MEMORIAL BOWL: The late Ryan Galvan, who was commemorated in the skatepark’s “memorial bowl,” skates barefoot on the deep wall of the park’s older, DIY section. Will Ehrle

The day of the October 2023 Kanis Bash, the annual fundraiser for the skatepark at Little Rock’s Kanis Park, was a washout. Faced with relentless rain, the organizers relocated the event to the area under a nearby bridge, installing skate features into the concrete. Adaptation is a hallmark of the Kanis DIY ethos.

Over a roughly 15-year period, a collective of local skateboarders has helped to transform Kanis Park, just south of Interstate 630 at Mississippi Street, into an urban oasis featuring a skatepark on par with the best in the country. The scene at Kanis on any given Saturday — an inclusive space where folks from different walks of Little Rock life buzz in and out of playgrounds, pickleball courts and walking paths — is in stark contrast with the dilapidated Kanis Park of the ’90s and early aughts.

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Operating without a formal structure or corporate entity, the Kanis skate crew formed an unlikely partnership with the city of Little Rock and became central players in an urban revitalization success story. Fueled by hard manual labor and grassroots fundraising, they sidestepped hierarchy and bureaucracy to create a valuable and lasting public resource. In 2015, the Kanis skatepark was awarded a $150,000 grant from the Coca-Cola Co. for an expansion that began in 2016.

This is an abridged story of the volunteerism and brotherhood that built Kanis skatepark, in the words of some of its creators.

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OLD BOWL

Georgie Launet: At first, the skatepark at Kanis was just this old bowl you had to take a path to, and it was one of the oldest city-sanctioned skateboard parks.

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Oby Berry: The old bowl was built around ’87. … I skated that bowl when I was in fifth grade and I was like, “I’ll be back.”

Kevin Fowler: I started going out to Kanis in the ’90s. Gary Duncan was the main guy back then. When I was a kid, it was a treat when you went out and Gary was there. He could skate that bowl really well.

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Will Ehrle: A lot of things I know about the old bowl are hearsay because it was built around when I was born.

Kevin Fowler: When I was in high school I started hanging out there more. Like 1998-2002. At that time, Kanis was a pretty sketchy park. Brian Lee would be out there. He was a regular. And Brock [Eads]. So we all started hanging out. It’d be Brian, Brock, Oby, Jon Boyd, Matt Clark.

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Brian Chilson
ORIGINS: Skatepark co-creator Georgie Launet.

SKATE OR DIE 

Georgie Launet: Around 2006, the Riverview Skatepark was being constructed in North Little Rock and Oby, Will and Tyler [Edwards] were wanting to start building something in Little Rock. At the same time, there was a real DIY movement across the U.S. We were inspired by parks like Burnside [Skatepark, in Portland, Oregon] and Washington [Skatepark, in Jefferson City, Missouri].

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Oby Berry: I was aware of Burnside, but information at that time wasn’t traveling as fast as it does now, except through magazines. The Dreamland Skatepark guys from Oregon who had built Burnside were building the Riverview park in North Little Rock. I called in sick for a week and went and volunteered to work with them. They taught me how to build a park.

Georgie Launet: Oby had already dealt with small townships to build parks around the state and I think I was inspired by that.

Oby Berry: I grew up in South Arkansas, and there was a small group of kids who all skated. I started building my own stuff as a kid, out of wood, and it progressed through high school and college. I presented a slideshow to towns across the state to try and build more skateparks across Arkansas. This was from 2001 to 2003, something like that. We built a ramp down in Star City. I got turned down a lot. 

Georgie Launet: Skateboarding can be like a disease, like an addiction. Skateboarders are naturally driven. It’s not a sport or hobby. It’s a way to see the world around you.

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Brian Chilson
URBAN OASIS: When the October 2023 Kanis Bash got rained out, skateboarders set up skate features under a nearby bridge.

