Video courtesy DC Shoes. Photos by Kealan Shilling.
Skateboarding is a crime… Or is it?
Pro skater Leo Valls is rapidly changing the way government officials and residents are viewing skateboarding in Bordeaux, France. Watch the DC-produced documentary above and read along as the Magenta pro provides some insightful advice on how to decriminalize skateboarding in your hometown. Turns out we can all get along after all—welcome to 2019.
First off, you skate in a very different way, stylistically, than most American pro skaters. You’re not hucking down stairs or jumping on big rails. Where did your approach come from?
I think [living in] Japan taught me that you don’t have to follow anything. You can just be yourself and find your identity through skateboarding. So after traveling through Japan, I went back to France and I felt more confident developing my own style. To me, developing your own style in skateboarding comes from what environment you’ve got. And in Bordeaux we’ve got—it’s an old city with old buildings—but we’ve got a lot of smooth marble ground, smooth granite ledges, not many stairs or handrails or parking lots or schoolyards like in America. So, obviously I wanted to skate, and depending on the environment I got, I developed my own identity through skateboarding instead of just trying to look like what the American industry would push.
So it’s always been about adapting to the architecture, more or less?
I think so, yeah. And when you travel, you adapt to the architecture you find as well. I think it’s very important to be true to your roots and go from there to create your own identity. Skateboarding is all about image anyways, and bringing your own style or message to the table. That’s what it’s all about to me.
Your work with the city of Bordeaux is very community-oriented. Were you always really drawn to the community aspect of skateboarding?
Yeah. I’ve always been really interested in having friends coming to skate and come to France to show them around my town. It would be a way for me to see my own city with a little better understanding. And then going to America or Japan or Australia or other places, everywhere I went, I felt very welcome because I was with the skateboarding community. I started working on projects with people and skateboarding crews from all over the world. So obviously that really brought this idea of skate community to my mind. When I moved back to France five years ago, I really thought that the community in skateboarding was a really important aspect and that it’s something we need to cherish. From traveling so much, I realized that we’re a global community. But in your own city, it’s also very important to develop a local skate community that gets along where everybody can work together on projects and skate together.
I wanted to ask you about that. How important is the local level of community to you versus the global community of skateboarding?
It’s super important. And that’s why it’s important to have a healthy community where skaters respect each other and understand each other and work together. What’s amazing in skateboarding is that a lot of people develop artistic or creative tools because of their passion for skateboarding. A lot of my friends who grew up skateboarding became professional photographers or architects or videographers or designers or artists—all of these jobs, because of skateboarding. And when you mix all of these, it creates a community where you have a real strength to create. For me, as a French skateboarder—I’ve been a pro, making a living off skateboarding for 10 years—after traveling so much, I felt like the right thing to do was to come back home and work for my city and my community.
Do you feel like that level of maturity came with age?
Yeah, it came with age. It came with the realization that my city was in a really bad spot five years ago. Skateboarding was becoming more and more illegal. Every time I would come back from a trip, I’d see more knobs, more stoppers, kids would get more tickets, people were being chased by the police. It was really shitty and it would really upset me. I knew how positive skateboarding would be for Bordeaux. It would bring tourism to the city. In Bordeaux, we have a really big skate scene. We have companies like Magenta based in Bordeaux. We have the national magazine, Sugar, which is based in Bordeaux. We have several pros and local associations that teach skateboarding to kids. There are a lot of things happening in Bordeaux. I’ve always been proud of this. But I was very upset that the city wouldn’t understand this and would try to keep us in skateparks.
What was the one thing that made it click for the city? How did you get them to cooperate with your vision?
It started with fighting. Seriously. And little by little it became positive. I was upset because the city of Bordeaux was making skateboarding illegal, but at the same time, they would use the image of skateboarding in their communication programs, so I thought that was very hypocritical. I got contacted by a TV news channel. They wanted to make a topic on their live television program discussing skateboarding, and the economy around it. I remember they called me once and I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to show my face on mainstream television. Fuck that.’ So I hung up the phone. But then I thought, ‘Wait, maybe that’s a good way to start. I could talk about the repressive policies of the city and see what happens from there.’ So I called them back, like, ‘Hey, I’m actually going to come to your TV news channel, and I’m gonna talk shit on the city.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, sure, do it.’ They love the buzz. So I did that. I talked shit on the city’s repressive policies around skateboarding. Three days later I got invited by the mayor and his team to a meeting. So I went to the first meeting, which was a round table meeting with a crew of skateboarders I set up and the citizens that complain about skateboarding, especially the noise. Bordeaux is quite condensed, so people complain about the noise, and that’s why it was illegal at most spots.
