Alexis Sablone interview25.06.2019 - Exclusive
We caught up with professional skateboarder and US Olympic hopeful Alexis Sablone in Paris at the weekend for a chat about architecture, skateboarding in public spaces and her new Converse One Star Pro (in shops now) among other topics.
Interview and portrait: Kingsford.
How has your time in Paris been so far?
I was trying to film something yesterday and kind of lost my mind but other than that, this is my favourite city. Well maybe next to New York. New York is my favourite city, but I really love it here. Paris is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. There’s a kind of energy that’s… it doesn’t feel dead. When you’re used to somewhere like New York, a lot of places feel slow or empty. You feel like you’re seeing the same faces when you just want to be anonymous and see people passing and people watch and all of that. I love density.
Have you spent much time here?
Yes, but never on a proper skate trip. If I was ever in Europe for a competition or whatever, I would stay here. I was spoiled; one of my best friends was working in architecture here and he would let me crash at his place for however long I wanted, so I got to know the city a bit.
In your Thrasher interview you described skating alone a lot when you were younger. How do you find going on filming missions with a big group of people like with the Converse team here in Paris? Do you prefer to go out just with a photographer and / or filmer?
It depends what’s happening. Sometimes it’s really fun, like when you get a trick or someone else gets a trick. Then it’s amazing, skating through the city with this big pack of people. But when you’re trying to get a trick and it’s not working, you see everyone there waiting around. I always feel extra stress, like I’m wasting everyone’s day. All of that on top of the emotional ups and downs of trying a trick is a lot. So I can go either way. If you have an idea of what you’re trying to do and you get along well with the filmer, then you feel like you’re together on this mission, just the two of you, and that’s sometimes nice.
Back to New York – do you see yourself living there forever?
If someone told me I had to live there forever, I wouldn’t feel bad about that, but I don’t know how I will afford it forever. That’s a whole other situation. Buying something in New York is basically impossible. I’ve thought about Philly, which is way more affordable, but – and not to sound cheesy – there’s just something about the energy of New York that I find really inspiring. I love it. I’ve lived there for years at this point and I still find myself in awe, like: “Wow, I’m so lucky I get to live here.” There are parts of it that aren’t perfect but yes, I hope that I can live there for a very long time.
It’s fairly well known that you studied architecture.
I did my undergrad at Columbia. I studied architecture there, but it was a liberal arts degree, so I studied a bunch of other things too. I did my master’s at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in architecture.
Did skateboarding play any part in your studies? Did you write about skateboarding in relation to architecture at all?
A little, but not so much. I mean maybe I wrote about skateboarding in my application to get in (laughs). I did certain projects that combined skating and architecture, projects that took data for skateboarding and made drawings, weird stuff like that. So they have come together here and there, but more recently I got to do this skateable sculpture (for the city of Malmö) that directly combined the two. Now that I’m out of school and I have more space to think about everything and reflect on everything, I’m thinking about skateboarding and architecture more.
There has been a lot of academic attention given to the subject recently.
Do you follow that stuff?
Yes. I’ve been on a couple of panels – Pushing Boarders with Iain Borden and the Smithsonian Innoskate thing – and I know of at least one more next year. Hearing all of those conversations and getting to be a part of some has made me think about things in different ways, maybe more so than when I was in school.
In London Southbank was recognised as having historical importance and community value and it was saved from redevelopment. In the US, Love Park was torn down even though the architect (Vincent Kling) said that he liked skaters using the space. What do you think about these places? Do you think they should be saved for their historical importance?
Yes, absolutely I do. The significance a spot has to skateboarders is probably really hard for other people to understand because the history of skateboarding is not that long. When people think of historical importance, they’re thinking hundreds of years, but we’re creating history every day, so… I think keeping these sites from being destroyed and allowing them to have a new life is really important because skateboarders make them vibrant places, places that are actually being used. Any place in the city that you don’t have to pay to use is really important, any place where people go to live, be creative, whatever…
Did you ever localize a well-known plaza or spot?
Not really, because I grew up in a small town in Connecticut. I just tried to find weird places in my town to skate at night with a light over me and basically avoid seeing anybody. I was weird back then (laughs).
Do you agree that young skaters gain valuable life experience street skating in cities?
I definitely do. Being dropped off at the skatepark by your parent is not the same as having a group of friends and exploring all this stuff… Basically I think the way skateboarders approach space is really different than the way most regular people do. Young children are encouraged to be creative and think for themselves and build something – in the playground or playing with Legos, whatever – then as you get older, that’s less and less acceptable. It’s accepted that you use space for what it was built for. There’s this expectation that if there’s a bench, you’re supposed to be sitting on it. If an adult’s standing on a bench or walking outside of a path going though the grass, you’re like: “What’s wrong with that person?” That’s all skateboarders do. They’re looking at space that was made for something else and they’re trying to think: “How can I use it in a different way?” So you’re automatically approaching space with a creative mind and trying to do something different there. I think that’s invaluable, because if you’re doing that when you’re young, it sticks with you. I think that creativity is misinterpreted. People think: “Oh that’s just young people causing problems or vandalising.” There’s obviously a lot more to it that that.
What about interactions with people from different walks of life, people living on the streets for example? Do you agree that these interactions are also valuable for young people?
