Iconoclast Jason Dill Is Returning Skateboarding to Its Obscenely Awesome Roots Playboy October 2016
Words: Rob Brink
In 2009, pro skateboarder Jason Dill had to call 911 on himself. He was throwing up blood all over his New York City apartment and suffering from a gastric hemorrhage. The Jameson, Vicodin and Percocet cocktails had finally taken their toll.
“I didn’t think I’d even survive,” says Dill, who now stars on the Netflix series Love. “When I’m on the set, I’m quiet as a mouse. I’m just so blown away and thankful I’m there. And the last thing I ever wanted was the responsibility of owning a company that people expect more from—because owning a company is a pain in the ass.”
In 2013, after kicking the pills and spending more time on his board, Dill ditched his longtime sponsor, Alien Workshop—one of the most popular skateboarding companies ever—and walked away from a partial-ownership offer to co-found board brand Fucking Awesome, an extension of his self-funded apparel side project.
In doing so, Dill dumped a bucket of ice on the once-countercultural world of skateboarding, which in the previous 17 years had devolved into a G-rated parody of itself to appease moms and malls, and woke it the fuck up. The exodus of Alien’s riders to Fucking Awesome was swift. It’s now one of the top-selling and most knocked-off companies in boards and streetwear, despite its provocative graphics, null social media presence and label that prevents mass retail saturation.
When Fucking Awesome launched as a skateboard brand in 2013, it wasn’t uncommon to hear industry folk say, “They’re never going to make it. They’ll never get into mall shops with that name.”
You see where their brains went immediately? That’s what’s wrong with the industry—all this bullshit people talk. I’m sorry because some of them are my friends, but with their two-and-a-half car garage and two and a half kids in their suburb of Portland, of course they’re not going to be like, “Let’s go nuts!” They’d lose their fucking jobs. Luckily, I’m not fighting to keep my two and a half kids in the latest expensive daycare. I don’t give a fuck. No family, no car and no mortgage payments means I just shoot this shit out of my fucking soul.
Die-hards have criticized the skateboarding industry for pandering to the mainstream so much and becoming so non-offensive that a word like “fucking” seems shocking. That’s what’s so scary. If it were 1993, no one would bat an eye. You disrupted the entire industry.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pleased that things were disrupted, because I am. I most certainly wasn’t aiming for Alien Workshop to almost go out of business, because after being with them for 15 years, quitting was emotionally insane. But going into skate shops these days, looking at the wall and seeing other board brands trying really hard is great, because none of them were trying this hard before and I know that’s a direct result of FA. Anyone who thinks that statement is over the top, go ahead and think that but you can also eat my butt, because it’s the truth. I see people bite us over and over again and it’s ridiculous because they don’t even realize everything they bite. That forces me to go make something else that’s out of their realm because I know they won’t think of it. And then they bite that, too.
When I visit skate shops like Uprise in Chicago, Seasons in Albany, Orchard in Boston or Exit in Philadelphia, owners tell me that I helped bring skate shops back. They feel FA brought the kids and excitement back because new kids started coming in only asking for FA. Shit like that is such a big compliment that I feel funny saying it back to you.
After you were hospitalized in 2009, you kind of disappeared from skateboarding. In your own mind, did you ever imagine owning a respected company like FA?
No. It’s totally fucking insane. That’s why when I’m on the set of Love I take it all in. I’m just so fucking blown away. I didn’t think I’d survive. I really didn’t. I never wanted my own company. Wanna know why? Because it’s a fucking pain in the ass! When people expect more, they expect it fucking tomorrow. If you came out with some shit yesterday, they wanna see the new shit next week. It’s just ridiculous day in and day out, but I suppose it’s like having a kid. I take care of it. I love it. I can’t let it go to a community college, you know? I gotta raise it right. [laughs]
Skateboarding is a trend-oriented sport. Things are hot for a year or three and then they’re not. We’ve all seen the shelf life some skate brands have.
I’m now past my third year of FA. I’m proud of what we’ve done. If you are a company making stuff, you need to have it in the back of your head that, hey, I might have to kill this thing one day for the greater good so it doesn’t look like a bunch of bullshit. Imagine if Mark Gonzales got to end his skate company, Blind. How would we look at it today? Imagine if Mark had made some deal with Steve Rocco, the owner of his distributor early on, like, “I’ll totally do this, but when I think it’s time that this is done, I get to put out an ad that says, ‘It’s done. We killed it. It’s over. Thank you.’” I feel a lot of people think when you start a company, you just ride it until someone comes along and buys you. That’s not the fucking case here. I’d rather it die than look bad.
Killed at the peak.
Yeah, like Michael Jordan did, until he played baseball and came back and played for the fucking Wizards. It was like, c’mon, dude! I know I didn’t invent this way of thinking, but I feel it serves me best.
You also star on Judd Apatow’s hit Netflix series, Love. How did that come about?
About a year and a half ago I was in Los Angeles and saw my friend [TV writer] Lesley Arfin on the street. She was like, “Hey, I’m making this television show with my boyfriend and we think you’d be good in it.” I was at point when I really needed everything to be completely spot-on with FA—production and all that bullshit—so I was like, “I’m not really into it. That sounds crazy. I don’t think I have time.” She told me, “I knew you’d say that, but it’s Judd Apatow and it’s guaranteed two seasons for Netflix. Will you audition?”
And I fucking did. Before I knew it they were asking me to come to Sony Pictures and do a reading in front of Judd. I was so fucking nervous. It was wild because I’m not an actor.
The second season’s done now and I’m happy to be on it. Everyone was really nice. All of them knowing I wasn’t an actor coming into it was just super cool because I’d do a scene with a stand-up comedian and they’d be like, “Dude you’re doing good.” I’m like, “Really? All right. Good.”
Meet Austyn Gillette: Risk-taker With Style—On and Off the Board Playboy.com April 22, 2018
Words: Rob Brink
Photography: Curtis Buchanan
Despite being at the helm of one of the only apparel brands of note in skateboarding and surfing at the moment—a brand called Former—where everything, from pants to thermals to tees to board-shorts are all custom (there's even safety pins and nail polish), 26-year-old professional skateboarder Austyn Gillette wouldn't dare consider himself a designer or fashion aficionado.
Interviewing him about related intangibles like "style" and "inspiration" and "process" usually derails into ponderous banter and a roasting of the current state of affairs, which, I'd like to imagine, puts us somewhere in between the great writers and philosophers sipping coffee at Paris' Cafe de Flore in the 1920s and Beavis and Butthead. "Do you think boot cut is going to come back?" Austyn pontificates. "Isn't that just a nicer way of saying 'bell bottoms'?" I say.
"What about capris or something?" He continues. "I'm ready for it. I just want to see it. When is the landline phone going to be hot again? It's just inconvenient enough to be really fucking cool and retro." To know Austyn is to love his uncanny ability to observe the circus that is life happening all around him. Amused; never triggered; notoriously deadpan, Austyn is the constructively berating older brother that everyone (including the world of skateboarding) needs. He's what Ryan Gosling is to Steve Carell and his beloved New Balances in Crazy, Stupid, Love. "Everything's just going backwards right now. Like full-on '90s. I don't even know what people are doing out there," he continues.
"They're suffering for the trend," I reply. "Oh boy. That's exactly what they're doing. There's a lot of fucking bullshit and some half-assed skating going on. It hurts the fucking eyes and soul. Everybody's a fucking celebrity; everybody's trying to get some with their internet personas. Everybody's just blindly throwing shit out there—putting a little milk down on the stairs and seeing if any cats come lick it up. And just because Rihanna wore their dumb ass shirt, people are successful financially. All that matters is putting your shirt on a fucking rapper. I can't wait until the modern rap is fucking done. I really can’t.”
At the heart of this ranting, though, lies the desire to see people try harder and contribute to creating great, timeless things—to filter out the nonsense and elevate the whole. Austyn is a quality control person, and you can count on two hands the professional skateboarders and brands from the last 30 years known and respected for that. "I think all that really matters is being good at what you do and putting out good content. If people like your style and you influence them, and they influence you, then you're doing something right and it's honest and pure. I don't think people are delivering right now. They aren't pushing the envelope and I hope that that changes.”
