Saturday, February 22, 2014

Talking Popsicles And Pachyderms With Mike Vallely

In 27 years as a working pro, Mike Vallely’s impact on skateboarding has been nothing less than comprehensive. In pursuing his craft, Vallely has not only helped shape what people can do on their skateboards, but also the shape of the skateboards they do it on. Through his relentless touring, vocal advocacy, and plain old trucks-to-the-grindstone ethos, Vallely’s influence goes well beyond the tricks and video parts and deep into the mind state of skateboarding. As famous for speaking his mind, burning bridges, and busting security guards as he is for busting bonelesses, Vallely has always seemed fearless, militant even, in his passion for and pursuit of skateboarding.

But standing on the decks at the Skatepark of Tampa during the Tampa pro contest in 2012, He’s nervous.

At age 40, Vallely’s surrounded by skaters half his age making twice his salary, and he’s riding a 9 and a quarter inch wide, fish tailed, dagger-nosed board retrofitted from a 1980’s Vision John Grigley shape. For a man who, nearly 20 years before, helped pioneer the symmetrical “popsicle” shape that now monopolizes skating, that board, the flagship design of his new company, Elephant Brand Skateboards, is as much a mission statement as any bit of skateboarding, poetry, or criticism Vallely has ever let loose.

“I wasn’t 100% certain I was going to skate the contest. I had just launched Elephant, and I had a free ride into the semifinals as a past contest winner, but I was still a little shaky as far as being around other pro skaters and industry types. That's not something I ever really desire for myself.”

But for a skater like Mike Vallely, showing up, board in hand, at the Skate Park of Tampa and then not skating wasn’t really an option.

“I got to the course, put my board down and start rolling and I just felt unbelievably comfortable, as good as I’ve ever felt on a skateboard.”

Poised somewhere between living legend and abandoned anachronism, Vallely, soon found himself doing what he had always done: skating through his misgivings and letting the coping chips fall where they may. The skating he put down that day was something more than an obligatory victory lap for the man who had gone home with first place 18 years before, it was a manifesto, an expression session for an era where any style can be valid.

“Very early in the session Chris Cole came up and did a backside boneless right in front of me. My first thought was: he’s just showing me: ‘hey, I can do some old school tricks too.’ My next thought was ‘that was a pretty weak backside boneless’, so I came around and did this monster backside boneless, the best I have ever done in my life, Cole started laughing and says ‘I guess that’s how you really do a backside boneless’...None of it was ill spirited, it was all in fun, but something about that moment really influenced things for me in that environment. People were responding to that board.”

Still, that board, that monster of a board that seems perfectly tailored for Vallely’s current modus operandi, provoked more than a little skepticism. “The funniest moment at Tampa pro was when I came up a ramp and Eric Koston grabbed the board out of my hand, held it in his and said: ‘wait, didn’t you invent the double tail?’, kind of insinuating; ‘why are you going back in time?’. I looked at him and I said: ‘oh, no man, this is the future of skateboarding’, and he looked at me like I was fucking nuts.”

The future, the past, old school, new school, wherever he resided, Vallely went home with first place in the best trick contest, absolutely killing a frontside nosepick off of a 6 foot retaining wall to disaster into a quarter pipe 4 feet out. He broke 3 decks doing it, but in the end, the 40 year old veteran, a guy who looked more like some kids’ disreputable uncle than a valid contender in a pro contest, was being hoisted on the shoulders of the rowdiest, corest skate contest crowd in the subculture.

It was an auspicious beginning to a new chapter in the Vallely saga, but in a way it was also the same old story. Vallely’s actions, both on and off board, have always reflected a search for and an articulation of the answer to the question: what is skateboarding? Now, with his own company, Elephant Brand Skateboards, Vallely is applying what he’s learned to the question of “what should a skateboard company be?’ Elephant skateboards, like so many other small companies wading into the independent board “boom” is one skater’s ongoing experiment in unlocking the answer.

“The things that are happening with Elephant are all very organic. Our mission statement is ‘100% skateboarding, for love, for fun, no schools, no divisions. The skateboard is the paintbrush and the world is an empty canvas’. There’s no effort to try to make some political statement or any message. The reality is, myself, Jason Adams, and Neal Hendrix, we don’t see ourselves as pro skateboarders. We’re not trying to be pro skateboarders because we don’t know what pro skateboarding is anymore...The reason Elephant is what it is is because of that reality. If I could have transitioned into the Nike and Red Bull world, I very well might have done that. What happened to me was that I was deemed irrelevant. My opportunities to make a living as a pro skater evaporated, but the beautiful thing about irrelevance is there’s no lower level, dead is dead, but down there there is a whole new life. The freedom I’m expressing now is true freedom.”

