Roll with the Punches: a skateboard magazine from Palestine

by Grace Wang in November 2017
Current affairsOutdoorsSport

“Isn’t Palestine a war zone?” “Don’t those people need something more helpful than skateboarding?” Before Tom Bird headed to the Palestinian Occupied Territories as a volunteer for SkatePal, the charity supporting local communities through skateboarding, he was met with concern and confusion. A year later, he channelled his experience into the self-contained zine Roll with the Punches: a candid showcase of the social, cultural and emotional impact of the sport, proving that it could be a tool for long-lasting change in the area.

The zine’s content pulses with honest and approachable reflections of the local political climate, featuring intimate conversations with skaters, sometimes as young as nine years old, and fittingly grainy photography. When we reached out for an interview, Tom wrote to us (sans laptop, on his phone’s Notes app) from Palestine, where he splits his time between teaching classes in Asira Al-Shamaliya, and helping build a new skatepark in the village of Jayyous.

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Did you grow up reading skateboard mags?
Yeah — I dotted between Sidewalk and Document, the two main UK skate publications at the time. They all still sit proudly on my shelf back at home. I grew up skating in the 00’s and in between the full-length team videos, the mags were the only thing to keep you looped with the skateboard community. (There’s actually a great new documentary by Lucas Beaufort about skateboard print media called Devoted). I can remember cutting out photo sequences I liked and gluing them across my bed frame — kinda weird now I think back haha.

Roll With The Punches comes from a different starting point however, it’s less about the act of skateboarding itself, and more about the impact it can have culturally, socially and emotionally; something I’ve only come to understand as I’ve grown older.

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A sizeable part of the magazine is dedicated to one comic (above), which illustrates the Palestine/Israel conflict — how important was it for you to establish this context where the rest of the stories take place?
Really important. The publication is about the power of skateboarding, but the content relates directly to the Palestinian communities living under occupation. To grasp the potential of an activity like skateboarding, the reader first has to understand the social environment of the people concerned. I aimed to convey the main points of quite a complex conflict history, through something that feels more like a short story rather than a history lesson. Lauren (Gentry) who I partnered with to illustrate it did a great job – not only in stringing it all together, but in questioning every detail of the story to keep it as impartial as possible.

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Most of us have experienced or heard of horror stories at border control, but I liked the way you portrayed Rhamsi’s in the issue (above) — what was your thinking behind it?
I wanted the familiarity of skateboarding to be peppered with things that continually remind the reader of the highly tense factors surrounding it in this region. I found Rhamsi’s story so compelling as it reveals the level of control, fear and suspicion that is omnipresent across Israel and Palestine; that a white British national carrying a few skateboards can pose such a security threat.

In terms of the layout, I just loved the idea of pulling the reader into the interrogation room by treating it like a customs document and allowing them to physically open up his passport.

The cover is ace! Can you tell us about the creation process behind it?
Thanks a lot! The painted decks were actually part of a SkatePal fundraiser I did last year — they were mounted on the front of a food cart that I skated around the city (see video above). They encapsulated what this publication is about so I decided to re-use them. I actually took those decks out to the West Bank this year, so all three now continue to be used by SkatePal as practice boards for the kids.

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The front cover was initially the ‘radical Islam’ graphic (below) — which was a piece of graffiti from the skatepark in Asira Al-Shamaliya, and is one of the most intelligent, humorous and subversive things I’ve ever seen scribbled on a wall — but the painted decks felt like they better communicated what the zine is about, rather than going down the treacherous path of religious iconography!

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How was this project a ‘way in’ for you to other communities around skateboarding, like the all-female skate crew Nefarious?
Yeah, putting together the publication was a great opportunity to be able to reach out to people who I admire and whose perspectives are relevant. And it was so fulfilling to get the majority of them on board!

It was great speaking to John from Bryggeriet in Sweden, who have an amazing education model that harnesses skateboarding as a basis for learning (i.e. if you like building ramps, maybe can apply those skills to architecture…) I’ve followed Requiem For A Screen’s artwork for a while, so his involvement was a privilege. Also, Nefarious skate crew’s ambition to encourage more girls to skate is an important perspective when given the volume of females skating in Palestine.

Lastly, could you share some of your favourite skate videos at the moment?
I’m guilty of being a bit of a nostalgia fiend, so Unabomber’s ‘Headcleaner’ and any of the Alien Workshop videos still get me most hyped to skate. Especially Omar Salazar’s part in Mindfield. And the intro credits to Emerica’s ‘Stay Gold’ — I could watch those on repeat for weeks. More recently, the new 917 video is fun, and Jacob Harris’ Atlantic Drift series is always viewing pleasure.

Oh, and anything that gets posted up on @metroskateboarding blows my mind!

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