The Dogtown pioneer and legendary artist has one eye on the future. And he’s ready for the day the lights go out.
Craig Stecyk is a tall, gangly man of cartoonish proportions. He speaks in dense prose, as though he’s just memorised an entire countercultural encyclopaedia and is now regurgitating its cryptic text, line for line, without a hitch. It’s the voice of a historian. Having spent the best part of four decades documenting the ebb and flow of Californian skate history – as a writer, photographer, filmmaker and artist – C.R. Stecyk III boasts bylines aplenty. He co-foundedZephyr Surfboards and Skateboards, co-wrote Dogtown And Z-Boys, and has participated in over 300 international art shows. But everything to this point comes naturally, he says.
“You’re drawing lines when you’re skating,” says Stecyk. “You’re applying a certain cognitive structure to skating a five-block stretch. You’re constantly redefining what your trajectory will be, redefining your goals, and figuring it out all the way through. You’re making conscious decisions, and those are aesthetic decisions. So, I think the rest of the art world comes naturally to [skateboarders].”
As one of skateboarding’s original documentarians, Stecyk helped chronicle its beginnings, capturing the antics of pioneers like Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva and Jay Adams in photos and words – known as the ’Dogtown Articles’ – for Skateboarder magazine in the mid-to-late 1970s. His gonzo journalistic style, brutally honest yet wildly aggressive in spirit and tone, pushed skateboarding away from its all-American, beachfront roots into a counterculture that embraced rebellion and danger — a lifestyle suited to misfits and fuck-ups. While his contemporaries opted for corny Endless Summer beach scenes, Stecyk’s board graphics – all skulls and bones and gothic crosses – cemented an outlaw aesthetic that still resonates today. In fact, a surfboard hand-shaped and painted by Stecyk himself even resides in the Smithsonian’s permanent archive.
It’s a balmy February eve and we’re chatting in a peripheral building at Hurley’s headquarters in Costa Mesa, California, before the global premiere of Stecyk’s new short film FIN. The makeshift theatre is adorned with red plastic milk crates, some of which hang from the ceiling re-purposed as chandeliers, with the rest flipped upside down to provide seating of questionable comfort. It seems only fitting that a man who helped build the West Coast DIY skate-surf-punk aesthetic will see his project premiere in a cobbled-together space.
But what does he make of hosting a premiere at a brand’s HQ — presumably the unholy belly of the beast for do-it-alone purists, and one that will no doubt profit from his sweat? “I’ve never felt particularly compromised or conflicted,” Stecyk says. “People will offer to support or underwrite something like this – how they don’t charge admission, I don’t understand. Hurley has built this theatre just to endow a principle or an experiment. And I suppose that they benefit as a brand because they get to see what people are doing. But I wouldn’t see any conflict in that.”
That ‘experiment’ – a seven-minute opus of minimal plot line and maximum experimentalism – is as convoluted as Stecyk’s tongue. With a mission statement to ‘investigate artisan garage culture’ and ‘offer insights into an assortment of individuals who incorporate traditional do-it-yourself garaged methodology into differing pursuits’,FIN sees Stecyk embarking on vague misadventures with some motorcycle-fixing, board-shaping friends. It’s a ‘day in the life’ of sorts.
Tonight, draped in a loose, nondescript jacket topped off with a plain baseball cap, the sixty-one-year-old filmmaker looks more like an anonymous middle-aged dad stumbling about the crowd than an icon tied to the myth of Dogtown. But that’s just the way he likes it. “You’ve gotta keep going forward, because it’s impossible to go backwards,” says Stecyk, about the myriad forms his work has taken since those early skate days – from commercial collaborations with Roland Sands motorcycles, to directing photography on a video documenting MoCA’s recent Art In The Streets show. “Appreciating the past and understanding what came up until this point is extremely important. You can learn how things didn’t work before – you can incorporate those, draft and go forward – but trying to replicate the past would be folly. You’re doomed to live in the future, whether you like it or not.”
