The maths geek turned pioneer of modern skateboarding.
Disposable heroes are made every day, but true pioneers come along once a generation. In the world of modern skateboarding, that man is Rodney Mullen - a self-confessed maths geek who changed the course of history with the tricks he invented in the dead of night. In an exclusive interview, the standalone intellect opens up about his troubled childhood, battles with anorexia and boundless fascination with the physics of our universe.
At forty-three, Rodney Mullen isn’t just another veteran pro on another skate shop tour. In a world dominated by one-dimensional poster boys, this pioneering innovator is about as multi-dimensional as it gets. He’s a prodigal skateboarder who single-handedly invented the staple tricks in every pro’s arsenal (something he claims makes him “feel connected to others somehow”); a businessman behind such seminal companies as World Industries; a self-confessed socially awkward maths geek who chose the life of a pro skateboarder over a maths and bioengineering degree; and a former-anorexic prone to bouts of suicidal depression who grew up in a Florida farmhouse under his father’s strict hand. He may well be one, or some, or all of these people. But right now, amid his duties for long-time sponsor Globe, he’s just a guy in need of caffeine after a long transatlantic flight.
John Rodney Mullen was born in Gainesville, Florida, in 1966 but the real birth of the man that Rodney is today can be traced back to New Year’s Day, 1977. In the spirit of the season, his father agreed to let him have a skateboard, but added a caveat: Rodney had to promise to wear a helmet and pads, and would have to stop when he finished high school or if he got seriously injured.
“If there’s anything that would characterise my skating, aside from being low orbit and wimpy, it would be that I would always have to fight to hold on to it,” says Rodney of this cast-iron mould placed on his character. “So I still hold skating so close to me with a huge fear of having to give it up.” It was this fear of getting hurt and losing the sport he loved that pushed Rodney to obsessively practise tricks alone in the parking lot of his local haunt, Inland Surf Shop.
After owning a skateboard for just over a year, he was taken to a contest by Inland, his first sponsor, who had entered him without him knowing. Waiting in the wings, little Rodney was unexpectedly called on to perform. Not wanting “to look like an idiot”, he did his routine and won. Freestyle contests were very much the norm for young skaters at the time and, with his mastery of flatland tricks, Rodney was no exception. By 1980, he was winning contests throughout Florida and had caught the eye of local Powell-Peralta Bones Brigade member Tim Scroggs. Later that year, team manager Stacy Peralta called up the Mullen household requesting that young Rodney fly out to California to compete. After another victory, he was signed on as a fully-fledged member of the legendary team. The rest of Rodney’s high-school days were spent studying hard during the week, and touring as a child skate celebrity at demos at the weekends – doing something he calls “a little dog show for me, running around and doing my routine”.
As Rodney’s skating developed, he didn’t just learn new tricks – he invented his own. In 1981, he took the basic mechanics of a halfpipe ollie and transferred the trick to flat ground, inventing a manoeuvre that would change the course of skateboarding history. As veteran pro and former Bones Brigade teammate Mike Vallely says, “The birth of modern skating starts with Rodney Mullen. The flatland ollie is the beginning of everything.” Over the following years, more tricks went from being a figment of Rodney’s imagination and a spin of his homemade fingerboard to staples of every skater’s repertoire: the kickflip, heelflip, 360 flip, fingerflips, underflips – even switch stance skateboarding was all Rodney’s doing. Mark Gonzales, a street skating pioneer in his own right, goes so far as to describe Mullen’s influence as “probably one of the biggest on street skating”.
After finishing high school with excellent grades and dominating the freestyle scene, Rodney moved away from home to study biomedical engineering and maths at the University of Florida. But in his fourth year, the pressure of family relations, studying and touring began to take its toll. After being pestered by his “only friend” Steve Rocco to move to California and invest in his fledging skate company, World Industries, Rodney finally took up the offer, wrote Rocco a cheque and left Florida behind. Following some hostility at his involvement in this trouble-making new company, he left Powell Peralta to fully commit to World. With Steve as the anarchic visionary and Marc McKee churning out antagonistic board graphics, the company picked fights with the establishment and pissed off many in the skate industry. It also became a powerhouse: a symbol of youth, rebellion and core skate culture, boasting an impressive roster of skaters including Mark Gonzales, Jason Lee and Mike Vallely. Ever loyal to Rocco, Rodney simply describes his role as the “glue that held things together” and that he “stopped a lot of bad things from happening”.
