Wasteland Interview - Skatepark builder Ep 1

Interview with João Sales, Wasteland Skateparks. |  by Sebastião Belfort Cerqueira

A skater since the late 80s, João Sales grew up deeply rooted in the Portuguese skate scene. Check out what he has to tell us about DIY spots, how to get a skatepark built in your town, some of the cool parks he has built along the way, and a bunch of other stuff.

Let’s start from the beginning: When did you start skating?

I started in ’89, when I was thirteen. My next door neighbour had a board that had belonged to his cousin who didn’t use it anymore, so we both shared that same board. I loved the experience of riding it, so I convinced my mother to get me a board for christmas. From that point on it was just meeting new people, finding out what we had in common and following the skateboarding adventure. I still haven’t stopped.

And where was this?

In Leiria, I’m from Leiria.

I’m assuming that back then there would be nothing close to a skatepark around your area.

There were already some ramps around here. Some guys had already built a couple of ramps around the town. There was one in a neighbourhood kind of far away from my house that I didn’t even know of [until later] and there were these guys who lived next to a school who also had some small ramps. That’s where we started to get together and to get to know each other.

How about your first skatepark experience, where did you first find one?

Skatepark... I would say probably Pedrouços. Yeah, I’d say a proper skatepark, for the first time, Pedrouços. Though here in Leiria they eventually brought the mini ramp from the other neighbourhood over to a more central part of town, close to the city swimming pools, and the city council got a half-pipe built, so from that point on we had like a ramp compound. Let’s call it our skatepark, which was made up exclusively of quarterpipes and mini ramps. This was around 1990-91.

Maybe I should add that one of the things that influenced me the most was watching these older skaters who were so active. They got inspiration from what little skate scene there was in Portugal at the time - there was hardly any national coverage of skateboarding - but whatever they saw they brought back to Leiria and they would just get to work. That really inspired me and that was how I grew up.

That reminds me of something I had planned to ask you later on, but I might as well just ask you now: what tips would you give to someone who really wanted to get a skatepark built in his or her area? Should they go directly to city council, should they first talk to a skatepark builder and get a cost estimate, where do you start?

I’d say the first thing to do is to join efforts, to get a working team together. So if someone doesn’t have a skatepark in their city, the first thing is to find other people that share that same need. And then you try to look for people who may not be skaters or bmxers or whatever but who hold the same views, people who feel that the skatepark would be positive for their community and who are able to explain the benefits such a venue would bring to the community. Then, once you’ve put all this together, you try to reach the decision makers. It’s usually the city council, but it might be another entity, a private one for example. Then you ask for their help in assembling the conditions for building a skatepark and later, yeah, you can provide them with some skatepark specialists’ names for the building part. I mean, before that comes the designing part, because it’s important to understand exactly who you’re making a skatepark for before building it. We can’t build a skatepark like the one in Belmonte where there is no one in the community to ride that sort of thing.

Of course. Now, getting back on track and following what you were telling me about the ramps when you were a kid, how did you get into building skateparks and when was Wasteland Skateparks born?

That was a long process. We never stopped building things in Leiria. City council was barely helping at all. We knew there was this Powell-Peralta tour coming through Portugal, there would be a demo in Lisboa and one in Porto and a couple of days in between with nothing scheduled, so we convinced the council to build a half-pipe inside this pavillion to hold a demo. There we had quite a bit of support and help and we got the demo to happen. When the half-pipe was dismantled we planned to put it back together by the city pools, where we had all the mini ramps. Unfortunately someone stole our sheets of plywood and we never got past the structure. Then with no kind of warning the council just had everything destroyed overnight, even the mini ramps which were fine, so we were left with nothing to skate.

We didn’t really resign ourselves to that and we kept skating and building small ramps here and there, and eventually we got a chance to take the ramps into this pavillion and share it with other sports, like with a schedule and everything. From there we went to this other pavillion that had no walls, we had some help from Radical Skate Clube, who donated some ramps they didn’t use. From there we went to another one, owned by this local association, who took us in, and we founded Vidigal, which was the only indoor skatepark in Portugal at the time, in the early 2000s. We would build and mend ramps but eventually there was no one left to look over the venue and it was closed down.

