INTERVIEW BY DAN LEVY
PHOTOS BY MIKI VUCKOVICH
When I was a kid growing up in upstate NY, skateboarding was something that only a few other kids were doing at the time. The first Bones Brigade movie had just come out and skateboarding videos were a whole new realm. I remember the first time Tony Hawk came to our town to do a demo back in the ’80s and there were maybe 75 skaters there. The set up was a quarter-pipe against a wall in the back of a bike shop. Tony completely destroyed the 1/4 pipe and skated his ass off and then the owner of the bike shop gave him some water and really crappy pizza and thanked him for coming out. Fast forward 30 years… For over 30 years, Tony Hawk has held the ranks as a professional skateboarder and, in addition, has become skateboarding’s most famous ambassador. He has never stopped progressing, inventing and pushing skateboarding throughout his entire career. He is an innovator, philanthropist, father, radio show host, TV host, producer, video game superstar, charity founder, jet setter, company owner and a true citizen of the world, but if you ask him about his profession, he will tell you proudly and profoundly that he is a professional skateboarder. Tony continues to invent more tricks on a skateboard than can be counted and it is this very passion and drive that launched skateboarding into the living rooms of the world when he made history landing a never-before-done 900 on national television. The most important thing that I was able to learn in the time I spoke to Tony is that he is 100% Skateboarder and that is what defines him. All the proof you need can be found on the axles of his Indy’s. – DAN LEVY
O kay, Tony Hawk interview for the Bones Brigade Chronicles. Let’s start by talking about the Bones Brigade movie. What were your hopes for the documentary?
I didn’t really have any hopes for it monetarily or successfully. The only thing I hoped for is that it gives the generation today some sense of history because I think there are so many misconceptions about how skating came to the point where it is today. The whole thing is “Why did you chose vert?” I’d always think, “How could you ask that?” That wasn’t a choice we had. You either skated pools and you were cool or you skated freestyle and you were a nerd. That was it. Or you were Rodney who was just like a magician. Everyone else was doing little dances and things. That question has always kind of bothered me with kids, but it’s because they don’t have a sense of history. I feel like the movie will give them a sense of perspective. There’s the other part of people saying, “You’re a sellout and you’re only doing it for the money.” I always want to say, “If you only knew what we did for no money.” I would do this gladly for no money all the time.
How can you be a sellout if you’re getting paid to do what you love?
Exactly. That’s it, but that’s not my gripe. I don’t care about that. I’ve dealt with that label for years because I guess I was the first one to branch out and do licensing and endorsements beyond the skate industry. That was what rubbed people the wrong way, but that allowed the guys to do it now. Some of the top names like Ryan Sheckler and Paul Rodriguez are getting Mt. Dew sponsorships and stuff like that and it’s not really looked down on anymore. Someone had to try it first.
When Alva says in the movie that they used to spit on you at contests, is that how you kind of spit back at them?
I never thought of any of my successes as vengeance. That’s never been my motivating factor. That’s what people assume of me because I was hassled in high school and beat up. Now it’s like, “Are you going to go to your reunion and show them what’s up?” I’m like, “I didn’t know them then and I certainly don’t know them now.” It’s not some great revenge for me. I moved away from that because I could tell that wasn’t my scene. The big jock mentality and cliques of high school didn’t appeal to me at all. Skateboarding did, and the community of skateboarding, and the creative people involved, I just loved that so much. It’s not like I want to go back and stick it in someone’s face that I don’t know.
“I don’t worry about the evolution of skating because it’s always getting better. There’s always some new milestone being made in skating and the technical aspects.”
It’s so weird because there’s this perception of you because you’re so famous. Everyone just assumes that this dude is like, “Screw them.”
I just don’t care. By all accounts, I still look up to those guys that spit on me. Literally, Duane Peters and Salba spit on me at Colton and I remember it like it was yesterday. It was such an iconic moment in my life that kind of crushed me mentally but, at the same time, I still admire those guys for the stuff that they were doing when the equipment was terrible. Those guys were skating the 15-foot bowl at Upland with volleyball pads, and that’s insane to me. I still look up to them, even after all that. It’s not like I’m sitting here on top of the world and looking down on them and going, “Oh, you guys suck.”
It was different for you though because those were guys you looked up to that were doing that to you, not just the idiot jocks in school.
Yeah, but it just made me find my own community within the skate industry. I had my crew of guys that skated similarly, had the same type of ideas and were the same age. A lot of those guys were older that we were looking up to. I thought they were older. Even though some of them were only a few years older, it seemed like a world away.
Did you ever just want to spit back at them or punch them? Did you ever think that way at all?
