As Siya Ntuli warms up, trundling down the concourse on his board’s two back wheels, his arms hovering high and wide above his shoulders like The Karate Kid in the crane pose, his language slips into the vernacular. When he takes a break, he speaks of heelflips, backside one-eighties, and tail slides. He mentions going fakie. He might as well be talking in tongues. Passion surges through his skinny body, manifesting itself in a symphony of sounds set about by ollies and grinds.
After resting a few minutes, he picks up where he left off, swooping and swerving around a half-dozen other skaters in the afternoon shadows beneath the Rama XIII Bridge. Beer, the owner of Again, a skate shop nearby on Arun Amarin, films a teenager from close range as he attempts a variety of flat ground tricks. A boy no older than ten, swimming in his size-too-large tie-dyed t-shirt and khaki Dickies, ollies onto a low wooden box. Two twentysomething foreigners — Levi Adams, a sponsored skater from Australia, and Hedley Porter, from the UK —follow him. Before long, Levi and Siya, a South African, take turns trying to jump over a thigh-high yellow metal folding chair.
Where rails and ramps usually stand are highpeak frame tents bearing the insignia of Bangkok Life Assurance. The smooth, flat benches typically used for tail slides and grinds are occupied by workers taking late registration for a half marathon to be run the next day. Neither skaters nor staffers seem bothered by the other party — the obstacles have simply been put away in preparation for the race. Parked behind a staircase is a ramp, imprisoned by planter boxes and light poles. The black curve is tattooed with a white DC logo, representing the American brand.
“Event organizers leave the ramps and rails after competitions,” says Greg Powell, a skater, photographer, and videographer who has been filming Siya over the past four months. “That’s why the kids here are getting better. They have equipment to train on now. It’s just today we can’t use it.”
Ten years ago, a scene like this — a group of skaters, gathered on a whim, doing tricks as if they were fishermen standing by the river: background noise — would have been uncommon. To a certain degree, it still is. Siya, Greg, and others have been threatened or kicked out of a handful of locations, from university grounds to public parks. “While we were skating late one night at National Stadium, a security guard threw a garbage can at me,” says Greg.
Danger, of course, is an element familiar to all skaters, and not just because of the physical risks inherent in the sport. In the never-ending search for sovereignty, absolute freedom of choice, skaters often cross boundaries that perhaps shouldn’t be crossed. Still, in Thailand, the hazards have diminished as street culture and skateboarding have earned their places in society’s collective memory.
Thanks to local and foreign investment in Bangkok, a scene has gradually formed around the sport. When Preduce skate shop opened in Siam Square in 2003, the capital got a true flagship shop, one that would sponsor professional and amateur athletes, film videos and screen them at parties, and work with international artists to put Thai skating on the map. Since then, the numbers of skaters has mushroomed. New and renovated skate parks have offered safe havens for aspiring athletes,including Pink Park in Ekamai, the SAT in Ramkhamhaeng,and Future Park in Rangsit. Local shops like Again haveentered the fold, sponsoring more and more skaters —Beer, in particular, has devoted significant energy to
supporting young Thai kids. Dedication has matured, as aresult. The laser-sharp focus needed to nail a trick, or toattempt the same trick over and over again, has spread
like lingo amongst skaters of all ages.
Major events have started a circuit of sorts, too. Every couple of months, an event will shell out significant cash prizes for best tricks, best ollies, or best group work, among other categories. On Go Skate Day (this year on June 21), skaters come out of the woodwork — the police even shut down certain roads for the well-being of the thousands who hit the streets rolling.
“The shops and skaters aren’t competing agains teach other,” says Siya, who is sponsored by a local clothing store in Bangkok and a brand in South Africa that supplies his decks. He takes a swig of Leo, catching his breath and cooling off, his shirt now sagging from the salt sweat, and continues. “There’s no animosity. It’s not like Johannesburg, or the US or the UK, where it’s ruthless.We’re all trying to get better.”
When the sun starts to fade from the vast blue dome of the sky, a silver dusk on the horizon, Siya and Greg cross the bridge in search of a trick, the ultimate goal of every session. “Before I go out, I have a vision for a trick,” says Siya. “That’s all. That one trick, I’m just focused on hitting it.”
Siya eyes a concrete ledge at the top of a staircase. The ledge is lined by shrubs. The drop looks severe, a gossamer gap between triumph and tragedy. Greg, however, encourages his muse to attempt it at full speed.
“Should I go tail?” asks Siya.
“Whatever feels better. Tail to fakie, maybe?” Greg replies, fiddling with his Canon, installing a motion stabilizer, and setting up his skateboard to function as a sort of camera dolly.
Siya psyches himself up, pushes his board around a staircase, cruising to a stop with the ledge in sight. Though fifty metres away, his breathing is almost audible. He kicks the tail. The wood slaps against the ground like an otter’s tail. Behind him, the sun glows golden, the silhouette of his tall, wiry frame burned into the half-light. So much energy, wound up like a coil, taut and eager, aching to be released. There’s a pause. A tugboat motors down the Chao Phraya, leaving the sound of waves in its wake. Anticipation compresses hours into seconds, and then there’s the drive, the click click click of wheels jumping cracks in the pavement. Greg rolls forward, raising his camera to catch the acrobat at his apex. Siya’s deck kisses the ground beneath his heel. There’s a whoosh, the young man is suspended in animation, rising gracefully toward a sharp stone corner which he clears, the curved end caressing the coping, sliding, splintering at the smallest levels, his energy suddenly unfettered, his confidence laced with a sense of amazement, or perhaps pride, as he realizes he just might land upright. He doesn’t. He grabs his board before it rolls into a gutter and runs back to the start, his dedication condensed, sharpened, concentrated on this one trick, the perfect trick.