Impact Investor’s Christian Nielsen visits The Skateroom, a Belgium-based social enterprise “uniting art and skateboarding for a better world”. It is a riot of good vibes, he writes
When you think about skateboarding, a triptych of decks bearing Jeff Koon’s ‘Triple Popeye’ is not the first thing that comes to mind. But this is what confronted EVPA’s Impact Week delegates invited to The Skateroom, a Belgium-based social enterprise “uniting art and skateboarding for a better world”. It’s a riot of good vibes.
Is it a skatepark? Is it an exhibition? Is it a shop? Impact Investor joins the curious to hear what The Skateroom’s founder Charles-Antoine Bodson makes of it all. The side-event is hosted at his headquarters in Saint-Gilles. A sneak look at the latest boards bedecked in designs by artists from all over the world is a big part of the appeal.
Bodson came up with the idea after a chance encounter with Oliver Percovich who founded Skateistan, an NGO combining skateboarding and education to empower children. The Skateroom was born in 2014 as a wheels-up social business uniting the skating community, artists, art lovers, museums and non-profits around the world.
He started out as a pureplay entrepreneur, co-founding and later selling Bongo, Belgium’s biggest supplier of gift vouchers. Initial attempts to raise finance for The Skateroom the old-fashioned way quickly derailed. Social investing was still an exotic bird and the arts more closely associated with philanthropy when he started pitching the concept. But his persistence and market awareness of the potential eventually paid off.
A social war-chest
Today, social entrepreneurship is more widely understood. “It’s simple, we earn money and give back to the community,” says Bodson. COVID-19 kick-started the realisation that “we need better ways of doing business in an ethical, sustainable and engaged way” to achieve a different form of consumerism. It’s a bold vision but it seems to be working.
Through the sale of skateboard decks featuring bespoke designs from artists – past and present – The Skateroom has raised over €1.5m and has a pipeline of hundreds of social ‘skate’ projects bringing together scores of partners and artists. To date, around 200 editions have been commissioned and made available online and through partner museums and stores.
Between 10% and 50% of deck sales go into a social war-chest to fund new or running projects. Whether it’s new skateparks in deprived neighbourhoods of Southeast Asia or youth education programmes in Jamaica, the goal remains the same, “creating social change”.
Tom Critchley, a research and development officer with Concrete Jungle Foundation, a skateboarding non-profit targeting at-risk youth, tells Impact Investor that projects like Jamaica’s Freedom Skatepark do make a big difference to people’s lives.
He studied improvements in children’s feelings of “autonomy, competence and relatedness” after taking part in an ‘Edu-Skate’ classes. They were more engaged in their community and keen to get back into study, and directly addressed issues such youth and street crime. These findings will form part of Critchley’s PhD thesis and offer strong “theory of change” evidence on the “skateboarding for development” phenomenon. “It is real,” he says, “because skateboarding has a rebel attitude that really appeals to young people”. And as a new entrant to the Olympic family, the power of skateboarding as a social lever is likely to keep growing, he and Bodson agree.
The Skateroom is working towards the Paris 2024 Olympics as a milestone for launching many new projects and initiatives – some top secret, others soon to be announced – to build on the brand and spread the word that ‘business and purpose’ can share a room amicably. He calls it the “Good Room”. And why not.
Aesthetics and social message
Some of the deck designs sold by The Skateroom are purely aesthetic and eclectic, such as the Koons triptych which reinterprets a detail of his 2008 oil painting ’Triple Popeye’, featuring the iconic cartoon character. Others more directly communicate social messages.
“This collaboration is not about my work,” writes Kelley Walker, one of The Skateroom’s featured artists. “It’s about how art-making can be a driver of change for people we’d otherwise never be connected to.” His series of boards entitled ‘Laughing, we joked about we had always wanted a sunken living room’ is a “post-pop” poke at the devastation caused by environmental hazards.
Walker reproduces a photograph of a landslide-damaged house in sections which complete the mosaic of destruction when all individual boards are lined up together. “The results are often violent, hilarious, spontaneous, and overdetermined all at once,” The Skateroom notes on its website, adding that Walker’s work “privileges ideas over aesthetics or materials” – a solid metaphor for the whole social project, skating towards a world where the greater good is a design feature not a by-product.