Growing up in Santa Monica in the 1950s, Stecyk’s skateboarding initiation set the tone for things to come. “I started skateboarding in probably 1957-58,” he recalls. “The front of my two-by-four fruit box wooden crate scooter came off, and there I was stuck in that eureka moment, going downhill.” Although he makes it clear he doesn’t consider anything he does ‘art’, Stecyk says he approaches all his projects with that same spontaneity – whether he’s creating surfboard graphics for Joel Tudor, silk-screening posters for Hurley, or working in film. “I’m excited by stuff where I have no idea how it’s going to turn out,” he explains. “So, making this film was interesting because I had no idea what the content was, or who the next person involved would be. Not knowing where it’s going to go and how it’s going to turn out is the interesting part… The best time of my day is when I wake up in the morning and I don’t know where I am. I’m fascinated, like, ‘Wow, what’s this?’ And then you go forward from there.”
Kustom Kulture hot-rodder Von Dutch, surfboard shaper Tyler Hatzikian and Social Distortion’s energetic frontman Mike Ness all pop up in FIN to show us around their self-made worlds, which revolve largely around the home garage. Over the years, the garage has served as an improvised studio for creative experimentation. Whether it’s building custom choppers, crafting punk rock albums, shaping boards, or screen-printing tees, many of America’s most revered art forms can be traced back to that carbon monoxide-infested space. And while the garage artisans featured in his film come from diverse disciplines, Stecyk sees a commonality in their roots.
“It’s fun to have to make spontaneous decisions that matter,” he says. “To a certain extent it’s motivational. Especially if you’ve got a steep learning curve [ahead of you] – it inspires you to innovate if there are real consequences involved. Which is one of the reasons why surfing or skateboarding or riding motorcycles or going fast in vehicles – responsibly – is so inspiring. Take the biggest hill in your town: you try to draw a good line on it and you get schooled real quick if you don’t have a good exit strategy. The bottom line is you can screw yourself up real bad, but it also teaches you to take care of other people, because you have a certain responsibility. You can choose to jump off a cliff, but make sure there’s nobody at the bottom because you might take somebody out through your lack of planning.”
Suddenly Stecyk’s phone rings. He pulls it out, silences it, and then tucks it back into the pocket of his baggy blue jeans. I can’t help but wonder how he engages with technology, especially as Editor-At-Large of Juxtapoz, a leading art magazine championing self-taught talent.
Has technology shifted the rules of DIY, by changing how artists get their work out into the world?
“I think the best thing about living now is that the media’s completely controlled by the individual,” he says. “Any person with a phone can make a movie and you can edit it on a tabletop, and you can download it and link to it and several million people can see it in twenty-four hours time. This is the only time in history that’s been possible. It used to be the technologically elite who had access to it, but now everybody has an equal playing field. And we all profit because we can participate in these peoples’ endeavours. Twenty years ago, ten years ago, even twenty months ago, we wouldn’t have known that these guys even existed or were doing that.
“I like watching that sort of trickle-down effect of technology,” he adds, “seeing all the people who are able to make some sort of amazing post-media, post-network statement. [There are] a lot of unaligned people making great content right now, and that’s the artwork of the moment. It’s not about rethinking Renaissance painting, although that’s an aspect of it. And it’s not about making shiny, large bobbles to sit outside public buildings.”
And what about the future? In 2012, the prophetic year of the Mayan apocalypse, it feels apt to ask: is our obsession with technology destroying our capacity to make real-world stuff? More importantly, will tomorrow’s kids still turn old fruit boxes into something they can skate? “When the big power failure comes we’ll get to adapt and improvise,” Stecyk says cheerfully, as if he’s waiting for the day the lights go out. “That will probably be the peak of western civilisation. I think all the innovation that comes out of re-contextualising, reworking and reimagining [without resources we take for granted] will be the apex of whatever civilisation it is, whether it’s ‘western’ or otherwise.”
And with that Stecyk diligently shakes my hand, before hurriedly shuffling toward the theatre’s backroom. You get the distinct impression that he’s already thinking about what comes next. “Ideally you’re always evolving,” he says before he leaves. “If you’re lucky enough to be around talented people, they raise the bar constantly. That forces you to progress and go forward. Stewing in your own juices would be a particular kind of hell.”