With a series of mainstream brand endorsements, Tony Hawk is easily the most famous skateboarder of all time. Here he reminds us that, fame and fortune aside, skateboarding is still his number one priority.
Interviewing Tony Hawk is a task much too important for a lowly, late-sleeping writer like myself. I mean, this is Tony Hawk we’re talking about, the guy that as a kid I wholeheartedly believed to be the second coming of the good lord himself, the man who single-handedly changed skateboarding by breaking down any and every existing boundary practically every time he’s stepped on a board.
Don’t believe me? Just take a glance at Tony’s list of invented tricks. His glossary of vert staples includes the Madonna, the rodeo flip, the airwalk, the kickflip mctwist, the 720 and, of course, the door-opening, internationally televised 900, amongst others. Tony has gone above and beyond what you’d expect from an average pro. With a revolutionary video game to his name, a slew of TV and movie appearances on his resume, immeasurable products named in his likeness, two full hands worth of companies under his ownership, a wife and three kids, and even his own weekly radio show, 38-year-old Hawk still manages to find time to do what he loves most of all: ride a skateboard.
But my doubts about my being a worthy scribe for this story have little time to manifest. Before I know what the hell is taking place, I find myself deep in conversation with Hawk as he traverses the streets of Carlsbad en route to pick up his kids from school.
Despite having been a prominent figure in skateboarding since the early eighties, it wasn’t until almost twenty years later that Tony’s life took a strange and virtually unexpected turn one regular summer’s day in San Francisco.
It was the 1999 X Games and skateboarding was in a steady balanced lull. It wasn’t quite dead, as it had been in years gone by, but it sure as hell wasn’t big either. During the ‘best trick’ contest, Tony Hawk began attempting the previously uncompleted 900 in front of 268,390 attending fans, not including the thousands upon thousands of vegetables watching each attempt from their living room sofas. On his eleventh attempt, Tony rode back down the transition, having just landed the first ever 900.
Skateboarders were psyched and tearfully proud, but America, oh America, was beside itself with a newfound giddiness for its /favourite/ ‘sport’, skateboarding. And in one exploding instant, Tony Hawk was thrust into mainstream stardom as the quintessential living, breathing skateboarder – and, in the limited view of the public, the only skater that mattered. Some even believed Tony to be the first skateboarder ever. Huh?
“It was a strange event,” says Tony about that evening in ‘99. “It was weird because there wasn’t some big [televised] celebration when I landed a 720 on this remote ramp in Sweden. All of a sudden there was this public forum [for skateboarding].” Suddenly, Tony was mysteriously given the unofficial, but indisputable, title of lone spokesperson for skateboarders around the globe — the sole figure who was to represent skateboarding in all its entirety.
But despite Tony’s outstanding accomplishments in skating and his long road to worldwide recognition, he quickly became the subject of criticism from skateboarders everywhere who unsympathetically believed that he had, in fact, ‘sold the fuck out’. Skater disapproval for Tony’s public ventures transformed into downright condemnation as Mr. Hawk continued to make more than one mainstream media appearance with skateboard in hand.
Aside from the god-like bout of fame and mainstream recognition that surrounded him, Tony understandably was far from comfortable with the public’s newfound vision of him as the quintessential skateboarder: “I never put a title upon myself or decided that that’s what I wanted to do with my life. It sort of fell on me and to be fair, I [still] try to explain to people, ‘Look, I’m just one skater, I’m mostly a vert skater’. Skateboarding is too diverse to say that one person is the icon for it.”
There’s no doubt that he has been handed an enormous amount of responsibility. But rather than succumb to the pressure, criticism, false impressions, silly media inquiries and dick-swinging paparazzi, Tony has accepted his fate with a great sense of duty and pride. “I’m happy to speak on behalf of the positive benefits of skateboarding,” he says.
Though many skaters may feel detached from the Tony Hawk portrayed between after-school cartoons, or the pixilated version that performs tricks with the click of a wireless controller, Tony knows he will forever be tied to the heart of skating — mainly because that’s just what he does. The truth is: Tony just might skate more than all the naysayers who have criticised his career choices over the years. He rides vert at least three times a week and rides his backyard park every other day, most of the time with his son, Riley.
“I feel like I’m always tied to the core of skating because I’m out there every day. I never feel like I left the reason why I started skating in the first place and, to be honest, if I’m involved in some kind of mainstream aspect — whether it’s a sponsorship or a commercial on national TV — I make sure that I have final approval over what goes on and that I represent skateboarding well,” says Tony before admitting that in the past his inability to have ‘final say’ in a project may have compromised his ultimate vision.
