Revisiting the birth of skate cool. Words by Drew Corridore. Jay Adams photo by Jason Reposar.
In the 1970s a group of young people from California turned the world, quite literally, upside down. The Dogtown Z-Boys took skateboarding to levels previously unseen and unheard of – they gave birth to skateboarding as we know it today; they were both bad and radical. Some said they were true pioneers, born of strange times.
“Two hundred years of American technology unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential … but it was the minds of 11-year-olds that could see that potential.”
– Craig Stecyk 1975
The ride began when Stecyk with friends Jeff Ho and Skip Engblom opened Jeff Ho Surfboards and Zephyr Productions on the south side of Santa Monica in 1971, close to a notoriously dangerous surf break that ran through a dilapidated amusement park.
The locals called the place Dogtown – an area comprising the location of the surf shop, Venice Beach and Ocean Park.
Skip Engblom says, “it was dirty, it was filthy, it was … paradise.”
Pacific Ocean Park (POP) was abandoned and busted. A rickety pier and shonky wooden pilings stood as sentinels to a bygone age of exuberance and innocence. But now it was a testament to decay and deterioration of fortune. On its day, though, the break was killer… and could easily kill you if you made one mistake too many. It was surfing an obstacle course of seen and unseen pieces of park just waiting to revenge its slide into senility.
The Dogtown locals owned it and each and every one of them had to earn their place in the lineup. No outsiders. No fucking around. They were bad boys prepared to fight for their turf. And they loved to surf.
As Dogtown local, Nathan Pratt reflects: “This is not the beach that people came to vacation at.
“Surfing (in those days) was outcast, period, surfing (Venice) was anti-social …”
The surf shop quickly attracted a gaggle of badass young surfers and the Zephyr surf team was born. The Dogtown youngsters took the talents that they had honed at POP on tour.
“Getting sponsored by the Zephyr team as a kid was Nirvana,” says Nathan Pratt, “it was lowbrow, wild and screw you …”
Or as team member, Jim Muir, puts it: “If you were wearing the navy blue Zephyr shirt, you were ‘the shit’ in the neighbourhood.”
But what to do when the surf was blown out?
The Zephyr crew took to surfing’s land-based equivalent – skateboarding. But in those days things were pretty different. They basically had to carve a piece of wood into roughly the shape of a surfboard, adulterate a set of roller skates and attach the clay-wheeled trucks to the board …
Riding these vehicles was almost as dangerous as surfing POP because at the slightest point of resistance – a crack in the road, for instance – the wheels would lock and the rider would, at first, defy gravity … and then not.
At the same time a young Hawaiian surfer, Larry Bertlemann, was making an impact on the sport with his hunkered-down style and ‘feeling’ the wave with his hands.
The Zephyr crew thought that was pretty cool … and started to emulate Bertlemann on the asphalt – developing what they called “the bert” whereby they used their hands to perform pivoting turns while crouching lower than anyone had previously while surfing on land.
Zephyr member, Jay Adams, says: “He put his hands on the wave – he was the first surfer I remember doing that – so we started copying that on the ground.”
It was the style that was to become the Z-boys trademark. And would unleash a revolution that lasts to the present day.
And in 1972 surfer, Frank Nasworthy, created another revolution – the Cadillac urethane wheel for skateboards, which allowed the Z-Boys to take their art to new heights.
What also allowed the Zephyr crew to grow and refine the way they skated was the urban environment – from the hill that led from the surf shop to the sea, to a number of schools in the area that had sculpted asphalt banks built to support the levelling of sprawling playgrounds.
Nathan Pratt says: “We had the surf/skate style because we had the (concrete) waves to ride it on.”
Skateboarding legend Dave “Hackman” Hackett’s story part one:
“I grew up in Malibu, from the time I was a one year old. I attended Webster elementary then Malibu Park Jr. High School along with Sean Penn, Rob Lowe and Charlie Sheen and a bunch of other kids of movie stars like Chad McQueen, and David and Kevin Wilson. At first I thought I was going to be an actor but I was way too radical, rude and obnoxious to follow direction or read for an interview, so I just followed my heart and that told me to keep riding my skateboard and making art – two things nobody can tell me to do, or not to do, or how to do it. Total freedom of expression and radicalism!
“The Dogtown thing started for me when I met Jay Adams and Tony Alva and Wentzle Ruml while riding the banks at Kenter, Paul Revere, and Bellagio Elementary Schools. The year was 1973, I was 13 and just switched from clay wheels to riding my first set of Cadillac urethane wheels on those banks and basically trying to surf the concrete like Larry Bertlemann did in the water.”
Wentzle Ruml says: “We all possessed a surf style … there was no one in our group who wasn’t fluent.”
Style was everything.
“Skaters by their very nature are urban guerrillas: they make everyday use of the useless artefacts of the technological burden and employ the handiwork of the government/corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of.”
