For me 1986 and 1987 were the years of a sort subliminal indoctrination into skateboarding. By the end of ’87 I had reached the turning point where I realized skateboarding was not going to be just a diversion for me, but a passion. These were the years when my friends and I slowly and painfully began to realize that those Nashes and Valterras we were riding weren’t going to be enough.
These were the years before Thrasher showed up in the bookstores but Thrashin' and Police Academy 4 were on movie screens. 720 appeared in the mall arcade promising answers to the tao of skating that, alas, remained elusive no matter how many quarters we pumped into it. At home, my friend Monty and I were ignoring the hackey sack and volleyball stages of California Games on the commodore 64 so we could go straight to shredding the 8-bit half pipe in the skateboarding stage. Skate Or Die came later, and we would find ourselves taking pixelized advice on equipment and skate spots from a double-chinned, purple mohawked skateshop owner named Rodney Recloose in the hopes of taking down aggro eddie. Of course when the screen went blank, no matter how well we scored head to head against Bionic Lester, we had to go back out to our driveways with our Valterras and Nashes and be Poseur Pete.
In the living rooms of our suburban ranch houses there were sporadic commercials with tiny snippets of skating flash cut in between pitches for cola or hair gel. Each split second of shredding between money shots of Swatch watches or perspiring cans of Mountain Dew would have me putting my face right up to the screen, searching for information. In the mid 80’s, if skateboarding was the bright center of the universe, I was on the planet farthest from, but like a radio telescope operator with an open line to alien world, I was poring through the pop culture static and aggregating a transmission of skateboarding whose signal to noise ratio was slowly getting better.
It’s easy to pinpoint when I got my first board and it’s easy to peg the year skateboarding really hit my neighborhoods. Both happened in 1988. It’s also easy to characterize the years running up to ’88 as some sort of dark age of total isolation, and to look at the moment I saw my first issue of Thrasher or first skateboard ad in BMX Action as some golden epiphany complete with rays of light and choruses of devils thrashing Metallica power chords, but the truth is not so simple. The first time I saw a skate mag or first saw a real pro board in person I actually had a workable base of knowledge of skateboarding. I knew what a half-pipe was before I knew the name of a single pro skater, I knew going upside down was called an invert, not a hand-stand, and I knew that one kind of trick in skating was grinding your trucks before I even knew an Independent from a Gullwing. When I look back I can’t really triangulate exactly when or how I learned these things. I picked them up by a sort of incremental seepage from pop culture, and that seepage into the mainstream was driven by massive changes in California skate culture that I knew nothing about.
The mid 80’s were the years skating began to flirt with the mainstream for the first time since the 70’s. The story of skating in those years is a story of evolutions, resurrections and innovations. It’s a Darwinian rags to riches tale populated by punks and dorks and prima donnas, rockstars and rebels. The resurgence of skating in the mid 80’s came about through the coalescence of radical upheavals that had been in motion since the death of the skatepark era at the end of the 70‘s. There was a converging of land masses that put the subculture in a position where not only did it finally have superstars that could break the sport into the mass consciousness, but also a position where, bubbling up from the underground, were grass roots revolutions that meant when we finally got our hands on those precious, hard-won pro boards out in novertsville, we weren't just pretenders tagging along with a trend, we were participants who could grab it and shape it for our own.
The state of skating in the first half of the 80’s is best described as post-apocalyptic. Like all post apocalyptic epics it was the aftermath of a golden age, in this case the golden age was the skatepark boom era of the 70‘s. In typical apocalyptic fashion, the golden age doomed itself by over-dependence on a single resource: the skatepark. By 1980, aside from a handful of die-hard bastions in so-cal all of those majestic parks poured in the heady 70’s were gone. This mass extinction tore the existing structure of skateboarding down to foundations sunk deep underground. For the bulk of the 70’s contests, magazine coverage, technical innovation and socialization had all been centered around the parks, and then,they were gone. To be a skateboarder outside of Del Mar or Whittier or Upland in 81 or 82 was to be a refugee cast from paradise. Predictably, most people just quit skating in those armageddon years, but like cockroaches, there were a chosen few who were still alive and kicking when the fall-out settled. These were the culture’s road warriors and refugees, carrying the fire from park to park, backyard to backyard.
