While it’s one thing to be in the right place at the right time, it’s another thing all together to be part of establishing just why that place and time were so right. Eli Morgan Gesner was born in New York City to liberal, artistic parents and although he knew the Upper West Side as home, it was the decrepitude—and the artistic open mindedness—of the city’s Lower East Side that fuelled his enthusiasm for the graffiti he’d see on walls, doorways and eventually trains as mayor Ed Koch dragged the struggling city into the 1980s amidst genuine bankruptcy fears and an alarming heroin epidemic. As businesses closed and whole areas become no-go zones for regular people, the artistic underground could flourish, with punk rock, hip-hop, graffiti, and soon enough, skateboarding all taking over the crumbling district, and Eli immersed himself in it all.
From witnessing these changes first hand, and having the freedom to explore them and meet those involved, it’s understandable that Eli would end up making his mark, literally and figuratively, on skateboarding, clothing and art. Through skating and drawing for NYC OGs Shut, to being a vital part of the founding of Zoo York and the creator of its visual aesthetic, inadvertently helping start the idea of ‘streetwear’ via work with Shawn Stüssy and Def Jam’s Russell Simmons, to licensing confusions and global marketing meetings, cargo jorts and now, finally, a regained ownership of the skateboard brand that put the East Coast on the map, it’s obvious that Eli has a story to be told, so I called him up to hear it.
Words and interview by Neil Macdonald @scienceversuslife
You’re born and bred New York City, right? How did you find skateboarding?
I was born here in 1970. The playground I grew up playing in, right across the street from where I was born, is the playground in the movie The Warriors, where the gangs all meet. I saw them shooting it. So things like that have taken on a significance of their own, but when you grow up there it’s just your neighbourhood.
As far as skateboarding, I saw people here and there but back then it was kind of ‘exotic’. I was into disco when I was six or seven years old, and in Central Park there’s this place called The Flats, where they had a rollerskating rink where all the kids my age would rollerskate around to disco music with all the rest of the people. There were guys there who’d been skateboarding since the ‘70s doing downhill slalom, so they had the course set up, with the cones, and the rollerskaters and the skateboarders would just do the slalom. Everybody would watch. You’d get a giant crowd and everybody would go faster and faster… Woosh woosh woosh through the cones. So that was the first time I saw skateboarding, but I wasn’t really taken with the idea of doing slalom. Haha!
It was the Pepsi TV commercials and the early movies that did it. I guess on the West Coast they’d started building concrete skateparks around then too, so that all kind of sparked my interest in skateboarding because it looked so cool. Even just the location of a skatepark, and all the weird concrete shapes; the banks, the waves, the bowls, all that was completely unlike anything we had in New York. And the sun was always out in the commercials, and they had palm trees, so there was that appeal, but where are you going to do that in New York?
As I got older I got into writing graffiti, because that was what was really cool. So when I was nine or ten years old, around 1979, 1980, I started doing tags.
So where did you live? Where were you hanging out?
I was living with my mom on the Upper West Side, on 95th and West End Avenue, off Broadway. That was where I kinda got into everything. The other thing that was going on at the time was the whole ‘Downtown’ scene, the punk rock, new-wave, kinda hip-hop thing was happening. So nowadays when you come to New York and go down to SoHo or TriBeCa, it’s an established location. When I was a kid everything south of about 14th Street was industrial units, warehouses and trade places. You’d go there to rent paint supplies, or rent a forklift.
It wasn’t a residential area but in the early ‘80s, all the artists moved down there and into the warehouses, so the Downtown ‘80s art scene started popping off, and all the music was down there. CBGB’s was down there, and all the cool nightclubs were down there, so even when I was a little kid my mom—who was a cool mom—would take me and my sister down to SoHo and we’d walk around 8th Street, and you could feel this energy. The ‘80s skate boom was about to happen, but again, I was in New York and operating under the idea that that was a Californian thing, it was a colloquial activity only for people in California, so it wasn’t something that I was really aware of.
In the ‘70s, in my neighbourhood, that’s where the Soul Artists of Zoo York were born and formed. That was Marc Edmonds who wrote ‘ALI’, Futura 2000, and a skater named Andy Kessler, so it was this graffiti crew that had a skateboarding component. The graffiti writers Haze and Zephyr were involved and used to skateboard, and Puppet Head too. So I would see those guys in my neighbourhood skating a quarterpipe, but I didn’t really know any of those guys well enough and they were so much older than me, I was just a child. I would have had to be friends with a younger brother of one of those guys to get into that circle, so that never really happened for me.
Were those guys just regular dudes at this point, or were you in awe of them?
Oh I was in awe of them. There’s nothing that’s even comparable nowadays. Nowadays if you want to get into skateboarding, it’s on the internet or you can go down to your local skatepark. It’s readily available. But this was a really rare, exotic activity. So the park I mentioned, where they shot that scene for Warriors, right behind that park is this asphalt runway that’s right next to the Westside Highway, and then the Westside Highway is adjacent to the Hudson River.
In the ‘70s they were doing construction work on the highway and they built these walls to keep people from going into the highway, and they were painted green. The skaters dismantled the plywood and built a quarterpipe on the roadway behind the park, and even before I saw people skating it, just from being a little kid running around, I would see this cobbled-together ten foot quarterpipe and be like, “What is this?! Is this a slide? Am I supposed to play on it?” and we just didn’t understand. It had early graffiti tags on it too.
Quarter Pipe on the Elevated Westside Highway
I’ve seen a picture of that thing, I know what you’re talking about.
Right. So we go over there with my mom and there’s a crew of guys just doing kickturns on the quarterpipe, like it was in the ‘70s. I must have been about six when I saw that going on, and I remember watching it, and not knowing what was going on. It was clearly not the circus, it was just a bunch of guys. Also at the time in New York, dudes would go out on the street and play bongos, or juggle. Shit like that, you know? So maybe you’d think that these guys are street performers or something, but what they’re doing is fascinating. I think I had a little board, a Zip Zinger type of thing back then, but I couldn’t stand on it and it really wasn’t my thing.
It was around 1981 or 1982 that I really got into skating, when I was writing graffiti. The original Zoo York crew had disbanded, or got real jobs, and the younger kids who were writing graffiti in the Upper West Side—who I hung out with—all skateboarded. They all had skateboards, so they kinda made me get a real skateboard. I saved up my money and went down to Dream Wheels in SoHo, which was right off of 8th Street, and in the ‘80s, in the new-wave ‘80s when Madonna and Run DMC were coming up, 8th Street was like the coolest place in New York City. Everyone in the whole city would come to go shopping there. The whole street was just a shopping street and you’d go there to buy cool shoes and cool clothes, and all the cool music was there.
All that stuff that made up a kind of ‘community shopping street’ of the sort that is dying out in America now because of things like Amazon. So I got my skateboard, and I was skating around with the crew as the young little kid who was just starting out. Another good thing about being a skateboarder back then was that nobody skateboarded. So if somebody saw you with a skateboard, and they knew about skateboarding, they would run up to you and strike up a conversation. That’s not something you thought about at the time, it was just, “I want a skateboard, and I’m going to learn to skate”. It wasn’t about making friends and meeting people, but lo and behold, if you’ve got a skateboard and you go skating with your buddy in Central Park you’ll run into another three kids skateboarding.
So the first time I met the official ‘gang’ of local New York skaters was the day that I bought my first skateboard from Dream Wheels. I got a kind of entrée to Dream Wheels because I was a really good graffiti artist. I could draw really well from a young age, I had a lot of drawings and stuff with me, and when I went in there, they had graffiti art on the window. So I showed them my art, and they figured that I wasn’t just some regular kid going in to get a skateboard. They thought I was skilled I guess, so they took me under their wing.
What were you writing?
I was writing ‘NOST’. I had a little name for a little while, but it was only up in the Upper West Side. I wasn’t really bombing around the whole city. I was a little kid, but the thing I used to compensate for my inability to sneak out of my mom’s house and go bombing all the time was that I could draw really good, so I would hang out with the older graffiti writers and do letters for them, or characters for them. So that was my little ‘in’ with all the established graffiti writers, and in my head I didn’t think that graffiti was ever going to stop.
In my head graffiti was something I could train for when I was older because I grew up seeing graffiti on trains my whole life. Why would it end? Back in 1982 I was this tiny little kid, if I ever got caught or got into beef I would have to run or get my ass kicked, but I thought that if I just kept going, then by the time I was 18 or 19 I’d be doing trains, but I got distracted by skateboarding.
