It has become part of skateboard lore that once upon a time a man called Oliver Percovich travelled to Afghanistan to continue his career as a research scientist but found his hobby could be put to better use.

  • Words: Otto Barkham
  • Photography: Jacob Simkin

On January 19 this year, a fashionable crowd gathered in the sprawling Hauser & Wirth Gallery in downtown LA for an unusual contemporary art launch. In a world where defying convention is the norm, it’s difficult to be ‘unusual’ – yet the launch of eight new Paul McCarthy works marked the latest stage in a new and important cross-fertilisation between two different cultures.

Mirza rides down the Jalalabad Road, known for being one of of the most dangerous roads in the world.

The medium for the artwork was very much part of its revolutionary message. McCarthy had produced political graffiti for the 2018 Women’s March on a set of eight skateboards that were to be sold at $350 each, and at $5000 a set. An organisation called The Skateroom had organised the event, offering the individual boards and the set in editions of 50, and making them available at Hauser & Wirth galleries across the world. A fifth of the proceeds were to go towards an enterprise that – after humble beginnings in Afghanistan – had created a social impact so profound that it had been expanded to Cambodia and South Africa, as well as spawning imitators worldwide. Like the works of art themselves, it had all started with a skateboard.

The last decade has seen ‘skateboard diplomacy’ evolve as an unexpected and potent form of soft power. Children and teenagers who might otherwise have dropped out of society because of factors including poverty and war have discovered that as well as enabling play, the skateboard is a route to new skills and a strongly supportive community. This year a new skatepark will be built in Iraq by an organisation whose international projects include a skate facility in Bolivia, and the 7Hills Skatepark in Jordan, which provides a safe recreational space for local young people and refugees. In Cuba, a project called ‘Cuba Skate’ is helping build relations between young Cubans and Americans, while in Africa the burgeoning skateboarding scene is allowing poverty-stricken youngsters to become skate stars in countries including Ethiopia, Nigeria and Madagascar.

Most of these initiatives – either directly or indirectly – owe their inspiration to the NGO Skateistan, which started out in 2007. It’s become part of international skateboard lore that once upon a time a man called Oliver Percovich travelled to Afghanistan to continue his career as a research scientist but found his hobby could be put to better use. He himself had skateboarded since the age of six – the 1985 film Back to the Future was a key cultural influence, as was the spikily alternative ‘direct action’ politics preached by Jello Biafra, lead singer of The Dead Kennedys. On the streets of Kabul, Percovich quickly found that Afghan boys were keen to try skateboarding, though the potential impact of the sport only truly emerged when girls who had been begging for money started to join in too.

Wais Ahmad attempts the Afghan version of Chris Cole’s Leap of Faith as he ollies off one of the diving boards of the Bibi Mahro swimming pool where the Taliban once hanged people.

I first made contact with Percovich in 2013 shortly after Skateistan had expanded from Afghanistan to Cambodia and moved its headquarters to Berlin. He explained that ‘while soccer, and kite flying and bicycle riding were popular with boys, they were seen as activities for boys only. Because skateboarding was so new, it didn’t have that stigma for girls. I had identified that there needed to be much more ownership by Afghans of all development projects, and with 50% of the population under sixteen, it was insane not to engage with them in an absolutely huge way. It was clear too that it was important to identify opportunities for girls, but since girls weren’t allowed to do anything it was difficult. Through skateboarding it seemed it might all come together.’

He was right. As Percovich saw how skateboarding could break through economic and gender-based social divisions in Afghanistan, he turned to international sponsors to help him grow his vision. In 2008, people around him began to recognize the impact of the craze, calling it ‘Skateistan’, and Percovich started to petition the Afghan authorities to give him land to create a safe facility where boys and girls could skateboard.

The more projects we work on, the more we realise this is a powerful form of connection. Skateboarding works as diplomacy, because it changes lives.

Arne Hillerns

Progress was rapid: one year later, in 2009, Skateistan was given the ‘NGO of the year’ award in Monaco, and opened its first indoor school facility in Kabul on land provided by the national Olympic committee. This was the moment at which skateboarding culture became explicitly linked to education opportunities: each student who registered with Skateistan had to spend as much time in the classroom as on the skateboard.

