Pontus Alv and Arto Saari are sitting inside the Polar Warehouse in Malmo, Sweden. Pontus has transformed much of this city into his very own skateboarding canvas. And he’s been vigilant in maintaining his commitment to creativity in skateboarding. He’s turned walkways into skateparks. Abandoned buildings into skate-able monuments — all of it echoing an earlier time, when creativity flourished inside the minds of skateboarders.
Pontus has stuck to this ethos and it comes across in everything he does today. He cares about skate culture. He cares about skateboarding. And more than anything else, he loves riding his skateboard.
His skate film from 2005, The Strongest of the Strange, should be required coarsework for the jaded. It is why we all do this. And we had the rare opportunity to document a visit from Arto Saari to the Polar headquarters during filming for The Copenhagen Project. And now we listen.
(This interview originally ran in What Youth Issue 6, which is sold out, but it is a must read, so here it is, in a new Conversation with: Pontus Alv)
ARTO SAARI: Do you shoot anything in HD?
PONTUS ALV: Well, I like HD because the range and sharpness is nice. But I always think the HD format feels like that extra bit takes away the intensity and the focus of the skating. It shows a distracted, unnecessary bit in the format.
It’s kind of strange, you know, imagine you as a photographer if I told you from now on you’re only allowed to use one kind of camera. That’s it. It’s kind of become like that over night. It’s like, OK, how can we make the entire world all buy new televisions and new cameras on a new format? And it’s better quality to be sure, but I mean it’s stale, kind of, you know? I kind of like it because standard definition kind of fits with everything in the past, like 16 mm, Super 8s, VHS…old shit.
Yeah, so you can mix it altogether. It’s hard to mix some of it now. You kind of have to stick to one camera or it’s odd.
I mean, you can film Super 8, you can film 16, you have it scanned HD, you crop it, but…
Yeah, some of the Super 8 HD scans look pretty tight. Like if you film with a good Super 8, it almost looks like 16.
It’s sick when you film Super 8. You have to go there with the guys and you’re like, OK, I’m filming Super 8. You have to make this in five tries.
Yeah, it’s like the old days. You just fucking get it done!
Yeah. You can’t fuck around. It changes the way people skate because its like, this is real! You know when you watch the Santa Cruz videos, they always went to Paris? And they got that truck shot, riding together?
I miss that in skateboarding. The whole skating together kind of vibe. Now, everything is so based around the one dude, the one star now.
Yeah, this is classic. [watching Santa Cruz video on the TV]
Classic, fun shit.
It’s already been done, I know, but it feels like…
Yeah, but a lot of it is just forgotten.
You and I, we grew up watching that stuff, but if you ask people who started skating like 10 years ago or even five years ago, they never had that feeling of those classics, and it feels like that heritage needs to be passed down.
Needs to be brought back even if you just have to redo it in a new format. But same goes for skateboard graphics. A lot of kids today grew up with logo decks and they’ve never seen graphics, artwork, all those kind of classic elements that kind of define the culture.
And that’s what scares me a little bit, is people or companies just doing logo boards or just blanks or whatever. Starting companies with no team and not supporting pros. Because that’s when it eventually goes to mass production and eventually becomes a trend and dies.
It’s definitely a question I think a lot of people ask themselves. Especially kids. Kids have to be brought up like, “OK, do we want to have skateboard culture? Do we want to see pro skaters, films, artwork, rad things, projects? And all those things do cost money and if they don’t have support from the customers, they just wouldn’t exist. If you like Pretty Sweet — and you can hate it or whatever — but videos like that cost a lot and if you want to see that kind of video production or even low-end video production, all of it costs money. If brands don’t have any money and it’s just logo decks and blanks sold in supermarkets ,then it’s going to be hard to continue.
That’s a scary thought. I hope it never goes there. I feel like…
It’s already there.
It’s already there but…
I feel like it’s been there, but slowly now it’s trying to come back because people are just fed up with pros. Like the idea of having a pro board is that you’re a pro, you are a character, you are an original dude and you want to design your shape your graphic, or at least have some kind of connection to it, and all that has kind of been eliminated and has become serious. Like, we’ll do one graphic, change the name, change the colors.
