Grey Area – Standard Observer
Words by Roland Hoogwater
Photography by Kuba Bączkowski
Welcome to Warsaw, my name is Roland, not that that info is relevant but my little tiny part in the story of Grey Area is what I will use to construct a story for you, the trusted readers of Free. This story is a portrait of my time with Michał Juraś and a couple of Kubas. But mainly this article is about Kuba Kaczmarczyk aka Kuba #1, who is the glue behind the Grey Area project.
Meeting my first Kuba
My story starts on the night between the 6th and 7th of December in Berlin. To be more specific, it would be the first time I would meet Kuba #1 also known as Filmer Kuba. The whole reason he was in town was that it was one of those sales summits of one of those big shoe brands that have both Cristiano Ronaldo & King James as ambassadors.
For those of you that have never been to one of these meetings: The #1 goal is to sell the product to shops and the #2 goal is to show the people from the shops a good time. So needless to say the alcohol was flowing in one of Berlin’s many brown-bars and the day was getting late. I was really trying to hang in there up until an OG type of figure dressed almost completely in grey big logo clothing slowly crept towards me. He looked at me sternly and started to speak in a thick Eastern-European accent. ‘You are … right?’ I heard you are good friends with Michał, he speaks highly of you and … work. I was kinda drunk so I took the compliment well and returned the favour by saying, ‘I like your work too, and I like Warsaw – one of my favourite skate trips took place in that city.’ He nodded and said, ‘Yeah Warsaw is ok but Gdansk is better.’* The slow testosterone-driven process of male bonding had begun but I did not yet know what I was getting myself into juuuusssst yet.
*Note from Kuba #1: I didn’t say Gdansk is better. You can’t write this. My Warsaw pride wouldn’t have let me say things like this.
Kuba & Corona
Fast forward to February this year (pre-Covid lockdowns) I get a DM from Kuba #1 asking if I want to go on a Grey Area filming trip to Gdansk with Jan Henrik Kongstein, Michał Juras´, etc. My first thought, as a media member is that you know, feeling the vibe for a future article much like this one but for a different publication. But he tells me ‘No Free Mag will do the article, I would like you to be there as a skater.’ Normally I would add (laughs) the end of that quote but he meant it. Just to paint a picture of my physique, I am a 1.87 metre tall, chubby white guy, who is slowly creeping towards the moment that my age will match my waistline and I am not talking W34 either (I wish). I mean, I was down to go but at the same time a sweat did break out at the prospect of having to land tricks, which did get my weight down a little bit I guess. Now, in the end, Covid stopped the international aspirations that this chapter of Grey Area was supposed to represent. People like Eniz Fazliov, Jan Henrik Kongstein & Tom Remillard were prevented from coming but it didn’t stop Kuba #1 from making this 4th chapter of the Grey Area story a reality.
3rd of September. Warsaw Train Station. Filmer Kuba picks me up in his VW Golf. The first thing I notice is that the grey has changed into a nice dark blue and that the brand has switched from a footwear big logo to a very nice NYC based sustainable fashion clothing brand. I confront him about it and his stern face opens up and a smile appears, ‘That is my work outfit, now this is my personal collection.’ He drives me to the apartment that he booked for Danijel Stankovic, Daniel Pannemann, and myself. The others arrive the next day.
Soon it became apparent that I had misjudged Kuba #1 entirely, the conversation flipped towards fashion, trends, and the prices of certain skateboard collab shoes on that one sneakerhead marketplace. ‘Ah you liked those, yeah those ones are like 400€ on the app, which is special because it is model (x) And not model (y),’ he said, talking about that collab between that Portland-based sportswear brand & that board brand that Jesse Alba skates for. I was a bit taken aback, yet I felt like we had taken our next step towards a more solid friendship.
By the way, he told me he didn’t quite understand the vibe of that company named after some Amphibian. He felt the tricks were a bit dorky, I told him that is exactly what I loved. ‘There were enough videos with macho beer-drinking flannel-wearing skaters in it,’ and that ‘I feel like that vibe is fine for some but there is more room for other things in skateboarding as well.’ #1 agreed on that but he remained skeptical and often would say that my tricks were a bit like tricks.