Currently living in Los Angeles, the Orange County, California (Whittier, to be exact) native has been skateboarding since he was 8 years old, securing sponsorships and magazine coverage by age 9. As his career progressed and his skating matured, alongside his friends Dylan Rieder and Alex Olson (half-jokingly dubbed "Team Handsome" by the skate community), Gillette eventually came to be known as one of the most stylish and respected skaters of his generation, both on and off the board.
He's shunned blatant money grabs, flavor-of-the-month trends, NASCAR-esque logos and a wardrobe that looks like an Easter egg coloring kit exploded all over the cast of Seinfeld's closets. Instead, he prefers black or white basics—slim fit pants, tucked-in tees or wife beaters, dress shoes off the board and signature skate shoes that replicate them while on it. In essence, a man's man approach to dress over that of say, a mall skate shop employee or Odd Future festival-goer. "These days I love a '40s or '50s style, or even something like Peaky Blinders—that kind of early 1900s thing," Austyn explains. "Straight leg, wider pants and a clean shirt, stuff like that."
Far more important than the appeal and influence of Austyn's clothes, though, is that his natural ability on a skateboard rivals some of the top pros on the planet. These days, for most, opting out of chucking yourself down gargantuan rails or gaps and steering clear of the contest circuit is career suicide. But Austyn's technically proficient, yet surf-like approach to street skating embraces speed and finesse, with a trick selection that has always showcased skill and refined taste beyond his years. He skates fast; his push looks great; his flick is quick; his power understated. His landings possess just enough sketchiness to make them cooler than if they were perfect—carving from side to side or sometimes hopping his feet into the "correct" position after the fact. His arms and upper body continue spinning long after his legs are locked in place. His motions are fluid even though at first, they might seem like exaggerated flair.
Simply stated, Austyn is amazing to watch on a skateboard. He knows what looks good and has the talent, sophistication and restraint to execute it, alongside a keen sense of style to accentuate it. "I've always hung out with older people who have good taste," Austyn explains, "because of that, I wasn't so inspired by my contemporaries or skateboarders my age. I was always looking outward and I guess that's how FORMER is too.”
Conceptually born from the friendships forged on the "Team Average" surf trip to Australia for Monster Children back in 2012—with pro surfers Craig Anderson and Dane Reynolds (two of the most stylish and respected surfers out there today), and legendary professional skateboarder Dylan Rieder (who passed away in October 2016)—FORMER officially launched in March 2017 and is an anomaly in the sense that, as obvious as it seems, pro skaters and surfers rarely start brands together.
When I ask Austyn what he would like to see more of, he responds, "To tell you the truth. I would just like to see less. I would love somebody to say, 'No. There are too many of those out there. We actually can't make that.' You know how you have to go through the city for a liquor license or something like that? Where there's a cap and you've got to wait a year until they auction off somebody else's license? It should be like that." He continues, "but at the same time, I like that people are getting away with whatever, because I've always dealt with that—manipulating an article of clothing I find at a vintage shop and cutting the sleeves off or something like that, and people will ask me where I got it."
He notes that many of Former's pieces are "based off pieces purchased from vintage shops—things from back in the day—and then we put our little twist on it. And we'll ask men and women for feedback on what they like and don't like about it." Above all, there is an authenticity and passion behind each functional, timeless piece that he believes people can recognize. He continues, "Rather than doing what everybody else is doing, we're just doing what we want. It's a marriage of two completely different lifestyles filtered by experiences and friends who have good taste."
And that true place is the heart and soul of cultures like skateboarding and surfing. The desire to manifest a feeling inside of you into something tangible outside of you. To counter the inanity of popular culture and create what doesn't yet exist, if for no other reason than to have fun or inspire oneself and circle of friends—an ethos often appropriated but never duplicated, by mainstream fashion—the subject of decades-old animosity between the two worlds that only seems to be intensifying as more and more of skateboarding's influence, including plenty of stolen designs, seem to be popping up on runways, in advertising and on the racks of department stores all over the world—Thrasher's logo being the primary source of "inspiration" for many at the moment. "Skateboarding's always been pretty noisy," says Austyn.
"It's just a noisy, rebellious sport. I hate calling it a sport, though, but there's just something about it—you hear it, then you see the person doing it, and you don't know why it's so cool, but it just is. Everybody knows that. Skateboarding has a big presence and has been cool ever since it started. Bigger brands outside of skateboarding are drawn to it because it's rebellious. They're just buying into this thing we built now that it's already cool and accepted. There's nothing behind it other than that.
Never lacking in self awareness, Austyn jokingly concludes: "But it's just clothes at the end of the day and it's all pretty silly. We're not humanitarians. We're not doing anything special. Most people are so fucking oblivious to all the shit we are talking about anyway."
Pro Skateboarder Brian Anderson Opens Up to Playboy About His Groundbreaking Coming Out
Playboy.com October 4, 2016
Words: Rob Brink
In 1999, professional skateboarder Brian Anderson won the World Championship, followed by the most coveted accolade in skateboarding, Thrasher’s “Skater of the Year” award. Just a year prior, in 1998, Tim Von Werne’s soon-to-be professional skate career came to a screeching halt after his sponsor, Birdhouse Skateboards, killed an interview with Skateboarder magazine in which Von Werne revealed he’s gay.
The world of sports hasn’t traditionally been kind to gay athletes; skateboarding is no different. Anyone relying on a heterosexual, male-dominated, youth-driven activity for their livelihood has always had to carefully consider the impact that coming out could have on their career and personal life. In skateboarding specifically, nobody wanted to become the next Von Werne.
Anderson is big for a professional skateboarder, towering at six-foot-three. He’s covered in tattoos and skates with the eyes of an axe murderer and the elegance of a zenned-out surfer. You don’t want to get in Anderson’s way during a session, but you do want him at your side in a bar in case there’s a brawl. Throughout his career, Anderson has designed his own shoe for Nike and collaborated on boards with some of the most respected skate brands in history. He’s been an icon in the skate world for more than a decade. Last week, Anderson upended that world when he came out publicly in a Vice Sports documentary directed by Giovanni Reda.
Anderson knew he was gay since he was four years old, when he found himself attracted to Popeye’s enemy, Bluto. His friends in the skate industry didn’t know until he told them in the early 2000s and, although word spread through inner-circles, a tightknit group of insiders protected Brian’s secret, speaking about it only amongst themselves and behind closed doors.
When the news hit in late September, Anderson did more than break the internet. He transcended skateboarding and harnessed the web’s power to bring people together in support of someone who pulled off a career move greater than any trophy and gnarlier than any trick. With little to no backlash, you’d be hard-pressed to find another example of a time when there was so much compassion and unity in the skate community.
Anderson might not be the first pro to come out, but he is the first A-list World Champion and “Skater of the Year” winner to. It marks yet another watershed moment in the recent wave of mainstream sport athletes coming out, from Michael Sam to Jason Collins to David Denson. But unlike what Von Werne experienced, this time around the skate community is grown-up enough to embrace it. To celebrate this pivotal moment in socio-sexual progress, Playboy asked sports journalist Rob Brink to meet up with Anderson to talk about the aftermath of his important public announcement. One thing becomes clear during their conversation: if you are going to hate on Anderson for being gay, you are hating on one of the most beloved, talented and influential figures in the history of skate culture. You’re also an asshole.
In the documentary, you say that you originally hadn’t plan to come out until after retirement. What changed?
I’d already told so many people in the industry over the last 15 years. It was irritating being halfway out. To be honest, I just want to be able to post a picture of my boyfriend and me on the beach on Instagram. But it’s not just about social media—that’s not real life. I simply wanted to be able to walk down the street and give my boyfriend a kiss in public before he got on the subway and I went skateboarding. I want simple things like that.