Ian Frahm outside Soho Skates
The best guy I saw on my first day out skateboarding was this guy Ian Frahm. He was a punk rock, new-wave graffiti-writer skateboarder. He wrote ‘THOR’ and IBM was his crew. He had fame, so I thought that because we were both into skateboarding as well, that he’d be my buddy, and he was just like, “Fuck you, kid”. Haha! He was part of the original group of New York downtown skaters from the ‘80s, with Bruno Musso who started Shut skateboards with Rodney Smith and Big Jim who’s a famous New York City presence, that whole era of guys who were kind of paving the way for me and the younger kids who were maybe just about to get into High School. To really succeed at graffiti you have to be out all night sneaking around, which I did, but it’s difficult, especially when you’re twelve and you live with your mom and have to get up for school the next morning. It’s a problem. With skateboarding, I could take my skateboard with me on the subway or to school, and I could skate around after school so skating just slowly seemed to take up more and more of my time. I started meeting more people who skateboarded and had all the same interests.
I vividly remember meeting Alyasha Owerka-Moore when I was a kid and he was just like me but from Brooklyn. He and I later went on to start Phat Farm, with Russell Simmons, but at the time we were just two kids who skateboarded and wrote graffiti. So I really took to skateboarding and got good at it pretty quickly. One of the funny things about humans, and our whole culture in general—especially around things like skateboarding and sports— is that there’s always this oneupmanship that happens when the new generation comes in and pushes it to a level you’d never have thought possible. When I first started skateboarding, all the older skateboarders were the ones who grew up in the ’70s doing slalom, so the idea of doing a skateboard trick, like a flat ground boneless, was advanced stuff for them. “Wait, you step off the board, then jump back on it?” They were doing Bertlemans, you know?
So when I started skating, they were all trying to learn how to do bonelesses. So they’re trying to expand on years and years of skate experience and trying to figure out how you take your foot off and where to grab the board, but that was day one for me. Day one for me was outside in the front of my building learning frontside 180 bonelesses, and then it was frontside 360 bonelesses within a week. So the next weekend I’m out and I’m doing these bonelesses and they’re like, “What the fuck?! You’re a skate prodigy!” So the dudes who showed me the 180 boneless saw what I was doing and they took me to the shop, to Larry and Jeff’s, a bike shop that sold skateboards. I think it was actually Bruno who was working there, so they told me to show him and I was just doing it down some steps. They thought it was amazing.
So I went from being a kid skating on my block to hanging out with all the best skaters in New York City because I learned how to do a frontside 360 boneless. This was before the ollie. We didn’t understand ollies. We would go to Washington Square Park and there were little benches that we’d do boneless onto, and jump off, or do sweepers, or a boneless to tail, but slowly the ollie started emerging. It was a whole process for everybody to learn. Everybody was trying to ollie a board on its side, and that was a whole year-long process of figuring out how to get the board in the air, how to get it over the board, and keep it straight.
So I went from being a kid skating on my block to hanging out with all the best skaters in New York City because I learned how to do a frontside 360 boneless
Where had you guys seen an ollie back then?
When the graffiti writers in my hood told me I had to get a skateboard. They were these black and Puerto Rican kids, and they had one ‘white kid’, although he was of Spanish heritage, and his name was Ben Alvarez. Ben Alvarez was immediately different from everybody when I first saw him because he wasn’t a hip-hop guy, he was a punk rock dude. Like a new-wave punk rock guy who had the full outfit of the overcoat, the chukkas, the Ramones t-shirt and the haircut, and when he talked he had a Southern accent because he was from North Carolina. Ben had to move from North Carolina to be in New York City with his mom, but back home he had a skateboard ramp in his back yard, so he was a vert skater. He showed up in the Upper West Side in 1980, this punk rock skateboard kid, so all the graffiti writers who skateboarded ended up hanging out with him.
There was this little concrete loading ramp going up to a door, this wheelchair slope thing, not even a bank, and I remember watching him borrow s omeone’s board and skate up it, and do this scooper 180 ollie to stop. And then just slowly roll back down. We were amazed and he was all, “Yeeeeah, it’s called an ollie pop, and it’s like doing a frontside air without grabbing the board”. That was the first one I saw but for the older guys it was so advanced that it didn’t even register. Like it was such advanced skateboarding that these graffiti/skateboard guys weren’t even going to talk to him about it, but I was a dumb little kid and I needed to know everything about it. That was almost like the one advantage I had over all the guys downtown.
I was going to the Elizabeth Irwin school, the Little Red School House down in SoHo, so every day I would take the subway down to SoHo, then after school I’d skate with all the Downtown kids, then get the train home at rush hour to have dinner with my mom and do my homework, and then I’d go skate with Ben. Ben was the first person in New York City to do an ollie. Ben and I would spend all night learning ollies, trying frontside 180 ollies because this was before boards had noses. Like a Natas board with a one inch nose.
Like pushing a powerslide through the air.
Exactly. Ben had the ramp skating skills, but he had to figure out how to skate New York. This ultimately led to Ben coming up to me one day and saying, “Dude, there’s this place under the Brooklyn Bridge… It’s like a giant wave!” So we made our first journey down to the Brooklyn Bridge banks, which I think was a bit of a well-kept secret. There was still territoriality, that kind of ‘locals only’ vibe, and even though I was skating with all these dudes in Washington Square Park, they were not going out of their way to tell me that there was this giant skatepark underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Haha! So Ben found it on his own, on the off ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge. So it was like, “Oh my God, we have to run across the fuckin’ highway?!”
Obviously now it’s a legendary skate spot but when we first got there it was like this forgotten corner of New York. First of all, it was filthy. It was just covered in garbage and trash from people throwing things from their cars on the bridge. And it was new. The bricks were all laid out so perfectly, these square-edged bricks. They weren’t sculpted bricks, like when they’ve been moulded, it was more like they’d laid out a huge sheet of brick material and then cut it with blades, so the bricks were really sharp on the edges. It was really hard to skate. If you tried a powerslide, half the time the board would get ripped out from underneath you because the edges of the bricks were so sharp. It would take years and years and years of people skating the Brooklyn Bridge banks to wear down the bricks to where it was good for skateboarding.
That’s pretty East Coast. People don’t normally need to wear the ground in…
We were making it up as we were going along, so there was nobody there to say that the bricks were too sharp. We just kept skating, trying inverts because inverts were really popular. Another thing that people don’t know about the early days of the Brooklyn Bridge banks, is that the wall where everybody sets up to do their tricks? That background wall you’ve seen in videos a million times, actually used to be open. So underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, there used to be where they would store hotdog carts and things like that. The police would store stuff there too. And it was just an old wooden barn door; it was almost like one of the last things left in the city from the early 1900s. You could open up the door and get in, and it was just this homeless shit show. It was so gnarly.
There was this gang of homeless black guys who lived in there and they had tapped into the streetlights outside and had wires running into this giant cavernous space back there. It was scary and they didn’t like us. Their wires would be going across the banks, and we’d rip the wires out to skate so they’d come running out and throw bottles at us because we fucked up their house. There was also this huge infestation of rats. The rat problem in New York City’s gone down a lot but back then there were these giant, foot-long rats running everywhere. So it wasn’t just the skaters at the Brooklyn banks, there were the homeless people who hated us, then there was the rats, and there was also a gang of Puerto Rican and black BMXers who lived over on the projects and they hated us too, so it meant that when you wanted to skate the banks you’d have to get as many people together as you could to head down with. It wasn’t always like that, sometimes it was mad chill, but there was definitely a problem with the homeless guys. What was that Bones Brigade video..?
Yeah, where they come to New York. You can see some of the old barn doors in that. Ian is in that video doing an ollie up onto the small wall. And Dante Ross! This huge multi-Grammy-award-winning music producer and legendary New York City thug sitting watching the Bones Brigade. Haha!
By the time this video came out the city had kicked out all the homeless guys, and they’d realised that by leaving these giant halls underneath Brooklyn Bridge banks they’d just attract unwanted people and shit like that, so the city closed it all off. They bricked it up so you couldn’t get inside. Once that happened it made it much easier to go skateboarding at the banks, and the whole crew would start to meet there.
This huge multi-Grammy-award-winning music producer and legendary New York City thug sitting watching the Bones Brigade
Brooklyn Banks session in progress. Photo: Carolyn Owerka
How many of the crew were natives and how many were travelling in from elsewhere?
It was a small crew. I think in total there was maybe around 30-40 of us who all lived across Manhattan and in some parts of Brooklyn, and we would all hang out in Washington Square Park. That was kind of our headquarters. Before the internet and before cellphones you would get up, get on the subway, and go down to Washington Square Park and hope you would run into somebody. There was usually always someone there to skate with, but if there wasn’t sooner or later someone would show up. So we all knew each other.