After that, we started talking about politics and history and how Poland was often passed around between countries until it reached its current form. Kuba told me about the impact of growing up in a communist system and the destruction the city saw in WWII. ‘You know Poland came together to rebuild the old city centre after the war? The whole country helped make the reconstruction of the old centre a successful project. People came down from the countryside and helped’ see side notes #1,#2,#3. I knew a bit about this because I had researched the city before my 2015 skate visit. I always thought it showed the mental fortitude of the Polish people to re-make something as pivotal to a city and try to make it as it was before, especially because the old-centre was lost during a very traumatic time in Poland’s history. I don’t think they did it to forget these moments but I always felt it was done to send out a message to the extent of: ‘You can’t keep us down; we will always get back up.’ Or at least that is how I took it. At the end of our little drive towards the apartment, Kuba #1 made one of the first jokes of many, ‘You know, we Poles often say that God played a cruel joke on us when he placed Poland in between Russia and Germany.’
Side note #1: The old centre was remodelled after the paintings of the 18th-century Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto. He corrected objects in his painting to suit the work and so he made the streets and houses look better, straighter and newer than they supposedly were. It came to a point that survivors did not quite recognise the new old centre.
Side note #2: The destruction was done by the Nazis as a measure of retaliation because of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
Side note #3: Polish philosopher Leopold Tyrmand said about the reconstruction: ‘one of the philosophers calculated that Varsovians inhaled four bricks each year at that time. One must love one’s city in order to rebuild it at the cost of one’s own breathing.’
Who is a Pole?
Polish people have a trained nose that they use to sniff out other Poles. ‘Did you know that Oski has a Polish grandmother?’ Juras´ once told me, ‘Pontus has some roots here that is why his alter ego has a Polish sounding name.’ Michał once got me to ask Stefan Janoski about his Polish roots and taught me the correct way to pronounce his last name, which Stefan greatly appreciated, ‘oh I hear you are using the Polish J in my name, I like that.’ The point being that there is a strong sense of pride in all of the Polish people that I have met about the fact that they are Polish. That doesn’t mean that they are nationalistic or proud of the way the country is developing. As I write this the country is seeing its largest protests since the fall of communism because of the way the conservative government is treating women’s rights. They are proud of their culture and the humans and things it has produced. Role models and movements are important. Sylvester Stallone being probably the main inspiration for all Polish people. Rocky specifically has shown up in many a Polish skaters’ video part over the years. Just imagine hearing someone with that thick accent screaming AAAAAAADRIAAAAAAN just after landing a trick (see side note #4).
But to bring home the point, I think at the core of the Grey Area project there is the drive to show newer generations of Poles that they can do it: start a project and build it and get noticed across the borders of their own nation. We actually saw the fruits of that idea through people like Krzysztof Godek who put out a successful video project last year featuring a different crew of mostly young Polish up-and-comers.
Side note #4: I almost started a fight when I told Michał Juraś that Kuba #3 aka Kuba Brniak looked more like Stallone than he did. Michał instantly went through his phone and popped up this picture where he copied an epic Rocky mirror shot at home and asked: ‘You sure? Look again!’ I told him I still felt like Kuba #3 looked more like Stallone. Afterwards, I noticed Juraś looked at me differently.
No matter what Kuba #1 tries to tell you on that premiere online video streaming site that Free uses, #LegendaryPolishPower is the official title for the video. It has its origins in the current Light-Heavyweight title holder with the three-lettered MMA-promotion and proud Pole Jan ‘The Prince Of Cieszyn’ Błachowicz. Being a massive underdog in his fight for the title against Dominic Reyes, he did what Rocky did and knocked out his opponent with his self-proclaimed #LegendaryPolishPower. Soon little videos of Jan talking about his power made their way into our chat groups and it morphed into the running joke of the video. It was a constant point of reference to which we would return. After dinner, one would say, quoting Jan: ‘Tomorrow I am going to show my Legendary Polish Power,’ after which smiles would appear. During some of the more gnarly tricks, it would take the edge off. It would also be used when Kuba #2 aka Kuba Barrier aka Photo Kuba was in the process of setting up his equipment. ‘Use your LPP to shoot the best photos!’ It’s no secret that Poland is a deeply religious country and that is often reflected through the country’s athletes. Take for example Jan Błachowicz who once found a man hanging from a tree, called the police and got the rope as a gift. Legend has it that the rope is supposed to bring him luck in his fights. He now touches it before every fight. Every legend has its own mystery.
