INTERVIEW BY JIM MURPHY
INTRODUCTION BY JIM MURPHY
PHOTOS BY LUKE OGDEN AND MARC FALKENSTEIN
Mike Vallely is from Jersey, and being from Jersey toughens you up from the get-go. Known from the early days as one of the innovators of street skating, no one really knew from all the hype that Mike wasn’t only a street skater, but also aspired to and respected vert skating. Skating street and vert contests under Bones Brigade protests, Mike eventually bailed to the infamous World Industries camp to pursue his own rules and own destiny. The bottom line is Mike is a pure skateboarder and rides for life. A true skate nomad who hasn’t forgotten why he started skating in the first place. After the last two decades of dealing with a lot of the skateboard industry politics, Mike is ready for an interview. Here is the real Mike Vallely – uncensored and uncut.
“WHEN I WAS ON THE ROAD AND DID DEMOS AND CONTESTS, I WAS PASSIONATE AND I THINK PEOPLE RESPONDED TO THAT. THE THING THAT I SAW THAT WAS MISSING IN THE INDUSTRY AND THE SKATE MARKET WAS THE PASSION. WHEN THE LOVE OF SKATEBOARDING COMES THROUGH, PEOPLE REALLY RESPOND TO THAT.”
Yo, Mike. What’s going on, brother?
Not a whole lot. Everything is cool.
What’s the proper pronunciation of your last name?
Val-luh-lee. It has the same rhythm as Donnelly.
Right on. Where were you born and raised, man?
I was born in 1970 in Edison, NJ. That’s where I was raised. That’s where I did most of my time.
When did you start skating?
I didn’t come across skating in any real way until 1984. I’d have to say that, in my life, before that moment, there was really nothing there. My life began the day that I started skateboarding.
How did you get into it?
I was entering my freshman year of high school and I really didn’t have any real direction or any real sense of my identity at all. I was desperately looking for something that I could call my own. Then I came across punk rock music.
What bands did you get into?
The first bands that I was turned on to were the obvious ones, like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, the Misfits and Husker Du. The energy and spirit of the music, and the fact that you had to dig a little deeper to find it, was all very intriguing to me. I wanted to find something that I could call my own that wasn’t on anyone else’s radar in any real way. I was befriended by a bunch of punk rock guys at my school. They weren’t skaters, but they all had skateboards and read ‘Thrasher’ magazine. It was through those guys that I got my first real introduction to skating.
When you were looking at the mags, were you into the street skating or the tranny skating?
I didn’t really think about it in those terms. I just thought, ‘If you can skate it, I want to skate it.’ My initial experiences were on the streets, but the word was out about Tom Groholski’s ramp in North Brunswick. It wasn’t very long after I started skating that I showed up there for the first time.
What did you think when you pulled up to Groholski’s ramp?
I couldn’t believe it was real. I’d had no exposure to anything like that before. I’d never been to a skatepark. I’d never seen vertical skating in person with my own eyes. Seeing a vert ramp placed in that kind of suburban setting, just seemed so unbelievable. It was one of those things where the ramp was open to the public, but there wasn’t a very big public that wanted to use it.
As far as the circles that I ran in, there were just a few of us that would take a ride over there. It was amazing, though. Tom’s ramp was open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so I’d go there every Wednesday and Saturday. The fact that the Groholski family did that for the local community and had that ramp open to the public was unbelievable.
Yeah, believe me, I probably went to Rutgers because of that vert ramp.
When you first pulled up to it, did you immediately try to roll in on it?
I was trying it right from the start. With skating, I didn’t have any hang-ups. Nothing was going to stop me from riding. I just started going for it. There was no one there to teach you, so you just got on it and started going and figured it out. Still, I was the last of my buddies to figure it out. It took me awhile to figure out exactly what the pump was.
You took some slams in the process?
[Laughs.] More so than slams, I took a lot of heckling and hard times from other skaters.
[Laughs.] The boys were trying to toughen you up.
That was just the way it was for me, right from the start. I felt like I had way more energy and that I was more ballsy than most of my buddies, but they were more athletic and they adapted a little faster at skating. Because of that, I really took the brunt of a lot of jokes. Guys were giving me a hard time because I couldn’t get to the top of the ramp, but time took care of that. Where I was coming from really paid off in my skating, because I was totally aggressive about it.
