Renaissance Man

Tony Hawk has no time for retirement.

In the last year, two significant moments in the history of skateboarding were broadcast on national television, and both starred Tony Hawk. The first was his undeniably spectacular 900 at the 1999 X-Games; it was a convergence of energy and individuals sufficient to help Hawk realize a personal quest. The other moment came during the 2000 ESPY Awards show, the annual ESPN sports awards that recognize athletes for excellence in sports performance. Much like the Oscars, the audience was thick with celebrities, and the winners that evening were no less famous: Tiger Woods for golf, Mark McGwire for baseball, bicyclist Lance Armstrong received the Comeback Award for beating cancer and winning the Tour De France, and the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team was recognized for their 1999 Women’s World Cup title.

A new category for the ESPYs is the Alternative Athlete award, the first of which went to Hawk, and yes, on the monitor above the stage they showed the slow-mo footage of his X-Games 900 as the spotlight found him. While his winning that category wasn’t so surprising, there was a moment when–as he walked across the stage–the camera panned through the audience. All those famous people–Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky among them–were looking up at him, applauding, and recognizing a skateboarder (and skateboarding) alongside their more traditional peers. Backstage, the accolades continued as Hawk was approached by many of his fellow awardees for autographs.

When he won the Readers’ Poll Best Vert choice at the TransWorld SKATEboarding Awards in May, the generally unruly crowd respectfully and unanimously applauded and cheered, recognizing the 32 year old for what he’s done to evolve our sport and inspire skateboarders. Since he turned pro in 1982, Hawk has won more contests and invented more tricks–albeit vert–than anyone else. His talent and charisma have been apparent to us, his peers, for decades, and now the world is coming to know those qualities about him.

When his biography, Tony Hawk, Occupation: Skateboarder (Regan Books), is released this month, the details of his life thus far will be for sale in bookstores everywhere. He will be as public a figure as skateboarding has ever seen, and the secrets of his childhood–his sometimes tempestuous relationship with his father, his trouble with girls, and his determination that overcame a scrawny physique to develop the talent that would earn him a TransWorld SKATEboarding Award, an ESPY, and place among the legends of skateboarding–are all there.

In June, at the start of another busy summer of touring, filming, promoting, and autograph signing, I sat with Hawk to ask his thoughts on his career thus far, as well as on the sport and industry he continues to impact and influence. And as his ovations at the aforementioned awards shows indicate, he’ll continue to influence both skateboarding and mass culture for many years to come.

–Miki Vuckovich

Don’t you think you’re a little young to be writing your memoirs?

I don’t know. I always wanted to write a book. It just seemed like a noble effort–then you see it in print and it’s like, “Oh my god, there it is for everyone to see.” It’s just weird to see it all laid out like that, and to know everyone has access to it.

How long have you been thinking about writing it?

I really thought about writing a book the last couple years, just being on tour so much, being on the road, and seeing all these crazy scenarios and situations that no one would really understand unless they were there. I was trying to convey that feeling, what it’s like.

Was that the idea behind your tour diary on your Web site,

Pretty much. The reason I started the tour diary was that I was having these days when I was thinking about all the stuff I had to do that day–where I was going and what I was doing–and I didn’t think anyone would really believe it unless I documented it. But it was also for me to look back and say, “Oh yeah, I remember doing that.” It’s funny when I read it now, stuff from last year. It all seems crazy.

An autobiography encapsulates a person’s life up to the point that it’s written. What portion of your life do you feel is complete?

I think mostly just growing up as an outcast, a skater in school. It’s strange to think that now it’s the “cool” kids who are skaters. When we were in school and skating, it was like, “You guys are idiots.” That’s really the first third of the book, trying to find acceptance. We just found other people who were into what we were doing. They didn’t go to our school, and they were a lot older, but at least we found community. Now any kid who picks up a skateboard is suddenly “in.” People finally appreciate the sport and the art form. Especially with the success of the video game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, some guy who just sits and watches sports all day knows what a kickflip or 50-50 is.

Your career as a skateboarder really encompasses several generations, and you remained competitive throughout. How did you manage that, and how did competing in the early 80s compare to the late 90s?

In the 80s the emphasis was so much on competition, that was really the priority. I had to learn to adapt to places and improve my style. I think contests are now definitely part of the industry and the culture, but they’re not the focus. In the 80s, if you weren’t winning contests or placing well, you weren’t in the magazines. Now you don’t even have to be at a contest to be on the cover of a magazine.

