Skateboarding: The Transition From Subculture to Consumer Culture

Consumerism and consumption are at the core of many, if not most societies. The impacts of consumerism, both positive and negative, play a significant role in all aspects of our lives. Through participation in society, people are naturally segregated into groups of those who resist the dominant ideas, values and social structures and those who accept the dominant cultural norms of society. Subcultures are often seen as points of resistance within a society, paying homage only their niche. Mcguigan (1985, 93) describes subcultures as “attempts to resolve collectively experienced problems resulting from contradictions in the social structure, they generate a form of collective identity from which an individual identity can be achieved outside that ascribed by class, education and occupation.” This rejection of mainstream values by subcultures is present in all modern societies. So much so that deviation from the norm has become an expected part of the social landscape. Clarke (2003) suggests that the image of rebellion has become one of the most dominant narratives of the corporate capitalist landscape, turning subcultures into expedient vehicles of mass consumption. This dichotomy in subculture theory maintains the notion that subcultures continuously resist a dominant culture will be used as the base to compare and contrast key arguments surrounding consumption practices as points of resistance to dominant ideas and values within society.No Skateboarding sign

In order to gain a greater understanding of the transition from subculture to consumer culture, it is helpful to divide the transition into three key areas; resistance, incorporation and cultural fragmentation. By using skateboarding culture as the topic of discussion, these points will be critically analysed to help address the issues surrounding the differentiation between sub and dominant cultures. The evolution of the skateboarding subculture clearly demonstrates the key concepts outlined above. Skateboarding has been described as the offspring of surfing. It first appeared in the 1950’s when surfers in California began “street surfing” as it was initially known (Cave. nd). As a subculture, it has been described as a fusion of surfing, punk, street, hip hop, and hard rock (Cave, nd; Ingram, nd). This is evident in the use of surfing slang combined with the adoption of a rebellious, punk image and clothing style drawn from its’ other influences. Popularity of the sport and subculture waned until the introduction of urethane wheels and the discovery of the infamous Zephyr team. More popularly known as the Lords of Dogtown, the Zephyr team brought a strong anti-establishment sentiment to the subculture. Their resistance of organised competition rules combined with a marked disdain for authority still lingers in the foundation of today’s mainstream skateboard culture.dogtown boys

At the top of the three key transitional areas is resistance, which refers to the ways subcultural style and activity work to challenge dominant social order (Sternberg, 2013). Chiu’s article (2009) would suggest skateboarding is commonly characterised as an activity which challenges social norms. Skateboarders’ particularly overt resistance to amateur contests provides a framework for characterising their daily and more covert behaviours of resistance to middle class norms and values inherent in traditional team sports (Kusz, 2003). To mainstream society, skaters are thought of as rebels or social deviants. Kelly, Pomerantz, and Currie (2005) note that because of the nonconforming image of skateboarders, they are stereotyped by others as potheads (defying prevailing values against drug use), punks and hooligans, (defying prevailing values supporting respect for private property), slackers (defying the dominant work ethic), and underground (defying consumer culture). Skateboarders are consistently banned from public areas and signs are routinely posted prohibiting the activity (Nolan, 2003; Woolley & Johns, 2001). Although social resistance has the potential to change dominant social relations, it is often limited by contradictions and accommodations. Through a collective desire to be rebellious, a subculture like skateboarding can be related to Clark’s previously mentioned idea of subcultures becoming vehicles for mass consumption. Under the guise of the skateboarding subculture, the key marketable image adopted by teens and young adults is an edgy and rebellious style. It is through this collective desire to be different that the notion of subcultures being continuously resistant entities to societal norms seems to fail.

Incorporation is the process by which an element of subcultural style becomes a mainstream fashion or consumer item in order to remove its oppositional style.  As skateboarding grew in popularity, its mainstream incorporation became inevitable. It is an example of a “top-down” cultural process, driven by the media and cultural industries, it’s seen as way of exploiting consumers (Sternberg, 2013). In a significant move that acted as a precursor to skateboarding being incorporated into mainstream culture, the National Skateboarding Association was formed, aligning with the conservative Boy Scouts of America (Humphreys, 1997). This helped provide a positive image for skateboarding, free in part, of the negative connotations previously associated with the subculture. In doing so, skateboarding’s previously underground mentality was shunted into the limelight, spreading through the masses. The extreme age of skateboarding had begun.

