Review: House of Vans Detroit was Literally “Off The Wall”

Written by Broccoli & John Akers.

Nearly every creative discipline collided on the last weekend of January when Vans took over the Jefferson School on Selden Street to bring their signature Off The Wall event series to Detroit, Michigan. Symbolically taking place across from the legendary WIG skatepark, House of Vans Detroit featured an insane collection of great music, live art, and of course, killer skateboarding.

Detroit’s talent was well-represented in all of the categories that create the “Off The Wall” ethos- the four-day showcase featured local art including live-painting, installations, DJ sets, live performances, skateboarding and fashion all cross-pollinated. There were several (sold-out) workshops that filled the empty classrooms filled with youth and parents who couldn’t wait to learn from top professionals.

Community Push organizers. Photography, Lizz Wilkinson.

One of the heavy local contributors (aside from the vacant school re-imagined into a hub) DIY skateboarding scene in Southeast Michigan and Detroit. With local insight from an organization bred out of necessity and conviction, teamed up with one of the most important brands in skateboarding it is no surprise that this unforgettable weekend is going down in the history book. Vans skateboarders including Gilbert Crockett, Justin Henry, Breana Geering, Corey Glick and Johnny Layton flocked together in excitement of hitting the temporary indoor skate park created in the old gymnasium.

Indoor skate park, The Jefferson School. Photography, Lizz Wilkinson.

The first floor programming took place in old classrooms inhabited by an array of talented artists, including an installation by Ellen Rutt, a photo gallery featuring Greg Hunt, and interior murals that filled the hallways by Tony WHLGN and other impressive large-scale pieces from Jay Howell, the animator of Bobs Burgers as well as images hung along fencing by Nick Jaskey.

Images by Nick Jaskey. Photography, Samantha B Schefman.

Those who attended were immediately met by a sight to behold: An empty school with upon further inspection decked out floor-to-ceiling in art, complete with plenty of variations and branded Vans’ iconic checkered pattern scattered throughout the three floors.

Photography, Lizz Wilkinson.

The old auditorium was converted into the music venue for the weekend, with a nearby classroom staged as a photo studio with ‘Prom’ pictures for guests to take them right back to school for those standing in line to see the various musical performances.

In addition to the large-scale artworks, on Saturday, live painters and Detroit artists Shaina Kaszteklan, Sheefy McFly, Sydney James, and Zelooperz took over the gym on Friday to showcase their craft in real time.

Artist Shaina Kasztelan, photography credit, Lizz Wilkinson.

Attendees were also invited to directly engage with artists as they taught workshops about their craft: Thrasher Magazine photographer and Detroit native Joe Brook hosted the first night of the ‘zine making workshop presented by Juxtapoz magazine, as well as a photography workshop of his own. Greg Hunt showcased some unreleased footage and photographs from the years spent creating Mind Field, which was truly a special experience for those that revere Mind Field and Alien Workshop as heavy influences in skateboarding’s visual culture.

Jason Abraham Smith workshop. Photography, Lizz Wilkinson.

Jason Abraham Smith made sure to keep things interesting at his screen printing workshop, sharing new information for returning printers while still bringing newcomers along for the ride. On the last day, Matthew Dear took musicians of various backgrounds through his creative process, starting with a workshop for beginners and moving on to a more technical session that explored the greater possibilities of sound manipulation.

Matthew Dear workshop. Photography, Lizz Wilkinson.

The heavy music selection presented blended the best of local and visiting talents for a lineup that was way too heavy to be housed in an old school gym, but nonetheless the intimate setting made for a remarkable listening experience. Amber Mark opened the weekend with an impressive set that included a nod to Sade, followed by Detroit’s own Protomartyr, with bass virtuoso and Brainfeeder member, Thundercat. Friday’s lineup was made up entirely of local emerging artists, as is tradition with the Vans Sessions series, featuring Curtis Roach and newfound hardcore outfit, Strange Magic, who certainly left an impression on listeners looking for something new.

Curtis Roach, photography, Lizz Wilkinson.

On the last day of main stage music performances, Kelsey Lu wowed the audience with a well-choreographed and skillfully lit performance, followed by a rousing set by Joyce Manor that brought out the emo kid in everyone that attended, most of all a sea of young people moshing front row from start to finish. Last, but certainly not least, hometown hero Danny Brown came through with fiercely energetic set that served as a proper crescendo, throwing down while taking a break from recording new music in New York City- confessing to the crowd that he flew back home just for the night to play to his favorite audience.

Danny Brown, photography, Lizz Wilkinson.

However, it would be remiss to not talk about the incredible amount of talent and local skateboarders at this event, inspired by and hosted for the skateboarding community in Detroit. Professional skaters shared the ramps with local talent and kids alike, teaching workshops on Sunday. Community Push’s input to catalyze the event from the jump and their role within Michigan’s skate scene was evident from the support they received from the community at large. Local skaters including the Wallace brothers, Rashad and Amir (“the Twins”) and Rosa Parks Boys kept the ramps busy all weekend long.

Local skateboarders on the ramp. Photography, Lizz Wilkinson.

Skaters from all over Michigan and beyond came to shred the newly built park to pieces, and skaters from Vans, Quasi, Quarter Snacks, All Timers, and more all joined in on the fun. The pyramid scheme contest on Sunday was by far one of the highlights of the weekend, featuring a disgusting amount of talent and capped off by a few stomach-churning attempts that left viewers in awe that human bodies could move like that.

Photography, Lizz Wilkinson.

House of Vans Detroit was a testament to the multi-faceted nature of skateboarding culture, proving that a sport often overlooked and under-appreciated has been the impetus for some of the most forward-looking trends in visual aesthetics and musical output globally. Hosted for the first time in a city where many have a healthy (and justified) skepticism for corporate involvement, all of the collaborations between the food and clothing vendors, including Community Push and more, ensured that the community at large would feel at home.

Vans presented a fine example of how major companies can thoughtfully enter a place to elevate the existing people for the mutual benefit of the community.

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