The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 1
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding
and Rhizomatic Countermapping
Four years ago, I created a name for a group that didn’t exist. I wanted to do something
for my friends; I wanted to make something that would allow them to feel as though they were
doing something significant in their lives, something that connected them with others. I ended
up with “The Outlaw Collective” because it reflected what I felt was the experience of being a
youth involved in skateboarding. What I felt through skateboarding was an intangible but strong
connection with other skaters and the world around me. I felt as though skateboarding not only
allowed me to feel something in the world that others didn’t seem to notice, but that
skateboarding also pushed me into an odd marginal space in society where I wasn’t a criminal (at
least not always), but I wasn’t a ‘normal,’ respectable youth either. In any case, I made a logo
and wrote a manifesto for the name. I then had a few shirts made and handed them out to the
kids for whom I had done this. Since this time, The Outlaw Collective has haunted me. It has
pushed me further and further into socio-spatial resistance; it inspired me to write an in-depth
research paper (previous to this one); it challenged me to become more involved in the ways that
I interact with and move through the world; more than anything it articulated something to and
for other skateboard and BMX kids that made them do the same. I have since seen a level of
activism and involvement in their lives spring up that is less than common in people their age.
I by no length of imagination think that this was entirely my doing. On the contrary, I
feel as though my place in this transformation has been at best marginal. Watching the ways in
which they drew on the ideas I expressed, expanding and applying them in their lives much past
any level I would have expected, I have begun to think that the significance lay not in my
involvement, but in my ability to undergird their lived experience with a theoretical framework
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 2
which contextualized and gave expression to experiences which, until that point, had fallen into
the category of the uncanny/inexpressible. These experiences stood out as definite and known
while simultaneously requiring sublimation because of their lack of expressive ability. The
power of the transformations that took place, in both them and myself, lies squarely on the
shoulders of theorists such as Foucault (Panopticon) and Deleuze and Guattari (Rhizome), as
well as authors such as Franz Kafka and Herman Melville. All of these authors and thinkers
were part of my daily life when I gave The Outlaw Collective to my friends. The most
significant contribution to my thinking on this subject in the past four years has been Iain Borden
who did the same service for me with Skateboarding, Space, and the City that I did for my
friends with The Outlaw Collective.
This scholarship chronicles the next step outward, downward, inward, and upward in my
thought processes on skateboarding, the subculture/dominant culture interaction, and the
significance of spatiality and experience in everyday life. It represents a deepening and
extending of my ability to articulate the feelings, spawned by skateboarding, of connection and
disconnection that I know all too well and to examine where these feelings originate, and where I
might take them...or where they might take me. I am attempting to examine skateboarding’s
spatial interaction with the urban environment as various and distinct built elements and as an
indistinct collection of built elements using a combination of Cultural Theory, Architectural
Theory, Sociological studies, Architectural design strategies, and my personal experience of
eight years of skateboarding. Ultimately I hope to express and fill skateboarding with a
significance that revolves around a reimagining of the conditions of both youth and urbanity and
a youthful reinvention of the form and function of urban spaces.
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 3
Space: Contest and Resistance
“We might say, following Michel Foucault, that architecture is not an object
with a role to play, but is constituted by the discourses and practices of social
life. Architecture is not an object but a process, not a thing but a flow, not an
abstract idea but a lived thought” (Borden, Skateboarding 9).
Subcultures, by definition, are separated in some way from the cultures in and against
which they move. However, the way(s) in which they’re different is hotly contested. For
example, you have arguments, like that of Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool, that contend
that subculture is simply an extension of dominant culture:
“The countercultural style has become a permanent fixture on the American
scene, impervious to the angriest assaults of cultural and political conservatives,
because it so conveniently and efficiently transforms the myriad of petty tyrannies
of economic life—all the complaints about conformity, oppression, bureaucracy,
meaninglessness, and the disappearance of individualism that became virtually a
national obsession during the 1950’s—into rationales for consuming. [In other
words, the Sixties sub and counter culture created] a cultural perpetual motion
machine in which disgust with falseness, shoddiness, and everyday oppressions of
consumer society could be enlisted to drive the ever-accelerating wheels of
However, there are also arguments that posit difference while offering a useful way to contrast
sub/dominant cultures. Dick Hebdige, in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, says that “it is
basically the way in which commodities are used in subculture which mark the subculture off
from more orthodox cultural formations” (103). The utility of this is that it doesn’t dismiss
subcultures as irrelevant or ineffectual for using commodities; in fact, it posits that subcultures
are significant specifically because they use commodities. This use of commodities is further
explicated when he writes, “The punk subculture, like every other youth culture, was constituted
in a series of spectacular transformations of a whole range of commodities, values, common-
sense attitudes, etc.” (116). These “spectacular transformations” Hebdige refers to are the same
as Frank’s transformations of “the myriad of petty tyrannies of economic life...into rationales for
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 4
consuming.” However, where Frank sees a hopeless perpetual motion machine, Hebdige sees
“meangful mutations”: “If we are to think in formal terms at all, subcultural styles are more
usefully regarded as mutations and extensions of existing codes rather than as the ‘pure’
expression of creative drives, and above all they should be seen as meaningful mutations” (131).
