Ever since I first saw Wes Humpston’s Dogtown cross on the bottom of a friend’s skateboard in 6th grade, I knew the wood, the wheels, and the art were going to be a part of my world. Like Alex Steinweiss and the album cover, skateboard graphics created the look of skateboarding. There were years where the only thing one knew about a particular skateboarder was the image on the bottom of his (rarely her) board. In the pre-internet world of skateboards, there were only a few companies, fewer videos, and only a few people who controlled almost everything. If you know anything from this era, it’s probably tied in some way to Powell and Peralta’s Bones Brigade.
Only a few professional skateboarders outside of those pictured above mattered on as large a scale during the 1980s. Arguments could easily be made for Christian Hosoi, Gator Rogowski, Mark Gonzalez, and Natas Kaupas among others (my favorites from the era are Neil Blender and Jason Jessee), but The Bones Brigade defined the times. Stacy Peralta, already a skateboarding veteran from the Zephyr Team and the Dogtown of the 1970s, handpicked an iconic group of guys. From the household name of Tony Hawk to the kooky innovations of Rodney Mullen, from the longevity of Steve Caballero to the fierce fun of Lance Mountain, The Bones Brigade is the most legendary team in skateboard history. The empire they built only crumbled when it grew too big to feel or follow the zeitgeist.
“While other companies scrambled to reinvent themselves with fresh, young teams and a more street-oriented direction,” Sean Cliver (2004) writes, “Powell Peralta remained steadfast in sticking to its guns but floundered in exactly how to go about bridging the old and new generations–especially when it came to graphics” (p. 50). Two main people bridge the genetic fallacy of the Big Five of the 1980s to the populist era of the early 1990s: Rodney Mullen and Sean Cliver. The former invented many of the maneuvers that make up modern street skating, and the latter designed the graphics and artwork. All credit due to Steve Rocco, Craig Stecyk, Mark Gonzalez, and Marc McKee, but those guys all remained in separate and largely opposing camps. Mullen and Cliver are the only ones who worked under the Bones Brigade banner at Powell Peralta as well as the Jolly Roger at Rocco’s Word Industries (Mike Vallely notwithstanding, who was more of a pawn than a player and who didn’t seem to want any part of it).
Skateboarding pro-cum-team manager Steve Rocco was once told by a company owner that skateboarders couldn’t run companies. After getting fired as a team manager, Rocco decided to do just that. He sniped team riders, pirated images for graphics, and concentrated on a street-smart street style that immediately connected with the kids of the time. The intense intricacies of freestyle were dead and the barriers to entry for riding monolithic vert ramps were prohibitive to most. Street skating was anyone’s game. Walk out the door, jump on your board, grind a curb: you’re street skating. Focusing on that and the irreverence of youth garnered Rocco unmitigated hate from the established skateboard companies, cease-and-desist orders from copyright holders he violated, and millions of faithful followers.
A lot of what Rocco did for skateboarding was no different from what Marcel DuChamp and, later, Andy Warhol, did for art. It’s also no different from what sampling and Napster did for music. In his book Disrupt (FT Press, 2010), Luke Williams writes, “Differentiate all you want, but figure out a way to be the only one who does what you do, or die” (p. 2). The irony in skateboarding is that the products don’t differ very much from brand to brand. The subtleties of one board, wheel, or truck are infinitesimal. A world like that needs a Kuhnian shaking-up once in a while, and a lot of the shaking Rocco did back then is still reverberating today: Most skateboard companies are run by current and ex-skateboarders, most BMX companies are run by BMXers, street is the largest genre of either sport, and, thanks in large part to Rocco’s Big Brother Magazine, Jackass is still a thing. As the founder of Foundation and Tum Yeto, Tod Swank, put it to me (2007),
…when Rocco started World Industries, what he really did was liberate skateboarding so that it could move forward. He helped a lot of people start companies, not just me. He lent money and gave advice to a lot of other skateboarders who wanted to start companies. He wanted to see the industry run by skateboarders (p. 274).
“The life of an oppositionist is supposed to be difficult,” wrote Christopher Hitchens (2001, p. 3). Conformity is its own reward, dissent is not (Sunstein, 2003), so by upending the established order, Rocco brought a lot of grief upon himself. There’s the world the way you want it to be, and there’s the way that it is. George Powell and Stacy Peralta depicted skateboarding as they wanted it to be. Steve Rocco was more of a mirror of what it was becoming. For better
or worse, it’s still going and growing in that direction.
Christopher, Roy (2007). Tod Swank: Foundation’s Edge. In R. Christopher (Ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes (pp. 269-276). Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear.
Cliver, Sean. (2004). Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art. Ontario, Canada: Concrete Wave.
Cliver, Sean. (2009). The Disposable Skateboard Bible. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press.
Hill, Mike (Director). (2007). The Man Who Souled the World [Motion picture]. Los Angeles: Whyte House Entertainment.
Hitchens, Christopher. (2001). Letters to a Young Contrarian. New York: Basic Books.
Peralta, Stacy (Director). (2012). Bones Brigade: An Autobiography [Motion picture]. Santa Monica, CA: Nonfiction Unlimited.
Sunstein, Cass R. (2003). Why Societies Need Dissent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Williams, Luke. (2010). Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.