– Craig Stecyk 1976 – around the time he started publishing a series of what were to become known as Dogtown articles in SkateBoarder magazine.
And during the 1970s another phenomenon occurred to advance the art of skateboarding … the worst drought California had ever experienced.
As the Stacy Peralta-produced 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-boys says: “California’s drought served as a midwife to the skateboard revolution as hundreds of swimming pools across the Los Angeles basin were left empty and unused.”
Jay Adams says: “Once pool riding came in, that’s all we wanted to do.”
… and Dave Hackman: “Like any peer group you become part of, you shared things in common. For me and the DT crew, we lived for finding, draining and riding empty swimming pools and creating a new way to ride them.”
On the other side of the Atlantic another skater was paying close attention.
“Mad” Mark Baker (now a resident of Bali and of In The Raw fame) was making waves of his own on the skating scene in his native England and in Europe.
“We used to see all the amazing pictures of the Dogtown crew in SkateBoarder magazine in the mid-70s … the lovely Californian weather, and these radical riders, while we were stuck in rainy old Britain,” Mark says.
“But where I’m from, in Brighton – which in many ways was similar to Dogtown – me and my crew were doing some pretty radical stuff too … and taking a lot of inspiration from the articles we read about the Z-Boys.
“The influence these guys had on an entire generation – the surf-skate lifestyle … they were basically a bunch of street kids who changed their own lives and changed the lives of many, many others throughout the world. It’s amazing what can happen when you take a bunch of kids like us off the streets and give them something good to do.”
Around 1978/79 Mark hooked up with one of the original Z-boys, Tony Alva, who was on a competition tour of England and Europe. The two of them struck up an immediate friendship.
“Tony was the best skater and the best promoter of himself and the others – he was the best over there and I was the best on my side of The Pond and we went on tour together … there were interviews, television, movies, the whole thing, which was pitched as “Mad Mark meets the Mad Dog” … we were rock stars man, it was insane, as if skateboarding was the biggest thing in the world.”
Mark gravitated to California where he spent three years or so skating with the Dogtown crew. And the rest, as they say, is history.
From his perch at the Townhouse in Seminyak Mad Mark Baker adds a poignant footnote to the Dogtown story: “Jay Adams, who was the gnarliest, grindiest Z-Boy skater, was recently admitted to the skating Hall of Fame – he sat and watched the whole thing upstairs on TV while thousands of people were screaming for him … he couldn’t give a fuck.”
Dave “Hackman” Hackett part two …
What was the dream in the early years?
We all shared the dream of getting paid to do what we loved doing. Like the first group of pro surfers back in 1974 – Shaun Thompson, Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, Mark Richards … we did it because we loved it, but at the same time we believed it would one day be a professional sport. I was able to be the first pro rider for Tony Alva’s company, Alva Skates, and got to ride with other legendary rippers like Steve Alba and of course Mark Baker – who was the gnarliest rider in all of Europe in the 1970s.
Did skateboarding change your life?
Yes, in many, many ways. Skateboarding saved my life by allowing me an outlet for extreme radical and dangerous physical expression, and it has also almost killed me many times through gnarly injuries – all of which made me a stronger person in every way.
What role did evolving skate technology play in the success the skaters of the time had … and the radicalisation of the sport?
New skate technology has always played a huge part in the advancement of the sport/art of riding a skateboard and continues to do so today. In the 1970s it was primarily the introduction of the urethane wheel and the multiple laminated Canadian hard rock maple decks. The 1980s, say, more of the same and the huge introduction of knee sliding and pads that could knee slide easier. Every decade has contributed to the advancement and it’s awesome to be part of it all.
Did you play a part in reinventing the skateboard?
I’m not so sure I can claim that I reinvented the skateboard in any way. But I have over the years designed and marketed some of the top-selling decks in the industry, such as my Skull Skates Iron Cross and Street Sickle as well as my Surfskater deck on Deathbox Skateboards.
What are your fondest memories of the late ’70s and early ’80s with your crew?
I’ve always been a contest skater, so for me, competing in, and winning, the few events I did and of course all the crazy demos and other trips we made around the world to help spread the stoke of skateboarding to other countries was a blast.
What, if any, were the darker moments of the time?
Being one of the best in the world in 1979 at age 19, then overnight, the skateboarding market died and I was lost. I went from making about $6-8K a month to nothing overnight. Also breaking my right foot in half and not being able to ride for almost two years … that sucked!
You have played a big part in the professionalisation and marketing of the sport … how and why did you get into that?
Well, like I said, I just followed my heart and that told me to keep riding my skateboard and making art.
What’s it like to be considered one of the greatest skaters of all time?
Ha ha! I am …?
OK, so who are your skating heroes?
There are a lot of guys who showed me the way to show up and throw down over the years and they are Greg Carroll, Torger Johnson, Herbie Fletcher, Bruce Logan, Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta, and Steven Picciolo.
The Loop of Death at the ripe-old-age of 40-plus … what’s up with that? Can you tell us something of how to pull that trick off?