Did people come in from new Jersey and from other parts of the city to skate? Yeah, for sure. But we were the crew. Like an informal skateboard gang who all knew each other. I’m sure it was like all over the world. It was a weird thing how if a group of kids came in from Queens or somewhere, they would just sit and watch instead of skating. Later on, by the end of the ‘80s, I was skating more and more with Jeff Pang and Peter Huynh and those kinda guys and they’d always say how they’d come into New York City to watch us skate. Maybe they thought they’d embarrass themselves, or maybe we were just being too cocky and loud, I don’t know.
Did the Banks being in the Powell videos draw people in?
Oh for sure. That’s a funny side note… When they were filming Future Primitive down there, we were all skating at Washington Square Park. Ian appears and is all, “Dude! The Bones Brigade was here! We shot a video!” so it was like, “Well why didn’t you call us?!” According to Dante Ross, he randomly ran into the Bones Brigade in Washington Square and was like “I’m taking you to The Banks.” Then he called up Ian and told him to meet them there. Just Ian. On the sneak tip. Hahaha! The Bones Brigade were the most famous thing in skateboarding then. Well, the Bones Brigade and Hosoi. When Hosoi came to town he came by himself and basically just hung out with all of us, with the locals. So that was the first time we got to hang out with a pro skateboarder, to see how he worked and to watch him skate.
Was that when he ollied the wall at the Banks?
Yep. I was there that very day.
He was the first, right?
Yeah. That was the first time anyone ollied the wall. Dream Wheels had closed down, and they opened up this other skateboard shop called SoHo Skates which was literally across the street from my school. Ha! How great is that? Next to SoHo Skates was a defunct gas station, with this open area, and Ian Frahm had built a quarterpipe made out of stolen plywood there. It was about four feet high, super tight and just so small. One piece of plywood.
Eight feet by four.
That’s all it was. But it was a quarterpipe and that was the first transition we got to skate. There was this early crew of local New York City kids that was me, Jim Kerr, Aaron Lennox, Spencer Weisbond, Mario Sorrenti the photographer, Beasley, Bruno, all of us local kids and we would all skate this little quarterpipe. The best transition skater was Aaron Lennox because he could do frontside ollies and inverts on the edge… There was no coping. But we were mostly just yanking airs, and lo and behold, here comes Christian fuckin’ Hosoi with Jef Hartsel ready to skate. The fuckin’ first thing Hosoi does is he starts pushing down the hill, going about 100mph, then hits the quarterpipe and does a six or seven foot backside ollie. Hahaha! I can’t even express to you what that was like. A backside ollie twice the height of the ramp, and it was perfect, first try. He was like a total rockstar and we were following him around everywhere, and we ended up at the Brooklyn Bridge banks.
Now the reason that he knew how to huck off a transition was that he came from skateparks, while we were all just street kids doing this form of proto-street skating. Nobody was doing kickflips—I mean maybe Rodney Mullen was doing them, but nobody normal—and we were just figuring out ollies. The main component of every trick was still a boneless, you know? Even Hosoi was doing all sorts of bonelesses, frontside and backside, with the nunchuck-spinning stuff, and wall-climbing stuff. I’d figured out this trick where I’d do a boneless to axle stall on the wall, and then I’d yank it out. Pop the tail and pull it up, and go back into the bank. I was a stupid kid and we were always trying to think up names for tricks because everything needed a name, so that was the Spiderman. Anyway I did one, and rolled away, and heard somebody go, “What the fuck?!”, and it was Hosoi. He was stoked on it! He skated over to me and wanted to know how I did it. I was geeked.
So, at this time, we were starting to do little ollies, but of course the wall is in the way. You can see in the Future Primitive video that Ian Frahm invented the kind of ‘ollie to board rest’ on the wall, where you just yank it back in. So Hosoi was doing that. But then he got off his board and he’s just looking at the bricks, trying to find the last brick that was pointing up before it started bending back away. Then he’s like, “This is the brick!” and he put a Hosoi sticker on that brick. We asked him what he was doing and he said he was going to ollie the wall… On the big side! The sticker was the exact place he needed to ollie. We watched him try it over and over and when he finally did it he cleared the wall by about two feet or something, it was amazing. This guy showed up to our spot and just shit on us. Haha!
Christian Hosoi ollies the wall again on a return visit in 1989. Photo:Kevin Thatcher
I think it was one of those key moments in skateboarding, although we didn’t realise it at the time. A vert skater from California coming into the realest of street skate worlds. We were in our little ghetto trying bonelesses and he brought his vert skating ability, his hucking ability, into street skating and it was the acknowledgement that yes, you can launch like this. That was right at the beginning of the jump ramp era. That was my favourite time in skateboarding.
Was Jeremy Henderson around then? How did Shut come about?
One of the problems about not living in California in the ‘80s, was that when you got Thrasher in April it’d have stuff in it from February, so we’d always be behind whatever anyone else was doing, and that was when things were changing so fast. You’d see a picture of Jesse Martinez doing a judo air off a jump ramp and just be like, “What the fuck? What is that?!” You’d see weird jump ramp variations in street comp articles, up to picnic tables or something, but the idea of just going right over it suddenly popped off. We were in Washington Square Park and Ian Frahm decided we needed a jump ramp, so went off and stole some plywood. We would flip a trashcan on its side, stick a brick under it to stop it rolling away, put the wood against it and we would try jump ramp things off it. Early grabbing, not landing anything, falling around, just a complete disaster. And then this guy showed up, skateboarding, whom I had never seen before and he didn’t look like a kid or a teenager, he looked like a grown ass man. He was physically well-formed, he had a beard, he had a girlfriend who was a woman, you know? So he started skating with us and he was doing ollies. Little scooped ollies without grabbing, and trying backside 180 ollies. And that was Jeremy Henderson.
We couldn’t figure this guy out, I mean he was old, he’d obviously been skating for a long time, but we’ve never seen him before and how is he doing this stuff? He just appeared and was this kind of legendary guy so we started hanging out with him. At the time, me and Alyasha were skating all the time but still trying to write graffiti, little pieces here and there or writing on our skateboards, or drawing on t-shirts for our friends. One day at school, I was drawing in my notebook and I drew a guy doing an invert on the ground, a streetplant. It kinda looked like Ian so I did it in Ian’s full signature outfit, put the planet Earth in and put ‘THOR’ because that was Ian’s tag. I went across the road to SoHo skates and Ian was there skating outside, so I gave him the picture I’d drawn and he just lost it, he thought it was really fucking cool.
One day they took me out for a bagel and told me there were going to start a New York City skateboard company and that it was gonna be called Shut
I’d drawn it in pencil and drew over it in sharp black pen ink, so it had really thick lines and looked like a professional piece of artwork, but it was literally on lined school paper. Then we went skating and I never thought of it again. Two months later, I go into SoHo Skates and Ann, the manager showed me what they’d done. They’d taken that drawing and made t-shirts out of it, the first t-shirts that SoHo Skates made. She gave me two and said that I was now their official artist, which I thought was cool but I didn’t really think anything of it because I was 14 years old or something. People thought Ian drew it, but the people who knew knew what was up, Bruno and Rodney, knew that I drew it, and so one day they took me out for a bagel and told me they were going to start a New York City skateboard company and that it was gonna be called Shut. It was hard to believe because even at this point, skateboarding seemed to just be about California. Zorlac was from Texas but if any other skateboard companies were from outside California, they weren’t announcing it.
At that age you wouldn’t be thinking about how something could affect the rest of your life anyway.
Of course not. Your friends ask you to draw a picture so you draw something for them. But even then I was thinking that it was never going to work, and I was quizzing them about how they were going to get boards made. “Oh, we’ve got a guy, it’s cool” kinda thing. It just seemed like a bunch of people starting a punk rock band or something, it was a complete mess. But still, I went and drew them a logo, the original Shut crest with the two boards crossed, and the city and the barbed wire.
Nowadays everybody skateboards in New York City sooner or later, and there are all these companies around, and riders get stolen and it’s a huge competition, but back when Shut started—and even when Zoo York started—no-one was skateboarding here. So you’d be hanging out with these people all the time, and of course they’re gonna skate for your company. What else are they gonna do? You’re the only game in town, you know? That was part of the genius of what Rodney and Bruno did with the original Shut skateboards team, which was all these kids who could never get a plane ticket to go to California but kill it, they were all in our backyard. Instead of them going out to California, let’s just do it here. So they got their warehouse, and then there’s the famous story of going up on Alyasha’s roof with the jigsaw and cutting out the Shut shark shape.
You went from artist in residence to team rider.
