BONES BRIGADE CHRONICLES:
INTERVIEW BY DAN LEVY
PHOTO BY DAN LEVY
Righteous mentality is something few can claim, mostly because those who exude the qualities the most will never deem themselves thus. This is why when these traits become apparent they must be respected with acknowledgement. Jesse Martinez has lived it all. From the top to the bottom, he’s contributed to and witnessed skateboarding at every level. Now, after decades of trials in Los Angeles, the skateboarding legend still remains a soldier in our community as he maintains the Venice Skatepark and sets the bar for dedication and service to the skate life.
What’s up, Mess?
Not much. Just sitting here.
Okay, we’re going huge. I want to go over some stuff first. I know you were born in 1965 in Venice and then you went to Muir Elementary School?
Yeah, I went to Broadway Elementary School and then I went to John Muir Elementary School in Santa Monica. I started skating in ‘71, a little bit before I went there.
Wait. How did you even get a skateboard?
I had some older relatives and one of them came across a skateboard one night and brought it over to the house and said, “Do you want it?” I took it and that started me off skating. It’s almost like it happened yesterday.
Did you surf before that?
No. I had no exposure to surfing at that point. I may have seen it at the beach, but I was only six.
So you were just using your skateboard to cruise around then?
Yeah. I got it and went outside on my hands and knees and started pushing. Within a couple of days, I ran my fingers over, so I said, “Oh, I better start standing.”
[Laughs] That was your first skateboarding pain? You ran over your own fingers.
That was my first experience with pain and I kept dabbling in it off and on. I had the board always around and I just kept skating. When I was in fifth grade, I moved to Santa Monica and met Dan McClure, Tim Gershio, Dave Gershio and those guys. We just started skating. There was a lot of exposure to skating when I met those guys.
The McClures killed it, huh?
They were both really good skaters and surfers when I met them. We were young then and they were already good.
Were you skating Paul Revere and places like that?
We were mostly staying around the neighborhoods in Santa Monica because we had a lot of hills. We had a few okay banks. When you’re in elementary school, you’re not really cruising the neighborhood. Your parents are still yelling at you to get home. We were young.
Were your parents supportive of your skateboarding?
Well, I was living with my grandmother in Santa Monica. My grandmother, Charlotte, and my Uncle Cruz were pretty much my parents at that time.
What happened to your parents?
It was just neighborhood crap, like everybody else back then. Pops moved to Fresno and my mother had to take a little vacation. I wound up with my grandma, which was a good thing. I had a lot of fun, but my uncle was more strict than anybody I’d ever lived with before.
So your grandmother was living in Santa Monica.
My dad’s mother has always lived in Santa Monica on Navy Street and when I needed somewhere to be, they’d call my grandmother and say, “Hey, can you take care of Jesse?” She’d say, “Yeah, bring him over.” I went from gangland neighborhood to sparkling clean Santa Monica within two blocks. The funny part is that I only moved four blocks from my house on Sunset to Santa Monica to my grandma’s house and everything changed. I went from living in a gangland crazy environment to hanging out with skateboarders. It was fate. I might have lost interest in skateboarding otherwise. Dan McClure and Tim Gershio lived a block from me. I was like, “Wow, they’re skaters. I’m a skater. Let’s skate.” They introduced me to Wes Humpston and Mike Humpston. I went to school with Mike and they turned me on to the Dogtown stuff.
How long did you stay at your grandma’s house?
I wound up living with her for two years.
When did you start skating ramps and stuff?
In sixth grade, things really took off. We started bombing hills and jumping everything, There was a Catholic school at the bottom of Marine hill that had banks in the front and back, so we started skating those. That was our introduction to banks and seeing other guys skating them. We weren’t the only guys skating that spot. It was a famous spot and we used to see guys skate there all the time. This was 1976.
Were you skating any pools yet?
No. I had only seen pool skating in the magazines. We did our thing for a while, but then fate took over. Bang! I’m back in Venice in the seventh grade. I was living the life again.
Why? What happened?
My mother came back and got me. Bam! I’m back in the mix with the craziness, but I’m still skating. I moved near some guys named Tony, Peter and Bernie who became friends of mine, and they were interested in skating too. They actually had a skateboard when I met them, so we started slashing curbs and surf skating.
