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Tony Hawk on the Everlasting Power of Subculture

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Hosted by Highsnobiety Editor-at-Large Christopher Morency, “On the Record” is a podcast series of intimate, off the cuff conversations with icons and cultural engineers that have shaped the worlds of fashion, music, tech, art, business, sports and youth culture at large. For this episode, Morency visited legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk who visited London.

There are only a few athletes that have a legacy like that of Tony Hawk. Early on, the American pro-skater understood the importance of not only being Tony Hawk the skater, but Tony Hawk the brand, attaching his name to everything from amusement park rides to films and tv shows.

His video game series Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is among the most popular sports video games of all time and propelled Hawk into mainstream pop culture. But he also gives back. In 2002, Hawk created the Tony Hawk Foundation, in response to the lack of safe and legal skateparks in America. It’s contributed to the construction of over 600 skatepark projects, and it’s something we discussed with him in a tiny pub in Browns’ Browns East store in London where we also talked about skateboarding debuting at next year’s 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the meanstreamification of skateboarding and the late Trasher editor Jake Phelps.

The below interview is a written version of ‘On the Record’ Episode 9. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christopher Morency: Welcome Tony Hawk. What is this pub setting we’re sitting in today?

Tony Hawk: Thank you. We’re in London at Browns East and apparently we’re in the smallest bar in Shoreditch, which they’ve built in their upstairs showroom.

And it’s morning, but the beers have already been poured for a shoot this morning.

Yeah. We might’ve done shoot, and sort of faked being served. Let’s put it that way.

I want to speak about a number of things today. We have the 2020 Olympics coming up. I’ve been speaking to a lot of skater friends of mine and some are quite skeptical about it. The commercial side of it. They see it as selling out, and also, especially if you’re speaking to street skateboarders, they don’t really see how you can judge someone’s aesthetic on the point system. What do you think of skateboarding finally reaching mainstream sports?

Well, there are a lot of elements there. I think firstly, the Olympics are not going to reinvent the wheel of competition. We’ve had competition ever since I started. I mean, I have literally been skating for 40 years, and I started by competing. So, to say that somehow this has changed the way of skating or the purity of it is all false because it’s always existed.

The point that the judging criteria is the same for the competitions that are happening now, Street League, the Park Series, all of that’s just sort of funneled into how the Olympics are going to run it. That being said, I think it’s a great opportunity for skateboarding in terms of global awareness and growth. I think that skateboarding should have been considered for the Olympics a long time ago because it’s far more exciting than most of the summer events.


It’s been long overdue for sure.

I think that they’re crazy for not realizing that earlier where they finally got the youth cool factor with snowboarding in their winter games, and they haven’t had that in the summer games. And so, they’re going to get that with skateboarding. Also, the idea that the Olympics are going to legitimize skateboarding as a sport is a false narrative. I think that skateboarding doesn’t need the Olympics. I mean, I’ve always said that from the get go. I feel we don’t need their validation. Skateboarding is big. Skateboarding is set. It already has a strong foundation, it’s not considered a fad anymore. It’s very much a part of so-called mainstream activities. There are skate parks all over the place. So, they need our cool factor more than we need their validation in terms of programming. But at the same time, I think it’s a great opportunity for new skaters to get recognized. You have to have a genuine career, and especially people from other countries that maybe have been skating through the years with very little validation.

That’s so true. I’ve been speaking to some people about these micro skate communities around the world, especially in Nigeria, in Indonesia, which is a really big skate scene. So, often we think of skateboarding is such a US driven-sport but that’s changing.

Yeah. Over the last especially 30 years, there have been very strong scenes in Europe, especially in the UK, in Italy, and in France, and in Spain. Skateboarding has a stronghold. I think that the exciting part to me is that there are other scenes happening. I was in Ethiopia a couple of years ago, and there’s a strong skate scene there. There’s also a burgeoning scene in Cambodia. There is a really good skate scene in South Africa. And so, those are the kinds of things that I’m more excited about because those are the ones that are going to funnel the growth of the more unlikely countries. It’s fun to see those scenes blossom on their own without a lot of influence from Western culture.

There’s a skate park in Uganda, and the locals there just have sort of created their own style. They do tricks that are similar to the tricks that we’ve been creating throughout the years, but truly they’re not influenced by what’s cool today, and what’s the grab that going to make them more noticed. They don’t care about that. It’s just more about function, and they have these tricks that are unique because of it.

Do you think that culture still exist today? I think that a lot of subcultures have died down because of social media, everything niche can become mass very quickly. How has that changed things?

