Dogtown Skates

“Dogtown” is quite the buzzword these days. Kind ofinteresting, considering it’s been about 25 years since it was last ahousehold name. But many of the folks anticipating the release ofStacy Peralta’s and Craig Stecyk’s Dogtown and Z-Boys moviethis month aren’t talking about the same Dogtown skaters did in thelate 70s.

Dogtown the place spawned a movement inskateboarding at the time, as depicted in the film, but skaters ofthat era who weren’t part of it knew Dogtown better as a brand.While the Z-Boys (who ruled the schoolyards and pools of SouthSanta Monica and Venice, California) created the aggressive stylethat skaters the world over would follow, Dogtown the brandoffered hands-on devices for carrying out their craft.

The Dogtown film ends where this story begins-whenmembers of the original Zephyr skateboard team were catapultedinto the limelight in the mid 70s and the commercial forcesswarming into the sport began prying them apart. By the end of1975, the core of the Zephyr squad had left to pursue morelucrative opportunities or to just get out from under the spotlight.

Some, like Jim Muir, found themselves shifting from onesponsor to the next, never quite comfortable with any of them.Eventually, Tony Alva started his own namesake brand, Stacy Peraltateamed up with George Powell to establish Powell Peralta, Jay Adamsjoined his stepfather to form Z-Flex, and Muir hooked up withlongtime friend Wes Humpston to build boards in their backyards. Itwasn’t an outright commercial venture, but for a couple teens stillliving at home, selling decks for fifteen or twenty bucks to kids atlocal spots earned them more than enough to get by. Pool skatingwas fast coming into fashion, and boards were getting battered andsplit in one or two sessions. The two figured it was a pretty goodbusiness. “When you’re a nineteen-year-old kid, and for six hours’work you’re making 300 or 400 bucks-back then that was reallygood money,” says Muir. “It was almost like free money. It was likeselling drugs without the consequence.”

Since Humpston had a knack for drawing, Muir left thegraphics to him. Some of the original hand-cut Dogtownskateboards featured hand-drawn logos and artwork that wouldbecome iconic to Dogtown enthusiasts, both then and now.Unfortunately for the eBay collectors who’ve recently been payingthousands of dollars for later production Dogtown boards, few ofthe original handmade decks remain, and maybe only a couple arestill intact.

Pool skating in the mid 70s required specialized equipmentthat major manufacturers weren’t producing-namely, wider boards.With most production boards measuring in the six- to seven-inchrange, Muir and Humpston were building boards upward of eightinches-and growing. “It’s not like we were trying to do a pinpointedblueprint reproduction,” says Muir. “So the boards would oftentimesgrow like a quarter inch at a time because we were using our oldboard as the template. Then we’d add a little more here and a littlemore there, and in a period of about four or five months, the boardswent from seven inches up to eight-and-a-half or nine inches. Wejust realized that wider and wider was way better for what we weredoing back then.”

Beginning in 1975, Muir and Humpston experimented heavilywith board shapes, materials, tail angles, and even began grindingwheel wells and beveling the rails for lightness. Humpston recallsthat the uniqueness of every pool they skated required a slightlydifferent board, and that drove them to keep looking for newsolutions to evolving problems. They used oak, maple, and ash, theyhand-beveled their rails and ground out deep wheel wells forlightness, and once even stumbled upon some “defective” warpedplanks that they instinctively knew would create a foot-grippingconcave surface. “Anybody who rode those boards was freakingout,” says Humpston. “When I would let somebody borrow myboards, they’d disappear. I’d never give somebody my board at askatepark because I’d never get it back. At least in a pool, you couldjump them in the shallow end.”

Their reputation for building pool-specific decks spread, andone day during the drive to a San Fernando Valley pool, Muir,Humpston, and mentor/photographer Craig Stecyk discussedbranding the boards. As other skaters were launching companies,Muir and Humpston decided they should come up with a name forthe boards they were building for local pool skaters. As Humpstonrecalls it, Stecyk sat in the front seat and listened intently: “He’dbeen doing these (magazine) articles about Dogtown, and we weremaking these pool boards. And we were thinking, ‘These are theboards of Dogtown-these are the Dogtown skates.’ And Stecykkinda went like, ‘Yeah, cool. Sounds good to me.’ So we just wentwith it.”

That day in 1976, on the way to that San Fernando Valley pool,Humpston wrote the initials “DTS” on the bottom of Muir’s board,and Stecyk later shot the photos that would introduce skaters theworld over to the new brand.

By 1976, Muir and Humpston had adopted the now famousDogtown cross logo from graffitied walls around Los Angeles. Muirbelieves it was the insignia of a local Hispanic gang, but whatever itstrue origins, it became a symbol of the South Santa Monica/VeniceBeach area, and Humpston’s stylized versions of it would becomethe company trademark. Most of the original Dogtown-area skatershad nicknames like Mad Dog (Alva), Red Dog (Muir), and Bulldog(Humpston), so the company name seemed natural. Each handmade-board graphic would begin with the cross penned across the center,then Humpston would add unique detail and colors to each one: “Iwas putting in a lot of time drawing. It was just kind of a groove Ifell into.”

