By Matt Richmond
Photography by Michael McElroy
Twenty years in, change is coming to the place dubbed 88 Acres of Anarchy.
At this year’s Bowl Bash, one of the annual parties at Skatopia, an anarchist skater punk dream land in Southeast Ohio, there were no burning cars. No one brandished firearms. There was little of the mayhem that this place has become infamous for.
According to Brandon Martin, the son of Skatopia’s founder, Brewce Martin, that’s no accident.
“That’s what this place is about, liberty and freedom,” said Brandon. “But the problem is you get this rebellious — in the negative sense not the positive sense — attitude that comes from hedonistic people.”
The scene at Skatopia appears utterly unsafe, unsustainable, leaving the viewer incredulous that, in this day and age, it’s allowed to exist by those with the authority to shut it down.
Skatopia was founded two decades ago by the elder Martin, who also owns the 88 acres of farmland and woods it sits on in rural Meigs County. Brandon came back from the professional skateboarding tour close to 10 years ago to start taking over for his father.
In recent years, he’s hung up a sign with rules cracking down on things like heavy explosives and discharging firearms, and has discouraged the burning of cars, all parts of what gave Skatopia its reputation.
Brandon’s an anarchist and a vegetarian, a proponent of a philosophy known as “natural law” and one of its modern day evangelists Mark Passio. It’s a theory that’s long been used by anarchists as the basis for organizing society under an authority-free system, based on the idea that people can work together to figure out what’s best for themselves and don’t need an organized state to set rules for them.
“I don’t believe in government — it’s a form of coercion and they hold you under duress to make you comply. I do believe in morality, I believe in natural law,” said Brandon.
Brewce fought against that state for a long time before arriving in Southeast Ohio. He built skateboard ramps on other plots of land he’s lived on over the years, in West Virginia and Florida, before moving here. For one reason or another, he’s always had to tear them down and move on. Until he found this place.
“Everywhere I lived, there’s all kind of issues with zoning laws — you can’t build this in your yard, you can’t do that in your yard,” said Brewce. He found this place in the mid ’90s when an old friend told him about land for sale 20 miles outside Athens. He hasn’t left since.
“I’m out here to survive, give people freedom and try not to go to Walmart,” said Brewce. “Well, I’m not allowed in Walmart, they kicked me out.”
To get an idea of what a party at Skatopia used to be like, witness the 2009 documentary Skatopia: 88 Acres of Anarchy. Watch the trailer and you’ll get the idea: In one scene, a woman spits fire into a roomful of partygoers. In another, a guy holding what looks like a handgun is tossed off the top of a car as it barrels down the property’s dirt road. Brewce calls out over a bullhorn: “Who wants to burn their car?”
With a hardcore punk soundtrack as backdrop, the scene at Skatopia appears utterly unsafe, unsustainable, leaving the viewer incredulous that, in this day and age, it’s allowed to exist by those with the authority to shut it down.
In recent years, the younger Martin has hung up a sign with rules cracking down on things like heavy explosives and discharging firearms, and has discouraged the burning of cars.
At this year’s Bowl Bash, which took place over the weekend of June 22, it rained hard into the first night of the festival. By its steep final section, the road through Brewce’s property was almost impassable. On the way up to the tree-ringed, concrete site of the skate competitions at Skatopia, known as the Lula Bowl, some vehicles that never should have been on that road were wedged into the mud, with tents pitched wherever the driver quit spinning their wheels. A few cars made it to the top of the hill and onto the open field beyond. That’s where the fires usually happen, but none of the cars that made the trip this year looked like they were brought to be blown up.
“I’m not into the burning of the cars anymore, i think we should do away with that,” said Brandon. “For a while, I thought it was a Freudian thing where people were trying to release from the materialistic world. But we can’t continue to enable, especially destroying my farm. I’d like to keep my farm at least kind of intact.”
The music at Bowl Bash goes until early in the morning. Heavy metal and punk bands from southern Ohio, as well as from nearby Kentucky and West Virginia, play in the barn that is the center of activity. On one side, there’s a stage. On the other, a deep bowl for skating that’s known either as the Epcot Bean or the Punisher.
On Saturday morning, after a night of partying, the atmosphere was grumpy, bordering on sinister. Many clearly hadn’t slept, those who had and were now wandering around in the early sunshine were not morning people. Two boys, 19 or maybe 20, came up to Brandon and quietly gave him some bad news.