Just for my soul, I had to get this out. When you hold it in for so long it really messes with your head. I would hate to leave this planet and not tell my story. I wanted to tell everyone so that some little kid in the middle of nowhere who is wondering what’s going on with his life gets to hear all these fantastic people say, “Screw it, we love Brian!” Now, anybody who wants to come talk to me can. If there’s some kid that wants to pull me aside and go, “I’m gay and I’m freaked out” and I will be like, “I’m here for you. Want to go talk about this?”
What reaction were you expecting prior to the release of the documentary?
I wasn’t expecting it to be this huge at all. I should make the point that this thing was supposed to come out a week earlier, but due to some technical difficulties, it was delayed. I was upset because I had watched and combed through the edit so many times and was finally not afraid anymore. I was texting Reda, “Just put it out!“ That being said, it was a magical blessing because the night before it came out, Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton debated. I got so many messages from people saying, “Last night was the worst, but to have something great come out in the world the morning after that madness was so refreshing.”
How has life been since your public coming out a week ago?
My phone is like a volcano. I wake up at five in the morning and look at Instagram, which I never used to do. It’s all been positive; the support from all different kinds of people is amazing. I’m very happy and just busy trying to be a gangster and embrace it all with the little sleep I’m getting.
What was it like for you to watch footage of your friends talking about you?
I shed tears watching it. Having that kind of support is incredible because not everybody does. I’m fortunate in that I’m a six-foot-three tattooed, hairy guy with a masculine voice, so I haven’t experienced anything too crazy. I was able to slip under the radar and my heart goes out to the people who it is more difficult for. What I went through was awful, but if you live in a small town in middle America and you are effeminate, I can’t imagine what that must be like.
I’ve been in my fair share of skate tour vans and have heard the way people say “faggot!” and “that’s gay!” How difficult was it to keep your mouth shut when that happened?
At times it was tough. I was scared. I couldn’t call someone out so I just had to deal with it. The people around me who might have used those words, they weren’t mean people. They weren’t racist; they weren’t homophobic. I was always careful to surround myself with good people and they never hurt me too much in that way.
Early in my career, being with [skateboarder and owner of skate brand Toy Machine] Ed Templeton helped a lot. To be on his team you have to be open-minded because you’re dealing with him. As an artist, he has a lot of provocative photos of he and his wife having sex and stuff. The people he let into our world were pretty darn open-minded folks. I never really felt a lot of homophobia with them. I would hear it around me in other venues, at contests and stuff, and I was like, “Thank God I’m not in the van with them.”
It’s amazing how respectful and protective the skate industry was of you all these years. I once saw a Vice UK article outing you, which is scary. Did that create any urgency for you to come out?
That disgusted me. I don’t know who had the audacity to think it’s their right to publicly post something like that. Like, who are you? Do you understand what it’s like to be gay? Screw you. I’m a public figure to a degree, so of course people are going to talk, but for someone to tell your story before you’re ready to, that’s disrespectful. That person should be ashamed of him or herself.
There have also been incidents where people’s careers were damaged as the result of coming out, such as Tim Von Werne’s. Mark Nickels, a friend of mine, was a videographer for Osiris and allegedly lost his job because they found out he was gay.
I don’t want to name names, but I heard how Tim was, what you’d call “fired.” That totally disturbed me. It made me angry about whoever was involved in doing that to him. And fuck Osiris for doing that to [Nickels]. Put that in print. That’s disgusting. They should be ashamed of themselves.
Based on percentages, one has to assume there are more gay pro skaters. Do you think you’ve encouraged them to come out?
I only know one and I think he’s basically retired. In the future, I hope so, just so they can be themselves. After all this stuff is over, we need to not even talk about the fact that we’re gay. It’s a great point to make right now and I’m thrilled, but I’m looking forward to just being a skateboarder again. It’s going to be cool when this is over so we can say, “Okay, we all puked this up and shit it out of our systems. Now we can just live.”
What would you say to other people out there, especially skateboarders, who are scared to come out?
Be careful. We are fortunate that we live in a time where things are becoming more accepted, but somebody can still throw a fucking bottle at your head. There are a lot of close-minded people and if you’re on a bus holding your partner’s hand, there might be someone who’s going to freak out and want to hurt you. If you feel like your family has old-fashioned values that may result in negativity, or if you think your parents are going to freak out and disown you, then don’t come out. It sucks to say, but we all have to wait for the right time in our life. But then guess what? There are going to be a lot of new people you’ll meet that will become your new family. They are going to hold your hand and walk you through the rest of your life. They’re going to love and embrace you and help you go further and be happier. There are millions of people out there ready to help you.
Ryan Allan: Discoveries
By Rob Brink Concrete Photo Annual, 2013
“What kind of camera do you use?” is the most common question people ask when they see my photos or my gear—and I’m not even a REAL photographer, so I can only imagine how often photographers hear it.
It’s not necessarily a “bad” question, but more an odd one in the sense that every successful skateboarding photographer I know has the potential to, and will, share a vast wealth of knowledge and experience beyond the words “Canon” or “Nikon” to help you progress in the field of photography and the skateboarding industry.
Ryan Allan is one of those photographers.
“I answer gear questions all day long,” Ryan says. “And I’ll also reply, ‘Get better at networking.’ I swear its something I had to learn, because I’m a quiet introvert. Sometimes I’ll go to skate premieres and nobody will know I’m there and that’s what holds me back. I’ve seen people come up with next to no talent, but they’re really good at being the life of the party, and that shit goes miles. It’s both infuriating and hilarious. Like, ‘Wow, that dude is making it because he’s funny and buying people drinks.’
Did you ever see Walk the Line—the Johnny Cash movie with Joaquin Phoenix? Or the film “Pollack,” starring Ed Burns? Nearly any story about creative legends has that scene … the moment where the struggling artist realizes their place in it all. For Cash is was upon receiving hundreds of letters from prison inmates who were moved by his music. For Jackson Pollack is was accidentally spilling paint on a blank canvas in his shed and then continuing to haphazardly and purposely do so. And for almost anyone who’s “made it” in the arts, they have similar stories.
And trust me, experiencing that moment is far more exhilarating than finding out if your favorite photographer prefers film over digital.
“I can almost pinpoint it exactly,” says Allan, “I didn’t figure myself out until a Flip tour with French Fred. Hanging out with him, I realized that, for me, this has to be more about aesthetic and things looking rad and less about sports photography.
“I hit it off with Geoff Rowley shooting for Vans,” Ryan explains. “So then I went on a Flip tour and he was like ‘Come check out this stuff I have going on in the desert.’ He didn’t tell me much about it, but Fred was shooting a mini ramp thing with some Flip guys for Extremely Sorry. I’d known Fred for a while, but really spent a lot of time with him on this shoot and was watching him do a lot of time-lapse dolly stuff. Things that people are just doing now, he was doing way back then. They weren’t HD cameras, but they were HVX kind of things. He had a ladder and a dolly and was measuring the distance in sticks from trees as he was moving the camera manually—without an intervalometer. Just watching him, I was like, ‘This dude is so obsessed with creativity. It’s awesome!’ I got so sparked from him. The stuff he’s done for Cliché … if everything in skateboarding were like that I’d be so hyped.
“I’m sick of third-stair-from-the-bottom fisheye shots,” Allan continues. “I still have to do it, because I have a commitment to the skater to document them. I have to get them in the mags for both of us to make a living, so there’s this frustrating battle when I get to a spot. Like, ‘I could shoot this really weird and it might not get run, but so and so needs a cover.’ So you have to shoot it standard, and when I’m doing that I’m like, ‘Fuck! There’s some awesome shit going on with five dudes hanging by the van having a beer and I’m here sitting under a rail shooting this trick.’ And that’s more what I want to do now. I want to shoot the hang out. It resonates with me. Even as a kid, Jason Lee talking about Benihana’s in Video Days, for example … that’s the stuff I remember. The skaters are all having a good time. Kids don’t even see that in videos anymore. The personality doesn’t come through. Girl and Chocolate do a good job of showing that. A lot of brands ignore it. I’d love to be able to do that all the time but I also understand I have a job to do. I’m fully a spoiled brat now and I get pissy and bummed. That’s the inner artist in me, not the reporter that’s documenting the back smith down the 12 stair.”