Everyone who took part in the project could see the revolution it was having on the mentalities of the young people involved. Percovich told me, ‘I could see the dangers in a society where people hadn’t been able to play during their childhood – this stifled creativity and led to a situation where it was difficult for people to think outside the box and problem solve.’ Skateistan developed three central programmes: Skate and Create, Back to School and Youth Leadership. Through the combination of skateboarding and education in areas ranging from nutrition to human rights, the students began to grow in confidence and make their own voices heard in the society around them.

Hamid Razi does tricks along an old path that once was part of the royal garden to Darul Aman Palace in Kabul.

At the end of 2010, Percovich set up the first multimedia exchange between the Skateistan students and young people in 12 other countries. They shared video, photos, blogs and artworks across the Middle East, Europe, Australasia and America. By the end of 2013 students and Youth Leaders had spoken in the Afghan parliament, participated in events for the UN, and appeared at conferences abroad to describe journeys that were proving as political as they were personal.

Today Skateistan is operating across Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa, working with 1,800 young people of whom 50% are girls.

Skateistan HQ as seen from the parking lot, painted with the colours of the Afghan flag.
The rocket ramp, complete with a real rocket that was bought in Kabul, strapped onto the back of a motorbike, and brought back to the skatepark.

Given its success, it’s not surprising that other organisations are also starting to use the skateboard as a way of reaching out to and empowering young people. The most prominent of these is Make Life Skate Life, a non-profit organization headed up by a German, Arne Hillerns, and two Americans, Jon Chaconas and Kali Rubaii. I manage to catch Hillerns on the ’phone in Belgium, as he is preparing to launch a fundraising campaign to build a skatepark in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish region of Iraq later this year.

Hillerns is the first to say that although he admires Skateistan, Make Life Skate Life has a different model, ‘we set up the site and provide the material, but the idea is that the local people will go on to manage it themselves.’ The organisation came about almost ‘organically’, after he travelled India with friends in 2012. ‘We’d travelled the entire country, and everything was so foreign and so strange to us,’ he says. ‘At the end of our trip we met skateboarders, and all of a sudden it felt like we were at home.’

According to Hillerns, it’s possible to find skateboarding communities in the most unlikely parts of the globe, whether in the Arab world (‘For sure,’ he laughs, ‘especially in Morocco’), or somewhere like Myanmar where he created a park in 2015. The Indian skateboarders, in Bangalore, were campaigning for a skatepark, and Hillerns, a trained social scientist who had already built his own facility in Germany, realised he could help. Looking for a sponsor whose brand chimed closely with skateboarding culture, Hillerns approached Levi’s who agreed they would back the project. In 2013, Holystoked Skatepark was created, a place where young people from all social backgrounds could meet, swiftly becoming a word-of-mouth success for the dynamic sense of community that it created.

Obviously finding the right people to invest in these kind of projects is key. Make Life Skate Life has used a range of funding methods to finance its skateparks, but Levi’s has proved an important ally, ‘I don’t know how I would have been able to get the resources without them in India,’ says Hillerns. Since then Levi’s have also financed a stunning Make Life Skate Life facility in Bolivia, and most recently the Taghazout Skatepark in Morocco. For Skateistan, while government backing provides most of its funding, sponsors have included Spitfire Wheels, and CHPO watches.

Milad and Noorzai posing inside the royal palace.

And beyond this, as if to show there is no part of life that skateboarding cannot reach, most recently there has been the cross-fertilisation with contemporary art. The Paul McCarthy launch in Los Angeles was one of several sales organised by Brussels-based The Skateroom, whose prime focus is to help Skateistan projects – an earlier series of his skateboards had funded an entire skatepark in Johannesburg. Other The Skateroom collaborators have included Ai Weiwei and Grayson Perry – when I contact the organisation’s marketing manager, he confirms that artists who plan to contribute this year include Jenny Holzer and David LaChapelle. Make Life Skate Life works with a smaller scale contemporary arts organization Decks for Change as one of its sponsors. Based in Australia ‘Decks’ similarly seeks to strengthen the link between political art, skateboarding and social change.

Fazila joins the boys for a skate through the historic halls.

For Hillerns, right now ‘the possibilities are endless. It feels as if we’re only just getting to know the different skateboarding communities around the world. The more projects we work on, the more we realise this is a very powerful form of connection. Skateboarding works as diplomacy, because it really changes lives.’

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