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Dan Boulton's No Turning Back
Photograpy Dan Boulton

Ten years at the beating heart of London’s skate scene

Photographer Dan Boulton has spent a decade documenting the faces of Southbank

For decades, skateboarding has enjoyed its spot on the peripheral of society. Revelling – or not really giving a shit – about being the ultimate outsider culture. At the heart of London’s skate scene is Southbank, which sits on the Thames nestled under an undercroft. Since the 70s it’s provided a haven for skaters, who live or have landed in London looking for a sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that goes hand-in-hand with the culture.

For a decade, photographer and teacher Dan Boulton has watched the pendulum of interest in skate culture swing. His visual observations over this time are now set to be published in his photo book No Turning Back, which features a touching foreword by Kids actor and fellow skater Leo Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick landed in London at 18 (where his breakout film hadn't yet been released), alone but aware that if he made it to Slam City Skates then he would find a group of like-minded, and welcoming, people – and he did. With skateboarding playing an imperative role in both Fitzpatrick and Boulton’s lives, long into adulthood, at the first mention of the redevelopment of Southbank, Boulton returned to his old stomping ground and found that the bravado and close relationships formed there were still the same. Skating opened up a new world to him as an angry, creative and shy young kid, and this, in a way, is his way of paying thanks.

As No Turning Back prepares to launch this Thursday at The Photographer’s Gallery, we speak to Boulton below.

Tell us about what drew you to document Southbank?

Dan Boulton: I was reminded of my own troubled youth as a skateboarder, and at first I just liked hanging out there. Then the first mention of redevelopment was announced and I kept coming back as I found the gang of lads who were always there really intriguing. You know, observing that the bravado and comradeship which hadn't changed within skateboarding since when I was that age. Also, I'm a huge fan of Jim Goldberg's work and of course Larry Clark. I saw parallels between this group of boys who had made the undercroft into their own underground sanctuary and Goldberg's San Francisco street kids and Clark's Washington Square kids.

How have you seen Southbank develop over a decade – obviously a lot of characters have grown up there, changed, and left?

Dan Boulton: The biggest and most obvious things would be Palace, and also the mobilisation of the skaters into forming Long Live Southbank. Both of things were amazing to watch unfold and also highlight the energy that came out of this period in which I happened to be documenting. All this stuff was organised between the tricks. Also people like Alex, who is on the cover and one of the central characters to my book, he's doing well now with photography. There are lots of success stories where these boys made it happen for themselves. I honestly don't think they'll be another period like it in terms of what’s come out of Southbank over the last ten years, but I hope I'm wrong. 

Why did you call the book No Turning Back?

Dan Boulton: Many reasons. First, it was a moniker of a 'crew' of lads in Enfield I grew up with (like PWBC is to the Palace crew), N.T.B was mostly made up of skaters and graffiti artists in the mid-to-late 80s and the name just seemed to fit with the theme of the book. For me, Southbank has been saved for the time being for future generations but it's very different now to when I was photographing down there, especially in the day time. But then as skateboarders, we move forward all the time and on to new things.

“I honestly don't think they’ll be another period like it in terms of what’s come out of Southbank over the last ten years, but I hope I’m wrong” – Dan Boulton

People always talk about how skateboarding ‘saved’ them, or gave them a way of life or hope. Did this happen to you?

Dan Boulton: Absolutely, for me picking up a skateboard when it absolutely wasn't a cool thing to do, when everyone else was getting BMX bikes, was like The Clash picking up guitars. As a family, we didn't have lots of money but my mum was terminally ill and I think she saw what skateboarding meant to me and maybe even foresaw that it would give me a tight group of friends and therefore I'd be ok. So my parents would always find the money to get me bits I needed. As an angry, creative and shy young kid, skateboarding opened me up to so much and it still does to this day.

When did you first meet Leo Fitzpatrick, who wrote the foreword to the book?

Dan Boulton: Weird thing is, I didn't meet Leo until much later, at Larry Clark’s show. He was only in London for a short period after Kids. But he's a skateboarder, pretty close in age and we came to skateboarding from similar backgrounds, despite being from different sides of the Atlantic. So we have a lot in common and, like he writes in his essay in the book, there's a KARMA that is at the heart of skateboarding. 

Do you think skating still offers a strong community for teenagers? 

Dan Boulton: Skateboarding has become increasingly cool and a cultural commodity. This statement isn't new to anyone. But for me, the ten-year period of documenting the boys at Southbank for No Turning Back captures by chance, possibly the last uniquely British rebellious phase of skateboarding as an adopted subculture – before its dress code and culture became as homogenised as the gentrification of its Thames-side location. By that, I mean that there were dominant US brands and shoe companies that skaters were identifying with, but if you look at my photographs of the boys at Southbank at this time, there was still a kind of Britishness and punk underground feel to how they were dressed and identified with each other. That outsider element. Now everyone pretty much looks the same, wearing the same uniform of brands and it’s not just what skaters are wearing, it’s now completely mainstream. 

When I'm teaching photography I get these lads turn up in Palace or Supreme wearing Vans or Nike SB and I get excited that they are skaters and then when I speak with them they're not and they don't have any idea about skateboarding. There's nothing wrong with that I guess, but I just miss the times when you could identify another skater through little clues in how they dressed.

When I began skateboarding I looked up to the guys at M-zone off Carnaby Street, guys who could only possibly be skateboarders wearing the clothes we did then.

The skate community often has this 'neverland' mentality to it where age doesn't matter – do you agree?

Dan Boulton: I'm 42 and still skateboarding. My wife would probably agree that I have never grown up but then who wants to really? Neither of us have. That said, I think skaters constantly get a bad rep. If you look how boys are doing under this countries education system and how there’s this huge gender gap in achievement. There are a lot of skaters that are carving out their own success. Look at someone like Blondey (McCoy), for example, he's a skater and that guy is handling business all the time. I love running into him. He's way younger than me and yet probably way more grown up. He's a ball of energy, always has been, which is why I don't have any shots of him as a youngster at SB. He was always moving too fast!

Do you have any favourite memories from your time at Southbank that you can share with us? 

Dan Boulton: Honestly it’s the photographs in the book, they remind me of just hanging out with your mates. I couldn't take these photograph again now if I did, they'd all be looking at their phones and who wants to see photographs of that? 

Dan Boulton launches his new book No Turning Back, Southbank 2005-2015 at The Photographers’ Gallery in London on 22 September. Follow him on Instagram