By Robert Brink
Photos: Skin Phillips & Sem Rubio
Be Street Magazine, Winter 2015
Salvador Dali is allegedly quoted as saying, “I don’t do drugs; I am drugs.”
Well, Mark Gonzales is kind of just like that.
Mark doesn’t just ride a skateboard—he is skateboarding.
Gonz doesn’t just make art. He is art.
And like any great art, he is open to interpretation. He is not for everyone to love or comprehend. You discover something different each time you see him. Sometimes he’s quite simple, other times he’s quite complex—illegible even. He is thought provoking and thought leading. He is entertaining and inspiring. He often seems incomplete, over-the-top or ever changing. You can watch him over and over and over. He’s indifferent to how you feel about him. Sometimes it takes years for you to catch on to something he did way back in the day. Sometimes you might even dislike a part of him, but you always come back around, unconditionally, because the rest of what he does is too damn good.
Often times, when we are in the presence of great art, we feel envious. We wish we had the talent or the guts or the vision to go for it like the artist in front of us did—to make so many others feel some sort of way. And with The Gonz it’s no different. It’s near impossible not to wish we could all be on a similar, seemingly endless pursuit of skateboarding, art and fun. And because we can’t, we watch and we listen and we live vicariously through him, like you’re about to do right now …
I heard that Donald Trump owns some of your art, is that true? The thought that a potential president owns your art seems interesting.
A lot of people ask me about him. I guess people know that he likes art and is interested in some of the stuff I do. I can’t control who buys my art and I don’t have too much to say about it. I signed up to vote and I don’t really even vote.
Does it feel different if somebody famous owns a piece of your art, as opposed to a regular ol’ skate rat?
It’s strange. I equate it to being a skater and the circumstances of enjoyment in skating. For example, sometimes you find a skate spot that’s really good and you’re enjoying it by yourself or maybe with a couple friends. You have a great time and then you go back to that same spot the next day and it’s gone.
When I started to do art, I realized that it’s fleeting—always changing and going. A lot of times, in the moment, I can do a fun drawing for a kid, that I’m not planning to be important. And someone else could pay me money to do a drawing for them, and it’s something that might be very small and not have the same magic or depth to it as the one I did for the kid. So it’s very difficult to explain. Some kids might have a masterpiece that I doodled for them really quickly and someone else might have one that I spent a lot of time on.
Have you ever had a preference as to who owns your art? Or feel that skateboarders might understand, relate, or should own your art more than other people?
I’m getting recognized for my art now, and some people are doing art that is similar to my art now. But I’ve been inspired by other people as well. I never set out to have a specific type of art. Originally the prices of the materials didn’t matter. I would pick up material that was pretty much free. I did paper bag art because the paper bags were free. Every time I went to the market I would say, “Do you mind if I take a few bags?” And they’d say, “Sure, go ahead.” And those bags would be what I’d use to make the art on. I’d cut them up and spread them out and make long drawings on them. I would find the easiest and most economical way to have stuff to make art on. Eventually people would say, “Look, Mark, I want to support you. Do you want to do it like that? Let me buy you supplies!” But again, it’s fleeting. I can do something right away that becomes important and then something I spend time on can be unimportant. Sometimes people would give me supplies to make art with, but I wouldn’t be able to make something that relayed what I was feeling. It didn’t seem to work.
You can’t always channel whatever energy might be expected of you …
Exactly. I’m not a graffiti artist. I don’t do art on walls and stuff. But I think that the connection between the people that do actual graffiti art and skateboarding, it’s all self-gratifying. They’re not searching for fame. It’s something they do to channel an energy or something like that. They don’t want to go off into an area where what they do with that energy is bad or gets them into trouble, so they do it with graffiti. I know a lot of skaters that did graffiti and all these years I never really associated the two, but just recently I’ve been thinking about it. They do it because it can be anonymous. No one has to know who it is. If you’re super talented at something, sometimes it may be a burden to you, you know?
Do you ever feel that way? Like your art or your skateboarding or the status you’ve achieved with them over the years is a burden?