We kept building ramps and by this time we were making them in concrete, I had learned how to mix concrete and we built like a jersey barrier. We built it in this dead end road where there was an abandoned construction site we knew would be there for some years. It was under a bridge, we used the barrier between the lanes and made a little cement run-up. We built some bumps and created an access to the inclined planes under the bridge so we kind of had our own little skatepark, far from everyone’s sight.

Then this Emerica Europe tour came by, with Ricardo Fonseca, Ed (Helder Lima), Pontus Alv and some others and they really liked skating our spot. Pontus Alv told me I had to watch their video because they were doing the same kind of thing in Sweden but already on a different scale, and I watched it, and that’s when I realized I could build skateparks with my own hands. All you had to do was get the community together and it could happen, and that’s when Cerâmica came about. It was an abandoned brick factory, and all that’s left standing is the kiln, which is lined with bricks and sand so all we needed was to buy the cement to mix everything and make concrete ramps. We built it on the weekends, among friends, and while we were doing it I lost my job - I had worked for sixteen years on car parts. Around that time came a call from Lisboa inviting us to build a bowl in Alvalade, which we did, still without any real expertise and kind of winging it. I did it with my friend Nuno Cainço who still works with me and who started skating with me in the early 90s.

I’d rather feel that someone is just skating, with no plan, and we’re being shown an excerpt of that, like the feeling you got from watching Tommy Guerrero skating street in the late 80s.

That spot, Cerâmica, can it still be skated?

Yes, to this day. It started around 2009. I still go there every now and then to fix some holes and roll around a bit. I might add that Cerâmica has been featured on the cover of a magazine and in various ads, even in American magazines.

Now, on to different things. There’s this idea that I find interesting when people talk about skateparks and that’s that there are some that “flow” better than others. If you had to try and explain this idea of a skatepark having a particular flow, what would you say?

It’s a tough question. It depends. I think skateparks are like street spots. It has to do with how you interpret that space. I’d say here in Portugal we may still have to get used to riding different types of skateparks in order to get to the level that we see elsewhere. Because one of the main things about skateboarding that was left behind for many years is knowing how to roll on a skateboard, not just doing tricks and lines, but adapting yourself to the terrain you’re on, whether it be a downhill street or a flat sidewalk, the way your body rolls on that type of terrain. In Portugal for many years most skaters were trying to compete and land tricks and get scores and kind of left the basics behind. That confidence of being able to go fast on a skateboard down a street was lost along the way. And that’s the kind of skill you have to take into a skatepark in order to interpret it differently, maybe leave aside the difficult flip tricks and just roll around the park, trying not to push and using the ramps in order to flow through the park.

I really agree with that. It has to do with different types of skaters. I’m most interested in watching skaters that are not just doing single tricks and not even lines. A line is like a sequence with beginning and end. I’d rather feel that someone is just skating, with no plan, and we’re being shown an excerpt of that, like the feeling you got from watching Tommy Guerrero skating street in the late 80s. You kind of feel that the magic of skateboarding has to do with how you explore your surroundings and inscribe yourself into all of their shapes and patterns.

Yeah and obviously some skateparks call for that sort of skating more than others but it really has to do with the type of skater that’s going to use the park. We usually build skateparks with quite a bit of transition and there are skaters that don’t even use the ramps, they just skate flat. The park has its potentialities but it’s up to each one to decide if they’re going to make the most of them. I’d say usually older skaters will develop a tendency to leave the technical tricks aside and go for a more fluid approach. It’s more fun than trying a really hard trick for hours and leaving frustrated. But it has to do with what you want and how you want to spend that moment you have for skating.

I’d say the essence of skateboarding is carving and many people don’t realize that. They don’t even loosen their trucks enough to be able to carve.

Of course, because it’s way easier to kickflip when your board isn’t tipping all over the place. Moving on to your working process: how does it go, do you have everything figured out in your plans or do you leave stuff to be decided on the spot and as you’re building?

It varies according to each project. Some we start and everything is already settled, the budget is final, and we know there’s practically no room for changing anything. Others we walk into with a blank sheet and we can do whatever we feel like. It has to do with the client, the location, the budget too, usually. We did Boobie Trap in Barreiro and the first time we worked there we had a fixed budget but no plan whatsoever as to what we were going to do, so it was just skater talk at the spot that defined what was going to be built, and that’s really satisfying.

And how about that thing we all kind of have, as skaters, of reading the city in terms of skate spots, like looking at stuff and thinking that some skater we know could probably do a trick there, do you get that? Like looking at stuff and thinking “this would make for a cool feature in this park I’m designing”?

