Making Skate Films Into Art
Only one film played at the Village East cinema on a recent crisp Mondaynight, but the crowd inside and out of the theater’s regal lobby buzzed with energy. Outside, skateboarders in hoodies and tiny beanies huddled beneath clouds of weed and cigarette smoke. Inside, someone behind a makeshift bar poured wine into tiny plastic cups.
Posters for the theater’s regular lineup of blockbusters had disappeared, replaced by a series of grainy images of a close-up of a bloody back, fireworks being blasted off on a Manhattan street, and a shirtless young man, with a dazed expression — all taken from “Play Dead,” the filmmaker William Strobeck’s third full-length skate video for Supreme.
Inside the auditorium, those who didn’t arrive early enough to grab seats, stood in the aisles. For nearly an hour, as the film played, the 100-year-old cinema housed a raucous party, with hordes of skateboarders smoking indoors, sloshing wine and shouting at the screen.
During the final scene — featuring a colossal kickflip by the skateboard superstar Tyshawn Jones over the 145th Street subway station tracks — the building almost seemed to shake from the screaming audience.
A little more than a week later, Mr. Strobeck, 44, was hanging out in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. Jet-lagged after returning home from a screening of the film in Japan, he wore a Yankees cap pulled down low and a faded purple hoodie made by his new skate company, Violet. Around him, skaters did tricks on the dozen or so haphazard ramps at the asphalt ball field.
A young man sitting on a bench yelled out, “Hey, Bill!” and asked to take a photograph. “That happens a lot with skaters,” he said.
Filming skate videos usually means staying behind the scenes as daredevil skaters take center stage. But after more than two decades, Mr. Strobeck has built a cult following. He got his start filming the thriving scene at Love Park in Philadelphia, before working on seminal skate videos in the early aughts, like Alien Workshop’s “Photosynthesis.”
The skaters he has filmed are the first to give him credit. Through Mr. Strobeck’s work with Supreme, he has helped shift the skateboarding industry’s perception of New York and the East Coast more broadly, challenging the longstanding perception that all the best skateboarders live in California. His full-length videos for Supreme feature a lot of New York skateboarding, but “Play Dead”is the only one filmed entirely on the East Coast.
“People can have a career in New York City,” said Beatrice Domond, 27, a professional skateboarder. Mr. Strobeck has featured her prominently in his videos for Supreme, and she’s the first woman to be sponsored by the brand.
“You never have to go to California unless you want to, during winter,” she continued.
That afternoon in Tompkins, Mr. Strobeck didn’t yet know that Mr. Jones, 24, perhaps the young skater he has worked with most closely for the past decade, would soon be announced as the winner of Thrasher Magazine’s Skater of the Year award. Mr. Jones also won the tittle in 2018, thanks largely to tricks documented by Mr. Strobeck. He was the first New York-born recipient in the award’s three-decade history.
Mr. Strobeck came up through East Coast skateboarding himself. In the early 1990s, he skated in a granite and marble plaza at the Everson Art Museum in Syracuse, N.Y. (The museum, designed by I.M. Pei in 1968, took a progressive approach to skateboarding: Because it considered the activity an art form, it allowed skateboarders free rein on its outdoor ledges and stairs.)
Mr. Strobeck’s mother would often drive him there from their home in nearby Cicero, and he would stay in Syracuse for days. He crashed with friends, skipping school and getting free meals from a pal who worked at a nearby Subway. In 10thgrade, he dropped out of school, immersing himself more fully with, in his words, the “derelicts” at the museum, skating and going to shows in Syracuse’s rising hardcore music scene.
“We would roll dice and take each other’s money,” he recalled.
Mr. Strobeck’s mother struggled with mental illness, he said, and was often absent for long stretches during his childhood. When she wasn’t around, his grandmother looked after him. He lived with his aunt and uncle for about two years, he said, when they were in their early 20s. Mr. Strobeck said he was worried about his mother and “super-scared something bad was going to happen to her. And that was a crazy feeling. I acted out in a lot of different ways.” They have a good relationship now, he said.
He believes that his difficult home life led him to skateboarding. “I think skateboarding is for a lot of people something you do to get out of that,” he said. “I can’t explain how special that is, but you don’t deal with a lot of things because you can just go and skate. You go skate, and you’re just with your friends. You’re an individual with a bunch of people.”
Young and undiscovered talent often take the main stage in Mr. Strobeck’s films. Many of the skaters in “Cherry” (2014), his first film for Supreme, were largely unknown, including Mr.Jones, who was 14 at the time.
“I just remember, looking back — being around the energy, and how excited they were, killed everything else that I wanted to do,” Mr. Strobeck said. “It was the best, because I was like, what these kids are right now is what I believe is the most original, authentic thing about skating.”
Four years after “Cherry,” Mr. Strobeck and Supreme released “Blessed,” which featured many of the same skaters. Some had hit growth spurts, and the skateboarding was faster, more advanced. “Play Dead” continues documenting the evolution: The kids have grown into adults and become some of the biggest names in skateboarding. Watching the three videos back to back is a bit like watching Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, or “Boyhood,” a real-time coming-of-age story.
Most skate videos home in on rapid-fire tricks, with the camera cutting in just before a skateboard’s tail smacks the pavement and cutting out right after the wheels hit the ground. Mr. Strobeck’s, by contrast, linger for long stretches before and after a trick has been performed, capturing the faces of the skaters sitting on the curb, or the confused looks of pedestrians wandering by.
“He brings reality to skateboarding videos, where it has personality and not just tricks,” Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Strobeck often zooms in so close that you can almost see the whiteheads on a skater’s face as they approach an obstacle. Then he’ll rapidly zoom out, right before the trick. It’s frenetic, dizzying — and a pretty close approximation of what it feels like to be on a skateboard, or to just be hanging out at a skate spot.
“I think when Bill first started doing the zoom-in thing he was trying to get to the character of said individual who was about to do the trick,” said Jason Dill, a professional skateboarder who has filmed with Mr. Strobeck for more than 20 years. Character, Mr. Dill said, has a lot to do with facial expressions. “When you’re determined, doing a physical act, your face is different,” he said. Mr. Strobeck, he added, “just wants to show the person for 100 percent of what the person is.”
After leaving Tompkins Square Park, Mr. Strobeck walked to his East Village apartment a few blocks away. Inside, the floor was littered with books and Supreme paraphernalia and a few Violet products. His apartment has served as the backdrop for countless photo shoots featuring skateboarders, actors, artists and other downtown New York figures. In 2019, an art show at Milk Gallery in Chelsea recreated the tableau with a scale model of his bedroom.
The actress Chloë Sevigny has been photographed in the apartment. “It’s kind of like whenever you go over, he does it, and if he doesn’t ask you, you’re kind of disappointed,” she said.
Mr. Strobeck typically shoots people in a small space, about three feet away from the foot of his bed, in front of a large-format print of the mantel in his old apartment.
(The first time I visited Mr. Strobeck’s current apartment, around the release of “Blessed” in 2018, his guest furniture consisted of a couple of Supreme-branded camping chairs. An Eames chair now sits in their place.)
Soon after I left Mr. Strobeck, Thrasherupdated its Instagram with new footage of Mr. Jones at 145th Street. The caption read, “The 2022 Skater of the Year is …”
“Another one,” Mr. Strobeck texted me.
Ms. Sevigny said that no one ever knew why Mr. Strobeck always shot people in front of the one particular wall in his apartment. “But you’re game because you love him,” she said, “and you understand that his brain is bigger than anybody even knows.”