Say the high-brow word “museum,” and I’ll generally shell out any price to visit, but when the Ventura Visitor’s Center handed me a brochure that suggested a museum collection of over 2,000 skateboards, I did a double take and thought, “that’s different.”
Curious, I drove inland through the majestic mountains of Simi Valley and took an exit into sleepy suburbia. At the end of one street, the sound of snaps and cracks came from an ugly warehouse. Inside, Skatelab – which has been around since 1997 – proved to be an amazing tribute to the art and sport of skateboarding.
The entryway was filled with long and short skateboards alike from the last several decades. Turns out, skateboarding was invented in Southern California during the 1950s, taking its inspiration from surfing. At Skatelab’s upstairs museum, they display boards of all kinds, including a street luge.
An old '60s magazine is inside a glass case and opens to an interview with 21-year-old Larry Bertleman. Explaining that he used a skateboard when the waves were flat, Larry was credited with bringing his fluid style of surfing to the streets. His signature move was the "burt," which involved dragging his fingers or putting a hand on the ground and turning around it.
Skatelab also has plaques celebrating Guinness Book of World Records holder Guy Grundy, who in 1975 set the record of going 51 mph on a skateboard in Signal Hill, California, and Richard Carrusco, who in 2000 did 142 continuous 360-degree revolutions on a skateboard.
Wandering through the wall-to-ceiling boards (top), it’s hard not to notice that the decks of skateboards are splashed with modern art. There’s a history behind that. In 1972, a group of kids from Dogtown (a slum area in West Los Angeles) set up Zephyr Surfboard Productions. They took local graffiti and put it on their surfboards. Then, the Zephyr Team became well-known skateboarders, and a tradition started of putting graffiti-type images on skateboards as well.
Skatelab has a shop that sells wax, movies like Thrashin’ and skateboard wheels. That’s important too because before 1972 kids used to make their own skateboards, often using dangerous clay wheels. When Frank Nasworthy invented the polyurethane wheel, the ride became smoother. Skateboarding went mainstream after that.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for skateboarding to become part of the Olympics. Having started as an anti-establishment movement, style and innovation tend to be far more important than rules. All sorts of styles and tricks keep being invented – from the "vert" to Alan Gelfand’s 1978 "ollie" (created when he struck the back of his foot on the tail of his skateboard while leaping with his board into the air).
Skatelab continues to grow its collection of "everything" skateboards, and soon they plan to have a Skateboarding Hall of Fame. Best of all, in the multi-experiential fashion of today’s museums, Skatelab has ramps and quarter pipes for everyone to practice their own burts and ollies.
You can find the museum at 4226 Valley Fair St., Simi Valley, CA.