Eric Dressen cementing his place in Southbank history in 1987. Photo: TLB
In the Nov. 1987 issue of R.A.D Magazine, a photo of Eric Dressen skating at Southbank shot by Tim Leighton Boyce appeared in a “Walls” feature. In the photo, Eric is frozen—mid-frontside grind—with a cold hard meter of vert separating his blue Thrasher hoodie and matching black-and-blue Jordan’s from the seamed bank below. For many in Europe and the UK, this was not only the fist time seeing Southbank—one of, if not the most important skatespot in UK skate history—it was also their first time seeing vertical skateboarding on adapted terrain—in the streets. Perhaps they had seen a wallride in the wild before, but certainly not one of this magnitude, and certainly not one involving a vertical grind—never mind seeing one this stylish.
33 years later, I decided to reach out to Eric and find out how this photo came to be. I couldn’t recall any other classic photos of Dressen skating street outside the US in the ‘80s. I also couldn’t place this photo within the usual annual summer contest tours from that era. I asked Eric what events had led up to this iconic shot. What was he doing in London right then, at night, in what looks like the dead of winter? What made him decide to grind the (since removed) bank-to-wall? Was he aware that this photo played a role in British skate history? Was there a backstory as amazing as that grind? Read through the conversation below and judge for yourself.
Words: Mackenzie Eisenhour
What are your memories of going to Southbank circa ‘87?
That was my first trip overseas. Tony Coffey that owned the skateshop in Bristol called Rollermania had brought me over. He would go on to later bring over Natas, Jesse Martinez, The Gonz, myself and (Jef) Hartsel, (Bill) Danforth, and JT (John Thomas) on a later trip.
Who was on the first trip?
On that first trip it was just me. I went over all by myself.
Holy shit. Just you. And Rollermania paid for your trip?
Tony from Rollermania would come to the tradeshows out here in California. He would come down to the beach (Venice) and stuff when he was here. I made friends with him and he asked me to come over. I went straight to Bristol. It was wintertime and it was freezing cold out there.
Did you just bring shorts?
(Laughs) That was one of the first times I had skated in pants. It was so cold. We went to some little event in London and then we ended up at Southbank. It was super late. Past 11:00 o’clock at night. It was freezing cold. Like so cold that it hurt your lungs. I think I had a scarf on. We went there and ended up shooting some photos. All I remember from that night is getting a crazy hipper. Coming down off a wallride my nose dug in and I got a hipper. In the cold it really hurt.
It’s pretty gnarly. I’m looking at the photo. You got the blue Thrasher hoodie, the backwards beret thing…
Yeah, I had the little golf cap. Tony Coffey had given me that. His brother worked at an Irish tweed mill.
You have the Jordans on too.
Yeah, the black-and-blue Jordans. I think I bought those on sale at this store on Wilshire. Everybody in Santa Monica would go there to buy their shoes.
It was like this temporary shoe store. I would bounce around. I wore Pumas a little bit. Whatever I saw that looked good or I wanted to test out I’d try.
Eventually you got on Vans right?
Yeah, a bit after. I had worn Vans before and during that period too.
So first trip overseas? Were you tripping when you got off the plane?
I was super scared. This was way before cell phones. I was just hoping somebody would pick me up. I was super excited too because I knew I would be able to skate some old skateparks there. I got to skate Dean Lane and some of the other parks.
Also, growing up I had always wanted to go to England. All my favorite music came from there. I would look at the English magazines and stuff and I knew the spots. I always wanted to go.
growing up I had always wanted to go to England. All my favorite music came from there. I would look at the English magazines and stuff and I knew the spots. I always wanted to go
You must have been like a rock star to them showing up alone.
I felt like I was alone in the world. I just showed up. It was my first major flight. I think I was only 19. I got to drink on the plane. I think I got excited about that. Getting to go to the pubs there too.
Were you on Dogtown right then?
Yeah, I rode for Dogtown. On that trip I made lifelong friends that I’m still friends with today. I haven’t talked to Tony (Coffey) in a few years but he’s one of my dearest friends. That trip—hanging out with him, he was a serious businessman. He would always talk to me and was almost like a father figure to me or like a really cool uncle. I really learned a lot and got inspired by him. He’s a really beautiful man.
That grind looks pretty gnarly. Especially for ’87. Was it hard to get up there? Was anyone else skating with you?
There might have been a couple other guys skating but they weren’t skating the wall. I don’t think it was that hard for me. I barely remember anything other than the hipper. But the whole time I was there I was just thinking, “If Natas were here, he’d probably be doing this. He’d be killing it.”
Was this sort of right before the late ‘80s boom when it got huge? It wasn’t as big yet correct?
This was ‘86/’87. I think in ‘88 it really started getting huge again. But I didn’t struggle with it (grind on the wall). I just remember it being so cold. And getting the hipper in that cold hurt so much more.
Did you go back to Southbank the next time with those other guys?