Were you cruising around the beach or what?
We were rampaging. That was the one time in my life where I could have seriously gone to jail. You have to understand. We were poor kids. We didn’t have money. Everything we got, we pretty much took. That was just the way it was. We didn’t know any better. I didn’t burn people, but we stole change out of cars. We ripped off a weed plant here and there. We stole bikes. We were small time criminals.
You were kids.
In between all that survival and madness, we were skating and surfing. I was more into boogie boarding and surfing then. When I was 13, I was focused on a pro career as a boogie boarder because I was winning amateur contests and I had a few advancements. People saw me and went, “We’ve never seen anybody stand on a boogie board and ride like you.” I was like, “Maybe I have a future in this.”
There was probably more of a future in boogie boarding than skateboarding at that point, right?
Yeah, skating was dead. People used to tell me, “What are you doing skating? Skating is dead.” At that point, I was still rampaging in the streets and competing at the same time, and then fate came across me. I was skating down the street and there’s Jay Adams skating past me. I knew who he was, but I’d never met him before and he stopped me and goes, “Hey, kook.” I said, “Hey, what’s up?” He goes, “Do you wanna go skate?” I said, “Yeah, let’s go.” That day he introduced me to the Dogtown that I knew and had seen in the magazines. I’d met a few dudes and saw them skating Marine Hill, but it was the first time I was standing there with Tony Alva and Arthur Lake and a few of the other Zephyr and Dogtown riders. I’m standing on this ramp up at the hill in the Toes Beach area and I’m skating this gnarly ramp with all these dudes. I’m like, “Whoa.” That was my first exposure to ramps, and these guys were ripping. Jay took me to Toes Beach Ramp, and I crashed everywhere, but he was stoked on me. I stole some dude’s board, and they chased me. I swam across a river. He picked me up on the other side then went to drop me off at home and he goes, “Hey, do you want to ride for SMA?” I was like, “Who the hell is that?” He’s like, “Santa Monica Airlines.” I go, “Yeah, I suck though.” He goes, “No, you’re a ripper.” To this day, I’m here because of Jay Adams. I’d probably be dead or in jail otherwise. He did a good thing and he didn’t know what he was actually doing for me. I tell him that when I see him now. If it wasn’t for Jay, I don’t know what the fuck I would have done. Jay changed everything for me at that moment.
Did SMA give you a board to ride?
Jay called and said, “I want to take you to Natural Progression to meet Skip Engblom.” Jay took me down there and I met Skip in the back of this little room. He had sawdust all over him with his overalls on. There was a surfboard on the rack and there are boards lying full of dust, and they’re insane. They were hand painted and pinlined with beautiful colors. I was just in awe. Skip goes, “You’re Jesse, right? Jay tells me you’re a pretty good skater.” I go, “Well, I don’t know. I’m not that good.” Skip goes, “Obviously, you’re good enough for Jay to bring you here. Here, I have a board for you.” And he handed me a board. I remember just thinking, “Look at this thing!” He also handed me a set of Powell Cubix, the clear white ones. I was more stoked on those clear giant white milky wheels than I was on the board, because I’d only seen those in magazines. Ray Rodriguez and those dudes were holding the wheels with lights on them and it looked like they were from Mars or Venus. It was a wheel I could never get. Those were way out of my league. All of a sudden, there they were in my hand and I was shocked. That was a pivotal moment. I remember leaving there just shocked. I told Jay, “I have no trucks.” He said, “Fuck that! C’mon, let’s go!” He took me down to the skate shop and got me some trucks and bearings. Jay told me at the end of that day, “You would have been perfect for the Zephyr team. You’re just a few years too late.” I remember thinking, “Oh, man, what a bummer.”
What happened next?