That freedom is not just about rising again, but going sideways too. Many of Elephant’s offerings are tailor made for those seeking “freedom” from the standard “popsicle” shape that Vallely pioneered in the late 80’s. But Vallely’s hope with Elephant is to offer boards that are more nuanced than simple throwbacks or corner-store commuters. Much as it is in Vallely’s skating, nostalgia, pragmatism, and progression all co-exist in the designs. Despite the soulful silhouettes, Vallely definitely doesn't want Elephant’s shapelier offerings pegged as “cruiser boards” or “old school” boards.

“I always hear people use the word ‘transportation’ with skateboarding, you know, the ‘cruiser board’ the ‘liquor store board’. I just don’t relate to that stuff. I have argued on behalf of skateboarding as a form of transportation to try and get rights for skaters, but, to be honest, I don’t think of skateboarding as transportation at all. If I’m going to go somewhere I’m going to ride a bike or I’m going to walk, or I’m going to get in a car. If I’m going skateboarding, I’m going skateboarding and I’m going to be doing tricks. Why am I going to be doing tricks? Because tricks allow me to express myself in any environment at any time...This whole longboard transportation thing is like: ‘oh, this is how I get around.’, Really? I’m kind of trashing it but, whatever. People are going to do whatever they're going to do, but to me that’s not skateboarding. O.K., you use your skateboard for transportation. What a waste.” 

“I’ve never used the term old school to define anyone’s skating. People say old school and they mean it out of respect. I don’t welcome it, I’m also not going to be mad at someone for saying it to me. It’s a compliment, but I don’t use those words. I never say Elephant is an old school company, when you say ‘old school’ what are you really saying? Are you are saying ‘old school’ is better?”

Whatever label you put on them, It’s easy to go fishing for irony or hidden agendas in the boards Vallely is putting under his feet in 2014. After all, when your riding a deck as singular as the street axe it has to be some sort of statement right? Especially when you are the guy who helped change the shape of the modern skateboard in the first place. Are Elephant’s shaped designs Mike Vallely's right hook to the jaw of a popsicle conspiracy that has locked up board shapes for two decades?

Not really. Vallely seems completely comfortable with his place in the history, some might even say the homogenization, of skateboard design. To him the changes that culminated in the tongue-depressor shape of the modern skate deck were totally darwinian, not some sort of World domination plan to dumb down skateboarding.

“Where skateboarding was going (in the late 1980’s) it was just kind of obvious. Mark Gonzales came to visit me once in New Jersey and we were skating this school and he was skating ahead of me and I saw him do a kickflip and it looked really weird, I was thinking: ‘something was wrong with that’, then I realized he was skating regular instead of goofy. I don’t even know if we called it switchstance yet back then, but I saw him do that and it hit me: ‘that’s real’.”

When Vallely left Powell Peralta and joined Steve Rocco’s World industries in 1989, The evolution of street skating was pushing board design even further in the direction of double-tailed boards. Curmudgeons often see Rocco as the grand wizard of the board shaping conspiracy, and there’s no doubt his shadowy hand was nudging trends in skateboarding, but Vallely still sees the transition to the double kick shape as inevitable and natural. “Regardless of any faults or issues I have with Rocco, the guy was tuned in to the streets. He didn’t necessarily have the ability himself, but as someone who I was skating with and who I was, in some sense, mentored by, Steve was in the background of a lot of things. I remember skating with him in Hermosa Beach and him telling me to switch my stance. I thought: why the hell would I do that? It makes no sense? But what he was trying to ingrain in me was that that thing, switching stance, was something that was going to separate the men from the boys in the future.”

So for Vallely It was always honest experimentation, not marketing and manufacturing concerns, that lead to the seminal, double kicked “barnyard” deck; Vallely’s second pro model on World, and the biggest selling board of his career. If there was any secret agenda, then the conspiracy theorists have to lump universally respected skate icon Rodney Mullen into the popsicle Illuminati as well. “Mullen was the guy that shaped the boards, Mullen shaped the barnyard. Rocco conceptualized it, but Rodney felt that the future of street skating was basically freestyle on steroids. A big freestyle board was the answer. It was functional.”

