No, I am not hell bent for leather. Nor am I screaming for vengeance. Instead I'm referring to a now surprisingly if not shockingly old maxim once held near and dear to the black hearts of the Big Brother magazine staff: Do not write about skateboarding. In other words, let the photos speak for the skating while the story deal with anything but (butt!), because our two main "competitors" of the '90s time, TransWorld and Thrasher, both already did the other in two polar opposite and occasionally baffling manners —the former waxing poetic while the latter gnashed the gnar. So naturally we had to fill the void betwixt the seriousness of the two with nonsense, turds, and silly business.
A view from Point A (the Library Mall plaza of UW Madison) and Point B (the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol building) of the State Street route that comprised my daily skating life in Madison, circa 1987–1988.
But today... fuck it, today I'm tossing that credo aside for a sentimental sap smear following an unexpected afternoon spent wandering around my old haunts in Madison, Wisconsin.
Photos left to right: The primary advantage of living in a capital district is marble—lots and lots of marble—and I'll never forget the time I rolled away from my first tailslide down this set; Every winter they install a tin boob atop this fountain situated in front of the UWM library (the marble frontage of which once entertained many sessions that eventually progressed to the rails  after photos of Natas and Gonz opened up our minds to that possibility), but I often went wading in the fountain's waters to scrounge up any change thrown in on someone's wishing whim to come up with the necessary bus fare to get back home to the very eastern edge of Madison at night. I've always meant to repay those borrowed dreams, but... tin boob.
Now I may not have started skateboarding in Madison, but it was upon my post-graduation move there in August 1987 that I feel my roots really took hold. My hometown of Stevens Point was... well, let's just say it wasn't exactly conducive to skateboarding. I mean, we did our best with what we had, hooray for us, adversity and all that, but it was nothing in comparison to the much larger city of Madison and its equally larger skate scene. And of course it didn't hurt that the latter also had a general population far more "liberal" in its tolerance of skateboarders, whereas in Point we were more often than not viewed as target practice for bored rednecks and corn-fed jocks.
Photos left to right: The now caged and deteriorated remains of the former "Bell Banks," a staple spot in our daily rounds and the first place I met many of the local skaters when I moved there in '87; The banked front of the building still remains, but also has the eerie feel of a "surveillance state" and is probably even more of a bust than the bust it once was.
Worthy to note, I guess, is that I only lived in Madison for less than a year and a half; however, my limited time spent there was a freeze-dried concentrate of just two things: art and skateboarding. If I wasn't immersed in one at MATC , I was engaged in the other on State Street, any and all meteorological conditions be damned. Sure, the U.S. Postal Service may have laid a half-ass claim to Herodotus's ancient phrase, "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds," but I'll go to my grave believing that no one can best the will of a diehard Midwestern street skater. We always found a way with an uncanny knowledge of every mundane nook and cranny to be found on the concrete playground of Madison's isthmus.
Photo left: Two skate shops competed for our hard-earned money in the late '80s. One being California Connection, located on upper State St., which I actually had a more personal connection to since it was operated by Dan Marsden , the son of Walt Marsden. Walt owned the Silver Spoke shop in Stevens Point where I bought my first board in 1986, so I naturally gravitated toward "CC" and worked there on the weekends and summertime to get coveted discounts on product. Nowadays the location is a fucking "burger lab," which aptly sums up my cynical assessment of Madison's current cultural climate, but... so it goes.
Photo right: The other shop local-ish to the downtown area was Flying Fish (now occupied by Crossfit Recursive), once located on E. Williamson St. and owned and operated by Benny Imhoff. Fish always had more of an "elite" feel in contrast to the more "working class" vibe of CC, but most all of the area skaters routinely bounced between the two shops to meet up and go skate. In September of '88, Benny brought out Jim Thiebaud to do a demo in the parking lot out front of Fish, making him the very first "real" skateboarder I'd ever seen in person (the extended story of which can be found here).
There are a few new shops in Madison now, but for my own biased purposes this is Alumni, which can be found on E. Williamson about three-quarter's of a mile down from the strip mall where Flying Fish once existed. Alumni is also located just a block away from the outdoor skate park and they just started carrying the StrangeLove brand (hence the bias). For whatever cosmic reason, though, the shop is always closed when I'm in Madison, otherwise I probably would've done my consuming part and picked up this shop board featuring a graphic by another Wisconsin skate artist, John McGuire, whom I finally had the chance to meet in Milwaukee this past week .
I'd been back to Madison off and on throughout the decades (usually during return trips home for the holidays), but this particular occasion was different: just me on my own idle time with hours to kill and nothing to do but meander about poking old ghosts. This is, of course, a very romanticized portrait of me basically walking around the city on a blustery cold day to stare like a swooning loon at ledges, walls, curbs, and other unremarkable elements of everyday urban infrastructure, but such is the skater's ludicrous lot through life lived on a board.
Photos left to right: Once upon a time the UWM Library Mall was the central hub of skateboarding in Madison, and this particular outcropping of the Humanities complex was the place I first learned how to do wall rides (thanks to Jordan Trais); Gone now are the planters and concrete ledges that once bordered the area near the Slam Walls, but for some reason that now escapes me I had a Kodak Disc camera on hand one night to take the only three photos I have documenting my skate life in Madison, e.g. this ollie fast plant, the stale grab nosepick, and the f/s rock below).