The reality the average skate-rat faced at the dawn of the 80’s was adapt or die. For some that meant going back to the streets or the backyard pools, but raiding back-yard pools was a high-risk, logistically complicated affair. You often spent more time looking, bailing, and running from the cops than actually skating. Street skating was still in the era of embankment carving and street slides, an aesthetic that had little in common with what had brought skaters to the vert-bowl based parks. Skaters were hungry for something that could vaguely replicate the terrain they had lost, or in many cases, replicate the terrain they had only heard about from older skaters. It was in this context that skatings future was formed, a future built of plywood, two-by-fours and masonite.
Suddenly halfpipes began to rise above suburbia. These were the refugee camps of the new dark age. In their 10-foot, u-shaped shadows the remnants of skate society huddled up and held on to their dying culture. What the kids hammering plywood in backyards and keeping the neighborhood association at bay didn’t know was that the half-pipe was soon going to change everything. All they were trying to do was keep rolling, but the half-pipe would gradually become the venue of choice not just for the average skater but for advanced and pro-level skating. This change would prove to be one of the most important blows the subculture would strike against its crippling isolation and dependence on an infrastructure almost wholly based in southern California.
The half-pipe had been around since the mid 70’s, but as long as skateparks numbered in the hundreds half pipes were never much more than a gimmick; something to be set up for sketchy demonstrations or parking-lot shows. What you got on a half-pipe was a pale imitation of the state-of the-art. They weren’t really that appropriate for the style of skating that dominated in the age of the skatepark. You could manage some kickturns and edgers onthem, maybe an air if you were lucky, but there was no lateral flow, and skaters of the time based everything on laterally carving concrete walls. This was a time when “Tricks” existed as a means to express style, not the other way around. Confining a 70’s skater to the repetitive, restrictive back-and forth flow of the half-pipe was like putting a a straight jacket on a ballet dancer. The few backyard halfs in existence back then were ways to make due, something to session on off days when the park wasn’t an option. They were neither a part of the professional mainstream nor a genre unto themselves. When the parks went under, though, those paltry substitutes would play lifeboat to the sinking luxury liner that was the skatepark infrastructure. The sideshow would become the center stage, and skating had to become a whole new act to advance.
Not surprisingly, skating’s corporate and competitive establishment was slow to acknowledge this change. Part of the reason for this was that three of the greatest and most important parks of the era, The Del Mar Skate ranch, The Upland Pipeline, and whittier Skate City, lingered on long past the demise of their concrete brethren (Whittier would be gone by 1983). In the early 80’s shots from Del Mar’s keyhole and the combi-bowl at Upland were the bread and butter of the magazines and the manufacturers’ advertising departments. The NSA centered their contest seasons around these scrappy survivors of the mass extinction. There was an undeniable friction between the geographically blessed haves and the isolated have nots in this arrangement. The message being pumped out by the media and the competitive structure was that the skatepark was still the standard at the advanced level even though access to the ridiculously depleted parks was minimal.
This contrast became a divisive element with the rise of the most influential skater of the era, and skateboarding’s only true mass-media level superstar: Tony Hawk. In the short term, Hawk’s emergence created massive rivalries and aesthetic debates that still go on to this day, but ultimately, the influence of his style helped make the transition from the park era to the half-pipe era go off with fewer kinks. Contemporaries and peers who chose to learn from his success rather than resisting it were unknowingly conditioning themselves for the new era coming. On the flipside it also forced the resistors to further refine and push their style in the opposite direction, creating a creatively and culturally vibrant underground subset that would be equally important once skating secured a comeback.
