You hear them before you see them. The rumbling sound of spinning wheels gliding across cracks in the sidewalk. Sneakers hitting boards, boards making contact with pavement. At Vassar, it’s hard to walk around campus and not run into at least one skateboarder, whether they are on their way to class or practicing tricks in the middle of the road. Riding solo or in groups, there’s an element of coolness and quiet power in their presence as they fly past pedestrians.
Rock music blasting from a nearby speaker grows louder as I approach Main Building on a warm September weekend. The afternoon sun is hot, and skateboarders Matthias Howley ’21 and Lucas Mann ’22 are dripping in sweat when I approach them.
The two have been riding for years—Mann has been skating since he was nine and Howley since he was seven. I’m jealous of the ease with which they balance and the control in their fluid movements. The most skateboarding I’ve ever done, if you can even call it that, was standing completely still on a board, so I ask Mann and Howley to describe the feeling of riding. Howley answers, “It’s like you’re trying for hours and hours, day after day and then you finally land it perfectly—it’s like YESSSS. Oh my God, there’s nothing better than that. Better than any high. I think it’s the best feeling ever.” Mann’s take is a bit more abstract, but equally vivid: “It feels like…lemonade on a hot day.”
Their spot in front of Main is a favorite for practicing and, Howley notes, for meeting up with other riders. This social element is a key part of skateboard culture. Howley comments, “If you see us skating here, feel free to join us. We love skating with new people, teaching people tricks. We’re very open, friendly people. We’re not closed-off, like, ‘Oh, you skate worse than us,’” to which Mann adds, “No, not at all. Come skate.”
As we’re talking, Howley and Mann are fidgeting on their boards, itching to get back in motion. It’s almost as if the line between body and board has disappeared. Skateboarding, for them, is far more than a means of transportation—in fact, to my amusement, both Howley and Mann admit they just walk to class. Skateboarding is their lives and more. “It’s my soulmate,” Mann states simply.
As with many subcultures on Vassar campus, there are skateboarder stereotypes. People often have an image of their head of a “typical” skateboarder, which Mann sums up when saying, “I’d say maybe a stereotype is that they’re kind of dirty, they don’t shower, they just wear, like, shitty clothes. Clearly, true for me.” Howley comments on another aspect of skateboarder stereotypes, explaining, “I think there’s a lot of, like, ‘they do drugs and cause a lot of mischief,’ which is partially true. I feel like some skaters are assholes for that reason…but I feel like once you talk to them they’re actually pretty nice people. They’re down to earth, and if you can skate well, you have so much respect.”
Mann and Howley described an ever-evolving quality that makes Vassar’s skateboard culture hard to define and multi-faceted. Mann muses, “What does it look like to me? A lot of rich kids starting to skateboard because it’s trendy, which is sick—I fuck with it, like go ahead, skate, I’m in favor of it. But I mean, it’s a trend—it’s just a trend.”
Howley builds on this idea, explaining, “I’d say [there are] three types of people who skate: ones that ride to class on their longboards; people that over quarantine [were] like, ‘I wanna learn how to do an ollie.’ And I feel like there’s only a few people like us who have been doing it for years and years and do more advanced stuff. Not that the people who can’t skate are bad, it’s just all of a sudden everyone skates—like, where did this all come from? But I love it! It’s so easy…I could just walk around campus and find anyone who’s skating.”
A new skater, Max Steiger ’24, praises the community that he has just recently joined. “Generally, it’s been really supportive…And I’ve really just approached people who…I see skating and I’m like, “Hey, can I skate with you?”
Steiger explains that he had always wanted to learn to skate and was finally able to do so with his abundance of free time over quarantine. He has been riding for about four months now and likes skating to class: “I think it’s fast and fun and easy.” Being new to the community, Steiger hesitates to identify himself as a skateboarder. He elaborates, “Maybe I will, at some point. I mean, it’s [only] like four months into skating.”
Another facet of skateboard culture is the boards themselves. From custom paint-jobs and stickers to the dents, scrapes and scratches, no two boards are alike, much like the riders themselves. Their designs are expressive and the brands often hold personal meaning.
Stieger’s board is hand-painted by a friend, with a psychedelic design and cool color scheme. He explains, “I just got this like two days ago…because my other board snapped. And my friend Eleanor painted the bottom of it, actually. It’s really cool. She just did it for me and I’m super psyched about it…I just gave her the board and was like, do whatever you think is the cool thing. And I had no idea what it was going to look like.”
Mann is currently riding a board by his favorite skater, Tony Hawk, while Howley is skating an Almost Board. He adds, “This is Lewis Marnell—he died back in 2013, so they made a bunch of decks. It’s thinner, it’s better for, like, flipping. But it’s going to break in about like two weeks; they last me about a month these days since I skate so much on them.”
As I leave, I glance over my shoulder, catching a last glimpse of the riders resting under the golden September sun. Without their riding, there is quiet, and I miss the rhythmic sounds of wheels on pavement. Walking away from the skaters feels like I’m leaving a hidden universe behind, one where the rules of time and gravity don’t really apply. The world slows down as riders grapple with boards in mid-air. There’s permanence in this suspension, and I find comfort in the thought that no matter what, the rider and their board will always come loudly crashing down again.