by Alex McCulloch
It was 25 years ago that Lewis Marnell arrived with his brother at Chatham Primary School in Surrey Hills, Melbourne. Lewis and Jonas had been living in Sweden where their father was a movie producer and their mother a graphic artist. Their appearance in the playground dressed in a cosmopolitan style and sporting rat-tailed hair like European celebrities caused a stir. There was though, something more about the Marnell boys that set them apart. The movie-star element and their being driven to school each day in a sports car was one thing, but what generated most excitement for me was they seemed somehow above the law.
These are the memories of the thoughts of a five year old recalling an admiration for what appeared to me and my fellow Chatham school peers as infinite courage. I became friends with Lewis not only because we shared distrust of meaningless rules, but because our parents became friends and co-workers on theatrical and filmic projects. Consequently our friendship developed further outside the boundaries of the school playground. I don’t recall the first time I saw Lewis perform on a skateboard: I’d seen his gymnastics on the school play equipment; I saw him somersault off a moving car; and then there were – as it seems in childhood – hundreds of hours spent along the St Kilda esplanade skateboarding, and rollerblading all those years ago.
Twenty-five years later, I was in the St Kilda Town Hall along with six hundred others attempting to understand why Lewis, at thirty years of age, was dead. Video footage of Lewis skateboarding was shown – impossible physical acts in which he soared into the air – people crying, some carrying their skateboards in tribute and others locked in a state of disbelief and shock, looking blindly towards Lewis’ grieving family. Story after story was told about Lewis the ‘bad’ boy who became a great man and who within hours of his death was being honoured throughout the world. In Melbourne, street artists – including his brother, Jonas – paid tribute to him.
It’s difficult at first to identify what it was about Lewis Marnell that made his death a global event. Clearly his skateboarding reached a level of an art form and that in itself is significant. But Lewis Marnell represented much more than brilliance and skill – he truly embodied what often appears as an unattainable maxim. We all know the one – it is told to us from an early age that we should do and be what we wish, that being the truest fulfillment of our talents and that which expresses our deepest yearnings. Usually pronouncements like: “I will be a clown”, “a trapeze artist”, “a mountain climber” or an “opera singer” are received with an indulgent smile by the parent, who will then work tirelessly towards educating the child towards the safer but far more mundane professions of the lawyer, the accountant and the electrician. Lewis Marnell simply knew from the beginning that no matter what the world wanted from him he was only going to comply with his inner spirit and drive. At the funeral his father, Jan, told an endearing story about how when Lewis moved to Sweden in his early teens, he left his son each day at the school gate with a spirit of optimism, pleased indeed that Lewis was attending school without exhibiting the resistance so evident at his last Australian school. Three months later when the father dropped in to parent–teacher night, the teachers were curious, wondering indeed what had happened in regard to the initial enrolment. And so Jan learned that the teachers had never met Lewis, that each day he walked through the school gates and out the back ones directly to a skateboard arena. This of course is how he became the best. He was determined and no societal, or parental, rules would get in his way.
And so as Lewis spent his life around skateboard bowls and parks he came across young people not unlike himself years earlier, desperately seeking the means by which they too could develop their skating talents. Most often they were from broken homes, sometimes homeless, hungry and lost in what was to them a rejecting world. Lewis was there for so many of these young people. He handed them skateboards, organised food and gave them the circumstances in which they could develop their skills and simultaneously find a place in the world. Lewis had time for all the young people on the
street who first came to him simply to be aweinspired by his art form. However, they soon discovered that Lewis had so much more to offer and that he made the time to listen. Listeners actually discover otherwise hidden things and Lewis was also quick to discern talent, so if someone was facing an obstacle, just a little guidance from Lewis would help them overcome it.
Furthermore, like the rites of ancient tragedy themselves, Lewis Marnell had ascribed to a philosophy of music that embodied for him a deep spirituality. His Rastafarian allegiance to living, dancing, singing and making music about this world resonated in his soaring leaps whilst skating as much as it was captured in the street art of his large and ever expanding community. There are stories of old skateboards that Lewis replaced, and new clothes given to young skaters in poverty-stricken attire as incentive for them to return to school without the fear of being laughed at. He even commissioned a board graphic to be created by a talented young indigenous girl at the Prahran skatepark who used the proceeds to buy a laptop and is still studying at university. Lewis’ interest in art and music was of course necessarily integrated into his own art form.
His brother, Jonas, a renowned street artist himself, explained the ways in which street art and skateboarding interconnected. He argues that:
“these new art forms can act as a palatable gateway to the minds of young creative people for the older generations (more so than a sport). Most of the time the view of skateboarders and graffiti/street artists are one and the same, there is a perception that they don’t care about anyone or anything when the reality is often far from that – the artists view their work as an improvement to the space, in a way giving part of themselves to the public for their viewing pleasure. Skateboarders in the same way spend an incredible amount of time working on the perfect ‘line’ of tricks which can be seen around the world and inspire others to go out and try something amazing also”.
And so as I remember my friend from childhood and acknowledge my ever-developing admiration for the dreams he realised and those of others he helped bring to fruition, I also recognise that all he achieved was done by someone who had diabetes from a young age. This determined that he take insulin shots daily and he was forced to monitor his life in relation to it. It is therefore part of this dedication to celebrate a young man who not only set out to fulfill the impossible, but who did so despite his medical condition. Lewis actually loved his fellow men and women, evident in the numerous artefacts that have emerged since his death. Again his brother sums up what might otherwise be inexpressible:
“there have been walls painted, skateparks adorned with Rasta colours, illustrations and t-shirts printed, lots of tattoos – some of them huge – pictures from children all over the world. I’ve had positive supportive messages from every graffiti and street artist I’ve spoken to, many of them wanting to also create something in his memory. The support on the internet has been an amazing support for us as well, to see all the beautiful messages can really help understand how many people he touched in such a positive way – it shows that his time was not wasted. I regularly get skate kids come up to me and say he’s their hero, which I can understand… he is mine too’.
And with this image and heart-felt words from his brother, Jonas, I end remembering the child who arrived from Sweden 25 years ago and honour the man who died young but who, in his brief life, achieved more than most do in double the time. The sadness continues to be overwhelming. The fact that his wife, Nami, must journey on alone, and that his brothers and sisters, Jonas, Drew, Jessica and Ebba Louise, his mother, Janet, his father, Jan, stepfather, Paul, and stepmother, Emmy, will not spend a day without missing him, is a reality I can only deal with by momentarily seeing him high in the sky, flying and happy, showing all that the human spirit aspires towards.
Published: Vault New Art & Culture Issue 3, April 2013