The power of skateboarding derives from this transformative/mutative aspect of
subculture. Skateboarding differs from other subcultures in that the commodities it transforms
and mutates are not purchased and permanent: Skateboarding transforms and mutates the objects
and spaces of urbanity. It “suggests that cities can be thought of as series of micro-spaces, rather
than comprehensive urban plans, monuments or grand projets. Consequently, architecture is
seen to lie beyond the province of the architect and is thrown instead into the turbulent nexus of
reproduction” (Borden, Skateboarding 217). Delineating this interaction between skaters and the
urban environment, Iain Borden expands his concept of “micro-spaces”:
“When skateboarders ride along a wall, over a fire hydrant or up a building, they
are entirely indifferent to its function or ideological content. They are therefore
no longer even concerned with its presence as a building, as a composition of
spaces and materials logically disposed to create a coherent urban entity. By
focusing only on certain elements (ledges, walls, banks, rails) of the building,
skateboarders deny architecture’s existence as a discrete three-dimensional
indivisible thing, knowable only as a totality, and treat it instead as a set of
floating, detached, physical elements isolated from each other; where architects’
considerations of building ‘users’ imply a quantification of the body subordinate
to space and design, the skater’s performative body has ‘the ability to deal with a
given set of pre-determined circumstances and to extract what you want and to
discard the rest’, and so reproduces architecture in its own measure, re-editing it
as a series of surfaces, textures and micro-objects” (Skateboarding 214).
This re-editing of space in skateboarding often becomes literally a physical editing of
space.1 Skateboarders will often fill in ill-placed gaps and cracks with Bondo or Quikcrete.
They will silicon pieces of angle iron to ledges that aren’t skateable, hacksaw or torch off
skatestoppers and handrail knobs, bring plywood to cover interfering sections of grass, sweep,
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 5
clean, and smooth out gravelly or rough ground, and even bring generators and lights at night so
they can skate spots that are too dark or don’t have lights. I’ve done all of these except toting
around a generator and lights, but that’s only because I don’t have a truck or a generator. My
friends and I have even gone as far as building a rail specifically to be bolted to the concrete of a
drainage ditch we found. These types of editing are common and accepted practice across the
subculture of skateboarding, and they are constantly noted in skateboard magazines, books, and
Skateboarding uses this method of spatio-physical editing in conjunction with the process
of urban editing begun by the Situationists in which “the city is fluid, its liquid form defined by
the routes that people take. The individual, walking around the city in constant dialogue with its
spaces, is engaged in a creative act. The exercise of choice over paths to take, whether to remain
in a space or to gather with others, is forever remaking the social fabric. For the duration of their
contact with the centre, every inhabitant is a player and the game has no beginning or end”
(Murrell 2). In the words of a skater, “We are the ultimate adapters—urban predators. It’s a
game to us” (Bourne 83). The first form of micro-spatial editing of specific urban elements and
objects is complemented by the second form in which skaters edit urbanity as a whole. They do
this through an interactive movement somewhat similar to the Situationists’ pedestrian-based
urban editing: “Skateboarding is all about movement, and it is the way in which skaters move
through the city that makes skateboarding the natural terrain of the street so different from
skating at a park. Skaters carry with them a mental map of their locality which is used
simultaneously on both a macro and micro level” (Johns 43). By capitalizing on the fluid nature
of urbanity, resistance to and contestation of the city as a unified whole is carried out by
skateboarders through their creation of intensely intimate and fluid mental maps of the city as a
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 6
constantly re-edited set/series of micro-spaces. “The skateboarder’s highly integrated sense of
balance, speed, hearing, sight, touch, and responsivity is a product of the modern metropolis, a
newly evolved sensory and cognitive mapping” (Borden, Skateboarding 202). “The edit and
mapping of architecture and the city on the part of the skater produces few visual codifications,
but is instead a situated and ‘spoken’ record, continually relived in time as well as space”
(Borden, Skateboarding 263).
The sense of mapping presented here is developed by Deleuze and Guattari in their book
A Thousand Plateaus. In relation to their concept of a rhizome, they define a map as:
“...entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The Map
does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the
unconscious. It fosters connection between fields, the removal of blockages on
bodies without organs, the maximum opening of bodies without organs onto a
place of consistency. It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and
connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to
constant modification” (12).