Yeah, it’s like mass production lines, you know?
I think its coming back a bit, like people are going more grassroots and getting more involved.
I’ll speak for our brand and myself, it’s been…
Yeah, how long ago did you start Polar?
Officially, I’ve been working for about two years now. We’ve been on the market for about two and a half years. It went over my head. I was like, OK, I’m going to do a thing locally and lead Scandinavia and, you know, I was kind of naïve and it went from there…
Did you have a plan? “Like, I’ve got to make X amount to do this and that.? Or were you just like, “Fuck it, I’m going to start this company and just do it.”
I mean my whole philosophy with everything I do is that if you look around and don’t like something, you have to go out and make it better, make it how you want. If you don’t have skate spots, do your own. And if you have ideas and vision you want to present to the world, do it. I’ve just been doing them and put 10 or 12 solid years into doing my films and projects, and then eventually you look at the skateboard industry itself and you’re like, “Fuck, all the board brands suck and everything I feel about skateboarding and felt as a kid, they don’t exist anymore. So I feel like I can contribute to it and bring it back. Because if you’re going to enter an industry you need to have a plan, you need to have ideas to contribute. You can’t just start a brand without having some original visions. I felt like I could do it and it just started and then took off from there.
Yeah, I see it. Like, I’ll visit some shops in New York and I saw some of the stuff over there and I’m starting to see your stuff around.
It’s definitely still underground.
But it’s rad.
Yeah, like we’re sitting here and it’s like Supreme LA. Like you’re from this little town and you’ve managed to take our message worldwide.
No, that’s amazing. You’ve been a big staple. Like there was nothing to skate in Malmo 10 years ago. There were no parks; there were no big, huge parks like this.
I somehow became a face for it, but it’s just because I did videos. But it’s really just me documenting the crew.
Publicly you became the spokesperson for it.
Yeah, yeah. But at the same time, the big skate parks and the indoor skate park organization did all the parks; I was head of doing the more DIY stuff.
But all that helps and contributes to it.
For me it’s not really important to have any credit for it. I don’t really care about that. It’s more about bringing out a message and showing the message in films. Who did it and who did not do it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that people from everywhere — Australia, the U.K., all of Europe and America — see our stuff and they start doing it and start getting organized and start building their own parks and spots or fixing the streets or whatever. That’s the real message. That’s the only important thing. That people are feeling that the culture is alive and they want to do it.
That’s rad. For you, how much business do you want to be doing?
I just like to do as much business as I need — but not kill myself trying to do it. Also, all the riders we have and all the guys we support are pretty down-to- earth guys. But of course, if you really want to play the big game, go over the U.S., offer some money to some big names and stuff, but we don’t like to do that. Because then you fall into the game and have to do logo boards, price point boards. Like fuckin’ Alien Workshop has to do longboards and complete cruisers and all this bullshit that perhaps you don’t want to do.
For years companies got bought out by Billabong amd Quiksilver and now those big surf companies are struggling and what’s going to happen to Burton? It’s like, what’s going to happen to all those little skate companies we bought? Put them up for sale or whatever. We can’t afford to pay for this shit and then brands like Alien just end up in the market, like, “Hey anyone want to buy it?” This can happen to a lot of brands. Plus, I think there’s a big generation shift in the industry where a lot of those big brands are running out of ideas and visions just can’t renew themselves anymore. There’s new blood and new energy coming in and shaking things up.
I think it’s rad. Skateboarding needs a good shaking up once in a while.
That’s why it’s so rad. Because 5 years ago, who thought people would quit Alien? And now people are leaving the big brands to start their own thing and the big brands are not as big as they used to be and things are really shaky. And I think, to be honest, within one or two years we are going to have a lot of unemployed skateboard pros.
I think that’s already starting.
It’s already starting. I mean, there are tons of people knocking on my door, going, “Hey I like this brand,” and I’m like, “Yeah, dude, I can’t fuckin’ help you.”
There’s going to be a lot more.
Also with shoe deals. If you’re not on Converse, Adidas, Nike, Vans — you’re done with. Like, Soltech is falling apart. Circa, Fallen whatever it’s called, all those.
It’s hard to survive.