Well that was funny. You see, I was really obsessed with Natas when I was a kid. He was my favourite skater and I loved wallrides. There was a guy at the time, Tony Converse, who was a local Santa Monica jump ramp guy, and in the ’80s he rode for Santa Monica Airlines while he worked in the film industry. A movie he was working on was filming in New York, right when the jump ramp thing was popping off, and I think he ended up living close to Alyasha. Meeting a guy from California was big-deal stuff back then; this guy from California, who skates and is sponsored by Santa Monica Airlines, Natas’s company. So this guy built a proper jump ramp, all out of wood, not some wood and a garbage can thing. He knew how to make it so it had a little kick, and he sprayed ‘V13’ on it, for the Venice street gang, which was so fucking cool to us, and when he would go to work I would look after the ramp.
He had the full Santa Monica Airlines kit, the custom sweater with the airplanes down the arm and all this cool stuff you couldn’t buy. On top of that, he’s ollieing off the jump ramp rather than yanking, and just killing wallrides. So we’re all hanging out, and he’s kinda coaching me, him and Jeremy Henderson, who had broken his ankle. They taught me what I was doing wrong, which was a lot of stuff, because I would just try to go high, by grabbing stinkbug, between my legs, and looking really terrible. So over a few weeks, they explained how to grab, that you should grab around your leg and not through, and how when you’re spinning you need to look in the direction you’re turning. All the stuff that’s important for getting good at jump ramps. I ended up getting good, and had a good rapport with Tony, so he offered to send me a box of boards. A box of boards from Santa Monica Airlines? Fuck yeah! That was a personal highlight of my life, because it was before Shut started and it was who I wanted to skate for.
Eli frontside ollies to truck bash at the ASCAP Banks in 1989. Photo: Bill Thomas
Did they send any Natas boards?
Yeah, but the only Natas boards I got were yellow. There was this whole lineage with the Natas boards where they could only afford to make one screen at a time, so the further back you go, the more basic it is. The first Natas board, by Kevin Ancell, was just the triangle, then they added the palm leaves, and slowly all the other elements. But at the time, I didn’t realise how amazing it was to be getting these boards from Skip Engblom through Tony.
At that time, all I knew about skating was what I’d read in Thrasher from 1981 onwards, so I don’t know about Tony Alva or the Z-Boys or Skip Engblom’s lineage or any of that. And here I am in New York City, getting Skip Engblom hand-cut, hand-painted experimental skateboards. He was experimenting with all sorts of new ideas. One of the big problems was how to keep your foot on the board when you ollie, and one of the boards he sent me was this kind of fishtail, with a blunt, flat Natas nose, and he’d used a grinder to carve out wheel wells so the board could turn more. But then he started cutting into the top of the board too, like little shark gills into the front of the board over the front truck, like three or four little wheel wells in a line, and the idea was that when you ollied the edge of your shoe would get caught in these little wheel wells.
Here I am in New York City, getting Skip Engblom hand-cut, hand-painted experimental skateboards
He’d do the graphics too, this custom pinstriping with tape, and all this cool shit. It was interesting because in the graffiti world that I came from, using a stencil was really frowned upon. People were vehemently opposed to masking, or any kind of tape. You had to have the chops to do everything you did by hand, freestyle, and make everything look as sharp as possible by only using your hand. So these spray painted skateboards that had come more from California car culture had pinstripes and waves and fades and ripped up pieces of masking tape, and then he’d put the Santa Monica Airlines airplane stickers on them. These things were works of art!
If I knew then what I know know I’d have kept them so they could be in the Smithsonian, but I would skate them. One time he sent me a bigger Natas board that they were trying to do, with no graphics and the bottom spray painted, but the top had stickers on it, covered by a layer of resin into which he had sprinkled chunks of broken glass, which I think in hindsight came from a shattered car window. So I had this really heavy big board covered in chunks of glass, but it would keep your foot from sliding off when you tried to ollie!
You’re not getting into a nightclub with that.
Yeah exactly. But it was amazing for me to be connected to that company and get those boards from those guys, and when Shut started I was still getting boards from Santa Monica Airlines. With Shut, I mean talk about making it up as you go along! So there was the famous Shut shark logo, and the assault vehicle one that I drew, and various other different things, but before even that we were spray painting on boards and using silk screens and stencils. We’d make a bunch of boards and give them out to Chris Pastras or Coco Santiago or Felix Arguelles or Sean Sheffey or Jeff Pang or whoever. So that was how Shut began, but still the major problem that we were dealing with, was the front foot coming off the board.
You can see on the original Shut boards that we tried making the nose longer; all those first boards had big concave and big scooped-out noses. When Shut started it felt like the end of 1980s skateboarding, so the business model that Rodney and Bruno used, which ultimately led to their downfall, was to take an inventory position. So they were renting a huge warehouse and instead of getting sixty of a board for ten bucks each from the factory, they would get 500 boards for five bucks each, to get the price down and make a bigger profit. Up until that point companies were making 1,000 of something like a Rob Roskopp board, then another 1,000 of the same exact board because the shops wanted to reorder it.
Another 1,000 of the same graphic but in a slightly different colour.
Exactly. You know Mike Vallely skateboards specifically because of Rodney Smith?
Rodney Smith is from New Jersey, and his little brother is Chris Pastras who started Stereo skateboards.
Not biologically, but Chris’s mom was a single mom and she was too busy, so she let Chris stay with Rodney’s family because Rodney had a big house with skateboard ramps. So Chris basically lived and grew up with Rodney’s family. One day Rodney was skating around and this young skinhead punk dude starts glaring at Rodney, vibing him, but Rodney takes the time to talk to this kid, and invites him round to his house to give him a skateboard. And that was Mike Vallely. So Mike Vallely and Chris Pastras and Rodney basically grew up together in Edison, New Jersey. Mike was supposed to skate for Shut but he was so good that he immediately got picked up by Powell. Who could say no to that?
So Mike goes off to skate for Powell and he becomes this huge star, just as Shut starts, and skateboarding starts fizzling out late ‘80s, and although the cool thing is street skating, nobody has yet resolved how to keep the front foot on doing an ollie. So at this point, Mike Vallely, who only skates because of Rodney Smith, goes to World Industries and they do a board with two tails. The famous double tail Barnyard board. And that just changes everything. Now you can do ollies, nollies, everything. And when that happened, back in New York City, Rodney Smith and Bruno Musso are sitting in a warehouse with 2,000 Shut scoop-noses that no-one’s gonna buy now, so that whole company completely fell apart. It was so bad. Their whole skateboard team all got stolen by Californian companies and they all moved out there. So that was around 1990, when Shut just fell apart.
It was in the late ‘80s that you managed to get beta copies of the first versions of Photoshop and Illustrator. Tell me about that.
Here’s what happened. I was never a good student at school, I was always kind of a screw up, but I’ve always had a good relationship with computers. I’ve never told anybody about this, but when I was a kid, my neighbour’s dad was an astrophysicist for Columbia University, and in his house, around 1975, he had a computer. In his house! It was about the size of a refrigerator, and it was just brackets, just the metal box and circuit boards, motherboards, all wired together taking up all these shelves. At the very top, six feet off the ground, is this 10” x 10” green and black screen and a keyboard. One day he asked if I wanted to play a game, and at the time there was maybe Pong, but games were not in arcades yet. This was the first video game I played and it was a Star Trek game. You were the Starship Enterprise and you were fighting a Klingon, so the screen was completely black expect for the Enterprise, which kinda looked maybe a little bit how the Enterprise looked from above, like two lines and a circle, and then the Klingon ship was a little triangle.
So he’d sit there and tell me, “You’re going north-west at four parsecs, and they’re going south-east at five parsecs, so where do you want to go?” and I’d point on the screen where I wanted to go and he would type it in. Nothing was moving, it was just a still screen with a circle and a triangle, so he’d type in the co-ordinates and press return and the computer would calculate the movement and draw the screen again. It was like turning a page in a book. So I already thought that kind of thing was futuristic and cool when video games started happening, Pac-Man and all that.
Around that time I went to York Prep., which is a fancy preparatory school on the Upper East Side, which was a complete disaster because I was a complete failure as a student. I didn’t do homework, I didn’t do class work, I was just getting into writing graffiti, my dad had just died and I was a complete mess, but they had a computer department that had this early computer called a PET.
We did very basic code writing, very basic BASIC, but I was into it and I kinda understood it. This was the future. Period. I had a good rapport with the computer teacher, and they had this school-wide computing test that I got 100% on, and all the bonus questions, so I thought I would be rewarded for that but because I was such a bad student they accused me of cheating. Haha! So I got mad at them, like, “Don’t you think that if I was going to cheat on a test I might cheat on one that would affect my grade rather than a computer literacy test?! And if I did cheat, do you think I would intentionally get every fucking question right?”, so they kicked me out of the school. Then I got kicked out of every other school in New York and I got sent away to boarding school for my last three years of High School. That was 1985 or ’86, when the Apple Macintosh came out, and my school had an entire Macintosh computer lab with an amazing instructor from Apple. Suddenly, I could finally draw and animate stuff. I did a little video of a kid skateboarding and ollieing over a trashcan and doing a backside 360 off a jump ramp. Haha!