And there’s a conflict in skateboarding (and beyond) that you, the reader, may not be so privy to. One far beyond that of the internal “artist” vs. “reporter” plight. And that’s the constant battle between the artists and the businessmen—art and creativity vs. “getting the job done” and selling product and ad space.
“I look back at old TransWorld mags with the “New York Minute” by Ted Newsome,” says Ryan. “Those little slices of New York life were things that I loved. Now it’s all gone. I look in mags these days and all that I see is the spot and I don’t get any sense of what the situation it really was. And that column being gone, sadly, was probably about ad space. Some president or person up top saying it’s not an interesting story or it's better to sell an ad or run a photo of a smith grand where you can see every sticker and logo on the board and what shoes the skater is wearing. I get burned out on that. I’ve worked for many companies. I’ve shot silhouette stuff and they’ll be like, ‘We can’t use that photo.’ But in my opinion it doesn’t matter. It isn’t bad that’s it’s a silhouette because it’s about the emotion. That’s what sells your product. They don’t need to keep putting more frickin’ logos in your face; that’s going to happen anyway and they don’t understand that a silhouette ad might actually stand out because it’s the only one anyone’s seen in a long time. That’s the constant battle I fight with myself all the time, but it’s also the world I’ve invited myself into.
“Luckily I get to shoot with people like Tom Karangelov, for example, who are down to do weird stuff and aren’t worried about whether goes in an mag or not. He gets it. I need more people like that. One of my personal favorites of him is in Laguna Beach at this handrail into a gnarly hill bomb. And I was holding my camera way above my head so you could see down the hill. I shot one and it was only his feet and board grinding down the rail … with his Zero socks on. I’m don’t feel you need to look through the camera for the position of a photo. So naturally I was so hyped when the photo ran in Color.
Ryan’s built relationships with some of the most photographically iconic skaters in the world … guys like Arto, Dylan, Rowley, Stefan and more—as well as newer, yet equally photogenic individuals like Tom Karangelov and Ben Nordberg. Similar to that of, say, Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, these relationships between Ryan and his subjects can literally be seen through years of magazine and web documentation—and they are symbiotic.
“Lets take Dylan, for example,” says Allan. “I was introduced to Gravis and met Dylan through Arto because I was shooting for Flip and followed Arto to whatever program he was a part of. But the way it really blossomed between Dylan and I was with this kickflip photo at a sculpture in Sydney. I shot it pretty weird … down below. I’d shot with him before but I played it really safe because I didn’t want to say, ‘Sorry Dylan I blew it.’ Back then he didn’t talk. And I fully thought he hated me. It turned out that he was living in a coma, but I didn’t have a read on him. But I won him over by easing him into these weirder photos. He’s really into things looking good and I knew that about him. We both like fashion magazines. We just started to feed off it all and I think it started to click for him. He knew I worked a certain way and I’d throw ideas out and he’d be like ‘Fuck yeah; we’re going to do that! People are going to think it’s gay, but lets do it.’ And that was kind of the beginning of the Dylan look that people recognize now.”
“Ryan’s photography is top-notch,” says Geoff Rowley. “He enjoys the moment and is a pleasure to be around. He’s calm, collected and motivated. He shoots classic shots that are timeless, technically crisp and with good variety. He is well versed in different photographic approaches, from studio product shots to portraits to available light black and whites. Whatever it is he can get the job done. He also isn't afraid to get on the road and explore. He’s an easily-pleased team player that adapts to his surroundings well.”
“Rowley is my number one guy,” says Allan. “He gets it. A lot of skaters are like, ‘I have this spot; it looks so cool; it’ll be so great for a photo.’ Then you get there and it looks like total shit. But when Geoff says it, you know it’s going to be amazing. He’s the first dude that I learned about relationships and understanding each other with. He knows spots and how they’re going to work. He recommends how to shoot things and I totally shoot them that way. He goes to great lengths, like getting mini ramps built in the woods. He understands that if it’s a mini ramp in a parking lot, you would film a part on it and everyone will hate you. But if it’s in the woods and you do some crazy voiceover with the footage, it makes it rad.”
So can a photographer indirectly and inadvertently learn from another photographer through a skater—the skater working as “medium” so to speak? Legendary skate photographer Daniel Harold Sturt spent a lot of time shooting Rowley; Rowley spent a lot of time shooting with Allan; Allan learns from Sturt …
“I grew up with Sturt photos,” says Allan. The Sturt / Hensley combination was amazing. Like, that’s me and Geoff. That’s what we want. A lot of people think that my container photo of Geoff is a Sturt photo. I didn’t even do anything Sturt-ish on it. And I feel honored when people think it’s a Sturt photo. I’m just like, ‘Fuck yeah!’ I always wanted to pick up elements of him. Arto used to send me all these little videos that Sturt made of himself longboarding and getting caught by cops. They were crazy. That’s kind of what you want—a tweaked brain. Look at the Markovich Carlsbad water gap photo that Sturt shot. It’s just Markovich’s knees down and you can see Sturt’s shadow using a half-lens fisheye, pre-Atiba. It’s just the craziest looking photo and there’s so much information about Sturt and photography in that photo. It’s so awesome. Sturt showed so much in that photo; that you can cut peoples heads off and it’ fine if it looks cool and that you can shoot on two different cameras and not have to hide anything.
“There’s so much craziness and awesomeness in his work. I’ve studied it for years. He made me realize that you don’t have to be up really close to see the action, but rather, step back and see the bigger picture. Think of the photo of Hensley doing the frontside ollie on the hat, if he shot that photo from the edge of the hat it would have been terrible and you’d never even experience what Matt was skating. Sturt is one of the best people that ever happened in skateboarding. You have to embrace the weirdos. These days, skateboarding hates out everything that is weird and different, yet we unconditionally love someone like the Gonz. It’s such a conflicting message. You have to love those people. There are a million generic, personality-less contest skaters. I love the Gonz and Ed Templeton and Jason Lee. The fact that Lenny Kirk went crazy and all religious is epic. It enhances the bigger picture. Ed talks about books and art and that helps with creativity. I’m lucky I’ve met all those people and grew up in a time in skateboarding when it was encouraged. It’s important to do that now. There are going to be all these kids who grow up at the skatepark and become like washed-up quarterbacks instead of learning a trade or art and all these other things that can help them beyond skateboarding down the line. They’ll blow their knee out and work in a factory because skateboarding didn’t bring them past that.
“Photographers are almost as popular as the skaters these days,” Allan continues. “Look at Atiba, he’s a celebrity in his own right and it’s cool. There are more and more kids realizing that there are careers and a fun life to be had in skateboarding in any capacity, not just being a pro. And I think photographers have the better deal because I’ve seen some pros get old and the world gets harsh really quick. Their bodies are destroyed and they have no skill sets. They’ve traveled the world and been catered to but when it goes away their world becomes a dark place. And I feel really bad. Sometimes I think I’ve got it easy. So all you kids out there who think that they want to become pro skaters, you might want to try something longer-lasting.”
The iPhone has quickly become the most popular camera in the world. Everyone has a camera in their pocket at all times and everyone’s a so-called “photographer,” or wants to be. Instagram has become a real-time skate magazine of sorts. Skate ads and photos in magazines have been shot on iPhones, and we’re not talking silly enjoi ads either, we’re talking actual tricks. But how does a true and professional photographer feel about this shift and how does it affect things going forward?
“It’s weird and has made me pull back a lot,” say Allan. “Because I see it so much now, I’ve avoided being the guy who has a camera around his back at all times. I think if you have good taste, know what you’re doing and are willing to sit back and not join the herd, but rather, more strategically decide what you want to do instead of just throwing it out into the sea, that’s when you will stand out.