I don’t think ever really skated there again. I remember going back and being there but not really skating it again.
Outtake from Eric’s RaD Interview. Boardslide 4 years before Video Days. photo: TLB
Did anyone skate the steps there. Did you look at anything else?
I don’t think so. It was so cold I think we really just went to shoot a quick photo. But it was funny because right when we got there and parked we were walking up these stairs that had a little double-sided ledge going down.
There’s a picture of me rail sliding it. Then later on when the Blind video (Video Days [’91]) came out Gonz does stuff down that one.
What was going on in your day-to-day back in LA then?
I think I was still working at Fred Segal café in Santa Monica.
Riding for Dogtown, Independent, OJ wheels, right? Jimmy’Z?
Yeah. Jimmy‘Z exactly.
Did you ever officially ride for Stüssy?
Kind of. We would get flowed. It was like a onetime thing where they flowed everyone on Dogtown like these team jackets. It was like a Dogtown/Stüssy team jacket.
Damn. That thing would probably be worth some money today. Having traveled back to the UK over the decades do you ever have people come up to you and talk about the photo or that first trip? I read some articles online where people said that photo was life changing to them. It was the first time they saw Southbank and also the first time seeing real street skateboarding like that on something not made for skating.
I see people reposting a lot on Instagram. It seems like people really like that photo. I think that wall is gone now too I’m pretty sure.
Yeah, I think so too.
I think that’s what happened. When we went back to England years later, we decided to go to Southbank and people told us they tore down the wall. I think that’s why I was bummed.
Did you follow the battle to save the rest of Southbank from redevelopment back in ’13-’14?
I did. I was really worried about that. I thought it was really cool. I like how now kids like Blondey and the Palace guys really embrace Southbank and that goes back to all the kids that grew up skating there in the ‘70s and ‘80s like Floyd (Reid) and all of them. I met Floyd there on that first trip. He’s one of my many dear friends from that first trip.
I think it’s rad that kids like Blondey are growing up skating Southbank today. He really represents it. I just think it’s awesome
Dude, I saw Floyd in the Burger Lounge on San Vicente in Brentwood two weeks ago. He always pops up somehow.
(Laughs) That’s funny. I’ve known him and his whole crew for so long. I still talk to a bunch of those guys. But I think it’s rad that kids like Blondey are growing up skating Southbank today. He really represents it. I just think it’s awesome.
I love that part of skateboarding. We have our urban terrain—our own little kingdoms really—those hubs or ‘meet up spots’ that become so central to our lives.
And it goes back even to the ‘70s. When we had our zone at Venice skating down there for example. It was our skate spot but we grew up there. Just runaway kids. And then some of the older kids became legends.
nothing meaner than the deaner. Photo: TLB
You only went to England on that first trip? No other countries?
Yeah, Tony had flown me out to do some demos at Bristol at his shop and at Dean Lane. After that we went to a little tradeshow in London and spent a couple of days there. Tony had a booth for Jimmy’Z there. Then we hit Southbank. I think we were supposed to shoot an interview with RAD Magazine so we went back to Bristol.
What was your overall take on England?
It left a big impression on me; having fish n’ chips for the first time, and then Tony always had to have his tea. I love tea so doing the proper teatime thing was so cool. Watching British movies and TV and listening to all the music—I had always loved the Clash and all of that so being there and listening to it there was a really special moment for me at 19.
Then that cold, gloomy weather too, it’s just totally different from being in California. I loved it. I loved the whole vibe. Skateboarding was so small too at that time so it was really just a tight-knit little crew. It was a really special moment in my life.
Best British slang?
Actually it was funny, the whole time I was there I wanted to smoke weed and I was too afraid to say anything. They kept talking about “blow’. They kept saying, “Oh we’re gonna go do blow. Wanna come?” And I’d be like, “Nah. I don’t do that.”
Eventually, later on I just decided to go with them one time to see what it was about. It turned out they were smoking hash. I didn’t realize that somehow they were calling hash “blow” there for some reason.
You thought they were doing coke?
Yeah (laughs). I thought they were all doing coke the whole time. But then once I found out, all I could think of was all the hash I had turned down (laughs).
Favorite UK skater back then?
When I got to Bristol this guy Spex—he was like the local at the Deaner, he rode for Rollermania skateshop. Specks just destroyed it—he ripped the shit out of everything. He was a legend over there.
I really like Blondey (McCoy). I really dig his scene. The way he represents England. His style and all that.
He brings a true British style to skateboarding, which I really like. I’d see that stuff around Oxford and London and now he’s doing it with his brand Thames.
It’s like proper British. Actually, that’s what I got from that first England trip—saying “proper” (laughs). “Proper” and “brilliant”—those are the two words I got from that trip that I still use today.
Thanks to Eric D for three decades of friendship and four decades of inspiration. A salute to Southbank and anyone who ever skated there and much love to R.A.D Magazine and anyone who ever read (and destroyed) it.