Oby Berry: Right after the build in North Little Rock, I went out to Portland with some friends and we did a week skating down the coast. I wanted to see all these little parks that had come up. I just wanted what was going on in the Pacific Northwest for us. We went all over the place on the coast of Oregon and I thought, “Well, why can’t we do this? I’m not getting any younger, so let’s start building it.”

THE FIRST POUR

Will Ehrle: The first pour at Kanis was around 2006. It was an upside down wheelbarrow of concrete that got dumped over. It was common for people to do little patch jobs — take a little concrete and pour it to make little structures to skate. 

Kevin Fowler: Matt Clark flipped over a wheelbarrow and covered it with concrete. It was just this lump, and that was the first DIY thing. It was like the first feature. It got Oby motivated, and I think he built the spine next, and for a while, that was all that was there. 

Will Ehrle: The spine was the first planned pour. It’s when two ramps come together, two quarter pipes that intersect and share the same coping. 

Oby Berry: In the spring of 2005, I was hired to build a 10,000-square-foot indoor park in Malvern. This was in the time between Riverview and the first pour at Kanis. I was teaching during the day and building that thing at night. I had a bunch of leftover stuff from that project and the Kanis slab was always on my mind, so one night I cut some forms for that first spine and I called Tyler, Will, Allen and Johnny Taylor and Matt Clark and said, “Hey y’all, let’s do this.” 

Kevin Fowler: After the spine, there was a little pole jam — a little ramp that’s a bent pole in the ground — and we just started hanging out. It was a cool scene for a little bit. It was always the same people. In the winter they’d have trash-can fires going. I’d go hang out with the older guys and laugh at their jokes and not talk.

Georgie Launet: Kanis was just this raw idea, and we did it for the love of skateboarding, and it kept growing. At that time, there was a total disconnect from the city. It was just a piece of concrete with random skateboard obstacles, but it had no real direction.

Hunger Skateparks
GOING PROFESSIONAL: Hunger Skateparks, a skatepark design company based in Bloomington, Indiana, worked with the Kanis crew to expand the park in 2016. (above) Below, skatepark co-creator Georgie Launet sits “in the flat” of an earlier iteration of the park.

Allen Taylor

GRIND IT OUT

Oby Berry: Everyone was kind of spread out — in college, living in other places — and then in 2007, everyone descended into Little Rock, and that’s when it went insane. I told Matt Clark we need to have a big ol’ bash with bands to raise money. We didn’t have a nonprofit, but people gave us money and trusted us and we immediately started building stuff. I was 27 or 28 when we started Kanis, and my whole focus became Kanis.

Kevin Fowler: Oby taught Georgie and Will and Tyler. Other guys like Kent [Summers] and Brock were handy. Brian Lee, too — he was really good at concrete work. He had worked odd jobs working concrete. He and Oby were like the foremen.

Oby Berry: Because I’m a math teacher, and I was an engineering major before I became a teacher, all I’d have to do is see what’s going on and start figuring stuff out. Also because I had been building stuff since I was a kid.

Will Ehrle: We built a retaining wall, a cinder block wall, so that we could expand.

Oby Berry: We built a block wall from 2007 to 2010.

Will Ehrle: The vertical wall that we call the punk wall was the next big pour.

Oby Berry: And then the Jabba wall and the back 2-foot-tall wall behind the Jabba — that was happening about the same time.

Will Ehrle: The Jabba wall is this amorphous thing. It got painted to look like Jabba the Hutt.

Oby Berry: All of that was happening all the way until 2012. And then Kent somewhere in there built a real big addition, the demon wall — it had a demon painted on it.

Georgie Launet: I’d say 80% of the huge shit at Kanis was built with shovels and pickaxes.

Oby Berry: When we were working, it wasn’t like we were working. Why are you gonna be excited on a Saturday morning to go work for free? But we were. I’d get up early on a Saturday and load my truck up and go work on a weekend or in the summer when I was off from school. I got heat sickness one summer.