Do you think videos are responsible for that?

Yeah, videos and the fact that people like a riskier style of skating than just competitive skating. They don’t mind that someone’s gonna try something over and over if it means they’re gonna get it. It may not be something you’ll see at a contest, but that’s kind of what’s been driving skating for a long time–the progression of tricks in height, and in some cases, danger. At the same time, the competition level’s been evolving.

There are now specialists of the one-trick stunts, and those who put good contest runs together.

And it’s not like there’s some divine separation between any of it. They’re all appreciated. I think that’s the main difference, as far as being competitive. Throughout all of it, I was still trying to improve my skating. That was the goal–not to win contests.

At the Vans Triple Crown Finals last October you announced your retirement from competition. Why did you give up contests? Are they much different from demos and public appearances?

They’re not that different, but they don’t allow as much spontaneous creativity. At contests you’ve gotta be pretty conservative with what you’re doing. So it retiring wasn’t really just about competing, it was more about the travel. If I was competing, I wouldn’t be here at the interview right now–I’d be in Innsbruck, Austria. I just wanted to have a more free schedule, and I’m lucky enough that I have the means to not have to compete. I don’t have to worry about the prize money or the exposure, necessarily. And it’s what I’ve always kind of wanted to do, skate freely and not have to worry about going to every single contest. But now it’s fun because I get to go skate big exhibitions and pretty much skate the way I want to, session, try stuff over and over, and learn new tricks at my leisure.

You built your career on consistent contest wins. How has stepping away from that changed your perspective?

I think that was just the emphasis at the time. Like I said, you couldn’t really have made a career out of skating if you weren’t competing in the 80s.
Stepping away from it has given me a different source of motivation. Now if I want to do something new, the idea’s not to learn it in order to go to an event and do it. I learn it for my own personal conquest. Personally, I just don’t feel the need for those pressures. Now there’re all these huge events, and I can go do something else if I want to, or I can just go watch. I never really got to watch a contest before. But truthfully, the last event I watched, I was thankful I wasn’t skating it.

With so many contests these days, promoters really have to figure out ways to make it worth skaters’ while to be there. But there are only a handful of guys promoters have to worry about not coming.

If Bob Burnquist, Bucky Lasek, Andy Macdonald, and Colin McKay don’t show up–as far as the viewership’s concerned, they don’t know a whole lot of other names. We’ve never been in that position before, as skaters. When there was the boycott of all the ESPN events right at the beginning in 1995, the names weren’t established. So if one group of skaters didn’t go, it didn’t matter because someone else would show up, and the viewers would come to know other guys. Nothing was established at that time. But now it’s established enough that they could definitely make a stand if they decide that something’s not right.

Do you think they should?

I think in some cases they should, in some particular events especially. The sponsorship is so huge that the prize money really doesn’t reflect that. At the X-Games, the prize money has increased, which is awesome. The Gravity Games made such a huge deal about how big it was, and they made the prize money big enough to say it was the biggest. But it wasn’t that much bigger, it was just enough so they could get that title. That’s a national network. They’re showing skateboarding on the same day as NASCAR, golfing, and all these other sporting events they’re competing with, and the prize money’s a joke compared to these other events.

At some point someone’s gonna have to help the skaters to organize and form a consensus.

I know a couple people trying to form that, but it’s really hard. It’s hard to find unity amongst so many different types of skaters and companies. But also it’s hard because the schedule’s so crazy. How are you gonna get everyone together?

Despite your “retirement,” you seem busier than ever. What’s your schedule like?

It kind of varies, depending on the projects that are happening. In two weeks the ESPN Tony Hawk’s Gigantic Skatepark Tour starts, so I’m on conference calls almost every day–talking to people from programming, the setup, the skaters, the skateparks–just trying to figure out how it’s all gonna work. I have to meet next week with EXPN, who wants to send someone to cover it, as well. This week’s pretty gnarly just because the final edit of the book’s due, and the next video game’s due really soon. It’s a lot of pressure–it’s not like I’m traveling, it takes a lot to do all of that stuff and still spend time with my family. It’s more just a lack of sleep than anything.

You’re getting ready to take off on the Gigantic Skatepark Tour.

