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“It’s about overcoming your own limitations”: Lennie Burmeister

INTERVIEW! It was just a board and the street when Lennie Burmeister started skating in 1988, now a skateboarding veteran he tells us how the Berlin scene has changed, his favourite city skating spots and the story behind his “Vision Psycho Stick”.

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Photo by Adam Sello. Skateboarding veteran Lennie Burmeister tells us how Berlin scene has “spun out of control”.

If you’ve never heard of Lennie Burmeister, chances are you’re not into skateboarding. A main protagonist of the local Brett scene since the late-1990s, Lennie is among that handful of German skaters that managed to make a name and living off their passion – getting the ultimate accolade in the form of a board under his name by Berlin’s leading producer Radio Skateboards. Today 41, he lives between Kreuzberg and his native Lower Saxony where he runs his own skatepark building company, while still trying to skate as much as possible in his own “park” built in a barn, where he already teaches tricks to his four-year-old son. When we talked to him, he was sitting in his office, slowed down by a knee injury.

How does a 10-year-old boy from rural Lower Saxony in the 1980s end up catching the skateboarding virus?

It was 1988. One of my best friends came back from a trip to the US with three boards in his luggage. In the beginning there was only the board and the street. At some point, when I was visiting Braunschweig, I must have been 11, I saw a skateboard magazine at a kiosk for the first time and I suddenly realised there was this whole world around it.

When did you first come to Berlin?

It was the early 1990s, I was about 15 and exploring urban skating spots around Germany. That’s when I first met the Berlin boys, around 20 people who would meet each other at competitions. There was one super talent, Sammy Hariti, who was winning European championships at 14, but otherwise Berlin wasn’t really on the map in terms of skateboarding at the time. In skating mags like Monster Skateboard Magazine, which belonged to the Titus empire based in Münster, it was all about western Germany – but not the capital.

How behind would you say the German scene was compared to the US?

Everything took off in California, in the 1960s when surfboard companies started producing and selling the first skateboards – they were mini surfboards on wheels. In the 1970s they invented the polyurethane skate wheels and suddenly you could skate properly. That’s when everyone started buying boards. Titus Dittman picked up on the trend and saw the market potential. He was the first to import skateboards to Germany – and for a long time the only wholesaler. Every shop that wanted to sell boards had to go through Titus. It was very exclusive but he must be credited with bringing skateboards to Germany.

You moved from the Bremen skateboarding scene to Berlin’s in 1999. Why?

I was fascinated because although still underrepresented, Berlin had all these amazing locations, and the level of skating was really good compared to the rest of the country. There were great skaters in every district, really. The epicentre of the scene was the Kulturforum – we were there everyday! In the late 1980s they built the square outside the Kunstgewerbemuseum based on a design by someone named Heinz Mack. The guy probably didn’t have skateboarders in mind when he designed it, but this is one of the absolute best spots in the world – and I’ve seen a lot of cities!

Where else would you skate in Berlin?

There also was the square in front of the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Philharmonie, and the spot in front of the Staatsbibliothek and all-in-all it was an agglomeration of such big squares that it was like magic, it just drew you in. On Mondays the museums were closed and we had it all to ourselves. But the city had so many great spaces. We discovered them bit by bit, like the Polish monumentin Friedrichshain, the big memorial in Treptower Park, and of course Breitscheidtplatz next to the Gedächtniskirche.

In 2004 the whole Kulturforum scene got the limelight in the Panorama Berlin cult video and you were one of the protagonists. How did it happen?

Adam Sello, a skater from Hamburg, started following the scene around with his camera between 2000 and 2002. All you see in the video – the total length must be about eight hours – is pure skateboarding, no interviews or voiceover, a real document of the time. And the focus was on the Kulturforum skaters, including the next Berlin wunderkind, Christoph “Willo” Wildgrube, who was really ahead of the game at the time.

Was there a lot of jealousy around people who stood out like that?

Not really, that’s the cool thing about skating: there are competitions, but otherwise, when you see someone doing a cool trick, it motivates you to try it yourself. That was especially true of Willo and his explosive style. It was a joy to watch. So you do push each other, but it’s not about outdoing everyone else. It’s more about overcoming your own limitations.

You were one of the lucky few who had just enough sponsoring to live off skating at the time. You worked with Berlin’s biggest board company Radio Skateboards, they even produced a ‘Lennie board’, right?

Back then there were maybe only 20 of us in Germany. The money itself came from deals with clothing or shoe brands. You pretty much need to have a board company and the more popular the brand, the higher you rank. For a brand like Radio Skateboards, it’s all about the graphics, skaters and their image. So it’s kind of an accolade when they sell a board with your name on it. That’s when you can really call yourself a pro. I got my first board in 2000 with Popular Skateboards and more when in 2005 I switched to Radio Skateboards. The most successful of the Lennie boards was a rip-off of a 1980s skateboard, inspired by the first one I ever owned. It was called “Vision Psycho Stick” and had a punk character printed with a montage of my face.

Then you got involved in Anzeige Berlin and were somewhat of the city’s best location scouter, right?

At the time we were discovering a lot of new spots, trying to skate and shoot where no body else had before. It was a kind of hobby of mine to go around by bike and systematically skim the city. It was addictive, wanting to be the first. I would spend hours everyday before and after skating just finding an interesting backyard or playground or set of stairs. It also had a financial aspect because if you got a good shot and a whole page in another magazine, that easily paid €500.

Can you tell us more about the Vogelfreiheit Skatepark you helped build on Tempelhofer Feld? Was it really made out of pieces from the old Palast der Republik?

Yes, it’s an interesting story: Adam and a couple of people had secured and stashed away material from Palast der Republik’s square, which was a huge granite square out the front. Six years later, in 2012, Adam teamed up with an architect and came up with the arrangement on Tempelhofer Feld. I also helped adjust the heights, slopes and angles. It’s a pretty rad location now because it’s not a skatepark where everything is idealised. In the street nothing is perfect; the ground is bad, you can’t jump or slide as well. So it really combines the best of both worlds. I think that’s the future of skating.

How much has the skating scene changed since you started out?

It’s simply exploded. There’s never been as many skaters, never as many from other places. Back in the day you could talk to a few insiders and find out who was doing what, who could do which trick and who was visiting, because people knew each other. Today everything has spun out of control, it’s crazy!

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Photo by Adam Sello, Anzeige Berlin. Anzeige Berlin magazine documented the Berlin skating scene from 2005-2014.

For almost 10 years, Anzeige Berlin magazine was the Berlin skateboarder’s bible. Started by Adam Sello, as a continuation of his exploration of the Berlin skating scene in the documentary Panorama Berlin, 49 issues were published from 2005-2014. “Whenever an American team would come to Berlin, they would call me and ask if I could show them around. I would often say yes, give them a stack of Anzeige Berlin and add ‘Here, now choose where you want to go’.” (Lennie Burmeister)