INTERVIEW AND INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON
PHOTO BY DAN LEVY AND BLACK LABEL SKATEBOARDS
ATTENTION! At ease… Soldiers… Against the grain, again and again… Following the path of one’s own thoughts… Setting a standard for others to follow. Lead by example…Follow your own lead. Take a chance, then you’ll see…That the unknown isn’t that scary But you’ll never know, unless you try. There are no heroes, just ones that don’t accept fear as part of the equation…. Matt Hensley… an example of, ‘If the glove fits, wear it on your sleeve, just like your heart…
“THOSE WERE THE DAYS WHEN SKATEBOARDING WAS ILLEGAL, SO THE COPS WERE CHASING YOU. SKATEBOARDING WASN’T ABOUT MAKING MONEY. IT WAS JUST COOL AND KIND OF OUTLAW. I KNEW THAT IT WAS A BLACK SHEEP KIND OF SUBCULTURE.”
So this is not a normal interview. I don’t ask just skate questions. I ask whatever. It goes however it goes. I’m more interested in the person. If I ask something that you don’t want to talk about, just say you don’t want to talk about that. I’m sure I won’t ask anything stupid… So what is your name?
[Laughs.] My name is Matt Hensley.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Vista, CA.
What did your parents do when you were a kid?
My father was actually a kickass skeet shooter. When he was a teenager, a lot of people did skeet-shooting. Back then it was a big deal. He shot skeet with John Wayne and a bunch of different famous cats.
That’s heavy. How was the scene in Vista?
It was good and bad. I loved growing up in Vista, but it sucked as a city. There was a lot of crazy shit going down because it was the crystal meth amphetamine capital of the world. There wasn’t much going on, so we had to make it happen for ourselves, at least the skateboarders did.
You had nothing to do so you did something.
We had a skatepark in Vista, but it closed in 1980. When I was seven years old, my mom would take me to the park all of the time.
What was your first day at the skatepark like?
I loved it. I had green Sims Snake wheels and a G and S Fibreflex board. It was such a good park. My brother and I were just raging there. They had a keyhole like Del Mar and I wouldn’t even drop in. I would walk halfway down and put my tail down and every ten minutes or so, the guys would let me get in there and do a few kickturns.
I know that park in Vista. It was good. So they closed the park.
Yeah. I was close to Del Mar, so I used to take the bus to Del Mar a lot. I grew up skating a little bit of everything, but I mostly skated vert and pools. Out of necessity, I started street skating a lot. Street skating just kind of appeared.
When the parks closed, you didn’t stop skateboarding?
No. I was 7 or 8 years old though. It wasn’t like I was the punk rock captain running down the street. I just knew that I liked skateboarding. I loved it when my mom dropped me off at the skatepark. It was way better than baseball practice.
Is your brother older or younger than you?
My brother Chris is three years younger than me. He’s a fireman in the City of Vista now.
Was he in that fire recently?
He helped put out that fire. One time he got a call from somewhere in Vista, and when he got there, it was Tony Magnusson and Ron Allen. Ron Allen was smoking some weed and set off the fire alarm. Ron Allen said to my brother, ‘Do I know you?’ My brother said, ‘I’m Chris. I’m Matt’s brother.’
Wow. Who did you skate with as a kid?
There were a bunch of different dudes. We had our own little crew, VSL. It was the Vista Skate League or the Vista Skate Locals, depending on your deal. I grew up skating with Danny Way when he was a little tiny kid. I skated with Danny and his brother Damon a lot. We had our own crew like Brendan Chapelle and Steve Ortega. It was a crew of like 20 people. There were vert guys too like John Sonner. There was the Vista ramp, Warren Wolfe’s ramp. He had a pretty good ramp in Vista. There was all of this shit going on. We’d go to CASL contests in Escondido and different places.
Who were the guys you had to skate against?
It was guys like Jason Lee, Ray Barbee, Butch Sterbins and all of the Z-Boys. They were all ams at the time, skating against each other.
What drew you to skateboarding?
