Roope Valolahti is tired of the negative stereotypes of skinhead culture.

Welcome to the subculture where being “skinhead” identifies with a proud working-class youth dressed up in style – and having nothing to do with racism or fascism.

Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing. But even when it materialises to a high degree, it does not always mean that the whole truth comes out. Most of us would surely agree that some phenomena simply are more “media-sexy” than others, and therefore get more attention in the public eye.

One example of this is the skinhead movement. Perhaps you may think of skinheads as being bald and angry bigots. In Finland, this idea crystallised in the 1990s, once immigration to Finland had started in earnest, and white-power groups in different parts of Finland began haranguing immigrants and making their lives miserable.

This is what the word “skinhead” has been associated with in the papers, on TV, even on the big screen in films such as Romper Stomper and American History X. But if you want to hear about the other, more traditional side of being skinhead – being a good dresser and having no racial prejudice whatsoever – you need to keep reading this. This side does not chase you around with a baseball bat, irritated by the colour of your skin, but is no less intense and energetic.

Comfortable in his own skin

Helsinki-based Roope Valolahti, 22, defines himself as a skinhead. But what does this mean exactly? “From the standpoint of appearance, it means that I dress neatly, I’ve got my boots on, my hair looks good and I’m clean shaven,” Valolahti explains. “Generally speaking, I feel good and am self-assured and with a steady spring in my step. That’s me, a skinhead in 2012.”

Perhaps the most-easily recognisable visual trait of the skinhead is that of the shaved head, but one begins to wonder if there is such thing as a skinhead with hair. “Skinheads do have hair; we’re not bald,” Valolahti states. “Traditionally it’s been cut short and neat, which has been good for occupational safety in many lines of work and also streetwise, in the sense if you get into a fight, the other guy cannot grab you by the hair.”

Getting into a fight is something that most members of society shun, Valolahti being no exception. But he, like most of us, acknowledges that sometimes in life we may find ourselves in a situation where soothing words, social framework programmes or prayers won’t do, and where the other guys have feet just as fast, or faster than yours. Does this not make him, the stand-up guy that he is, less of a violent maniac, and more just a realist?

Traditional skinheads are no “boneheads”

“Real skinheads are proud
working-class people
who dress well and relate
equally to all, regardless
of ethnic origin.”

Some readers may make the immediate association that, “Okay, this guy’s a skinhead, and probably a violent racist, too”. This type of thinking makes Valolahti cringe; he draws a clear line between skinheads and “boneheads” or just neo-Nazis, which today represent a totally different movement. Real skinheads are proud working-class people who dress well and relate equally to all, regardless of ethnic origin. The “boneheads” are then the white-power racists that we hear so much about.

The origins of the skinhead movement can be found in the UK in the ´50s and ´60s, when young working-class men wanted to dissociate themselves from the long-haired style of the hippie movement, which was more fashionable then, and was favoured by those more in the upper-classes.

But somewhere along the line, the movement divided into two, one side being the traditional skinheads and the other being the neo-Nazis. Perhaps it tells us something about human nature and the ever-continuing struggle for power, whether between persons or nations, that the aggressive neo-Nazi side was the one that gained a strong foothold in many countries, Finland included. When you think about the original skinheads in the UK and their dark-skinned counterparts from Jamaica, “the rude boys”, the movement had nothing to do with anti-Semitism or any other racial prejudice.

A skinhead and a S.H.A.R.P. dressed man

One significant group that stands up against such socially preened ideas of bigoted skinheads is that of the movement called S.H.A.R.P. – Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. In other words: skinheads that are antiracist and antifascist.

Having started in the U.S. in the 1980s, the movement gradually spread, mostly through the music circuit and band gigs, to Europe, the UK, France and Germany, and eventually Finland. Then there are sidelines from this such as RASH, the Red Anarchist Skinheads, who represent political left-wing thinking.

“For me, they are not skinheads, as RASH are politically oriented, but they are okay as persons,” Valolahti says. “But when I see those right-wing guys waving their Nazi greets, this really gets me going.”

A member of the S.H.A.R.P. community himself, Valolahti sheds some light on what it entails to be a member of this skinhead movement. “You know, our leisure time is pretty normal for our age. We get together to hang out at a club where they play good ska and reggae, we have a few bevvies, may start a little friendly skirmish amongst ourselves, get some dancing done and simply enjoy ourselves. For example, yesterday we went out to kick the football around, imbibed a few beers, and then I went home to watch a film with my girlfriend. So there’s nothing strange about it. The best thing for a Saturday night would be to go to a good gig and knock back a few beers in a laid-back atmosphere.”