A few days later, they introduced me to Natas Kaupas. I’d never even heard of him and, all of a sudden, I’m standing in the middle of a parking lot with this Viking looking dude. We start talking and he said, “Come here I want to show you something.” He did this foot slide, like a shuv-it or something weird. I was like, “Whoa, what the hell was that?” Natas skated in a way that I had never seen. It was tech skating circa 1981. I was like, “How do you do a slide with your foot like that?” That was it. Natas and I started relentlessly skating together. I’d meet up with Natas and go skate something everyday. We got better and the skate scene started to grow really quickly. Within a year or two, everything started going crazy. Natas and I started entering amateurs contests. We didn’t win, but we started entering, and then Natas and I got one or two pictures in Thrasher. I think those pictures set it off in a way. People were like, “Whoa. Look at these guys. Skating is alive.” All of a sudden, there was an explosion. In ‘83, everything took off in this wave. One minute, I’m taking a board from Skip, and the next minute, I’m taking a $500 check from Stacy’s hand. It all happened pretty quickly.
Were those wall ride photos in Thrasher?
We made up wall rides. We started becoming number one guys within two years. In ‘83, everything started exploding and there was this strong skating scene building again. VBWL was strong. In ‘84, we were skating this piece of crap launch ramp when Christian rolled up. He was the superstar. He was all, “What’s up, bros? Hey, watch this!” The next thing I know, he snaps a stationary ollie and that changed everything. We were all in shock. I was like, “What the hell did you just do?” A few days later, I’m at Aqua Tech and Natas put down a couple coke cans in the parking lot and ollied straight over them. I was like, “How did you learn that?” He goes, “Watch.” He started stacking coke cans in the parking lot in the back of Natural Progression. I was standing there in shock. He said, “It’s an ollie.” I never got to the bottom of how he learned it, but Natas advanced it. I went from seeing Hosoi do a stationary ollie to Natas Kaupas rolling and ollie-ing a coke can.
Between Rodney, Christian and Natas, those guys were some of the first people to do ollies.
Well, I never saw Rodney do an ollie. I saw him do his crazy freestyle, but it didn’t dawn on me the complexity of what he was doing until I actually saw somebody do an ollie standing still on a big board. I was shocked.
Who was there at that time?
It was such a different crowd back then. It wasn’t the crowd that everybody sees in the heyday. The Mt. Everest peak of Venice was ‘85-’88. That was when it seemed like it couldn’t have gone any higher. ‘88 was big because Eric Dressen was World Champ. Venice was flying high. In ‘80-’81, it was Natas, Block, Masao, Joe Schmo, Aaron Murray and a few other neighborhood dudes.
This was pre-jump ramp days?
It was about the same time. Everything just took off. Street skating went kaboom! It went from going to little amateur contests to sold-out stadiums within a few years. It was amazing how it grew. One minute I’m an amateur skateboarder selling my boards to buy a hot dog. The next minute, I’m getting checks and flying all over the United States.
So you’re on SMA first and then you hooked up with Stacy and Powell. How did that all go down?
Well, I was on SMA. Natas had turned pro and just gotten his first pro model for SMA and I was still amateur. I’m not saying I wasn’t happy about it, but I was like, “I’m going to go pro. Fuck this. I just beat Natas in the last am. I’m going to go pro too.” They told me, “No, we need you to hang on.” A month or two went by and I entered a few more amateur contests and won them. One day, I was sitting at the beach seriously contemplating. I had $1 in my pocket. I was like, “What am I going to do? Am I going to go steal a weed plant? Am I going to go hook up with Tonan and steal a bike?” At the same time, I’m thinking, “I’m the number one amateur in the world right now and I’m broke. What can I do to make money?” I’d just come from the Santa Barbara Isla Vista contest where Natas and I went head to head, and I barely beat the guy. At that contest, George Powell asked me to ride for Powell. He talked to me in Spanish, but I don’t know Spanish.
[Laughs] That’s awesome.