Where was that?
It’s called Forman, and it’s in Litchfield, Connecticut.
So far away from everything you’d always been around.
I think, ultimately, that helped me. I needed that because I was just running around crazy because I had this heavy reputation in New York City at such a young age. I could get away with murder.
But wasn’t it heartbreaking to have that taken away?
Of course. I couldn’t go anywhere else, no school in the city would take me. Thank god for my family, because even though I was a complete fuck-up and a maniac, they still supported me and would be hard on me, telling me I needed to get my act together and I can’t make a career out of skateboarding. Part of that was also because my dad was an artist—he was a Fulbright scholar and one of the guys who helped create the School of Visual Arts—and my uncle was a Broadway playwright, so I just grew up around artists. Every one of our friends were artists, and I was a really good artist because I grew up with professional artists teaching me how to do artwork. Haha! It wasn’t like, “Here’s a colouring book”, it was more, “Here’s some graph paper, here’s how you use a Rapidograph, here’s how you sharpen a pencil with an X-Acto knife”.
I was always the best artist in the school, and with everybody telling me how good an artist I was, and telling me that I was going to be an artist, I didn’t know why I was even in school. What do I need to know Math and History for? So that advantage backfired on me, and it fucked everything up for me. That was how I ended up in the boarding school. So I’m this New York City kid out in the country, walking around this school trying to find skate spots, and lo and behold, behind the dining hall, there’s a six foot quarterpipe, already built. And I wasn’t the only kid there that decided to go there because they saw the ramp. There were two other guys that skated, so even though I’d been taken away from New York City, me and these guys had a skateboard ramp to ourselves.
I’m this New York City kid out in the country, walking around this school trying to find skate spots, and lo and behold, behind the dining hall, there’s a six foot quarterpipe, already built
Having that thing there must have been pivotal, in terms of the rest of your life. You could have had everything wrung out of you there. As the intention might have been.
I can’t say enough good things about that school. Forman is designed to help kids with learning problems, or fuck-ups and screw-ups, or kids who have dyslexia or ADHD so it was a really good place for me to go and they were super supportive of all things creative that I was into. They had a really amazing arts program, they taught me how to make films and gave me access to movie cameras, and they had their computer lab. When the Macintosh came out it was still so early that all the programs were made by Apple. So MacPaint, and MacWrite, and MacAnimation… Computers seemed cool but it was still 16-bit, crappy black and white stuff, which might be cool for a part of a graphic that I might put into a Xerox machine, but there I didn’t see a future in it.
When I graduated, in 1988, the last month I was there, Apple came to the school to do a presentation in the computer lab, and they had the Apple II, which was the first full-colour, photo-realistic computer they were going to offer. They probably had an early version of Photoshop but I didn’t know what it was, I just saw this 3D graphic—a still image of a reflective silver sphere on a checkerboard floor. I can make that on this in my room? So when I graduated, my family—because they’re so awesome—asked me what I wanted as a graduation present, and I wanted an Apple II. I got it, but it was so new that there was nothing for it, no programs, so I basically sat there and looked at the preferences, just seeing how it might work, you know? There was a writing program where you could write stuff, but no way of drawing.
My mom was an art director, she moved away from that to become New York City’s pre-eminent headhunter for computer graphics, but at this point she’s still art directing so I ask her to ask her colleagues what I need to do to make this computer work. It turns out one guy she works with is beta-testing Illustrator and Photoshop, and so behind Adobe’s back he made copies of the programs and sold them to me and my mom illegally. Hahaha! We met him in a McDonald’s, he gave us an envelope and my mom gave him $100 or something. Everything’s on floppy disk, so you’re loading installer disk one, installer disk two, installer disk three and so on forever. Then you load up Illustrator and learn how to draw a square, and then colour the square. Then you learn how to draw a circle, and colour the circle. But nothing was in colour in real-time because the computers were still so weak.
So I was using the pen tool to draw graffiti letters, to write something like ‘Fresh’ or whatever, but it would just be points and lines so I’d fill it with a fade but you’d have to do it all in your head. Like, the ‘F’ is going to be red, the ‘R’ is going to be orange, the ‘E’ is going to be yellow, the ’S’ is going to be baby blue and the ‘H’ is going to be dark blue and then you’d press CMD+R to render and just sit there while it would draw what you wanted. It took forever. Anyway at this time I’d got into film school, at the School of Visual Arts, and I was just skating, working out Photoshop and Illustrator, and going out to nightclubs. I wasn’t into partying or getting wasted, drink or drugs, but I think after being at boarding school I just wanted to be around people.
To see what’s going on.
Yeah, so I was going out to nightclubs, and listening to a lot of hip-hop. Hip-hop was moving away from the ‘hippity-hoppity’ thing and evolving into the newer, early-‘90s stuff. That was pretty much my life and everybody in New York had pretty much stopped skateboarding. All the guys that were good enough to do it for a living, the Jeff Pangs of the world, the Chris Pastrases, the Sean Sheffeys, they all left the city and went to California, so everyone who stayed in New York and went on to do other stuff, like Mario Sorrenti who went on to become a very famous fashion photographer or Dante Ross who went on to make music. So everybody I had skateboarded with had vanished and I was skateboarding by myself.
What had happened at Shut by this point?
Well Shut was trying to keep it going, and they had Jeremy Henderson, but the whole original Shut mega-team of Coco and Barker Barrett and Sheffey was over. All those guys left, and the only people around weren’t making any noise. Manufacturing had become a problem but they were still trying to keep it going. And they had a warehouse full of old decks they couldn’t sell. I was still skateboarding for the fun of it but that core group who’d grown up skating in the ‘80s had all moved on to surfing.
Andy Kessler and Bruno too?
This is no diss to Andy Kessler, and it’s public knowledge, but at this point he was in a really dark place, he had a drug problem. I knew Andy and I grew up with Andy but at this point he was just keeping to himself. I think he was the manager of a pool hall but I didn’t know he had a drug problem so I’d be asking him to come skate but he’d just be doing his pool thing. So anyway around 1990, or ’91, I’m going to college and I’m living with my mom and sister on the Upper West Side in this three bedroom apartment and my mom decides that she wants to move. She’d been wanting to move for about a year, looking for a place downtown that she loved, and she found it, but the problem was that it only had two bedrooms, so she came to me when I was 19 and said, “Eli, I’m moving out and I’m taking your sister. You’re going to have to live here by yourself”. Woah.
Eli blasts up a tree in central park
I was just like, “Fuck yeah!” That was a big win. It meant I could let people crash there, all the skaters that would come through would have a room. It was while this was all going on that the Shut thing collapsed. They lost all their money, Bruno took off and they just left all their skateboards in the warehouse.
All my friends had basically left New York City, I was going to film school, I had my mom’s apartment and I had computer skills in Illustrator. I’d been working as a hired gun for big design firms who needed Adobe Illustrator mercenaries, and from going out to nightclubs I’d been making connections there. A new nightclub called Mars opened and they needed promoters, so a friend of mine, Carter Smith, told me that I could get $100 a night to go around with a knapsack full of flyers and hand them out. I was at the tip of the cutting edge in terms of working with computer graphics and I was learning the craft of design and printing from working as ‘the computer kid’ for all these senior graphic designers.
I was in this little happy place, making all this stuff. One of the other things that comes into play here is that I had sort of skated for Stüssy in the mid-‘80s. My friend Paul Mittleman, who was a local kid, had a family who had a clothing shop that sold new-wave clothing in the ‘80s, the fluorescent and checkerboard stuff, and Paul had built a relationship with Shawn Stüssy when he was still just a surfboard shaper. One of the first places that Stüssy t-shirts were ever sold was at Paul’s family’s clothing store on Broadway.
What was Paul’s shop?
It was called Pandemonium.
It wasn’t ever called Paul’s Boutique, was it?
Haha! No. That’s just coincidental. Now because Paul had connections with the real New York City fashion lines, him and Shawn kinda partnered up. They got a showroom and Paul was kinda second-in-charge there, under Shawn Stüssy, and they would give me shirts, and stickers for my Santa Monica Airlines boards, but it was a weird time because it wasn’t like it is today, where you need to represent for your sponsors and deliver clips and photos. It was more just, “Oh, you hang out with all the cool people, here’s some stuff to wear”.
Did you acknowledge at the time that these were the ‘cool’ people?
One hundred percent. The idea of ‘cool’… This is something I’ve considered writing a book about. The word ‘cool’… The idea of what ‘cool’ is comes from originally comes from American jazz musicians during prohibition in the 1920s.
