Skateboarding tends to conjure up images of palm trees, empty pools and winterless California skies… But Berlin boasts a vibrant scene of its own that’s been around since before the 1980s on both sides of the Wall – and now it’s exploding. We talk to scene veterans and assess the distance…
Off-white polyurethane wheels spin in a tight circle and bite into the ground, screeching loudly across smooth grey concrete. The skateboard jolts against the surface of the ground and rises into the air. Half a second later, the deck lands with a satisfying clop, like the noise of horse hooves on cobblestones. Another board is perched precariously on the edge of a ramp. It is anchored firmly by its tail to the concrete surface by a black and white chequered Vans shoe. This is a Friday afternoon at Hasenheide Skatepark in Neukölln. California’s palm trees may be far away, but over the past four decades Berlin has developed a skating scene with its own hotspots, heroes and history. Kreuzberg is home to one institution that has been shaping the local skateboarding culture pretty much from the beginning: skate shop Search and Destroy on the corner of Oranienstraße and Mariannenstraße. When exactly this temple of boards first opened its doors is a lost memory.
“We’ve been trying to find out when it all started because we ourselves would like to be able to mark anniversaries… but nobody knows,” says Twigga a 39-year-old artist and skater who came to Berlin from Bremerhaven in 2009 and has been working here ever since. What’s pretty clear is that “Search” as insiders call it is the oldest shop of its kind in Berlin, and one that’s tried to hold on to the non-conformist credentials of Berlin skating’s beginnings which lie somewhere in the 1980s. Here skaters of all stripes and colours shop for decks from local brands such as Radio Skateboards, as well as fashion from California label Emerica or Hamburg-born Cleptomanicx, from a weekly changing selection. “Skating has become more commercial in the last decade, it’s not as punk rock any more,” says Twigga, dressed in black from head-to-toe, his arms covered in sun-faded skater tattoos. He’s nostalgic for the days when all you needed to belong was a board – “Now people check out what brand of shoes you’re wearing” – and skaters still were rebels. When he first arrived he was all about sticking it to the man, crossing red lights out of principle, smoking weed on the street, and skating was part of it. Ten years down the road, he’s running the show for a mysterious owner who prefers to remain unknown. “We’re a bit like family and if a regular comes here and wants to buy a board that costs €59 and he only has €55 and a couple of buttons in his pockets, we make concessions. You don’t get that elsewhere.” He also recalls opening the shop on a Sunday when a customer he knew called him because he urgently needed a set of wheels.
The 2000s boys
One of Search’s loyal regulars is German skating star Lennie Burmeister who picked up the board at the tender age of 10 to become once of Germany’s first skating pros. When he came to Kreuzberg in 1999, the shop was one of the places where he’d meet what he calls “the Berlin boys”. “With a shop like that it’s about knowing the people, having a local community. Search especially has always helped consolidate the scene. You’d meet there for a chat before going skating.” Burmeister also worked here between 2005 and 2007 and says he cannot remember how many days, weeks and months he spent there, even after working the till. Now mostly based in the Lower Saxony countryside, he still stops by to say hi to Twigga and the ‘boys’ whenever in town, each time marvelling at the resilience of the small business: “It’s completely crazy, I’m sure you can’t really make money with it!”
Another local institution did not hold out as long: Anzeige Berlin, a free zine started by Hamburg-born Free University student Adam Sello. In 2004, Sello released a skating video he’d been working on for three years. Panorama Berlin was a feature-length compilation of clips of local talents showing off their tricks – at Kulturforum but also on Alexanderplatz, Potsdamer Platz train station, urban playgrounds and other more grungy off-the-grid locations. Lennie Burmeister, himself a protagonist of the film describes it as a catalyst for the Berlin skate scene: “That was what got us together.” A year after the release of his film, Sello turned Panorama into Anzeige Berlin, a photo-driven fanzine and guide to the city’s prime skating locations – spots like the steps of Treptow’s Soviet memorial or the steps and rails outside the Tempodrom. The small-format zine would be available at every skateshop in Berlin, and a must-read for visitors in the know. “It fired up the whole scene and skateboarding in Berlin exploded,” says Burmeister, talking about the snowball effect Panorama Berlin and Anzeige had.
Berlin skating, 20 years on
In the 1990s there weren’t many skateparks, so the go-to spot was Kulturforum, the museum complex on Potsdamer Straße, not far from where the Wall once stood, and only a stone’s throw away from the huge building site that Postdamer Platz was at the time. Especially on Mondays, when the museums were closed, the Forum was teeming with skaters. Today, skaters are spoilt for choice, with the city’s 40-odd skate parks and endless secret spots. For many, Warschauer Straße has become the epicentre, with premium locations such as Skatehalle on the RAW Gelände, the “Bänke Berlin” down the middle of Warschauer Straße and the “Dog Shit Spot” right underneath the Warschauer Brücke. Twigga likes Hasenheide: “Where there is some green, you are likely to find a more mellow, slightly older crowd, people that don’t have to prove themselves like the teens who still have that need.” Both Twigga and Burmeister agree that skating is thriving: “Skateboarders from all over the world are moving here nowadays and you can find any style and cultural influence within the scene,” says Burmeister. “From dirty punk rock DIY transition skaters to clean hip-hop ledge wizards, everybody can find a place to skate in Berlin.” Twigga agrees, emphasizing the unique quality of the Berlin scene: here, in stark contrast to traditional skate meccas like Los Angeles, Barcelona, or Melbourne fame isn’t fetishised. Pros and amateurs skate side by side. “I think that’s the beauty of Berlin, you don’t get so starstruck.”