[Laughs] Yeah. I stood up and said, “Thanks, man. Who are you?” Then I just shook his hand and said, “Later.” A couple days later, I was in Venice and Stacy Peralta comes walking up Market Street. I was like, “Hey, that’s Stacy Peralta.” I had talked to him a couple of months before that because he shot a little bit of footage of Natas and me doing wall rides and used it in one of his Powell videos. He goes, “Hey, Jesse, what’s up? How’s it going? I heard you won Isla Vista. George said you skated great.” I said, “George who?” He goes, “George Powell.” I said, “Wow. He was there?” He goes, “Yeah, he came up and talked to you.” I said, “Really? I had quite a few people talk to me that day.” He said, “What’s the problem? Why don’t you want to ride for Powell?” I said, “What do you mean?” He goes, “He asked you to ride for Powell. He spoke to you for about a minute and he said you gave him a look and just said thanks and walked away.” I said, “Well, I was just trying to figure out who this white guy was that looked like a businessman talking to me in Spanish?” He goes, “Yeah, he was speaking Spanish. Don’t you speak Spanish.” I go, “No, I don’t. I’m an American. I speak English.” He goes, “Oh, well, George was asking you to ride for Powell.” I was shocked and honored because a few days before that I was sitting at Natural Progression in a little back room where SMA was with Skip and we were talking about me and how my skating was going. I was the number one amateur and I was wondering where my career was going? Skip goes, “There’s going to come a time when you’re going to be too big for me and don’t worry about it. Go ahead. Do your thing.” A few days later, I’m hanging out in the neighborhood contemplating crime and Stacy Peralta walks up and goes, “Hey, do you want to ride for Powell?”
That is so crazy.
I’m thinking, “I’d like to ride for Powell, but I need to eat, so what’s in it for me? Are they just going to give me boards like Skip does? What’s the deal?” Stacy goes, “How are you doing with money?” That was the magic word. I hate to say it, but I was living on the streets. I was like, “I don’t have any money at all.” He goes, “Hang on a second.” He pulled his checkbook out and writes me a check for $500. I was stoked, but I’m a dude that lives on top of Venice High School, and skates the Venice High School banks night and day. I have no I.D. and I steal people’s weed plants to buy lunch. How am I going to cash a check? I said, “Hey, I can’t cash this.” He goes, “Oh, sorry about that. Wait here.” He cruises off to the bank and comes back with five $100 crispy bills. He hands me $500 and goes, “Here you go. We’ll pay you $500 a month. How do I get a hold of you?” I go, “How do I get a hold of you?” He goes, “Here’s my number. Give me a call. I need to bring you to Powell.”
So you were living on top of Venice High School.
Yeah, I had a perfectly built little cubbyhole where they had a hot fan that blew warm air out at night. I used to grow weed plants under it a year or two before that.
How the hell did you find that spot?
I was hopping onto the roof one day to see if anybody threw anything interesting up there. I found a vent blowing out hot air and I said, “Hey, wow! I can use this.”
[Laughs] So you didn’t have a dollar to your name and then Stacy hands you $500.
Yeah, I’ve got $500 in my hand and I’m shocked.
What did you do with it?
I went out and ate at Tommy’s right down the street and then bought some weed and hung out with my friends, and then everything changed. Stacy picked me up and took me to Powell. They said, “Go do what you do, win.” The money came and I just kept winning. I went from living on top of Venice High to renting my own room. Everything changed overnight. Powell handed me more money. I was like, “Jesus Christ, where’s the bucket?” Not to mention the truckload of shit they gave me the first day I went there. I sold half of it when I came back, so I had another $400 in my pocket.
Who was on Powell at that point?
I’m not sure if Ray Bones was still on the team. I think he was gone, but I remember Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Rodney Mullen, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Tommy G., Kevin Harris and Per Welinder. I’m the guy who came from this small SMA team of two, and we whooped everybody’s ass. Next thing I know, I’m thrown into every skateboarder’s dream. I was sitting at a table with the most God-like skaters of that era. I’ll never forget that day of walking into that meeting room and sitting down and looking at those guys and feeling not worthy to be there. I was so intimidated by those dudes and just shocked to be there, which drove me to skate even harder.
What did you guys do that day?
I’m not sure. I think it was a team meeting. I came in late and they introduced me to a couple of the dudes, like, “This is Tony Hawk. Tony, this is Jesse Martinez.” I was like, “Whoa, I’m glad to meet you.” Unfortunately, I’d met Lance Mountain prior to that. We had a little bit of an argument at a contest a couple months before that. Next thing I know I’m on a team with him.
Let’s talk about that for a second.