“What you can do on an iPhone now is insane, and the whole thing has proven that anyone can shoot a generic photo and get it run in a magazine. Even the kid down the street has a 16-mm fisheye. Back when I started, a Canon fisheye lens was $800. If you had a fisheye in your city, you were the dude. Hopefully, people will eventually want a change, but I’m not worrying about that. For now I’m just doing my best to be really good at what I do and focusing on portraits and behind-the-scenes stuff.”
Most recently, Ryan got a gig as team manager (and photographer) for Asphalt Yacht Club. Like so many other creatives in our industry, Ryan knows it’s difficult—near impossible at times—to make a proper living without a full time job or multitasking.
“I’ve done this my whole career,” explains Allan. “I’ve always used another outlet to get to where I want to be. I started SBC because there were no places to sell my photos and because Appleyard was a rising star in Canada and we couldn’t get his photos published anywhere. America didn’t know about Mark yet, and Concrete was pretty west coast-heavy at the time. So I was like, ‘Okay, lets do something east coast promote Appleyard.’ From there, Mark got blew up and got me a graphic design job at Circa, so I moved down to California. I’d already done four years of design working for the mag, so I started designing T-shirts and Circa catalogs, then became their photographer.”
After Circa, Allan freelanced for various companies over the years … Gravis came next.
“It’s always been photography-based, but the pitch was always, ‘I can shoot all your photos, but I’m also a commercial photographer and can shoot product and save you guys a shit ton of money.’ In skateboarding that’s the clincher every time.
“AYC came about through Ben Nordberg, which is crazy because I pick on Ben all the time. He was like, ‘They’re looking for a team manager; you should talk to them.’ Team managing isn’t my favorite thing, but I did it at Gravis because they were my friends. AYC is real team managing for me—a lot of time on the phone and emailing. But I’ve got to do it, you know? My creative photos don’t make the bank. But it’s cool … the team is awesome and everyone is rad. I really want to help. It’s a gnarly uphill battle and a social experiment for me. Like, ‘Can I bring an aesthetic to this team that, on paper, looks crazy?’ Aesthetically it’s not my style, but I think I can do something with it. That’s what’s nice for me. I’m not stressing if this comes or goes. It’ll be interesting for sure …”
Post-Vans Propeller: Greg Hunt Talks Inspiration, Process & Critics
By Robert Brink
The Hundreds, June 2015
When Greg Hunt began filming on Vans Propeller, he was living in a one-bedroom apartment and single with “zero responsibilities.” Fast-forward almost six years and Greg has a wife, a baby and two dogs. Now that the dust has settled, he’s currently working on a special edition of Propeller for release in late 2015 and enjoying some much deserved down time. Curious as to what’s on his mind in a post-Propeller world; in the wake of the year’s biggest and most-anticipated skateboarding video, the press tour, as well as all the criticism that comes with it, I caught up with him for a little chat.
I’m hearing people say they enjoy the Propeller Raw Files more than the video itself. I experienced the same at Emerica when we released the Stay Gold B-Sides …
I was 17 when Rubbish Heap came out. It had no real soundtrack except random parts with Rodney Mullen and Jef Hartsel. I loved it and that’s why I did the Raw Files this way. But for people to say, “This is so much better than the video,” I don’t get that. Rowan’s part with that song and all the different angles—there’s an emotional thing built in when you watch. That doesn’t happen with raw footage. Raw footage is awesome and a great way to get all the extra stuff out there because people love it, but I’d take an edited video part over raw footage any day.
To me it’s an enhancer. Dollin’s raw stuff it blew me away, knowing what went into that part.
For sure. If anything, the feedback I get is, “Why wasn’t this in the video?” People might prefer it because it’s honest. It shows the real story of the slam and the make and that’s very telling of what these guys put into it. I wish I could’ve put a lot of that into the video, but you can’t. I could always do better, but you’re trying your best to include everything in the best possible way. Chima’s part had too much music, that’s why we added a little something at the end. I extended Daniel’s song just so I could fit more skating in there. It hard to condense four years of skateboarding into four minutes when you’re following the traditional formula for video parts.
I don’t think people realize how restraint plays just as important a role ...
Exactly. You can make a video that’s short and to the point and some people are gonna love it and others will feel like they were expecting more. If you make a video with longer parts and a lot of stuff in between, people are gonna say, “I just wanna see the skating!” You’re never gonna be able to make everybody happy; it’s just impossible. Some of my favorite moments in the video are only a couple seconds long. Like Anthony in front of the water main that explodes or Daniel standing on that mountain and the tram comes by.
It seems like you’ve done a ton of press for this video. Back in the day no one interviewed the filmmaker.
It’s weird that nowadays, so many people want to talk to the filmmakers. I understand that I’m the person steering the ship and ultimately responsible for all the final touches, but really I put myself in the back seat to what these guys want. And I’ve always been that way. I didn’t film everything. I didn’t conceptualize the video part; it’s them skateboarding. Half the time I wasn’t even there, or off just trying to find a good angle. When it’s all done, I’m working with the guys to put it together in a way that hopefully resonates with people. It’s trippy, but we’re in an era where people want to talk to you.
In addition to the expectations people have for the video to be amazing, it seems there’s a weird assumption that you, the creator, are trying to make an artistic statement, or should be.
I totally agree. People that really have a vision when they make a video—the way they want it to look and feel prior to even editing it, I think that’s amazing. When Fred Mortagne did éS Menikmati, that video was so different from anything anyone had ever seen. Looking back, that was a really artistically brave thing to do, especially for such a young kid who, at the time, didn’t really know anyone.
I didn’t have a creative group that was working on this; it was just me. I had a lot of things planned for in-between parts and the intro, but I simply didn’t have time. And when I started to see how it was coming together, I saw it was a very straightforward, no bullshit skateboarding video, for skateboarders. No narrative, nothing very conceptual, no acting. I thought, “You know what? This is actually pretty cool. Just straight up skating.” How can you not like Anthony Van Engelen or Rowan Zorilla or Daniel Lutheran or Gilbert Crockett? These guys are amazing to watch skate. I know that much.
I think people also don’t realize that the artist might actually have zero interest in pleasing anyone except the people involved in the project.
That’s exactly it. Some people take it too seriously. Really what it’s about is the skateboarding. And when I’m editing, I’m working primarily as a skateboarder. I feel like people look at these videos like it potentially could’ve been this or potentially could’ve been that. Of course it could, but it’s really about the skateboarding and this video, more than any that I’ve ever done, is what it is because of the guys in it. It’s their skateboarding. They were very involved in what went into the parts. I read one thing that said that Propeller wasn’t an honest representation of modern skateboarding. The guy who wrote that just doesn’t understand. He’s out of touch with modern skateboarding, because this is the most honest representation of these guys that I could have possibly made.
It’s just good skateboarding. I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece, but I would like to think, if you’re someone who loves skateboarding you’re going to sit through it at least once and enjoy a lot of it. If you, for some reason, can’t enjoy a lot of that video, then I don’t know what to tell you because I spent five years working on this thing and I still love watching Anthony’s and Rowan’s parts … because I’m a skateboarder.
What stands out as the most impressive or scary thing you saw go down?
Trujillo’s last trick was really impressive. That was fucking gnarly. I’ve skated with him enough to know that when I saw him up there, he was really freaked out. You can’t try it a bunch of times. It’s one of those things that once you commit to going down, you’re either gonna pull it or you’re gonna seriously fuck yourself up—really fuck yourself up.
Kyle Walker getting hit by a car too …
I was already editing at that point. But yeah, that was fucked up. I saw the footage and didn’t want to use it because it’s not even like, “Oooh.” It’s like, “Ugh!” When it happened, the guys texted me the footage off their camera screens and it seriously looks like he got killed. He’s running across the street, he’s lying on the ground, he’s screaming. Horrible. But I mean, fuck, Kyle tried his last trick in Atlanta for maybe two and a half hours. I don’t even know how his body made it through that. He tried it, couldn’t do it, sat down and was over it. Everyone was like, “Alright, you did it; you gave it your best.” And he was sitting there like, “You know what? Fuck it. I’m gonna try it again.” And I think that happened definitely once, if not twice before he landed it.