But by the late eighties, the skate world was changing. Lawsuits were shutting down skate parks and freestyle was going out of fashion. Many at Powell and even Rocco himself tried and failed to persuade Rodney to abandon this dying flatland art. But never one to follow the crowd, Rodney refused, dismissing the general consensus as “too concocted, too manipulated” by the desire for more board sales. Then, by way of a one-dollar bet with Steve Rocco, Plan B Skateboards founder Mike Ternasky took it upon himself to get Rodney into street. By tapping into Rodney’s complex psyche, Mike helped Rodney film his part for the 1992 video Questionable. After a resounding cheer at its premiere – and having won thirty-four out of thirty-five freestyle contests over his career – Rodney was now a street skater.
In the years that followed, Rodney applied his business acumen to a string of new ventures – the A-Team, Enjoi, Almost to name a few – and used his engineering know-how to develop new products like Tensor Trucks and Uber Light Technology skate decks. As well as pushing the evolution of performance hard goods, he also made a few bucks along the way, selling World Industries in the late nineties, with the final share changing hands in 2003. But this cautious multi-millionaire shuns the “bling culture” of modern skateboarding, feeling more at home in a parking lot alone at 1am – his green Toyota parked a few blocks away so as to “blend in” with the homeless locals in his hometown of Hermosa Beach.
The day after the signing, a refreshed looking Rodney arrives at London’s Bay Sixty6 skate park in Ladbroke Grove. He’s already signed a stack of autographs on the way in, and appears to be benefiting from a good night’s sleep. “I think I’m just going to chill now,” he says in his Floridian drawl, rounding off each sentence with a slightly nervous lilt. As his Globe teammates charge off to skate transitions, Rodney simply rolls into the middle of a wide, shallow ramp. Arms delicately poised right down to his fingertips, he immediately falls into a natural rhythm – an unmistakable flow and focus that seeps through every subtly refined movement. He spins, manuals and flips the board with gentle grace and flair as if his bodyweight were near zero. It’s a precision as technical as it is creative – a product of three decades of fear of failure and commitment to perfection.
This impromptu session doesn’t last long. The gates are flung open and the fans swarm in. Within minutes, Rodney is consumed in a hive of bodies yet still exudes a gentle warmth and an almost presidential ability to interact with the public, sharing tips on heelflips with enthusiastic groms less than half his size.
“It trips me out that people are so good to me,” Rodney tells me later, as we seek shelter in a grubby games room housed beneath the quarterpipe. Despite his apparent enthusiasm for the meet-and-greets, he appears relieved to be away from the throng. Overhead, the crack of urethane on wood cuts through Rodney’s soft and obliging voice. I can feel my mind racing with all the things I’ve heard. “Peculiar” and “super-intelligent” are some of the words thrown my way in the past hour in reference to Rodney – alongside mutterings of his straight-laced nature and detailed knowledge of the Russian alphabet, too.
It seems difficult to match the Rodney sat before me to the character painted in his autobiography, The Mutt: an awkward outsider riddled with self-doubt and occasional bouts of suicidal depression. Perhaps maturity, marriage or money in the bank has been a mellowing force. But hints of an inner discomfort – the burden of deep thinking – still surface now and then: when he picks up his skateboard and lays it across his lap, gripping the wheels with an adolescent unease; or when his voice seems to break at any mention of the past.
But if there’s one thing about Rodney that already rings true, it’s his sheer intelligence and untainted humility: his ability to contextualise and critically assess his place in skateboarding and the wider world – and a reluctance to claim what is rightfully his.
It may seem hyperbolic to call him a hero, but in the eyes of so many, that’s exactly what he is. In a world saturated by false deities, Rodney’s earned his place in history because of the things he’s said and done. Regular guy or legend, one thing’s for sure: few people have had as big an influence on modern skateboarding as the man they call The King.
A kid outside just called you his hero. How do you deal with being placed on such a pedestal?
I just skate, nothing more than that. So when people say I’m their hero, I think if only they knew that I’m nothing more than just a bit more skating than them. I go through phases where I feel like a fraud but in the end you just accept it at face value. They are just really glad to meet me, the best I can do is show them that I’m normal. I always appreciate it because I used to think it was going to end any day soon. What bums me out is when I see guys who carry themselves like they’re better than everyone else. I think, ‘Dude, you’re a fraud like me.’
Has your attitude to meeting fans changed over the years?
When I was young and coming out of a dysfunctional family, all I had was skateboarding. Suddenly I’m being flown around the world and people are asking me for my autograph and I had no idea what to make of that. I was always grateful for it but more so terrified, it was so foreign. I was twelve years old but in my mind, I was more like an eight year old. I remember physically throwing the pen saying, ‘I’m no different than any of you, I just want to skate with you’ and running away.