To contest judges and skating’s rising generation Tony hawk’s style was a lanky, one-kid revolution. To his many belligerent detractors, it was a gangly, gimmicky eyesore bereft of soul or aggression. Now, knowing what we know about the future of skating the haters seem a bit shortsighted, but if you put yourself in the context of the times it’s a bit different. Watching early Hawk footage form the Del Mar days, especially head-to-head with footage of Hosoi and Duane Peters or Steve Alba, you see that the beef wasn’t just the grumbling of skeptics and cynics afraid of change. Hawk skated the bowls of Del Mar and Upland like they were big half-pipes. His approach was frustratingly linear: back-and forth, trick to trick, up, down, with very little lateral motion on the lip, in the air, or on the surface of the bowls. His runs in the combi-bowl in Upland are especially jarring to watch. Young Tony takes the million curvilinear lines of one of the gnarliest, most creatively catalytic vert spots ever and slices them into individual, non-contiguous half-pipes. Hawk often seemed allergic to the carve. The bowl was a series of separate trick points, and moving from one to the other smoothly wasn’t a priority. If you get down to the purist level and evaluate those contests as competitions to best exploit the possibilities of a multi-dimensional bowl instead of simple trick-shoot-outs, Hawk should have never beaten Christian Hosoi or Duane Peters, or even Lance Mountain. He was an incredible innovator, but he was skating those beautiful hemispherical installations as if they were plywood parabolas. If Hawk could have gotten away with doing a whole contest run on two parallel walls he probably would have. Sometimes its seemed like he actually did. Despite all of this, his success, the way he made the old guard adapt to integrate his “circus trick” style would pay off huge dividends in the coming years.
Hawk’s rapid-fire trick-on-trick technical style could be awkward in the sacred bowls of southern California, but on a half-pipe that longitudinal trick-oriented flow unlocked the vert ramp’s ultimate possibilities. Hawk was developing the style for the post concrete era before most of the skateboarding establishment had come to terms with the death of the parks. Everybody had to up their game once the knock-kneed birdman started stealing contests from the culture’s style masters. That whole process of adaptation had the lateral effect of conditioning and sharpening skating’s elite into adopting a mode of riding that was more functional for the future.
The half-pipe would also help shatter the geographic shackles that had repeatedly reduced skateboarding to a regionally isolated novelty. By visualizing an imagined cross-section of a pool, adding some flatbottom and creating it in wood and masonite anyone could have terrain worthy of any pro skater right in their back yard. Since half-pipe construction was basically standardized it also, quite literally, equalized the playing field for skateboarders everywhere. Of course, vey few people actually had the funds, space, or time to build one of those 10’ foot masonite monstrosities on their own property, but building a vert ramp was certainly more attainable than building a concrete bowl in your backyard. More importantly, organizations like the NSA and the skate companies quickly realized that with enough man power it was relatively easy to build up and tear down a vert ramp. For the first time, the cutting edge of skateboarding could be transported literally anywhere. This didn’t just open up the entire country for pro contests and demos, it also created the possibility for pro or advanced amateur-level skating to be part of city street festivals, half-time shows and photo shoots of various kinds. Advertisers wanting a little bit of California flair in their ads could now have skating brought to them to and they could shoot it under more controlled circumstances.
Perhaps even more important than the relative portability of the half pipe was the way it simplified skateboarding and made it more comprehensible for the uninitiated. The back-and-forth, trick on-trick rhythm of the half-pipe narrowed the focus of vert skating and made it more an art of technical difficulty and amplitude than style. These were things outsiders could at least partially figure out. Skatepark bowls, especially hipped, multi-bowl spots like Upland’s combi-bowl, had so many lines and so many possibilities that the tricks a skater did were only one dimension of the experience. Being a bowl grandmaster was like playing chess or billiards; You always had to be three four steps ahead. Not only was where you did the trick important, but also where you came from, how you got there and where you went for the next three moves. For the Barneys even knowing where to look in a bowl could be confounding. Understanding and appreciating this style of skating fully really required hands-on (or, in this case, wheels on) experience that could only be gained by riding yourself or by observing skating for hours and hours. Style was the foundation of park and pool riding, and style is not easily quantified or even explained. It goes beyond how someone does tricks and into subtle aspects of how a rider moves on their board. To understand style you have to be a full on connoisseur. Activities that require so much arcane lore to appreciate don’t become popular sensations. They become cults.
