Climate change, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, ocean plastics, food insecurity and the list goes on. What can one person do? That’s a question that John French has been asking himself for nearly four decades.

He moved to Spain over 10 years ago and says he has found an answer that came from a most unlikely place. John is an artist and teacher now based in Catalonia. He lives with his wife and two children in the Poblenou neighbourhood of Barcelona, which he calls “the street skating capital of the world.” He is coordinator of MOSS Foundation BCN and a board member of MOSS Foundation Australia.

John grew up in the 1970s in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city. About 15 years ago, a group of skaters who are now in their 40s and 50s (but still skateboarding) would meet every week to ride the city’s new skateparks. It became known as MOSS or Melbourne Old School Skate Sessions. They had a water project in Africa and would use any money they made from events, competitions or t-shirt sales to build installations to collect rainwater for rural communities in Swaziland, now known as Eswatini.

MOSS is a completely volunteer organisation: no one gets paid and there are no overheads, no office or admin costs and 100% goes to the cause. It connects one community – that of skaters – with communities in developing countries by heeding their calls for support. MOSS works to meet their basic need for safe drinking water by using the talent and imagination of artists in Australia, Spain and beyond. By pulling these strands together, MOSS has funded over 25 water projects.

John says: “Every few months I visit the local skate shops and collect old decks [the plank-like part that the skaters stand on] no matter how trashed they are. I cycle home with 10 or so boards strapped to my bike rack and they are stored and recycled at the Instituto Barri Besos high school near La Mina in Barcelona. The school director Oscar Tarrega has been fantastically supportive. I have also encountered wonderful people like Wagner Gallo Rodrigues from Al Carrer skate shop who escaped gang culture in his native Brazil through skateboarding and managed to make it to Europe. He feels so indebted to skating that he is keen to put something back. He helps out preparing boards for the artists. Sara Millan also plays an important role liaising with the artists and delivering the decks.”

The process is this: the old skateboard decks that would otherwise go to landfill get restored in the school’s woodwork room. Usually the decks are so trashed that they are covered with a canvas – this material is also recycled from the folding sun shades from the city’s café terraces – then, once covered, or sanded, the decks are primed with gesso, labelled and ready for the artists to use.

After the first BCN show last year at Urban Addict, things are now set for a larger event opening on November 25 at Barcelona street art gallery, Base Elements, in the Gothic Quarter. Despite the 12 hour time difference, the Barcelona show will coincide with the Melbourne exhibition with decks specially created by 150 international artists to be sold online using an app. Once the bidding starts it then takes part all around the world. Some decks will sell for as low as 90 euros while those crafted by more established names can sell for thousands of dollars.

A UN report listed MOSS as the principal organisation supporting people in Swaziland in their struggle to adapt to the climate crisis. “So,” John says, “it seems that we’re doing something right and that in itself is empowering.”

MOSS are on Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin @mossfoundationaskaters. They respond to all enquiries.

(This article was co-authored with John French.)

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