Half Pipe Dreams

August 2017
Written By: 
Dean Blumberg
Photographs by: 
Scott Smallin

An inside look at the Grand Strand skateboard culture and the struggle to save Matt Hughes Skate Park

PHOTO: (Left) Village Surf Shoppe is home to Ten Twenty-five, a skateboard team and youth mentorship program led by Village employee Aaron Wright. Pictured are (from left) Parker Nance, Brian Campbell, Alex MacNeil, Andrew Simpson, Lexie Latta, Rensley Wright, Jacob “J Byrd” Byrd, Stephen Griffin, Jesse Ford, Bret “Bronco” Todd and Aaron Wright; (Right) The City of Myrtle Beach Skateboard Park was renamed soon after opening to commemorate the life of local skater Matt Hughes who died tragically while skating in the street. His memory, and safe place to skate, live on through Matt Hughes Skatepark.

In the heart of Myrtle Beach, tucked in the corner of a parking lot and surrounded by a chain-link fence, is a modest space reserved for a subculture that municipalities have never quite understood. Myrtle Beach’s Matt Hughes Skate Park was constructed by the city in 1998. The steel ramps and transition obstacles inside are mostly made of sheet metal and steel and are showing serious signs of age. Even the fresh coat of blue and yellow paint that the local skateboard community used to clean up the graffiti can’t hide all the rust and the imperfections. But despite its flaws, it is the only free skate park between SK8 Charleston, the new concrete park that opened earlier this year, and the variety of public and private parks available to skaters in the Wilmington area. As such, it’s become the default home to Grand Strand skateboarders, and a place they’d like to see revitalized.

Regardless of day or time, you’re likely to see a handful of cars parked there and a group of kids shredding to the best of their abilities. This summer, the sound of skateboard trucks on coping or the blare of music from a smartphone is drowned out by the noise around the park. It seems like massive renovations are in progress everywhere but Matt Hughes. Across the parking lot, contractors and heavy equipment work on Doug Shaw Memorial Stadium to improve the playing surface, track and field, and spectator seating. On the other side of the skate park a large construction crew is well underway on a state-of-the-art Myrtle Beach Intermediate School. The skate park, on the other hand, is nearing its 20th anniversary and in desperate need of a rebuild.

Central to the Rebuild Matt Hughes effort is Aaron Frobase, a fixture of the Myrtle Beach skate scene, former skateshop owner and an employee with the city’s Recreation Services at Pepper Geddings since 2008. Talking with people connected to the Myrtle Beach skateboard community, nearly everyone I met said the same thing: “you gotta talk to Frobase.” We meet at his house, the inside of which is reminiscent of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, a kitschy blend of surf and skateboarding iconography and homemade art projects. His daughters Sundae, 11, and Ruby, 7, are out of school and working on some creative projects of their own, interrupting only to show off a collection of shark’s teeth they’ve found. He puts on a pot of coffee and offers up an oral history of the skate park and the Myrtle Beach skate scene. Frobase credits Pam Stone, the Director of Recreation Services, and Keith Jacobs, a business owner and photographer of skateboarders during that time, for working with the city to create the park.

“Unlike today, where there’s a niche industry of skate park architects and builders, back then there weren’t many companies out there building skate parks,” he says. “The city worked with a construction company with input from some of the skaters. I remember helping out Keith building some of the same ramps still out there now.”

With a $55,000 budget from the city, the park was built and inaugurated as The City of Myrtle Beach Skateboard Park, complete with then-mayor Mark McBride dropping in on a quarter-pipe to commemorate the occasion. The park’s name changed to Matt Hughes Skate Park later that year after 16-year-old Matt Hughes died tragically while skating in the street. In the initial years, the park was staffed by a city employee responsible for monitoring skaters and enforcing park rules, including a helmet requirement.

“When the city stopped staffing it a few years later,” Frobase recalls, “it became an unmonitored, skate-at-your-own-risk park and quickly fell into disarray. There’s a new generation of kids skating there that don’t remember that there was an enforced helmet rule.”

