Gallery: Skating London
Andy J Simmons is a London-based photographer whose work takes him from the terraces of lower-league football grounds to far flung locations around the globe.
A skater himself, Andy first turned his lens to the Southbank undercroft back in the late ‘90s. His photographs capture the world-famous skate spot in an ongoing series of candid images that profile the people, the concrete, the railings and boards, as well as the spirit of an era, an attitude, and a scene that has survived the city-wide juggernaut of gentrification.
With Jonah Hill’s Mid90s arriving in our cinemas, a film that captures what was happening at that time across the pond, we spoke to Andy about his memories of Southbank, the friendships forged there, and the best songs to skate to. And he kindly shared some of his photographs, taken from the late ‘90s through the ‘00s and beyond.
When did you start skating and what was it that first attracted you to the scene?
I’ve been skating since the ‘90s and I started skating Southbank regularly about ‘97. I got into it through some friends at school. Skating was pretty low-key back then but it was a great time. It was just a lot of fun, you know? I liked the freedom, all you needed was a travel card… It’s hard to explain, but just the feeling you get from rolling, it’s like nothing else.
Skating has always had an outsider feel. It appears to be quite tribal, a tough and even intimidating scene to break into. Is there some truth in that?
Skating is pretty cool right now, but it’s still definitely a world of outsiders. That sounds like a cliche, but it’s true. And it can feel intimidating, but If you’re some kid that no one knows and you roll up at SB people will be cool with you as long as you have a good attitude.
Southbank is in the heart of one of the most touristy areas of London, and it can sometimes feel like a fishbowl with people looking in over the barrier and stuff. It’s an environment that is extremely hard to crack, but only if you are not part of it. The difficult part is if you don’t skate and you want in, to take pictures or whatever, that’s really hard, I mean, you can do it but it’s difficult. When I first started skating, I didn’t dive straight into SB, I skated locally in car parks and stuff, skating painted kerbs and benches. There wasn’t tons of parks back then, like there are now, so you just skated with your local crew. I’m sure that still happens but there are more opportunities now to skate parks and meet new people.
On the other hand, with Mid90s and more so with Minding the Gap, skating is shown to be a fiercely loyal community and a place where friendships are hard earned and long lasting. Is that your experience? And if it's true that there's a level of tribalism, is it hiding something else?
I’m friends with people I skated Bromley with in the days, skating The Glades Car Park and The Mall. I’m friends with the next generation of Bromley skaters too, I shoot them at SB. That’s how it works, I’m sure it’s like that everywhere.
I don’t think it’s hiding anything, it’s just a release, an escape from all the bullshit and daily life and stress. That’s all football is right? Or anything? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but for a few hours, you can escape it, you know?
Skate parks seemed to pop up all around the country in the early '00s. I remember when the park in my town and all the neighbouring towns got a half pipe, and suddenly everyone wanted to skate. Why do you think that was? Were you aware of it crossing over for a brief period in the spotlight?
If you build it, they’ll come. If you build a football pitch, kids will play football, if you build a tennis court, they’ll play tennis, so if you build a skate park, kids are gonna learn to skate. If you step onto a football pitch for the first time at 14, you are never gonna play in the Cup Final but if you step onto a board for the first time at 14, if you’re into it, you can be pretty good at 20, a pro maybe, and even if you are not gonna be pro, you can still be around it, and enjoy it…. Or do what I did and pick up a camera. I wasn’t going to be pro but I was around skaters who were at that level, so I just photographed what was going on.
Not many people stuck with it. Do you think skating attracts a certain kind of person? Was there some characteristic or history that bonded the skaters you knew at Southbank? Something that made them commit to skating?
When you are young, you are into different stuff, you try different things and you find something you like, but then you reach your late teens and you start drinking and meeting girls and stuff like that and you have a new set of priorities or you fall into all that 9 to 5 bullshit. Who knows why some people quit and some people don’t? I suppose it goes back to being an outsider, you know, you think differently and stuff, skating certainly teaches you to look at things differently and if you are properly into it, it never leaves you.
