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Marcus, Mal, Ali & KylePhotography Bill Taylor

Hard knocks and wack nights: intimate portraits of NYC’s teen skaters


TextDavid GoldbergPhotographyBill Taylor

We speak with four city kids from Tompkins Square Park, the skate haven that raised the city’s youth and they’re now fighting to save

Welcome to Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity, a campaign dedicated to exploring what ‘masculinity’ means in 2019. With photo stories shot in Tokyo, India, New York, and London and in-depth features exploring mental health, older bodybuilders, and myths around masculinity – we present all the ways people around the world are redefining traditional tropes.

In Tompkins Square Park – one of New York’s last authentic cultural convergence points, the sons of hedge fund managers smoke their first joints with the kid who works the bodega counter. By nature of geography, and the rich diversity of youth that comes through the park and the city’s public school system, city boys have been witness to partying, sex, drug use, violence and art at a scale that most suburban kids could never dream of. While many of their peers will only begin to unpack their class and race-based privileges when they arrive to the college classroom, these young men have been educated by the city around them. 

But New York is changing, and its city kids are growing up fast. The parks department plans to lay artificial grass over Tompkins’ concrete, effectively erasing one of skate culture’s stations of the cross. We caught up with four young men who came of age in these parts. Whose childhoods would unknowingly reverberate through YouTube, Instagram, and the surging skate fashion industry. 

Three of them – Marcus, Mal and Ali – are members of the skating collective Birdgang, known for its videos of shirtless young men, fumbling moves on their boards, laughing, embracing chaos and camaraderie. Caught somewhere between the culture’s romance with Harmony Korine’s Kids and the corporate spectre of Supreme were a group of boys who just wanted to wear white tees, smoke pot and make out with girls at apartment parties. 

Though these guys’ lives are of the stuff that sells $350 sneakers, their own tastes are simple and ambiguous. They have nothing to prove now, no more stunts. In other words, there is a sense of peace at the eye of the storm. The boys, once reckless, are becoming men. Malachy is now in a band and delivers food for money; Marcus is working through probation for selling Xanax; Ali studies economics at Babson; Kyle assists photographers and artists. Perhaps those baptised in experience at a young age don’t have to chase it as hard when they grow up. And as fashion and culture echo their every move, they can find authenticity as they always have: In themselves and in each other, and not in the world that copies them. 

MARCUS, 19

“People we knew either skated or just partied. That was it. Skate or party. That was high school for me. Everyone just wanted to get lit. Partying got me kind of fucked up. I had a bad Xanax problem. I’d do a lot of Xans and shit. I got in a lot of trouble. I got arrested for selling Xans. They gave me two felonies and I’m still on probation. I wish I had went a better route, instead of doing dumb shit. When you’re a kid, you’re just mad impulsive. But it did open my eyes a lot. Now I’m more street smart. If I didn’t grow up in the city, I’d be mad oblivious to things. Now, I’d be like: ‘That’s suss’. Being in the courtroom and seeing my mom crying and shit, I knew that my actions were selfish. I just wish I never did it. I’m blessed I’ve never gotten hurt. I know some people who have. It gives me a lot of guilt, but looking back at it, I feel like it helps me become a better person. 

I just want to be with my girlfriend. I’m planning on staying with her for a long time. I actually love her. I really care for her. I just want to move in, settle down with her and shit. I’m doing pretty good right now. I’m not trying to go to college. It’s just too much money. I wish I could go to school, I just can’t. I think something’s wrong with me. I got prescribed Adderall, but when I take it I can’t pay attention. I can’t do anything if it doesn’t hold my interest. 

If I ever got in trouble or I was in a bad spot in life, I’d just skate. Skating is a stress reliever. It’s like a drug. You go through pain through it. You go through happiness, too. I don’t even skate that much anymore. It’s too much of a competition now. Oversized Dickies and weird-ass thrift clothes. People do it just for fashion. They’re not passionate about it. They want to wear the clothes. I remember we used to skate all day. Now it’s like: Let me take a picture with the board.” 

“If I ever got in trouble or I was in a bad spot in life, I’d just skate. Skating is a stress reliever. It’s like a drug. You go through pain through it. You go through happiness, too” – Marcus

ALI, 19 

“I’d like to make some money after college doing investment work, and then do something non-profit. Something with technology and helping people. Going to university, and being surrounded by super smart girls at Babson, and professional women, my idea of the type of girl I’m attracted to has changed. Masculinity at Babson looks totally different than here at Tompkins. A lot of the finance bros at Babson would look at the masculine guys here and say: ‘I doubt their manhood’. 