I remember skating with you at Rutgers, at that bank in the back of the dorms on the river. There was a concrete bank back there with brick around it. We used to session there, and you’d show up. You were killing it. You had the street style. I remember meeting you and I was thinking, ‘This guy kills it on street.’ You had that natural ability.
I remember going skating with you. I think Rodney Smith set it up. It was me, my buddy Kevin, Rodney and you. That was an amazing experience. I got to go out and have private session time with ‘The Murph’.
At that point, my skating was progressing. I was emerging as a better street skater in the area. I spent so much time on my board. You could only skate Groholski’s on Wednesdays and Saturdays. If we would have had more access to more vert ramps, I think a lot of us would have continued to pursue that along with our street skating. I would have to say though that from the very start, street skating really spoke to me. The streets were just wide open. I liked the ‘make something out of nothing’ attitude. I liked just going and seeing what was possible out there.
With the streetplant thing, was that something that you were doing a lot? Was that pre-Jesse that you were doing that?
We’d come across a few photos of guys doing streetplants in the magazines, but the real inspiration didn’t come from other skaters doing streetplants. It came from watching vert skating. The handplant was one of my favorite maneuvers to watch, but I couldn’t do it on vert because, I hadn’t gotten that far in my vert skating, but that maneuver really spoke to me. I did different variations of it and tried to adapt that to the street environment. Aesthetically, I thought it was just really cool. It was cool to pick your board up in that way and spin around on one hand and see how you could contort your body and your board and manipulate it. I was very into that style of skating. Somehow that’s what I became recognized for. My initial exposure to the larger skate community was via ‘Thrasher’ and skating in the Oceanside contest, so people were seeing photos of me doing street plants. That’s what all the talk was about.
Weren’t you in Virginia Beach when you first started busting that out?
Yeah, I showed up at that contest at Mt. Trashmore in June of ’86.
This was before you were sponsored, right?
Yeah, I was getting known for some of my street stuff in Jersey and New York. Then I moved down to Virginia Beach for six months. My skating really grew by leaps and bounds, when I was living in Virginia Beach. It was a much more organized skate scene. They had a lot of contests and skate shops and they sponsored a lot of riders. There were all kinds of things happening locally, plus they had Mt. Trashmore.
You were riding the ramps, right?
Yeah, I’d pretty much go and skate there by myself all the time. All the guys there knew who I was, but I didn’t hang with those dudes. I had a group of street skaters that I hung with, but they didn’t skate vert at all, so when I wanted to go skate Trashmore, I had to show up there by myself.
What was that like for the street dudes that you were hanging with? When you were like, ‘Hey, man, I’m going to go skate vert’, were they like, ‘Oh, man. We’re not down with that.’
I think the division was kind of starting then. You were supposed to pick one or the other. I just never bought into that. I’ve never liked people telling me what to do. If someone tried to tell me not to skate vert, I’d be like, ‘What are you talking about? I’ll do what the fuck I want to do.’ I wasn’t super down with the locals, but everyone was cool with me, and we had good sessions. Then I’d go back to my street buddies and we’d go skate jump ramps or parking lots. The scene down there really helped my skating grow. I was skating in a lot of contests with some really good skaters, like Andy Howell and Bushka Vidal.
Were you skating in the contests hoping to get a sponsor?
I had a feeling that by the time that Trashmore contest came around, something was really happening with my skateboarding. People were really starting to take notice of it. I was moving in a certain direction in my skating where I wanted to get some recognition, and the idea of sponsorship was something that I was interested in, but I really didn’t expect to go to that Trashmore contest and have happen what happened.
I met Lance Mountain and Stacy Peralta and they asked me to skate for Powell Peralta.
Were you doing street plants in the parking lot and they saw that?
Well, the first night I was down there, it was Neil Blender, Joe Lopes and the rest of the G&S team. They were the only guys in town a couple of days before the contest. I was just cruising around the parking lot and they noticed me, so they came over and started talking to me. They were freaking out on the stuff that I was doing. I didn’t really get it. So, I asked Neil Blender who was very talkative with me, and seemed to be into my skating. I asked, ‘Isn’t this stuff happening in California?’ I assumed that it was. At that point, the Dogtown boys were the best street skaters in the world.
Who were you looking up to on Dogtown? Who was killing it?