It was illegal because of the noise? Not the damage?
Yeah, mostly. The city is quite strong. We have a lot of granite. Bordeaux isn’t too damaged by skateboarding. But they also thought skateboarding was very dangerous. So we went to this meeting, and our strategy was to listen to them and put myself in their shoes. I wanted to step back and take some distance to understand them and apologize to them. But at the same time, we told them, ‘More and more, whether you like it or not, we will keep skating.’ We explained to them that skateboarding is actually positive and beneficial. We told them that skateboarding is about physical activity like a sport, it’s a cultural outlet for people, it’s a way for us to communicate about the city by shooting photos and videos, it’s a question about tourism, and it was a way for people to meet up and create social cohesion, interact, and activate dormant places. We pretty much told them everything they wanted to hear as politicians. From there they were like, ‘Oh shit, okay.’ So then we proposed a deal. There were three plazas that were symbolic for me. There’s the City Hall plaza next to a police station where we’d have to skate super late at night or else we’d get tickets. We told them, ‘Let us skate these spots with certain timeframes, we’ll tell the whole community to respect the timeframes.’ We did a test for three months and it worked. The kids respected the timeframes. We asked everybody to be good. I would then see better behaviors from skaters. They would clean their trash, they’d be nicer to the pedestrians. It was very interesting. Because skateboarding was semi-legal on these plazas, I would see the residents view skateboarding differently because it was now officially part of the city life.
Yeah, it became just like any other activity, right? Like basketball or tennis.
Right. It was officially integrated into the city. And at the same time, we did a big exhibition at the Modern Art Museum because we have good relationships with some of the museums in Bordeaux. They invited the politicians. I had a public debate with the mayor in front of journalists. And in this context, the mayor could only go with us. We convinced him that skateboarding is healthy, it’s good for the youth.
Was anyone else fighting alongside you, or were you the main advocate for all of this?
Yep, I wasn’t alone. I had a crew with me, and I’m very thankful for that. After the exhibition we did, the mayor asked me to work on a master plan for the city of Bordeaux to integrate skateboarding in the long term. I would look up to Scandinavia and see what they were doing in Copenhagen or Malmö, and I would be like, ‘Look, this is the future. Bordeaux needs to integrate an art form like skateboarding in the city planning. It’s going to be better for the future of the city.’ With my friend Arnaud Dedieu, we set up DEDICATION, a consulting company for skateboarding and public spaces, and we worked on a masterplan for six months. We got to meet like 40 different project and chief architects in charge of the upcoming urban projects in Bordeaux. Some plazas, we wanted to make them fun and skateable, and sometimes we had to be honest—for example, there was a retirement home nearby, so let’s not put a skate spot here. But let’s not put skate stoppers either, because skate stoppers are actually aggressive towards skaters and they bring bad behaviors.
Did you go to school for any of this?
Did people take you seriously right off the bat?
Yes. They knew that I had been skateboarding professionally and traveling for a while, so they would respect that. And after I started making a living with skateboarding, I started traveling nonstop, so I have a master’s degree in skateboarding, pretty much [laughs].
How would you get something like this to happen in the US? Is it possible?
That’s a really good question, and I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I came to the conclusion that there’s no magic formula to make a skate friendly city. The first thing you need to have is to have a tight skate community. If the skaters are not able to get together—if, for example, skate shops are fighting with each other because of personal interests—then it’s not going to work. You need to show the city that you’re one strong community that can get together when you need to get together. We need to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of other city users and politicians. When they have no solutions, we need to come up with solutions that provide benefits for the city.
Which is very hard for a lot of skaters to do, to be honest.
Yes, it’s hard for a lot of skaters. But as skaters, we need to understand that we claim the streets, but we’re not the only people in the streets. We need to share the streets. If somebody gets mad and doesn’t get it, it’s okay. Have a laugh about it, just don’t get mad in return. They might be from a different generation, or they don’t have the same vision as you do, so don’t get mad. But yeah, I think the aspect of community is very important, as well as being able to bring solutions that are beneficial for the future of the city. The big problem with cities like LA or London, for example, a lot of the public spaces are actually privatized by companies or the bank.
