Darwinism -- survival of the fittest -- is a powerful addiction that touches a vast majority of skateboarders. No skateparks? They'll invent street skating. No decent street spots? Well, they'll just re-invent skateparks -- DIY-style. By colonizing abandoned buildings, forgotten real-estate and often remote areas to claim them their own, skateboarders have built their own playgrounds. All it takes is devotion, commitment and a non-reluctance to learn how to mix concrete.
This ability to adapt has always fascinated Irish skate photographer Richard Gilligan, known for his impeccable work for Sidewalk and Kingpin magazines. Almost eight years after having shot the seminal skater-built park, Burnside, Gilligan put together one of the best, most comprehensive, skate-related books to come out in the past few years. Its name? "DIY," of course. ESPN.com sat down with Gilligan while he explained how it all went down.
ESPN.com: When did the idea of the book come about?
Richard Gilligan: About four years ago is when I began working on the project properly. Up until that point, although I thought about it, I hadn't yet fully committed to working on it full-time. I decided to go back and do an MFA (Masters) in Photography in Belfast and that was the point where I really decided to focus on it.
In my head I always saw the work as a book but also could work just as well within a gallery space. My plan was to self-publish it until I ended up exhibiting some of the early work in a group show in Paris called Public Domaine. It was during this show that the publishers, 1980 Editions, discovered the photographs and we began working together. I couldn't have been happier.
What attracts you to these makeshift spots?
I am drawn to all these locations in two ways. Firstly as a skater who can fully appreciate the work and energy that goes into these places and then also I am drawn to them aesthetically as a photographer fascinated by the landscape and people around me. It's a good mix! Ideally I get to skate for a bit, then shoot landscapes and then the people.
How do you find these places?
Mostly just through word-of-mouth but I also spent hours and hours searching through blogs and magazines. To be honest, finding a lot of these locations was actually a bit of a treasure hunt as they are generally quite well hidden away, lurking hard in the shadows.
Why did you choose to shoot most of them empty, with barely any skating?
This was just the way it worked out and I actually made a conscious effort in the book to really try and include people as I didn't want it all to just appear as these cold, lonely urban landscapes. There are plenty of people included but as a photographer I am just as interested in the landscape that surrounds each location as much as I am interested in the location itself.
Is it deliberate to have shot quit a few of these "skateparks" in the rain, to add an extra "dramatic" element?
No not at all, I just photographed each location in whatever light or weather I had that day so it was not a conscious aesthetic choice.
Was any eviction story particularly sketchy?
Thankfully not. Although in New Orleans, I ended up driving my rental Ford Mustang to a location by these train tracks where I had a rough idea where a spot called The Peach Orchard was. I was wandering around one of the sketchiest neighborhoods underneath all these bridges with full on crack-heads lurking in the shadows and I was sure at one point I was really in trouble. However I decided to approach a gang of people in front of me before they approached me and asked them in as calm a way as possible if they ever saw any skaters here. They were more spun out on me and my Irish accent than I was on them. One of them brought me to her house and got her grandson to bring me through this overgrown wasteland where I eventually was lead to the skatepark. It was sketchy! I shot about 10 frames and skated for a few minutes before it started to get dark, at that point I got really freaked out and basically ran the entire way back to my car and got out of there as quickly as possible.
What do you think these projects say about skateboarding, and about society at large?
I think they show the essence of the roots of skateboarding -- in that as skaters we have a long standing history of utilizing the unused or forgotten parts of the city and turning them into something really positive. Each location I visited injected an otherwise forgotten corner of the world with a burst of energy that I view only as something positive. In terms of what it says about society in large, I suppose you could argue that it proves that as humans we all have this inner need to build and shape the world around us to suit our individual needs.