Women claim their place in Venice skateboarding culture

Venice is home to the first GRLSWIRL chapter, a women-founded inclusive skate collective that empowers female skaters.

By Bridgette M. Redman

When Stephanie Wise first started skateboarding in Venice, she was one of only three female skaters. Now, with the advent of the girl skating group GRLSWIRL, she’s in good company.

Skating has become so popular amongst women that Wise and fellow skater, Briana King, were featured in the May 2021 issue of British Vogue, modeling the latest styles and showing off their hottest moves.

Venice Beach is where skate culture was born — and it is also the home to the first GRLSWIRL chapter. Other chapters are in New York and San Diego.

“It is a lot more accepted today for women, especially in our area,” Wise said.

As recently as five years ago, Wise said it was a lot harder to be accepted, especially if you weren’t highly competitive. It was common then for people to get mad at skaters who weren’t extremely good.

Now though, GRLSWIRL is open to skaters of any age and experience. They are, according to their website, “as welcoming and warm as the Southern California weather.”

Wise said most of them ride carver boards, which is the board she started skating on and how she fell in love with that aspect of old Venice.

Now 20 years old, Wise started skating on her 9th birthday when a friend gave her a skateboard as a birthday gift. Her dad had been an active part of the skateboarding culture, but was at first reluctant to have his daughter join him. However, once she started, they would skate together, first around the neighborhood or the golf course, and then at the park.

“We would practice surf style,” Wise said. “We would work on power slides and turning into waves and the motion of surfing. I started loving it, so I’d go on my own with my music and my headphones and surf the streets.”

Skating, she pointed out, was created to improve surfing skills when the waves were bad. People would pretend they were surfing on the streets. It’s what ushered in the whole era of Venice’s Dogtown that changed skateboarding for everyone around the world.

By Wise’s freshman year of high school, she was competing in surfing and used skateboarding to practice.

“I really started going every day with my headphones and skating around the neighborhood,” Wise said. “It was my safe space to do my own thing and progress and have my alone time.”

She’d alternate between listening to rap and fast-paced music and chill alternative surf sounds.

“Skating styles are really affected by the music you’re listening to,” Wise said.

Even as skating in Venice has become more focused on the streets and being super technical, Wise said she remains focused on the old Venice Beach surfing style.

“There are so many different ways to skate,” Wise said. “Someone can be a great street skater but horrible at the pools. Another could be really flowy in the pools. Everyone has their own way to skate. There are always places to create.”

Pioneering skating culture for other women

When Wise first started skating the park, she would go super early in the morning when there were only three other people there — one a roller blader. Unlike the skaters at later times, these two men and one woman were very inclusive and helped to bring her into the culture.

Her presence helped bring others in. She talked about how one of her friends told her that she thought the skate park was only for guys until she saw Wise there and realized that she could skate too.

“I’m pretty feminine,” Wise said. “I think skating before was a tomboy thing and I don’t really look that way. I feel that people watching me skate realized it’s accessible to every type of person. It doesn’t have to be super-duper serious. You can love it for what it is and what you can do.”

Wise values knowing what you want and pursuing it. Skating and surfing rely on determination and self-belief. She recalled having a vision when she was younger of who she wanted to be from watching skating movies and seeing her dad surf.

“If you put your time into becoming the surfer you want to be or the skater you want to be, you will get there,” Wise said.

“With skating, every day I’m still learning. I’m trying to push myself to get better. The really cool thing about skating and surfing is that they are such an independent sport. People can help, but it’s really a mind game. Once you understand how to control the thoughts you are thinking and organize them, then you are able to do the things you want to do.”

Wise said she now finds a balance between being serious and enjoying it in a peaceful way. Being a skater has taught her to be strong and to work past her injuries.

“You get so injured when you push yourself,” Wise said. “You’re falling on concrete, not water. I’ve learned the right time to push myself and the right time not to push myself.”