Of course. Skateboarding brings you to parts of the city that you wouldn’t normally hang out in. The purpose is: “Let’s explore here, let’s see,” and through that I’ve got to see a bunch of cities, I’ve got to see the world basically. And while I don’t claim to understand the whole world by any means, skateboarding is still a window into something else. It’s different to taking the bus to school, going to practice, then going home. That’s a smaller, more sheltered life. I think skateboarding opens your eyes to a lot of things. You’re looking at details all around you and you’re seeing different parts of the city and you’re exploring and that’s important.
You designed a skateable sculpture for the city of Malmö last year. Tell us about that.
Gustav Eden, who I met while visiting the city for Skate Malmö, reached out and said that there was some budget to do skateable sculptures in the city. He invited me to come and try to pick a site, which I did, and the site was approved by the city. It was a pretty quick turnaround. I had maybe a two-month window to design. It was a really exciting process for me because it was the first time I’d ever designed something with skating in mind. I’ve been asked for years now: “Are you going to finish school and design skateparks?” but that was not that interesting to me. I mean I enjoy skating skateparks just like everyone else – not to put them down – but I found this really fascinating because I am interested in something that’s shared by skaters and non-skaters and is part of the city and is like this kind of un-prescribed space that’s open to interpretation and that can maybe benefit the city in some way and the people who get to use it. It’s something that is not fenced off. It can be skated, people can sit on it, climb on it, whatever…
Anyway, the design… I didn’t want it to be read immediately as a skatepark. There are a lot of buildings surrounding this public plaza and the buildings have several stories, so I had this idea of having it appear as a face from above. That was interesting to me as a way of place making, instead of describing a spot as: “those ledges,” or: “that red thing.” It was also interesting architecturally because the features of a face are actually quite different from each other – they don’t seem like they should go together. It was a way to give me different design parameters that were interesting.
How has it been received?
I think well. A lot of people were enthusiastic about it and the fact that it’s still there is good sign.
A few years ago the city installed some ledges and hubbas at a square called Värnhem. The square had become, in Gustav Eden’s words: “a bit of a negative space because there were a lot of homeless people there”. The idea was to bring skaters into the square to activate it again.
I take that as sort of a more positive spin on what Ocean Howell said about how skateboarders and skateparks specifically can be used like the broom of gentrification, basically to displace or push out the homeless population. The first time I read that I was shocked, because I had never thought about it in those terms. I thought that they put us there (in skateparks) because they didn’t want skaters in the middle of the city. I wasn’t thinking about one rung down the social ladder. I like this a lot better. If open public spaces are too empty, they are alienating. I think that skateboarders use spaces like that consistently and religiously in a way that other populations of people don’t. They bring energy and life to these places that were completely empty before, so I see something like this (the Värnhem project) as potentially a positive thing. The point is not to get rid of these other people. It should be about making these places less threatening so we can have a mix of different people.
Malmö, Copenhagen and more recently Bordeaux have taken a very progressive attitude towards integrating skating into public spaces. London is far behind in this respect with squares and plazas popular with skaters being skate-stopped or obstacles being removed. How does the US compare?
It feels like there are a ton of skateparks, but if there are projects more like this that are doing something different, I haven’t seen them. I could be leaving out a bunch of stuff – I apologise if I am – but yes, I think the US is probably more on par with London. If you’re trying to street skate in the city, you’re going to get kicked out – it’s illegal – which is why my project in Malmö felt unreal. Imagine that happening in New York. I wouldn’t even know where to start – in what space and who’s going to approve that? It would be a nightmare. But, even though the skateable sculpture I did was in a different pIace and a different situation, it’s still a model showing: “This is possible.”
Would you like to do more projects like the Malmö commission?
I’m working on another skateable sculpture right now that’s going to be in Florida. Large-scale public stuff is really interesting to me, especially if it incorporates skateboarding, so I’d love to get more opportunities like that. I guess I’m in the beginning of trying to figure out how I can do that and where that’s possible.
You have a new shoe with Converse. Congratulations. How does that make you feel?
It’s exciting and humbling. It just happened so fast and now I’m literally wearing a shoe with my name on it (laughs), which is a little weird I guess, but I’m proud of it. I’m just really grateful that Converse was down to do this with me and that everybody has been really supportive.
How involved were you in designing the shoe?
Pretty involved. It’s built off a One Star skate. That’s a shoe I’ve seen for years, it’s an iconic shoe. I blow through shoes really fast, so that informed a lot of design decisions. I wanted more rubber up front, so I cut tape and put it on the shoe and said: “That’s where I want the rubber to be.” So there’s added rubber in the toecap and on top of that, there’s added cement compound, which makes it a more durable shoe. With the name placement, I hadn’t seen it there before and I kind of liked the idea that some people might just ollie my name right off. I thought that was cool (laughs).
I guess lots of people have asked you about the Olympics, but do you have any goals left in skateboarding separate to that?
I feel like every skateboarder at any age has some goals, whether it’s just to get better at manuals, or to film a trick in a particular city, things like that… I’m working on a part right now for Converse that should come out relatively soon, so I’m trying to make that the best I can. I guess you just want a part to feel like it represents you, how you skate, what you like to skate… it should feel like you. I’d like to film some more parts and see the world and hopefully work on more projects with Converse. Aside from that, I still have lots of things that I’ve never actually done. A lot of skating I like to watch doesn’t come naturally to me. Like I love quick feet, but the reality is I don’t have quick feet. So maybe I could work on little things like that.