Finding Unity in NYC
Hitting up the skate park with Jeff Cheung and Gabriel Ramirez of Unity.
It’s only as I approach Brooklyn’s Golconda Playground, nestled underneath the BQE, that it dawns on me: I am about to be at a skate park, with skateboarders—dudes doing kick flips, smoking blunts. My outfit is all wrong. (Are cropped jeans cool in New York?) To my relief, Jeffrey Cheung waves at me from across the grayconcrete. His beaming smile and paint-splattered Bugg tee encourage me to navigate my way through the handful of skaters zipping around. We join his boyfriend, Gabriel Ramirez, who’s sitting at the top of a bank, surrounded by screen-printed shirts and hand-painted skate decks. Behind him, a bright pink flag is taped to the fence, emblazoned with three of Jeff’s signature naked figures and the word “Unity.”
Unity started out as the name of the Oakland-based couple’s two-piece band. But over the years, it has evolved into a multi-faceted moniker representing the now five-piece band, the pair’s zine press, a small shop in North Oakland, and the most recent addition: a queer skate crew.
Jeff and Gabe are in New York for The NY Art Book Fair. There, Unity Press will sell Jeff’s risographed artbooks, collaborative paintings done by the duo, online broadcast station Lower Grand Radio cassette tapes, and zines authored by a collection of friends from Oakland. Most of these items can be found at Unity Mart, the storefront that Jeff and Gabe share with five other creatives from the Oakland DIY scene. Unity Mart has become the collective’s headquarters. Thetwo also use the space to host free printing days, so Oakland’s POC, queer youth can make their own zines. Unity Mart also houses skateboards painted in Jeff’s distinctly playful style of bright colors overlaid with bodies, boobs, and butts in black ink, and phrases like “Forget about the boys!!!” They’re sold online and in the shop, but are given out for free to queer and trans folks who get in touch.
Today, we’re at the skate park for Unity Queer Skate Day NYC, an event for New York based crew members, friends, and strangers to come together and skate in a safe space. Respectful supporters are also welcome. While Unity Skateboarding is by and for the LGBTQ+ community, they don’t necessarily want to exclude allies who share their values of inclusivity and who are willing to uphold and honor their efforts of prioritizing queer and trans folks.
Taliana Katz and Tristan McGowan, who both use they/them pronouns, skate over. I recognize Tristan as @_tris2 from videos on Unity Skateboarding’s Instagram. They received their board and were inducted into the crew after DMing a video of themself skating in a long skirt, set to jazz music. “I saw an article, I think on a blog, that was about Unity about half a year ago, and it was the first thing that I’d heard about any sort of queer skateboarding or any sort of inclusive skateboarding,” Tristan tells me. “And it was really inspiring because I stopped skating for a really long time because I never really felt like I fit into the bro club.”
The lack of inclusivity in skating culture is what Unity Skateboarding was built to combat. Its website reads: “UNITY QUEER SKATEBOARDING IS HERE TO REPRESENT AND SUPPORT QUEER SKATERS YOU ARE NOT ALONE!!!” And the response has been incredible, says Gabe, recounting numerous examples of skaters reaching out and thanking them for bringing skating back into their lives or inviting them into the sport for the first time. “I don’t think Jeff ever really thought anything would happen with it, he’s just like, ‘I painted boards and met queer skaters and put their names on them and put them on Instagram and shared it with the world.’ And it just blew up.”
The Unity Skateboarding Instagram account (@unityskateboarding), which currently has around 6.5 thousand followers, is a growing archive of queer skaters’ videos, submitted from all over the world. “I love being able to watch other queer people skate,” says Tristan, “whether it’s on Instagram or not, and today I’m meeting a bunch of new queer people, and I’ve met a couple of friends here in New York from it … I don’t really care about watching most professional skating anymore, that’s just not interesting.”
Skater Lulu Bee is also grateful for the inclusive side of skating that Unityhighlights and cultivates. She’s been skating for almost ten years, and has always found it very solitary. She has never felt welcome enough to find a community. “That’s not to say that I didn’t want to skate with other people, but you know, I just kept coming into hostile group after hostile group of people and I was like, ‘I just wanna skate. I don’t wanna quit skating because of shitty people.’” Jeff found Lulu on Thrasher’s Instagram account, through a clip of her nailing a Front Rock. They hit it off in Instagram DMs. A few weeks later, Lulu received a box from Unity that included two hand-painted skate decks, stickers, and a T-shirt.
“In the apartment I was living in, we had a ton of rich neighbors, so I’d always see shit from Amazon Prime, and big mysterious packages, and I’d be like, ‘Why doesn’t any of that have my name?’” Lulu recalls. “But then I saw ‘Unity Skateboards’ and ‘Lulu Bee’ all over this packaging tape, and I ran upstairs and was like, ‘What is this?!’ I was so touched. Just seeing your name on a board like that, it says so much.”
One of the most common responses that Unity receives, according to Gabe, is an appreciation of their encouragement toward skaters of all levels. Gabe is new to skateboarding himself. “We definitely did not want to only showcase queer skaters who were good because a big part of being queer and skating is, first of all, that a lot of people who are queer, especially non-binary or trans people, experience more pushback from the skateboarding community and therefore it’s harder for them to get better. For us, promoting people who are learning is important.”
Tal, who also skated as a youth, but gave it up when the boy-club pressure became too much, picked up their board again about six months ago, a little after the time that Unity Skateboarding came onto the scene. “I just started, but I definitely feel more comfortable knowing about Unity,” says Tal. “There are different types of skill levels represented, whereas other people or groups I’ve seen are not doing that so much.”
Although it’s raining, the group keeps at it under the freeway—teaching each other new tricks, picking each other up off the concrete, capturing impressive and amateur stunts for Instagram. Jeff holds a free raffle, and hands out T-shirts and boards to those who haven’t received theirs yet.
“Unity gives me a glimpse of what it could be like outside of the boys club everyday picture of skating,” says Lulu. “It definitely gives me hope to see a side of the scene here that I think is real and exists and is beating every day, but that just doesn’t get the recognition it deserves in mainstream media. I think this needs to happen more because this is fucking rad.”
And it will. After New York, Jeff and Gabe head to Europe to host skate days in cities out there, Tristan just started the Instagram account @queerskateboardingnyc to coordinate more sessions in New York, and the core Unity Skateboarding crew is currently working on a compilation video to celebrate the community they have built so far.
I never get an answer as to whether cropped jeans are cool—it doesn’t matter—and no one cares that I don’t want to smoke weed. Jeff thanks me for coming as I slide back down the bank to leave, but looking up at the motley crew of skaters, my heart swells with thanks for Unity, and its many iterations that always keep me coming back.–Holly Meadows-Smith