I don’t know. I’m looking out at New York City as I’m speaking with you and that’s just what I’m thinking about. I’m surprised sometimes, when I see someone who has a talent that I never knew they had. Like suddenly I see them playing piano and I’m like, “Woah!” And they are kinda like, “Yeah, I can do that but I don’t do it much.”
Sometimes it’s sad to not see someone do it if they have the talent.
Yes. And then when they do it they surprise you.
Are Gonz the artist and Gonz the skateboarder the same person? Or do you have to switch modes or brains to do one or the other?
I’m 48 years old. It’s difficult sometimes. Sometimes I have to refrain. If I see someone with a skateboard I can’t just go and skateboard with them right then because I have to do things that pertain to my life as a 48-year-old. The times when I do get to skateboard … boy, it is so fun and I do enjoy it.
You can see art in so many different things, but it’s an artist that sees a way to express it or channel it so that people realize that and see the beauty in it—see things from a different perspective and be like, “Wow, okay that’s awesome!” So I think it’s the same brain really, but just on different mediums. One is like a performance art. I can’t say that skating is completely performance art because it’s driven by competition sometimes. But if I see someone doing something difficult, I want to see how I could make it even more difficult or put more flair into it.
Having more friends that are artists now, I’ve started to realize that they don’t like sports or they don’t like competition. As children they shied away from that and got into art. So a lot of artists are people that don’t like competition.
I discovered skateboarding when I was 12 and it was such a relief. I quit soccer and baseball because I was tired of having coaches yell at me. I just wanted to do my own thing and not have to worry about losing or feeling like I wasn’t as good as other kids.
Yeah, and I think that’s why a lot of kids choose skating as an individual sport. You can be how you want to be. Like everything though, it gets competitive. Like figure skating. Look what happened with those champions taking each other out many years ago. People go to crazy lengths to be number one or to succeed or beat someone else. I mean that’s when it goes the bad way. There’s also the good way, where competition builds creativity and makes people interested in something.
Or even to just make people try harder.
I’m asking because I’m a writer. But sometimes I have a job in an office doing marketing all day and want to come home and write afterwards, but I can’t always just write. My brain doesn’t switch from “office guy” to “writer guy” very easily. So I sometimes need a couple days of not working, and then my brain transitions into the more creative brain and I can focus and write without being stressed or distracted about my job.
I like the way that sounds. I’ve tried to just go from skating to art and do art, but as I’m getting more successful in the art world it cuts into my skating time and I also want to skate more. But I’m getting old and my body doesn’t handle is as well as it used to anyway.
Over the last 25 years you’re always seen riding different kinds of skateboards. Most kids ride what we consider a “regular” board throughout their entire skate career—the standard eight-inch popsicle stick shape. Basically the same trucks and wheels for years with only a few millimeters in variation. Do you feel that people limit their experiences and their expression by always riding the same exact board skating the same exact skatepark over and over?
My influences were guys like Ray Bones, the whole Sims team, the Variflex team. All those older guys rode boards that were nowhere even close to the boards I ride now. I think I’m trapped in between the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s with the board shape I like. Right in that era, that’s when I liked skating the most.
I do animations a lot now. Sometimes I’ll have an idea of a trick I want to animate, and I come to the point where I get to decide what board I want to draw in. But if I’m gonna go skating I only have the board that I have at the time so that’s what I use.
I set up a board recently for my son and it has a huge nose. And he doesn’t need a huge nose; he doesn’t need a wider wheelbase. If you’re a taller person you kinda want a longer wheelbase so your feet can be further apart so you don’t feel like you’re riding on roller-skates. But he’s small and younger. One day I wanted to skate but I didn’t have my board, only had the board that I made for him. So when I was riding his board with the massive nose on it and I realized it was perfect for doing a nosepick, I did a lot of nosepicks that day. Sometimes, no matter what I want, the board I’m on determines what I’m going to end up doing anyways.
A lot of these guys like Jim Greco and Alex Olson; they’re making shapes now from boards that influenced them in the ‘90s. Board shapes that Jason Lee and Rodney Mullen skated just before the popsicle started to come in to style.