Here the mapping of urban space done by skaters and the concept of ‘map’ that Deleuze and
Guattari articulate are not only complimentary, but essentially identical. The urban space of the
city, under the skaters’ spatio-physical editing of specific micro-spaces and in response to their
sensory-experiential movement through larger macro-spaces, becomes a rhizomatic map.
However, the rhizome and the map cannot be hierarchically ordered as such, for “the rhizome is
altogether different, a map and not a tracing” (ibid). The rhizome and the map intersect,
overlap, and form each other. The city becomes a rhizomatic map; it becomes a rhizome-
structure when it is restructured as a map instead of a tracing.
“Make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don’t sow, grow offshoots! Don’t be
one or multiple, be multiplicities! Run lines, never plot a point! Speed turns the
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 7
point into a line! Be quick, even when standing still! Line of chance, line of
hips, line of flight” (Deleuze & Guattari 24-5).
In Deleuze and Guattari, the important distinction is not between elements such as map
and rhizome, for they are on the same side of a larger (though somewhat illusory) distinction
between [rhizome/map] and [root/tracing].2 This distinction is made despite its illusory nature
because, though the distinction does exist, the two oppositional sides transpierce one another.
Put another way: “If it is a question of showing that rhizomes also have their own, even more
rigid, despotism and hierarchy, then fine and good: for there is no dualism, no ontological
dualism between here and there, no axiological dualism between good and bad, no blend or
American synthesis. There are knots of arborescence in rhizomes, and rhizomatic offshoots in
roots” (italics mine, Deleuze & Guattari 20). This binding together of resistant, rhizomatic
structures and dominant, arborescent structures significantly shifts the emphasis of any analysis
of resistant subcultures from a dependence on separation to an awareness of and concentration on
transpiercing and tension. In the case of skateboarding, this means that “the contradiction
between homogenization and fragmentation of urban space is continuously fought over, as urban
managers of all kinds (architects, planners, police, commercial interests, building owners) seek to
dictate the character of social space” (Borden, “Socio-Spatial Censorship” 2).
This transpiercing must be left aside, to be rejoined momentarily, in favor of a definition
and discussion of rhizome. Deleuze and Guattari elucidate six “approximate characteristics” of a
rhizome in the form of principles (7). 1 and 2. Connection and Heterogeneity [“any point of a
rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be” (7)]; 3. Multiplicity [“...multiplicities
are rhizomatic” (8)]; 4. Asignifying rupture [A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot,
but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines” (9)]; 5 and 6. Cartography and
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 8
Decalcomania [mapping and tracing (12)]. Seen in this way, the subculture of skateboarding can
be seen as a rhizome in its interactions with the city and urbanity.
Skateboarding, like the rhizome, “operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture,
offshoots” (Deleuze & Guattari 21). This list of actions is a shorthand description of the manner
in which skateboarding moves through the city. As a skateboarder, the day begins by choosing
various spots to visit (making a map). Then, while moving between these initial spots, other
already known spots are remembered and incorporated in the map (variation). Changing the
initial planned pattern by visiting other spots, the path changes and new spots are discovered in
transit (expansion, offshoots). These new spots are noted in the skater’s list of connectible points
in the city (capture) and possibly skated (conquest). As skaters moves through the city, they
create temporal and temporary sensory-experiential maps and edit the city’s spatio-physical
environment (whether with actions or actual material changes). None of these things fall
underneath the notice of skateboarders:
“I started to realize that due to skating I was always looking down or my eyes
were always scanning the surface for ledges, gaps or bumps. My whole life has
been mapped out around skateboarding. I knew which lights I could make, which
hills were smooth and where all the good curb cuts were. I even knew some
neighborhoods right down to the last crack. That’s when I realized that, as
skaters, we live in an entirely different world. Our minds are no longer
processing things in normal terms. The city skate brain lives on some kind of
super sensitive auto pilot” (Bourne 78).
The city now begins to become the rhizomatic map mentioned earlier: “...the rhizome
pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable,
connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of
flight” (Deleuze & Guattari 21). In many instances, because of the transpiercing of rhizome and
map, the city becomes a rhizome itself. As it is created as a map, the city becomes variable and
expandable in both space and use; it develops as sense of conquest and capture by conquering
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 9
and capturing its inhabitants with its new variations and expansions; it even develops offshoots
as its transformed inhabitants self-reflexively turn their newly transformed selves toward further
shifting the function of the city.
This obviously brings transpiercing, tension, and interplay heavily to the fore once again.
The complimentary articulation of map in rhizome and rhizome in map and their reflections in
and relations to skateboarding and urbanity are mirrored in the distinction (again somewhat
illusory) between deterritorialization and reterritorialization. In a highly condensed sentence,
Deleuze and Guattari express the significant relation between these two concepts: “Write, form
a rhizome, increase your territory by deterritorialization” (11). Deterritorialization is wholly
bound up in and articulated through reterritorialization and vice versa. At first, this may seem to
run counter to identifying them as two different concepts, but the ways in which skateboarding
manifests, makes use of, and responds to this “double articulation”3 make it much clearer.
