By: Kyle DuVall
Ask Mike Vallely why he wears a helmet when he skates and you’ll get an obvious answer: He wears it to protect to his head. But to skaters conditioned by a culture of branded “defiance”, that simple answer never seems to be enough. The act of protecting one’s own skull from potentially life-threatening injuries has too often become something that requires convoluted explanations and apologies. Putting on the helmet before going skating… Any kind of skating, was a step that, even Vallely, a man with nothing to prove to anyone, had to grapple with.
“As a street skater I have always challenged myself, always questioned everything, set out to destroy barriers,” explains Vallely. “Wearing a helmet now is an evolution of those ideas.”
Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Sierra Prescott
Helmets have been worn by skaters since the beginning of skateboarding, so what’s the big deal? To see it clearly you have to pierce the smoke and mirrors. The real question the culture has to ask itself, the dilemma at the bottom of the helmet quandary is not “why wear a helmet?’ it’s “why don’t we wear helmets?” When you really unpack that question, a lot of the reasons seem pretty thin and some of those objections are outright contradictory to what we all think we value.
A little history review can put it in perspective.
Rewind back to the golden age of skateparks in the late 70‘s: at Big O, or Upland or wherever, the helmet was a non-issue. If you wanted to ride, the insurance policies and the dude at the gate said you had to strap one on. It’s just what you did.
When the parks died, the brain bucket lived on in the backyard vert session. Photos from those days show ditching the park rules didn’t mean ditching head protection. All those legends were padded up on the plywood. The wild west of backyard pool sessions were usually helmet free affairs though, and when the the rank and file of skating poured into the streets in the late 80’s, the helmet got completely left behind.
Part of this had to do with the fact that the safety gear that kept skaters safe when bailing on transition did little to protect skaters from the direct impacts and joint twisting injuries that were most common in street skating. With the ollie in its infancy, the low-to-the-ground nature of the basic street repertoire made the probability of banging your head pretty slim.
As street skating evolved, however, blowing it on a rail or landing too far back barging some stairs made severe blows to the back of the head a real possibility. The “rules” that had been established, on the other hand, were solidified, and they dictated “no helmets”. Gradually an expression of freedom had become a commandment of orthodoxy.
“I can relate to not wearing a helmet,” Vallely explains. “To skaters the helmet has come to represent authorities and pad nannies and rigid skatepark rules. When you talk about wearing helmets, skaters have a knee jerk reaction. It is in their DNA, it’s a part of who we are. Those roots run deep, but they’re also very archaic. This culture has moved forward.”
When Vallely applied the values of total freedom and open expression to all the reasons skaters don’t sport helmets on the street, what he saw was a reversal of context.
“There were years where I was playing a minor, sometimes even a major role, in developing that defiant part of the street skating psyche. At different times that sort of counter-culture to the counter-culture was really meaningful to me… But eventually things like that become imitation, people imitating something that came about in a real moment. It’s just putting on an outfit, and at this point that outfit doesn’t include the helmet.”
Never a man to be ruled by the dictates of fashion, the reasons not to wear a helmet evaporated for Vallely. “What the culture values, I have never used that as a guide.”
Bean Plant: Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Sierra Prescott
Other changes in skateboarding made the hardcore anti-helmet attitude seem even more irrelevant. “The new generation, they aren’t getting a skateboard in their teens now,” says Vallely. “They get a board when they are 4. It’s a different world. I’d rather be on the right side of history at this point in my career than being the guy that thinks: “I’m going to shred this without any helmet!’ and then getting carried away on a stretcher in a coma.”
“I’m not a different skater. In terms of how it felt wearing a helmet, it was weird for a couple minutes, then it didn’t matter. It was a hiccup. I put on the helmet, I got used to it, and then life went on. It’s other people’s perceptions that need to be challenged. As soon as those are challenged, it becomes a non-issue.”
Ultimately, though, the decision to helmet up was personal. “I’ve gotten feedback already that it’s making a difference to people, making a difference to parents when they talk to their kids, but the ultimate decision is for myself. Like I said, I want to be on the right side of history, not just because of my place in skateboard culture, but because of my place in my household. I didn’t need that concern of ‘I could have done something to prevent an injury’. I could no longer justify to myself not wearing a helmet.
I had to ask myself some tough questions. I answered them, and then I put the fucking helmet on.”
Kyle DuVall had been writing about skateboarding almost as long as he has been skateboarding.