Eoin Butler's Q & A
RICH GILLIGAN Irish photographer lifts the lid on the world of DIY skateboarding
What is DIY?DIY is a subculture within skateboarding where boarders build their own structures to skate on. The structures are usually located on wasteland and made out of concrete and whatever other materials are at hand. Skateboarders tend to keep the location of these sites a closely guarded secret.
Why?The sites are often illegal. Also, boarders would fear that, if word got out, people would start turning up and hanging out, doing drugs or drinking and writing graffiti. All of a sudden, it would become a very anti-social scene.
So skateboarders think they’re better than other juvenile delinquents?I wouldn’t call skateboarders juvenile delinquents. I mean, how many footballers would go out and mow and line their own pitch? Concrete is a difficult substance to work with. So these structures have architectural and cultural significance.
You’ve put together a book on the subject. Where were the photos taken?Warsaw, Helsinki, Hamburg, Bray, Portland, Oregon . . . all over Europe and North America. There’s a stereotype of the blonde, blue-eyed skateboarder, with perfect teeth, skateboarding in the California sun. I wanted to dispel that. I wanted to show the diversity of this subculture. Some of these structures are urban, some are rural. Some are built on what look like lunar landscapes.
This one looks like it was constructed on the set of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’.That’s Dick’s Bowl in Oxfordshire. I happened to visit there the morning the concrete truck arrived. The guys were bringing the wet concrete in in wheelbarrows and there was a rush to get it in place before it set. So it was all hands on deck.
You actually set your camera down and pitched in?Of course. I did about two hours work there before taking a single picture. In every location I shot, I’d pitch in or hang out and skate a while before shooting.
So you weren’t simply documenting this culture, you were actively participating in it?Exactly. These locations aren’t advertised on blogs. This is how I was able to get the access I did. Wherever I went, I was invisible. Whether it was a ghetto in Memphis, or a car park in Sheffield, I was just another skater there to help out.
How did you pay for all this travelling?For the first three of the four years, I was completely self-funded. Anywhere I was sent on a commercial assignment, I would stay an extra day or two and scout locations locally. Once, Jack Daniels sent me to Nashville and I ended up staying on for an extra fortnight shooting around the southern states. During that time, some of my pictures were exhibited in Paris and a French publisher offered me a book deal. They also funded the last leg of travel.
Of all the DIY skate parks you visited, which was the most ingenious, inventive or original?I’d have to say under the FDR Freeway in Philadelphia. I turned up with a friend from Dublin and, honestly, the locals were more spun out by us than we were with them. They were like, you’re from where? There were crackheads and tough guys around. But we were made to feel very welcome.
Any negative or dangerous experiences?In New Orleans, I heard about a place called the Peach Orchard. One man said he’d bring me there, but he couldn’t say for sure when he’d be ready. I was on my honeymoon, so I was kind of tight for time.
Wait, you were skateboarding on your honeymoon?Yes, I have a very supportive wife. But as I said, I was stuck for time. So I decided to drive to this place on my own. It was late in the evening in one of the most run-down areas in New Orleans. Ten scary-looking guys immediately appeared. I just put my camera down, got on the skateboard and started skating. As if I was meant to be there. As if I wasn’t scared. Later that night, I told some friends from the city where I had been and they were extremely shocked. They told me I was very lucky to have gotten out of there alive.
After four years working on this project, have you scratched that skateboarding itch now, so to speak, or is it a subject matter you’ll always come back to?Originally, I intended to get skateboarding out of my system and move on. I wanted to be a serious photographer and I didn’t think serious photographers were skateboard photographers. But now I think that’s bullshit. I have access to a world that no one else could get access to. Once I accepted that, and embraced that, everything else fell into place. It’s about trusting your gut and shooting what you know.
Rich Gilligan’s DIY is launched at the Copperhouse Gallery, Dublin, on Thursday, October 11th and on October 12th, Gilligan will lead a panel discussion on making a photobook. See 1980editions.com