I was young and stupid. I went to a contest in the city that I didn’t like too much. I won, and I threw the board I won into a canal that was next to the contest site. The board was from one of the local companies and Lance and a couple dudes came up to me and said, “Hey, why did you do that? There are a thousand kids here who would have loved to have that board.” I was just an ignorant dumbass then, so I was like, “Oh, fuck that, these guys are kooks. I don’t need that board.” I almost started a fight with that guy. What an idiot I was. I was ignorant. I didn’t know. They were obviously more mature than me at that point.
You’re coming from Venice, so the neighborhood was still part of the deal.
Yeah, I still had that not so nice mentality. I was like, “This is my neighborhood, Dogtown!” As I got older, I learned that wasn’t the way to handle things.
I remember Lance telling me that story and he was like, “Yeah, Jesse was rad, but it was kind of scary and we didn’t know what to do.”
That was one of the first times I met Mark Gonzales. I’d run into him here and there at contests, but that was the first time the Gonz put an asswhooping on everybody. He’d just turned pro and he showed up and skated the street course and then it dawned on me, “Oh my God. That’s Mark Gonzales who I saw skate at the first contest I ever went to.” He left a major impression on me that day. Years later, there he was again at another contest. I don’t think he even entered the contest that day. He just showed up for a little bit and then left. I was like, “Thank God he left.”
[Laughs] Did you go on tour with the Bones Brigade at that point?
It was early ‘85 when I got on the team and they wanted me to keep on doing what I was doing, which was entering contests, so I found myself entering the strangest contests in the middle of nowhere. I got so disgusted with beating these guys who were great skaters, but just weren’t as advanced as L.A. yet. I’d show up to this local contest in the middle of Nebraska to skate against the 15 local guys when I’m used to skating against the best amateurs in the world. I was skating with Natas Kaupas, Aaron Murray, Eric Dressen, Scott Oster and Christian Hosoi on a daily basis. Next thing I know, I find myself in the Midwest skating against these local kids. I think to myself, “I’m going to annihilate these guys.” I knew I could take every one of them out, but then I would see their mothers and everybody cheering for the local kid and I’d actually fall a couple times on purpose just to let the guy win. After a while, I got tired of it and that’s when Powell and I started going back and forth. I was like, “Why are you sending me to these contests in the middle of nowhere?” It just didn’t seem right. I was an asshole in a way. I had that hard attitude, but I still had morals. I felt like I was a ringer. CASL had already kicked me out because they said I was a ringer. They sent Powell a letter saying, “Jesse can no longer enter California Amateur Skateboard League contests because he wins them all.” How fair is that? They booted me and that’s when the whirlwind of skating jackass contests came on, until a legit amateur showed up in Oceanside, and I got my ass whooped by a young, white boy named Jeff Kendall. Kendall came in and ended my reign of terror. I didn’t know who he was. I just thought he was another local contest kid. So here I come. I’m going to whoop some ass, shake some hands and sign some boards. I’m the greatest amateur in the world. Get the fuck out of my way. Next thing I know, this dude shows up out of nowhere and beats me. I hadn’t been beaten in a long time. I was like, “Nobody beats me.” I was shocked. I went home like, “What the fuck?”
Kendall was great.
I just left in awe. I entered a few more amateurs contests and then I talked with Powell and said, “I’m not doing this anymore. You have to turn me pro.” They said, “Okay, you’re going pro. You’re on the Bones Brigade tour. Do your thing, shake hands, become the president, come back and we’ll give you a model.” I said, “Are you going to pay me?” They said, “Yeah, we’re going to pay you. Get on the road. Don’t worry about contests. Just do your thing.” I said, “Cool.” I was on a Bones Brigade tour for a year and a half on the road, tearing it up, and it was the best time of my life.
Wait. There were some other things that went down on the Bones Brigade tour.
[Laughs] Yeah, there was ass whooping, beer drinking, van flipping, going to jail handcuffed….
[Laughs] Tommy Guererro was telling me a story. He said, “Jesse and I walked up to this skatepark and there were these two dudes doing something to some chicks. They gave us some attitude and Jesse walked straight up and punched both dudes at the same time and knocked them out to the floor.”