I liked the action and movement. You could magically cruise through the earth. That felt really good. Since I could walk, I was riding my skateboard every day. I liked everything about it. When I became 13, I liked it for other reasons, but I always liked it for what it is. That scene, those friends and those people were where I felt at home. I liked that. I felt like that was my place in the world. Those were the days when skateboarding was illegal, so the cops were chasing you. Skateboarding wasn’t about making money. It was just cool and kind of outlaw. I liked the fact that it was outlawish. I liked that it was a black sheep kind of subculture. It felt good to be part of that.
So whenever you stepped on your skateboard, you felt like you were breaking the law.
[Laughs.] Yeah. I liked that part of it. It’s funny to think that years later when you see how skateboarding is now. I still like skateboarding, but it’s not the same as I remember it when I was growing up.
Would you get hassled all of the time for skateboarding? Was it outlawed in Vista?
Yeah, it was illegal for a while. They would run you down and take your board. It’s funny too. I remember going to the city
council when I was 15 and asking them to build us a skateboard park. Of course, they promptly told me no. Fifteen years later, they did build a skatepark right behind the building where they told me to fuck off.
[Laughs.] The world changes. All of the people that said no then have grandkids now that skate. They changed their mind and decided they should build a skatepark for the kids. It is what it is. Unfortunately, they’re tearing that park down now. I found it ironic to go to that skatepark years later.
How did you first get sponsored?
Well, I got a shop sponsor from Avalon Bay. It was this little skateboard shop in Vista. After that, I was kind of sponsored by Flyaway Helmets for a month or so. My first real sponsor was Vision.
Yeah, you don’t even hear the word ‘factory sponsored’ anymore, but that was the deal. That’s when you were properly on the team. I was doing skate demos with Gale Webb at Knott’s Berry Farm and all of these places. I was doing demos with her when I was 16. That’s when I met Everett Rosecrans.
What year was that?
I was doing demos in ’85 and ’86. In ’86, Everett Rosecrans came to one of the demos. I was with Danny Way who was sponsored by Vision, so those guys all ended up going to this demo. We did this vert demo and then we were skating around. Then Everett said to me, ‘I’ll get you a board and you can enter this contest in Las Vegas next month. You can go with us and if you place in the top ten, then you can ride factory for Vision.’
Yeah. So a month later, I was in a van full of people I knew, but didn’t know. I got third in that contest.
Oh, really? That was it. You were a hitter. How did you do in the CASL contests?
I did good. I got first and second in a few contests. I have my trophies at the house and I know there are a few first and second place ones. I placed top five most of the time in those contests.
Placing top five was important back then.
Yeah. I was 16 and I had a chance to be on Vision, so that was a big deal to me. I was entering contests outside of California too, so it was even more official and cool.
These were vert contests?
No, they were street contests.
What kind of stuff were you doing in the street contests back then?
We were doing kickflips and doing something to tail on a mini ramp. We were doing early grab method airs off launch ramps and lots of no complies. I was doing big stalefishes to disaster on the quarter pipe, but it was a lot of street stuff.
It seemed like then that a lot of the street stuff had a lot of vert influence.
Absolutely. At that contest, there was no street course with handrails and stuff. It was just quarter pipes and a big vert wall. A lot of the tricks that we were doing were coming from vert. I was doing inverts, big frontside airs and finger flip lien to tail on stuff. It was all vert tricks.
Were you doing streetplants?
No, I didn’t do any streetplants in that contest. I did a little invert on the quarter pipe, but I didn’t do any streetplants. I could do a backside boneless on a vert wall. I did a few kickflips and slides on that vert wall too. That was the beginning of street skating really turning into street skating.
How did you transition over to the real street world as we know it now?
At that point, I was doing it already. I was mostly skateboarding street. I was riding vert and I liked it, but I spent most of my time skating street. At night, we would end up at someone’s halfpipe or pool and skate that for a few hours, but the rest of the day, we were trying to push the limit with street.
How much time did you spend on your skateboarding everyday?
Well, when I went into military school I was skateboarding.
Wait a minute.
I got put in military school.
Why? Did you get in trouble?
