Despite being born in 2000, 21-year-old rollerblading influencer JoJo Velasquez has always said he’s a “result of the 1990s.” “It was the pioneering age of aggressive rollerblading, and when my mom and dad met,” he tells me.
It was also when rollerblading officially went mainstream, as evidenced by the 1998 Disney Channel sensation Brink!. Professional rollerbladers were, for the first time ever, making steady incomes. Kids were gliding through the streets. Velasquez’s father and others like him competed in major rollerblading competitions like the X Games and the Gravity Games.
Some say this was the result of infighting between extreme sports. Eighteen-year-old rollerblading influencer Benji Nenno, who works at an inline skate shop in Toronto, tells me that skateboarders were losing profits to the 1990s rollerblading surge, which set off a smear campaign. “Pro skateboarders and the industry behind them belittled rollerbladers with homophobic insults,” he says — namely, “fruitbooter.” As a May article in SKI Magazine describes, during the early 2000s, Big Brother skateboarding magazine “distributed fruitbooter stickers and sold T-shirts that intertwined the gay pride flag with the Rollerblade logo [Rollerblade is a brand of inline skates]. The magazine also ran an infamous feature where they ‘hunted’ the most recognizable rollerblader of the time, Arlo Eisenberg, in a spoof of Steve Irwin’s Crocodile Hunter show.”
It wasn’t just a joke, either — throughout the 1980s and 1890s, multiple professional skateboarders went to prison for beating (and even killing) gay men.
From there, the sentiment spread — even Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” said “no” to rollerblading in a national TV ad — and rollerbladers were run out of local skate parks around the country. “These comments affected the public’s perception of rollerblading greatly, and rollerblading numbers started to dwindle,” Nenno says, adding that violence wasn’t uncommon between skateboarders and rollerbladers at the time. “Rollerblading was removed from the X Games, and it was all downhill from there. In the end, it was about money.”
As a result, rollerblading went underground. Adamant rollerbladers kept blading, but mostly in the shadows. Rollerbladers started calling the sport “aggressive” inline skating, possibly as an attempt to distance it from homoerotic connotations, but the damage was already done.
However, over the past couple years, an unlikely collaboration between the coronavirus and TikTok has inspired many to dust off their old rollerblades. “The pandemic has greatly affected rollerblading,” says Nenno. He explains that the strong desire to get outside during prolonged quarantines saw many “skaters from the 1990s rekindling their love for the sport.”
As far as TikTok’s influence, the numbers speak for themselves: Velasquez has one million followers, and Nenno has well over 200,000, all of whom tune in for their sweet rollerblading skills and antics. “I love to do crazy tricks, stunts, games and dances on my rollerblades, and I never had the outlet to share those things until TikTok came around,” Velasquez says.
The return of rollerblading isn’t limited to social media, either. “We’re seeing skate sales up by 200 [and even 300] percent, competitions being hosted and communities on the rise,” Velasquez says. “We’re seeing people dancing, strolling along the beach, doing tricks at skate parks, skating with their dogs, exploring their cities, meeting with skate groups and sharing their rollerblading experiences with the world.” Likewise, roller rinks are popping up around the country.
Most importantly, Velasquez and Nenno say the resurgence of rollerblading appears to be mostly free from the toxicity it faced in the 1990s. “We’re straying away from a world that criticizes you for being different or doing what you love,” says Velasquez. “In the past, there were a lot of clashes between the sports, and yes, you still see that today [skateboarders were largely responsible for first convincing many elected officials to allow for the building of skate parks, so there’s a feeling that rollerbladers who come to those parks are taking up “their” space, which lingers to this day]. I’ve been judged, called names and put into uncomfortable situations at skate parks. But from my experience, there’s never been a better time to start an action sport. Social media has paved a path toward acceptance and inclusion.”
Nenno wholeheartedly agrees. “Most newer skateboarders don’t feel negatively about rollerblading at all,” he says. “Nowadays, the world in general is much more accepting.”
This is largely because of positive influencers like Velasquez and Nenno, who use their platforms to dismiss old stereotypes about rollerblading like it being “wimpy,” “uncool” or just downright lame. Much of Nenno’s TikTok content is of him speeding through the streets of Toronto, decked out in streetwear and blasting hip hop. As such, he’s regularly bombarded with comments from people who are shocked at how cool he makes rollerblading look. “Rollerblading is cool,” he affirms.
That’s not to say Velasquez and Nenno don’t occasionally get hate on their videos, sometimes mirroring those old homophobic stereotypes from the 1990s. “I get a lot of hate comments — hundreds every day,” Nenno says. “These used to bother me quite a bit at first, but I’ve since learned to deal with them. In the end, I’ve become a much stronger person mentally.”
It’s not just Nenno, either. Because rollerblading lived in the shadows for so long, it became a haven for people who felt like they didn’t belong anywhere else, including queer folks. But as the negative comments show, it’s still an ongoing battle — a 2018 Skateism article on homophobia in the film Mid90s (Jonah Hill’s homage to 1990s skate culture) says, “Things are still bad. Shit’s getting better, but toxic masculinity is still the rule of the day in skateboarding.”
Keeping that in mind, while Velasquez holds that “rollerblading is in the best position it’s ever been,” he and Nenno still feel as though it’s their duty to continue pushing the community forward. “Most people think of it as a goofy sport from the 1990s,” Nenno says. “Rollerblading is a lot more than something you do in brightly-colored spandex by the beach.”
“When I’m skating in the city, it’s just my skates and me, and nothing else matters at that moment,” Nenno continues. “All of my worries disappear, and I’m focused only on the moment at hand. Something about the fact that they’re attached to you creates this feeling of freedom that you can’t quite mimic with a bike, skateboard or scooter.”
And if you think this is just another repeat of the 1990s — another trend that will fade away, Velasquez himself assures me that he won’t let that happen: “Rollerblading is part of who I am, and I’ll stay true to that forever.”