[Laughs] I don’t know about that. I think one dude fell, and the other guy stumbled.
[Laughs] He said that throughout the whole entire tour there was a bunch of idiots around and you just didn’t have any tolerance for it.
It wasn’t that I had no tolerance. I was just accustomed to getting into fights in Venice. Once a month, at least, you could expect to get into a street fight out on the beach. I was battle-trained and it was still in me to react stupidly instead of talking it out. I thought, “Okay, if you throw the first punch, there is an 80% chance you’re going to win your fight.” That’s the mentality I had. If you punch first, you may win. That’s the only way you’re going to survive.
Well, the Bones Brigade was like the Boy Scouts of America, and then there was you annihilating everything and skating harder than anyone.
I was definitely the square peg on the team. I came with a different attitude and a different way of skating. I just had a different way of doing things.
Did you get along with them all?
That was the weird thing. We really got along. At first, there may have been a little bit of tension between a few of the riders. We had our little bitch arguments on the road here and there, but it was never anything big.
You’re on tour with the Bones Brigade. You’re one of them. Was it crazy autographs everywhere and big crowds?
The first Bones Brigade demo I ever went on was with Steve Caballero, Rodney Mullen and Tommy Guerrero. We jumped in the Powell van and we’re driving on the freeway and there’s this giant mall with this huge neon sign and I’m in the backseat looking out and I see this sign flashing and it says “Bones Brigade Tour.” They’re flashing everyone’s names and I watch it cycle through. My name is not there, of course. I’m just an amateur amongst giants. I’m sitting there, literally, in shock, and Rodney Mullen is sitting right in front of me. I had plenty of amateur contests by then, but this was a whole different ballgame at that magnitude. It was like stepping out the door with the President of the United States. That’s how it was. The neon sign shocked me, but when we drove up to this gigantic mall, the parking lot was filled with a couple thousand people. I remember Rodney going, “Hey, man, have you ever seen anything like this?” I go, “No.” He goes, “Look, just skate. Ignore the crowd. Just do what you do.” He could tell I was nervous.
[Laughs] Yeah, and you don’t get nervous really.
I was petrified that day, and then everything happened. Guerrero shot out there and the crowd went nuts. It was the greatest day and it was the worst day because it was the first time I ever got the taste of feeling like a shit peon amongst these giants. Unfortunately, they did the signing first at the demo. They had a table with everybody’s names and my name was at the end. I sat down and not one person asked for my autograph, and that signing thing went on for an hour. I think somebody asked me if I was the driver. I thought I was big shit at that point. I was winning amateur contests here and there and being this hot shit for getting a couple of shots in Thrasher.
You had your photos in the magazine though. Somebody had to know who you were.
I thought they did, but when you’re amongst skateboarding royalty, they see right past you. They just ran to the super stars. I was sitting there going, “Ah, no big deal. I’ve got heart.” Then the demo proceeded and shit went crazy. Guerrero did his shit and then they were all, “And next Jesse Martinez. Number one amateur!” The crowd roared and it was go time. I did a giant method. I’ll never forget that. I did the biggest method I could do. I launched it and the crowd went bananas. I just went crazy and started skating. When the demo was over, the crowd went nuts. The Powell team came up as I walked out and they were like, “Dude, you tore it up. You were ripping!” I remember at that moment going, “Wow, this is how it is.” At that point, you have to remember, I was never really on a team. The team I had was a team of two, me and Natas. At the end there, Natas and I were sort of separating our own ways, so we didn’t skate that much anymore. The Bones Brigade tour was the first time I ever felt real team camaraderie. I was like, “Wow, look at this.”
Did they ask for your autograph after the demo?
They did. They mobbed me and I was signing autographs for a good hour or two. I’ll never forget that day. Rodney Mullen was standing next to me and the crowd got out of control. That circle of people became so impacted it almost went dark. People were crowding so hard and so tight to get on top of everyone on the Powell team signing autographs. I remember Rodney finally stood up and said, “That’s enough!” They pulled him out and took him to the van. And then the kids mobbed me, but I didn’t really care. I was like, “Yeah. What do you want me to sign? Here, I’ll sign it.” I was signing anything. I almost broke my wrist off that day.