Often the skaters’ discovery of new spots and their incorporation of these new spots into
their shifting urban mapping appears as a deterritorialization. It is an expansion of the city-
rhizome in a single direction, what Deleuze and Guattari call a line of flight. On the other hand,
it is a reterritorialization of an area that was previously a freely floating deterritorialized space.
Here, discovery both deterritorializes the rhizome-map of the skateboarder and reterritorializes
free space of the city. However, skaters’ creation of rhizomatic maps of the city is not always
only a result of their choice of movement over stasis. Skateboarding’s presence in the spaces
and on the objects of urbanity is often a presence that is unwelcome and resisted, and this
unwanted presence often causes resistance and reaction from dominant cultural institutions.
Police and commercial institutions work to move skaters away from areas they feel are being
“stolen” from pedestrians and the commercial public (Nolan 319). This pressure on skaters can
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 10
be seen as a root-based reterritorialization of appropriated, deterritorialized space. This pressure
moves skateboarders out of their present map, removing an element, and creating the possibility
of discovering new spaces. It effectively shifts them, changing the coordinates available to
complete their maps and therefore necessitating the creation of new mapping coordinates. As a
concrete example, here is one of the major conclusions of a study done on skateboarding in
Journal of Urban Design entitled “Skateboarding: The City as a Playground”:
“...attempts to move skate-boarders on from their adopted spot are commonplace.
This may involve a change in management procedure, a newly enforced by-law,
an expensive redesign of an area or even a combination of these tools. However,
such measures merely move the perceived problem on and make no attempt at
finding a permanent solution. Skaters are a resilient breed and will quickly seek
out new places that afford them some measure of the above factors. There is no
such thing as a perfect ‘skate spot’, and the state of flux of skate spaces is just
another challenge in this urban pursuit” (Woolley & Johns 12).
Much like an increased territoriality is often achieved through deterritorialization, the
interplay skateboarders maintain with the city is not solely focused on the lines they draw
through the urban environment, the maps they make of their spaces, and the transit they engage
in. Skateboarding’s interactions are both those of the deterritorializing lines of travel drawn and
the reterritorializing points toward which and away from which they move. In this respect,
skateboarding manifests a nomadic aspect in that both skaters and nomads concern themselves
with a mixing of points and lines: “To begin with, although the points determine paths, they are
strictly subordinated to the paths they determine, the reverse of what happens with the sedentary”
(Deleuze & Guattari 380). This quote is less than lucid, but is developed further: “Second, even
though the nomadic trajectory may follow trails or customary routes, it does not fulfill the
function of the sedentary road, which is to parcel out a closed space to people, assigning each
person a share and regulating the communication between shares. The nomadic trajectory does
the opposite: it distributes people (or animals) in an open space, one that is indefinite and
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 11
noncommunicating” (ibid). Skateboarding then develops a tactics of distribution, not in the
sense of parceling, but in the sense of exponential expansion; it is a delimitation of space rather
than a restriction, a deterritorialization rather than a reterritorialization.
This is supported further by Deleuze and Guattari when they describe the two types of
space saying, “sedentary space is striated, by walls, enclosures, and roads between enclosures,
while nomad space is smooth, marked only by ‘traits’ that are effaced and displaced with the
trajectory” (381). Space then is an opposition between [traits/trajectories] and
[walls/enclosures]. The smooth, trait-dotted space of the nomadic subculture is cut, parceled,
and rooted by the sedentary space of the dominant culture. This method spatial domination is
too close to Foucault’s The art of distributions (in the Docile Bodies chapter of Discipline &
Punish) to be ignored. Foucault, outlining the manner in which power creates ‘docile bodies’ out
of its subject-citizens through distribution, offers four techniques: 1. Enclosure; 2. Partitioning;
3. Spatial Designation; 4. Ranking (141-5). Skateboarding’s rhizomatic, deterritorializing
interaction with the built spaces of urbanity manifests a nomadic penchant for avoidance of the
restrictive techniques of power assertion explicated by Foucault. The sedentary, partitioned and
designated spaces of the dominant culture’s urban environment are delimited, challenged, and
reimagined by the subculture of skateboarding as a set/series of malleable and interactive micro-
This connection between smooth and sedentary space and the further connection to
Michel Foucault is acknowledged and dealt with in an article in Thrasher, written by Wez
Lundry, entitled “To Classify is to Control.” The article contains specific reference to Foucault,
but does not specifically reference Deleuze and Guattari. It states that “one of the political
changes associated with the Enlightenment is the division of territories into states, with fixed
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 12
borders, and the ascription of nationality to ‘citizens’ rather than ‘subjects,’ as opposed to the
porous borders and uncertain sovereignty that existed before” (136). This is followed up three
paragraphs later with a discussion of Foucault. Though the article summarizes the main
trajectory of Discipline & Punish, the most significant passage states, “French philosopher
Michel Foucault’s ideas on clinics, prisons, mental illness, and other topics often point to broader
notions of classification, and classification as a means to control efficiently” (144). These two
points are brought together at the conclusion of the article in a discussion of the skate park as a
method of control:
“Skateparks should be ridden only as a matter of convenience or out of laziness,
as an alternative to streets, backyard ramps, pools, pipes, ditches, banks, plazas,
handrails, etc….Once they have us isolated and classified, we are much easier to
control. And if we continue to rely on them for our spots at the exclusion of
finding or creating our own, we are allowing them to dictate to us how, what,
where, and when we ride. And if the day ever comes when they decide to take
them away, we’ll be left with nothing. Progress can be good, but we must always
ask: ‘At what price?’” (149).