When they’d ask if someone was cool, it meant, “Is this guy cool? Can we smoke weed around him? Is he a cop? Can we go to a speakeasy and drink, or go to a whorehouse? Is this guy cool?”, but that changed as it continued on. Being cool used to mean that a select group of people would sign off on you. It was almost like chivalry, like how your ‘reputation precedes you’.
Cool used to mean ‘counter culture’. Against what everyone else was doing. What normal people were doing. Now, what it’s turned into, which me and my contemporaries are sort of at fault for, is that ‘cool’ means that you’re doing something on some predetermined checklist, like you’ve got the right pants on and the right pair of shoes and you bought it all from a specific company.
‘You’ve spent the most money on the right stuff, you’re cool’.
Exactly. What it’s turned into is a consumer culture. What’s tragic about it, and I see it all the time, is people dressed head-to-toe in Yeezy or Supreme, and it’s really just an announcement that they have money. You can even see from these guys that they’ve never been in a fight, they’ve never been to a museum, they’ve never read a book, all they care about is collecting. Their skill set is that they are able to pay for cool stuff.
People who have never seen Skypager.
Exactly. I mean cool people do still exist, But they are not people who just purchase ‘cool items’. To me you could be dressed head to toe in the right thrift shop clothes and shit on any Off White anything. If you’re somebody like Jason Dill and you’re selling Fucking Awesome in Supreme, you’re still a cool guy because you know what good music is and good art, but you can tell somebody who has stood in line for twelve hours to get the drip.
Don’t wear the same brand head to toe. That’s the worst.
It’s all been so abused now that it has no meaning anymore. The actual ‘cool kids’ here in New York might have one or two Stüssy or Supreme shirts, but the kids in High School who are gonna be the future are almost exclusively all thrift shopping; they all want clothes that no-one else has. I mean, you know you can get those limited edition sneakers if you’ve got enough money, but if I put the effort in and go thrift shopping and find a 1989 World Series t-shirt with Michael Jordan on it, then you could be the only one in the world with that.
Current companies are making that stuff now, making clothes that look like they’ve come from a thrift store. It looks cool and interesting but it’s got a skateboard company label inside it.
I don’t really know where this is all going, but it’s a fad that’s really blowing up in the States.
Those people can feel more secure buying something for $50 if it’s got a label they know inside it. They’d ignore the same thing for $1 in a thrift store because they wouldn’t know if it was safe to wear or not.
Right. That’s the trick. I have, on the record in various places, been saying that Supreme—and those guys are my friends and I love them all and they’re great designers who do a great job—to a large part of their consumer base, what they are selling is a false sense of security because the kids who are buying it, if they get dissed for what they’re wearing they can always say “These are Supreme and they cost $1,000, so fuck you!” and that is the corniest thing ever.
It’s almost like they’re cowards; they’re scared of taking a risk or being ridiculed. All those companies are selling security blankets for cowards. I think people are aware of it now because a lot of the kids who are Supreme-heads or sneaker-heads or whatever the fuck it is, are just the saddest kind of people. They’re almost the same as what computer nerds were in the ‘70s, that kind of level of dork. The ‘I live in my mom’s basement and collect action figures’ type guy. I feel that there’s a component of that nowadays in people who are ‘hypebeasting’.
People accumulating all these clothes then hardly even wearing them.
Ha! Exactly. So to go back, I was getting Stüssy clothes and I had a connection with Paul, so when I started doing the nightclub and it started doing really good we got the idea of doing a Stüssy night. That was right when Stüssy was blowing up and everybody loved it, and streetwear was still mysterious and nobody knew how anything was made. It was a new frontier.
That was right when Stüssy was blowing up and everybody loved it, and streetwear was still mysterious and nobody knew how anything was made. It was a new frontier
You were putting your own club night on?
Yeah, and to make a long story short, I was the guy who saw that you could bring hip-hop into nightclubs. I would stay at home and listen to hip-hop, and then I’d go out to nightclubs but it would all be house music. They would never play hip-hop because the hip-hop parties always got shot up and they got shot up because there were so few places to hear it! It would always bring in a criminal element, and people who had beef with each other. So me and my friends Beasley, Yuki and the Duke of Denmark started the hip-hop party at Mars on Friday nights called Trip, and it blew up. It was the first time you could go to an established nightclub and actually hear hip-hop music.
So we do this Stüssy night, and everybody who is anybody in hip-hop in New York City is coming to our party every week and everybody knows that we’re the promoters. My buddy Beasley passed away; he was a black guy who also used to skate for Shut, so I was the white guy and he was the black guy, we were two cool guys in New York City who skateboarded and wrote graffiti and everybody from Washington Square Park, and all the rappers and graffiti writers in New York City, would come to our party.
The Stüssy party wasn’t going to be a promotional thing, it was just that every week we would try to come up with a different theme just to keep it interesting, so I pitched the idea to Paul and right away Shawn went a drew a pass that said ‘The International Stüssy Tribe party’ in his handwriting. It was great, so we sent it to the printer and I was really proud of it because I was such a fan of Shawn’s, and here was my party being advertised in his handwriting.
What was the tie-in there, beyond getting the people from the shop down?
People would come to the parties anyway. One of the things I hated about going out to parties was that, because I went to every nightclub every night, I knew everything at the clubs and I always hated when somebody would be like, “Oh, come to my party, we’re doing this different thing” and I’d go along and it would be the same as it always was. I felt conned. So we always tried to try something that was unique, and that really started with the holidays. We’d do a Halloween party, a Christmas party, those kinds of things. So there was always at least an attempt to make it something interesting. We did a Shut night once, and invited all the skaters. Stuff like that. We did a reggae Christmas party!
There’s some great Christmas reggae! This is an important part of New York City’s nightclub lineage though, how things were curated and created by the actual people.
Exactly. One of my heroes, although I didn’t realise it at the time, was Eric Goode. Eric Goode and a guy called Rudolph. Before I could start going out to clubs, when I was a little kid, the cool club in the city was called Danceteria, and Danceteria was famous for its multi-levels with different kinds of music. All the graffiti writers would go there, Dondi and Futura, and that’s where Madonna’s career started. So Rudolph, this blonde German guy, was the head promoter for Mars, so when I first got there I knew there was good lineage there because I loved everything that came out of Danceteria. At the same time there was the rave thing going on, at the other end of the club world. The crazy drug-using, dressed-up-like-a-cartoon-character shit. But I knew all those guys too, and I’d see them and think how it must take them five hours to get ready to go out. Michael Tron and Michael Alig. He’s the club kid who killed his drug dealer.
All these crazy, creative people were in this night life scene. But a lot of the time, there was not a lot of effort put in to the parties. So when when we had this Stüssy party, we really made a push. People wondered how we got the coolest clothing company to represent and stand behind our party and I was very proud of that. The Friday night comes and I show up early to set up as usual, and the guys at the club told me a load of boxes had showed up for me… Without telling me, Stüssy had made 500 t-shirts for the party. I couldn’t believe it, I was so stoked that they went and spent the money on that. That they thought that the club I was doing had enough impact that it was worth Stüssy making all these tee shirts to give away. I was making a tangible effect. I could just give these things away to everybody. Throw them into the crowd. That was even before cross-branding stuff. So while this is going on, Russell Simmons… You know who Russell Simmons is, right?
He’s my next question.
Haha! Right. So at this point in his life Russell Simmons is making a lot of money with Def Jam, he’s like the big man on campus, and he’s spending time at a fancy, high-end clothing boutique in SoHo called Bagutta, who had the exclusive contract for Dolce & Gabbana in New York City. For whatever reason, Russell had become infatuated with fashion models, and he’s taking fashion models to Bagutta so that they’ll ‘like’ him. Now, around the corner from Bagutta was the Union Stüssy store. It was called Union but they had the exclusive for Stüssy, and it was owned by James Jebbia.
So James Jebbia had this little boutique around the corner from Bagutta, and Mark Bagutta, the owner of it, notices that all the cool kids are hanging out there. He sees that they’re all listening to hip-hop music, wearing baggy pants and buying Stüssy, so he gets Russell and brings him round the corner to the Union store and tells him that because he’s the king of hip-hop, he needs to start a clothing line like Stüssy. He agrees, and ends up coming to my party where I’m throwing all this Stüssy stuff out, giving it away, and figures that I know how to make clothes. Which I do not.
We also had a friend in common, Dominic Treniere—who also passed away—who wasn’t really a skater but was into high fashion and hip-hop. Dominic basically made the careers of Maxwell and D’Angleo. So Russell is asking Dominic who I am, who my crew is, and he says that Paul Mittleman does the Stüssy thing, Eli and Alyasha do graphics and they all skateboard together. So we get this phone call from Dominic telling us that Russell Simmons wants to hire the three of us to start a clothing line, similar to Stüssy but more hip-hop. Like the Def Jam version of Stüssy.