If I had any revenge then, I just got back at them with my skateboarding. If I had any anger then, it was voiced through my skating, and that was it. It just drove me to get better and, eventually, beat them. It wasn’t about beating them. It was just trying to show people, “Look, I can do this.”
Some people would have just punched them out.
[Laughs] Well, I was too little to ever think I could beat anyone up anyway.
Did you ever design your own board graphics from start to finish?
In the Bones Brigade days, I had ideas, but I trusted Powell. That was Stacy, Stecyk and Court. That was their whole deal. I wasn’t about to trump them. I definitely swayed their opinion a couple of times with later graphics, but that was the aesthetic of Powell. You couldn’t change that.
What do you think now with Birdhouse?
Birdhouse was more about continuity and themes and an iconic look for what it is. Now it’s more about whatever the team wants. It’s whatever the team rider wants for their graphic. It’s a little disjointed in that way, but I’d rather make the team happy than try to force them into some theme.
That’s cool. With the early Bones Brigade videos, which of the videos did you have the most fun filming?
Ban This was the most fun. That’s when I knew how important video skating could be and how much effort I would need to put into it to do new stuff and stuff that was very rare just to get it into the video. I was 20 at the time, and I remember that was the most effort I had ever put into anything. I was actually physically done after that video.
That was my favorite Bones Brigade video. You could tell that everyone busted for that video.
Yeah. They brought full Hollywood lighting to my ramp, and shot with high-speed cameras. We worked on it for a week, and it was unheard of to spend a whole week doing a video part. Every street part was filmed in a day or two.
What was your impression when you first met Stecyk?
I was pretty young, and so everything was new to me. I couldn’t gauge personalities so much. I knew that whatever Stacy and Stecyk were going to come up with was going to be visually exciting and something fun to be a part of. As weird as I thought it was, I was just excited that they included me. I didn’t really have the gauge to say that something was lame or weird. I was just in because these guys were creating something amazing. Whenever we’d go with Stecyk, his communication was cryptic, but I understood it. I think he liked my sense of sarcasm. I had that from growing up with siblings. We were always very sarcastic. I think he liked that I had that rough edge, even though I was little and weird.
“Stacy is the first one to recognize me and believe in me on a different level than my family. I couldn’t have been here without Stacy.”
That’s a side of you that some people don’t see, and something Stecyk would seem to appreciate. In the movie, Rodney says that having fame was like having the weight of a tombstone on him. You’re arguably the most famous skateboarder ever. Has that weight ever bothered you?
It’s not that it bothers me. The only time it becomes a strange burden is when I show up to skate sometimes, and if it’s somewhere that I’ve never been or something that I’m not really used to, there is so much scrutiny on what I’m doing. Sometimes I just want to cruise around and check out the park, and people are like, “He sucks. He can’t even kickflip.” Whatever it is. It always comes with such heavy judgment because they expect me to fly around like I’m in a video game. That was hard for me as things got really big in the early 2000’s, but I learned to just tune it out and do what I like doing. I still have that in me, where I know I have to bust out and go hard. That’s a lot of the reason that I built my own ramp and my own park, so I don’t have to be under that pressure all the time.
That makes sense. Back in the demo days, was it difficult?
Well, with demos you’re expected to perform, so I’m ready for that. It’s more when I just want to go skate leisurely, or if I want to take my kids to the skatepark, or check out some new place, or go to a different ramp. It’s more when it’s on the fly and spontaneous. When I show up at a skatepark, kids sit down, which is super odd. I want to be a comrade and skate with everyone and check it out. Either the kids sit down or the good guys step up and want to show me up, so that gets weird. In terms of having so much recognition, I just love that I can be an ambassador to skating. I can go somewhere and represent skateboarding on some level. I don’t consider myself as being able to represent all aspects of skating and all attitudes of skating but, at the same time, I’m here to say, “Look, this is something healthy for kids. This is something they can do. It’s different. It’s artistic. It teaches a lot about self-confidence. It teaches kids to work together, but individually.” I’m proud of that, and it’s super fun. It’s amazing that we still get to do it. It’s crazy that the guys from our generation still get to do it for a living.
“If I went on a talk show, they’d say, “Can you skate into the interview and do a 900 on the way in?” I’ve actually had that conversation with stage managers and TV show producers. I’m like, “Are you living in this reality?”
That’s the coolest.
If you had told us that in our heyday, we’d have said there was no way we’d still be skating when we were 40. The irony of that is that there are a lot of detractors when you’re this age. A lot of people are like, “Oh my god, you’re too old.” Then you have to say, “Aren’t you the kid saying, “Skate for life”? I am a living example of what you’re trying to convey, but I’m too old?” It is what it is.
