Thus did LIFE introduce to the magazine’s readers its own unique (if somewhat shrill) take on a toy that would evolve into the emblem of a singular subculture and, eventually, a lifestyle. Skateboarding, LIFE opened in 1965, is “the most exhilarating and dangerous joyriding device this side of the hot rod. A two-foot piece of wood or plastic mounted on wheels, it yields to the skillful user the excitements of of skiing or surfing. To the unskilled it gives the effect of having stepped on a banana peel while dashing down the back stairs. It is also a menace to limb and even to life.”
Today, when grown men and women make a living (in some cases, a very nice living) inking endorsement deals and competing at skateboard tourneys around the globe; when skateboard video games sell millions of copies; when skateboarders like Tony Hawk and Marisa Dal Santo (and their winter doppelgangers, snowboarders like Shaun White and Gretchen Bleiler) are stars who not so much straddle sport and pop culture as transcend both; when industries (clothing, gear, skateboard park construction) have grown as the appeal of the sport has exploded — today, it’s difficult to imagine a time not that long ago when skateboarding was so new, so absolutely marginal, that a major national magazine could safely assume that at least some of its millions of readers had absolutely no clue what skateboarding entailed … or what a skateboard was.
Here, LIFE.com looks back at the early, thrillingly anarchic days of a quintessentially American sport and pastime that, over the years, has been embraced by millions around the world while still, somehow, retaining its rebel cred.
Skateboarding, as the old saying has it, is not a crime. But as these pictures show, riding a deck can feel criminally fun.