Reducing the importance of that elusive and ultimately subjective metric called style made skateboarding much less esoteric. This in itself was problematic for the hardcore. The broader benefits of the transition, however, were too evident to deny or reverse by the mid 80’s. Boards began to sell again, crowds around those one-weekend-wonder halfpipe contests swelled and skate punks were applying for SAG cards after clocking hours and hours on commercial shoots.
By ’86 skateboarding was no longer a post-apocalyptic horror movie, it was a Cinderella story. But the new style of skating was only half of what motivated the plot. The kind of shockwaves skateboarding was sending through mainstream culture in the mid 80’s only reverberate from superstars, and if the halfpipe was the magic carriage of skating’s new cinderella story, then the fairy godmothers had to have been Powell Peralta Corp.’s Bones Brigade: a cadre of incredibly talented, charismatic and well marketed skaters who, through prodigious talent and really slick marketing, took the skate culture to places it hadn’t been since the 70‘s. When the Brigade waved their 7-ply boneite-reinforced magic wands, the mainstream, and much of the pre-pubescent skate demographic fell under their spell. Skateboarding for better and worse, has never had another team quite like them, and their legacy is still contentious to this day.
People still like to trash the brigade as too clean-cut and wholesome, or as out of touch with the street-level suburban anarchists that most skaters pictured themselves to be, but those criticisms miss the real message Powell and Stecyk were sending to dorks like me. By the time I realized skateboarding was going to be something central to my young life I had already written off being a headbanger. If I had wanted to be a rock star I would have bought a guitar instead of a skateboard. The metalheads tried to kick my ass just as often as the jocks. Why would I want to be part of their crowd? I had had my fill of being a wannabe surfer. I was in fucking Terre Haute Indiana. I wasn’t going to catch a wave and get stoned in the sand any more than I was going to be captain of the football team. The Powell image and the way the brigade positioned themselves as skateboarders just out having fun and getting really rad didn’t inspire kids like me because it was safe or or sanitized, it inspired us by stripping skating down to what it was actually all about: Skateboarding. A lot of people don’t feel the brigade represented the outcasts, but for the dorkier skaters of the rising generation they did, they just conveyed that being a skateboarding outcast didn’t mean you had to join some other, smaller, tribe. You could take or leave the dreadlocks and slam dancing, or the ventilated t-shirts and pukka shells, those things were not what made you a skater. Riding a skateboard made you a skater. (And hopefully, for the Brigade, it was a Powell Peralta skateboard).
The Bones Brigade Roster in ’86 was a roll call of skateboardings future pantheon: Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, Rodney Mullen, Tommy Guerrero....and their am roster went just as deep with street skaters like Jim Thiebaud, Mike Vallely, and Ray Barbee. There were other individuals as big and as important to skatings crossover success in the mid 80’ as any one member of the brigade: Christian Hosoi, and Mark “Gator” Rogowski, for example, but the sheer concentration of talent the Brigade represented had a multiplying effect when it came to the mainstream. The mainstream media, the mega-corps making ads, the rock video directors, they all need things to be easy. The Bones Brigade, like the half-pipe, simplified things. You want to put some skaters in your soda commercial or movie, you can just ring up Stacy Peralta and you not only got the Brigade’s skate talents at your disposal, but also Peralta’s technical and managerial expertise. It was a package deal no one else could compete with.
