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Interviews, Originals April 26, 2023May 11th, 2023

In Conversation with Pieter Retief

Interview by Robin Pailler | Photography by Jonathan Pinkhard

If you’ve ever been on a skate trip to South Africa, chances are you’ve crossed paths with Pieter.

From his roots in the northern suburbs of Cape Town in the early 00’s, skating and creating via the back roads, Pieter’s passion and commitment for skateboarding and the community has led him to becoming both an influential and integral figure for the DIY skate ethos in South Africa and beyond.

The recent rejuvenation for outdoor activity post-pandemic, coupled with Pieter’s skill and determination in growing local skateboarding communities has resulted in a string of recent builds. From slappy curbs on Tarwka Bay to skateparks in Pakistan. The former having been documented in Crocodile Smile, Jonathan Pinkhard‘s latest release, documenting a DIY skate trip through Lagos, Nigeria last year.

To celebrate the release we reached out to Pieter to discuss more.

For those that don’t know you. I wanted to ask about your DIY roots within skateboarding and how it’s evolved over time?

I guess the DIY aspect just started when I started skateboarding. Not to take it all the way back. But after school, the municipality agreed to give us this area where we skated and it was just an open space with no obstacles. So a friend and I kind of took the initiative to build things. He was more the builder guy and I kind of latched on. We just ended up building a bunch of stuff. But that’s where it sparked the idea to just build things. And I always enjoy working with my hands. I’m quite a practical person. I enjoy fixing things, whatever it is. I’m practical in that sense and I can see the need. So when skateboarders need something to skate and there’s nothing there, I enjoy providing that. But I guess the most recent DIY movements and being very active in that space started during covid. Where people were just locked in and no one could do anything. People went out and stocked up on toilet paper, water, beer etc. Whereas I went to the hardware store and bought bags of cement, sand stone, wood, plastic tubing and just dumped it all in the garage, I was like, ‘Sick! I’m gonna build stuff. I’m gonna go do this.’ And then started building slappy curbs. Then once we got those time slots in the morning, where we were allowed to exercise, between 6am-9am. We loaded the curbs on the back of my van. dumped them in the parking lot and then everyone just started coming together. We started skating the curbs, and no one could do slappies at the time and now dude, people are crazy. Look at Yann (Horowitz), look at Justus (Kotze). They’re killing it. So I mean, yeah, it started with concrete slappy curbs, just on the back of the van, to now where I’m aligning with with big brands and building DIY spaces, doing campaigns, all sorts of things. I’m currently working with an American company to build skateparks around the world. So that’s kind of where it started to now. From building a flat bar to building skateparks for a living. So I guess it evolved quite a bit. But the journey is long and is forever changing. Forever moving forward, you know? Wherever there’s a need, try and fulfil the need. Personally for myself and for the community.

So are you pretty much self taught?

Self taught, to a point. And then I joined the guys from The Shred to build the skatepark in Battery Park on the waterfront. They showed me a couple of technical things in terms of concrete finishing and stuff like that. That was around four years ago I think. So I took the knowledge that I gained there over the course of two months and then just applied it to every day and trying to share that with people as you go. Basic skills, basic concrete finishing etc. So I feel like it’s important that you have people that share and pass it on.

Do you ever encounter problems building obstacles within the city, especially spots without a permit?

Yeah, especially in South Africa. You do get a lot of authority problems and people that just want to kick you off for no reason. And to install something on a public space, you know you’re gonna have to probably do it illegally. But the way I went about the stuff I built, is to build it so strong and so heavy that you can install it in a way that doesn’t look like it was built on site. So I go for more of an installation approach, where the installation method is so permanent, that it is permanent. But I’m not on site, cutting into the ground, digging, bringing tools there. Everything is more of a strategic installation which isn’t easy to remove. But then again, you always end up in those spaces where people do kind of turn a blind eye. The spot under the bridge (Nelson Mandela Blvd) where there’s people camping out and selling drugs, maybe schedule it on the side there, or potentially in a space where there’s sports grounds where you can maybe chat to the manager, say  “Hey, listen, we want to do something small.” Add on a little bit extra, but make it look like it should belong there. So as long as it blends and looks aesthetically pleasing. That’s where you’re going to kind of get away with it. But if you’re gonna put a flat bar in the middle of the parking lot, or put in a kicker in, then it ain’t gonna fly. But if it’s a bench that looks like it should be there. And people can sit on it. That’s when it’s gonna work.

