Bombing Memory Lane

 
 
 
 

By Sean Mortimer
The buildup was unbearable. The anticipation shoved everything else from my mind, clearing the way for an infatuation that obliterated my life as I knew it. The event was much more significant than the standard male rite of passage of losing your virginity. In the summer of 1985, I slid a stack of crumpled dollar bills across the counter and can still recall the sensation of the griptape against my fingers and the way the fluorescent light hit the blood-red paint of my first skateboard, a Powell Peralta Vato Rat.

I still have that board and other trashed decks stacked in my garage—artifacts from the wonder years of my life. I’m not alone in my sentimentality. Veteran pro Rodney Mullen’s eyes lose focus when he recalls rearranging stickers on his early boards over and over like Sisyphus. The Smithsonian is requesting Tony Hawk’s first board, a fiberglass Bahne, and a mint duplicate stands in his office. I’d argue that no matter how jaded of a Piss Drunk you are or how much bling you have hanging off your trinket bracelet, there’s a warm place in your heart for those boards you rode while discovering skating. If I were a tattoo enthusiast, I’d have inked Craig Stecyk’s iconoclastic Vato Rat graphics inside a heart on my arm.

But shapes change, pro skaters fade, companies fall from grace, and the industry moves on, looking ahead rather than back. Skate history needs a fixed amount of time, at least two decades, to mature into something worthwhile instead of being an embarrassment. The late 1970s are now—thanks to the success of Dogtown And The Z-Boys movie—properly enshrined, and slowly the 1980s are seeping into that nostalgia.

Stacy Peralta is a man talented enough to have touched three eras of skating in vastly different ways. An original Z-boy, he was the 1977 World Champion skateboarder before retiring from competition and spending the next decade recruiting and coaching the most significant skateboard team in history—the Bones Brigade. Then he directed the award-winning Dogtown. “No matter how much success I have,” he says, “I keep looking back to that time. The 80s were fantastic. It was a decade when everything happened—ramp skating became standardized, and street skating was invented.” Peralta duly credits the 1970s as a pure time for origination, but the 1980s exploded with unequaled progression. Mark Gonzales adapted ollies and kickflips from freestyle and revolutionized street skating; Mike McGill invented the McTwist on vert; everyday scenery like walls, ledges, and handrails became skate obstacles; and skating was an underground dirtbag activity. It was arguably the most successful and untainted time in skating’s history because there was practically zero non-endemic interference, and the sport boomed. It wasn’t accepted on any mainstream level—if you skated, you were generally considered a social reject, but it was probably one of the best times of your life.

The 1980s had the ingredients for a collectible market—sweet times and unbridled creativity. Board shapes and graphics usually stayed the same for years, so skaters could’ve easily ridden a favorite model a dozen times, anchoring it to their memories. Also, pros generally made more of an impression because there were fewer of them. Unlike today, being a professional skater in the 1980s almost always meant you possessed exceptional talent. With fewer pros—around 30 mid-decade—more attention was focused on them, which acted as rocket fuel for blasting consumer demand through the roof. Skaters sometimes sold up to 30,000 decks a month. (Most primo pros of today don’t move that many annually.) Lastly, at the end of the decade skating plummeted in popularity, deck designs radically changed, and the older boards were considered worthless and dumped as quickly as possible. No one predicted anybody would want those old clunkers again. Zip ahead 25 years and some of those boards are sparking thousand-dollar bidding wars on eBay.

A few older companies that are still alive in one form or another noticed the growing interest in vintage 80s skate product. To celebrate their quarter-century anniversaries, Select Distribution, distributor of Vision Skateboards, reissued its most popular models, such as the Gonz and Gator boards as they were back in the day—except for the noticeable absence of the pros’ names. These aren’t the modern decks with classic graphics, these are boards you look at now and mutter, “How the hell did anybody ride that wide-ass thing with only three inches of nose?”

But people aren’t buying them to schralp the local graffitied drainage ditch, most are headed for the home-museums that have become popular since the Dogtown documentary. “Many skaters from the 80s enjoyed our Powell Peralta products and videos,” says George Powell, cofounder of Powell Peralta. “Now they’re dads and ready to skate with their own little rippers, so it makes sense to offer them the decks they’re used to and remember with fondness from their childhood skating days.” Some of the Powell reissued decks have longer upturned noses than the originals.

“The buyers are from across the board,” Ron Camero, marketing manager of Select says. “The largest group are the guys who just want the board that they rode as a kid.”