Some of the external and societal pressures that women feel are what Wise said caused many women to hesitate when it came to skating. Skaters are likely to going to injure themselves and she started to notice the way injuries affect parts of her body. For women, she said, there is a desire to be beautiful, whereas few guys feel that way.

“Women are afraid of hurting themselves,” Wise said. “No one wants to have huge lumps on their hips or break their legs. Guys don’t think about that and women do. Women are very logical. It’s really cool that women are easing into the sport in their own way.”

For her, she chooses to learn things slowly so she doesn’t get hurt. She also loves having more women who skate because they understand her concerns and she can relate to them.

“In the beginning I felt alone, now that there are so many girls, it’s awesome,” Wise said.

She is pleased to see that the culture has become more inclusive and more people are finding skating accessible. Women are even starting to do it at a young age so that by the time they are her age they are amazing.

“It’s been really cool seeing so many little girls, maybe six or eight, skate the park and just drop into the big bowl,” Wise said, adding that often these young girls are more confident than she is. “There is no age to skating. I can be friends with someone 6 or 60 years old. It changes the way you view people. You just respect everyone and their soul and who they are as a person.”

Skating onto the pages of Vogue Magazine

The Vogue shoot came about almost by happenchance. Wise’s father was talking about how she skates and surfs and that their family goes back four generations in Venice. The person he was speaking to said his friend was scouting for Vogue. Wise submitted and they called her in for an interview, asking her all about Venice.

“They wanted to have the shoot be super core to Venice and with me growing up here and my dad and his dad being a part of Venice, I feel really at home here,” Wise said. “They wanted me to be a part of the project because I represented the skater/surfer/artist — everything that Venice has to offer.”

They then asked Wise if she knew of other female skaters and she recommended her friend and fellow skater, King, who had been modeling for 17 years. The two were picked for the shoot.

They arrived early in the morning so they could get their hair and makeup done, but by 11 a.m. when they started the shoot, it began to rain so hard that they closed off the skatepark.

“I was so bummed that I didn’t get to skate there,” Wis said. “They were like, ‘Let’s go to this side street on the boardwalk.’ We’re skating in the rain and I’m totally sliding out — it was hard to skate.”

However, she said the experience was fantastic despite the challenges of weather. They tried a couple different locations and the shot that they used of her in the magazine was from the boardwalk — the place where she skates from her house to the beach.

“It was like I had been training my whole life,” Wise said. “I was super in touch with the cameras. I felt so at peace.”

She said King was doing all sorts of tricks while she was riding her Carver in a progressive and cruisy way. The Vogue editors edited their picture together for what Wise felt was a very cool shot.

They also got to change outfits several times and cycled through several designer clothes including pieces by Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci. Wise even got to model some of her own brand of clothes. She hand paints clothing from hats to shirts as part of her Graveyard Garage brand (graveyard-garage.com).

“They wanted to use my clothes,” Wise said. “I brought everything and they chose the pants. That was super sick. They credited me too, which was really awesome.”

Skating into the heart of Venice

Venice remains the place that Wise wants to be; she doesn’t feel at home anywhere else. She tried living in Long Beach while going to school and found that she missed the boardwalk and all the people in Venice.

“Artistic people surrounding me and everyone has such good vibes — even if they are not good vibes, they are adding to it in some way,” Wise said. “There’s no place like Venice. It really has this energy to it. It’s loud and fun with always something happening. If I want to surf, I can surf. If I want to skate, I can skate. If I want to hang out with interesting people or if I want to hang out with the homeless — I can have any conversation.”

Wise’s connections span generations from her peers to friends of her father who are constantly around. She goes down to the beach and can see a thousand people that she knows. Everyone, Wise said, feels like family.

There were changes during COVID-19 with everyone staying away for a while. Wise said she’d often have the skate park to herself and it was the first time in her life when there were only locals in Venice, all the tourists and visitors were gone.
Now, though, people have started to return.

“There is always someone who brings a smile to my face when I go to the beach,” Wise said. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

Follow Wise and King on Instagram: @stephanie.wise @brianaking