[Laughs] It’s interesting that you answered that question just about skateboarding, because you’re famous for other things too. You can go to Starbucks and Joe Rollerblader will recognize you, and that doesn’t bother you. It’s harder for you to go to skateparks and be recognized.
It doesn’t bother me to be recognized. The only time it gets challenging is when I’m being expected to perform at a level that people have projected onto me wherever I go. In the past, if I went on a talk show, they’d say, “Can you skate into the interview and do a 900 on the way in?” I’ve actually had that conversation with stage managers and television show producers. I’m like, “Are you living in this reality?” I don’t understand how they project that, but I guess that’s how they see it. The people that don’t skate see it as this fantastical activity that they see on TV on these giant ramps or in video games where I’m flying through the air. They don’t see the reality of gravity and space. [Laughs]
Well, you’ve gotten to skate some amazing stuff. I mean you got to skate at the White House and the New York Stock Exchange.
Well, I don’t know if I got to, but I did. [Laughs] I had to do it. I don’t know if they’d let me back in with my skateboard, but I’d definitely do it again. Earlier this year, I got to skate Carnegie Hall too. I got to skate down the aisle at their request.
Wow. That just doesn’t happen. With the X Games and everything else, you’ve made a lot of things possible for skateboarding. It’s changed from the days of “Get off that skateboard. Get off my property. You’re ruining your life.” The public perception of skateboarding has come a long way. Here’s a movie question. What’s your take on the emotions that came out of Lance and Cab in the movie?
I don’t know. I expected that from at least a few of us for sure. I guess in some ways, I feel bad that me, Tommy and Rodney came across as more callous, because, obviously, we were sad to have that end in our lives. At the same time, we were scrambling to make a living and doing whatever we could. I feel like, in some ways, we come across as, “Okay, we did that. What’s next?” And that’s not how we felt. The Bones Brigade was not just a stepping-stone to a better career. It was something we lived and loved and embraced, but we had to do something else. For us, it didn’t feel like the end of our skating career. It didn’t feel like the end of exploring what else was possible, so maybe we didn’t come off as emotional. The one time I did get emotional during the filming, they didn’t put it in there, because there was no way to connect what we were speaking about to the rest of the movie. When we were doing the interviews, we didn’t really get into life after the Bones Brigade. The one thing we did talk about that I did get emotional about was when I stopped competing and I was trying to build my Foundation and spread the word about skating. Stacy was asking me about that and I got choked up because that’s what I feel Stacy imparted to me. It wasn’t just helping my team, but skating in general, to rise above the misconceptions and be more embraced by society and by the non-skaters and naysayers. I think I got that from him. I could see the work that he was doing behind the scenes, not just for us, for skateboarding. Even though it was still underground and it was considered raw, he was at the forefront of this movement. He was the reason that I went to Japan and got on a TV show. He was the reason that Rodney was on “That’s Incredible.” He’s the reason that anything branched out beyond our little world. I saw that effort he put into it and I really took that to heart. When I went to do my own thing that is what I took with me; his way of doing it and presenting it to the world and people that didn’t skate.
“I knew that whatever Stacy and Stecyk were going to come up with was going to be visually exciting and something fun to be a part of. As weird as I thought it was, I was just excited that they included me.”
That’s a really good point. Stacy has always believed in the community of skateboarding as you have.
It’s not just that he believes in the community of skateboarding. He believes in promoting it beyond the community. In a lot of ways, if he were in this era with his stature, he’d be the one doing the Foundation. He’d be the one in my position. He’d be the foreman of this movement.
What do you think you learned the most from Stacy about how to run a skateboard company?
I learned that it’s not just about the skating that can help promote what you’re doing. I learned about treating people well and giving back. I learned about being a team manager or a team curator, and how much it means to believe in someone and believe in their effort. My best example is Andrew Reynolds. I’m the one that picked him up as a relatively unknown amateur. I saw his fire and his effort, and I was like, “That’s the guy.” He was tiny and he was bouncing his board around, but he wouldn’t give up and he kept on trying. If I was Stacy’s prodigy, then Andrew was my prodigy, so to speak, as a company owner and team manager.
That’s rad. Did you learn anything from George Powell about running a company?
From George, I learned to believe in the vision and listen to the skaters, which he didn’t always do. In a lot of ways, he did many things right. In other ways, he didn’t listen to us completely, so in that way, I learned what not to do.
Did you interact the most with Stacy or George?
I didn’t interact a lot with George. He was more behind the scenes, unless it came to something heavy on the business side of things, then we got the call from George.
What is the difference now for skate tours?
