Man at His Best

Exclusive Interview: How The World’s Most Creative Skateboarder Is Elevating This Pastime To An Artform

Kilian Martin goes back to skateboarding’s rebellious, DIY, playful roots—no rules, no points, and no competition.

BY Christian Barker | Mar 11, 2016 | Culture

“Skateboarding is not a crime” has long been a popular slogan in the skating community. One of the foremost professional skaters riding today, Kilian Martin would possibly also suggest that “Skateboarding is not a sport”—at least, not the way he does it.

An innovator who’s forged a unique style combining the flatland acrobatic trickery of freestyle with street skating’s smashing of urban obstacles—curbs, handrails, stairways, walls and inclines—Martin has given up on the rigidity of structured, X Games-style skating competitions in favour of focusing on videos (for the most part directed, with incredible settings and sky-high production values, by long-time collaborator Brett Novak). 

Video not only allows Martin to properly showcase his intricate tricks, many of which are only done justice when shown in slow motion, but to escape the confines of attempting to please the powers that be. 

“With competition, when I was practicing the routines, I had to think what do the judges want to see and I had to adapt my skating to what they like,” Martin tells Esquire Singapore, while in the midst of a two-month vacation in Thailand. 

“When I make videos it’s a completely different mindset—I think, what can I come up with that no-one expects? What I can do, what can I dream up? I understand the business side of competitions, I respect people who want to do competitions—I’ve done it in the past—but I personally prefer the freedom of making your own videos, expressing your own ideas.” 

Having once remarked to an interviewer, “The world is a canvas, the skateboard is my brush”, Madrid-native Cali-resident Martin believes that not only is skateboarding not a crime, a sport, nor a pastime for punk-ass kids, it’s an art, pure and simple. 

“I think the videos Brett and I have made help convey that idea, that skateboarding is an artform. Like I say, I don’t have a problem with people competing, I understand these competitions that you see on TV—a lot of kids will watch and want to grab a skateboard after seeing that. I totally see the potential in that, and all the brands are investing big money to make that possible; it obviously works for them. 

“But for me, I prefer to make videos and for people to see skateboarding as something different—more of an artform than something where you compete with someone else. I don’t think skateboarding is meant to be a competition. We’re all different. It’s almost like a painting competition, how do you judge who wins?” 

In Martin’s mind, it’s like placing a Lucio Fontana next to a Jean-Michel Basquiat, next to a Jackson Pollock, next to a Mark Rothko. They’re all paintings, yes: all brilliant, but all very different. Making a judgment call about which is ‘best’ is entirely subjective. “Same with skating,” says Martin, “it’s not meant to be judged that way. It’s not really that I’m ‘better’ than any other freestyle skater, or any other skater, because there are a lot of things that they do that I can’t do, and there’re things I can do that they can’t. It comes down to who you like most, more than who’s ‘the best’. We each do things our own way.” 

Martin explains, “When I come up with tricks, I don’t try to ‘beat’ someone else, I try to be better than what I’ve been, to compete against myself—to look at what I’ve done in the past and what I can do better now.” Rather than satisfying a judge’s criteria, giving ’em what they want, Martin is obsessed with invention and confounding expectations. 

“For me, if I don’t come up with tricks, there’s almost no point to skating. Obviously skating is fun in itself, skating on the street is fun, but what I get most out of it is when I create tricks, I keep track of the tricks I’ve done, then think, ok, what can I do to make it new? Come up with a variation. That process goes much faster with filming videos than competitions.”

For all that competitions admittedly do to promote skateboarding, they hold it back from being considered an art, says Martin. “It makes sense that skateboarding hasn’t been considered so much an artform because of the way it’s been portrayed in the media. Mostly, you’ll see skateboarding competitions on TV with points, with classifiers, semifinals, finals—very structured. They say maybe it’s going to be in the Olympics now. So it’s totally been portrayed more as a sport, that’s what people see.” 

In his individualistic, non-competitive approach, Martin’s philosophy is a lot closer to skateboarding’s rebellious, DIY, playful roots. “There are so many ‘rules’ in skateboarding—you’re supposed to skate this way, look this way, listen to this type of music, you’re supposed to hang out with this kind of people,” he says. “When I first saw the skateboard, I just saw something to have fun with, I didn’t think too much into it and I still see it that way. For a lot of people, it’s a way of living, but when you look at it, it’s just a board with wheels,” he laughs, “and it’s all about having fun with it.”