In recent years, Matt Hughes has become a bit of an eyesore and safety hazard. Thankfully, broken transition obstacles were removed to keep the park open, but existing ramps are slowly rusting out. Frobase saw what was happening and helped start the Rebuild Matt Hughes committee, where he joins a coalition of volunteers attempting to raise funds to add to the city’s allocated $100,000 upgrade budget. According to Frobase and others leading the effort, the committee is torn: use the city money to replace aging ramps that were removed for safety concerns and add a new feature or two or bank the money allocated in hopes of raising an additional $200,000–$300,000 for a completely new park using concrete. The story of the grassroots push for SK8 Charleston is inspiring, but the Rebuild team knows their situation is different. They are still working to raise funds, but no clear plan has been put forward.

In the meantime, Frobase has been one of the older skaters—he is still ripping it at the park at 42—nurturing the next generation. “Around 2008 I held the city’s first skateboard camp for youth. It’s grown exponentially since then, and that’s really how I fell in love with recreation and working with youth.” He jokes that it’s weird to go from callow youth into skating and hardcore music to now working for the City of Myrtle Beach and being known as “Coach Aaron.” He says this with a mix of pride and enthusiasm, and the passion he has for it is palpable by the way he describes the most recent after-school skateboard camp. “I teach a lot of the Start Smart sports readiness programs at Pepper Geddings, and a lot of those kids signed up for the skateboard class having never stepped on a board before. By the end of the camp they could push, turn, tic-tac. They can say that they can skateboard now. I thought, ‘This is pretty awesome!’” The programs have proven so popular that this year he’s created separate beginner-only and intermediate camps.

Old School Meets New School

The Dogtown-era of 1970s southern California inspired youth across the country and ushered in the renowned Bones Brigade team of the 1980s, introducing the world to a young Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen and Ray Barbee. In the 1990s, skateboarding broke into mainstream consciousness with the rise of extreme sports and the X-Games. Skateboarding will be an Olympic sport at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, and tours like the massive Vans Pro Skate Series are drawing sizable crowds around the world. It’s tempting for outsiders to still view skateboarding as a fringe sport, but the reality is that skateboarding has been welcomed by the mainstream, and brands like Nike, Adidas and New Balance are core skateboarding brands now.

Perhaps most interesting is how skate parks have become multigenerational havens. The young skaters emulating Tony Hawk in the ’80s and ’90s are stepping back on the board in increasing numbers. These senior skaters, now in their 30s, 40s and sometimes 50s, have kids of their own and are passing on the sport (and the tricks) to a new generation and thrashing gracefully into old age.

At the Salt Games’ Boulevard Blowout skateboard competition this past June, old school tricks from the ’70s and ’80s were on full display. The hippie jump contest, where skaters jump off their boards and over an obstacle while their boards roll under it, had competitors in their teens doing tricks their parents’ generation had invented. Meanwhile, skateboard manufacturers are coming back to the classic deck shapes of the 1980s with reissues of boards from Vision, Powell-Peralta and Santa Cruz. Not only are the skate dads and moms from the ’80s reliving their afternoons of 180 bonelesses and no-complys, but younger skaters are finding the joy in the older styles of boards and tricks as well.

The Birth of Ten Twenty-five

Back at Matt Hughes on an early June scorcher, I meet father-daughter skaters Danny Brown, 35, and his daughter Anna, 11. Anna, a rising fifth grader at the new Myrtle Beach Intermediate School, has just finished up Aaron Frobase’s intermediate skateboard camp and is showing me how to build up momentum on the half-pipe. “I had to watch my dad do it to see when to bend my knees,” she says. She rolls up toward the coping on one side of the mini-ramp, extending her body and arms at the pinnacle before bending her knees to pick up speed as she rolls backward toward the other side. She says she doesn’t know many girls at school who skateboard, but she likes the challenge. Anna works on her ollie, something the after-school camp challenged her with learning. “I am trying to get over my fear of coming to the park with the older, better skaters,” she adds. Luckily, she says she and her dad are at the same level, which makes it fun. “I started skateboarding when Anna expressed an interest in it,” Danny says. “It is something we can do together, and you can practice anywhere.”