Moving on to Crocodile Smile. How did that project first come to life?

So I met Jomi (Marcus-Bello) who runs WAF, a brand in Nigeria, about six years ago and we kind of just stayed in touch. WAF do a lot of things in Nigeria, like skate activations, videos, events, things like that. They wanted to start this annual celebration of Go Skateboarding Day on the 21st of June. He put a crew together, he wants to make Nigeria the hub for African skaters coming together. So he got a bunch of skaters from all over and we just flew in in blindly, not knowing what we’re gonna do. We’re just gonna go celebrate Go Skateboarding Day. 

This is 2021 right?

Yes. So we did a 10 day trip, I ended up building some wooden obstacles for the activation day. It was a really cool skate trip and then we kind of all left. Went back a year later in 22’ and we evolved by making concrete obstacles that could live somewhere else and not just vanish into the city and be absorbed by the weather. Which pretty much means they go to shit, because that’s what happened last time. I’m not about things going to shit. So we built up concrete obstacles. Jomi had sent me a video of a skater on this island of Tarkwa Bay and was like “check out this space!” As soon as I saw that clip, I was like, “It’s done! That’s where we’re  going. That’s where we’re building.” And that’s what we did. We started something there knowing people will be drawn to it. So we went there, went and checked out the slab. We built the obstacles for Go Skateboarding Day and added a few extras. And then took it to the island. With that comes, you know, getting authority or getting the permission to build. Everything is just a conversation away in Nigeria. You just need to speak to the right people and in the right manner. So we managed to get permission to do something there. And this is the start of a DIY spot on Tarkwa Bay.

How easy was it sourcing material out there? Was it tricky?

It was tricky. My idea was to get there a week early to start sourcing materials and get things together for the build. I think I sat around for about six and a half days and on the last half day everything happened. We went to the market. Got the materials. Got the welder. Got the grinder. Got the most sketchiest extension cords that would just end up shocking you every time you tried to do something. And we basically smashed it out in two nights. Barely slept. Just built all the obstacles. So you kind of do nothing for a while and then you do everything. But sourcing the materials was relatively easy because you go into a steel market and everything’s there. It’s just negotiating a price and and a little bit of hustle. But we had a good squad and it all went well. Once we had the materials, it was straight into production phase. Logistically, you just got to be patient. If you’re in Nigeria, things can move fast and things can move slow. But at the end of the day, it’s gonna happen. That’s guaranteed. Nothing was impossible and nothing was logistically a nightmare. It’s just a timing thing and being a little bit patient. ‘The truck will come. The guy will come. He’s not here now but he’ll be back later.’ Those kind of things. And that you kind of embrace after a while.

How does Lagos compare to other major African cities?

The first time I went to Nigeria, it was super chaotic and I didn’t really know how we were gonna go about skating street spots. Because things are off. The ground is rough and you get kicked out everywhere. But the hustle and bustle and the fast paced wildness of Lagos is something that I haven’t really experienced, other than maybe, downtown Johannesburg. In terms of the amount of people that move in and out of a block. But Lagos is fun, the people are super accommodating and super friendly. Everyone’s out to make a buck. No one’s just sitting around and waiting for a handout, otherwise you’re just gonna fade away. You gotta hustle for your shit out there. You got to make something happen. And everyone understands that, so everyone is on that mission. And people want to know what you’re about. I didn’t feel threatened or unsafe at all. I just really enjoyed moving around. And because there’s so many different cultures and different languages spoken in Lagos, the common language that people kind of go to is English. So bizarrely, you’re moving around and you kind of understand most of the conversations around you. Which is something I’m not really been accustomed to, even in South Africa. If you’re in downtown Cape Town or downtown Johannesburg, English isn’t really the go to language, so you don’t really understand most of the things around you. Whereas in Lagos, it was quite a surprise for me to be able to converse with everyone so easily.