It's long been famously said "you can never go back"—the past is what it was and can never be experienced or relived the same again—and it's a phrase that does indeed hold water for a reason. Three decades later the city itself is entirely different. Sure, the quirky, countercultural vibe still remains in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, but they're also now perforated with craft beer alehouses and other hipsterish artisanal casualties of the invasive tech culture. And much of what I once knew and spent untold hours hucking and hurling my board and body at has either been erased from the downtown grid or weather-beaten into nonviability. New spots and actual skate parks have since sprung up in the wake of the city's upscale growth, but they're now future memories for others... my own are tied to a very specific time and place that is mostly gone but—goddamn!—what a consequential moment it was to be a skater there and then, living the evolution of street skating as it was unfolding in magazines and on videos.
The legendary "Slam Walls" were a fountain feature located in front of the UWM Humanities building and focal point of Madison's skate scene. I'm not sure when they were finally destroyed in the Great Library Mall Makeover, but a replica of the original larger one—pictured at right under my f/s rock in ’88—was incorporated into an awkward niche of the public park on Madison's east side.
In the fall of '88, Fortuna dealt a once in a lifetime hand through an "art contest" lark that yanked me out of the Midwest and dropped me smack dab into the heart of skateboarding in California, where the spots were bountiful and the weather was consistently amazing. But despite those perks and the endless parade of events and experiences and encounters that went well beyond my wildest small town dreams, it has always been this snapshot of skateboarding in Madison that burns brightest in my memories.
Looking back now, I don’t doubt that's because of an undercurrent of subconscious desperation fueling my days and nights on State Street then with the unspoken dread that skateboarding for me would soon be derailed by the oncoming train of adulthood and responsibility. Plus, skateboarding deep into your twenties and beyond was rather anomalous then—the history was still relatively young and much of the former generations had dropped off or out altogether—so it really was uncharted waters in terms of role models rolling forever.
I only just learned via Instagram that one of the last remaining vestiges of the UWM Library Mall area—the concrete benches found on the second floor of the Humanities complex—will eventually pass into the annals of Wisconsin skate history as the building is allegedly set to be razed sometime this decade.
But like I said, I miraculously dodged that bullet and never had to grow up in the traditional sense, so to be able to hit-and-run one of my favorite old spots nearly 34 years later when I once imagined it wouldn't have been at all possible for me... well, shit. I couldn't have asked for a better way to punctuate the end of 2021. —Sean Cliver
If you've actually made it this far, I'm sorry. I'm no stranger to self-indulgent antics but this is some real next level "Dear Diary" bullshit that only a very select few skaters from Madison may or may not even appreciate. To that end, I would like to acknowledge those I knew or crossed paths with then for making that blip of time everything it remains to be to me to this day (and in typical skateboard fashion, I only knew several by either their given name or the nickname attributed to them): John Pearson, Rob and Karl Bethke, Chris and Dave Mayhew, Darrick Fabian, Larry Kleinke, Brian Jansen, Justice Green, Tyrone Olson, Josh Furnald, Shawn Dotson, Jordan Trais, Frankenskate, Monkey, Kevin, John Therrien, Randy Kelliher, Mike Muckler, Monte, Gluehead, Eric Jacobson, Jake Blattner, Nate Cole, Chris Beyersdorf, Bill from Mt. Horeb, Gabe Van Valken, and anyone else whose name now escapes my taxed synapses—hope you all managed to find a way to stay on a board some way or another throughout the years!
1. Feel free to disagree with me, because I honestly couldn't care less anymore. The black-and-white, hard-edged ideologies and opinions I once argued tooth-and-nail for have long since grown considerably more grey and fuzzy. We may all have the physical board itself in common, but the personal relationship we each have to skateboarding is a whole other individual monster, i.e. what it means to one doesn't necessarily compare to anyone else's beliefs or perceptions—and that's okay. Ha! Who am I kidding… I'm still an overly opinionated asshole at heart, but the one thing I have learned over the years is to mitigate any finger tantrums by just keeping them to myself rather than firing them off over the internet or on social media like a rogue Gatling from an anonymous foxhole. Life is an obstacle course we all have to scramble through the best we possibly can, and you can't always assume everyone has the deepest bag of mental tricks and tools to successfully make it through to the natural finish line. Just something to empathetically keep in mind, because you don't always find such things out until it's far too late in an even more unfortunate sense. Not to mention the fact that a dystopian future in our lifetime ain't really looking so sci-fi fantasy anymore.
2. The original rails on the "Marbles" have all since been replaced, but they used to be of an easier double-bar-non-kinked sort... kinda like the training wheels of rails? But they were also the very first (and very last) rails I ever sacked on, because not only did I crawl away with a sizable bruise on my inner thighs but an insurmountable mental hurdle that I could never get past again. Incidentally, Tyrone Olson was the first person I ever witnessed to do a handrail in real life and this was the place.
3. Madison Area Technical College. Immediately after graduating from high school I enrolled in a two-year Commercial Art program there but never achieved a final degree. I dropped out after three semesters once I landed the job at Powell-Peralta in 1989.
4. Dan later closed up shop in Madison and moved down to Altamonte Springs, Florida, where he opened another shop with the adjoining Badlands skate park in the '90s.
No holiday break in Wisconsin would be complete without a stop at the Cream City skate park in Milwaukee with my longtime comrade, John Pearson (far left), but this year's trip included the bonus additions of StrangeLove rider Max Murphy (far right) and Milwaukee's own John McGuire (tall upper right). Thanks for opening the park up early for us, Bill (thumbs up in center)!
5. Every so often skaters from other cities would randomly roll through Madison and I distinctly remembered this one time in '88 when a lanky, dark-haired guy showed up at the Slam Walls with some crazy fakie ollie tricks we'd never seen before. I didn't realize it until decades later, but that skater was John McGuire!