Outside of skateboarding coming in too, their mentality is like, we’ve got money, we can buy our way in. Yeah, definitely the landscape of the industry, like the look of skateboarding is definitely totally different. And it’s really changing really fast right now.
It’s going more mainstream, but at the same time there are more underground dogs coming in.
It’s two ways, really. I see Street League and big things going that way, but at the same time I’m, like, really thankful for that to happen because it only helps the underground and the smaller guys to get stronger because people are like, dude, this is going out of control. People want to bring it to the Olympics, but it’s like, fuck that. I just want to skate and keep it the way it should be.
I think that’s the beauty of skateboarding too and the culture that there are so many different aspects to it. There’s a little bit for anyone who gets into skateboarding. There are so many different bits to be stoked on and such a variety of things.
Also it was a good run there for a couple years. People were getting paychecks like fuckin’ $10,000 dollars. All that shit is going to be gone. It’s going to be back to like…
Back to the grind, like fuckin’ go skate your ass off.
Yeah, go skate and get your fuckin’ personality.
It’s like, I don’t want to see another Instagram of your Mercedes.
Yeah, buying new cars and mansions. It’s been all fun, but I’m afraid that part is slowly about to end. Maybe not, maybe I’m totally wrong.
I think there’s going to be that part of it too for sure.
Yeah, but I think it’s going to be smaller. It’s going to be like 50 guys that really are the top dudes. But what’s really interesting is that the way skateboarding is, it also became very robotic. Even kids. Every kid that watched a video game, they learn every trick in the book. But the beautiful thing is that it’s kind of coming back to: Are you original? Do you have original ideas? Do you have a personality? Are you a character? All those basic elements that matter so much. Like you know, we had Christian Hosoi, Jason Lee, Neil Blender, Lance Mountain and all those great skateboarders. Every great skateboarder has a great personality. They’re great characters and that value is going to be… you know like these days everybody is a great skater and so what? Who’s going to be around and who’s going to impact the future?
Who is going to be the one that… it’s like being photogenic basically. Like, OK, you can do a great trick, but do you have great ideas?
You’ve got to contribute to skateboarding one way or the other. Otherwise you won’t stand the test of time.
I think the greatest example is James Kelch. He built an entire career in skateboarding just by being a character. You know, he wasn’t a great skateboarder. He had some good style, he had a couple good tricks, but his whole character. All his ads were rough as fuck and sitting there all beat up with a car or whatever and it was just rad. It’s like, that’s cool. I do miss those days where those things matter.
Some of that rawness.
Yeah, not about contest results or whatever. It’s like, he’s just a bad dude who skates a lot.
I think a lot more of that is going to come into play.We’ll see, we’ll see It’s definitely a very interesting time. Also, I think maybe it’s a bit more interesting for me because I just went to LA this winter and it’s such a bubble where all the guys and all the industries there, they all see each other. They all know who’s filmed what, where, how, what camera they’re using, what they’re doing. They all kind of like, “Oh, these guys are doing this; we have to do the same. They’re all just kind of in the same boat. I just saw that documentary with Alien where they talk about being in Cincinnati, Ohio, and for me being here, I’m a Swede, I’m just completely isolated. And that can help.
Yeah, detached from it.
And you can really focus on what you want to do and not having input from the outside.
Remember back when there were only like five companies and five pros and dudes were making a ton of cash and then the industry changed and there were more companies? But it’s super good that it is big and there are Street Leagues and all that stuff. There are huge public parks getting built, so you know it’s never going to go back to what it was early ‘90s, where it basically didn’t exist.
Yeah, where it died.
It’s going to bottom out and clean itself up.
It’s going to become, well, it already is like a sport, all official, like a playground.
It’s funny though, how they build skate parks. They feel like little jails. There are huge fences around them, they close, there’s a curfew. There’s a whole thing. But then there’s something more concrete about it. No one is ever going to be able to contain it.
I just think there’s room for everything. I mean that’s kind of skateboarding and the way it’s always been. It’s up to you. You decide each day. You pick up your board and decide which way you want to take it. Of course there has always been that industry that will try to push skateboarding in a different direction, but still skateboarding is just you and your board and you’re doing your thing.
Interview and photography by Arto Saari