Interview by VHSMAG, Special thanks: Blackline
VHSMAG (V)： How did you start building skateparks?
Masato Kimura (K)： MBM stands for “Masa Building Material” and it’s owned by my construction company called Masaken. I started Masaken back in ’93. Then I opened a skateshop called Axis Board Shop in ’98 and made a mini ramp first… No one really had a mini ramps back then so a lot of kids would come and skate. We needed something more because there would be like 20 kids up on the platform… Back at that time, I visited the US with my friends. We skated YMCA in Encinitas and skateparks in Carlsbad and got so stoked. I though I need to make one back home so I rented some land and started making one with the machine my construction company had. We didn’t have proper permission but worked on it with my staff who were skating and snowboarding. We landed up dirt, put steel frame, welded steel copings, and hired plasterer. So Axis Skateboard Park was the very first one we built. It was back around in 2000. Aqua Park in Yoshikawa weren’t even built yet and people from the government would come to us and ask for advice. We never thought skatepark building would be a job.
V： Where did you learn how to build skateparks?
K： Well, we’re construction workers after all. All you need to do is make transition in the side surface. 15 years after we built our first skatepark, which was the renewal of it, we had some park builders from the US come and teach us about park building. They were friends of Kenji Tanaka, one from Hawaii and two from California.
Yuji Watanabe (W)： I’m the shaper and I learned a lot about concrete placement from them. Also how to place wooden frame to get the lip higher up, and how to properly place pool copings. I learned about park building in details.
V： What are the things you keep in mind in park building?
K： What I keep in mind between getting the order to actually working on it, is to build exactly as how the skater client has requested. There are many different types of skaters and the way they want their park to be is different. So we try to stick to their ideas. Other than that, we have to balance out the budget so we ask them to make certain things DIY if possible. We want to make skateparks as cheap as possible. I mean, I’ve been running a construction company since the ’90s and I can definitely make a living off of it. I’m not trying to make a big profit off of park building. Although, we’re trying not to get upstaged by people who are building parks just for money. For example, if we don’t have a concrete pump, we have to hire another company who has one. Then the company would ask for large amount of money saying that this kind of work is special. We think that’s bullshit. That’s why we purchased a shotcrete pump and improved our skills. We never rip off skaters, because we’re skaters and they’re trying to make a place to skate. It doesn’t mean shit if we ripped them off. That’s how we see this.
W： The thing I keep in mind while working on the park is not to make useless space. You can have an empty space if the land was massive, but if we were asked to design and are able to decide what we can do, that’s what I keep in mind.
V： For this park at Blackline, were you asked to design too?
K： Yes, we first came up with an idea, examined it at the site, and made slight changes here and there.
V： Then which one of the skateparks that you’ve built would you say is the best one?
W： I personally like GSP in Gose, Nara. The land is so big and the obstacles surrounding it is also fun to skate.
V： How do you think the skateparks in Japan will be like in the future?
K： I basically think skateparks will increase in Japan. I guess more street type parks? The people who build bowl and pool in their backyard are the rich and old ones. But for public parks, the place would be built mainly for kids so I think they would mainly be street type park.
W： Maybe there’ll be more people who try to make pools in their backyard.
K： バWe do receive backyard pool offers but the reason that we couldn’t make them happen is all because of the neighbors. You build a mini ramp and the sound of skating is not the problem. The main problem is the screaming sound of the skaters, like “Yeeaaaahhhhhhh!” Even though you’re in good terms with the neighbors, the scream is nothing but an irritating noise, you now (laughs)?
V： What are the benefits of skaters actually working as park builders?
K： First of all what we can do is to build at a cheap price. And also we can build relatively fast even the park was big. If we don’t build fast, there would be longer days and that means more money. The biggest benefit of skaters actually building parks, by seeing my staff, is that they’re all thinking, “I wanna skate this as soon as I can!” as they’re smoothing the surface concrete. If they were some random old men, they’d be thinking something like, “What should I drink for dinner?” or “I need to pick up my daughter after work.” I think that makes all the difference. Plasterers don’t even imagine that urethane wheels rolling on this surface and think about the great feeling of the vibration that you feel on the bottom of your feet.
V： What are some of the issues that skateparks in Japan have?
