by Tim Gilmore, 11/21/2017
It cost 12 year old Andrew $16—$10 to get in on Saturday, $4 for a good supply of Gatorade, and two bucks for the cheese dogs. They were disgusting, he says, but nothing could be better than devouring them after skateboarding for 12 hours.
In its 40th year, Kona Skatepark isn’t as banged up as lots of the kids who worshipped the place over the years, but then again, it’s mostly sculpted from concrete. In places, the concrete has swollen and cracked. The Florida sun bakes and buckles even the hardest and most impervious surface. Andrew says rusty nails stick out of the wooden ramps.
The kids and the ramps and runs beat each other up reciprocally. Concrete requires sacrifices of skin and blood. In the late 1970s, when now-legendary skateboarder Buck Smith was growing up and spending all his free time at Kona, his dad would introduce him as “My son, the Human Scab.”
Andrew first came to Kona when he was eight years old in 2002, but even then he knew these grounds were “sacred.” It makes sense that Kona grew out of Jacksonville, but the park also transcends the town. “Kona wasn’t just sacred to me,” Andrew says. “It’s not even exclusively sacred to the local skate scene. This park has a big history.”
Buck missed the grand opening on the fourth of July, 1977, because the park was packed with older kids, teenagers who’d been watching its construction for months.
By the winter of 1978, Kona had closed for business, apparently for good, and kids climbed and cut through the fence that surrounded the abandoned park. They rode dirt bikes over the banks, carried their boards over forlorn concrete, and ollied at the edges.
When the park reopened the following year, Mitch Kaufman soared down from the Tombstone, wiped out across the concrete, caught the board flying past him, cut his losses, climbed back up the board and then the bank, topped the Tombstone with vengeful grace, and surfed back down in victory.
Muralist Nicole Holderbaum walks me and Emily along the ridge between the Snake Run and Balloon Bowl. She loves the bowl, but the Snake Run is another beast entirely, all about winding into speed down its 700 foot long meander that drops 100 feet from top to bottom. Nico points to wooden stairs at the top and says some people use the handrails on either side to propel them down into the course to hit high speeds from the start.
Besides draping her own murals down the sides of Jacksonville highrise buildings, Nico oversees the Jax Kids’ Mural Project, which, this year, has taken on Kona’s 40th. She and the skatepark are promoting Color Me Kona as “the world’s largest coloring book party.”
Nico points us to the Tombstone. If the Snake Run is Kona’s most famous signature, this monument’s its most infamous. From high atop this concrete slab standing pitched toward the Balloon Bowl, legendary skateboarders like Tony Hawk, Grant Taylor and Collin Graham have soared into the bowl and lived to arc back up these gracefully murderous curves.
Helen and Martin Ramos bought and reopened Kona in June 1979, and in January 1996, Martin Ramos III took over as park manager after his father died. In October 2015, Ramos told Folio Weekly writer Nick McGregor that he felt guilty about park conditions. Ramos raised money through online crowdfunding, but Color Me Kona has garnered the park’s best attention since the video game Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 featured Kona in 2002.
We step across the edge of the J-Run, which curves out from the waterless pool toward northwest pines and Arlington Expressway. Below me, in the curves of the concrete, Nico’s painted faces and eyes and sentient triangles look up expectantly. Something’s about to happen.
Next morning, Nico welcomes hundreds of six- and eight- and 12 year olds who’ll cover these 30,000 feet of concrete in color.
What beauty can be more surprising than that of concrete? Infamous Jax muralists like Nico and Halsi and Mark Ferreira have naturally made the graceful arcs, turns, and banks of Kona their canvas.
And if any artistic structure has risen organically from the sprawling concrete expanses of a suburban town like Jacksonville, it’s Kona. After all, skateboarding broke off from surfer culture sometime in the early 1950s as surfers built their own wheeled boards to surf sidewalks. Local kids who felt bummed about their swamp-dreary working-class hometown in the late 1970s were surprised by the arrival of Kona, but skateboarding’s the blue-collar ballet of concrete Jax.
Concrete may be the one building material more maligned than plastic. But the beauty of Kona is not just the gravity-defying handstands of Tim Johnson rising off a rail atop the Vert Ramp. It’s that this cheap and most rigid material can be made to flow. Granted, the flow is frozen, but the wheels that cross and raise it make it move. Skateboard architecture makes concrete mimic the ocean.
“Every Saturday,” Andrew says, “I rode those banks and curves from open to close, 12 straight hours of skateboarding over the same ramps and concrete hills. The sheet metal on the ramps in the Street Course reflected so much heat, the ramps burnt through my skin when I fell. No matter how beat up and burnt I got, I’d show up the next week, ready for battle.”
After five years away from Jacksonville due to family complications, Andrew returned, 18 years old, and wanted most of all to come back to Kona. “Little did I know,” he says, “my friends I once skated with were all potheads or worse. Nobody felt like skating anymore and half of what made Kona so magical in my memory was being there with my friends.”
Andrew went back to Kona a half dozen times in new few years. The skatepark seemed lonely amidst the surrounding trailer parks and boarded houses and raised Confederate flags.
On his last visit, Andrew says, “The guy working made it clear to me he was trying to close the park early because I was the last person there skateboarding. It was six o’clock. I remembered the times the workers had to corral all the kids at 10 at night, closing time. What had happened in the meantime, I didn’t understand.”
When Andrew was 12, he skated the Street Course most. When he wasn’t skating the course, he hung out under a wooden ledge, probably six feet tall, connected to the ramps. “You could get beneath the ramps by wandering beneath this ledge,” he says.
That’s where he smoked his first cigarette. There was a girl there, her hair shaved on the sides, pink and purple on top and down her back. Her jawline was strong. So were her cheekbones. She was so pretty. Andrew stood beneath the roaring of skateboard wheels along the ramps above him with his friends and one pretty girl and felt so shy. The kids passed the cigarette around.
Which is more likely, in this urban landscape, to break? Concrete or bone? The world or your own resolve? An appropriate response, painted by muralist Carol Moon across the bowl says, “It never gets easier. You just get better.”
On Andrew’s last visit, he watched a gaggle of gangly sharp-angled boys who reminded him of himself seven or eight years ago. Their knees were scabbed. Udon noodles of veins roped around their skinny arms. They gave him a feeling of hope.
To hear that hundreds of kids are bringing color to these brutal and wise old concrete crests and troughs makes him smile. “‘Kona,’” he says, “means ‘Lady’ in Hawaiian, and giving Kona all this color, it’s like making her an offering, like a sacrament.”