The unfounded exposure that the skateboard subculture was now receiving caused itself to split into a collection of sub-groups, all attempting to differentiate themselves from the mainstream. This worked in the marketers favour, providing consumer capitalists with new sources of styles and images to exploit. As skateboarding became more accepted, the incorporation of the subculture into mainstream media industries was inevitable. MTV’s contemporary line-up adopted stylistic programming heavily associated with skateboarding and even featured pro riders. Shows like Jackass, Viva La Bam, Wildboyz, and Scarred blazed the trail for the wider consumption of the “skater lifestyle” and validated the existence of a sport and culture that had long been shunned as a waste of time. An event called the X-games was picking up steam and skaters were making legitimate money through competition winnings. Not only were they able to build a life from skateboarding, they were able to build a brand. This highlights the pinnacle of incorporation into the mainstream as skaters themselves turn into expedient vehicles of mass consumption, none more prevalent than Tony Hawk.

ps1 tony hawk pro skaterThe mass consumption of skateboard culture can largely be attributed to the rise of Tony Hawk’s skater empire and the hugely popular Tonk Hawk’s Pro Skater video game. The game encapsulated many of the key elements of the skateboarding subculture in the choice of musical tracks, the clothing of the characters, and the inclusion of desired skating zones illegal to skate in real life such as schools and shopping centres. For many, the game made the subculture extremely accessible as they no longer had to be able to skate in order to take part. Skate brands highlighted in the video game such as Vans became immensely popular, netting Tony Hawk alone $300 million per year by 2004 (Goldman, 2004). As the games provided a more overt way of including people in the culture, they became a symbol of skateboarding. Thus highlighting the contradiction in subculture theory that rather than being a point of resistance it becomes a means of acceptance; “I consume therefore I am”.

Read (2013, 53) argues that conformity to a cultural pattern ensures a large measure of predictability in behaviour. Subcultures provide a means of group identification amongst mainstream society. However, incorporation makes this type of identification less obvious. Stereotyping of individuals based loosely on popular culture artefacts becomes more common as the lines of distinction between subculture and mainstream become increasingly blurred. Affected subcultures may decide to fight back, leading to polarisation and social fragmentation of the existing subculture (Siapera, DATE, 115). As subcultures attempt to find a niche among mainstream values, they constantly adapt and change, adopting new styles, trends and attitudes in a fight to differentiate themselves from the masses. As the concepts of resistance and incorporation clash forming a paradox of the two behaviours, the need for one to exist to facilitate the other is inescapable.

The market driven popularity of skateboarding highlights the evidence of the natural progression from subculture to consumer culture. Chaney (2004, 47) suggests the once-accepted distinction between ‘sub’ and ‘dominant’ culture can no longer be said to hold true in a world where the so-called dominant culture has fragmented into a plurality of life-style sensibilities and preferences. The speed at which this occurs in today’s society highlights a change in the way we consume media. As a small number of conglomerates exercise their power over production, distribution and exhibition of media, they accelerate the homogenisation of the subculture in the interest of commercialism (Turrow, 2009). In doing so, globalization dramatically reduces the half-life of subcultures, as defining elements are incorporated into the mainstream much faster than previously possible. The perpetuation of a particular marketing view through consumer culture highlights the inconsistencies associated with consumerism being a site for resistance against dominant societal values. Instead, the opposite is true, as the subculture becomes a dominant narrative of the corporate capitalist landscape.


Consumption is an inescapable part of today’s society. Our materialistic culture plays a significant role in all aspects of our lives. People, blinded by greed, jealousy and ego, and being constantly bombarded with advertising, always feel the need for more, believing it will bring them happiness. Today’s mass produced culture facilitates the constant competitive fight to be different, segregating society as people refute societal norms in an effort to achieve an individualistic identity. However due to the nature of consumption, it is impossible to be completely resistant to the dominant ideas and values within society. The rejection of some mainstream values merely highlights the acceptance of others in an attempt to align one’s self with a collective identity. As incorporation runs its’ course, these choices are not always immediately evident. It is impossible to say that consumption is either resistant or incorporative as highlighted throughout this essay. This contradiction in subculture theory was demonstrated by examining the evolution of skateboarding subculture from its’ anti-social, underground beginnings to the multi-million dollar industry that it is today.


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