Tell us about Tarkwa Bay.

So Tarkwa Bay is this sheltered beach which is kind of an entry port into Lagos. There’s a strong military presence due to a lot of oil pipes and stuff that run into the ocean close by. So you kinda got to deal with that and be respectful towards your surroundings. You can’t just go in there and be like, “Hey, I’m here to build this DIY. It’s good. It’s for the community. We’re doing this so get with the programme.” It’s more like, “Hey, would it be cool if we build something small? What’s happening in this space?” you know? You gotta go and meet that military chief. Talk the talk a little bit, make friends, rub shoulders a little bit and it’s all good. That’s kind of what happened in this instance anyway. Had to deal with a little bit of that. But now it’s done, it’s all good. We have access to that space and can build there. But it’s always about remaining respectful to the area and acknowledging the surroundings.

And there’s a strong surf community there too right?

Yeah there’s a quite a famous wave in Tarkwa Bay and all the guys and girls there surf. So there’s definitely a link between surfing and skating on the island. And skateboarding’s taken quite a back seat because you know, you need a board, you need a space and now we’ve started this space. We’ve built things in that space, so hopefully that will kind of grow a little bit and there’ll be a couple of boards there that the locals can rely on it. But if the wave’s good then everyone will be surfing. But I can definitely foresee a skate and surf collaboration further down the line. 100%.

How did you go about getting people such as Chenai (Gwandure), Kyle (Keshwa) and filmer Jonathan Pinkhard on the trip?

So for this particular trip, a friend of ours, Mosako (Chalashika), a filmmaker from Botswana, who has good ties with WAF, the brand in Nigeria. He knows everyone in Johannesburg and Cape Town because he’s spent time studying photography in Cape Town. So he was kind of the link to putting the whole crew together. He was the mastermind touching base with everyone. And then Jonathan, another filmmaker from Johannesburg had been to Lagos three years before, filming with Mosako for a Go Skateboarding Day event and activation. So he’d already been there and the journey kind of evolved into a skate tour. And now potentially, we can do something bigger in 2023. But it’s moving forward in so many ways. The production of what we’re trying to do out there is growing. The brand’s growing. We’re building a skatepark in downtown Lagos in Freedom Park. So there’s a lot of things happening. But I would say Mosako was the link to putting the entire squad together.

There seems to be quite a burgeoning skate scene within Africa as a whole. You look at what you guys are doing in Lagos. Freedom skate park in Accra, Ghana. And obviously, South Africa too. Does it feel like the skateboarding scene is growing in Africa?

I think it is growing. But if we’re talking about the growth of skateboarding in say Nigeria, more so than South Africa, they’re still quite conservative in the way that they think about sports and the structure of what sport is. If you take football for example, there’s a big structure to it. There’s, federations involved, there’s coaches, there’s a team, eleven a side etc. Whereas skateboarding is loose, it’s free. No one knows what it is. They don’t understand when someone comes skating down the road or is lurking outside a shop and then a guy whips out a camera. It’s like, “what are you doing?” They don’t understand that concept. So what the guys at WAF are also doing is trying to educate people a little bit more. So they have the store, they’re trying to do events at the store, they have talks, they release videos, and they recently turned two people pro for the brand. So with that comes, in my sense, slightly more structure to what skateboarding is, like, ‘we have two professionals that skate for us.’ And I completely back that 100%, to go with that approach. Whereas some people might say, “But how can you make someone pro within a year? It’s not that easy in America.” But it’s not America, we’re trying to push skateboarding in a different way. And you got to do what you got to do, to make it happen. And I feel like the guys in Nigeria are on a good path to do that. And they’re super inclusive in the arts, in music. I mean, it’s so small. There’s guys on BMX and rollerblades there, because everyone’s in the same pool trying to do something and you have to work together. And you see that when you go to places like Lagos. I think that it’s definitely gonna pop off once the skatepark’s built and there’s a hub. Look at Ghana and Freedom Skatepark. That’s where people go to skate, that’s the hub. If you to Ghana to skate, you’re probably gonna end up at Freedom skatepark. You go to Nigeria skateboarding, you’ll probably be linked with WAF. But hopefully, further down the line, you gonna get linked with the skatepark in the heart of Lagos.