It was all the skaters from Dogtown in general, anyone who skated for Dogtown. I just thought that Dogtown was the heart and soul of street skating. That’s impression that I got from the magazines. I asked Neil Blender, ‘Don’t the Dogtown guys do these maneuvers?’ He was like, ‘No, I’ve never seen anybody do this stuff.’ When Neil Blender said that to me, I suddenly felt like something was happening. Sure enough, within the next two days, when the entire skate industry arrived in Virginia Beach, every company and skater approached me in some way or another.
What were some of the conversations that you remember with some of the heavy guys?
One of the funniest ones was when Steve Rocco came up to me.
[Laughs.] Did you know who he was?
I knew he was a freestyler.
He was with Mark Gonzales that weekend, and you could tell that he was jocking the Gonz. There was this one session that went down where I was skating out in the parking lot. It was a moment in time where you could tell that something was happening in skating. At that contest, the focus truly did shift from what was happening on the vert ramp to what was happening in the parking lot. There were more people watching what was going on in the parking lot, than there were caring about what was happening on the vert ramp.
What was happening in the parking lot?
There was a session that went down in that parking lot where the Gonz started skating. Everyone was watching him, and then I started skating as well.
You just wanted to session with the Gonz.
Yeah. To me, my hero was in front of me and I wanted to skate with him. When that session was over, Steve Rocco came over to me and said, ‘You’ll never be as good as the Gonz.’
What? Were you like, ‘Fuck you, douche bag!’
Number one, I was crushed that anyone that I had ever seen in the skateboard magazines would want to talk shit to me. Everyone was on a pedestal. They were pro skaters. The fact that the first words he ever spoke to me were condescending was kind of hurtful. At the same time, I was like, ‘Of course, I’ll never be as good as the Gonz. Do you think that I think I’m going to be?’
He was just trying to knock you down. Did you get to speak to Gonz at all during that session or after?
No. I never spoke a word to him. I didn’t need to. My skating got better just by being in his presence and by watching him. Two minutes after Rocco said that, Lance Mountain and Stacy Peralta approached me. I guess Rocco knew that I was going to get picked up at that contest, so he just wanted to give me a good kick in the balls on my way up.
[Laughs.] When Lance and Stacy approached you, were you thinking you wanted to be on Powell or you wanted to be on with the Dogtown guys? Was there one team that you really wanted to ride for?
I really liked Zorlac, Dogtown and Alva. I always thought, ‘What if Pushead did my graphic?’ That was more of my thinking. I would say that the Bones Brigade was the ultimate in my mind, but I never believed that I could be on the same team with those guys. I really was a product of the Powell Peralta ‘Bones Brigade Video Show’ and ‘Future Primitive’. Those had the biggest impact on my skating above anything else. Lance Mountain was someone that I really respected. He presented skating in a way that I could relate to it. He made it fun and accessible. He was the guy that was getting me on Powell Peralta. It was hard to think about anything else.
What were the first words they said to you when they approached you?
Well, earlier in the weekend, Lance had given me his board. He had commented to me about my board being in such dire conditions. He didn’t know how I was skating it. That was so funny to me, because before he commented on the condition of my board, I’d never thought about it. It was my board. It was all I had. He was like, ‘How are you doing those tricks on that board?’ I looked down at my board, and it was the first time it had ever looked hideous to me.
Lance said, ‘Here, man. You need this more than I do.’ And he handed me his complete set up. If nothing else had happened to me that weekend, that alone was the ultimate. Lance Mountain gave me his board. Then two days later, he approached me with Stacy. It was just after the session where I was skating with Gonz. Lance came up to me again, and I said, ‘Hey, man, thanks again for the board. I really appreciate it.’ He said, ‘Yeah, do you want some more?’ I really didn’t understand what he was saying. I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Do you want to skate for Powell Peralta?’ The first thing I said was, ‘You guys should sponsor Andy Howell. He’s a better skater than I am.’
No you didn’t.
I think I tried to sell him on Andy Howell, because I really respected Andy. I thought he was the best all around skater in the area. Lance was like, ‘We love Andy. He’s great, but he’s going to get picked up by somebody. Don’t worry about it. We really like you.’ Then he mentioned my energy and originality. He was commenting on things that I wasn’t really aware at that time. At a certain point, I just had to say, ‘Wow. This is unbelievable. Sure. I’ll do it.’
They were looking to sponsor you as an amateur?
Yeah, I think they really liked where I was coming from with my skating, but I think Peralta had an agenda with sponsoring me.
In what sense?