The recognition by skateboarding of its places, goals, desires, and functions evidenced in this
section allows the fairly academic consideration of skateboarding I have engaged in thus far to
be viewed as more than just a reflection of my experiences. It indicates that skateboarding does
indeed create experiential connections that spans space and place.
Skateboarders as a nomadic collective (or pack or tribe) who move through the urban
environment appropriating and reimagining spaces in resistance to the dominant State Apparatus
do not go unnoticed in other research.4 Ralph Johns says that “skateboarders have a strong
collective identity and culture” in his article examining skateboarding from a landscape
architectural point of view (42). Eva Pel, in “Skateboarding in Amsterdam: An Urban
Geography,” sees skaters as “modern nomads...[who] create their own freedom by the way they
use space and avoid authority” (3). She follows this immediately by also noting, “The ‘traveling
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 13
in packs’ idea of Lofland’s results in a very dynamic skate-map which changes continuously
according to which spots are popular” (ibid). Hannah Thompson, who concerns herself with
what it means to be a skateboarder in “Be a Pedestrian...or be a Skateboarder,” feels “that the
best way to interpret skateboarders, as a collective, may be as a contemporary tribe (Bennett
1999), bearing in mind the free flow of people over the group’s boundaries, the divisions within
the larger group, and the fluidity of a skater’s social identity” (44). And in a final instance,
Christopher Veres, in his Landscape Architecture Masters Practicum Experiential Adjacencies
and Spatial Overlaps: Skateboarding in the Urban Environment writes that “the transgressive
and nomadic spatiality of skateboarding takes delight in the spaces that Betsky refers to as voids”
Space: Reimaginings & Reinventions
“As kids, we were border crossers and had to learn to negotiate the power,
violence, and cruelty of the dominant culture through our own lived histories,
restricted languages, and narrow cultural experiences” (Giroux 9).
Skateboarding, since its inception in the mid-1950’s, has been reimagining and
reinventing any environment that it touches; the skateboard itself is a reimagining of apple box
scooters built by kids in the 1930’s-40’s (Borden, Skateboarding 14). Skateboarding began by
reimagining the long sloping expanses of “smooth tarmac” near the ocean as surfers used the
skateboard to practice their carves without water in the mid-1950’s (Borden, “Beneath” 2). This
reimagining slowly moved forward throughout the 1960’s and into the ‘70’s as surf-skaters
discovered more and more terrain. Their search for terrain that more closely replicated a wave
drew them to any concrete or blacktop bank or angle like those found in schoolyards and
drainage channels. This further expanded with the suburban discovery of the empty pool. These
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 14
pools, because of their presence in suburbia, caused a much more conflictual relationship to
develop between skateboarding and the general public. This combined with the discovery, while
pool skating, that concrete edges could be used to grind, drove skateboarding to the streets
(Borden, Skateboarding 13-55). It then quickly adopted this presence as its own and continued
its reimagining and reinvention there.5 As Wez Lundry writes to conclude his article “Subvert
the Dominant Paradigm” in Thrasher, “…the notion of a dominant paradigm in skateboarding
has no legs to stand on. Subversion is the standard, stagnation is defeat” (149). Or, more
succinctly, “Almost by definition, skateboarding has to subvert space” (Cross 55).
