SkatePal, Isle & the UK Scene with Chris Jones
SkatePal, Isle & the UK Scene with Chris Jones
After our chat with Casper Brooker during the Nike SB 'UK58' Tour, we accompanied the UK swoosh heads up to Hyde Park and sat down for another conversation with Chris Jones as the dusk settled over the chilly mid-September evening.
Originally from Wales, but residing in London for a good few years, to call Chris 'well travelled' is an understatement. His time as a sponsored skateboarder has seen him journey around the UK, riding for a couple of cherished board companies of days gone by, and regularly getting coverage across various publications for over a decade. Since settling in with Isle Skateboards in 2013, Chris has produced some of the finest contemporary UK video parts brought to us via the lens of Jacob Harris' and the award winning productions 'Eleventh Hour' and 'Vase'.
A man of many of words, most of which are articulate and insightful (and would make for excellent pull-quotes if our content management system allowed it), it was a pleasure to be educated on Palestine's history, the changing skateboarding media landscape in the UK, discuss Isle and enjoy some Dave Mackey appreciation with Chris.
Duck under the rails and backside kickflip. Photo: Sam Ashley / Free Skate Mag.
You’re quite well known for your involvement with SkatePal and I think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an issue a lot of skateboarders probably aren’t aware of or simply don’t understand. Could you explain the situation over there?
It’s really complicated. I guess to simplify it, which I probably shouldn’t, but basically Palestine used to be an independent country before the state of Israel existed. There was the Balfour Declaration, which was an agreement to allow Jewish people to have their own state, then after the Second World War, because of the horrific things which happened, they were finally granted the state of Israel. Which is completely understandable. But as a result, the British basically gave the land of the Palestinians to the Israelis. It’s more complicated than that in a way as Israelis were already living in Palestine before that.
Anyway, so the British gave this land to Israel which obviously created a bit of tension and animosity between the two. Then there was a war, the Nakba, and basically Israel won the war and they have occupied Palestine since.
Palestine is split and there are two places, the Westbank and Gaza, which have two political systems. They’re very different, I’ve never been to Gaza, I’ve only been to the West Bank so I can only really talk in relation to that. It is a really complicated issue but in simple terms Palestine is occupied by Israel and citizens are really restricted in their freedom of movement and a lot of their human rights are violated.
There are differing levels of occupation, divided by zones, right?
Yeah, there is. There are areas A, B and C and the occupation is usually dependent on property and the rights to build. Zone C is under complete Israeli occupation, which is basically a settlement where you’ll find Israeli’s living. Then the other, more free zones, are predominantly Palestinian such as Ramallah which is like the capital. They have a little bit more freedom in regards to property, what they can do with the land and getting permission to build whereas with the in-between zone, B, the bureaucracy is more complicated and people have a harder time.
But it’s all occupation, it’s all restricted and monitored and basically people’s lives are dictated by whatever the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] and army want to do. If they want to come in and make arrests they can do that and the Palestinians can’t really do much about it.
Feeble fakie, Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. Photo: Emil Agerskov / SkatePal.
What initially drew you to SkatePal? Had you been involved with any charity work beforehand?
Yeah, I used to work for this charity called Kids Company in London which helped out inner city kids from poor, rough and generally difficult backgrounds. It would offer therapeutical services to kids. It would give them a place to come and stay, free food, workshops, therapy, classes - they offered loads of things. They were a really great charity but unfortunately due to various, what people would call scandals, the government withheld their grants to the charity and as a result of Camila Batmanghelidjh, who was the owner, it went bust.
I did that for one summer and I realised that I wanted to do more work with charities. Then a brother of a friend who knew Charlie Davis, the founder of SkatePal, mentioned the charity back in 2014. I read a bit about SkatePal and I messaged Charlie saying I was interested. This was in the early stages. I went out for one the first projects so I’ve just been helping out when I can since then.
Did you have any experience of building skateparks, such as DIY spots, or did you learn as you went?
No. Actually, before that I hadn’t done much construction work as far as labour is concerned. I went to Palestine for the first time without any experience building skateparks or anything. I didn’t learn an awful lot in that first project because we didn’t have many professional skatepark builders with us. We were learning on the job and figuring things out as we went along. But I got an interested in that side of things and had so much fun. Since then I’ve been volunteering for other charities, doing a bit of building, I’ve and done a few little DIY things and helped with some construction companies in the UK.