Martin’s unique freestyle-meets-street form evolved in no small part thanks to his athletic pursuits, training in gymnastics from the age of 10. As a young skater, he says, “I saw some old-school Powell Peralta videos, watched some of those guys doing handstands, and I thought, well, that makes sense! I do that in gymnastics, I can incorporate some of those tricks. It was a way for me to come up with tricks and gave me a lot more room to make something new and fresh. Street skating has been so exploited it’s hard to come up with new tricks that way.” 

He also had the opportunity to work with a choreographer during a commercial shoot for Ballantine’s whisky several years ago, and though initially skeptical whether someone with a dance background would have much to contribute, Martin says this was a pivotal moment. 

“I was in Buenos Aires shooting an ad. They gave me this choreographer to work with, and in the beginning I thought that didn’t make any sense. I thought, he doesn’t know anything about skating, he’s just gonna make suggestions that aren’t practical. That happens. Especially when you’re filming commercials, the producers will be like, ‘Why don’t you try jumping from here to here to here, and then land this way?’ And I’ll say, ‘Uh, no it doesn’t work that way!’ I knew he’s an amazing professional dancer, but I wasn’t sure how it was going to work. But after a bit, he started coming up with ideas… I was just amazed, the choreographer, Miguel Elias — he’s an amazing talent. It was a pleasure, he made it really interesting and gave me so many ideas that continue to influence my skating today.”

Despite occasional unrealistic suggestions that challenge the physics of skating, Martin says he enjoys doing fashion shoots and commercial work (search up his spots for FootLocker, Lacoste, SmartCar, and Man About Town magazine), and that sponsorships have been central to allowing he and Brett Novak to do ever more ambitious, globe-trotting videos, filmed in far-flung locales like India and the UK.

“Initially it was more on our own, out of our own pocket, but now we wait to see whether a company wants to work with us, and that’s when we come up with a concept and brainstorm what we can do,” he explains. (A good example of Martin and Novak’s seamless sponsorship integration being the video Altered Route. Shot at an abandoned waterpark in the Mojave Desert, Mercedes-Benz’s support is subtly hinted at by Martin rolling up to the spot in a classic 1980 Merc 450SL cabriolet.) 

A little corporate support would certainly help defray the costs when shooting a skate video as elaborate as Martin and Novak’s most recent magnum opus, Searching Sirocco, which sees the skater magically whisk across a half-dozen disparate landscapes during the film’s six-minute runtime. Of filming Searching Sirocco, Martin says, “It was almost like a dream in the beginning, picturing all these places, making a video that connected all those locations. It was really cool to be, one day, in the canyons, the next day, at the salt flats, and a week later, being in the snow, or back in the city.” Martin considers the setting as integral to the final video’s aesthetic, and an inspiration to his skating. “I’ll have a bunch of photos of the place we’re gonna film, and will be standing in front of a photo for hours to see what I can come up with,” he says. “But sometimes it’s very spontaneous, you go to a place and you come up with something totally different.” 

Skating Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats for Searching Sirocco was the biggest challenge Martin has faced so far. “On the video it looks way easy,” he laughs. “But when we got to the salt flats we stopped the car, and I went out with a skateboard to see how it felt, and I thought, there’s no way I can do any tricks here! I thought it was impossible. It’s hard to even roll five feet with a skateboard. But once I got used to it—it’s the same with everything, once you get used to it, no matter how hard it is, you’re gonna be able to do something.”

Martin gives props to YouTube for helping him gain an international audience, including a couple of skate scene legends who’d become his key backers. “I don’t know where my skating career would be if it wasn’t for YouTube!” he laughs. “After my first couple of videos with Brett Novak came out, it went crazy within a matter of days… It totally changed my life around.” It was via YouTube that Martin caught the attention of ex-Bones Brigade skate pro, and now, Canada’s largest skateboard distributor, Kevin Harris, who signed Martin up for a signature clothing range, and introduced him to skateboarding pioneer Stacy Peralta. “We Skyped and he told me how he wanted to get me to ride for Powell Peralta. Totally a dream come true, I couldn’t believe it! I grew up with Powell Peralta videos, idolizing (Powell Peralta-sponsored freestyle skaters) Rodney Mullen, Kevin Harris and Per Welinder…”

Like those legends — and their former Bones Brigade cohort Tony Hawk — despite skateboarding’s deleterious effects on the body, Martin can’t ever see himself quitting the deck. “Even if I can’t skate with my feet, if I was to lose my feet or something, I’d just work on my arms more and do more handstand tricks,” he says stoically. Like Matisse with his failing eyesight, or the deafened Beethoven, this artiste won’t let anything get in the way of sk8ing to cre8. 

Check out Kilian Martin's latest skate short on The Berrics.