Instead of being the ‘great white hope’, I was the ‘great white trash hope’.
At the time, the best street skaters in the world were Mark Gonzales, Jesse Martinez, Tommy Guerrero, who all three were Mexican kids, and Natas Kaupas, who was a Lithuanian dude that lived at the beach in Santa Monica. He had blond hair, with bangs over his eyes. I think Peralta and Stecyk were looking for a skater that would speak to middle America.
They were trying to appeal to the demographic of more white kids.
Yeah, and when they saw me in Virginia Beach, they saw what they were looking for, which is cool. However you get into it, you get into it. The problem was that they really tried to manufacture my career from that day forward.
What do you mean? It’s not like you thought, ‘I wonder why they’re really sponsoring me?’ You were just stoked to be on Powell/Peralta.
I wasn’t questioning anything. It was a dream that I didn’t even dare to dream. From there, things started moving very quickly. It was only six months later that I got the call from Peralta telling me that I was going to be turning pro.
Wow. Before that, did they get you on a tour schedule as an amateur?
I just went out to Oceanside and skated in that contest. I won that contest and started getting a lot of photos in the magazines. It was like I was an overnight sensation in the skateboard world. Powell/Peralta hadn’t really picked up any young skaters at that point. It was an older established group of skaters on the team. When they sponsored me, I might as well have been pro already, because the interest in my skating within the skate community was so great.
Did you get on Indy at that point, too?
I got on Indy at the Oceanside contest.
Who put you on Indy?
Tell me about the conversation with Fausto.
It was a very short conversation. He was like, ‘You’re going to ride for Indy?’ I said, ‘Okay.’ Then he gave me a gigantic Thrasher duffle bag full of Independent Trucks. I think it was the bag of trucks he had brought down to the contest to promo out. He never got around to giving them to anybody, so he gave me the entire bag. To this day, I could have never skated all those trucks.
Did you have any idea how heavy that was? Did you know about the Indy pride thing?
No, I was really pretty oblivious to the inner workings of the skateboard world. I had no idea that he was ‘Thrasher’ magazine. I had no idea that Independent trucks meant what it meant to people that skated them.
So you go back to Jersey and you’re like, ‘I ride for Indy and Powell.’
It was funny, because as soon as I got sponsored I moved back to Jersey and I was telling people that I got sponsored by Powell Peralta, but no one believed me. Powell Peralta hadn’t sent me any packages. They had lost touch with me to some extent before I went out to skate in the Oceanside contest, so everyone thought I was lying. Then finally I got a phone call from Stacy. They brought me out to Oceanside and I skated in that contest and won. I came home with a box of boards, a giant Thrasher bag full of Independent trucks and a trophy. Suddenly, it was very real.
After that Powell turned you pro?
Well, during the Christmas holidays, I flew out to California. I was still in school at the time, so I went out there and stayed with Lance Mountain. We had a skate session with me, Gonz, Natas and Jesse Martinez. Grant Brittain and Tod Swank came and shot photos.
Where was that session?
We were all over San Diego. We went to four or five different spots in one day and shot photos. Then I went up to San Francisco. I stayed with Tommy Guerrero up there for a couple of days and shot photos with Mofo. I was skating with Tommy, Thiebaud and all of the boys up there. That was really good. During the time that I spent around these other skaters, the pros, my heroes, my skating grew so much just by being in their presence.
What was it like riding with Jesse Martinez?
Jesse was my roommate in Oceanside for the contest, so we bro-ed down and shared a room over that weekend. Jesse was really cool to me, whereas some of the other guys on the team and other people in the industry were kind of rude.
Was there a perception of the vert pros being threatened by having a street skater on the team? Or were they down for street skating?
Well, it seemed like the vert skaters were starting to be threatened by street skating in general, and I had become a major face in street skating. I also had a problem with other street skaters, because of all the streetplant maneuvers I was doing. Suddenly, they had to add those tricks to their repertoire to try and compete. I was getting it from all sides. I wasn’t really welcomed with open arms by many people that were already established in the industry. The first words ever written about me in Transworld weren’t very complimentary. I was getting it from all sides. And Jesse Martinez was so cool, man. He was so nice. He didn’t seem threatened at all. He didn’t care. He was like, ‘That’s cool. You’re from Jersey. You’re on Powell now, man. That’s awesome. We’re teammates.’ Jesse really made me feel comfortable when a lot of the other guys didn’t even seem approachable to me.