My friend Zak Saleh was out in the West Bank at the same time as you and I stumbled across of a photo of you working together. Can you remember him?
Yeah, I know Zak, he was with us when we were building the Asira Park. He’s a lovely guy.
Chris in Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015 with BGPs from my mate Zak (4th from the left). Photo: Lily Hartmann / SkatePal.
In the longer cut of your 365 Days on Planet Earth part there’s a moment where you’re getting the boot and you actually mention the park in Asira. Has bringing up your work with SkatePal relieved any kick-out situations when you’ve been street skating?
No, that was a bit of a desperate moment and I really wanted to do that trick. They were just asking what we had been up to and, in a way of trying to get one more go, I thought it was worth a crack, [laughs]. They let me have one more go then I fell really hard and hurt myself so maybe it wasn’t worth it in the end.
In your interview on the SkatePal website you touched on the difficulty you encountered working with children who were of different religious backgrounds which was eventually resolved through their time skateboarding together. I feel non-skateboarders would assume bringing skateboarding to such a conflicted area like Palestine is a naïve way to make any progress. However, the ability to break down a religious barrier through skateboarding is really powerful.
It’s something which is a result of it and not necessarily an intention from the beginning. There just isn’t an awful lot for kids to do there. Obviously it’s not going to end occupation but it’s great to provide something for kids to do, to basically enjoy themselves after school and not have everything be so negative. As far as the Christian and Islamic kids, you’ll have them skating together but the religious differences vary from town to town.
Those issues are very complicated and a hard thing to address but it’s definitely brought a lot of kids together who wouldn’t have hung out otherwise. Which is the same with any skateboarding community in the UK, you’ll have kids from different backgrounds skating together. Skateboarding is a unifying thing.
There are charities which really try and bridge that gap which SkatePal supports this but aren't in a position to be the ones to do it. There are charities which try and bring Palestinian and Israeli kids together, I forget the name of the charity now, but they take them surfing and stuff like that. There’s a lot of effort to do that but I guess it just has to be done in the right way otherwise it can create a lot of problems I suppose.
Are you religious yourself?
How does that affect your mind-set when you’re placed in a society where religion is so prominent?
To be honest, going there for the first time made me more interested in religion and learning more about it. From being there I’ve read and learnt a lot about Judaism, Islam and Christianity in the sense that ironically they all come from the same place. They’re all Abrahamic religions and have stemmed from the same beginning which is quite mad when you think about the conflict which has resulted from those religious differences.
When I was younger I found religion hard to grasp because I didn’t understand it. I just didn’t get it. Then going to Palestine you really see the differences but I don’t think religious difference should be a divide. I think it’s fine for people to have their religions, that’s great, but it’s a shame when that creates social problems.
This might seem like a tenuous link but with skateboarding’s introduction to the Olympics in a couple of years, do you feel the exposure of skateboarding in a more athletic way could provide further funding for organisations such as SkatePal, Skateistan and such?
Yeah, for sure. With the other charity I volunteer for, Make Life Skate Life, we’ve built parks in Nepal, Etheopia, Maymar and Sulaymaniyah, recently. Their charity in particular have had opportunities to build parks in new places because of the awareness that skateboarding is becoming an Olympic sport and they want their kids to compete in that realm. It’s great for charities because there is a lot more funding for that and people are more open-minded to the idea of having a skatepark built. Whereas prior to it being an Olympic sport people would probably say: “What’s the point? We’ll just let our kids play football.” It’s hugely beneficial for charities.
Aside from many of areas you’ve worked in being underprivileged is there a recurring attitude or aspect you’ve encountered throughout your volunteering?
As far as going to these places and seeing the way people are treated - most people are always very grateful. That’s the thing. The reception I’ve had from going to these places and building parks has been so positive and the community are so happy and grateful for people to come and help. With a place like Palestine, a lot of people feel quite neglected; like the world has forgotten about them and doesn’t really care so the welcoming is overwhelming. It’s quite motivating and makes you want to continue to do that work because you can see the positive effect it has on the community.