The crowds are much bigger now. The crowds were pretty big in the Bones Brigade era. You had a parking lot and a ramp and a few hundred people around and that was massive to us. Now we’re talking about skateparks with thousands of people around. That’s how far it’s come. Now you can schedule a tour pretty much anywhere and know that you’re going to hit a ton of skateparks on the way. Our tours were about going to the shops with the best parking lots, so we could set up our ramps. [Laughs]
Skip the ones with the gravel, right?
Who was your favorite Bones Brigade team manager?
Our team manager, beyond Stacy, was Todd Hastings. He was actually the team manager of Powell, but when we went on the road, we were all so young that they always assigned one of us to be the so-called “dad” of that group. We’d usually go out for four weeks at a time, so my so-called “dad” of those times was either Kevin Harris or Per Welinder. I think I toured more with Per, but he acted like a kid too, so it was pretty lawless. [Laughs]
Everyone was a kid.
Yeah. We were supposed to look to him. To Per’s credit, he would do whatever it took and check us into hotels and stuff like that, but when it came time to lay down a law like, “This is the time you guys have to be back,” he didn’t care because he was out doing it too.
What are some of the crazier things you did on tour?
I remember when we were in New York with Per Welinder, Ray Underhill, Steve Saiz and Eric Sanderson. We had a demo earlier in the day and then we all went to see a movie. As we were going into the theatre, this girl recognized us. She was like, “Hey, what are you guys doing?” I could see in her mind that she was making these plans. She said, “I’m having a party at my house tonight. My parents are gone.” Clearly, she wasn’t supposed to be doing anything, but she decided to have a party because we were in town. She invited everyone to the party, and the last thing that I saw as I left the party was the entire kitchen flooded with beer, stuff was knocked off the shelves, and it was a mess. We didn’t do it, but because she invited everyone, it just happened. As I closed the door to the house, the girl throwing the party was passed out on a bed, and you could just see her legs dangling. We were like, “I guess we should leave now.” [Laughs] We all ranged in age from 16-20 years old. I just remember thinking, “This happened to that girl because she saw us. She decided this is what had to happen because she saw us.”
She out partied the party.
Yeah, pretty much. That was just one night on tour.
Well, in the movie, Glen Friedman refers to you guys as the Boy Scouts.
That’s the thing. I guess that is the Boy Scout element to us. We weren’t out looking for that. We were going to a movie on our night off. We weren’t prowling for girls or parties. It just came to us.
[Laughs] You are always painted as a perfect ambassador for skateboarding, but a lot of us have seen the Big Brother videos.
It’s not like you’re perfectly innocent. For sure, in those days, I was young and single, and I was stoked that any girls were giving me attention. There were times when girls followed us for days in their own cars. It was to the point where I was like, “Okay, we’re going in your car to the next city.” Even though that stuff was happening, we knew skateboarding was the priority. We were never so out of our minds that we couldn’t perform. Maybe there was some drinking and partying and maybe we spent the night away from the hotel, but we were always ready to go the next day. We never went too far with it, because we knew that skateboarding is what got us there and if we didn’t keep that up, they weren’t going to invite us on tour anymore. As the Bones Brigade grew, it became bigger, and there were guys who had that element and they’d go on tour for a year and then they were gone. Powell didn’t stand for it. They weren’t going to fund someone to party.
“The Bones Brigade was not just a stepping-stone to a better career. It was something we lived and loved and embraced, but we had to do something else. For us, it didn’t feel like the end of our skating career.”
Was it the same for you at Birdhouse?
Yeah. I’ve had guys go on tour for two weeks and then I had to say, “That’s it. You’re done. It’s over.”
Not to bounce forward too far, but when the X Games started televising skateboarding, that was a huge turning point for skateboarding. Did you watch that on TV after it aired and have any impression of it then? Did you see it as the platform to take skateboarding to the next level?
I don’t think I got to watch it on TV because we didn’t have Tevo back then. For me, the big deal was, well, my dad passed away not long after that, and he got to see the X Games on TV. For him, that was a huge moment because he had always promoted skating and wanted to see skating get bigger and he tried by forming the NSA and other things. When he saw it on ESPN, that was it. It had come of age. For me, I liked it, but I didn’t think that was the big future for it because there were so many elements and so much cheese factor, including the other sports. Everything was labeled “extreme” and they had bungee jumping and sky surfing. Somehow this stuff was supposed to be related to skateboarding and I didn’t like that, but I felt like it gave us a venue to show our skills and our passion. I really believed that we would rise above that noise because we had been established already. Somehow to the non-skater and sports fan, when the X Games came into play, they thought, “Oh, ESPN has created competition for skateboarding.” A lot of the purists that had just started skateboarding thought that too. We were there to say, “No. This is how it’s always been. Now we just have a bigger stage to do it on, and we’re reaching more people.” If we could present ourselves respectfully and not just show crazy hairdos and ridiculous clothes and silly slogans, I felt like they could see the heart of skateboarding. Skateboarding and BMX were the two sports that could stay consistent and shine through in the X Games. All that other stuff just fell by the wayside.