This reimagining, once it was fully focused on urban environments, immediately brought
a new approach to urbanity. As mentioned earlier, skateboarders refused to view the city as a
complete entity that is knowable only as such. Instead, “the skater understands both the space of
her or his own body and locality, and the space of the world, as a set of globally dispersed
intimate localities, and as a series of continually repeated and evolving lexicons of image-
moves” (Borden, “Beneath” 126). The world as “globally dispersed intimate localities” invites
the adopter of this view to reject the institutional views of political responsibility, spatial
indominability, and social policy in favor of “creating and maintaining a self-governing activity
in which alternative relations can be lived, rather than advancing these relations to alter other
social institutions” (Beal 265). This attempt to change the lived experiences of the participants
in and inhabitants of urbanity instead of the larger policies governing these participants and
inhabitants implies Borden’s concept of micro-spaces again. “For example, [skateboarders] will
be aware of a handrail across the other side of town, and plot a route through the streets to get
there—probably taking in their favourite set of steps and ledge along the way. Joining the dots
between such landscape elements is one manner in which skaters inhabit the city” (Johns 43).
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 15
Inhabiting urban space in this way is a reimagining and reinvention of the space and
character of the city: “Like a Robert Altman movie, everyone is an actor who inscribes their
own code and their own narrative into the formation and re-formation of the public realm”
(Veres 10). The skateboarders’ method and mode of traversing, choosing, editing, and using
space poses a manner in which the individual may, while re-reading the idea of a city as
connective whole, be re-writing the city as a set/series of surfaces:
“Furthermore, ‘reading’ can be entirely different to any intention on the part of
the author (architect, planner, urban manager), such that the re-reading is more of
a new writing across the face of the page. Thus when a skater [performs a trick
on urban architecture], he is concerned with neither architecture nor architect but
with his own spatial production (7.12). Skateboarders and others who inscribe on
the city are literally writing the city, albeit at the scale of the dispersed, micro-
spatial text, creating a series of registers, traces, indexical signs, notches and
furrows” (Borden, Skateboarding 211).
In short, skateboarding is “something more than a sport. It is also part subculture, part
performance, part mode of transportation, and part statement” (Veres 11).
The repetition of the concept of “(re)writing” in discussions of skateboarding and its
interactions with the city, its surfaces, and its spaces is no small coincidence. Skateboarders,
nomadic rhizome entities, moving through the sedentary city, re-editing its objects and spaces,
creating rhizome-maps, are re-writing the city into and onto itself. This continually comes up, to
a greater or lesser degree, because “writing weds a war machine and lines of flight, abandoning
the strata, segmentarities, sedentarity, the State apparatus” (Deleuze & Guattari 24). Writing is
what takes place with the cooperation of a war machine6 (nomad) and lines of flight (rhizome).
Writing shifts the direction of inscription from its accepted linearity (the [spaces/uses] of
urbanity inscribe action in [individuals/groups]) to an interactive transpiercing (the
[individual/group] actions and [spaces/uses] of urbanity write each other). In the first instance,
architecture is created by experts and planners with specific meanings and dictated actions
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 16
already built into the surfaces, spaces, and objects of the environment; these meanings and
actions are then pressed downward onto the individuals and groups who pass through or exist in
the spaces of architecture. In the second instance, architecture is pushed into exceeding itself by
the re-writing of its surfaces, spaces, and objects. In other words, “Constructed space no longer
dictates usage, it becomes the loom on which it is created, the ‘shape’ of the city being the result
of dialogue between the weavers and their product” (Murrell 2).
This is what Iain Borden terms “super-architectural space” (Skateboarding 262). He
defines super-architectural space as “space that lies beyond the space of subject, tool or terrain,
and which is compositionally quite distinct from the ordered hierarchies of architecture-as-
object, architecture-as-drawing or architecture-as-idea” (ibid). Super-architectural space, defined
in this way, seems then to be an alternate label for the space created when the city becomes
‘rhizome-map’ in response to the skateboarders’ interactions, selections, and movements. Both
are reimaginings and reinventions of the spaces, surfaces, objects, and meanings of urban space.
They are reimaginings and reinventions that do not look to the pre-inscribed meanings of the
architects, urban planners, etc. for direction; they are reimaginings and reinventions that take as
their ‘modus operandi’ the needs and desires of the individuals who engage in them.
“We bore witness to the future only to escape into the present, and the present
never stopped pulsating. Like all fugitive cultures embraced by youth, we were
time-bound. The memory work would have to come later” (Giroux 9).
Why, then, do so few choose to engage with the urban fabric that surrounds them at this
level? And why are those who do almost invariably youth? Before attempting to answer these
questions, a definition of youth is needed. This, however, is quite an undertaking because “youth
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 17
is a personal, historical, and social construction that operates under many signs. It is an empty
signifier whose complex meanings and representations are produced and expressed in a variety
of sites and through a number of determinations” (Giroux 10-11). Youth, then, is not a concrete
category. It is a malleable and polymorphous designation that can be manipulated, applied, and
removed as circumstances dictate. As a tentative definition that is contiguous with the
designation of youth as “an empty signifier,” I will posit that youth, leaving aside all secondary
considerations, is that which is ‘non-child’ and ‘non-adult.’ This definition, though dissatisfying,
is consistent with much of the designations and situations youth deal with in which they are
defined and dealt with only in the negative.