As skateboarding continued to grow, and their boards werebecoming famous through coverage in magazines, Muir received aninvaluable piece of advice. Kent Sherwood, Jay Adams’ stepfather,convinced the teenage Muir to register the Dogtown trademark.”Sure enough, within two or three months after that we had theseunscrupulous-type businessmen come in and try to take the name,”says Muir. “These guys were like middle-age mustache guys whorealized that skateboarding was about to blow up.”

Muir and Humpston eventually signed a deal with the ownersof a local Santa Monica skate shop. With partners to handle the day-to-day business, Muir was free to design boards and skate, andHumpston continued to develop board designs and graphics. By1978, mass production of Dogtown Skates had begun, and a publichungry for skateboards began to devour everything emblazonedwith the Dogtown Skates logos. “I was in the right place at the righttime,” says Muir of the company’s success. “And somehow, fromsome experience that I had had-or something I had read-I just hadthe instincts to do the right thing.”

He and Humpston worked with the partners for three years, atime during which the company continued to pioneer new boarddesigns, like the Shogo Kubo Airbeam with its full-board topgraphic, the concave Muir Triplane, and the unprecedented twelve-inch-wide Wes Humpston Big Foot model. Dogtown also beganamending its star-studded pro team with a new crop of talentedyoung ams, Tony Hawk and Christian Hosoi among them.

By the time the skateboard market began to falter in the late70s, so did Muir’s and Humpston’s paychecks. Their partners werestill selling equipment, but the company’s founders say they weren’tseeing any of it. Muir began to long for the backyard-board-buildingdays when he and Humpston had complete control of theircompany. “One thing that I did back then was put a clause in thecontract that said if these guys no longer had anything to do withskateboarding, that the trademarks would revert back into myname,” he says. “Of course, in the early 80s when skateboardingdied suddenly and they had nothing to do with it, I proceeded to putall the paperwork together to put it back into my name.”

In the early 80s, Muir’s brother Mike was realizing somesuccess with h
is band Suicidal Tendencies. When Jim felt ready toreenter the skateboard market, few companies remained. Humpstonhad married, started a family, and moved on to find regular work inthe printing industry. So Muir decided to go it alone and began witha series of decks under the Suicidal Skates brand name. They wereinitially sold through the band’s mail-order business, which theentire Muir family was involved with, and in 1983 Jim released twoDogtown logo boards to ease his way back into the market andbegan building a team. “With Eric D. (Dressen), Scott Oster, AaronMurray, and Micke Alba, I pretty much mirrored what Jeff Ho andSkipper (Skip Engblom) did with the (Zephyr) surf and skate teams,”he says. “I picked the best kids around here and started drivingthem to contests, and I’d sell T-shirts out the trunk of my ’64Falcon.”

Muir, who had been skating since the steel-wheel days of theearly 60s, found that even in the down market of the early 80s, hewas once again having fun. And with some helpful advice from oldfriends still in the industry, Muir was able to rebuild the brand asthe new generation of skateboarders made the sport popular onceagain. “In ’85 we were pretty much up and running with the team,”he says. “They were all amateur guys, though. So I started buildingup to the full-page black-and-whites (ads). And I was runningeverything out of my parents’ house. There was shit stacked up inthe hallway and throughout the whole living room. The money wascoming fast because there was no overhead.”

As skateboarding grew in the 80s, street arose as the dominantform, and Dogtowners like Dressen, Oster, and Murray became well-known for their fast, furious, and smooth styles-much like the 70steam had for their pool skating. Dressen won several street contests,topped the charts with overall points in the late 80s, and severalnew skaters on the team contributed to its renewed high profile.”We were going head up with the Bones Brigade at all thesecontests,” says Muir. “We were the bad boys-we’d just go there anddidn’t give a fuck. We’d party, then show up at the contest. Thoseguys were our friends, pretty much, but they had been doing itlonger, and they were ‘the athletes.’ It was a healthy rivalry.”

Muir also tapped into the company’s legacy by commissioningHumpston to create new graphics. For these new wide decks he drewfull-board designs that were centered around the Dogtown cross,but personalized for each pro.

The business soon moved out of Mom and Dad’s house, andMuir found himself with a staff and overhead to pay and manage.While the company continued to grow, recycling its profits wasn’tenough to expand its product lines and hire extra help. Like manysmall brands at the time, Muir had to turn down a lot of business. “Ijust never had the capital,” he says. “I was always working off lastmonth’s money. When I started doing this again in ’83, my brothergave me 12,000 dollars, and from that 12,000 dollars we rolled. Youknow the old adage, it takes money to make money.”

By the late 80s, he was looking for solutions to this dilemmawhen he had an offer to join a new operation in San Francisco thatcould help Dogtown Skates finance its growth. Just as he wassettling in with his new partners and adjusting to the NorCalenvironment, the skateboard market suddenly dropped out. “You’reover a million or two-million dollars, and all of a sudden, theeconomy takes a big hit, and your company drops 40 or 50percent,” he says. “That’s substantial, and no one saw it coming.Everyone really hurt back then, but for us to drop that quick withthe amount of money that was involved, it was really tough. So welost Eric Dressen to Santa Cruz, who was a big chunk of our boardsales. We were doing what we could to survive.”