After hearing that ska and reggae mentioned in the same breath as skinheads, one begins to wonder just what kind of musical face the S.H.A.R.P. community has. “The music is the heart beating behind it all, and the musical roots trace back to Jamaica where ska and reggae originally come from, embracing the whole way of life – the unity, the dancing style, and the type of people.

The impressive logo of S.H.A.R.P. has been derived from the logo of the record company Trojan Records, modified by making a mirror image of the helmet and adding the acronym letters in the crest. “Originally this indicated that you were a traditional, and paid no mind to political correctness in any way,” Valolahti explains. “This brings to mind ‘the rude boys’ – Jamaican young men in British society back in the day, many of whom had criminal tendencies.”

But ideas evolve over time. Valolahti dons at least a couple of S.H.A.R.P. logos on his jacket, but he’s no criminal; in fact he is currently finishing up his studies to become a care assistant, and earns his dough by working long hours behind the bar. There is a combining factor, and that is pride. When you talk to Roope Valolahti, you talk to a proud and confident young man who is a far cry from the often heard story of today’s troubled youth.

With this in mind, how many other like-minded young people are there in Finland? “It is difficult to say exactly, because being involved in it is just a personal choice and the movement is informal, with no organised structure,” Valolahti explains. “Unfortunately I’ve heard of some good guys shifting over to the proverbial other side of the force, but in our bunch in the capital region, there are a dozen or so people that I know personally. And then there are many who lack the courage of openly representing themselves, in the fear of getting their butts kicked on the street.”

He himself has faced plenty of prejudice for being a skinhead, and he would like to encourage people to hang up their fixed ideas and come and talk to him in person to learn more.

And so, with many young idealists across all different sub cultures winding up losing their faith over the passage of time, how does Roope perceive his enthusiasm for S.H.A.R.P. to be in future? “I feel that the values represented by the movement are permanent and will stay with me in time,” he foresees. “Perhaps I’ll become less intense and time may round some corners off the prism through which I see things, but I think the main idea will remain.”

Skinheads on short film

Shedding some light on the scene some time ago, the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE screened a short film about skinheads, depicting them in the same spirit as embodied by Valolahti. So, who is this filmmaker that dares to show the beautiful truth instead of ugly truisms that generally are able to sell better?

His name is Samuel Abaijon-Nurmisuo, “a 40-year-old mixture of cultures and countries with roots mainly in Spain and Finland,” as he presents himself, having been based in Finland now for 20 years.

“I got involved with the traditional skinhead scene over a decade ago, and noticed how the media focused only on the narrow-minded and racist side of this culture,” Abaijon-Nurmisuo explains. “With the documentary I wanted to shed some light and awareness on this misunderstood movement.”

The documentary was assembled with more than just theoretical knowledge. “I play in a band together with a S.H.A.R.P. skinhead, the Valkyrians. We tour a lot in Europe, mainly playing at anti-fascist gigs and festivals. I have a lot of skinhead friends all over Europe, and none of them are racist.”

Having such close contact with the culture, one begins to wonder if he considers himself to be a skinhead? “I don’t like to categorise myself. I’m a mix of many styles, ideals and cultures. When I introduce myself to someone, I just say my name.”

In keeping with Valolahti’s description of his musical taste, the beats and rhythms in Abaijon-Nurmisuo’s film are Jamaican-style, in the spirit of ska and reggae. “I’m very passionate about black music: old R’n’B, soul, funk, reggae and ska,” the director states. “Music is my lifeline.”

Having toured Europe with his band, Abaijon-Nurmisuo has seen first-hand the differences between the skinhead scene in Finland and the rest of Europe. “In Finland the scene is quite small and ambiguous. Everybody knows each other and the political and ideological boundaries are somehow… moody. Spain and Germany, for example, have a painful history. Over there skinheads are more defined and their ideologies are more explicit.”

Listening to Valolahti and Abaijon-Nurmisuo and waking to the realities of the skinhead movement reminds us vividly how easy it is for us to categorise people on false pretences and generally relate to people and things in a black-and-white fashion, through stereotypes. Perhaps the next time you or I meet someone identified as a skinhead, we may want to think twice before categorising this person in a knee-jerk fashion.

Mika Oksanen