Did the attention make you feel validated?
No, it just made me crazy. I was just a messed-up kid. Things around the house were pretty weird sometimes. So when I flew to California, I was just some little hick kid. I didn’t really relate to anybody, I didn’t talk to anybody. I just didn’t want to fail – I was afraid to lose. That’s what it boiled down to. I was so in my own world. I didn’t feel connected to any part of skateboarding. I just thought, ‘When you get back on that plane to come home, don’t let him think you are a loser.’
I understand you suffered from depression around that time…
Well, it was how I grew up, household circumstances. I was just disorientated because skating was the only thing that kind of gave me a voice and I felt connected to – something that was part of me. I had a way to express myself that was unique. Everyone’s got to have their thing, right? And I found it in skateboarding. As I got older, I started to mature and got a better picture that other people and families aren’t like this. People make fame and being popular into a big thing and you realise there’s nothing there. That doesn’t answer any questions. It’s sort of a letdown. Your loneliest day is getting everything you thought you wanted and realising that it didn’t make any difference at all. There were a lot of issues at the time and I’ve always had pretty heavy existential struggles.
Was anorexia a part of that?
My sister went through it, from the nature of how the family was. I can’t explain it after seeing what happened to my sister. She was legit, the real thing, she was wasting away to nothing to the point that they were afraid she was going to die. I didn’t carry it as far as she did but I definitely carried it. In a way, it’s some form of getting control over your life. It’s the only thing you could control. It was a manifestation of what was going on inside our house.
After your days of freestyle and touring, you went into street skating. Did you feel like you had to consciously change your style when you made the transition?
That was embarrassing, man. I changed the way I approached my tricks, but you can’t really change your style. You can just evolve into what you are doing. With freestyle, you aren’t skating any obstacles so you never look up and you barely roll. When I started street skating, it was ridiculous. There was a huge learning curve. I would be constantly ploughing into things like I was blind. I wasn’t used to judging timing and speed. I was already known for being a pro so people thought I would be really great. I sucked at street. It was so hard because I was terrified to even practise in public, but Mike Ternasky tapped into the fact that skateboarding defined me. Filming with Mike for Questionable - he took it seriously, feeding you protein powder in the morning, like Rocky. When I got into it, I knew I was committed so I knew I couldn’t look stupid when the video came out. On the night of the premiere, I sat next to him. The crowd cheered at my casper slide and he put his arm around me and said, ‘This is where it starts. This is the beginning.’ That was like a starter pistol to me.
Do you regret the demise of freestyle?
No, not at all. I regret that I was too stuck in my ways to leave freestyle when Powell asked me to. It felt too corporate, too money-motivated. I didn’t look at [street skating] like it was just a natural evolution of where freestyle was going. Jake Phelps from Thrasher asked me how it felt to be the founder of modern street skating, that’s as legit as it gets. It makes me uncomfortable, but at the same time I think that just means that everything I was doing in freestyle – that I made up – evolved into street skating. It was just the groundwork. It was a natural progression of where it was meant to go.
Watching you skate just then, you seem to have this natural rhythm and focus. Where does that come from?
There is rhythm everywhere and I’m not conscious of it – I’m just doing it… I think a lot and skate in isolation so that it doesn’t break my internal rhythm. When people skate in social circumstances, there is broken rhythm. At skate parks you can skate more, but the flipside is, when everyone else is at skate parks, you feel self-conscious and just do the same things over and over. It’s less intuitive – you’re just training robotically. It’s not such an interior reflection of you.
I understand you used to time your skate sessions with a stopwatch for exactly two hours. What was the idea behind such self-discipline?
It’s not because I’m so structured that I have to be this way or that way, or that I’ve got to be better. That’s a huge part of it but the whole time thing, it’s more representative of ‘don’t be weak’. That’s how I look at it. It may be overstated but that’s a lot of who I am and what I expect from myself. Like, on a rainy day, or when you feel tired or a little bit sick, the guys I respect are the ones who go out and do it anyway. Not because I think I will get better – it’s just a commitment to what’s made me. Skateboarding helped me discover who I was and become who I always wanted to be. Just free. The time stuff is just a commitment to that.
Were the tricks you invented the product of a conscious decision to be innovative – or were they happy accidents that just happened as you skated?