Jonathan Gilbert: There was some butting heads at times, and we all had full-time jobs.

Georgie Launet: I wanted to make sure there were things there that everybody could skate, but also keep it unique. I wanted it to be rad but not impossible, but Kent was a driving force in making sure we kept things super gnarly.

Nick Gibson
‘SUPER GNARLY’: Skatepark co-creator Kent Summers was instrumental in the park’s DIY construction.

Will Ehrle: It was commonplace to take jersey barriers, like the things that are on the highway, and tilt them or lift them up and pour a little bit of concrete. A third or two-thirds of the structure already exists, so you just have to do a little bit of work to make it skateable. That’s when the city started helping us. 

Georgie Launet: We wanted to be able to just drop in and flow and skate it like a bowl. Once we got the jersey walls up, that made the whole thing have a flow to it. Kent’s a welder, so he had access to equipment that we needed to build a bowl of the size we wanted. Once that bowl was built, that’s when the city was like, “What’s happening?”

AN UNLIKELY PAIR 

Georgie Launet: I think what we were doing started to need a little more of a direction or a narrative to it. It seemed like we were gonna need more of a plan. At some point, it started to become something the city couldn’t ignore — in a positive way. Not only were we out there skating, we were out there working all the time.

Jonathan Gilbert: We were at it forever, because we were poor, and it took forever. We put on fundraisers to get materials. People put in their own money. Eventually it got to the point where we had a Kanis fund.

Kevin Fowler: I kept the money for the last 10 years, like in a little account. Georgie had it at one time. Matt Clark kept it in a fanny pack at one point. Finally, I was like, “We just need a bank account instead of going to Georgie’s basement and seeing what’s in the fanny pack.” I tried to set up an LLC but it would cost money to set up. We never had enough for it to seem worth it, so I set up the account in my name. It’s never had more than like $4,000 in it.

Georgie Launet: We felt like in Kanis we had the ideal place to create our own world, and nobody was gonna tell us no — and then they did the opposite. They told us yes.

Jonathan Gilbert: Matt Clark started talking to the city. Georgie did, too. I thought it was rad when the city got involved, because then we knew they weren’t gonna tear it down. 

Leland Couch: I started as a [Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department] park planner at the end of 2006. There was a time period when I went out to Kanis and I saw someone was building on the concrete slab. They were starting to develop this DIY and I saw that they had such strong ownership in this area. From my experience, when you have real buy-in from a user group, it’s always a successful project. Georgie Launet was the one that was communicating with me via email, and we started understanding how we could help. I’ve been talking with him about this for 10 years, at least.

Oby Berry: Georgie is a silver-tongued devil. He can talk to people.

Georgie Launet: Working with Leland was a pleasure because he was clear about what he needed us to submit, the guidelines were easy to follow, and he was willing to be open-minded. These guys had never poured a concrete skateboard ramp before. They pour slabs, and we were building quarter pipes. The way Leland and I could talk to each other evolved over time to where I could explain one of the obstacles — a quarter pipe, a tranny bank, a pyramid — and he started to understand our jargon. If it had been someone else, I don’t think it would have worked out the same. He saw the value in it. It went from me driving my Contour with 2,000 pounds of concrete to the city dropping off rebar and telling us we could go to Home Depot and buy stuff.

Leland Couch: It was tough, from a park planner perspective, to say, “Yeah, build whatever you want,” while also needing to have some safety guidelines in place, but I was able to work with them and have conversations about what they were going to build. A lot of what they needed was just materials to make things better, so we started partnering with them. Were there some concerning times where we were like, “Guys, you need to change that, that’s not gonna work?” Sure, that’s happened over the past 15 years or so. It’s a give and take, but we are providing a place for people in the community to gather and have a good time, and I think it’s worth the effort.

Brian Chilson
INK, PAINT, CONCRETE:  a custom Kanis tattoo by Miguel Arrue (below); Skull of the Americas plays a set at Kanis Bash in October 2023 (above).