So we get this phone call from Dominic telling us that Russell Simmons wants to hire the three of us to start a clothing line, similar to Stüssy but more hip-hop. Like the Def Jam version of Stüssy.
The guy that put out all those Public Enemy and Run DMC records hiring a skinny white kid with glasses from the Upper West to do his clothing line was pretty interesting.
Oh for sure. I think we all know that hip-hop is a black thing, but Russell’s partner was Rick Rubin, who was a white heavy metal guy, and they ran Def Jam out of their NYU dorm, and the Beastie Boys were down with them. There’s always been the thought that if you can get white kids involved in it, you’re going to make more money. That’s the whole reason why Walk This Way even happened for Run DMC and Aerosmith. To cross over, unity. To make the suggestion that we’re all in this together.
I guess that’s also why 3rd Bass happened.
Oh for sure! So ultimately when it came time to start this, Paul Mittleman did not want to start it with us, he wanted to go do his own thing, so the whole Phat Farm thing was me and Alyasha, and Russell loved it. Alyasha’s a light-skinned black guy and I’m a white dude, and he loved that dynamic of, “We’re from the streets and were making clothes”, but this was also unproven territory! People were wearing Tommy Hilfiger and Polo and Nautica and North Face, and no-one’s wearing any kind of culturally-related brand or anything like that, so this was a big risk for him and he put a lot of faith in me and Alyasha. It’s a whole crazy story about how that all came to pass but I was a lucky, lucky kid.
Polo and Tommy were the shit though, and skateboard companies weren’t making good clothes. It was hard to get but it was worth it.
When I was a kid growing up you had to get the Dickies pants from the construction supplies place, you had to get the Champion sweater from the sporting goods store and there was only one place in New York City that sold Vans. If you wanted North Face you had to go to some outdoorsman shop. We had no Supreme or Diamond Supply Co. or Billionaire Boys Club. I think it’s Pratt, the art school, who are offering an entire curriculum on streetwear now… When I talk to people that tell me they have a clothing brand nowadays I find it hard to wrap my head around that because I suppose there’s traditional fashion design where you have the idea of a silhouette and then you go find the fabric and then you earnestly go and design clothes, but where I’m from it’s more about cobbling together a look because there was nothing available.
That was what made you cool, because you knew the ‘cool guy look’ and you somehow knew people who could hit you with where to get everything. Once you had that outfit on, with stuff from all those different places, and you walked into Washington Square Park or walked into the club, people would know you knew what was up, because you knew where to go to get those things. Nowadays you don’t need to know that. You can be the biggest idiot in the world and just go online and tap ‘buy’ and as long as you’ve got a pay cheque you can fake it like you know what’s up, but you don’t know what’s up. You’re just buying stuff.
Wearing the shit that was hard to get, the stuff you had to travel for and ask around for, was so much more rewarding than going into a skate shop and buying whatever’s on the shelf.
That’s the big difference between the culture then and what’s happening now. It’s like with music, you’d be listening to the radio or watching MTV and then be like, “Devo? Who are these guys?! How do I get their music?” and the only way you’d get those answers was to get on a train and drag your ass to the record store, then get vibed out by all the guys who work there but eventually spend enough time there that one of them talks to you and explains who Devo are and where they’re from and what records you should buy. It was a trial by fire but it was an education, and then you were master of that knowledge and could go back to your friends and explain to them what Devo are all about.
I think there’s justifiable gatekeeping in certain parts of certain cultures. Having all the right kit doesn’t mean you win.
A lot of the young guys who skate for us now are still in High School, and I asked them what they were even learning. Every paper they could possibly write has already been written and you can just download it now, and if that’s the case, why do you need to know anything? If you want to know who Devo is you just need to Google it. And those guys, universally, were all, “Man, it’s crazy how much stuff you guys remember!” They’re amazed that their parents and me can remember songs and scenes from movies. It’s like people don’t want to have a memory anymore. What’s the point? All the information is readily available.
Eli flies out of a jump ramp in Riverside Park. Photo: Luis Fernandez
That’s something I think about a lot. I realise now that when I was a little kid, watching the first New York guys skate on the quarterpipe in Riverside Park? Those guys still had to go through the same shit that I had to go through. They still had to learn to how to put a skateboard together, and if they’re listening to, say, It’s Just Begun, how do you get that record? Who is that?
The Jimmy Castor Bunch.
Jimmy Castor! So how do you learn about that song, where do you go to get it, all that stuff. I’m 50 years old and for 40 years of my life, I felt like I had a very firm grasp of everything culturally. I knew where the music was coming from, I knew where the clothing was coming from and everybody who was making that stuff was referencing stuff that I understood.
I loved going out to clubs since I was 13 or 14 years old, seeing what people were doing, see what was going on and hearing the different music, but recently when trap-rap took over, when mumble-rap came out, Soundcloud, stuff like Migos and Lil Yachty, I couldn’t get behind it. I don’t like how it sounds and I feel like it doesn’t reference anything. It’s not hip-hop. It’s something else. I wish they, the creators of that style, made up their own name for it… ‘Lazy Phaze’, or something unique to them. Something not ‘rap’. I know it’s now the most listened to music, but it’s not hip-hop.
I think people’s insecurity led to that homogenisation of pop music. Nobody’s going to be the person to say, “Hang on, isn’t this total shit?” to their friends.
When I was listening to punk rock and my grandfather would ask what the fuck this terrible music was, I could explain that it’s meant to sound like that because the music industry had become so commercialised so this was a reaction to that, so when the younger guys I was skating with were listening to mumble rap I asked them why, and they’d tell me it was ‘cool’—there’s that fucking word again—I’d ask them to explain why it was cool but they don’t have anything.
It just seems that because of some magical Soundcloud algorithm, this sound sort of randomly percolated to the top—barrel of crabs—and kids, not wanting to be ostracised by seeming like they weren’t into it, just went along with it. ’Robots tell me this is cool’. And everyone just agreed that this is dope. But maybe I’m just out out touch, I don’t know, I would love for someone intellectual to prove me wrong.
Alright, so Phat Farm.
Right. So that was kind of a mess, we really didn’t know what we were doing, but it worked out in the end. A lot of bad blood got boiled up because, on one hand, Russell had this fame and recognition, but these guys had been my friends all my life. We ended up turning on one another, and it got really dark. On top of that, no-one knew if it was going to work, if people were even going to buy this stuff and be into it, but it 110% totally worked.
People were queuing up at the stores to buy it, but at the end of the day me and Alyasha didn’t have any ownership, it was entirely owned by Russell Simmons and we were his employees. There was no upside to it and I felt a bit cheated, because it was a brand identity that I made with my friend and a lot of the stuff we made, we had to fight for, because Russell wanted to go in another stupid fuckin’ direction that would never have worked.
Alyasha Moore and Eli Gesner. Phat Farm Days
You saved his credibility. I think if he’d blown it with Phat Farm, at that time, he’d have been fucked.
Exactly. That’s part of being an artist. If you’re fortunate to have the money and be able to go do what you want, there’s no guarantee you’re going to make something awesome, and there’s a huge argument for the thought that there needs to be somebody involved who’s only interested in making money to keep you in line because, whether it’s a clothing line a skateboard company or anything else, you could make a pile of shit that nobody wants to look at and only has meaning to you and your friends. If you’re a painter and you’re hanging up paintings that people want to see, then that’s the purest form of art that you can do, but once you start investing money and manufacturing you have to be sure that people will want it.
When Shut went out of business, Rodney got evicted, and I had that three bedroom apartment uptown so I let him come and live with me for a while. I was blessed with that apartment and always wanted to hook up my people. Around then Rodney told me he wanted to do another skateboard company, because skateboarding was going to make a comeback. This is at the point where nobody’s skateboarding. Rodney told me that Zoo York was the name that would put New York skateboarding forever on the map. I was 100% behind that. Rodney talked to Marc Edmonds and the original Zoo York crew, and asked if we could use the Zoo York name. Marc Edmonds gave us his blessing as long as we stayed true to Zoo York and got the name up. Very graffiti.
Rodney talked to Marc Edmonds and the original Zoo York crew, and asked if we could use the Zoo York name. Marc Edmonds gave us his blessing as long as we stayed true to Zoo York and got the name up
At this time computers were $60,000, so once I was part of Zoo York I used Russell Simmons by using the computers I made him get for me against himself. Photoshop and Illustrator, printers, everything I would need to start a company. He just left me to my own devices. I’d be in Def Jam Records or Rush Communications all night long doing Phat Farm stuff anyway, so when we started Zoo I would wait until everybody had left the office and call Rodney up and he’d come by and we’d stay up all night making Zoo York stuff.