Have you ever backed somebody down because you were scared they’d get hurt?
I’ve never told anyone they should stop. There have definitely been times when I felt like, “This is a really bad idea.” These guys know their own limits. I don’t think anyone really wants to get killed. If anything, sometimes I’ll say, “Hey, man. Maybe we shouldn’t do this right now because it looks like if we do, we’re gonna go to jail. Let’s come back later or figure out some other way to do it.”
Back when you made the M83 “Echoes” video, you and I were talking about being Terrence Malick fans and such. How much do outside influences come into play as a skateboarding filmmaker?
The first year we were filming Propeller I was watching a lot of rock documentaries. This old Bowie documentary and a Rolling Stones documentary called Stones in Exile.
In my opinion, skateboarders are more like musicians than athletes. How they perform and how they create and promote skateboarding—how people love a certain skateboarder more than another. I love seeing a band recording in the studio and the moments where they’re not actually playing the music—sometimes more than when they are playing. I like seeing guys sitting in the rehearsal room on the couch talking shit, or even a guy alone sleeping in the corner of the studio. That, to me, is really revealing and really intriguing. That’s loosely what I went for in this video with a lot of the 16mm stuff.
How much of your work is inspired by things you see that you don’t like?
Almost all of it. That’s the approach I had when I skated, long before I started making videos. I would just look at what everyone was doing and try to do the opposite. Skateboarding can be frustrating because physically, you have so many limitations. Sometimes you just can’t do it. And it’s funny because now that I’m making these videos, I have other limitations: budgets, time and the ability to actually make something happen. I think when I’m watching or reading or just observing anything, something clicks in my brain like, “Well, I definitely never want to do that,” or, “That’s really cool; how can I do that, but differently?”
Being a skateboarder—at least the generation that I come from in skateboarding—the last thing you want to do is copy someone. When you’re at a spot and some guy is back tailing a ledge, you’re not gonna back tail the ledge. You want to do your own thing and I think that’s something that I definitely got from skateboarding and it bleeds into everything I do in life. I think that’s why skateboarders do a lot of really interesting things when they go on to do projects outside of skateboarding, or even within skateboarding.
As a filmmaker, is it advantageous that you were once a pro skater who’s filmed video parts?
I don’t think so. I skated in the mid-nineties in San Francisco. It was a lot different then. Most of these guys now trust me because of the videos I’ve done, not because of the skateboarding I’ve done. These guys, they are 18, 19, 20, and through making one video over five years, they change a lot. You realize the distractions, lack of motivation, and things that become hurdles for them. I definitely blew it in a lot of regards when I was young, so me acknowledging and using that to help people is what I use more than anything. Even if I don’t say it to someone directly, I might just say, “I know what this person’s going through; give him some space.”
Also, you’re not just the filmer or director or producer; you’re a mentor …
And it’s tough because everyone is so different. It’s not a fucking wrestling team; it’s a skateboarding team. I’m not always successful, but I try to be sensitive to each person’s energy and needs. You want everyone to be stoked, not miserable.
I can’t take all the credit. When these guys are all together it takes on its own life and I’m sort of there trying to make sure everyone’s up and in the van and doing my best to steer the day in the right direction where we can get as much done as possible.
I sometimes have this fear that skateboarding will be my last stop. That skateboarding might not want me anymore as I age. Does that ever worry you?
I think that’s something that everyone thinks about, especially if you’re working in skateboarding as a filmer or photographer or writer or whatever—even a shoe designer. I like having other things to work on because it brings a little bit of balance to my life, but I know for a fact that if I completely remove myself from skateboarding there’s a huge part of me that’s missing. It’s been 30 years of my life. If anything, my phobia is working in skateboarding because I have to. I never want to resent skateboarding. I only want be involved in skateboarding because I love skateboarding. I never want to be in a position where I’m in skateboarding because I need the paycheck or because I’ve got nowhere else to go. That really freaks me out.
Chris Cole Talks Motivation 2, Therapy, and Life Under a Microscope
By Robert Brink
The Hundreds, June 2015
Chris Cole is one of the best skateboarders on the planet. He’s also taken more shit than most skaters on the planet—from his peers, from the skateboard community, from the Internet. In a culture where image and playing it “cool” are often more important than your actual ability on a skateboard, not many pro skaters have had to prove themselves to the extent that Cole has. To the point of second-hand embarrassment at times, Motivation 2: The Chris Cole Story pulls you into the center of his struggle.
Directed by Adam Lough, Motivation 2 (iTunes, June 23) is the story of an East Coast underdog who made his way to the top, battling self-discovery, industry politics and the void of a father he never knew along the way. The following is a conversation with a man who’s been put through the ringer and become one of the most comfortable-in-his-own-skin people I’ve ever met.
Your wife was telling me you did some brain mapping and it’s been determined you’re a superhero …
It’s called Neurotopia. I lack attention and a lot of different things but it turns out I have a super-fast reaction time in my brain and I have impulse control. Basically, my brain processes the information that comes through my eyes really, really quickly. And then my reaction as to what to do with that information is above par.
That’s obviously super advantageous, not only for learning tricks but also avoiding chaos and damage.
Yes. That’s actually a really important part of the whole thing. In Danny Way’s documentary, Travis Pastrana says that Danny’s not fearless; he’s just really good at assessing risk. And it’s so important.
Is it challenging being under the microscope for a year to film a documentary?
Yeah, you have to let somebody in pretty deeply. But the hardest part was really figuring out what needs to be told versus what is me trying to give you 100 percent of what happened. I’m very nostalgic and want to take you down each road and tell you why certain people and stories are so important to me. But you don’t need every story from my life; you just need the ones that matter.
What gets stirred up emotionally in the process?
The only thing that’s ever really a tough subject is talking about the fact that I didn’t have a father. And then watching my mother and my brother talk about it. I can talk about my life skating and the stories that go along with that—even tough stories, because that’s a path that I’ve chosen. But when you have to talk about feelings and things from when you were too young to control—that’s when it’s difficult.
How about knowing somebody’s out there interviewing your mom and brother discussing these difficult subjects?
I didn’t know that’s how it was gonna be. But when I saw the footage, what I did think about was that my mother and brother aren’t on camera much, or ever. So I was conscious of how hard it would be for them. I talked to everybody about that. They were like, “I don’t know if I did well.” And I’m like, “I’m sure you did fine.”
I feel like a project like this would bring me closer to my family. There’s stuff that comes out in these interviews that I wouldn’t necessarily bring up to them.
Totally. You don’t just walk up and say, “Tell me about this painful memory.” When I see their commentary and see them on camera, it brings a magnifying glass over the fact that I don’t live there and I’m losing valuable days I could be spending with my family. It makes me wish I were closer to them. But I love hearing their take on how things were.
As I get older, I’m reaching out to members of my family asking them about things, just through this process of trying to understand myself. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis.
No, it makes sense. Skateboarding keeps us like Peter Pan for a very long time. We play; we go out with our friends; we have recess all the time. It’s not that you’re getting old; it’s just that now you’re maturing and inquisitive. You’re really not always sure who your parents are because their job isn’t to be your homeboy; their job is to prepare you for the world and prevent you from becoming an asshole. Certain parents take that job really seriously and leave themselves shrouded in mystery to get that job done.
In the time this documentary was being made, you won the Street League Championship in 2013, but you didn’t even make the finals in 2014. You quit Zero, which you co-owned, and did the free agent thing for a while. Then you got on Plan B. It seems you inadvertently added the task of a documentary during one of the busiest transitional stages of your life and career …
Yeah, and the funniest part is that none of that stuff is really in the film. It shows primarily what got me here rather than what I’m doing here. Because what got me here is what you can’t Google. You can’t find my sponsor-me tape anywhere, for example. And that’s where this documentary really comes in.
I’ve always admired that you’re the first to admit you aren’t “cool.” And some of this film almost painful to watch—the bad outfits, people making fun of you behind your back. At a point you said, “I’m still figuring out the script.” Does that lack of script come from your father being absent, to a degree?
