How OnWord Skate Collective is Redesigning Skate Spaces for Everyone  

Art is … uplifting.

Lid Madrid (MFA 2018)

Lid Madrid (MFA 2018)

by Ben Kim Paplham (MFA 2021)
Photos and video by Greg Stephen Reigh (BFA 2013)
Video edited by Danielle Campbell (BFA 2013)

Lid Madrid (BFA 2021) remembers biking by Wilson Skate Park along the lakefront from Montrose Beach when they were growing up. They had a Tony Hawk board—gifted from a family friend when Madrid was 8 years old—but their mother didn’t let them skate. In part for the sport’s physicality, in part for the punk-rock reputation that followed skating culture, but also for the exclusionary environment.

“The atmosphere has always been cis, white, male-dominated, and it becomes unsafe when you have someone yelling at you simply for being there,” explained Madrid. 

The stereotype of the rebellious white male skater is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating a very real culture that gatekeeps skateboarding as a sport not for minorities, not for LGBTQ+ people, and certainly not for girls. “We’ve experienced sexual harassment at parks, specifically directed at femme skaters by cis men. We’ve had people laugh at our faces, get angry at us for not giving them sexual attention, not respect our pronouns, and then tell us that it’s not a big deal to experience all of this harassment,” Madrid said.

As a kid, Madrid didn’t see anyone who looked like them at Wilson Park, so skateboarding remained a forbidden sport. When they got to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) to study architecture, however, Madrid decided they weren’t going to let skateboarding be prohibited from their life. They’d go behind the 280 Building and practice, enjoying the challenge of trying a trick a million times to get it right. While meeting other non-traditional skaters at events around Chicago, Madrid began incorporating skating into their architecture studies. 

“It was a true obsession. I started to research who designed and built skateparks in the US and saw a huge problem: 95 percent of these spaces were designed, led, and built by cis, white men,” Madrid said. “I was fueled to create a space for non-traditional skaters because I wanted to radically change this statistic. If you’re Black, Indigenous, Latinx, gender non-conforming, trans, or queer, we should have somewhere we can skate and share knowledge and resources in a welcoming, inclusive environment.”

Madrid got the opportunity to build that space when they received an SAIC Idea Generation Grant for a public mobile DIY skate park. OnWord Skate Collective was born.

Madrid and five collaborators—all non-traditional skaters—launched OnSite in May 2021. During the two-day event, they gathered in the parking lot of Wilson Skate Park and helped people build their own transportable skate obstacles using power tools borrowed from SAIC. OnWord focuses on who has access to skate parks and who does not. As a result, obstacles are made with transport in mind: lightweight, durable, recycled materials, with handholds to make them easy to lift.

“Our goal is to always think about how we can come to the community and not have the community to come to us,” said Madrid. “An environment that’s hostile becomes unsafe. But OnWord is a collective by and for non-traditional skaters. It’s a community. We’re there to care for each other.”

Since its launch, OnWord has continued to grow. The group has collaborated with Black Girls Skate, organized rock-climbing events, and hosted a showcase for skaters to present their video clips. They hope to find funding for materials, meals, and a truck to store mobile obstacles and bring skate parks to neighborhoods that don’t have ready access to skating. They want to garner interest and share design-build resources among non-traditional skaters, but also to change the culture of skating itself into a safer, more welcoming, and inclusive one.

“I really wish someone could have told my mom back then that her child has a passion, and that skateboarding isn’t only for all the guys who took up space at Wilson Skate Park. It can be for anyone,” Madrid said.  “Skateboarding is such a beautiful art form that teaches you about life. You’re going to fall down, you’re going to get hurt, but at the end of the day, you’re going to pick yourself up every single time.”