English is a language spoken only sometimes in Poland. In 2015 on my first trip there we got drunk and played music on our balcony. After we went to sleep magically the police knocked on our door. I opened, semi-drunk and in my boxers. A flashlight was projected at my face and three officers spoke sternly to me in Polish. After their speech, I calmly replied, ‘English?’ after which they looked lost for words and just replied ‘Music…NO!’ The Grey Area gang has a way stronger grasp of the English language but like many of us non-native speakers (myself included) they have picked up their English mostly from listening to Hip-Hop albums. Now there is a slight and subtle difference between the Queen’s English and the English spoken in Queens, NYC. That difference became noticeable in our moments spent together, ‘Do you like your Crib?’ Kuba #1 asked me upon entering the Airbnb. ‘That trick was hella dope’ Juras´ would sometimes proclaim after watching Jugga try a move on his board. Kuba #1 wants me to say that they do it to be funny but it feels to me like Rob Dyrdek’s TV shows had more influence on the speech patterns of the average Pole than they are willing to admit to.
Get you a Pole that can do both
In closing, I would like to say that, even though similar to their Russian neighbours, Poles aren’t known for their smiles. Behind their often hard looking exterior, they have some soft parts as well. I can truly say that I haven’t laughed so hard on a skate trip maybe ever. And to be fair, it is a Dutch tradition to show love to your friends by taking the piss out of them. So, consider this my love letter to all my Poles out there.
Danijel ‘Jugga’ Stankovic, Ollie, Warsaw
What can you say about this very tall and slender man with dyed hair? Like the Polish people, he has self-deprecating humour for days. He is a Serbian with Croat blood (the ‘90s must have been a confusing time). I am pretty sure that ‘Jugga’ is a word used to diss Yugoslavian people in Sweden, yet he has turned it around, and now it is his nickname. Moreover, he has a strong opinion that he is very willing to share. He leads with his heart and he is a hustler type of figure (not a shady one). You might know him from his karaoke singing, Portland sportswear company managing days. Those days are now behind him.
Back in the day, he was in loads of trouble sometimes because of his heritage and sometimes because of his actions but he was always smart and entrepreneurially minded. On a school trip, he and his friends found a tobacco distribution centre and smuggled cigarettes from Prague back to Malmö to slang them at his high school.
He did this so he could buy shoes and boards. ‘My mom raised me by herself so I knew funds were limited. I didn’t want to ask her for anything, I wanted to pay for things myself,’ he said explaining his motives.
When he came to Warsaw he was in a back-in-the-day type of mood. Slinging an app named after the moment your board hits your shins, talking about community and sharing skate spots until we pressed the download button with our sweaty fingers. This man can sell sand to the Arabs but he can’t convince himself that he is a great skater.
Franek Kramarczyk, Frontside wallride, Opole
He wasn’t with us once, but in Warsaw, all the Kuba’s kept dropping his name. Franek did this here; Franek can do those easily. So I guess he is a great skater. Personality-wise, I was told he likes to smoke that green stuff a lot. This leads me to believe he might have traded some personality for some skateboard ability. But who knows, he might be one of those active smokers that like to do things after they smoke. I hope so because most smokers I know are boring as shit. Still, some of the tricks he did at those spots were gnarly as fuck so it might be worth it.