Yes. You’re essentially learning from scratch. There are a billion things you miss out on when your dad is gone. For example, there’s the right way to measure and cut wood. The correct way to use tools or change oil in your car. How you carry yourself when speaking to other people—people of authority, people that are older. You miss all that shit.
Did you realize at the time you were riding for them, that Jamie Thomas and Rodney Mullen were both becoming very paternal for you?
I didn’t realize it actually. My wife pointed it out. It wasn’t a conscious thing. But tough decisions came up—times I had to disappoint them. With Rodney, I wanted to ride for Zero and I had to quit enjoi. It was really difficult to make that call. Then disappointing Jamie when I had to leave Fallen. Making those calls is like disappointing your dad.
People say, “Skateboarding saved my life.” Often times it literally got them off the streets or away from drugs. But for some, it’s because it gives you the family you didn’t have. I realize now that, aside from skateboarding, this bagel bakery I worked at for eight years was my family to a degree—my coming of age. They took me to my first bar. They taught me how to dress a wound when I cut half my finger off. They gave me a work ethic. They took me to my first strip club. Some of my co-workers there even died.
That’s super true. Like being on the road with people on a skate tour: the guy you always room with or the position you have in the van; the dude that rallies the troops at the skate spot to move on. Those roles, when you start young, they define who you are for a very long time until you choose the next role in your life.
In the film, Stevie Williams says you were “Weird but good—definitely weird.” Bam Margera and Jamie Thomas added similar commentary. Are you watching these interviews about the younger you and thinking, “Wow, maybe I was weirder than I thought!”
I’ve self-reflected and looked at it a whole bunch of different ways. I knew how they felt back then, but I never heard any of them ever say it. I thought it was rad that they finally came out and said it, because skateboarding used to be pretty goddamn rough around the edges. But now, since everyone’s all so connected and polished, people usually bite their tongues. So it was cool to hear them say, “This dude was kooking’ it.”
The film gets into the brutally honest sit-downs you got from Jamie Thomas. The unwritten “rules” of skateboarding, your wardrobe, you fishing for compliments—all these things are part of being a kid. You’re not trying to be arrogant; you’re just excited and trying to connect with people. At some point you cross this line from being an excited kid who’s trying to share yourself with your idols to being someone who’s a kook and talks too much. To me there’s something sad about that transition into adulthood and “professionalism.”
I didn’t really think about it that way, but yeah, that’s probably what hurt the most. Here I am just being me and I’m told, “Hey, you can be you, but be you behind closed doors with your close friends only.” That was terrible for me. At that age you’re a teenager; you’re an idiot but it’s a good thing because if you’re cool as a cucumber then, are you gonna be cool as a cucumber when you’re older? I feel like everybody goes through some crappy wacky phase in their teens. Like they need to do that in order to not be 25 and watching 8 Mile once a day, convinced that they’re gonna be the rapping scientist or something. I wanna make sure that kids know that it’s all right to be a dork.
How did that hazing from all the skaters back then not cripple you? Some of what happened to me still affects me to this day.
It’s still one of the most crippling things that we have as grown ups. It’s something that affects you as a human being in general, regardless of age. If you don’t have your defenses up and someone hurts you, it will still crush you as if you were a little kid. It’s definitely still affecting me for sure. It always will.
There’s nothing more true than the fact that most of the people who were the coolest in late grade school, high school and college are the most boring, average adults I’ve ever met in my life.
Or they’re in jail. All the cool football star dudes; all the baseball players; those super rad dudes that were getting invited to all the parties, they’re hitting the same spots in the same town they grew up in. The same bars, they’re going to the same Phillies game with the same homeboy that was their wingman in high school. The only thing that’s changed is that they’re fatter and they have a kid and they probably married one of the girls from high school that they weren’t dating at the time, but somehow linked up at with at the local bar. That’s what’s going down. And then the dude that was picked on for being smart, he’s got a solid scenario. He’s doing something cool.
But I’m not scared to go to a therapist. I sing that praise to everybody. A lot of dudes won’t do marriage counseling; they won’t do individual counseling; they won’t go see a therapist because in their mind that’s admitting you’re broken. Even a person who doesn’t need it at all still benefits from going to see a therapist.
The first time I walked into therapy, I had to coach myself through the door. By the end I felt completely relieved. It was the best hour of my life in a long time.
Totally. It’s like, you can play guitar. You can be self-taught. You can get good. But take guitar lessons and you’ll get there a lot faster. Therapy is your guitar lesson—your life lesson. When you leave, even if you can’t implement everything that was said to you, that knowledge went into your brain. And if you find it once or twice over time, that’s better than if you didn’t go.
What do you hope people watching the story of your life get out of it?
I want them to feel motivated to go out and live their dream. Everybody has a passion and the opportunity to change their lives. If you’re really great at math and you’re being groomed to be an accountant by your parents or whatever, but your real passion is tennis, you can be someone who plays tennis for a living. Maybe you won’t be a professional tennis player, but I want you to go for it because you can always fall back into a secondary dream. You could be a tennis instructor, for example, instead of just being like, “I guess I’ll just be an accountant.” Or you can be an accountant for the racquet company. You can work in the industry that you love. We need you.
I was sponsored but was never gonna be pro. So the next best thing was to be a writer in skateboarding …
And that’s the thing. I feel like for a lot of people, that’s not something that comes as normal; they don’t think of that. It’s basically like, “I’m not good enough to be a professional skater; I’m screwed.” And they just bail. And that’s not how it works. You could be a photographer; you could be a videographer; you could be a team manager. You travel the world with us, you get stamps on your passport with us and you’re in the van. You’re living that life. It’s a great life.
I’ve seen the stuff you guys have to deal with on the business end of things. Or watching you guys juggle the things at a big contest: press stuff, obligations. I’m like, “Why does he have to do this right before he jumps down a four-block?” Sometimes just sitting there shooting photos seems way better.
Dude, totally. We’re stressing out about our line, stressing out about a couple bad contests in a row. These sponsors expect a lot. It’s pretty crazy and people are like, “Oh stop complaining, the rest of us have it like this.” I get that all the time.
If somebody thinks that, they don’t understand that level of skating. Or haven’t skated at all. It’s hard to switch mindsets from being the celebrity skater guy to trying a trick down a gnarly fucking rail in front of an arena full of people.
That’s beautifully stated because that is the biggest issue in my entire life. It’s not juggling like, “I don’t have any time” as much as it’s juggling going from this brain to that brain and it’s a different dude each time. When I’m planning my contest run you can’t hit me with, “Hey can you look at this credit card statement, make sure that everything’s charged by you?”
I watch you guys switching back and forth at these events. I just can’t believe it because I know you’re worrying about your legs locking up, but you don’t want to turn a kid down for an autograph or a person for an interview.
Well, it’s funny because it’s the “mo’ money mo’ problems” thing. The bigger your sponsors get and the better you’re compensated, the more obligations you have. When all these kids are like, “I wanna make it to Street League one day! I wanna be like this dude and be sponsored by that company.” You might wanna be careful what you wish for because I’ll tell you what—Mikey Taylor or P-Rod or myself—we’re doing a lot more than the average Joe. We wear a whole bunch of different hats all the time.
Actually, I’m gonna go on a tirade right now:
When the “core” dudes try to clown, and I’m sure you’ve fucking heard it—it’s a defense mechanism—they say stuff like, “It’s just skateboarding, man.” Implying that you’re taking it too seriously.
A. You’re telling me what skateboarding is? Get the fuck out of my face. And B, Street League is a contest with a lot of money on the line and this is actually what I do for a living. This is my job. I love the hell out of skating; I love it more than anyone. But it’s not “Just skating, maaaaan.” That’s throwing what I love and what I’ve dedicated my life to, into some hobby that you kind of fuck around with. They love to throw that one around.
I know plenty of those people. I feel like that comes from a place of, I don’t know if “jealousy” is the word?
It’s a good word.
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.