It’s changed in that people are accepting of [sub culture] and interested in it, whereas before they shunned it. But at the same time, it’s pretty obvious what’s true and what’s not. And I think that those little subcultures, and those cliques and crews, they very much still exist, and remain important and valid. A lot of people are trying to get in for their own reasons, because somehow it makes them cool or the aesthetics are there, and they’re not really living that passion. So, I don’t think that it’s diluting anything. If anything, it’s just made these people that were passionate about it, that did make it their life able to do it for a living. That’s the big ship. This idea that [skating during] the Olympics is a sellout [is wrong]. People are riding for Nike, and Red Bull, and car companies. That stuff has always existed. So, the argument is moot.

When was it that that you went pro. Was it when you were 14? Back then, how popular was the sport?

Yeah. I saw it picking up probably between 1986 to 1989, which was sort of the heyday of the 1980s, and it was definitely what put me on the map in terms of a name or any kind of success. Skateboarding was a fad for the most part, but it held strong. People that skated in those years still to this day, even if they don’t skate anymore, they hold those years as very formative for them, and to the direction of their life. I was skating then, and that gave me the fortitude to do my own thing and to believe in myself. It died again in, I would say around 1990 because all the parks were closing, the popularity was draining, and it went underground. And that was really the onset of street skating. Really this direct result of the skate parks closing and kids having nowhere to go. And so, the people who loved skating just did it unlawfully in public areas, and learned to navigate that, and learn to skate stairs, learn to skate handrails, benches, and whatnot. And that became the chosen style.

And then as that started to evolve and emerge, a few key things happened. In the 1990s, The X Games started. That piqued my interest back in skating, people saw how far skating had come. Our video game released in 1999, and I think that was sort of the tipping point of skating not being just cyclical in popularity, it was more, “This is it. The foundation is set. It’s solid and skating is here to stay.”

When you launched the video game, ‘Tony Hawk Pro Skater’, it shaped a lot of people my age in terms of gaming culture. What were the early days when you have those conversations with the game maker?

Well, it went through a couple of iterations. The very first time that I was tapped to maybe help on a game, it was with a PC developer, and he had a very crude engine, and he asked me to go with him to some pitch meetings. And we went to pitch this idea to a few publishers and video game console manufacturers, and we just came up against a lot of negativity. The publishers were saying, “Skateboarding isn’t popular,” and, “Why would anyone want to play a video game about skateboarding?” And then he gave up, and I got a call from Activision, and they said, “Hey, we heard that you were talking about doing a video game. We are doing a video game, and we’d like you to come see what we’re working on.”

So I went up to Activision, and they showed me the engine that they had built that was actually based on a game they had already released called ‘Apocalypse’. The game featured Bruce Willis. So, the first time I ever played the game that [eventually] became Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, it was Bruce Willis on a skateboard with a gun strapped to his back, skating [around].

Super realistic.

Yeah, I mean, it was just for them to show me the motion. And luckily, I got there at the early stages, so I was able to help form it, and to keep it more authentic. But I felt like the motion was intuitive. The controls were fun and easy to understand, and immediately you could start ollying and kickflipping and things like that, so I signed up almost immediately.

What was the response back then when it came out for the first time?

The response was amazing. I knew that we had something there because the skate community just started calling it “the game.” Even before it was released, they said, “You heard about the game? Did you see the game?” And so that was good because he validation I wanted was from the skate community, not necessarily the video game community. People still have that nostalgia for the first few, one to four. Did you know there are literally two different cover bands that only play songs from our games. One in Australia and one is in the US.

Have you ever seen them perform?

I have, yeah. Actually, one that’s called Birdman just played one of our charity events, and it was a blast. I mean, it’s amazing what a stronghold the game had and how it influenced people. And I still have people like, “Yeah, I still have my PlayStation 2 just to play that game.”


You started your first skate business when in the 1990s, that included a lot of clothing and apparel as well. How did you create that business sense coming from the skate community? Very often when I speak to skaters, it’s not cool to start your own business, and that’s something from more recent years.

I started my skate company in 1992, and for me, I thought it was my transition from being a pro skater to being a businessman, so I didn’t think about it too deeply in terms of if it was cool or not. It was more a necessity to try and create a business and make a living besides just being a skater. I had help because my partner at the time, Per Welinder, was a pro skater himself, and he had a business degree, so he understood a lot more than I did about starting a business and doing purchasing and sales. And so with our combined experience, we thought that would be a great match. It really didn’t start becoming profitable until about four years after we started, so it was tricky, it was difficult. We were struggling.

What happened after? When was the breaking point when it went well again?

I would say around 1996, probably after the first or second X Games happened and I was there front and center and people saw the brand. People were starting to come back to skateboarding and we had one of the best teams. So we positioned ourselves really well, and then I would say, for the next 10 years after that, we had this insane run.

When was it that you started thinking about yourself as a brand?

That was the video game because my name became synonymous with [it]. And so that’s when I realized that my name had become a brand, and that’s when things took off in terms of other opportunities, promotions, licensing, and a kids’ clothing line.

I wanted to speak about your clothing line today. I just had a look downstairs. What was the incentive to get back into real fashion again?

