GRLSWIRL sparks a movement to reinvent skate culture

By Audrey Cleo Yap

Photo by Annabelle Sadler

It’s a Tuesday evening in late January at the Venice Skate Park, right around sunset, and the sky is ablaze, a mélange of purple and orange — the kind of backdrop to the palm trees, sandy beach and iconic bowls of Dogtown that begs for a hashtag no filter.

Wheels grind against the concrete, mostly from young male skateboarders attempting tricks with varying degrees of success. There are expletives and open bottles and videos being shot on iPhones.

A half hour passes. The dull glow from sunset is replaced by the harsh lighting of street lamps. And while the majority of the remaining skaters at the 16,000-square-foot beachfront park are of the XY-chromosome ilk, a few women — of various ages and ethnicities — are trickling in, milling around one lamp in particular.

It’s the designated meeting spot for GRLSWIRL’s twice-monthly group skate, a regular gathering (weather allowing) that started almost a year ago to the day.

Co-founded by nine local women, GRLSWIRL has grown from a local women’s skateboarding collective into a social media-driven force with aspirations far beyond the 310 area code.

It all started with a chance meeting at a party hosted by co-founder Kelsey Harkin, a clothing designer, in 2018.

“We all kind of gravitated towards each other that night and realized that each of us liked to skate but didn’t have any girls to skate with,” co-founder Sarah Tobi, who goes by Tobi Ann, says of meeting initial co-founders Lindsey Klucik, Lucy Osinski and Shannon Moss. “They had a crew on their phone, like a text group called ‘GRLSWIRL,’ and they were like, ‘Come skate with us.’ So, we skated one night on the boardwalk.”

Soon after, the group — some of whom had only been skateboarding for a year or less — started recruiting every female skater in their vicinity to join them, which included co-founders Danielle Schwartz, Myriah Marquez, Monroe Alvarez and Julia Ama. They held their first official group skate on Feb. 7 of last year.

“That night we were like, ‘Let’s make an Instagram.’ And it’s just grown organically into this,” says Tobi, gesturing to the crowd of women gathering around her.

“Going on the boardwalk — I mean now we’re used to it, but it was just like a force of women,” says Harkin of the inaugural group skate. “People were like, ‘Whoo! Chick skaters! Oh my God!’”

Tobi adds with a laugh, “It all started with a skate and an Instagram.”

The reach of the latter can’t be underestimated: With more than 40,000 followers on the social media platform, Osinski says it’s how GRLSWIRL is quickly growing into a movement around the world. They regularly get messages and tags from skateboarders based everywhere from mega-cities like Dubai to tiny provinces in Italy.

“Our goal is to create chapters in different countries and cities so girls can have that,” Osinski explains.

In many ways, GRLSWIRL is primed for social media success: Each of the co-founders is undeniably photogenic, as if plucked from a surf-skate lifestyle brand’s summer catalogue. The Instagram feed is filled with stylish photos of them on their longboards — most of them by El Segundo-based brand Carver, whom the group has partnered with and will be releasing a special line of boards — against a backdrop of palm trees.

They look equal parts boardwalk Betties and the bad-ass California girl gang your mother warned you about (and you wanted to join anyway).

But don’t be fooled, say the co-founders. They’re not just doing this for the likes.

“People look at Venice Beach and, for us, to be born out of that and skate down these streets and down this boardwalk is prolific in our eyes,” says Osinski.

“And we’re authentic. It’s no bullshit,” adds Harkin. “This is who we are, and half of us live not even half a block off of the boardwalk. We’re not just creating an image. We are the image.”

Social media is also how skaters like Jane Lee, 43, know when and where to get their swirl on with the group. Clad in a white and navy sailor’s hat and a crew neck sweater, Lee drove up from Torrance to participate.

“I don’t come to skate parks like this. I usually skate on the boardwalk in Redondo. I don’t even think about going down the half-pipe,” says Lee, a small business owner. “Maybe if these girls encourage me, maybe. I’m super pumped.”

Other skaters this night include a 15-year-old from Sherman Oaks, a 31-year-old from Los Feliz and a real estate agent (age 30). They had a skater in her 60s show up at previous skates.

Shredding to show off isn’t the point of GRLSWRL, although it is sometimes a consequence of women skateboarders feeling supported by other women, says Harkin.

“It’s about just pushing yourself, trying your best and motivating each other to be a better skater, person, better friend. Be a better you, I guess. We’re all at different levels, but now the founders — everyone is going in the bowl and trying new stuff,” she says.

Ama says having a tribe like GRLSWIRL not only takes the sting out of going to male-dominated skate parks, but also prompts other female skateboarders to bring their dusty longboards out of retirement, like one of her middle-aged co-workers did at Ama’s urging.

“We’re inspiring girls to buy boards and show up. We’re inspiring people who used to skate look at their boards and say, ‘Hmmmm,’” she says.

A year in, the ladies of GRLSWIRL are something of local legends, partnering with area restaurants and bars like The Townhouse & Del Monte Speakeasy and The Waterfront for events or beers after group skates. GRLSWIRL held a sold-out Sadie Hawkins dance on Feb. 1 at vintage clothing shop The Honey House.

“We’re like the local baseball team,” Osinski says.

But their goals reach beyond local. There is talk of merch, development of a TV show and releasing a branded line of skateboards with Carver. Starting March 16, Sao Acai in Culver City will feature a customized GRLSWIRL protein bowl with charcoal and a dark acai base topped with berries and flowers, symbolizing a mix of masculine and feminine. And at the end of February, GRLSWIRL went global in perhaps its most ambitious philanthropic effort yet: a trip to the Mexican border to teach young women and girls living at migrant camps how
to skateboard.

“In our movement, it’s just bringing everybody down to being human,” says Klucik. “If you have a skateboard, that’s the connection.”

To kick off the first group skate of 2019, the co-founders and their cohort circle up for Osinski to lead a stretch set to The Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” playing from a Bluetooth speaker.

Ama, a tall, striking brunette, hops on her board and starts skating in circles, joking that they should start a secret GRLSWIRL hand signal: throwing up a “shaka” and then turning it sideways like it’s a phone.

“Who is it? It’s GRLSWIRL,” says Ama, laughing. She reminds new skaters —20 of the 30 who show up are skating with the group for the first time — to sign liability waivers. Two weeks later, around 40 skaters would turn out for the second group skate of the year.

“Pretty pretty pretty girl” Mick Jagger sings, almost tauntingly, from the speaker.

Following the group stretch, each woman grabs her board and heads down to the boardwalk. They’ll be skating to the pier and back to convene at The Townhouse afterwards to watch a live band. They hop on their boards, some in helmets and pads, others in baggy jeans and hoodies, and, almost in unison, kick-push into the night, the unmistakable whir of wheels against concrete. The future (and present) of Venice skate culture, it would appear, is undoubtedly female.

***

The next GRLSWIRL group skate is on Tuesday, March 12. Follow @grlswirl on Instagram or visit grlswirl.com for information about future group skates and other events.

Contact writer Audrey Cleo Yap at audreycleo.com and photographer Ashley Randall at ashleyrandall-photography.com.

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