Words: Rob Brink Monster Children, Fall 2015
In a 1999 interview for TransWorld Skateboarding, Neil Blender was asked what he felt his biggest contribution to skateboarding was. His reply: “I don’t even know. I just skated … did my part.”
Twelve years later, Neil’s good friend, Lance Mountain, was quoted saying, “Neil was one of the first guys to draw his own graphics. He was the first one to give tricks different names. He was our ringleader. Neil’s myth is more hidden and harder to find, but there would be no Mark Gonzales without Neil Blender.”
Regarding Neil Blender’s impact on skateboarding, there’s quite a disparity between those two statements, yet both are quite sincere. Lance might be communicating what Neil is too humble to say, or would never think to say. But aside from his actual skateboarding, the beauty of Neil Blender has always been the Zen purity and childlike innocence by which he seems to perceive and regurgitate skateboarding, as well as his understated, unintentional genius—both creatively and as an observer of human behavior.
Characters like Neil are so very rare in modern day skateboarding, and that’s exactly why the people who witnessed them firsthand, like our guest editor Jason Lee, hold them in such high regard. Neil’s place in skateboarding is not unlike that of Mitochondrial Eve … he’s a common ancestor that has somehow and some way, affected us all.
Your Instagram has some old surfing and BMX photos. Did skateboarding feel closer to, and more inspired by them back in the 80s? When I was a kid in New Jersey in 86/87, all the BMXers and skaters hung out together.
BMX and skateboarding were kinda the same back then. We would ride our bikes to pools or Moonpark (Sadlands) with a skateboard on our handlebars. We’d end up taking runs on the bike just to see what it was like. It was super fun. Surfing was a little further away for me back then. When I got a car, I started skimboarding because I’d seen it in Action Now. That’s probably the funnest out of all of them.
Do you feel skateboarding is as inspired, creatively, as it used to be? I wonder if it’s too much about the tricks or the careers of the skaters these days—more athletic than having an emphasis on creativity and style.
I don’t think about it. It’s just progressing the way it goes. People are trying crazy stunts and stuff, but it’s still the same really. Style is the final result in whatever you are doing. What it takes to get something done. Walking across the street, driving a car, whatever—style is always involved in the outcome. Hosoi has great style. So does Lance. Big gaps are rad if you want to split your head open. Handrails are gnarly too. I don’t even know what the question was now. Skateboarding is great. Much like other activities, it gives you time to work stuff out.
As someone who so many people reference as an influence to their skating, I’m wondering who your influences were.
Anyone who was doing stuff that looked fun. Darrell Miller, Ray Bones, Lance Mountain—people I skated with.
What was it like for you being inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame this year and, in general, knowing you have influenced so many people who came after you in skateboarding? Jason Lee being an example, as it inspired this interview.
It’s weird to go up in front of a bunch of people to accept an award but I am stoked to be a part of those names: Tony Alva and Stacey Peralta just to name a few. That’s cool. I remember Jason Lee. He and the Gonz were always into funny stuff. Then I didn’t see him for a long time; maybe I still haven’t seen him in like, 20 years.
Who do you enjoy in skateboarding today and what bums you out?
I like seeing Alex Perelson ride. He’s amazing. Chris and Zach Miller; Lance has a very powerful frontside invert. Lance was a huge inspiration to me—super fun to skate with. We rode his ramp for years.
The thing that bums me out with skating is where they put parks. There’s never any trees. They think they need to clear them out and then start digging bowls. There are a few places that look fun but they are in Oregon. Cradles are dumb too.
Thinking back to your infamous Tempe, Arizona contest run in 1986, what prompted such an unconventional approach? Did you have any clue it would resonate like it did?
Tempe was really hot, temperature-wise. I remember thinking how lame it was that we were having a contest out in that parking lot. The whole thing seemed like a waste. I remember thinking, “I don’t even want to skate.” I found a little can of spray paint in my car. I had cargo shorts on so I put it in the pocket and thought, “I’ll just draw at some point. That’s something you do when you find paint out at street spots.” Then Chris Cook did a crazy wallride through it and smeared a little. I was stoked he reacted with that.
Fred Gall: Professional skateboarder; guardian angel.
Words: Robert Brink
Photo & Video: Dave Smith ESPN.com June 2012.
“When I was a kid my uncle Johnny was a fireman,” says Habitat pro and X Games Real Street 2012 contender, Fred Gall. “He used to take me to the firehouse and I wanted to be a fireman too. I dunno why. I have an instinct to … well, I guess I just don’t wanna see people die or get hurt.”
It was approximately 3 AM on February 28 when Fred saw a building across the street from his hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia engulfed in flames when he decided to check it out.
“I was out there filming for my Real Street part with Dave Smith and Andrew Patillo,” Gall explains. “I wanted to get some crazy footage that no one else is gonna have—to have my part be different. So we skate down the street and it turns out to be a monastery. And this is a serious fire—a blazing inferno.
“At first, we had our digital cameras, like, ‘Film me doing a no comply in front of this fire.’ Kinda laughing about it. Then I realized that on the second and third floors there were monks trapped on the balcony and no one was doing anything about it—people were just staring.’
“Something about Freddy,” says longtime friend Dave Smith, “is that he’s seriously like an angel cast to Earth to guard the misfortunate. Somehow or another, these people always tend to be within Freddy’s vision. He could be at his worst and then into his best in a matter of seconds. At the Cambodian airport, a lady forgot her passport at the counter and he ran full steam through the airport to return it.”
“So I scaled the side of the building next to the burning one,” explains Gall. “And up top there are these long bamboo sticks that just happened to be the right length, so I made a bridge. The monks were scared to cross because it was so ghetto-rigged. Basically, you took two steps on the bamboo and someone would grab your hand and pull you in. But I got two monks down then went inside and shit is blowing up, it’s hot as hell and monks are just standing in the pitch black. I don’t know if it was for their religion or what. One was just throwing buckets of water on the flames but it wasn’t doing shit.”
“We tried to make it a little more serious to them,” says Smith, “Like, ‘Hey you gotta, get out of here.’ It seemed like they didn’t know what to do or where to go. Maybe they couldn’t see or were in shock but no one seemed scared about what was going on but the potential for disaster was right in their face.”
“I found a bucket and I put it on my head because shit was falling all over the place,” Gall continues, “and I’m screaming, ‘Where’s the women and children?’ But there are no women and children because it’s a monk monastery [laughing]. I was just in hero mode— just trying to save lives, dude. And Dave had made his way up and he’s like, ‘we gotta get outta here!’
“I walked into the stairway and it was engulfed in embers and smoke,” says Smith. “The only way to see was with the flash on my camera. That’s when I noticed all the monks just standing around, not knowing where to go because they couldn’t see anything.”
“I got down before Freddy,” Smith continues, “and I looked up and he’s crossing the bridge he made and helping three or four monks over to the safer building.”
“So after we make it down,” Gall continues, “the fire department shows up, puts out the fire and straight-up leaves. The fire engine number was 666. Not even kidding. Then I just went back to the hotel and had a beer. Like, ‘Wow that was fucking crazy.’”
“He gets pretty emotional after stuff like that,” explains Smith. “We got back to the hotel and he was in tears. He gets emotionally involved because he really cares.”
“Halfway back to the hotel,” says Smith, “Fred realized that he didn’t have his board. We went back to get it and sure enough this monk was standing there with it waiting for Fred. They all thanked him dearly. They were very honored that an American went for it like that.”
Throughout the years, Fred has been notorious for a lifestyle some might consider “sinful” or “wrong” or whatever the word might be. I asked him if he ever considered that his good karma for the times he has saved lives (yes there are many) balances out the bad karma that might send him straight to hell one day.
“I’ve definitely thought like that,” Gall replies, “but I would say I’ve definitely done more good than bad. Some people don’t believe in karma but I believe if you help someone, good things will come to you. And I’m really going for this Real Street thing—I wanna win something. I tried really hard. I busted my ass today getting footage. There are gnarly dudes in this contest but the way we’re going to edit it, I think we have a chance. I hope people are stoked.”