With parents who emigrated from North Africa, there’s a huge stress to uphold familial image. Masculinity in my house was making my family proud and making my father proud, respecting the sacrifices my dad had to make to get to the United States. In elementary, middle, and high school, I learned that masculinity to them meant being good at sports, attracting women, and now I’m at a point in my life where I see masculinity as working hard and educating myself and finishing college and going on to grad school.

There’s a lot of controversy around: Is the man the provider? Should the man always be the provider? I do believe both men and women should provide if they can, but in the back of my mind, especially with Moroccan culture, I haven’t let go of the idea of the man being the sole provider, which is why I work as hard as I do towards my education.”

MAL, 19

“I live on Ludlow with my mom but I’m moving to London to play music, and to go to school there too. I’ll play my music and meet new people and play more music. I’ve had one job for four years that’s insanely well paid. It’s a delivery job for a restaurant; I got it to fund recording sessions, and it really filled it for my other shit. Every week I get a paycheck for 300 bucks. That’s kept me going since high school. I could go a week without speaking to anybody and I’d be totally cool. 

I went to New School for a semester and it was whack, and the parties were whack, and it wasn’t the same because nobody was from New York. I found that they were totally absolute in what they thought. New York is the most open place I’ve ever seen. I met people of all backgrounds and sexualities. You never really questioned it, ever. It’s impossible to find anyone in New York who is a Trump person. Everyone at New School thought that they were really woke as fuck. To me, it sounded naive, like they had all these beliefs that they couldn’t articulate beyond, ‘I think that! That’s why!’ They would get their facts from their opinions and not their opinions from facts. If they’d grown up in New York, it wouldn’t be this: ‘I’m a hero! These are my views! I’m going to call you out if you question me on everything!’ In New York, you just live with it and you just go with it. 

I’ve been skating Tompkins for 11 years. For the kids who went from the beginning, it was just not fashionable. Guys with beanies and skinny jeans and really shitty Vans. And now everyone has a really good outfit, even if they can’t skate. Kids have this self-conscious thing where they try to fit this idea of skating/rap music, this idea of who they want to be. And it’s always like... talking more slang and talking like they’re really about it and stuff. That kind of stuff, you usually grow out of it, but some kids never do. That’s a big thing with guys and masculinity – they have to fill this image of something which Instagram and high school promoted.”

“I’ve always found it interesting how people have always tried to identify me as something. I think identification is so boring. It’s so stupid. I don’t know the future. It’s a nightmare and there’s nothing anyone can do about it” – Kyle

KYLE, 20

“I lived in New Jersey until I was 13, and then moved to Florida for two years. The summer of my freshman year, I tried to run away. I moved to New Jersey to live with my father. He was living in my foreclosed childhood home for eight years. I said: ‘If I’m going to go to school here, I need you to drive me to school, I don’t have my license, and I need you to be more responsible’. He yelled at me and he kicked me out of the house, so I moved in with my sister into a studio apartment, which she was sharing with a roommate, on Avenue A and 5th Street. I had nothing to do all day and no one would hire me, because I was 13 and living in New York. I would hang out at Tompkins and walk around. I really shouldn’t have graduated high school, because I missed so much class senior year. I was trying to pay rent and live in New York City. I was really on my own. No financial support or emotional support. 

I don’t ever buy clothes. I used to be sponsored by Vineyard Vines; I was a childhood golfer. I never really buy clothes, ever. I steal clothes or wear my grandfather’s clothes. In New Jersey, I grew up with really preppy, in-the-closet conservatives. And then I moved to Florida and saw the full vision of what it’s like to be a true conservative in the United States. Pro-Trump signs on the back of their trucks. So, so so scary. I saw in-the-closet men afraid to be gay, afraid to admit to anything that could be considered homosexual. And when I had moved to New York, and meet these Tompkins kids, I discovered this whole grey area of other. It was the first time I’d seen this in my life. When I lived in New Jersey or I lived in Florida, everyone always questioned my sexuality for me. Coming to New York, that stuff was never questioned. You are who you are. 

I’ve always found it interesting how people have always tried to identify me as something. I think identification is so boring. It’s so stupid. I don’t know the future. It’s a nightmare and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I guess I’m only having sex with females right now. That doesn’t mean I won’t hook up with a guy in the future.” 

Read more from Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity here.

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