So, I have to ask: what’s your take on skateboarding in the Olympics? Will it help people understand what we’re about and inspire more cities to decriminalize skateboarding?
I think for us as street skaters, the Olympics aren’t going to change anything in the way we skate. I think the Olympics needs skateboarding more than skateboarding needs the Olympics. Big skate contests have existed for decades. But for the general public, it’s going to open their vision of skateboarding towards something more acceptable because it’s validated by the mainstream. It sucks that it has to be like that, right? But at the end of the day it’s going to be good for us. I have to be honest with you: when I had meetings with the politicians, I used the Olympics as an example. I told them that skateboarding is coming to the Olympics and they need to wake up. They always get impressed when you mention the Olympics.
Do you want this to be your legacy? If you’re remembered for one thing in skateboarding in 20 years, is this what you want it to be?
I think there’s so much more to skateboarding than this. Skateboarding is so awesome and it’s been illegal in so many places for so many years… I think this topic of integrating skateboarding into cities is a new thing because it’s 2019. Skateboarding is so popular right now. It’s been around for a long time and the cities are going to have to stand for it or against it.
Cities have to adapt just like people have to adapt, right?
Exactly. Cities are going to have to adapt to this. As skaters, our role is to help make the city and government view skateboarding in a way that’s as authentic as possible. That’s very important to me. These urban spots need to be authentic to real street skateboarding. It can be done badly as well. That’s why I feel like I have a responsibility to do it right.
What do you think the hardest city in the world would be to convince?
I think LA would be a pretty hard one. I was cruising around downtown today and I’ve never seen that many skate stoppers. It’s probably the most skate-stopped city.
So how do you stop that? Is it a 20-year battle? Can it happen overnight?
We got a deal with the city of Bordeaux where we explained to them why skate stoppers are aggressive. They call it ‘defensive architecture’ when they talk about skate stoppers. I called it ‘aggressive architecture.’ We feel attacked by these things. We don’t want to give the wrong message to kids or skaters, but also to the general public. When you use a skate stopper, the person who doesn’t skate and sees a skate stopper on the bench is gonna be like, ‘Oh, this is against skateboarding because skateboarding is bad.’
Exactly. It’s the same way that if you see a no smoking sign, you automatically assume that smoking is bad and wrong.
Do you think you’ll be fighting this fight forever? Is this your life’s cause [laughs]?
We’ll see [laughs]. So far my plan is to really focus on my hometown and make it a city that integrates skateboarding really well and becomes a skate paradise. I want the citizens of Bordeaux to be happy with the way skateboarding happens there. I want skaters in Bordeaux to be really happy about the city they get to skate. But we’ll see what happens next. I’m very motivated to work on urban projects like this and develop skateboarding in an authentic and positive way for the future.
Have you gotten pretty close with the mayor and city employees now?
Yeah, I hang with some of the city council people.
So you could go grab a glass of wine or dinner and be friends?
Yeah, definitely. They didn’t know what to do, so we helped them out with this—with the timeframes, building skateable spots around town, which is a positive image for the city. They used to get a lot of complaints from residents. Now that skateboarding is more integrated, they don’t. They even hired one of my friends, a younger kid, as a mediator to come and talk to the residents who complain about skateboarding.
Do you think in the future there will be a skateboarder on every city council board?
Some cities, for sure. It exists in Malmö. Gustav Eden is a skateboarding coordinator, an official, for the city of Malmö. He’s organizing events, helping with urban development, integrating skateboarding in new urban projects. He’s doing a really great job. I’m just hoping it’s going to stay real and core, though. I’ve been a street skater my whole life and never did a competition or anything like that. One-hundred-percent street skating. I feel like this happened to me and now it’s the new thing I want to develop. At the same time, I want to skate and travel as much as possible, but it’s something on my mind every day now.
Has your life as a pro skater changed a lot since you started working with the city? How has it impacted your day to day life as a skater?
I still skate just as much. But I wake up, I do emails for about four hours. Then I go to a meeting with the city for an hour or two. Then I go skate and film for a few hours with my friends. Not much has changed. I’m just now a little busier. But it’s worth it.