I tell the story of the kickflip all the time because I feel uncomfortable with people saying I’m so creative. It’s not that. With the kickflip, I just learned flatland ollies and was getting them pretty high. I spazzed out on one and kicked it away from me, it flipped perfectly and landed on its wheels. That was a total accident, but it was a cornerstone of skateboarding. But the truth is I think about it all the time. What I want to do, what I want to do to make it different. The thrill is in the chase. Just doing what I know how to do, that’s not really fun. I think about it constantly, you know? My wife often says, ‘What are you doing with the fork, honey?’
Do you think your interest in science and maths has helped you master the physics of skateboarding?
Well, you definitely don’t need to know any science to do what I’m doing. For example, Daewon [Song] has a fantastic sense of physics, the subtleties of pressure and stuff, he is a master but he’s not going to sit down and talk any physics with you. It’s mechanical, but some people just do it intuitively. Ronnie Creager, he does textbook nollie hardflips but I don’t think he knows what he’s doing. It just happens somehow. I’m not like that. I think it through. Yeah, I’m analytical about it but everyone has different approaches and that’s just my process.
Is that one of the reasons why you like to skate alone – so that you can focus in on that analytical approach?
It’s a lot of things with me. I think it’s the way I grew up. My time alone – it’s been my voice. I talk to myself like crazy so firstly it’s embarrassing for me to skate with other people. But mostly, it’s always been that time when I felt most like me. I love skating with other people but that’s not something I’m going to do all the time. It’s just a treat when I do it.
What is it about maths that you find so fascinating?
There are a lot of things. I don’t want to sound pompous but it’s a language that we use to describe nature. The greatest minds in the world do their best to articulate what nature does using this language. Even at an early age, I couldn’t understand exactly what that all meant but I got what it was all about. I’ve always been drawn to the system of it – how coherent it is, how much it intertwines. It is an edifice. It’s woven like a beautiful language – and it’s eternal. It sounds corny but I’ve always had a profound sense that there is a God out there who made everything. I can understand it better and it helps me see the beauty in things. As with skateboarding, we are creating a language, an art form out of nothing. We get booted out of places – I was told not to skateboard because I would turn into a bum – but what we are doing is harder, and gnarlier, and more real than what we see on most sports channels with guy’s making millions of dollars. Ultimately, that makes us rich. This has always resonated with me, this is why we are alive. I want to look around and have that sense of marvel. To understand that things are a little bit more complicated than they told me in high school. The fact that there is rhyme and reason to the universe gives me significance as a person. Even if I die with nothing, I’m richer than most people around because I’ve paid attention to that stuff.
Do you see yourself as a creative person or a logical thinker? Split-brain theory suggests we’re either dominated by the left side of the brain or the right – right-brain thinkers being lovers of logic, physics and maths, while left-brainers are more creative, emotional types. What do you make of all that?
Well, that sort of segmented thinking is detrimental to us all. That’s just part of the natural balance of the corpus callosum between the two hemispheres of the brain. Without the other side, you are nothing. I remember being in maths and people used to poke fun at girls because girls for the most part aren’t that good at maths. All guys have jokes about the logic of women. But talk to a woman – get a wife and you’ll think, ‘Oh my gosh, how come she is always so right about stuff and I’m not? Yet I’m ten times more analytical than she is.’ Obviously these things take more than being analytical and, likewise, anyone who has done proofs in mathematics and can read those things, there is a majesty of creativity in these proofs that is stunning, that only mathematicians are privy to. I’ve devoted thousands of hours to being able to read some of these proofs so I have the same appreciation of the beauty in some of these equations. There is a synergy between the two sides of the brain, that’s how and why we are built. A unity of diversity, bringing many into one.
So do you approach your skating in a very non-linear way?
It’s a good word to describe it but holistic is better, and synergistic even better. The totality of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In your autobiography, you thank Jesus. What role does religion play in your life?
My wife says people don’t know you until they know all your thoughts about God. The term religion bums me out. I can’t go to church, I’ve got issues. I’ve got issues of non-conformity built into me. Suddenly, when I’m in a group, I feel uncomfortable. Period. I get terrified of talking about it because suddenly I’m the kook telling people they’re going to hell. I hate that crap. It’s a personal thing and I get so scared about talking about it in public. This guy at HBO once said to me, ‘Your skating is like a prayer.’ That was the coolest thing anyone’s ever said to me. That’s what it is for me.