“Hey Brandon, our friend passed out, he turned blue and is, like, foaming from the mouth.”
Brandon called for an ambulance, and shortly after, a couple police cars arrived along with the paramedics. As the ambulance gingerly made its way up the muddy hill, interest spread through the half-awake crowd like a fall breeze rustling dead leaves. Some retreated from the barn, where the police cars stopped, up the hill to the Lula Bowl. One onlooker remarked, for the benefit of those not yet up to speed: “The Narcan Van’s here!”
One onlooker remarked, for the benefit of those not yet up to speed: “The Narcan Van’s here!”
After the police and the ambulance left, Brewce was agitated. He made his way through the grounds in his old BMW convertible.
“Who’s throwing trash on my property? You come and stay at my home and treat it like this?”
One partygoer, surprised at Brewce’s change in demeanor, questioned quietly what Brewce should expect. He established this place on the principles of anarchy, now people are expected to follow rules about littering?
“No, no, no, that’s not anarchy,” said Brewce, who’s been grappling with reining in some of the bad behavior that comes with Skatopia’s reputation. “I think a lot of people come out here and realize this is another kind of freedom they can’t handle.”
Brewce will admit that his approach to Skatopia has changed over the last several years. Now that he’s older, and his skating abilities aren’t what they used to be, he doesn’t feel at the center of the party anymore, so he’d like for the festivals to start paying off. He will also point to an incident in 2009, when he suffered a traumatic brain injury and a coma. A mechanic was trying to put the wrong size tire onto a wheel. It caused an explosion, resulting in shrapnel tearing into the front of his skull. To this day, he still wears a ball cap pulled low over his forehead. When his cap slides up his head, the stitch marks left over from multiple surgeries, where his skull was opened to relieve pressure on his brain, become visible.
“I got to say, when I got hit by that tire, that changed my life,” said Brewce. “I have a really bad temperamental problem now, I lose control of myself a lot of times.”
During last month’s Bowl Bash, Brewce was under house arrest. A year earlier, he was arrested for felony assault. The case is still open. According to court documents, he was seen by three witnesses driving his truck into another man’s car outside a gas station convenience store, screaming, “I’m going to kill you!”
A judge in Meigs County is considering Brewce’s not-guilty by reason of insanity plea. (The brain injury is the basis for the insanity plea.) He faces years in prison. It’s his first felony, but he has a long record, including a domestic violence charge from 12 years ago and a couple misdemeanor assaults.
When asked about throwing these parties, Brewce is torn about whether his heart is in it anymore.
“It’s just because of the quality of my skating has really diminished. My self-esteem was based in that a lot, so, I don’t know,” said Brewce, before returning to proudly pointing out all the features of the skate park he’s built.
Now, a main concern for Brewce is paying the bills. He’s lost his skateboard company sponsors over the years. He has legal bills to pay. A young daughter to support.
At the bottom of the hill during this year’s party, near the entrance, Tim Tice stood under the shelter outside his residence, collecting a few dollars from each car that arrived. Tice has been with Brewce for a long time. They worked together at a skate park in Daytona Beach when Brewce first became a pro skater. He is gray haired, with a weathered face, a homeless wizard’s beard, bright blue eyes and the restless energy of a speed freak.
And up the hill in the barn, Brewce and some of the older diehards sold shirts and stickers to the partygoers. After his injury, Brewce’s estranged father got him a sticker maker. So now there are tables full of Skatopia merchandise, and Brewce, out on $100,000 bail, with court costs and 88 acres of farmland to maintain, spent his weekend hawking T-shirts for $10 bucks apiece.
As for Skatopia’s future, Brandon wants to invite speakers to share anarchist philosophy.
It was Brewce’s injury that brought Brandon back to Skatopia. The changes have been in place now for years. Brandon pointed to a major wakeup call near the time of his father’s injury when someone lit off a firework and blew off their hand. Fewer people came to the party this year, and many that did called it the tamest Skatopia event in memory.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends because I’m trying to do something right,” said Brandon. “A lot of people just wanted to abuse what we were giving and not be grateful for the opportunities we were trying to help people with.”
As for Skatopia’s future, Brandon wants to invite speakers to share anarchist philosophy, and maybe move toward invite-only events. But the place will remain open to people who want to just come and skate.
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