I assume you’re gonna head back to Nigeria in June?

Yes, so we’re definitely gonna go back to celebrate Go Skateboarding Day, do an activation, do a skate tour and then we’ll go back to Tarkwa Bay. Add on to the existing DIY space that we started. We want to do more transition on both sides of the slab. Some of the guys are very surf oriented so transition is definitely the way, especially with the younger kids and the girls that are skating, You want something fun, you know? You want to link the space. So we’ll be back building some obstacles. To what scale? I don’t know. But we want to build a bowl. Either way there’s definitely gonna be a vibe there. And I think hopefully, we can do some sort of activation to celebrate Go Skateboarding Day in the Nigerian way and make the island a bit of a draw card for people. Especially if there’s waves as well. There’s definitely cool opportunities there. Just to touch base with the locals and see what they do. For me, it’s more, ‘let’s brainstorm something together and see what we can achieve together’. I like to build stuff, facilitate that space. But I also like to see what activations we can do in helping to promote the space. Whether it be a skate program or an event of surf lessons. As long as you leave something behind and invest in sustainability and a continuation of the programme or the initiative. That’s kind of what I would like to do, so I need to go back, I can’t just leave it.

Obviously there are brands out there supporting but brands naturally have a capitalist mindset. What do you think brands can do to help elevate skateboarding in Africa?

I think a lot of brands want a return in their investment or initiative, whether it’s brand awareness or some sort of a brand message. It’s a tricky one because we want to build facilities, we want to build a skatepark and support the local scenes. Brands are not necessarily construction companies. They don’t want to put budget towards the build of skatepark but they’ll put budget towards a marketing initiative that then supports the build of the skatepark. You have to wing it a little bit in a way that means facilities are being built, but with brands offering some form of support. You kind of have to massage the whole thing. But I think brands can definitely support financially in terms of getting facilities on the go, and just getting people from all over to actually visit the space and interact with say, Lagos. Interact with the skateboarding scene there. If you do that then it opens your eyes and opens up to what is possible. Put your feet on ground level. Go there. See what’s happening there. So I would encourage brands to support the build of a skatepark in Lagos, to support the initiative in Tarkwa Bay and to do some sort of event and activation so people can see what’s happening there. People from all over Africa and the world coming together in Lagos and in Tarkwa Bay. That’s would I would like see.

And you’ve studied and worked within marketing right? So does that give you the foresight in terms of seeking out sponsorship etc.?

100%. I come from that background and I worked for Adidas for six years in the brand marketing space. I was heading up the skate programme there and working alongside the brand manager for Adidas Originals. So coming from that space, where I understand what a brands needs and being able to speak the language. Where everyone’s happy with what they’re trying to achieve within this space, certainly helps. And there’s brands that obviously want to invest in Africa. I know that they want to invest in Nigeria. Everyone wants to crack Nigeria. But the thing is there’s also a number involved, you know? Sales. People want to make sales. You can’t just come in and be like, ‘cool, brand awareness’. You need to sell product y’know? But there’s so many ways to go about it. Nigeria is definitely the hotspot. I play a role in this, but I’m not like the lead. Nigeria is the lead. Lagos is the lead. The skateboarders from Nigeria, they are the lead. I’m just a component within it. That’s my role in all of this. And I enjoy that. I just wanna continue following that path.

©Wasted Talent Magazine
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