The barnyard was not the first double-kicked, symmetrical street board by any means. Vision’s “double vision” deck had been moldering on shop walls for nearly a year before Vallely's board debuted, Schmitt Stix had experimented with double kicks as well, but even though street skaters were deep into flat ground lines full of varials, step-off shove-its and even rudimentary switch skating, no one wanted to stick their decks out and embrace an idea that should have been obvious to everyone; namely, that a board that rode the same way both directions was ideal. Vallely didn’t come up with the double tail, he didn’t lay out the design, at first glance he didn’t even like it, but he would eventually be the man most responsible to turning skaters on to the possibilities of the symmetrical board, possibilities that should have been intuitive.

“In 1989 I was the hottest skater on the planet. When I first saw that barnyard shape and we got the prototype, it looked hideous. The first time I rode it I went out and tried skating it without anyone around. I didn't want anyone to see me on it. But then I skated it and I loved it.”

Soon afterwards Vallely showed the world just what a “double tail” deck was capable of in his seminal part in Santa Cruz Speed Wheels “Speed Freaks” video. After that, skateboards would never be the same. The Mike Valley barnyard flew out of shops as fast as they were shipped in, and getting your scabby palms on one, or even the t-shirt, usually meant going on an epic tour of multiple skate shops, accompanied by frantic calls to every mail-order 1-800 number you could find in Thrasher or Transworld.

The double-tail takeover was not instantaneous though. Even Vallely’s next few models weren’t double-tailed. Shaped, asymmetrical designs continued to be the norm for a while, but the seal had been broken, and with changes in skateboarding accelerating faster and faster, those shapes rapidly transformed into more refined versions of the barnyard board. Experimentation soon gave way to standardization, and whether you see it as purely pragmatic, or the result of simple-minded groupthink, within three years of the Barnyard’s release, the standard “popsicle” shape was pretty much the only game in town when it came to mainstream skateboarding.

“I experimented with shapes all the way through the period when I was doing TV Skateboards with Ed Templeton. I designed a board that basically was a freestyle board. The purpose was total board manipulation, to do something like a triple kickflip with no lag at all. I had a board on TV called ‘diet”. That was the concept of the board: it was on a diet. It was so skinny it looked like it hadn’t been fed...The shapes that I designed were all part of an effort to find a different paintbrush, but pretty soon you didn’t have a chance to sell anything that wasn’t a certain style. It was all a natural evolution, but during the slim years of the mid 1990s, things really sort of took root. Skating was getting put into a box because of the smaller number of participants, and there was no room going into the late 90’s for anything else.”

All through the technical and handrail trick revolutions of the 90’s, Vallely’s skating continued to progress, but even with skating at its trendiest, Vallely never threw out the tricks he helped develop on 10 inch wide vert boards in the early days of street skating. Monster bonelesses, 180 no-complies, gigantically tweaked ollie grabs, even street plants, they were all in the arsenal, right alongside the handrail 50-50s and some of the cleanest, burliest kickflips of the era. But now he was throwing all those tricks down on boards designed with switch skating and nollie flips in mind. Those boards didn’t stop him from melding old and new, but, eventually, the breakneck progression gave birth to disillusionment. 

“Throughout the early 90’s I was making an effort to keep up, to learn what everyone else was learning, but I began to realize my own limitations, not physical limitations, but the limitations of my interests. To this day I still believe I am capable of doing anything I want on a a skateboard, but it has to be within my interests. Some time in the 90’s my interest in trying to keep up just evaporated. My love for skateboarding was as strong as the first day I started, and maybe skateboarding was even more meaningful to me in those days, but I see skateboarding as a creative, artistic outlet, so I had no choice but to do it how I felt, how it spoke to me...I did some tricks when people wouldn’t even do them in a game of S.K.A.T.E. They were dead and I was marginalized and thought to be a joke for doing them. With the tricks it was like: ‘these are my songs, why should I sing someone else's songs? Every now and then I may want to play a cover, but I wrote that stuff, it’s in my DNA. I’m going to abandon it for what reason? To be considered current? I lost cool forever in the early 90’s, once you’ve taken that ride on the roller coaster you know the game. You better figure out what matters to you and stick with it. Going with the wind you just get blown away.”

Vallely’s Sponsors changed, his style continued to develop, but his relationship with the standard shape he helped establish was pretty stable. Even now, as Valley champions the wide, contoured street axe as his go-to set-up, he won’t disparage the ubiquitous shape that so many of his contemporaries see as a symbol of skating’s biggest wrong turn. 