Well the idea started about a year and a half ago as we wanted to do something a little more high-end. And we put a request in to [photographer] Anton Corbijn, and he responded very quickly with a “yes.” I think that was probably the moment where we knew this could be real. The images on the clothing were taken very recent. In fact, there’s one with a picture of me doing an invert, which is a skate trick, and that’s the only action skate picture he’s ever taken.

We don’t have some master plan of rolling out or dates of when the drops are. I think that this is very much a test run, and by the response that it’s gotten, I feel confident that we can do it again. There’s a crew that’s devoted to this line, but I have an office with a few people that help me with my day to day because things are a little crazy, and then I have a key artist who is my go-to for this kind of project.

What’s something that you hope people take away from it and what do you hope it becomes?

I would say it’s more geared towards a fashion crowd that appreciates skating or that maybe has some skate history, but I do want it to be fashionable and not just plastered with photos or plastered with logos, which is more what the skate culture has been over the last few decades.

Yeah. Skate culture has always been so much more than just the sport itself. It’s been so influential with its clothing, music and also the videos that surround the culture. People love it because it’s so unedited, you try to land that trick 60 times to make it perfect. The way your arm flows, the way your leg stands, how you land. For you, what is that significance of video in skating?

Well that’s your calling card. That really shows, are you walking the walk? Are you being progressive? It’s the proof. With skating there’s obviously the competition element and you can only focus on that, but the proof is, if you put out a video part that has new stuff or that shows you’re skating well, that’s what people judge you on for the most part. I’ve been putting out video parts since 1982, ’83, and I realized how important it could be and I very much work on it, I curate the tricks that I want, I make a list of them. I’m not so focused on, how did I look doing that trick, because a lot of the tricks I try are so hard that if I make it once, that’s all you’re going to get.

What do you think of the style that the kids are skating in now? How has it developed?

I think the skating videos are crucial. They’re a center stone of skateboarding and showing the creativity, showing the music, the fashion. I think that people put a lot of work into it. They’re definitely hyper focused on how it looks and what the general vibe is of the video, and I think that they’re very progressive. I think they’re great, and they have been through the years, but definitely now more than ever. People are looking to skate videos for inspiration.

What do you think of the scene in terms of the way it’s shifted nowadays? I look at young skaters, such as Evan Mock and Blondey McCoy and Lucien Clarke, and these young guys that are really connected to the fashion and art scene now, there’s really just this transformation. When I was speaking to some of them last week, they were talking to me about skate culture in its essence being about empowerment. What do you think the power of that is?

It’s just more opportunity. So if you do love skating, but maybe you’re not going to be successful as a skater per se, there are so many other avenues for you to stay within the scene and to follow your passion, whether it be art for skate companies, photography, videography, editing, fashion. All those things are valid extensions of skateboarding, and valid careers. In fact, some of them may be way more lucrative than being a pro skater. In fact, most of them are, I’d say.

Yeah. What is your day to day look like nowadays? Do you wake up at 4:00 AM like my friends who skate?

Well no. 6:30 AM, because we have kids still in school so that’s pretty much when I’m home, that’s the start of the day. It all depends if I’m traveling or not. Like today, doing press from 9:00 till noon, then we’re going over the line until 2:00, and then the event here at 5:00 to 8:00, and meet and greet. If I’m home, it’s usually getting the kids to school, go do business stuff, return emails, phone calls, do approvals, and then try to find time to actually skate before the kids get out of school. And then when they get out of school, I try to be available to them.

Do you still get enough time to skate?

I do, but I have to schedule it, which is something I never had to do when I was young. Now it’s more like, I have this window on Monday from 11:00 to 1:00, and I gotta make it happen. But sometimes that’s a better motivator, because you know that within that timeframe you’ve got to do the things you want to accomplish.

The public perception around skate culture is shifting for sure. What do you hope the skate scene becomes in five years?

For the mainstream, it’s definitely going to get more exposure but at the same time they know skating is embedded in our culture. They know it’s prolific. Do you know what I mean? It’s not like suddenly they see it and go, “Oh these guys are doing that?” They see it all over. And there’s a whole community and business around that. You know the idea that people who have devoted their lives to it are now maybe more behind the scenes, and maybe that’s how they’re going to make a living, by facilitating the Olympic skating. But at the same time, what would I want to see? I want to see skateboarding become more global. That’s the bottom line. The opportunity to skate and to have that sense of self confidence and self worth, and that lesson of perseverance, I want that to be available to kids everywhere.

Youth has always been very important to you. You’ve given back so much to communities over the past couple of decades. I read earlier that you’ve contributed to the building of over 600 skate parks. What’s the significance of giving back and why did you feel that need?