With the skateboard market suddenly much more focused onthe new hardcore street skater, Muir and his partners created asister brand to help address the changing demands of the market.Think Skateboards was successfully launched in 1990, and withDogtown stuck in a limited market, Muir soon felt homesick forSanta Monica. By the end of the year, he had traded his interest inThink for his partners’ interest in Dogtown, and moved his new wifeand their infant son to Santa Monica, where he hoped to againreconnect the brand with its roots.

Back where it all began, Muir went though a couple morepartnerships that ultimately failed, the last one in the mid 90s whenDogtown fell into the snowboard quagmire. Muir and his partnershad done well selling Dogtown Snowboards to Japanese distributors,and when the snowboard market as a whole took a hit, they wereleft with most of their money tied up in inventory. “I kept tellingthem, ‘You can’t count on one market. You’ve got to have a strongpresence domestically,'” says Muir. “And as soon as the Japanesemarket started to slow down, they freaked out. That was the sameyear that it didn’t snow here until March, and Japan had no winterwhatsoever, and there were like two-million snowboards left over inJapan from the winter. Just all kinds of nightmare stories-all theskateboard shops that had bought snowboard gear couldn’t sell it,and they therefore couldn’t buy skateboard shit. It was just a wholebacklash of things like that. We ended up paying like 150 bucks forthese boards, and we had 2,500 left that we ended up selling for 70dollars apiece.”

In 1998, after skateboarding had recovered from its early 90slull, Muir reopened the family business, recruiting his dad andbrother, and released four new Dogtown decks, two hats, and ten T-shirts. He worked with Dressen again for a short time, but found itdifficult to develop a group of riders with the same chemistry thatprevious Dogtown teams had. “It was tough because every time thecompany shut down I lost a generation of kids,” he says. “So hereyou are trying to build the name back up with kids who are cartoon-oriented-they don’t know anything about the history, and whatyou’ve done for the sport and developments. The cool thing aboutskateboarding now is that it does have a history. I’m just reallyproud to be a part of something that so many people love to do,even if they don’t know a damn thing about why they skateboardnow.”

Muir credits his mentors and caretakers at Zephyr for teachinghim an honest no-bullshit approach to life and business. “Jeff Ho,Skip, and Stecyk were all partners, and they all were relatively equalinfluences-each in a different way,” he says. “Skipper took meunder his wing, and he gave me the breaks-he looked out for me.Stecyk was this guy who had an eye for talent-the guy just sawsomething and was able to lay a path down. Jeff-the guy had thehairstyle, he had the fashion style. Everything was flash with thisguy-he was Hollywood in the ghetto. These guys were myinfluences. Hopefully the intellectual and artistic part from Stecykcame in a little bit, I’ve had some flashier times, and now I’mlooking out for my son, and I’m still responsible for my riders, and Itry and do everything I can for them.”

Peralta and Stecyk’s film may help to educate today’sgeneration about some of the key individuals and events inskateboarding’s past, but Muir believes that the spontaneity andmystery that made it so intriguing then don’t exist today-despitethe resurgence of pool skating and the hardcore trend that’ssweeping the market. “In skateboarding, there’s nothing that’soriginal now-everything is rehashed in one way or another,” hesays. “And when things get really boring, what happened in historystarts to matter suddenly. From a purist standpoint, it used to be asubculture, and a ‘core activity. A lot of the energy that’s portrayedin the movie-that’s just not out there anymore. For a lot of people,it’s just something to do.

“They say everything comes full circle, and fashion comesback around, and it’s gonna happen in skateboarding, maybe. And Imight be right where I’m supposed to be one more time again-theright place at the right time.”

With a new team led by pros Laban Pheidias and Wee Man,Muir has once again manag
ed to redevelop the brand into agrassroots club for skate-minded and eclectic individuals who seemunaffected by the tides of trendiness. It may not be the mostprofitable way to manage a brand, but Muir’s content in his self-reliance, and comfortable with the company he keeps.

“I’m either stupid or stubborn, and most likely it’s both,” hesuggests to explain why he manages the company, handles sales,works with the team, ships product, answers his own phone, andpersonally shoulders the company’s financial responsibility himself.”It’s a grassroots way of doing things-an old-school way of doingthings. I have a lot of good relationships with guys who have hadshops for ten, fifteen, twenty years. They know me, and somehowI’ve managed to keep my integrity through all this. No one out thereis gonna say that I fuckin’ burned ’em. If you do those kinds ofthings, you can answer your own phone, too.”

Dogtown Skates Alumni
Just a few names to pass through the DTS threshold.

Jason Adams
Micke Alba
Bob Biniak
John Cardiel
Paul Constantineau
Eric Dressen
Tony Hawk
Frankie Hill
Christian Hosoi
Wes Humpston
Shogo Kubo
Kris Markovich
Jim Muir
Aaron Murray
Scott Oster
Duane Peters
Laban Pheidias
JJ Rogers
Mike Santarossa
Ben Schroeder
Mike Smith
Karma Tsocheff
Karl Watson
Wee Man