The walls of the alley rush by and we enter a broad square of polished brick, lined with trees and pleasant facades. We fan out and circle the square with a fluid, sinuous ease, looking for walls, grooves, and notches to slide our boards over.
A man — slender, in loose t-shirt and jeans — issues from the group and sails down the edge of a granite staircase. He looks back with a smile and grinds to a halt with an air of palpable content.
We’re out skating with French pro skater Leo Valls, a local icon and well known figure in the world of underground skateboarding. He and his team at Magenta Skateboards celebrate skating in its purest form, as a mode of creative self-expression — an art that is free and impulsive. They’re shifting the industry’s traditional focus away from skate parks and half pipes. They promote a form of skating that is spontaneous — improvising and reacting to the urban milieu.
“Underground skateboarding means not caring about rules!”
“Skateboarding has been formatted to portray a certain ideal. For most people, it’s easier to understand and follow skateboarding when it’s something very technical, or something very dangerous or trendy. That’s what the industry has been pushing,” Leo says. “What I dislike is the idea of skateboarding being a mainstream competitive sport. For me, underground skateboarding means not caring about rules created by the industry, doing what you feel like, and building a network around it.”
“I like to travel to places where I can meet like-minded people”
This network of skaters and friends began in Bordeaux: an alternative city with a temperate climate and small-town vibe that still draws young crowds — a creative pressure valve for the more renowned and populous Paris. “I love to just go skate without a camera or a project in mind, being out with friends and enjoying the city. Moving with the day,” Leo says. There’s a strong skating culture here, which is often celebrated. “I like the fact that skateboarding is accessible to a wide range of people. I see people everyday using skateboards as a way of moving in the city. It’s more economical and ecological than driving a car. It’s more fun too — you’re outside breathing, being physical,” he adds.
His love of skating with friends, searching out new spots and inventing styles, lead Leo to a series of sponsorships and world-wide adventures. He’s toured the US, Australia, Europe and Asia and has been flying to Japan every year for nearly a decade. “I like to travel to places where I can meet like-minded people — people I can exchange ideas with and learn from,” he reflects. Each place has its own unique skate culture, icons, and history; its own take on the power and expressiveness of skateboarding. These cultures, at odds with the steady norms of mainstream skating, should be preserved and celebrated, he says.
“I’m keen on skateboarding becoming more popular, and more people being able to use it, as long as it stays fun and healthy,” Leo explains. So when an old skater and Bordeaux school director built a skate ramp in a local school yard, Leo got in touch to organise skateboarding lessons for the kids. “I pick them up from the school, a group of four to seven kids, and take them skating in the streets. We cruise around the city, and I show them what comes with street skating: interacting with people, getting kicked out of spots by grandmas,” says Leo. “I tell them to be polite to everybody, to stay hydrated when they skate and eat fruit,” he laughs.
Hanging out with a pro skater and learning tricks is something a lot of kids (and adults) would dream of. “The kids love it,” he says. “They get too excited sometimes and I have to calm them down a little bit, but it’s very fun. What’s cool is that by developing their passion they’re open to discovering other new things within the culture of skateboarding. There are a lot of mediums they can gravitate to, such as photography, video production, art, design, architecture… So I see the potential in these kids.”
The creativity that skateboarding fosters is exemplified by Leo’s main sponsor: Magenta Skateboards. They sell original boards and equipment, as well as producing content that pushes the messages of underground skateboarding. They even designed a shoe in collaboration with adidas. “It’s a big crew of homies. Everyone who works for the company is passionate about skating.
“The kids love it”
It’s a constant creative project, always working on videos, photos and editorial content. It seems like all skateboarders are doing something else around skating. I have a lot of skater friends who became very good at filming, shooting, drawing, designing through projects like these,” Leo says. “Skateboarding wise, the main idea behind the brand is to show a way of enjoying the city life, exploring, travelling . . . It’s quite simple: no competitions, no trying to win anything, just doing your own thing.”
We skate from the square down quiet, shaded lanes. The pleasant grumble and familiar “click-clack” of skateboards on concrete is amplified by rows of staid stone apartments, warming their roofs in the afternoon sun. It’s a picturesque town, and its neat ensemble of stairs, rails, benches, courtyards and smooth marble passageways are the perfect setting for casual, care-free skating.
But as more skaters move to Bordeaux to experience this organic skating tableau, the city’s relationship with skateboarding has vacillated. “The authorities don’t like it for sure. If you see the cops you have to bounce. A lot of people only see the bad parts of it, it’s loud and can cause damage to architecture, but you also see a lot of people who love it because they see expression,” Leo explains. “What’s funny is that the city tries to use skateboarding as a promotional tool, to show that they’re a young city, that they like the youth, that they promote outdoor activities. They have ads showing skateboarding for example, and they also did some big events at the city hall that portrayed skateboarding as creative, which is great, but at the same time the police give us tickets. It’s a little ironic,” he grins, and we push off to find the next spot.
Later that day, we visit the nearby Dune du Pilat, Europe’s biggest sand dune. We eat a meal with friends, and with the sun’s dying hues refracting on the horizon, reflect on Leo’s position and daily routine. His life is an example of pro skater success — of tours, films, and merchandise — but one that strikes a balance between professional obligations and personal expression. “Even though money is not the priority, you need to make a living eventually. So pros need to find a balance between being creative and expressing themselves while still making a living through skateboarding,” he says.
His days usually involve creating content for Magenta — writing, or editing video — having lunch with his wife Lauren, and planning tours, before doing what he does best: skating the streets. “I’m usually skating pretty much everyday, lurking in the streets, hanging out with friends. With the Bordeaux lifestyle, we’re usually up quite late at night, sometimes we get back home at 3 or 4am… ” Leo says, pausing. “You’re out in the streets with your friends all day — you see what’s going on. You see rich people, you see poor people, you see it all. It makes you think a lot — it’s a catalyst for everything.”
“Even though money is not the priority, you need to make a living eventually.”