You say you have issues of non-conformity…
I’m not sitting here with a Mohawk claiming to be some crazy non-conformist punk guy. But yes, I am to fault. I have problems fitting in. I’m a complete owl. I go to sleep when the sun comes up. I’m out of step even if I try not to be. That’s detriment to me, that’s detriment to my wife. It hurts me in my social interactions. But it’s a blessing. I’m not trying to say that makes me better – saying that just makes me sound like a kook. I’m not comfortable doing what other people are doing because that’s taking away part of my identity. That has always been my case with skateboarding. I look at magazines where other pros reel out their favourite pros and I’m not there because, really, I don’t fit into skateboarding. How do you think I feel to give my life to something when I’m not really part of it? It doesn’t feel good. But what do I expect? I skate like a goofball. I could do the things people do on videos, but the moment I try, I can’t get into it because it’s not me. There’s no point. I get joy when I‘m doing what other people aren’t doing. Expressing myself the way other people don’t.
You’ve seen skateboarding go through so many changes. What do you make of the current state of skateboarding today?
Skating is one of the greatest blessings I could have. It’s been with me longer than any friend I’ve had and I hold onto that. It’s the most precious thing to me, so when I look at other skaters, I know that to get to where they are, they have to love it like I do. However, nowadays big stuff makes great photos. So if you look at how pros skate in the magazines, that’s not how they skate everyday. It’s a misrepresentation. It leads people to believe that is normal. I mean, how can that not diminish your career lifespan by skating like that? By doing those things, it ultimately takes away what is most precious to you. So I think it is unhealthy and uncool… I see great skaters and their ankles and knees are ruined. They become ashamed that skating got taken away from them before their time. So in that way, I can be critical of the hype because it takes away what is most precious. Skateboarding is such a gift. But I still love to watch these stunts, I get so stoked. It’s a hare and the tortoise thing. The hare is going to end up bummed out. I look at so many skaters who are in a daze because they’ve worked so hard for so long and now it’s just gone. If they are skating for x number of years, they don’t recover for three times x years.
You’ve helped develop new products such as Tensor Trucks and Uber Light Technology decks. Did that stem from your interest in engineering?
Rather than frame it from engineering, even though I used a lot of that understanding and background, the origin was this: in terms of Tensor, the company grew and we realised that everyone could make trucks, not just Indy. They wanted to do trucks so they said, ‘Rod, you’re an engineering guy, you can talk to those guys. Make up a truck!’ Indy’s are the most amazing trucks – I rode them for eight years – and I didn’t feel I deserved to make a contribution. If you don’t have anything good to say then shut up, right? I didn’t feel it was legitimate to just build another truck like an Indy. I thought, ‘How can I do it differently?’ The way I skate was flip tricks – setting up your feet and landing. Things like nollie hardflips are pretty awkward set-ups. You don’t see people go really fast on bumpy street spots doing those. I wanted to build a truck that would help you do those kind of things better. I wanted to build a truck that doesn’t turn that well because that’s going to help me. If you want that other truck, it’s already there. I don’t feel I deserve a place by copying someone else. That is the value I’ve always got from skateboarding – to be part of something bigger.
I understand that you recently had problems with your hip that threatened your skating. Could you tell me more about that?
It was the most dramatic thing. Some scar tissue wrapped around my femur and pelvis and clasped together, pulling my femur into the hip socket. It was calcifying and was going to be the end of me walking normally. I don’t want to be that guy that milks it so I was planning to disappear. Doctors told me they couldn’t give me surgery and the only way to fix it was to break it, and that’s a very violent process. The bones had already started to fuse together so I had to physically put enough pressure on myself to break my own bone. I did that for an enormous number of hours. I stuck my leg in the wheel well of a car and grabbed the bottom of the frame and tweaked and tore as much as I could. My wife couldn’t be around me. After two and a half years, I broke the scar tissue and some of the bone. When I did break it, it scared me to death. I heard it break and after the nausea and the adrenaline, I was lying on my garage floor at three in the morning screaming with my face covered in snot and tears. I just thought, ‘I can skate!’
I switch off the voice recorder and we sit there, listening to the cracks of urethane overhead. Rodney seems content just to hang, asking if he has given good enough answers. I sense an unwillingness to go back out to the crowds, but after a few minutes we leave.
“Oh my god,” a loud kid shouts as he leaps out in front of Rodney, grasping his hand.
“Hey, how you doing?” Rodney’s face lights up and greets him like an old friend.
After our conversation, it seems strange to see Rodney flipping back into this presidential mode. But then it isn’t really flipping at all, it’s just another one of the dimensions that lurk within him. Yet as I leave the skate park, I can’t escape the feeling that you could spend a lifetime with the man, and only just scratch the surface.