“In my opinion, the popsicle is still the most functional shape as far as total versatility. Even though I was skating a certain way that wasn’t the status quo I was always evolving. I wasn’t counter anything, my skating evolved with the shapes. I was never feeling like: ‘I need a board with shape. I need a street axe’. The boards never felt foreign to me. I skated the popsicle shape and thrived on it. I experimented with sizes, but I always rode my own models. To me that’s the ultimate sell-out, to put your name on something you don’t actually ride. Even now I still ride the popsicle shape sometimes. I’ve ridden one several times since starting Elephant, and when I do people actually get mad at me. They see my board and say: ‘dude what are you doing?!’ ”

Regardless of how comfortable he might have been riding all the symmetrical shapes he endorsed over the years, its hard to deny that a curvy, fat-ended shape like the street axe seems more in-step with the style of skating Vallely has developed today. In action and advocacy, Vallely is making a strong case for the relevance of alternative board shapes. So what caused the change? When did contentment with the established paradigm give way to a hunger for something new? For Vallely, the endlessly touring road warrior, its no surprise that that change came from the grass roots.

“The moment came after skating for Black label, about the time I started Vallely skateboards. This was about 2002 or so. I was traveling a lot. I did the Tony Hawk tour, I was doing all these appearances, I was probably as visible as I had ever been in my career, I was seeing what was happening in the skateboard world and I was seeing people come back to skateboarding. They couldn’t believe I was still alive, they would be like: ‘holy fuck! I watched you in 1987!’ What I started hearing from these guys was: ‘I can’t get into these boards, these wheels and this and that. I started thinking these guys need to be supplied. So In 2002 I had this very detailed idea about what I wanted Vallely Skateboards to be, and the concept was basically what Elephant is now...”

Soulful shapes and an eye toward skating’s older demographic? Looking with the benefit of hindsight it seems like Vallely was ahead of the curve in 2002, but the problem with being ahead of the curve at any given time is that most everyone else is lagging behind it.

“I went to Paul Schmitt and Bod Boyle, two guys who had run successful brands before, who knew what they were doing, and told them what I was thinking. They didn’t actually laugh at me, though that’s how it felt. They had this different idea. I had a lot of really young fans at that point, and what they wanted was to market the brand like the current World Industries or Birdhouse, make it kid friendly. People think about my reputation and believe: ‘There’s no way Mike V would ever let anyone tell him what to do!' No. That’s not true at all. I feel like I’ve compromised so many times because I’ve been made to feel like I’m just some punk from New Jersey who dropped out of high school and has no business running anything or having an opinion about know, ‘you’re a good skater, just go out and skate’. I was thinking: Paul Schmitt knows what he is doing, Bod Boyle knows what he is doing, I can always get involved later if things don’t go the way I want. But I also felt kind of ill, thinking: this isn’t what I wanted to do, and they’re putting my name on this company?”

By the time Vallely skateboards made the transition from Vallely’s pitch to finished brand, the cooler heads backing Vallely had transformed the company and its products completely. Vallely’s original vision, as untried as it was in 2002, couldn’t have fared much worse than what those “experts” cooked up. Vallely skateboards was gone in less than two years, and Vallely was soon skating as a hired gun again.

Vallely wouldn’t get a chance to put his original vision to the test for another decade, and by that time, he wasn’t a veteran pro riding a surge of renewed exposure, but a skater running out of options in the established industry. On the up side, when Elephant finally came together in 2011, changes in both skateboarding and culture in general were converging in a way that seemed to play directly to Vallely’s strengths, strengths that, in the past, had been liabilities. More than ever it was possible to get a message into the ears and eyeballs of skaters without Thrasher, or Transworld, or even full length videos. At the same time, many skaters were questioning and beginning to resent the corporate and competitive influences in the skateboard industry. For once, idealism and experimentation seemed like a viable business strategy. Was there ever a better time for a guy like Mike Vallely to go out on his own?