The thing about superstardom is that it tends to perpetuate itself almost exponentially, and skateboarding has always been deeply skeptical of superstardom. It can too easily go hand-in hand with homogenization but In the early 80’s skateboarding had been stripped to a small hardened core. Without a jolt of energy to keep at least a skeletal corporate and mass-media presence intact, even that might have crumbled. Struggling in the ashes of the skatepark era, Skating needed superstars. No matter how hardcore you were, no matter how little you cared for organized competitions, pro skaters or lavish skateparks you still needed a board and trucks and wheels to go on your underground adventures. Somebody had to make those boards. Skating couldn’t go completely underground without dying out. There always had to be big enough numbers to sustain at least a couple of board companies and some sort of magazine to bind the community together. In the 80’s, skating needed to reach beyond its demographic comfort zones in order to replenish its decimated levels and to make its infrastructure sustainable. The half-pipe and mega-stars like The Brigade helped make that happen.
The changes that were coming to a head in ’86 revitalized skateboarding in the subculture’s traditional nerve centers. They brought skating’s popularity to the sort of critical mass that the mainstream can’t help but try to exploit. I had no idea what was going on in the ranks of professional skateboarding or in the subculture as a whole when those changes were happening, but the products of that exploitation, the commercials, the video games, the movie cameos were, all self-evident even in Terre Haute Indiana. As cheesy as they often were, these square-headed attempts to cash in were plastic whispers telling us that there was something more to skating than the valterras in the sears catalog and the outdated books full of banana boarders in the school library. A bridge was being built, pieced together slowly from hundreds of corny snippets of skateboard popsploitation. Were these commodified, distorted windows the best way to get a look at skateboarding? Maybe. Maybe not. Ultimately it didn’t matter. When you lived in a place like Terre Haute before the internet, before Rob Dyrdek was flexing on cable TV multiple times every week, the gulf between you and skateboarding was so damn big you would step onto any span, no matter how cheese covered and sketchy it might be to get you to the promised land.
(Note: This project would be much harder without sites like Thrasher Mag's cover archives, The Chrome Ball Incident Blog, and The Del Mar Skate Ranch homepage for both historical data and sick images. These sites are mandatory reading for anyone who digs this blog.)
Photo Footnote: The Powell "Image"
I've made a lot of statements about Powell Peralta's marketing and how it positioned skateboarding during the comeback years. This installment seemed to evolve into a sort of Bones Brigade lovefest almost on its own. In the interest of full disclosure, I never actually owned a Powell Board, but when I began skating, pretty much everybody I rode with had a Powell Deck as their first board. I did own a TON of Brigade shirts and apparel though. Another reason this essay is so positive towards the Brigade's influence is because in installments to come I am going to be highly critical of The Brigade. This installment is also intended to establish my respect for the team and show that my criticisms in the future come from an informed and honest place. I've made some pretty broad and often subjective claims about The Bones Brigade, so I thought I would at least give some breakdowns of what I was looking at when I came to my conclusions. These ads date from 85-87, a period just before many people in the midwest came into mainstream skateboarding. By'88 Powell's creativity and impact was beginning to wane and their ads became more conventional, this is a big part of the reason people from the start of the street era of skateboarding tend to dismiss The Brigade. These ads chart the iconoclastic, firmly nonconformist marketing image that helped Powell break skating into new markets in the first half of the 80's. It also seems like I'm picking on Alva skateboards here, that is only because Alva represents the perfect contrast to what Powell was doing, and the Alva team is always cited as the anti-Bones Brigade in terms of image. The rivalry between the two companies is mostly a fabrication, lots of kids idolized both teams, but there is a definite contrast in the approaches shown. The contrasting ads didn't necessarily run contiguously with the The Powell ads paired with them, but they are all from the same 85-87 period, with the exception of the Alva team shot, which dates from '88.
|I don't really need to say anything about this|
|Come Join the Daggerz...er, I mean the Alva team. An Official (TM) Alva brand leather jacket, alas, was never part of the product line.|
|This is a little unfair because the ad above predates the Alva shot by three years, but I juts couldn't resist. It seems to sum up what I'm talking about.|