Isle X SkatePal collaboration board and Chris' 'Curiosities' pro model. Photo: Isle Skateboards.
Isle collaborated with SkatePal a little while ago and you all headed out there to film the Pieces of Palestine video and produced a board too. How do you think the others guys found their time there?
I think some people were a little bit hesitant at first because the stuff you read in the news can make it seem like it’s going to be really dangerous. Whereas the reality is that it’s not particularly dangerous for a westerner to go to the West Bank. There was a few questions to answer at first but once people where there and had eased into it I feel they really enjoyed themselves. It was quite an educational and eye-opening trip for them and everything those guys said afterwards was really positive which is great. Obviously, the kids were so stoked to have an actual team go and skate Palestine because a lot of people tend to avoid it or don’t think about going because Israel is really good for skating. Also, I think a lot of the time people are misled to think that going over to the Westbank is much harder work than it actually is. It’s just a simple bus over from Jerusalem. Actually, from my experience, I feel a lot safer in the West Bank than I do in a lot of places in Israel.
Did you have more of a culture shock going out to Palestine for the first time or returning to England and, I imagine, having a different perspective of life in general?
To be honest, I got quite depressed when I first came back to the UK. I found it hard. When you learn about a situation which exists in the world and how a lot of countries, Britain in particular, just don’t do enough and it’s just allowed for people’s human rights to be so violated. For people to live in such fear and occupation - it’s saddening. It was like something had been revealed to me which I hadn’t seen before. As far as a culture shock, I had never been to an Islamic country so it took some getting used to the call to prayer in the morning and stuff, but it was a great experience and I never felt uncomfortable or that shocked. It was just a very different way of living but a very good one as well.
So, still on the subject of your travels but a bit closer to home. You’ve been sponsored for a long time and a large chunk of your career has taken place during a period where tours from board and shoe brands were much more frequent than they are now. Even this Nike trip, which is only four stops, is somewhat of a rarity. Having been on both the viewing and performing sides of a fair few UK trips, what effect do you think current generations missing out on the experience of seeing people come through their hometowns may have on their attitude towards skateboarding?
It’s very different now. When I was younger and used to go on some of the trips around the UK, it was before the time of Instagram and social media wasn’t as popular. Videos in general, like online videos, there wasn’t as many. You would wait for a video to come out from your favourite skaters and then when they would go on a tour that was the only time you’d get to see them beyond that one video. It was more of a thing.
Nowadays, with social media, you can have direct access to your favourite skaters just on your phone so going to see people in real life isn’t necessarily as... Not unimportant - but different. Some kids probably do get excited from it but others aren't as interested because they know they can just look on Instagram and see what their favourite skater has been up to and feel connected with their lives through the internet.
But as far as shops are concerned, it’s good really to go and show appreciation to the shops for supporting a scene. Plus, just meeting people is really important. You don’t really properly meet people through the internet. I don’t know, maybe people DM each other now, but I feel like meeting people around the country and feeling connected to a larger scene is quite an enriching thing. I think a lot of kids do miss out but I also feel that kids don’t get excited about these sort of things as much as they used to.
Pivot to fakie, Transport Musuem, Glasgow during the Nike SB UK58 Tour, September 2018. Photo: Reece Leung / Vague Skate Mag.
While we’re reminiscing over the ‘good old days’. What memory stands out from your time riding for East?
[Laughs], I guess for me the first Big Push that I went on with East. That was one of my first proper skate trips around the UK and that was an amazing experience. I was so stoked to go touring around the UK, skating so many spots and especially going to Liverpool. It was just a great time for me. It was a like kid’s dream as I was really young at the time, around 15, and I was so happy to have that opportunity.
Going to Liverpool when I was younger; I would stay with [Dave] Mackey and skating and filming with Dykie [Matthew Ryan] around there was so fun. I used to love the missions up, it was quite exciting as a kid. That whole period was so fun. Liverpool is amazing to skate as well so I really enjoyed it. And just watching Mackey skate because I’d never seen someone skate that fast or slam that hard before. I took a lot from that because I slam quite hard as well. That had a big impact on me and was quite influential on my skating, I think, [laughs].
