Living in Toulouse, France and being passionate about skateboarding, Jean Claude Geraud invested a lot of time and energy into discovering different skate routes and cultures around the world. One day, he came across a video on skateboarding in the Ugandan countryside in Africa and was stricken by the poor conditions of their infrastructure. That was the moment that gave birth to the association Learn & Skate.
Launched in September 2012 with the help of Richard Schenten, Learn & Skate set out to develop the practice of skateboarding in disadvantaged places in the world. Initially, the association aimed at providing the opportunity for young people interested in skateboarding to develop their practice as well as encouraging them to pursue their dreams. Along the way, they realized the real potential of their project.
After building a skate park in the Ugandan countryside, Learn & Skate decided to stage their next project in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. In order to fund their activities, the association collaborates with a range of international street artists to produce customized skate decks that are then auctioned online.
PRØHBTD chatted with Jean Claude to find out more about this wonderful initiative. In the interview, Jean Claude discusses the birth of the association, its activities, the societal impact of their projects and the connection between skateboarding and street art.
The organization Learn & Skate was founded in 2012 with a goal to develop skateboard culture and education in disadvantaged places of the world. How did this come to be?
Initially, the Learn & Skate association was called Roule Petit Ougandais. I created it in 2012 with the help of one of my best friends, Richard Schenten, but now I manage it alone. The goal of the association is to develop the practice of skateboarding in underdeveloped countries, in order to give local youth a hope and a way out, compared to hanging out in the street surrounded by poverty and violence. I am a skateboarder from Toulouse, but now I have increasingly less time for [skating] because this project and life circumstances are taking all of it.
In 2012, I came across the skate site Agoride where I saw a video of young [kids] from Uganda skating in the Ugandan countryside. They skated with very basic skateboarding equipment, and this shocked me. At the time, I wasn’t working, and my life was dedicated to skateboarding and the good life. Me and my friend Richard were sponsored by a local skate shop and the brand Insight. So, I decided to get in touch with one of the creators of this video, the Swiss photographer Yann Gross, who had met with these skaters and made a report on them. I am very grateful to him. After exchanging Facebook messages and emails, he put me in touch with local youth so I could help them.
Once these young people informed me they needed skateboarding equipment, I immediately contacted brands such as Vans, Jart Skateboard, Okla and Fari Basic to support my association and donate the equipment which I could send to Africa. They took great interest in the project and joined my cause.
The first package I sent was 25kg of boards, wheels, bearings, clothes and shoes. It was very heavy and very expensive.
After sending the equipment at my own expense for a while, I realized that the majority of my money was going into this project and that I couldn’t continue like that in the long run. But I was determined to find a way. In each package, we would have to send bribes to the Ugandan customs. Because of the country’s corruption, they would always ask locals for money when they came to pick up their packages. Without the bribe, the packages would just have been kept by the customs. I witnessed this with my own eyes when I visited Uganda in 2016.
What are the activities of the organization?
We base our activities on [building] skateboarding awareness in underdeveloped countries. We organize events and exhibitions of skate decks custom-designed by international artists. These boards are exhibited in skate contests, galleries, art fairs, etc. so that people can get immersed in our actions and support us.
The boards are then auctioned online to expand our target audience and visibility as well as our distribution network. The funds are used to build skate parks and turn our projects into reality. It’s crowdfunding of some sort but organized in complete autonomy.
We have organized eight exhibitions since 2014: at Galerie Agama in Toulouse in 2014, at Quartier Général in Paris in 2015, at Swinton Galerie in Madrid in 2016, at Kolly Gallery in Switzerland in 2017, at Galerie Concha de Nazelle in Toulouse in 2017, at Urvanity Art Fair in Madrid in 2018, at Made Hotel in New York in 2018 and at Pasai x Biarritz at Wheels n Waves in 2018. These events raise people’s awareness of skateboarding practices and its values, but also of urban art. Generating enthusiasm among artists, the project attracted more than 300 [designers] who have donated customized boards. This is huge. We are in an ongoing search for potential artists, even though many approach us now spontaneously.
In the majority of these shows, we create an exchange with young and old by encouraging them to become artists for a few hours and participate in drawing workshops where they paint on skateboards, just like professional artists who participate in the project. After these workshops, they take their creations home. We teach them different techniques used in urban art and talk to them about our activities.
In the core of Learn & Skate is the notion that skateboarding is a vehicle for empowerment. What was the societal impact of your projects so far?
The social impact of the project was just impressive because it brings together many different people without whom it wouldn’t exist—artists, collectors and people who share our story with their friends. Everyone participates to expand the reach of the project.
At the site, young skaters are immersed in a new community where they follow a set of skateboarding codes, values and lifestyles. By relating themselves to something positive, they gain hope for succeeding in life. It gets them away from the violence and misery that exists in these countries. This is the reason why I’m doing this.
This adventure allowed me to meet great people and realize that the phenomenon of solidarity exists—that we could succeed if we only try, even if it is not easy. I give my best, and we will see the result in a few years. Unless I surrender, but I don’t think I will.
Could you tell us something about the experience of the Uganda project and the relationships with the local community?
It was a very complicated experience, especially when you are 7,000 kilometers away from the place, but it had great results, even if the distance has not made things easy. I visited Uganda in April 2016 for the first time to make physical contact and see all the things they needed on the spot. Upon my arrival, I saw that they skate on a basketball court covered with very rough tar. It’s not the best surface for skating, due to the risk of injuring your skin. I got to experience this tar, and I can assure you it hurts the arms (laughs). So after that, we decided to build a skate park in Uganda. After several auction sales, we acquired some land and had the necessary budget to build it. It was initially built by locals but further adjusted by professionals.