With Tony’s rising popularity in the mainstream, he’s been grated the power to ensure that his televised skating is done right, much in the manner that top Hollywood directors have the final cut of their film. “If nothing else, I’m using their marketing dollars to promote skateboarding in general, you know what I mean? It’s not about necessarily selling their product as much as it is about promoting skating and showing it to an audience that has maybe never seen it before,” says Hawk, adding that these days he only takes on a project if it will be “fun and represent skating well”.
Tony mentions a recent commercial he did for Jeep as a perfect example of a nationally broadcast skate commercial done well: “From the idea, to the production and basically through to the final version, me and a couple of guys made the thing as legit as possible. And it seems to me that it’s probably the best skating in a commercial that anyone’s ever done.”
The TV spot features a couple of amateurs from Tony’s skate company, Birdhouse, skating a giant rail. After they land their tricks, Tony boardslides the rail with the Jeep Wrangler he’s driving. The vehicle dismounts the rail and bounces awkwardly with its landing, before Tony playfully shouts, “This thing’s got pop!” As one of the harshest critics of all things skateboarding related and someone who has, admittedly, questioned Tony’s public portrayal of skating, I personally loved the commercial. Hell, I even laughed out loud at the damn thing.
On the flipside of rational criticism, Tony has also received an unbelievable amount of shit from the truly misinformed. “When the video game became successful, kids that just started skating were like, ‘Who is this guy? He does the 900 and all of a sudden he’s got a video game.’ It’s hard to explain I’ve been around twenty years prior to this. That’s my whole deal, I got lucky, I was the first one to do a 900 and that was it,” he explains. Even more bizarre is the popular belief that Tony only exists as a video game character. Tony laughs off the ridiculous notion: “I don’t mind, because I’m proud of the video game and how I’m represented in it. If you want to research who I am, feel free because I’ve been here for a while.”
With skateboarding being so prominent in the mainstream, longtime skaters, including myself, often wish for the spotlight to quickly dim and leave skating where it once was: underground and seemingly more special to the ones who practiced it. But many are quick to forget that skating’s popularity has a positive fallout. For one, skateparks around the globe have popped up like hopping bunnies, giving skaters everywhere a hassle-free alternative from street skating.
And as I write these words sipping fine wine and aged cheeses, I am reminded that this rise in skate culture recognition is also paying my bills. It’s given people like myself the chance to make a living working in the industry. “The public opinion of skateboarding helps people who have devoted their lives to it, who would have nothing to show for it otherwise,” says Tony. “The people that have wanted to compete in skating or be in the industry or skate for a living, suddenly they’re able to do that because there is more interest and appreciation for it.”
As far as the televised version of skateboarding goes, it has (undoubtedly) gotten kids skating who would have never stepped on a board otherwise. “A lot of kids tell me they started skating because they started playing the video game or they saw the 900 on ESPN. That’s a huge honour for me, to inspire kids to get out there and learn to skate,” says Tony.
Critics who accuse Tony of selling out on account of his crispy-clean image forget that he has lived through skating’s grimiest, punkest years. “I grew up with skate culture and punk rock and people looking different and I’ve always embraced that because I felt it was a matter of being yourself and being an individual,” says Hawk. “I remember when I was a kid in school trying to explain the Dead Kennedy’s and nobody got it. It was too different and scary for people. And then I found this culture that identified with it. They appreciated diversity and we all came together because we liked skating.”
But what about skating’s original DIY, punk and anti-social ethos? “There’s still so many kids that sneak into schoolyards and skate public handrails just to claim that photo or that trick. That’s still very much part of our culture. It’s not like everyone is skating skateparks and confined in suits. There’s definitely a side [of skating] that might be diluted, but there’s still a faction that do it because it sets them apart, because it’s different.”
For a moment Tony excuses himself. I can hear the voice of a child. It’s Tony’s son, Riley. Tony apologises and returns to tell me about some future projects, including his multi-genre Boom Boom Huckjam tour, his weekly radio show on SIRIUS with Jason Ellis and Jesse Fritch, the many goals of the Tony Hawk Foundation, which help build skateparks in cities across the US, his insanely popular video game, the upcoming Birdhouse video that’s reaching for a 2007 release, his Hawk clothing brand and what it’s like watching his son skate better than he does.
For a moment I ponder the piled-high plate that is Tony’s life and before I let him go, I have to ask him how on earth he finds time to do so much all at once. Tony pauses for what seems like forever, then says: “It’s hard to have already been there and all of a sudden it’s /this/ much bigger and there’s /this/ many more opportunities. I’m trying to raise a family and trying to prioritise time. It’s tough. But I can’t complain because I’m here.”
He pauses once again before finishing his thought: “My job description above everything else still reads, ‘Pro Skater’. That is what I do for a living and that’s what I’m most proud of.”
And with that, we say our good-byes and he’s off. I sit still for a moment and try to pinpoint a flaw in something Tony had just said. But I can’t. Despite all of the fame, money, accomplishment and vast criticism, Tony still is and always will be just like us: a skateboarder.