No, I didn’t get in a lot of trouble, I just didn’t give a fuck about anything and my grades were shit. It got to the point where I was skateboarding and didn’t really give a fuck about school. I failed completely. My parents were freaking out. I was the first child and my brother always had better grades than I did. He had it all sorted out. The next thing I knew, I was in full uniform in military school.
[Laughs.] That was a whole other nightmare.
So it’s the comparison of being the skateboarder and doing whatever you want to do and then having to hear some dude telling you how you had to be and how you had to act.
It was the worst. I wasn’t very liked at that academy either. The kids liked me, but not the teachers. I wasn’t supposed to have tattoos and I had a tattoo. They had to shave your head, so instead of having them shave my head and then letting the top of my hair grow long, I just shaved my head full skinhead style. They didn’t like that either. I always seemed to be pushing the system a little bit. I wasn’t being a smart ass and I wasn’t looking for trouble, I just didn’t like other people telling me what to do. It was ‘Drop and do push ups and shine your shoes!’ It wasn’t very good for me. There were no chicks at that school. It fucking blew.
When I turned 18, I was a senior in military school. I could have quit school and fucked off because I had already turned pro. School didn’t really mean shit to me, but I had already spent so much time there, I just wanted to complete it. I wanted to at least get my high school diploma. It would be stupid to quit after five and a half years.
Did the fact that you were a pro skateboarder make any kind of impression on them, like this guy is actually doing something?
Well, this is before everyone in the world knew who Tony Hawk was. You’re doing something that no one really gave a fuck about or understood. I always had a problem with jocks in that school too. One time, I got handled. I got beat up by five guys, but I didn’t do anything, because in that scenario, everyone is going by rank. It’s not about who can be more badass. It’s about who has the biggest rank. Those guys were of a higher rank than me, so they let me have it. I knew if I told, I’d end up in more bullshit. So I just took my lumps and moved on. Then someone saw me all bleeding and fucked up and told the military guy, so they came and interviewed me. At the end of the day, nothing happened to those guys and I had to march back and forth for a hundred hours. Six guys lied against me and I had to do the 100 hours. It sucked.
Wow. What were your uniforms like?
The uniforms were gray with our rank on them. Every morning, we had inspection. You had to have your shoes shined and your belt buckle right. All of your stuff had to be in order, from your haircut to your shave. If you weren’t done, they gave you a gig and then you’d have to march four or five hours to get rid of the gig.
Wow. Do you think it helped you later on in life?
Well, I didn’t like it at the time, and my pro spotlight happened when I was going to school there, so half of my interview was about how much I hated that school. I was 18 and pissed off at the world. In retrospect, I did learn a lot of lessons there that helped me throughout my life. It taught me to take a certain amount of people’s shit and not to freak out. I learned lessons because of it, but at the time I thought that school was bullshit. When that interview came out, the next year they had the worst admission rate in that school’s history of a hundred and some years.
The school director blamed it on me. I didn’t know this until later. They hated me at that school. Years later, I was in a bar having a beer and this kid walked up to me. He said, ‘Are you Matt Hensley?’ I said, ‘Yeah. What’s up?’ He said, ‘I go to military school.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that dude.’ He said, ‘I just wanted to shake your hand. Your name has been synonymous with sticking it to the man. You’re someone we look up to.’ Hearing that made me feel so good. I was stoked. All of the skaters that go to that school were all fired up on it.
So did the school ever use you as an example later on after you’d become a success?
No, not really.
When you go to the school, they act like you’re worthless and then you make something of yourself.
Well, I went back to that school a year or so ago and met with a few teachers and one of the new principals. They have a skateboarding club at the school now and I met with those guys. I’m going to try and build those guys a really good mini ramp because they have a really shitty mini ramp. I don’t mind spending my time and money trying to help those guys at that school do something cool. When I was there, you weren’t even allowed to have a skateboard there. Our skateboards were hidden in our footlockers with a curb. When we had off time, we’d pull out the footlocker, take out the curb and skate the curb in our room. We’d have someone looking out so that no one would catch you while you were skating. It was sweet.