Miguel Arrue

Kevin Fowler:  That’s why Kanis is awesome — because the city supported it. That’s what makes us different than other DIYs. The city eventually bulldozes most of them, but they’ve had our back the whole time.

STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM

Leland Couch: The opportunity for the grant came in 2015 from our grants office who found it through their different resources. We got a whole bunch of money from Coca-Cola and we said, “We’re gonna put it into this Kanis skatepark, but let’s not destroy everything and build a new park. How do we make something really cool?”

Georgie Launet: We wanted to take this 1987 skateboard park and take this DIY skateboard park and put a new park in the middle that would be professionally crafted that could be the bridge between these two things.

Leland Couch: I don’t know how to design a skatepark, so I got the skateboarders together and we worked with a contractor on the design and build.

Georgie Launet: The grant allowed us to work with professional contractors to connect everything. We wanted a younger company who could do what we wanted for the money we had, and we ended up working with Hunger Skateparks [a skatepark design company based in Bloomington, Indiana]. They let us handpick a crew of people to work with them from our group who had been building the DIY.

Oby Berry: In 2016, we did the big add-on with Hunger. It worked out great. It was a lot easier than DIY. We had proper tools. You can tell what’s the oldest to the newest stuff. When Hunger came in, you can tell where the work got better. When you’re mixing concrete, there are a lot of inconsistencies. When Hunger came in, that’s legit.

Leland Couch:  The end result is so unique because we now have the historic skate bowl and the new elements we used the Coca-Cola money for, but we still have the DIY area. The bowl from the ’80s is still there, and then recently they’ve added a half pipe with leftover funds from the Coca-Cola grant. It’s a unique combination, and it just works.

THANK YOU, SKATEBOARDING

Georgie Launet: What makes me the proudest is the overall evolution of the park and the people who have come from around the country to skate it — the community we built, and all the memories.

Oby Berry: I just love those dudes. I was so fortunate to have a crew of cool people to be with. That’s the whole thing. It was always about skating No. 1, but we always had fun. I knew it would get big and people would be coming into town to skate it. I believed in that. I wanted that.

Brian Chilson
MAKING DO: At the rained-out October 2023 Kanis Bash.

Kevin Fowler: Kent built the memorial bowl for our friends. That was all Kent. It’s pretty cool, all the different people’s ashes in there. JP [Dupas], Ron [Ryan Galvan], Alli’s [Summers] hair is in there. Sleazy Steve. You could write a whole novel about Sleazy Steve.

Georgie Launet: It was emotional finishing the memorial bowl. Kent led that crusade but got us together to talk about the shape and the design. Kent had people fly in from around the country to get it poured. The city paid for materials, and Kent and some others paid a lot out of pocket, plus money Kanis had raised.

Leland Couch: Kanis Park has become one of the really nice projects for the parks department — you have the skatepark, a pickleball court, we replaced the playground, we’re bringing back the basketball courts. When I first went out there, there wasn’t much going on, and now it’s packed.

Georgie Launet: Leland has a very natural and creative eye that you can see in the way they’ve added the walking paths, for example. From the day we built the first little thing at Kanis, we had no idea the snowball effect it would have. 

Leland Couch: I use Kanis as an example for other locations where we can develop other amenities and as an example of why it’s so important to do that. It’s naturally a deterrent to crime while providing a public resource. We have to invest in our parks.

Georgie Launet: Kanis is one of the raddest skateparks I’ve been to, and I’ve been all over the world skating. “All roads lead to Kanis” is what we’d say on the way home from a skate trip because when you get home from a skate trip, all you wanna do is skate Kanis.

Oby Berry: The last time I went up there, there were so many people there skating. That’s just good to see. I don’t skate as much now, but I still dream about skating. It was always about skating, first and foremost. I’m glad people are still skating it. I’m just glad it’s there.

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