Camero himself typifies the market, an older skater with regrets: “They (the customers) are people like me who grew up with these boards. I kicked myself for not saving anything from when I was a kid. This has given others and myself a second chance to put some boards away. I’m not a collector, but I do want to be able to have some pieces of history.” Hardcore collectors continue to fork over the Benjamins on eBay for the originals, but that small market is clearly becoming saturated. The reissue market is small, too. Shops and distributors say those sales are less than five percent of their overall board sales, but reissues do have better legs than most modern decks. “I see consistent sales,” says Neil Sloan, buyer for Eastern Skate Supply, “but it doesn’t go away or grow.”

These boards entered the market at a plateau. One of the factors behind this unique pattern is that consumers generally don’t ride the boards, and if they do, they aren’t wearing them out too fast. “I see people riding the (Mike) McGill board or the (Powell) Ripper at my skatepark,” Sloan says, but he admits that it’s a rare sighting.

Besides decks, other reissued products sell better. Select blew the dust off the vintage Unreel Productions videos that captured some of the major contests of the mid 80s. The Restroskate series packs three contests onto a single disc. No videos impacted the skate world more than the first three Powell Peralta videos, though. “Not only were our videos the first,” says Powell, “(but we) invented the genre, so we weren’t afraid to give the videos structure and our own personality.”

Powell, Peralta, and Craig Stecyk captured the essence of skating in the 80s. “Many newer videos focus more on showcasing the latest skate tricks instead of focusing on the sport and team,” Powell says, “so they tend to become outdated sooner as newer tricks come along. Stacy Peralta is a wonderfully talented filmmaker—his skills are apparent even in his very first attempts to ‘tell the story’ of the Bones Brigade.”

The Search For Animal Chin, Powell’s most popular title, has never stopped selling since it was released seventeen years ago—unheard of in these days of disposable videos. “There was a big pent-up demand for the DVD format and for those videos,” says Powell, adding that the DVDs have been the most successful of any Powell reissued product.

Unfortunately, the Powell DVDs are a letdown and not at all treated with the respect they deserve. Virtually the same as any VHS copy, the colors aren’t crisp—apparently no restoration was done—and no extras were added. On top of that, they’re a whopping 30 bucks a pop compared to the sixteen-dollar price of the VHS copies. Besides being able to play them on a laptop, there’s not much point in getting them.

Powell admits to the lackluster effort: “The demise of VHS forced us to reissue the original videos this year without the additional features. All our customers were yelling at us for being so slow to offer the DVD format, we had to just do a direct dupe to keep from being out of the market for a year.”

One of the problems with the reissue trend is the lack of focused marketing. A lot of the product is just dumped out there with no apparent long-term marketing scheme. Santa Cruz took a different approach by limiting the quantity and number of reissued decks. Collectors get a little frothy when they think they might miss out on an item. Sloan says that while the flow of most reissues is small and steady, Santa Cruz is the opposite. It sells out of every one of its reissue boards. Powell’s even experienced new levels of eagerness: “We had customers calling NHS (Santa Cruz’s distributor) and asking them when our order was going to be shipped.”

Powell is revving up for perhaps the most ambitious marketing campaign skateboard collectors have ever experienced. After a thirteen-year hiatus, Stacy Peralta is working with his ex-partner on a number of vintage Powell Peralta projects. Reportedly, the major players from the Brigade—Stevie Caballero, Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, and Mike McGill—have all agreed to work on the special edition DVDs, and you can expect extensive commentary, interviews, and never-before-seen footage.

“If you saw our film and video library of footage from 1983 on,” says Powell, “you would understand what a big job it is to review all this footage, re-log it, and pick footage from the unused reels that skaters would enjoy seeing.”

Peralta’s success with Dogtown made everybody realize that skaters are eager to learn about their past. He plans on developing a smaller-scale documentary on the Bones Brigade to present his team with some context. A coffee-table Brigade book with rare artwork, classic ads, and interviews is also currently in the works. A certain number of retired pro decks will also be produced—exactly the same except for a small mark to distinguish them from the originals.

Sloan thinks that if any company could expand the market, it’s Powell: “The Ripper is probably the best-seller (of all the reissued boards) for the length of time it’s been out.” He also reasons that the steady sales of Powell videos indicate that a deeper consumer base is obviously out there, perhaps just waiting for something to connect with before opening their wallets.

Clearly some historical perspective is needed of 80s-era skating, not only for the market to expand, but to enrich younger skaters. The skate industry sucks at educating new skaters about our past. It’s as if we assume that these kids are high-functioning A.D.D. cases, unable to process anything if it isn’t an ephemeral hammer or some “modern” trick or style.

Look at the deep impact that Dogtown had on the sport. Nobody predicted it. Suddenly mini-shreds are growing their hair long and carving, and street skaters who seemed allergic to vert ramps are searching out empty pools. Who knows what will happen once the era is presented—as Peralta puts it—”in context”?