esteem for some time, I had been able to mask it from people. During this festival my symptoms came on and were exposed to a close group of friends, which made me feel embarrassed and ashamed. Afterwards, this only got worse and sent me into a pretty bad depression. After looking online I started to believe that my condition was caused by recent events, such as those bangs to the head we talked about earlier and that there was no way to improve my condition, it would only get worse. It wasn’t until I started CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) that my therapist was able to help me see these negative thought patterns. I was soon able to see that these symptoms were not necessarily the result of bangs to my head, but instead the result of low self-esteem due to negative core beliefs that had developed throughout my life. What I experienced at that festival was a culmination of years of compounding these feelings and trying to disguise them. I was given exercises to help change my negative thought patterns into more positive ones. It was like doing homework. Because of this my symptoms went away and my condition improved, which gave me hope. It proved that I could get better and that my symptoms were not permanent.
Nevertheless, your mental hygiene is something you need to stay on top of. I find people want to hear stories about someone who has struggled, but has freed themself completely from their mental illness. Although I’ve definitely become more capable of dealing with my mental health through CBT, I do have to stay aware of my thoughts so I can stop them from falling back into the same negative cycles.
Aside from CBT, did you find anything else helpful in improving your condition?
Reading lots of self-help books combined with the exercises I learnt from CBT helped me improve my condition. I also found that making sure I got enough sleep, staying active, drinking less, eating well and learning new things helped maintain my mental hygiene. I found a book called Overcoming Low Self Esteem by Melanie Fennell and the website getselfhelp.co.uk very helpful. I do understand that everyone’s mental health issues are very much unique to the individual, so what works for me might not necessarily benefit someone else. Still, I am almost certain that everyone can benefit from CBT. You have to be willing to put in the work as there’s not always a quick fix for these things. It can also be expensive. A way of dealing with this is to register for therapy through the NHS. There are also a lot of charities set up to help offer individuals affordable therapy.
You’ve been involved in the charity skatepark building scene from quite early on. It seems to be really popular these days, almost to the point where volunteers struggle to get a placement.
It’s definitely becoming more popular, which is a really great thing. The fact that so many people are willing to take time off work and pay for themselves to travel to the other side of the world to do unpaid charity work is amazing. While some organisations have had to cap the number of volunteers they can have, smaller organisations are being set up, which means more parks are being built. If I’m completely honest I’ve got a very basic understanding of skatepark construction. Although I’ve been involved for a long time, the projects I’ve worked on have been so spread out that I’m usually trying to relearn a lot each time.
How is it working on these builds?
It varies depending on the charity and location but the days are always long and the work itself is exhausting, at least for me. Sometimes you have the luxury of a bed, other times you could be squashed into a room with 15 other people sleeping on the floor using your jumper as a pillow. It can definitely be quite intense, but you always end up looking forward to the next project and you always meet amazing people. I’m trying to get involved in smaller projects now. For example earlier this year we went to Iraqi Kurdistan and did an extension to the skatepark Make Life Skate Life built in Sulaymaniyah. It was with a smaller group, which I find better for learning.
What made you volunteer in the first place and are you still doing it for the same reasons?
I was interested in community development and working with local communities to provide facilities for children to play. I think that play is a fundamental part of any child’s development. Now that I’ve been on a few of these trips and I’ve seen the amazing impact these projects have had on local communities, I am still convinced that they serve a great purpose.
Have you been back and visited many parks you helped build?
Yes, and plenty of others that I didn’t work on. Most of them have turned out to be successful. Some have developed solid skate scenes, which is really amazing. I’ve seen kids with the same passion for skating I had when I was younger. It’s also amazing seeing these spaces being used by such diverse groups. For example at 7hills in Amman you see girls, Palestinians from Gaza refugee camps and Sudanese communities all using the space. The most successful parks I’ve seen have had plenty of work put in afterwards to facilitate the running of the skatepark and access to equipment. It’s not always enough just to build a skatepark – the work afterwards is equally, if not more, important.
Are you still involved with SkatePal?
Yes I’m an ambassador for SkatePal. I’ve been away a lot over the past year, but I’m hoping to do more work for them next year. We’ll be building the first skatepark in Ramallah next spring, which will be an amazing project to be involved with. Ramallah already has a pretty solid skate scene so it makes sense for it to have its own skatepark. Also, it’s a big city so I’m sure the park will get a lot more kids there skating, which will be sick to see.
How was Pushing Boarders?
I learnt a lot and realised that I need to get better at educating myself and incorporating a lot of the conversations that happened there into my everyday life. I was also very touched by the conversations about mental health. It was inspiring to see people speaking so openly about their personal experiences. It made me feel quite proud to be a skater.
And how was Vladimir Film Festival?
It was one of the best skate events I’ve ever been to. I’ve got so much respect for everyone involved. The videos were amazing. There was that one, Reactions (by Dávid Mikulán)… I thought some of it was comedy genius. I don’t watch that much skateboarding any more, so it was nice to put time aside to do that. And the locations are insane. The last night when we got the ferry out to that island (Brijuni)… it’s just really memorable. I can remember a lot considering how drunk I was. It’s probably one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had.
You just got back from Jordan. Tell us about that trip.
Jordan was amazing too. I was invited out there by Phil Evans to start filming for a project. He was going out there to do a project with 7Hills, so he invited me out to try and film some stuff between the workshops they had planned. I had wanted to go back to Jordan ever since I visited there a couple of years ago. It was sick to get the chance to skate with some of the kids from 7hills. Mohammed Zakaria and Kas Wauters (7Hills) have done an amazing job at facilitating a great scene in Amman.
Where is your van now and what are your plans for the immediate future?
My van is in Wales at the moment. The weather’s too bad and I’m too broke to really do anything with it until the new year, so I’m going to be back in London for a few months renting a room. There are a few builds I want to go on next year: there’s one in Jamaica with Concrete Jungle Foundation in February then there’s Ramallah with SkatePal in spring and towards the end of the year we’re meant to be doing one in Dili, East Timor with an organisation called Timor Skate. Fingers crossed we manage to get the funds for that. I suppose I’ll see what other trips present themselves and then decide where to be based. I would like to try to figure out some sort of stability so I can remain productive in between these projects instead of just floating around like I’ve been doing this year.