Andrzej Palenica, Frontside smith grind, Berlin
Straight outta Krakow comes this young skater. He shocked us in Warsaw by kickflipping into a very steep bank with relative ease. Kuba #2 wanted to get the pic (or it didn’t happen right), but the next try he folded his ankle like a hot knife through butter. Juraś being the hero, rushed to a sklep and got some ice. Dre thought it might be broken but in the end, about three weeks later he was healthy as can be in Berlin. It must have been that Legendary Polish Power that healed him.
Agata Halikowska, Wallie 50-50, Berlin
My personal pick for the strongest display of Legendary Polish Power during our time spent together. She was the MVP in Berlin and she is a silent killer with a smile and like all people in this project, she knows how to battle and win. In Warsaw, she first beat me and Jugga in a game of s.k.a.t.e., and then she proceeded to kickflip this street gap with ease that I had been battling.
If this was an article written in the early 2000’s I would be thinking about the consequences to my manhood but it is 2020 so fuck all that noize. Agata is the bee’s knees! By the way skateboard companies, she doesn’t have a board sponsor… Are you sleeping on the job? Or has covid impaired your ability to spot talent?
Tomek Ziśłkowski, Wallie, Wrocław
I won’t name names but someone close to the situation asked me to help Tomek dress differently. He doesn’t dress bad but the curtain doesn’t match the drapes. His mind and his skating is pretty but he dresses like Luan De Oliveira. Tomek get your mind right, get your shine right, you have the potential to grow and be great.
Michał Juraś, Gap to boardslide, Warsaw
Love him a lot, he is the kindest, hardest working, and the second funniest Polish person I know after Kuba #1. Michał had a rough time from the end of 2019 up until mid-2020. A pretty nasty bail required the doctors to insert a catheter into Michał’s body. A series of partly failed operations plus Covid-19 delays then led to him not being able to piss or skate for eight months.
He sent me some videos of him walking and emptying his bag at the same time and he swore off ever skating kinked handrails. During my visit to Warsaw, he would piss everywhere, ‘I just don’t care anymore!’ he said with a big ass smile on his face. I wonder if he doubled his water intake after they removed the catheter because I have never seen anyone as happy that they needed to do a number 1.
Michał ‘Dida’ Zarzycki, Taildrop, Warsaw
Franek about Dida (aka Michał Zarzycki): I’ve known this guy for over ten years, so I am not sure if this is the best story I can tell you about Dida but I will tell it anyway.
It is one of the most terrifying stories for sure. Dida was in Aalst, Belgium for the Shop Riot competition back in 2012 after winning the Polish version of the event. The skaters involved had been staying together in a hotel. A little party took place in Dida’s room. You know how it is with skateboarders sometimes; we go too hard and do stupid shit… But imagine how Dida must have felt when some random homie fell through his window all the way down until he hit the pavement. Dida was around 15 at the time and the cops were investigating him until the early morning hours. That was his first time on the big skate event circuit. And instead of having a fun trip, the police had to ask Dida if it was him who pushed this poor dude, who in reality was just unlucky and fell from the second floor.
Daniel Pannemann, Indy grab, Warsaw
It isn’t that easy to write something about such a good friend, but let me say this: we often wear the same clothes to work without checking beforehand.
He loves his dog a lot, a lot, but for some reason, the dog and I don’t get along. His last name refers to taxmen that back in the day went door to door to collect. Obviously, these people weren’t loved and were given the name Pannemann to diss them. Daniel is well-loved though, in case you were wondering.
Kuba Brniak aka Kuba #3, Backside 50-50, Warsaw
Youngest of all the Kuba’s mentioned and also the most innocent of the three. He really got his shine in the last project and this project should be the follow up to that. He loves Krakow and he loves his skate shop, which he claims is way better than the one in Warsaw. One negative point is that he was kinda lazy at times during the filming and he got a stern talking-to by Juraś, Kuba & Kuba. If it worked? Only the footage will show.
Kuba Bączkowski aka Kuba #2 aka Kuba Barrier
A man with a cigarette in his mouth, some camo cargo pants, a camera in his hand and some strong opinions. Want to hear his truth? Just ask him as he won’t offer them to you out of the blue. Most sarcastic of all my Polish comrades but with a warm heart and some really nice flatground. His photos you can judge