What’s your opinion on skaters, graffiti artists and breakdancers? Property-damaging menaces to society? Dropouts and wasters who hang around on street corners all day? Or young people carving out their own culture and coping with our frustrating urban environment?
Whatever your view, perhaps few people outside extreme sports and urban culture circles would be aware that Liverpool is home to some of the world’s best skaters and breakers, and the UK’s foremost free urban culture festival.
Since its inception in 2001, the Hub festival has grown from its small origins with a few skate ramps and graffiti boards on the old Chavasse Park, to its current home at Otterspool Park. Here on the 17th/18th May this year, some 20-22,000 people are expected to turn up to catch BMX, Inline skate and skateboarding demonstrations, the UK’s only outdoor international breakdancing competition, an array of musical performances, including Shlomo, one of the UK’s finest human beatboxers, a 250 metre long graffiti wall, open competitions and much more besides.
One of the major groups that will be part of Hub are Team Extreme, the UK’s only professional extreme sports show team, who’ll be running all the competitions for skateboarding, BMXing, and Inline skating, and running demos on the dirtramp from some of the world’s best riders.
There’s a local connection, Team Extreme is directed by Neil Danns, a Scouser and a former British skateboarding champion. But like so many extreme sports fanatics, he had a long journey to reach this position of respectability.
“About 30 years ago,” he reminisces, “I was in town and went to Paradise Street car park to get the bus, and they had a skateboard team on the roof called Holby. They were from America and doing a demo in Liverpool. Straightaway then I just went home and got my sisters’ skates and cut them in half, got a board from the back fence, nailed them together, and that was my first board really.”
Constant practice saw Danns become one of the best skaters in Liverpool and the UK. He won ten out of the twelve competitions in his first entry in the British Skateboarding Championships in 1983, began to tour across the globe, and at one point was ranked number six in the world. He became involved as a demo rider with Team Extreme, and worked his way up to become director.
But Danns’ is keen to point out that he’s not the only person in this field from Liverpool who’s at the top of their profession, and that the city is fact a centre of urban culture:
“Liverpool’s been one of the major skate scenes in the UK for as long as I can remember. Not just me being British Champion, but Geoff Riley who’s been one of the best skateboarders in the world for the last ten years, John Taylor from over the water who’s one of the top BMXers, so Liverpool’s always been a hotbed for some of the top riders.”
This is echoed by Altu Collingwood, also known as Flowrex, the dancer who’s involved in organising and MCing the breaking competition at Hub.
“It’s phenomenal now,” he enthuses. “I’m originally from Hull, that’s where I started dancing. When I came to Liverpool in 2001 there were like four of us dancing. We’re now kind of 70 or 80 dancers strong in the city, there’s a number of groups going on, we’ve got events happening all the time, and hip-hop culture as a whole in Liverpool has really grown. It’s now encompassing the DJ side of it, the graffiti side of it a lot more, it just to be a lot more segregated. So if you mention Liverpool to anybody that’s into breaking, people will know some of the groups. Our group SoulPowered is known in France, Germany, Belgium and Spain now.”
Hub is organised and backed by Liverpool City Council. But urban culture is very youth orientated and underground. How have the council suits, unlikely to know there half pipe from their hash pipe, managed to engage with the kids on the street?
“We consult with the Youth Advisory Group,” explains Sue Whitehead, the Council officer who’s been behind organising Hub for the last four years. “They’re a group of young people that we consult with, to find out what they want, which artists they’re interested in. This isn’t about us the organisers and what we’d like to see, it’s about youth engagement and social inclusion, and finding out what they want, investing in it and putting what they want on really.”
So it seems as though the Council really is making a grand effort to engage and provide for this niche culture that has such a strong following in the city. But in true Blue Peter style, there’s an educational message in their too:
“We consult with the Primary Care Trust and the NHS to promote issues that relate to Hub’s target audience,” explains Sue, “so that’s anti-smoking, sexual health and highlighting the problems of underage drinking and alcohol abuse as well. We’re going to have a well-being zone this year and we’re also going to have a green trailer, raising awareness of green issues such as climate change, sustainability and recycling as well.”
But despite the efforts the City Council has thrown into Hub, Neil Danns’ thinks they could do more to provide full-time facilities for skaters if Liverpool is going to produce more Geoff Rowleys:
“With Hub they are doing something positive,” he says, “not everyone gets the chance to have a big competition in a nice area. But there have been problems down by the Pier Head where the original event was held, with kids getting banned and having their skateboards taken from them, even though we don’t have a free skatepark in the city. We do have Rampworks, which is one of the best skateparks in the UK, but it is a charitable company so they have to charge to keep it running. You go to little towns like Warrington, St Helens, Runcorn, and they’ve all got there own little free skateparks. Even though people would like to go to Rampworks five days a week, we’re talking about kids, and not everyone can afford that.”
Enough of the concerns of B-boys and skaters though, what does Hub offer to those of us unlikely ever to perform Bunnyhop or a Thread Drop? What should get us down to Otterspool in May?
Sue Whitehead thinks 2008 might be the best year for everyone in Liverpool to sample a bit of this particular culture:
“We’re very family friendly. This year on the main stage instead of just having grunge, speed-metal and thrash-metal bands, we’ve got soul, we’ve got funk and we’ve got hip-hop. We’ve also got more of a chilled festival this year, with large outdoor barbecues, bistro seating areas, and the urban retail village. So although it’s mainly targeted at a youth audience, we cater for all really.”
While Danns’ thinks that Hub is a real opportunity for those deep inside urban culture to show off what they can do to the wider community:
“Many people have a problem with skaters and graffiti art,” he says. “But they come along, I’ve seen all cultures at Hub over the years, and I think a lot more people now understand skateboarding and graffiti and breakdancing, and realize these aren’t just kids having a laugh, these kids spend eight hours a day practicing, it’s a way of life. And I think it’s a chance for people who don’t understand it, to come along and check it out and get a bit of the culture. And you never know, maybe they’ll end up picking up a skateboard themselves.”
So, why not check out some of the music, sporting and artistic thrills at this years Hub, who knows, you could be showing your skills off down by the Queen Victoria monument soon enough.
By Kenn Taylor