Claes Oldenburg Does a 180
By Jason Rusnock
Skateboarders are resourceful. The very nature of skating is rooted in realizing the potential of one’s surrounding environment, whether it’s an ignored public park, a vacant lot under a highway overpass, or a towering sculpture affectionately nicknamed the “paint glob.” Previously known for his public sculptures Clothespin and Split Button, artist Claes Oldenburg’s latest public artwork, Paint Torch, has recently been placed at the center of Philadelphia’s grudge with skateboarding. After being removed from its installation site to be repainted, the glob was reinstalled, and spun 180° to face away from the sidewalk in an attempt to deter skateboarders. The misconception here is that skateboarders are inconsiderate vandals – an idea that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Skateboarders are creative. Just as a sculptor transforms paint and metal into art, so does a skater transform the urban environment into a place of activity. Do skateboarders realize what they’re doing? In short, yes and no. In skateboarding, one’s perception of what is a skate-able obstacle and what isn’t becomes fairly democratic due to the empowering sense that anything is possible. In this case a glob isn’t just a stagnant public sculpture, but a new opportunity to test one’s physical and mental capabilities. Oldenburg’s Split Button, found on The University of Pennsylvania’s campus, is similarly enjoyed not only by skaters but also by pedestrians. Whereas skateboarders are escorted off the premises and fined, those treating the giant button as a jungle gym certainly aren’t deemed public nuisances.
Skateboarders are not criminals. Not only does a recent proposal by Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael A. Nutter identify the glob in the same category of cultural significance as the All Wars Memorial, it also puts skateboarders in the same category as felons. Under new legislation by Mayor Nutter, those skateboarding on a monument or public artwork are subject to a punishment of up to $2,000, 90 days in jail, and confiscation of equipment. By making skateboarding a felony, Councilman David Oh, who presented the plan alongside Mayor Nutter, hopes to protect “these precious assets that are meant to be enjoyed by those who call Philadelphia their home as well as visitors to our great city.” Despite this action, skateboarders are persistent. Could you imagine people still wanting to run up the “Rocky Steps” if the city began passing out fines to offenders? After all, there are plenty of other places to run, right?
For two decades, skateboarders near and far have regarded Philadelphia’s Love Park as a must-visit destination. Even since its ban and haphazard renovation in 2002, skaters continue to visit Love Park solely due its historical significance within the community. If the city were truly interested in preserving its landmarks, wouldn’t it have been wise to accept a one million dollar gift by DC Shoe Company to reopen Love Park to skaters? Not only would the city have covered the cost of renovations (approximately $800,000) but it would have also given skateboarders the safe-haven they need. New York City, for example, has recently provided not one, but two of its public parks to the skateboarding community: Flushing’s Corona Park and downtown Manhattan’s Brooklyn Banks. The latter is a cooperative effort between skateboarders and the Parks Department, which initiated annual volunteer events to help keep the park clean.
The city of Philadelphia has gone from a major destination for skateboarders to a place of hostility – a characteristic that has become customary for Philadelphia (see the television program, Parking Wars). With this proposal, Mayor Nutter and Councilman Oh follow blindly in the footsteps of Philadelphia’s officials by ignoring the significance of skateboarding’s worldwide, multi-billion dollar community and how it can benefit the city. Above all, skateboarders are independent. Though subject to constant scrutiny, and despite zero support from the city, skateboarding remains a thriving component of Philadelphia’s culture and history.