Energy, Good Energy – Kona’s Rise as a Music Venue

It’s easy to assume the oldest private skatepark in the world can be found in Huntington Beach or in San Diego, areas where modern skateboarding originated. However, you may be surprised to learn it’s actually an East Coast original based in Jacksonville.

Tucked away behind the pines in Arlington, Kona has served generations of skaters since 1977. The park is also notable for its contribution of the first ever vert ramp and being featured as a level in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, which highlights the park’s signature design.

Outside of operating as a skatepark, Kona has also garnered buzz as a small music venue in recent years: the Kona Skatepark Clubhouse, located in an open-space room just steps away from the outdoor park.

The vibe of the performance area is “house venue meets warehouse show” with its modest stage and standing area: likewise, the room is no stranger to mosh pits and kids dancing. There’s an eccentric flourish to the skateboard decks dressing the stage’s wall (and have also been used to create bench seats in the back). Yet, despite its size, the small but mighty jam spot possesses a sort of welcoming warmth that’s unique to the DIY scene.

“The room started out as a hobby and has really grown into something more as an all-ages venue,” said Martin Ramos, owner of Kona Skatepark. Ramos, whose family took ownership of the park over 40 years ago, is a lifelong skateboarder and has run the park since the ’90s. He also has a special interest in music: Ramos knows that many of the regulars at the park are passionate about music or even have their own bands. “The idea is to give kids an opportunity to experience music,” he said. “Even if you’ve never played before or are just starting out, this place is for you.”

One of these bands who is very familiar with Kona is Swingers, a folky, psychobilly act who tag themselves as a “weird band from Jacksonville, FL.” Frontman Luke Bacon is a frequent flyer who has been skating at the park for several years and recently enjoyed playing his third show with the band at the venue.

“Kona is an iconic place for skateboarding,” he said. “It’s been visited by just about every American pro skateboarder since the ’80s from Natas Kaupas to Grant Taylor. Getting to play a show here is super special.”

In addition to Kona playing host to some up-and-coming local acts, it has also attracted the attention of internationally touring bands, including Atlanta-based Chew. Since forming in 2015, the instrumental, female-fronted and drummer-led trio has made waves in the South. Before the band embarks on the European leg of their tour and drops their upcoming album Horses (Stolen Body Records) this spring, they played their first set at Kona earlier this month.

Bresh Reagan, who plays guitar and electronic equipment for the band, was enthusiastic about the experience. “Kona actually reached out to us via Instagram DMs after we were done touring for 2021,” Reagan explained. “We were in the middle of finishing up our new recording. We looked at videos of previous performances and Kona looked too cool to not take on the offer.” Based on the success of the show—and the first stage dive they witnessed—Chew is looking to return. “The show was great. We played to a brand new audience that was really responsive and ate up everything we were dishing out,” she said. “It was our first time there, but the start of many more shows to come.”

As Kona continues to uphold its dynasty as a legendary skatepark, its growth as a music venue is quickly turning heads. Its humble inclusivity provides a welcoming space for expression and collaboration that’s close to home, while drawing musical acts that have played bigwig festivals as well. A melting pot for skateboarders and musicians alike, the future for the music room redefines Kona’s original intention—from shredding on wheels to shredding on strings.

These aspiring artists, many of whom are mainstays, remain optimistic about the venue’s continued hype and opportunity it has to offer.

“It gets better every time. The venue, great; the energy, awesome,” said Luke Bacon. “Don’t sleep on Kona; it’s one of the best venues in Jax.”

About Casey Craig