K： Definitely the government. There’s a person who comes up with an idea, person that brings the idea up to the bosses, person who finalizes the budget and design. Then the construction actually starts. Even if we tell them that the design sucks and no one would want to skate this, they’d be like, “Wait until next year’s budget.” The designers don’t come to ask for advice. They come to us with a finished design and ask us how much it would cost to build it. We ask who designed it and they say, “We did.”
W： You know, if this was not a set of stairs and it was a bank, there’d be so many more ways to skate the park… but we need to build it unwillingly, exactly as they say (laughs).
K： People from the government comes to the site and checks everything after the build is complete. If there’s any part that’s different from the original plan, it would be a big problem. If we make slight changes because it’s not good for skaters, they make you rebuild it again. The person who design, proposes the construction, handles the construction, checks the finished site… they’re all from the different department. The solution would be to have skaters get involved from scratch, but we can never make changes once the build is started, so there would always be a problem. We can never change the way government works.
V： Were there any changes after the Tokyo Olympics announcement?
K： We get more park building offers. We actually bought a shotcrete pump when we built GSP. The reason we bought it wasn’t because of the Olympics. It was before the Olympics announcement. We almost got ripped off when we hired a company just because we didn’t have a pump. We got so pissed off and we bought Reed’s shotcrete pump.
V： I heard that’s the only one in Japan. Is that true?
K： Yes, this is the only one in Japan. Most of the park builders in the US use Reed’s pumps and that’s what we bought this. People told me that we’ll never use it again and I kind of thought so too. It was like, “Oh shit. I wonder if I can use this pump for other construction site other than skateparks…” The shotcrete pump is only good for shooting concrete. So it means it’s not good for other things and not multi-functional. I was thinking what to do with it and then the Olympic announcement was made. I was so relieved, you have know idea (laughs).
V： What’s the best thing about park building?
W： Getting to skate the parks we built. Basically it’s fun to build parks. It’s really exciting. The staff are all skaters so it’s fun just to eat together. It’s a skate-related work so everyone’s very serious about this job.
V： Is there any memorable thing from the park build?
W： I have to say the day the pump arrived. There was this guy from overseas to show us how to operate it, but the concrete in Japan didn’t really go well with the machine… The pump got clogged up so many times at first.
K： It’s really like a nightmare if you were there.
V： What do you mean?
K： You know, things flying… The guy who was showing us how spoke a little Japanese and when the pump clogged, he was screaming, “Bring me a duct tape! Duct tape, duct tape!!” I snapped and threw him the duct tape as hard as I could (laughs).
W： The way to fix the pump is very primitive too. When it gets clogged, you need to crush the clogged concrete and push it out with your hands… you need to roll the hose and get it out of there. This is a lot of work.
K： Fresh concrete that almost clogs is the best, but if you make it more soft so that it wouldn’t clog, the concrete wouldn’t stick well to the surface. There are many different types of concrete. The brand, where the sand and gravel is from… 10mm round gravel is used in the US, but we don’t have them in Japan. The guys from the US told us to use round gravel, so we got in an argument like, “Shut up! We don’t have that here in Japan!” Why can’t we just use whatever we have and try to make it work (laughs)?
V： What’s your ideal skatepark like?
K： The park that’s requested by a client who loves skating, and wants to make it because he or she wants to see kids skate, not to just make money. Not “We have the election soon so let’s make a skatepark to get people’s attention and they’d vote for me” kind of thing. Rather, “I’m old but I want to skate as long as I can, but it’s embarrassing if someone called the cops in the streets. That’s why I want a backyard skatepark.”
W： I’m a builder so the ideal park would be something that we designed and built. You know, talking with other staff about how the transition should be. Sorry to say this as we build parks for clients and skaters, but I want to skate and have fun too (laughs).
V： Then after the Blackline park is complete, is there any plan of building another park?
K： We’re building one in Shinagawa, Tokyo. So that’s next.
V： When you work on a skatepark, do you always travel and live in the area with your staff skaters? I heard you’ve been all living around the park for a month.
K： Yes that’s true. That too, only skaters can do that. You need to love your job or it won’t last. We’re not a big crew so we can’t build every park in Japan, but we want to build as many parks as we can.
V： Lastly, is there any project you want to make happen?
K： Definitely the skatepark for the Olympics. I want to tell the world that we MBM are here in Japan. I want Yuto Horigome to skate the transition we built.