Youth and urbanity are often seen as connected in some way, but this connection is rarely
actually dealt with. When it is, one of the few ways is by associating the potential for
experimentation, anonymity, and transformation of urban space to the needs and desires of youth
for these things: “The physical environment can serve an important role in the physical, social,
and emotional transformation occurring during the adolescent years,” (Owens 782) and further
on in the same article, “Urban areas provide teens with anonymity and a place to experiment
with who they are and who they want to be” (Owens 794). The connection between youth and
urbanity is, however, one that is seemingly less than positive to the adult community. On the one
hand, the city is considered a space of youth and appropriate to the conditions of youth. On the
other hand, “adults wonder what they are up to and what damage they will cause. Teens are
generally perceived of as persons to be controlled in public spaces. They are not welcome in
these spaces; instead they are encouraged to move along and find somewhere else to go” (Owens
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 18
This is beginning to sound eerily reminiscent of the experience of skateboarders as they
move through the spaces of the city. Simultaneously considered part of the urban fabric and
atmosphere and shunned from its spaces, skateboarders and youth are in reality incessantly
pushed away from spaces which, in theory, they are welcome. Skateboarding’s similarity in
condition to youth goes deeper than simply their interactions with urbanity. It extends to the
definition above, to existing as an empty signifier. Niall Neeson, writing an introduction for Slap
Skateboard Magazine, says skateboarders are not “lost children of a post-industrial wasteland”
because this designation “is a morbid interpretation of an energetic scene” (12). He expands
further, saying that “to call it a religion or a cult is off the mark because that also carries the
suggestion of a unifying thread running through us. Skating means different things to different
people, and many of us have nothing else in common” (ibid).
The similarity in condition of youth and skateboarders is also recognized in some less
than expected places. For instance, a website devoted to teaching kids about skateboarding’s
connection to science (specifically physics) defines skateboarding with two juxtaposed
questions: “Is it just a glorified plank with roller skate wheels on it? Or is it a highly engineered
device through which kids have reclaimed the urban landscape, bringing creativity and style back
to the sterile asphalt spaces of sprawl?” (Wanner 3). The mention of sprawl indicates another
area of interest in the discussion of the place of youth in urbanity. It is often suggested in studies
of youth and skateboarding that there is a specific attraction to spaces of potentiality and
possibility, to open spaces (Woolley & Johns 3; Bradley 2). This, however, causes problems for
youth as “open space is highly regulated or closed and is where young people are expected to
show deference to adults and to adults’ definitions of appropriate behaviour” (Woolley & Johns
3). Further complicating the spatial difficulties of youth, “their use of and presence in street
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 19
space is threatening in its potentiality rather than actuality” (Bradley 2). Youth are then stuck
between a hard place and no place. The spaces they do have, school, home, and work (for
some), offer no freedom from adults’ prefiguring, and the spaces they don’t have....well, they
To make themselves some space, youth are attracted to the seemingly open and free
spaces of the urban streets because “the streets are youths’ only truly public space or sphere”
(Bradley 2). This attempt eventually runs against the fact that “the ‘hegemonic authoring’
(Leary 1999) of the urban landscape excludes the views of young people from the planning
process, alienating those who see the landscape differently from the middle-aged male ‘norm’.
Marginalised groups such as youth therefore must actively reread and reimagine the landscape
(Leary 1999)” (Nolan 314). Youth are fully implicated with the plight and position of
skateboarders and vice versa. They are each articulated in the other, but each is still a separate
category. They are intersecting maps of experience. They are “outlaw publics” (Giroux 9).
In an essay entitled “Post-’68: Theory is in the Streets,” Astra Taylor looks at the new
political action that has been taking place in recent years. She draws parallels between the
development of new political tactics and postmodernism. She writes:
“Certain elements of the new movement correlate in many respects to the
academic discourse of postmodernism: the ability of the participants to elude
hierarchical power structures within their groups, the ability to perform a sort of
micro-politics through affinity groups, the ability to perform interventions while
lacking a theoretical or organizational center, and the social critiques presented by
organizers, which tend to reject messianic ideologies or a single utopian vision”
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 20
These postmodern tactics resonate highly with the manner in which skateboarding challenges,
uses, reimagines, and reinvents the urban environment. They echo skateboarding’s tendency
away from hierarchical power structures and its affinity for more rhizomatic modes of being.
The rise in skateboarding’s popularity could be viewed as a manifestation of youth’s renewed
interest in political activism and the adjustment of that activism to the conditions of
postmodernity in which they live their lives. Skateboarding could be seen as a precursor to a
more strident political resistance of the spatio-political forces of domination which weigh heavily
on their everyday experiences with the world.