Southbank is a special place, it’s super tight…. So the locals bond and form friendships and that’s something that my work explores. When you are a kid, these relationships are important and they can last a long time, I can see that at SB today.
Southbank came under threat of closure not too long ago. What do you think a skate park can do for a community? What have you seen it do for individuals?
What the locals and Long Live Southbank have done is incredible. To save the space from being destroyed, and now the small banks are opening again, it’s an amazing time and it’s cool to skate SB again, and shoot there.
This is what skating does, it brings people together. You only have to switch on your TV and the news channels are talking about Brexit and how divided we are 24 hours a day, but Southbank and skate spots and parks, they’re not like that. Southbank is a microcosm of London, different people from different backgrounds, and cultures and countries and no one is excluded. There is a feeling of warmth and acceptance…. Belonging, no matter who you are.
Jonah Hill has put together a soundtrack for his film. It's pretty killer.
What was the soundtrack to the Southbank at the turn of the millennium when you were there taking photographs? What were the key tracks?
I was listening to a lot of good music around that time, a lot of ‘90s hip hop and alternative stuff, and some of it came from skate videos. I was still watching Video Days and Mouse and stuff like that. My favourite sections tend to have music that I’m into. Video Days is so good it hurts, even now, 25 minutes of absolute mind-fuckery, Guy and Rudy skating to The Jacksons and Dinosaur Jr. Rudy Johnson’s song, Just Like Heaven is my favourite song ever. And it’s so perfect, right from the beginning, from that first line.
Photosynthesis had come out around then, and I was listening to the Mr Dibbs Habitat section. And the Transworld Videos always had a really nice feel to them, I still watch them on VHS. Marc Johnson in Modus Operandi is insane to this day, skating to The Plan by Built To Spill, one of the best parts ever. In the 16mm section in Anthology, Fear of Flying by Bowery Electric was on heavy rotation and still is, and Skull by Sebadoh was in that video too.
Waiting For The World had a good soundtrack and tons of London footage and Southbank of course. I really liked Scott Palmer’s section, The 360 flip under Hungerford Bridge would be an ender today, those stairs were huge... I skated that spot all the time, so, yeah, I was listening to California Earthquake by Cass Elliot and Colin Kennedy skating to Time’s Up by O.C is pretty nuts.
How about films? Are there any that you think did a good job of showing the reality of skating?
Yeah, Kids. I mean, films about skating are pretty much best avoided, but Kids nailed it. If you grew up skating in the ‘90s you were aware of it. London is a lot like New York too, the scene and stuff. I haven’t bothered with rest of them, they look pretty moody, you know, over sentimental cliches and stuff. I think Back To The Future does a better job of showing the reality of skating than most of those films.
The thing with skateboarding is it seems so hard for people outside of it to understand, there’s more to it than putting someone in a Toy Machine t-shirt. Owen Wilson made a cameo in Yeah Right and he said something about learning his lines was like reading Shakespeare, but at least he bothered to learn a bit about skating. You just have to get people involved who get it. That’s what Kids did and that’s what Mid90s has done. And I’m ready for it, for sure. I can’t wait to see it. Everything I’ve read looks so good and the attention to detail, with clothes and stuff is amazing, especially if you still wear Blind and Girl t-shirts.
As far as what else I’m watching, the Yardsale videos for sure are nuts, the best thing out there right now, so different with a great vibe and a super chilled soundtrack… You should be watching them too.
Curzon thanks Andy J Simmons
In Jonah Hill's directorial debut, we follow Stevie (Sunny Suljic), as he comes of age in LA in the titular time period.
Keen to be accepted both by his older brother (Lucas Hedges) and the older skater crew he latches onto, we watch as he has his initiation into rites of passage from first cigarette to first kiss.
More than a nostalgia trip, this is instead a period drama recreation of the recent past that will chime with fans of Kids and Skate Kitchen, mixing documentary authenticity with genuine drama.
Mid90s plays in our cinemas from Friday 12 April