“If I had any revenge then, I just got back at them with my skateboarding. If I had any anger then, it was voiced through my skating, and that was it. It just drove me to get better and, eventually, beat them.”
What did you think when the X Games wanted to cut out the vert contests?
I was disappointed by that decision. I’ll tell you why they did it. It wasn’t that they just wanted to cut out the vert contest. Vert is definitely harder to understand to the non-skater in terms of how it’s judged. They think because one guy is going higher that he should win. I can appreciate that more than them thinking it was boring or something. The truth is that the X Games wanted to replace the vert contest with park skating. I actually attended a few meetings about that. I said, “I understand that park is more accessible, and it’s what kids are doing, but your highlight from last year was a three-foot 540, and a kickflip indy that was two feet high. You would be kicked out of a vert contest for doing those things. Those don’t even count. That’s your slow-mo highlight from the park competition last year. Those are the tricks that won. The idea that you’re making basic vert tricks way harder in the skatepark arena and that’s how you want to cut vert out? You’re cutting off the legs of transition skating. You’re not going to see a 900 in this park set up. You’re not going to see some insane new best trick. You’re going to see basic vert tricks made more difficult.” I’m not bashing the park stuff. I love that they do the skatepark stuff. I love pool skating, but you can’t replace amazing technical vert skating with that. I appreciate it and I know it’s hard. I’m in awe of guys like Pedro that can do that kind of stuff, but when you’re watching the vert finals and you’re seeing amazing tricks back to back to back, you can’t deny that. When you look to see what the highlights are from the park competitions, it’s tricks that wouldn’t even count in a vert contest.
Kids have more access to vert now, but vert has always had this weird perception. I didn’t have a vert ramp in upstate New York. We had the streets, but it just blew me away that they would take away vert from the X Games.
Well, the X Games kept vert. It’s still there. They just changed the format.
That’s good. What is the one lesson that you’ve learned from working in the skate industry that you could share with someone that might want to follow in your footsteps?
Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, you can’t make it right. You can’t force it. If it’s something you believe in and others just haven’t caught onto and you can get it out there then do it. Follow your gut. If you really are a skater, then you’ll know what’s good and what’s not good pretty instantly.
I think that’s the best advice I’ve ever heard from that question. What was your motivation as far as building skateparks? That’s just so rad.
In the early 2000’s, I was getting invited to a lot of skatepark openings. Skating was on the rise and it was getting recognized, and some, mostly affluent, cities decided they were going to build skateparks for their kids. I got flown to a few big skatepark openings and I’d get paid to be there and some of the skateparks were terrible. They were embarrassing. The city didn’t include the skaters in the design process and they went with the lowest sidewalk contractor as the bidder for the construction. Their blueprint was the game 720 or something. It was so bizarre how they thought people skated or what was possible. I would go to these things and I was just embarrassed for the city, while the council members were all excited and congratulating each other. One time, they gave me a sneak preview of one of the parks, and they let me skate it the night before the opening. They were like, “Give it a whirl.” It was terrible. It was curved ledges down stairs that ended in walls. There was nothing good about it. There was no flow. It just didn’t work. They were watching me skate it, and afterwards, they said, “What do you think?” I had to say, “It’s really terrible. It’s not a good skatepark. It really doesn’t work. It doesn’t flow and it doesn’t cater to any skill levels at all.” They said, “That’s what the kids were saying, but we told them, ‘Wait until Tony Hawk gets here and he’ll show you how to ride it.’”
That’s when I decided I wanted to help bridge the gap between the people providing the facilities and the people using them. I wanted to also do it for the kids that were higher risk and didn’t have any other outlets. Most of the parks that I was going to were in these high-end suburbs of Chicago and places like that. I thought, “Kids that are into skating and really need a place to go are the ones in the inner cities.”
That’s the best thing that you’re doing.
It’s fun. I just love seeing the kids being more empowered. I think the biggest misconception about our Foundation is that we chose the city based on median income and then go in and wave the magical wand and a skatepark appears. It’s not like that. We want the community to feel like they’re part of the process, so we wait until the community is trying to do something and then we give them the funding and resources to do it right so that they have a sense of ownership in it.