The relationship with locals on site was superb but also tiring because of the differences in our cultures. But it was cool. On the other hand, as soon as I came back to France and the money came into play, the tensions began to appear. But this was resolved. It is never easy running the association, especially when you are helping people who don’t have anything.
I am also an apprentice in this project. I learn every day and progress quickly. It is as if I was in school, except that I am both a teacher and a student.
Your next project will be realized in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia this August. Tell us more about the project. Why Ulaanbaatar?
I am super happy and excited about this project. Mongolia has always served as a source of inspiration for me—I love the culture, the nomadic people, the fact that it is super far from Toulouse… I am enthusiastic.
Our goal is to build a skate park in Ulaanbaatar, and if we raise enough funds, we will also build a bookstore in a nomadic house on the outskirts of the city. But for now, we still have a lot of funds to raise.
All your projects are conceived in dialogue with the local community and local organizations. In what way do they contribute to these projects?
Indeed, the project is designed as an interaction and is meant to be shared between different cultures and between the locals and us. Hopefully it would be possible in the future to bring the people we help to France and allow them to discover the world and create a different vision of Europe, their own vision.
The locals contribute with helping the young ones with their education and skateboarding practices as well as with the good distribution of the skate equipment. After learning to skate, the goal is for them to participate in the promotion of skateboarding in their cities by raising awareness, including more youth in the project, getting them away from the streets and giving them hope. In return, the leaders of local associations must motivate young people to go to school.
Of course, during our auctions, they spread the information so that [mass numbers] of people are informed and can bid on the works. And finally, they must facilitate relations with the local government since I don’t live on site. It facilitates our actions on the spot, especially the feasibility of the final project—the construction of the skate park.
These customized skate decks which you are auctioning are created in collaboration with acclaimed street artists from all around the world. How did you come up with the idea to combine skateboarding and art in this way? Who has contributed to the initiative so far?
This idea came to me when I realized that I would not be able to continue financing the project myself. I was in search of a clever idea to raise the funds and [sustain] the project. After some brainstorming, the first thing I said to myself was that I had to focus on the skateboard—since it was the basis of the project—and make it part of something attractive and interesting, but foremost creative. That is when urban art came in. I love this art, and a lot of people are starting to take interest in it and collect it. So I realized that collectors would like this kind of a project, and everybody wins in this process: the people we help, our association, the collectors and the artists. It is a virtuous circle. In each of my projects, I try to add this value of fairness to everyone involved. In addition to the notions of sharing and exchange, it is something which is very important to me.
On the occasion of the first exhibition in Toulouse in 2014, I asked local artists to make works on boards so that we can exhibit them, auction them and raise funds to help the Ugandan skaters. This first exhibition was supported by Tilt, Der, Tober, SupaKitch, Odo, Little Madi, J Barbanègre, Alx and many others.
Soon after, more artists joined, including JonOne, Case Maclaim, Kashink, Jef Aérosol, Peeta, Amarapordios, Maye, Hopare, Bust the Drip, Superstop, Siker, Babs, MonkeyBird, Sen2 Figueroa, Tuco, Millo, Vhils, Buff Monster, Flying Fortress, Speedy Graphito, Gen Atem, Nuno Viegas, Fenx, T-Kid, CES, Zephyr, Pure Evil, Nick Walker, Martin Whatson, Alex Senna, Hien, Sidka, Katrin Fridriks, Steve Olson, Meggs, Sandra Chevrier, Jaune, El Xupet Negre, Daze, Futura 2000, among others. More than 250 artists took part, and I hope even more will join the cause.
You recently had a major exhibition of your skate decks in New York accompanied by an online charity auction. What was the response from the street art and skateboarding community?
Yes, indeed, we organized an exhibition at Made Hotel in NYC this May with the help of Eddie Purev, one of my contacts and a president of the Mongolian organization we are collaborating with, Uukhai Skateboarding Association. The auction took place on Paddle8, who did a lot of work.
There was a great response from the artists, some even came to the opening. This exhibition had the best lineup so far. Legendary artists have supported me in this project and will continue to support me. I was like a kid honestly… like in a dream which became reality. I haven’t met many skaters in NYC, but in any case, the project was followed by the skateboarding community since Steve Olson is now our ambassador. The great Steve Olson Z-Boys… wicked!
What are your next steps? How can people take part in this initiative?
My next step is to continue to develop my project so that it gains more visibility and grows. The best thing would be if I could continue doing this my whole life and that we become an NGO involved in promoting skateboarding as well as building schools to promote education in disadvantaged countries worldwide. The next step is building a skate park in Mongolia, which was planned for August 2018. But I have not raised the necessary funds yet, so we will postpone the realization for spring 2019. It would be impossible to do this in winter because of the icy cold spreading from Siberia to Mongolia.
But I am going to Mongolia in August anyways to visit the local authorities and prepare and facilitate the future creation of the skate park for little Mongolians. I will also meet with the people from an association called the Ger Community Mapping Center, which helps disadvantaged youth to access education in Mongolia. We will join our efforts in creating a bookstore there. This association brings together people who live in a village on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, that’s why I wanted to help them.
We are always looking for more investors, foundations, patrons, brands so that we can raise more funds and make our projects a reality.