Oh yeah. And not just in the city. I go for walks in these woods close to where I live and I see all sorts of organic shapes, like enbankments and inclines, that I think would be great for a skatepark. And when we’re given the freedom to build those things out of concrete it’s just magical.

Yeah, I had sort of figured from your website that you liked building stuff that flowed organically along continuous lines. But I’ve only skated one park built by you guys, the one in Santo André, and that one is a bit different.

I was there yesterday. They asked us to do a little work there, a couple of improvements. We’re soon giving the city council a cost estimate. The central feature of that skatepark is a perfect example of what we were talking about. It was the only thing we designed in that skatepark because the overall design was done by Luís Fortes. There was some free space in the centre and so we took inspiration from a sand dune and built this unique object that has a kind of transition on one side and a pyramid spine on the other. They skate it a lot and they really like it, which makes us very proud, because we really enjoyed building it.

I can tell you I took some pretty good slams trying to figure out how to skate it some years ago. And what about imagining a certain skater using the stuff you’re creating? Does that happen to you when you’re building a skatepark?

Yeah, of course. Sometimes we’re looking at a certain transfer and we’re thinking “this guy is going to come here and is sure to hit this” and sometimes we’re surprised. People we wouldn’t even dream about come to our parks and just come up with stuff that is completely out of the box.

That must be a cool feeling.

It’s a really good feeling. When we were working on Boobie Trap there was this transfer that we used to talk about and be like “nah, I don’t think anyone is going to try this” and then Danny León came by to film a little video for Red Bull and on the first day he was there he did the transfer, which means going from this spine onto this other ramp that kind of looks like a sausage lying down.

That brings me to another question, which is linked to that idea we touched on earlier of a skater knowing how to adapt to his surroundings: I think this feeling that adapting plays a central role in skateboarding is behind that sort of unwritten philosophy among skateboarders that a skatepark is a place to learn and warm-up but the streets are where it really counts. What do you think?

I don’t know. I think people should skate wherever they feel like. Skateboarding came from the streets and I don’t feel like we should take it out of the streets. Plus it’s more visible on the streets and if you’re filming or shooting photos it’s more challenging to do it in that sort of natural environment we call street. As skaters we tend to give more props to something that’s done on the streets. That being said, if you can land some really hard trick in the park you can probably do it on the streets and vice versa. Only, there are features that you don’t really find too often outside of skateparks. At least here in Portugal. I’m thinking of pools for example. We don’t build bowl-shaped swimming pools so if you want to get good at skating pools you have to know someone who has a skate bowl in their backyard or go to a public skatepark. But I feel what’s most important is just skating, anything goes.

Sure. At the same time, I get the feeling that we’re currently going through this sort of technical boom, with people doing harder and gnarlier things on a skateboard than ever, because we’re watching a generation that had more access to skateparks than previous ones. Would you agree?

I would. Skateparks are safe places and meeting points where you can just have a session and be sure there will be someone there to hype you up or help you out with a hard trick. You can take a couple of friends on a street session but there that’s all you have. At a skatepark you progress quickly and safely, on the streets it’s harder. You have timings, you may get kicked out or there may be a car parked in the way, there are many things that can stop you from progressing out on the streets. But yeah, I feel that kids today have it easier when it comes to progressing. Also because there’s a lot more information than there used to be.

Yeah. And nowadays with all the videos you can find online... I remember looking at the trick tips section in some magazine as a kid and it was just a photo sequence with captions that I felt told me next to nothing.

There’s nothing like learning a trick in person, from someone who’s doing it. The level of skating went up in Portugal, particularly since around 2000, because you could finally find someone who was already pro skating there in front of you. When you went into a pavillion for a contest and those people were in front of you you picked up all sorts of things. I remember this contest where Ed, who was like six at the time, asked me how to do a front board. He learned it right then, I just told him to align his shoulders with the rail and look to where he was going to come off the rail and he got it and used it in his run. He knew how to keep in touch with people who could skate and give him the right hints, like Ricardo Fonseca and others, and he grew as a skateboarder.

"we got to develop strong ties with the people involved and that doesn’t have anything to do with what ramps we built there, those are links we’ll keep for life."