As with any argument for practices that resist, subvert, or shift dominant modes, this
could also be seen simply as theoretical optimism (and maybe even naïve hope): no matter how
many rhizomatic maps are made by those moving through the city, the form, structure, and
residence of power probably won’t change. The city will still be controlled by “them.” This is
true. Skateboarding and youth are in no place to take hold of power by its roots and lift it to a
plane of consistency on which it can become completely rhizomatic. Youth will, as long as they
are prefigured by adults as powerless, without self control, and without valid or valuable
experience, be unable to enact any serious changes through these types of spatio-physical and
sensory-experiential movements and actions.
The problem with this framing is that its using a dichotomy that operates within the
confines and restrictions of previous definitions of political action. What the critiques offered by
skateboarding, conditions of youth, and structures of new political actions point toward is a shift
(not a complete transformation) in the form ‘the political’ takes; a shift away from a focus on
institutionality and toward a focus on lived experience. Newly developing politics and political
strategies focus less on institutional politics and policies and more on the lived experiences of
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 21
individuals and communities. They encourage small changes in actual experience over sweeping
changes in law or policy. However, what seems truly distinct about these new approaches is that
they look as though they are working to incorporate an interest in institutional politicality into
their concern with community and individuals’ actual experiences. The new politics of the
postmodern youth are an acceptance of the interrelatedness of the individual and the institutional,
actual experiences and political policy. Politics is not distinct from everyday experience; it is
implicated and indicated in the everyday movements and actions of individuals and
communities: politicality is recognized as part of lived experience and day-to-day experiences
are seen as transpierced by politicality.
Four years ago I created only a name, a logo, and a short statement as an attempt to
express something to myself that I could only feel and to give this expression to my friends in
hopes that it would help them too. This individual act moved into the lived experiences of
individuals and changed the manner in which they viewed, approached, and moved through the
world around them. These people then began acting on these shifts and creating new conditions
for themselves and others. My brother opened a skate shop and skatepark—he runs it with no
thought for profit so that merchandise can be cheap, often working an extra job on the side to pay
bills and dumping all profit into changing the park and building new ramps (so that it is not a
restrictive space like other skateparks...so it’s malleable). My friend Dan went to school for
architecture and interior design so he could create environments that were friendly and inviting
as opposed to the often repellent elements of present architecture. Initially his interest was in
architecture that was amenable both to functional urban systems and to skateboarding, but his
interest eventually settled on low-income housing that could be changed internally and
structurally to accommodate individuality (rolling walls, screens, etc. to change the makeup of
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 22
the interior space). My cousin Caleb decided he was dissatisfied with the idea that he had to live
by working in a capitalist system, and has been living on his own with no job for several years
now, making clothes and moving through the world. They all still skate. They all still reference
skating as the motivation for these decisions. They all tell me that the ideas I expressed with The
Outlaw Collective and the first research paper I wrote were the geneses for these motivations.
Though, as I said in the Introduction, I do not think it’s appropriate for me to take credit for this,
the point is that individual actions taken as an attempt to change immediate lived experience are
working toward and caught up in changing a larger network of experiences. Some have
embraced the system, some have stepped away from it (at least as far as they can). The
transpiercing of rhizome and root, individual and institution, experience and policy come
together in the youth’s expression of their conditions of existence.
The Outlaw Collective: Skateboarding and Rhizomatic Countermapping 23
This is also noted by Eva Pel in her study of skaters in Amsterdam, “Skateboarding in Amsterdam: An Urban
Geography”: “Skateboarders create their own private domain for their activity. Sometimes they use materials to
increase the quality of the place, for instance construction materials or removable ‘street’ furniture’ which they use
for their tricks” (3).
By bracketing comparable but distinct concepts in this way, I am trying to indicate that they are a “set,”
approximating the mathematical idea of a set.
I lifted this term from Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, though I am using it in a way that is not
consistent with the depth and breadth of meaning and significance they have imparted to it. I use it only to indicate
that each of these concepts is intersected by and created through the other.
Deleuze and Guattari in their chapter on nomadism “Treatise on Nomadology—The War Machine” oppose the
nomads to the State Apparatus.
This transition from pool to street was further facilitated by the invention of the flatground ollie (a technique using
a transfer of momentum to lift the skateboard off the ground by hitting the tail of the board on the ground while
simultaneously jumping up off the board) by Rodney Mullen. The ollie had been done in pools before this, but the
technique was different in that environment and could not be transferred usefully to the more demanding and varied
environment of the street (OnVideo, Winter 2002).
Though Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of a war machine is very complex, the basic premise seems to be that the
war machine is “irreducible to the State apparatus, to be outside its sovereignty and prior to its law, it comes from
elsewhere” (352). However, the war machine is not totally nomad either. The war machine is a set of tactics and a
manner of existing that can be appropriated by either the nomadic packs or the rooting state apparatus. The war
machine cannot, however, be held or owned by either.
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