My foundation started mostly with me being invited to skate park openings in the early 2000s to cut the ribbons and to see these city councils congratulate themselves and realize that they had built something that wasn’t any better than, or even worse than the local shopping malls to skate, and they weren’t consulting the skaters on these projects. And I thought, maybe I could bridge that gap in terms of the communication and in terms of who they were really building these for, but more importantly, to direct funding to more low income areas. And that was the baseline of why I started the foundation.

Through the years, we’ve become more effective, we’ve become a resource center, we’ve become a place where cities and communities go to ask, “How do we go about doing this?” Because we’ve learned a lot through those years, but it’s definitely the work I’m most proud of. And the reason I do it is because the skate park I grew up near gave me so much in terms of my formative years. That was my home away from home. That was where I found my crew. That’s where I shared ideas and a sense of values and a sense of self and self-confidence, and I want to provide the same opportunity for kids, especially in underprivileged areas, not because I’m trying to get them to make a skate career, but just to have a place where they feel safe and feel like someone’s providing for them.

Do you still speak to a lot of kids that you see on the skate parks? What are some of your favorite places to go back to and that you still have young crews around?

Every skate park has a scene. So I can’t say that I go to ones in particular. I think that the most exciting in my area has been the new Linda Vista Skate Park in San Diego because it’s probably the biggest in Southern California, and there’s such a good crew there. In fact, the last time I went, it was in the morning and there was a whole crew of female roller skaters on quad skates that some of them do roller derby, others are just young and trying to learn how to do it. There’s a resurgence in it and it’s because of that skate park. That kind of stuff is super cool. They’re either also a bunch of people skating there that they come from disenfranchised areas, they come from difficult family backgrounds, but they find their crew there and they love it.

Where’s the foundation based?

It’s US based, but we have a partnership with Skateistan, who are based in Berlin but they started with a project in Kabul, Afghanistan, which is still running today and the education and skating are both part of that program. We funded one of their projects in Cambodia and [another] in South Africa so that’s our international arm of the Tony Hawk Foundation. We are a resource to people all over the world in terms of advice, but to give funding to those projects would require us to establish ourselves in every one of those countries, and we just don’t have the funding and the resources for that.

When you go to those different countries, what do you see in terms of the confidence that so many people get from skating?

Oh, it’s incredible. I mean it changes kids’ lives, especially when you see the girls coming out of Afghanistan, because co-ed sports don’t exist [there]. Girls are not supposed to play sports, but they consider skateboarding a toy, and so that’s the loophole. And because of that, their ratio is one to one, if not more girls skating than boys. [In general women skating] took a while. When I grew up, there were only a handful of girl skaters. It was much like surfing in those days. But, in terms of acceptance and growth, I would say it has been exponential in the last five years, and nowadays there is equal prize money. There are equal events for the most part, and then talking about the Olympics again, there are going to be equal disciplines for males and females. So it’s finally come around, but you know, they’re still struggling to shake off all the stigmas from the last few decades.

Just to round things off, I wanted to speak a bit about people that have influenced you in your life. Who did you look up to when you were young, and also who you really respect now?

Well, when I was young, Stacy Peralta was a mentor for sure. He was the one who put me on the team and helped to guide me through having a career that I really didn’t understand in the beginning. Eddie Elguera was a skater that was very progressive with tricks when I was an impressionable youth, and he was the one that I look to, to emulate because he had the most tricks and that’s what I was focused on. In later years, just my peers, you know, they were a huge influence. My peers of especially like X Games, like Bob Burnquist and Bucky Lasek, Andy Macdonald, Danny Way, we were all feeding off each other and learning stuff and I feel like we created this movement. These days, I’m just inspired by anyone that gets out there and pushes their limits.

I wanted to speak about the late Trasher editor Jake Phelps a bit as well, who has been such an important person in bringing the culture into the mainstream. Indirectly, I don’t ever think that was his ambition, but he was really collecting what was happening on the grounds and it was by skaters for skaters. What was his influence on you?

Well, I grew up in a time when Jake was young, so you know, we kind of came through this together. I didn’t think of him as some figurehead back then. It wasn’t until he headed up Thrasher and started really putting together these events where I was like, “Oh, this is the guy that is influencing a younger generation to appreciate skateboarding at its core.” And so I appreciated that about him. He went at it and he was very renegade. He was very intimidating, but at the same time, influential. And so I loved it and I love his love for skateboarding and the core elements of skateboarding, and his trick history was like no one else. That was the most fun for me, just to get together with Jake and reminisce about trick origins. Every time we’d get together, he would challenge me with some obscure trick that he knew, and I knew, that maybe 99% of the skate population didn’t understand. So I really appreciated that he was sharing that love, and that he was passing on that passion and that education to a younger generation.

Thank you so much Tony for taking the time.

Yeah, my pleasure.

Listen to why A$AP Ferg was supposed to be a fashion designer on last week’s episode of ‘One the Record’.

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