photos: By Jay Delaney

'Nowhere' spaces

Leeside Skatepark carving more obstacles in once abandoned tunnel thanks to $15,000 fundraiser

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The graffiti-covered walls and DIY ramps at Leeside Skatepark are such a work of art that the locals who form its vibrant community jokingly say they’ve constructed a “Mona Leeside.”

Local graffiti artist and skateboarder Lee Matasi founded the park in the early 2000s, filling it with wooden ramps and makeshift features. Located under Hastings Street at the Cassiar Connector, the skatepark is housed in an abandoned concrete tunnel originally intended to be a transit loop. The skate hub that holds such a meaningful place in Vancouver’s history is largely obscured from street-view.

Looking out from the north side of the tunnel entrance, Playland’s iconic wooden coaster looms in the distance. In the foreground, youth soccer teams kick the ball around on green turf. At the northeast entrance of the seven-metre high, 49-metre long tunnel, small black block graffiti letters read simply, “for Lee.”

Matasi was fatally shot outside a Gastown nightclub in 2005 by an armed stranger. At just 23 years old, his sudden death rocked the skate and art community. Tributes were held in his honour, including hundreds coming together for a memorial at Leeside. A testament to his talent as a young artist,

The Ottawa School of Art, where Matasi was an alum, named a gallery in his honour. Last year, the school held an exhibition to mark the 10-year anniversary of his death. Described as a gentle and kind “man of legend,” Matasi’s legacy as a bright artistic talent with a passion for skate boarding, lives on at Leeside.

On a rainy Sunday in February, Adam Hopkins stopped by the park with his girlfriend to take a look at the progress of construction underway in the tunnel. Nearby, a graffiti artist outlines the word “magek” near the South entrance.

“Lee was very close to a lot of people in the city,” he says. A Leeside regular for eight years, he didn’t know Matasi personally, but knows his name well. “He touched many hearts over the years, he’s very well respected and very missed. Leeside is a very sensitive place for a lot of people because he got everything going here, since day one.”

Hopkins is part of a crew of skaters and artists who have met weekly throughout February and March for weekend group “builds”—the result of a fundraising campaign to complete the DIY park.

Always a work in progress
An online crowdfunding campaign to complete the park was launched in February of this year. After just six weeks, the fund surpassed its $15,000 fundraising goal, reigning in donations from almost 150 people.

“Leeside local” Jamie Maley spearheaded the online efforts. The skate community flocks to the park drawing people who want to invest time in making it better, he explains.

The park’s perks are obvious, he says. One, it’s a legal graffiti spot that local artists take full advantage of—adorning the walls with colourful tags and murals, including red and yellow bubble letters that spell out “Avers,” Matasi’s alias, on the south side.

The tunnel provides refuge from the city’s famous rainy months. It’s an all-night spot too, with lights that illuminate the tunnel once the sun sets, basking it in a twilight glow. Practicality aside, it’s home to a tight-knit community of friends who are dedicated to the tunnel—pouring hours (and sweat) into custom upkeeps and additions.

“It’s home,” Maley says. “It’s a meeting ground, it’s a spot that I can go down to without making plans and know I’m going to run into some people I know, and if no one else is there, that’s okay too.”

Pushing through
Before Matasi laid claim on the tunnel, it was more or less a no-man’s land, says Maley. The park has been built solely by donation and volunteer hours. They’ve had no financial help from the city, but that’s fine by him.

“It’s within these ‘nowhere’ spaces that DIY skateparks thrive,” he says. “We’re building the skatepark that we want to skate and not another cookie cutter.”

According to Maley, Lee obsessively began conceptualizing a skatepark when he was a high school student at Templeton in East Vancouver—even building ramps in his woodshop class. Focused on his vision for the tunnel, he continuously painted “Leeside” at the north entrance of the tunnel over and over, replacing it every time it was painted over.

“By the time Lee died he had put roughly seven years into building the spot up,” he says.

The group of core “Leesiders” have organized fundraisers in the past for smaller builds, but never at this scale.

According to the City of Vancouver, the park currently has about 12 hand-built obstacles such as mini-ramps, grind poles, and quarter pipes. The wide tunnel’s colourful walls, vibrant art, and ramps are so eye-catching, the tunnel was used for a scene in the movie Deadpool, starring Vancouver native Ryan Reynolds.

“In the past, smaller obstacles were built at random by multiple people with different ideas and eventually their creations would blend into each other,” he says. “This Frankenstein of a skatepark has stayed fairly contained to the north end of the tunnel, leaving the south end basically a blank canvas.”

The plan is to turn the entire south end of the tunnel into a skatepark and bowl. Leftover funds will be used for upkeep, repairs, and future features.

“Leeside will always be a work in progress,” he stresses.

Maley describes Matasi as a friend to many who was highly respected in the skate community. “The tunnel honours him by keeping his ideas and passion to create and skateboard alive.”

Centripetal force
In the weeks since the Kickstarter launched and steadily climbed, piles of rubble have been transformed into smooth ramps.

Local skater Matt Froese stopped by the park to get some solo skate time on a torrential Vancouver day. He’s been a regular since the beginning, when the tunnel was “trashed” and home to little else than a few wood ramps. After Lee was shot, he says, his friends were inspired to honour him properly.

“It was more official. We had to do something more. We started pickaxing all the gravel and dirt that was compacted down and actually used it as fill,” he adds. Froese describes the tunnel as a creative space that’s as challenging as it is unique.

“And it’s dry,” he adds with a laugh. “The plans are to build better drainage. I come here and skate and help when I can.

“We’re going to pour the surface flat. I’m excited to see a final product where there isn’t loose gravel constantly being kicked out and dealing with rocks.”

According to Hopkins, the park brings community together—drawing diehard regulars with its DIY character.

“It makes it interesting. All the surfaces are a little lumpy,” says Hopkins, noting most new additions are almost perfect. “We have some of the best skate park builders in Canada coming to pour the concrete for this.”

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