Now, coming back to the relation between skatepark and city streets, I was looking at the work of this skatepark designer called Daniel Yábar and most of his stuff is way more integrated into the city planning than what we have here. Most of our skateparks are usually in some corner where they’re not in the way of the average citizen and there are well-defined boundaries between them and the rest of the city. Do you think the approach of blending the skatepark with the cityscape is a newer tendency? And is it a good thing?

I think it’s good. I think that happens in his case because Daniel Yábar is a skater. He wanted to bring street elements into the skatepark, even in terms of the type of materials you can use, so that he comes to the point of camouflaging the skatepark. So if no one is skating it, the place just looks like a normal city square, but everything is built with the proper dimensions and all the characteristics that make skateparks perfect for progressing. I think that’s really interesting.

Me too. But unfortunately I feel like that’s the kind of thing that would be very hard to do here. I feel like most city councils would rather have the skatepark and skateboarders out of the way than in a really central and live part of the town.

The toughest part is getting people to join your cause. If you need that place to exist you have to convince the decision makers that it is a worthy enterprise. Nowadays we need that kind of space closer to where people live. I’m not talking about small cities like Leiria, but in places like Lisboa and Porto there are people who spend hours in traffic just trying to get out of town to go skate a public skatepark in the suburbs. If that park was more central, even kids would be able to frequent it more while at the same time being closer to other people, to the area’s residents. They would eventually learn to respect each other, because it would be easier for skaters to interact with non-skaters. In public squares there are usually dead spots, areas nobody uses. If those areas are given life by skaters they’ll not only drive away people with less noble intentions but also attract other people that just enjoy watching the skaters and hanging out. I think that’s good for the cities and you need to let the local authorities know that, and also that there are people who can do that type of work: not just building skate ramps, but building obstacles or sculptures that are good for skating but may be enjoyed by any passerby.

Yeah, I definitely feel like the tendency in Portugal has been towards the more ghettoized skatepark. But then there are places where the opposite happens and a really cool atmosphere develops, I’m thinking about Parque das Gerações, which is not only in a cool place with a nice view but also has the conditions for non-skaters and skaters’ families to hang out and feel comfortable.

Yeah, but Parque das Gerações is different. There you have private enterprise alongside the public investment. The council payed for the ramps and the access roads but then you have a private shop and a cafe that manage the place. When that happens you have the perfect conditions for people to hang out and skate and progress. On the other hand, when all you have is an empty skatepark, like the one in Expo, where there have been some attempts at getting a concession going but it just never happened... there was no private enterprise there and when that happens the place will eventually die out and be forgotten.

We should be wrapping this up but I’d still like to ask you if you have a favourite Wasteland project and why?

Well, each project has its particular charms. On many we got to develop strong ties with the people involved and that doesn’t have anything to do with what ramps we built there, those are links we’ll keep for life. One of the projects that was really meaningful for us was this bowl we built at [Portuguese skater] Guelas’ place. We teamed up with these Belgian builders to make it and they taught us how to polish concrete. Everything that happened there opened many doors and new opportunities for us. From there we moved on to the Boobie Trap, where this skater set aside some money he got from one of his sponsors in order to be able to build ramps with his friends. That was really special, we were taken in by this local skate and surf association with whom we’ve remained good friends. Another cool one was at Clive [Chadwick]’s house. He’d been wanting to get a bowl in his backyard for some time and he got many people who build skateparks around Europe to meet up at his place and build it. It was great for us because we made all these new acquaintances and learned a lot. There are many examples, but the friendships you develop are definitely what matters the most.

What about the future, do you have many plans, anything that you’re particularly hyped on?

We have some projects on paper that are already going through what you might call the official motions. Also some proposals to make and two small bowls that we’ll begin building pretty soon. I can’t really say too much about the projects we have on paper because we still haven’t gotten the final thumbs-up, so we’re not sure the parks are going to be built, but I’m thinking they’ll go from paper to reality sooner rather than later.

Those are good news. I hope you start building as soon as possible, so that we’ll have some more pins to add to Trucks and Fins, which means somewhere somebody has a new spot to skate. Thanks a lot, João. Anything you’d like to add?

I’d like to thank all my team, all of them skaters. I don’t have enough words to thank them for their continuous efforts, designing, building, but also when we have to stay home because there’s no work and they manage to stay positive and push through. I can’t find the words to thank them enough for that. I’d also like to thank my familly, who’s always supported me, all our clients and friends, who have made so many projects possible, and you and the Trucks and Fins team, for the work you’re doing.

Thank you, João.

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