Yeah, but that’s not a really heavy schedule, compared to other tours, and it’s got a bigger budget. It’s only three weeks, and it’s split up into three separate weeks. So we go for a week, then we’re off for two, and the demos are every other day. On a Birdhouse tour, it was four to five weeks of demos every single day. This schedule is pretty mellow, but there’s a lot more riding on it because we have to create television programming from it, so we really have got to deliver. But it’s a lot of fun.

You’ve also been getting involved in film and video production.

My friends Morgan Stone, Matt Goodman, and I just started 900 Films. It’ll allow us to do a lot of different projects and not have to worry about going to someone else and saying, “Okay, we want you to produce a video, but we want to make sure it’s good so we have to approve everything every step of the way.” I won’t be involved in every project.

After the skatepark tour you have the book tour.

I have to do a book-signing tour in a few different big cities in August. Actually, August is the heaviest month I’ve had in a long time. Straight from the Gigantic Skatepark tour to the book-signing tour, then straight to the X-Games.

You’ll be there doing commentary?

Yeah. We’re doing some pretty big promotions for the new video game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater II. There’s a high-score contest on the Internet, and the top players from the U.S. win trips to the X-Games to play-off live. The scary thing is, they’re gonna play us, and I suck. That’s the one thing, kids always want to challenge me at Pro Skater. I don’t have as much time to play as they do.

How long can you keep it up?

It’s pretty much a given that summertime is hectic. It just depends on if I can keep skating at this rate. I feel good right now, but definitely there are times when I’m just beat up. There are so many different projects and really exciting things that obviously involve skating and are focused on skating that I feel like doing. I’ll probably do more of that in the future.

In 1993 you were still winning most vert contests, but you took a risk and started Birdhouse with Per Welinder. Skateboarding was by no means the business it is now. Were you confident you could make it under those conditions?

It was definitely a risk, but if there was ever a time to start a company, it was then. It didn’t take as much funding to start a company and to open up distribution and accounts at skate shops. It was also easier to advertise because most of the magazines were hurting for money. It was just easier to be instantly noticed at that time, as a company.

At the time I thought I wasn’t really gonna skate or compete that much anymore and just do the company, so it just seemed like the natural progression. But it was hard. The first two years we were always on the verge of giving up. I ended up borrowing money from my parents to buy video equipment because I thought I could just do that to make ends meet at the time. I did a few videos, made a little money, but never made enough doing that to actually pay back my parents.

What were some of the things you thought you knew going into it that turned out to be very different, or much more difficult?

I think it was more about seeing the overall financial structure of a company, and why skaters never really get paid exorbitant amounts, the way we thought we should. And the fact that there’s so much overhead. When you look at the bottom line, a company makes this much money, but they’re putting out so much that the profit’s not really there, especially with skateboarding because there’s not a lot of profit margin. That’s why skateboards are so expensive–it’s expensive to make them good. You can’t explain that to someone, they actually just have to live it to understand it.

What do you think you did differently from other companies?

I think at the time our focus was on our skaters, and the talents of our skaters, and not on our ability to be sarcastic or witty. At the time there were so many rivalries going on with companies, and if anyone did an ad, it was just about putting down someone else. Our focus was just about our skating, and the positive aspects of the skaters, and not about why we’re so much better than someone else. That was hard because it wasn’t the strong or offensive imagery people would take notice of. So people didn’t really notice the whole thing right away. But eventually people did, and it was really hard in the beginning because we were just kind of there, doing our thing, and people were more focused on
who had the wittiest ad of the month.

So even with your name on it, it took a long time to establish?

When we started Birdhouse, I was really trying to have it not be so focused on me. That’s why I stopped competing, I was just trying to do stuff–I was filming the videos, I was doing all the ads. It wasn’t about me, personally, at all. It was about our whole team and our vibe. It was hard to get noticed, but at the same time we were having a lot of fun because we just did what we wanted. The people who liked it, liked it.

How has your role at the company changed over the years?

It definitely moved from me doing all that stuff to me pretty much just skating. During the first few years of Birdhouse I was still skating. I was always in the videos, and I was learning new stuff. I decided to start competing again because it seemed like fun. I felt if I was still improving my skating, I could justify being in contests. We all came to the realization that if I’m out there skating and promoting Birdhouse, that’s gonna do way more than me being behind the scene doing a bunch of busy work. I loved doing it, and I learned so much–I could edit a video, and I know what it takes to lay out an ad and graphics. It didn’t really matter to me either way, but it was also important for the company that I be out there in the spotlight.