Was it an easy transition going from East to Crayon, given Dykie’s involvement and having Korahn Gayle as a team mate too?
Yeah, I guess we were really sad that East had finished so we tried to keep it going in the way that we could by having pretty similar riders and stuff. It was a way of trying to keep East alive, in a sense, but it was a really natural process because Dykie was filming. I was filming with him anyway and he wanted to start something. He’s a good old friend from Wales so it was just natural for that to happen.
If I’ve got this timeframe correct, it was towards the end of your time with Crayon Skateboards that you moved to London, met Jake Harris and started filming for Eleventh Hour . Then you ended up riding for Isle around half way through the video, right?
Yeah, well Crayon was basically ending so the timing worked out in such a way that I moved to London and didn’t have a board sponsor. I had met Jake on a Nike SB Big Push, because I got sponsored by Nike while I was at university, and I remember he called me when I was at the library saying: “We’re going to go on this trip, do you want to come and film for this video?”
Through doing that I met Henry Kingsford [editor of Grey Skate Mag] and he invited me on another trip to Berlin with Rob Mathieson and Nick Jensen. From there it was just natural. Paul Shier called me, as Blueprint was also ending at that point, saying: “We’re starting this new thing.” As everyone was leaving Blueprint I didn’t have a board sponsor and it felt like quite a natural thing to happen. I was overwhelmed and so excited.
I’ve noticed a regular topic during interviews with Isle riders is that it’s often brought up how neurotic you all apparently are. The stress of trying to film tricks can amplify that so how does Jake manage to handle all of your quirks and keep it together?
Well, we’re all neurotic so it’s like a big therapy session, [laughs]. We’re all in it together and when you’re all mental together it’s not as bad. He does a really good job, on these Atlantic Drift trips he’s been taking the role of a sort of TM. It’s easy to be productive with Jake, he’s a productive filmer so he gets the best out of people.
How did filming for Vase  compare to Eleventh Hour?
It was very different for me because when I was filming for Eleventh Hour I was still going through this process of having an existential crisis and thinking: “I’m going to do a masters. I’m going to get a proper job. I’m going to do this and that…” I still thought I was going to do something else and skating wasn’t my priority. It wasn’t the only thing I wanted to focus on. Eleventh Hour was great but I definitely feel I could have tried harder or just gone out filming more because I was working and stuff. I wasn’t fully in the zone the whole time, I was at moments, but I was a bit more scattered with the way I would film.
With Vase it felt like it was time to do a part I was really happy with and give it my best shot so I was a lot more committed and focused. Vase was more consistent and I was going out on missions with Tom [Knox] and Jake and it was really fun. I’d not worked that hard on a project since I was really young and filming for this video called Who?
There was a lot of anticipation for Vase, especially due to the perception of Isle as a successor of sorts to Blueprint, what impact do you feel the video had?
I think it gave Isle it’s identity and image. Before that people were still thinking it was kind of the second wave of Blueprint but Jake and Nick did a really good job working together and establishing Isle’s aesthetic. Isle really got it’s image from that video. I think it was really good in that sense - for establishing Isle’s identity.
Although Atlantic Drift is separate to Isle, the series has felt like a continuation of Vase to me. Do you think Jake will stand by his claim that Vase will be his last full length video or is there any talk of another Isle project?
Not yet, no. Because we’re doing Atlantic Drift there isn’t really a need and it would just be too much work, basically. Jake’s got a lot on his plate and there isn’t anyone else we could film a video with so it’s just the timing, basically. He hasn’t got time to do it and we’re all focused on Atlantic Drift anyway so that’s kind of enough for now. But it would be great to film another video one day. I would be so excited, so hopefully it will happen.
Thanks for you time Chris, what’s next for you?
I think I’m moving to Berlin next month so that should be fun. Just in time for the winter, [laughs].
Once you've enjoyed Chris' fantastic 'Vase' part have a browse of our range of decks from Isle Skateboards.
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If you missed it earlier this week, have a read of our interview with Casper Brooker and if you're in the mood to indulge in more Isle-related reading material then head to Speedway Mag's series of articles on 'Vase' with Jacob Harris, Casper, Nick Jensen and Tom Knox.