I feel it has to do with the time skateboarding really hit you in your heart and you fell in love with it. That’s what sticks with you the most as the best era. For me it was right before and during the early Rocco World Industries, Blind, 101, Plan B, Planet Earth, Life, New Deal era. It was the end of H-Street and the beginning of those brands. I loved that era. Hensley, Ocean Howell, the smaller kicked noses, the Airwalk shoes …
As much as I kinda had a disliking for H-Street, their boards looked good. And they were jumping on stuff really quickly. The way they were able to put out their stuff quicker, and the way it looked different and how they were able to come out with their videos—it was hot! I think Rocco saw that while he was working for Vision and wanted to do the same thing, “What these guys are doing, I’m gonna do it too”.
He had Vallely; he had Mullen; he had Jesse Martinez, and then he did his thing. Then Mike Ternasky from H-Street, realized that Rocco was doing his thing, but better, so he said, “I need to get with him!” So then they worked together on Plan B. You can go on and on with the history. I’m sure in the future they’ll have skateboard manufacturing theory; studying the theory behind what happened over time.
Like I said earlier, a lot of the ways the products are made nowadays has to do with the competitive spirit. The desire to be better changed the actual products that were being manufactured. I remember trying to explain to Fausto Vitello, the guy that was making the trucks back then, and to Brad Dorfman, the guy that made the Vision boards back then, that I needed the trucks to have the holes closer together because just moving the holes and the nuts back further helped for the noseslides and to not grind the bolts down. Then I told them, “Brad promises to make the boards to fit these trucks if you do your trucks to fit like this” and vice versa.
And it worked! Holy shit. That’s amazing because it’s two different products that have to coincide, but those manufacturers weren’t affiliated at all.
Yeah, and it wasn’t research and development by the manufacturers, it was the professional skateboarders that were competing and using the products that had a hand in changing it. People were skating non-stop. It was crazy! Danny Sargent, Julian Stranger … all those guys up north were doing those noseslides. Tom Knox too. You can’t pinpoint it to one person or one company. Jim Muir’s Dogtown riders … they needed their bolts moved back, to not get messed up from the tricks they were doing, too.
In the eras that you came up in, there were guys like Neil Blender, Lance Mountain, Garry Scott-Davis … the older generations seem to have had more skaters who were into art. Kids these days just kind of skate and focus on skating, and the art isn’t as much of a part of it as it was back then. Do you feel it’s something that’s been lost over the years?
I’ve saw Lance do something I thought was so genius. I couldn’t believe it. You know how you wear out your kneepads from doing knee slides when you bail a trick, right? He figured out a way to make his own replaceable caps. To me that was awesome because it taught kids to copy what he did and make things they needed for themselves. So then when we needed copers on our trucks, I don’t know who first showed me this. On the shopping carts at super markets, they’d rip off the plastic part of the handle and that would fit perfectly on the truck. That was art in itself. And that was Lance Mountain. That’s what pushed people to figure out things to use alternatively that won’t cost you money. Neil Blender … his little sketches and stuff were just amazing. And the way they dressed back then, it was really a culture.
Nowadays you don’t see many kids who take the time to draw on their grip before they go skateboarding. The grip comes with a huge colorful logo on it now.
It isn’t like it was back then. But it can change, you know? People can see things and see reasons why they need to put something there. You need to put something that’s going to inspire you as you try these tricks. You gotta have something to aim for and you gotta have something that gives you aim. I remember one time Thrasher had a competition at the Pipeline skatepark in Upland. But it got rained out. And during the time they had everyone there, since they couldn’t have the competition, they held a drawing event. Christian Hosoi did art, Caballero did art and it all came out in the mag. I remember looking at the artwork with my best skate buddy Pauly, checking all of them out. It was so cool because it made it also seem like they were just normal people too, you know?
That’s rad! I never heard that story or anything like it before, I was up last night reading and watching dozens and dozens of interviews with you, and a lot of them portray you as a guy sitting around doing art or skateboarding all day long and barely anything else.
Well you know, sometimes I gotta learn how to appreciate the people that support me and the people I have around me. It’s hard to do. You gotta learn to tell them you love them and thank them for helping you because no one person can succeed without the people that believe in them or help them. I’m very grateful and happy that I have that time to myself to be able to do the things that I do. And I’m having fun, but at the same time I’m being cautious and not trying to hurt anybody’s feelings or anything. Sometimes being expressive can be that way. I’m trying to be cautious with what I do while trying to benefit as many and hurting as few as possible.