Some of the younger skaters using Matt Hughes as their practice ground are those sponsored by Ten Twenty-five, a team headed by Aaron Wright and supported by Village Surf Shoppe in Garden City. I first encountered Wright online, in awe of an Instagram clip he posted of Stephen Griffin, 17, landing a shuvit-late flip at Matt Hughes Skate Park. When I meet Wright in person to chat about Ten Twenty-five, he’s just dropped off his 5-year-old daughter Rensley, the youngest skater on his team, at summer camp. He’s covered in tattoos and wears a flat-brimmed Thrasher hat and classic Vans. He tells me about growing up skating and surfing in Wilmington, North Carolina, and while the punk ethos and rebellious nature of skateboarding are still a part of him and an aspect of the culture, he says that he’s grown since becoming a parent and entering his 30s.

The Ten Twenty-five, or 1025, name comes from a tag he’s used on art projects since 2003, a play on the price of a popcorn and soda deal offered at the movie theater where he used to work. For Wright, starting the Ten Twenty-five skate team was the project that helped him with the depression that followed a difficult separation and divorce with a young child involved. “It was a tough time. I wasn’t doing anything constructive or fun, just sitting inside and struggling. I gained all this weight and felt terrible.” Wright says that he saw three teenagers across the street skating on a ramp in the driveway and decided to take his board out and see if he could skate it, too. Skateboarding proved to be a positive influence for him in this situation. “After I finished skating, all of the endorphins were still going, and I felt on top of the world,” he says. He got Rensley involved with skateboarding and began to build Ten Twenty-five Youth Sponsorship Program as a vehicle to encourage young people to be outside, active and part of a community.

Wright designed and printed some T-shirts and stickers for a new Ten Twenty-five skate crew. The first kids he reached out to were those who let him skate their driveway ramp: Izaiah O’Neal, 14; Charles Corn, 15; and Codey Cannon, 15. Wright shares his sponsorship application packet with me, which includes a conduct code, satisfactory school standing requirement and an explanation of what is offered and what is expected as a team member. Team members must complete an essay or art project explaining why they’d like to join. It’s an impressive packet, complete with forms for parent signatures, emergency information and formal waivers. “My degree in Human Services helped tremendously. It made me think about this as a program to help kids through skateboarding,” he adds.

Ten Twenty-five is different from other amateur sponsorships in that it is not based on ability. “Anyone can join. All you need is a love of skateboarding and a desire to have a positive impact on your peers and community,” Wright says. The team has grown in its first year to a core group of 15–20 skaters, and Village Surf Shoppe connected to co-sponsor them. For the pre-teen and teenage skaters on the 1025/Village team, skateboarding offers something for them that more traditional sports don’t. “What I love about skateboarding,” Jacob Byrd, 16, says, “is the individuality you get to express. There are no rules, no coaches, no one to throw the ball to. You don’t have to rely on what someone else has to do; it’s just you and your skateboard.” Others echo similar sentiments. “I love the freedom you have when you skate...it’s like I’m in a different world,” remarks Cannon.

Wright connects with these kids in part because he knows that being outside and moving is good for body and mind. He’s rented vans to take them to different skate parks and makes sure they look good in team-sponsored apparel. But it’s not the things that draw them to it. For Jesse Ford, 14, just being on a board makes his day better, and nearly all of the riders credit the friendships they’ve made through Ten Twenty-five and skateboarding as the thing they love most about it.

Matt Hughes is Always There

The next generation of skaters are concerned about Matt Hughes Skate Park and what will become of it. They want to make it better, but get frustrated when fundraising attempts are only bringing in $500 at a time. “Matt Hughes is the only park we have,” says Lexie Latta, 15. “It means a lot because it’s where everyone skates and bonds together.” Both Frobase and Wright were staffing tents at this year’s Native Son’s Salt Games, in part to raise money for Matt Hughes Skate Park, but also to show the greater community the talent and dedication of Grand Strand youth involved in the sport. They both admit that the small fundraisers are helpful but not enough. “We’d love to get larger businesses to invest in our community and youth,” Frobase notes. The Rebuild Matt Hughes committee is still working on the best way to improve the park. Go Skateboarding Day was held on June 21, and Daville, Myrtle Beach’s newest skate shop, showed their support and hosted a celebration at Matt Hughes. The community, young and old, came out to celebrate and skate.

“Matt Hughes is alway there,” Frobase says when I ask him about what the park means to the community. “Someone is always there. When the baseball and football fields are empty, there is always someone at the skate park. Sometimes it’s a community that people don’t quite understand, but these kids need places too.”

For more info on the Matt Hughes Skate Park and how you can help visit the Rebuild Matt Hughes facebook page.