A few years ago you and your family launched Hawk Clothing, which was recently sold to Quiksilver. What’s happening with that, and where do you fit in with all the brands you have a part in?

As far as Birdhouse goes, I’m involved in almost every aspect, at some level, while other companies I just invest in. Hawk Clothing I’m really involved in. We just got the first order since joining Quiksilver, and it’s as much stuff as we previously sold in a year. It’s awesome. It’s doing excellent, and kids are really into it–it’s clothes that they’ve been wanting to wear, but it was never in their sizes.

What do you think were the most significant developments in the sport and industry in the last twenty years?

As far as skating goes, street skating made the whole sport evolve in so many ways, realizing that we could skate anywhere, and what is possible as far as maneuvering the skateboard. Also just the trial and error of all aspects of the companies–what products work, what shapes work, what marketing kids really enjoy. Everything was so new, and it was all pioneered. Now there’s a lot more understanding of what does work, and how to present the sport to mainstream media. No one really knew how to do that. They thought it was like, “Oh, we’ve gotta focus on these crazy hairdos these kids have.” And it’s like, “No, you’ve just gotta focus on the skating.” That’s where it’s come to, people now appreciate the skating.

What do you think that we as an industry should be focused on?

Having some sort of unity as far as what to be involved with and how to present skating as a whole. Obviously you can’t be everywhere all the time, but if there’s something that’s going to affect people’s opinion of it, and there’s an opportunity to sort of direct that, then there’s gotta be some sort of organization that is appointed to get involved.

I think IASC International Association Of Skateboard Companies is a good source of information on skateparks. Any inquiries I get about how to get a skatepark built go straight there. But at the same time, not everyone’s involved there, and they probably should be. I don’t know if IASC can do all the skatepark work, plus trying to determine if the prize money is really worth this event. Also, with the skateboard companies backing the organization, that could be a conflict of interest. But I think the whole skatepark aspect of it is perfect.

You’ve evolved from a pro skater to a company owner to a spokesperson for products and networks. What are some of your as-yet unfulfilled ambitions? And how does skateboarding fit into your future?

I haven’t really set any long-term goals. Now it’s so much easier to get support for a project that it’s fun to think of creative ways to display skating. If you’ve got an idea, there are companies willing to back it. In 1994, if we wanted to build a ramp for the longest jump, or Danny Way’s high-air thing, no one could have afforded it, and no one would have been willing to back it. Now you can call MTV and say, “I want to set the high-air record.” And they’ll say, “All right. What kind of ramp? Where should we put it? How high do you want it? Where’s Tim Payne?” And the fact that we have that much support opens up so many opportunities and allows us to do what we do better instead of having to scramble to find sponsors willing to do a project.

Before, when we’d do a TV commercial, they’d say, “Okay, you guys are gonna do a wallride on this truck in the street, because that’s the concept for the ad.” And now they come to us and ask, “What should we show?” The Sprite commercial shows Rodney Mullen doing a darkslide. It’s unheard of that they would actually ask for that kind of creative guidance. I think that really shows how far we’ve come, and how much people appreciate the talents of the skaters, instead of just the culture of it.

You recently created the Tony Hawk Foundation, which raised money for the Encinitas YMCA vert ramp. What else do you hope to do with the organization?

We’re gonna select a variety of charities, and raise money for them. Mostly it’ll be stuff that benefits kids–we’re trying to raise money to buy helmets, and we’ll do stuff with Make-A-Wish. We’ll hold fundraising events, use the Web sites, and find a lot of bigger companies that want to be associated with what we’re doing. The first thing we did was to buy a chest plate for a kid who has heart problems. He wanted to keep skating, but he couldn’t afford to hit his chest. The chest plate allows him to be active.

I heard your son Riley’s doing kickflips over the hip at the YMCA skatepark, and he’s only seven. Knowing what you know about the industry and the life of a pro, are you concerned?

I don’t know. His goals aren’t to be sponsored and be professional, so I take that as a good sign–that he’s actually just enjoying it instead of doing it because he thinks there’s some great quest or career in it. I’m not too worried about it, but it is amazing that he’s seven and has learned kickflips. I didn’t even start skating until I was ten, and kickflips weren’t invented until I was fourteen. So I just can’t imagine what it’s gonna be like for him.

When do you suppose you’ll sit down to write your next book? And what do you suppose you’ll be writing about?

I can’t think that far ahead. If Riley continues on this path, I’ll be writing a book about him. No, I don’t know.