You have a life that so many other people wish they could have. You’re skateboarding and drawing all day. A lot of people don’t have the balls to make the sacrifices and take the risks necessary to do that. In your case dropping out of school very young and so on.
Yeah, but there are a lot of things that schools teach that I haven’t learned and that I’m still learning. It’s difficult for me a lot of the time, being creative, or being known for being so creative, it’s not that easy. There’s no easy formula to achieving some type of job where it seems like it’s fun because sometimes it’s not fun. Sometimes I mix the wrong color and go to put it on and I have to scrap it, start all over again, and take a different approach. I’ve made things and they’re not durable or don’t work right.
The problem with being creative is that sometimes creativity has a lot to do with you and who you are and sometimes when you make an attempt at being creative you might see a part of yourself that you don’t really want to see or you don’t want to share with other people. It might be ugly, and sometimes that makes it hard for people because they want to be creative.
I read this quote from you: “It’s hard to say what I feel.” Do you feel like people understand you? Are you what people consider “normal”? There are people that feel misunderstood their whole lives and it’s hard for them.
You know how a dog hates the noise of a skateboard and they jump or they cringe or bark? Sometimes when two people cross paths, one person can make the other person jump or cringe. I think sometimes, not purposely, I make people cringe. I don’t mean to. I’ve had older women tell me to keep away from them sometimes, ha ha.
Talk a little about the new adidas skateboarding video that you’re involved in.
It’s amazing watching these younger kids. It’s so crazy to watch! It seems like they’re having the time of their life; they’re really going for it. I’ve been going on filming trips with them for the last year and it’s been a lot of fun. Watching the younger guys skate, sometimes I’m supposed to be skating too, but they are so good that other times I’m just filming them with my iPad.
While we were in Barcelona, Nakel Smith nollie flipped on my board and it’s 11 inches wide and 42 inches long. He pulled a nollie flip down 4 stairs on that and it was insane.
With the big trucks and everything?
Yeah with 215s, man. 11 inches wide! He just busted it on my board like nothing and I was like “Wow”. These kids are insane. They could ride whatever I ride and just dominate.
Is skateboarding still the same for you now as when you first fell in love with it?
It is actually! Just as satisfying.
You’re a very youthful person. Has becoming a father brought you to a place where you have another outlet to be youthful? Do you see the world any differently and get to feel younger again?
It’s actually the opposite. I have to not set a bad example. I don’t know why I’m childish but I have to cut my childish behavior when I’m around my kid! Honestly, I know it sounds funny, but the things that I enjoy doing sometimes, if my child does them at school she’ll get in trouble so I have to be cautious about the kind of things I do around her. I have to curb my childishness, but I watch her having fun too!
In the past you’ve spoken about seeing something like high-heeled shoes and it makes you want to draw them. That is so pure and simple. There are so many forms of art where writers or painters need to come up with an elaborate concept and story and multiple meanings or hidden meanings for their work. Do you think that something is lost by making art so complicated?
I think sometimes people want something simple and other times people give it great meaning, even though that person’s intent might be something simple.
It fascinates me because it’s such a different brain than mine. I would never look at a shoe and write about the shoe and nothing but the shoe. It’s an endearing quality to your art and your skateboarding: it seems so simple and pure, not over-thought.
There’s snow right now here in New York. I have these adidas boots, and they have a gum sole, like Clarks or whatever. Not made for skateboarding but they’re great for the snow and they keep my feet warm and everything. I was out walking and happened to be carrying my board as the snow was starting to melt, so I thought, “I’m going to go skate because these shoes are feeling so good. I want to ride in them!”
First, I was riding on the flat and really enjoying the shoes with the board and everything. So then I went out to the Bay Ridge skatepark in Brooklyn and dug out the bowl to skate and I had the best session ever! So the weather being bad ended up being a plus. It took me about an hour and a half to dig out the bowl, and I only skated for probably twenty minutes. Some other kids showed up and it ended up being a good time! I ended up falling and it was fun.