Ok, I will tell you three things you have to do in order to pull off The Loop of Death:
1) Rotate your shoulders so they are squarely facing the loop.
2) Keep your knees slightly bent, but DO NOT bend them while navigating the loop.
3) Keep both arms out to the side while following and staying on the green line.
And have respect for the loop. I’ve seen way too many guys just roll up and think they are going to pull it and try to get it over with … you have to become one with it …
Does the passion for skating still burn inside you – and do you still hop on a board for a bit of turning and burning?
Of course. I don’t ride as much as I used to but I still skate at least twice a week … mostly empty pools or ditches that feel like surfing.
Words of encouragement for young skaters …
Try and ride everything – pools, parks, ramps, ditches, downhill, slalom, mega ramp, loop, street, EVERYTHING!
Your philosophy on life?
One of the biggest lessons skateboarding has taught me is to live in the moment. Because living in the past welcomes depression, living in the future welcomes anxiety, and living in the moment is where life is RIGHT NOW … so go skateboarding.
Z-Boy Jay Adams on his journey from surf to skate …
It all started for me when my stepdad, Kent Sherwood, met my mom at a party in Venice Beach in the early ’60s. He’d moved to California after growing up in Hawaii – being one of the only white beach boys there in Waikiki. Being a surfer himself he got me into it when I was about four years old. That was in 1965-66.
At first I started riding the little blue and yellow surf mats that he rented out of his surfboard rental shop under the north side of Pacific Ocean Park pier. After that he made me a custom half-size long board that he made at David Sweet surf shop on Olympic Boulevard in Santa Monica. Kent was a master mould builder so he was helping Sweet build the early “pop-out” surfboards and experimenting with new foam blank ideas.
I grew up in Dave’s surf shop and of course on the beach at POP pier at his summer time surfboard rental pace … so I guess this is actually before the whole Dogtown Z-Boy thing got going – that came later after I’d gotten on my first surf team. I rode for a San Fernando surf shop called CME Surfboards. I was 13 or 14 and doing all the WSA surf contests in South California. Cere Muscrelia, the guy who owned CME, sponsored me and was a super cool guy who made boards way ahead of his time.
Funny because back then there was so much anti valley stuff going on at all the beaches especially at POP pier but I learned early to make friends with people everywhere instead of being that local dick that can’t surf anywhere but the place they fight for.
There were a few of us that skated and surfed all the time – Tony Alva and Wentzle Ruml were two of my closest friends that skated back then.
After the Cadillac wheel came out skateboarding really became popular again. Alva and myself had been going up to Paul Revere (elementary school) regularly for a couple of years before this happened so we kinda had a jump start on all the kids who were starting to get into skateboarding.
Surfing and skateboarding is something I’ve always done and the movie Skater Dater was really a life-changing event for me because it’s the first time I saw kids perform tricks on a skateboard … so it got me all amped to do everything they did.
Jumping off a curb was one of the first things I can remember really trying to learn.
But back to the Z-Boy thing … as skateboarding became popular again I entered a skateboard contest down at the Del Mar Fairground. I think I won the slalom and got second in the freestyle so actually I won first place overall in the boys’ division.
Del Mar was actually a pretty big deal to us. We’d all been skating quite a bit and SkateBoarder magazine was basically all San Diego guys in it and running it, so it was very political, and if you weren’t riding for a San Diego brand they wouldn’t put a picture of you in their magazine.
Jeff Ho and Skipper (Engblom) were making surfboards at the Zephyr shop in Santa Monica and had heard about the Del Mar contest so they let everyone know they were putting together a junior surf ’n’ skate team that would go down to Del Mar and take all their trophies … ha ha ha … we all knew we could skate better than these guys we saw in the magazines – Ty Page, Bruce Logan, Greg Weaver are all great skaters but they skated the old fashioned way, sort of stuck in that old-school long board style of surf-skating mixed in with some gymnastic kinda stuff.
We all copied the young Hawaiian kids like Mike Ho and especially Larry Bertlemann. When we got to the event we couldn’t believe what they were making us skate on … there were no banks or ramps just a flat piece of wood like a giant stage or something and we skated completely different kinda stuff. Paul Revere and Belligio were all 20-foot-high banks that we surfed-skated. This was different … it’s 100 per cent flat ground! I was wondering what do you do on this stuff – we didn’t do all the nose wheelies or handstands like all the San Diego guys. So basically we just did our Larry Bertlemann thing on the flat stage and the judges weren’t sure how to judge the way we skated.
Like I said, all the SD guys copied 1960s style long board surfing mixed in with some gymnastic moves. But the Z-Boys went as fast as we could and threw down bert turns … and I even did a few things I’d never done before – little airs in the form of bunny hops, and a carving air bert off the stage that left the judges with their mouths open wondering how to compare the two different styles.
Anyway, it all evolved from there and just kept changing until skateboarding became a worldwide sport.