“I feel like skateboarding has substance, and you need to nurture substance or it will evaporate. Other people are just bleeding (skateboarding). They don’t care about it. I feel like I have a very small voice in the wilderness, but I’m going to use it until my lungs give out and my voice clips. Being able to build Elephant via social media totally makes sense, it’s completely consistent with my most earnest efforts as a pro skateboarder. It’s completely consistent with how I’ve always tried to manage my skating and my career by taking it direct. I don’t have to be in favor with anyone in the industry. Whenever I have toured, If I come to a shop or a park or even a parking lot someplace, whether it was 4 people or 400 people, I always kept a direct line with skaters. I always believed just showing up and skating and giving it my all was what mattered to people. Skating is a direct line, but I think I was also blogging before it was called blogging. I was the first pro skater to have a website. At one point early on I put up a video on my website and it cost a small fortune. It cost so much to host video before youtube, but I did it anyway and put money into it because I was thinking: ‘I don’t want to make a DVD and charge kids...I’ve always looked for opportunities to make my skating more accessible, more meaningful.”

Imagery of liberation is an undercurrent in Elephant’s identity, and the ethos of opposition is always in the background of the company’s branding. There's no fiery rhetoric in the copy on his website though, only a lot of frank, take-it-or-leave-it it conviction. He may be one of skate culture’s original angry young men, but even after all the ups and downs and the temptation to ride a rising tide of discontent, Vallely doesn’t want his company to be defined by being against anything.

“Have I been hurt? Have I been angry, frustrated? Yes. No doubt. But I’m not bitter and I believe in putting one foot in front of the other and sticking to who I am regardless of the climate. The last thing I would ever want to do is say or do anything that is against kids skateboarding today and having fun.”

Despite skaters’ collective ideals of hard-scrabble independence and individual thinking, the economics of skateboarding is still mostly driven by celebrity endorsements. Vallely has chafed against the sponsor/skater relationship from the earliest days of his career, back when he had to fight tooth and nail with Powell/Peralta to have an elephant on his first board instead of a cockroach. It follows that Valley’s ideas about sponsoring riders are unconventional. Elephant’s celebrity endorsement squad reflects Vallely’s financial realities as much as his principles.

“When I say ‘The Team That Is Not A Team’, I mean Elephant can’t afford anybody. My currency is relationships.”

As such, Elephant’s team has become a sort of collective for veteran skaters and unconventional newcomers who have little to prove in an apathetic industry, but everything to gain in the no-risk, intermittent reward worlds of Instagram, Youtube, and the independent skateboarding boom. Look at it like this: Jason Adams’ “cokes” edit didn't rack up as many hits as Nyjah’s “fade to black”, but it probably reached just the right eyeballs, and, either way, Jason Adams wasn’t gambling his next pro model or magazine spread on it if it didn’t.

“The thing is, that video was just Jason Adams being Jason Adams. He wasn’t fulfilling any contractual obligation. He shot it and put it together totally himself because he wanted to. My entire philosophy with skaters is to expect nothing from them other than to be themselves. I am just glad to be a part of their lives with something soulful and with a different approach.”

Elephant is only two years old, so it's still too early to tell if Vallely’s vision of a skate company will find an enduring place in skate culture, even the vision itself is an ongoing project. Vallely talks about his “business” venture the same way an artist or writer talks about their latest painting or novel.

“Elephant is just a fun thing. Sure, we have to ask some tough questions about how we spend money on what and how we grow it, but it's really fun. All aspects are fun. The most beautiful thing is that it speaks to me. Although I created it, it speaks to me every day. It’s almost created its own ethos that now I have to respect. Its very rewarding and very fulfilling. It keeps me grounded.”

The big question though, the question Mike Vallely seems to have been asking since his earliest days as a pro skateboarder is: is there a place for that ethos in the economic infrastructure of skateboarding. Can idealism and conviction stake a big enough claim in the land of the corporate giants? Even with legend status and 3 decades of pro experience behind him, it's both ironic and extremely fitting that in 2014, Mike Vallely is taking the same journey dozens of independent skate company owners, famous and unknown, are taking in the post-Nike, post Street-League skate world.

Ultimately, though, it may not really matter, because, whether his platform is a company, a pro sponsorship, or even just a board and some pavement, you can bank on the fact that Mike Vallely will be out there pursuing his expression of skateboarding until he can’t stand up anymore, paychecks or no paychecks. In the end, for Mike Vallely, everything else is secondary. 


  1. Always loved Vallely as a kid. Seems like there was always one of his boards being ridden amongst my friends. Still a really cool dude! Jealous you got to spend time with him!

  2. ...If where I gotta/wanna go is within 2 miles (give or take), I prefer to skate.. Ive been skating since I was 8 or 9, and I'm older than Vallely... Up the Punx, and skate FREE...!!