Around that time, I still had some cache in the nightclub world, and there was a club called the Tunnel which was really popular in the ‘80s, that was being reopened, and Eric Goode—one of my design heroes—was doing the new interior design. I’d be excited to work with Eric Goode on anything he’d want to do…
Did Eric decide it needed a miniramp?
Ha, that’s what I’m getting to. Hahaha! So yeah, he wanted to put a miniramp in the nightclub, he wanted kids skateboarding in there and he wanted them skating in silver jumpsuits. Haha! To make a long story short, I got him to make a bigger skateboard ramp, one that would require installation, into the fuckin’ wall.
I knew he was always trying to mix it up and do things differently, so I knew if they made a little ramp they would just move it the fuck out of there, but if I could convince him to invest in this giant fuckin’ miniramp then we were good to go because they wouldn’t be able to get rid of it. It also had to be four feet off the ground because of architectural constraints, so he went for it because I showed him it could be used as a stage as well.
Eli backside ollies at the tunnel. Photo: Tobin Yelland
It was this magical time, still getting money from Phat Farm, staying up all night doing Zoo York stuff with Rodney and Adam Schatz and then we got ourselves a little warehouse in the Meatpacking District when it was still a shithole and the rent was dirt cheap. It was a wild time. The Tunnel thing happened so I got to build the ramp, and then all the skaters got hooked up at the nightclub, for years and years you could just walk in there and get free drinks and skate all night. It was like a dream.
And then I ran into James Jebbia who told me he was going to open a skate shop. Now, at this point there were no skate shops in New York City because nobody really skateboarded so I was stoked to hear he was going to make one. Then he said it wasn’t going to be a normal skate shop; he was going to open it in SoHo and it was going be like a White Box gallery, where the board graphics would be the artwork. So instead of going into a white gallery and there are paintings, you’re gonna go into a white gallery and there’ll be skateboards, and I thought that was fuckin’ awesome.
So Supreme happened, and everybody who skated for Zoo York would hang out there. Then we’d all go to the Tunnel to skate the ramp. Eventually Gus Van Sant, and Larry Clark, and Harmony showed up, and then Kids happened which ended up being this massive advertising blitz for Zoo York. Everything just led to the next thing, it was like a once-in-a-lifetime perfect storm of creativity and youthful energy.
then Kids happened which ended up being this massive advertising blitz for Zoo York. Everything just led to the next thing, it was like a once-in-a-lifetime perfect storm of creativity and youthful energy
Did you think that movie would be a big deal? There was a lot of good stuff going on then, so did it just seem like another fun thing to do and move on from?
No-one in it thought it was going to be what it ended up being. We just thought it was Gus Van Sant giving Harmony and Larry a chance to make a movie about everybody and we’d make some money from being in a movie. Fuck it, let’s do it, you know? No-one knew it was going to set everyone’s career off.
How true was it?
It’s kind of weird; the story about the person having AIDS and then running around having sex with people and infecting them without knowing it apparently comes from a real story. Before he made films Larry would document juvenile delinquents and their social groups, and in the ‘80s he was apparently hanging out with these gay Puerto Rican hustler prostitute boys on 42nd Street, and there are books about that, but I think that that really happened to one of those guys.
The most desired gay prostitute boy had AIDS and he didn’t know it so he’s running around fucking everyone, and then people started finding out and it they wanted to stop him before he could do it again. No skater in our world ever died of AIDS, or ever infected anybody, so that cautionary tale has nothing to do with us, but the New York City skater kid world that it exists in is one hundred percent accurate… Actually, maybe not quite one hundred percent. The bit where everybody is hanging out at the fountain at Washington Square Park? That’s not where we hung out. It was just the most cinematic place to shoot!
Best place to film a beatdown.
Yeah. We actually hung out around the corner on a little wall. Some of it is a little contrived.
Would Zoo have started if Shut was still going? Would there have been a need for it?
There’s a thing about life that I become more and more aware of as I get older, which is a thing called apophenia, which is the human mind’s pre-disposition to find order where there is none. There’s another aspect of it called pareidolia. Like if you’re with your kid and you look at the clouds and see Mickey Mouse. There’s no Mickey Mouse, it’s random gas vapour, and it’s us placing the idea of Mickey Mouse into chaos.
I’m more aware as I get older that there are so many times in life where things could go one way or the other. How many people have won the lottery and had their whole life ruined because suddenly they don’t know if people like them for themselves or for their money, and their family is robbing them, or they get a drug addiction?
The UK’s biggest ever lottery winner just killed himself.
Oh wow. Well there you go. It goes against everything about why we’re here, the reasons we have houses and roads and cars and electrical energy and language is specifically because we’re trying to find order where there is none. But the truth is that there’s nothing you can do. There’s no perfect plan. If you told me to write down one hundred occupations I would want to do when I was fifteen years old, clothing designer would never have shown up. I had zero interest in that. Haha!
That’s probably why it worked out. People who desperately want to do some creative thing for a living are doing it for the wrong reasons.
That’s it. People ask me how to do what I did, but when I was doing that stuff it was unprecedented, there was no hip-hop clothing company, there was no streetwear industry and there were no skateboard companies in New York City. I’ve always wanted to focus my energies on what I’m passionate about but at the same time it’s always important to be aware of opportunities. Like when the Phat Farm thing happened, I’d also been asked to be a PA on a Robert De Niro movie that was shooting in New York. All I’d ever wanted to do, all I ever want to do, is make movies, so ‘filmmaker’ was at the top of my teenage list of occupations and that could have been the dream.
I’d also been asked to be a PA on a Robert De Niro movie that was shooting in New York. All I’d ever wanted to do, all I ever want to do, is make movies, so ‘filmmaker’ was at the top of my teenage list of occupations and that could have been the dream
I could have gone along and there would be 50 or 60 other PAs running around on that movie set, but Russell Simmons had asked if I wanted to take a chance to do this clothing thing. So I thought that even if I did something that I wasn’t completely interested in, at least if it became a success, then I would be someone who succeeds at things, which would allow other people to take more chances on me, instead of only doing the thing that I’m impassioned about.
It’s better to do something else well than to ruin your enthusiasm for what you care about by trying and failing at that, I guess.
Interesting. Yes. I think another thing that most successful people will tell you about, and it’s like why the lottery winners kill themselves, is that they didn’t earn it. They just happened to get ten million dollars. If you’ve busted your ass cleaning toilets, making a sculpture or recording an album and you get ten million dollars, you’re like, “Damn, I fucking deserved that”. And another thing, as somebody who has made skateboard graphics, clothing lines, skateboard videos, music videos, movies and TV shows, I can tell you that they all suck. Haha!
Because, regardless of what the job is, it’s all hard, hard work. Having a work ethic, and working with people, is never easy. It’s always a fuckin’ challenge. Shit goes wrong constantly and you have to fix it and make it work. If you can master that, if you can master holding fast through any storm, then that’s really the only skill you need. If the wheels fall off you have to fix those shits and keep it going.
Eli Morgan Gesner. NYC surrounded Pop Shove It
Most dream jobs aren’t what people think, it’s ultimately mostly sitting at a computer and speaking to dickheads on the phone, whatever you’re doing. Did you know that Dave Stewart complained about having ‘Paradise Syndrome’, where he had everything and there was nothing more to aim for?
Was there nothing else he could do? Could he only make music? Maybe he should have moved onto painting?
The standard activity for washed-up rock stars.
Haha! I think you need to have a good outlook, you need to think optimistically and focus on the glass being half full, rather than all the problems. I did some bad math regarding the work I do, and I’m operating at about a 30% success rate. There is lots of shit that no-one ever sees that completely falls apart. Stuff that I spend months and months working on, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath, and there are only two things you can do! You can sit there and cry, or go, “Fuck it”, and keep on going, find something else to do and keep moving.
You know Victoria’s Secret? There’s a guy from San Francisco, the creator of the company, the guy who started it up and named it, who worked on it for a few years at the beginning and then sold it for eight million dollars to a bigger company. That bigger company put money into it, structured it, managed it well and in another few years it was an eighty million dollar company. So what did the guy do? He jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and killed himself. He thought he lost the biggest opportunity of his life. That he had nothing.
But he was the guy who created fucking Victoria’s Secret! He could have done anything! He could have walked in anywhere and introduced himself as the guy who started Victoria’s Secret and he could have done anything. Sadly, he could only focus on the fact that he didn’t make as much money as he potentially could have with Victoria’s Secret. What a waste.
When you decided to call the new skateboard company Zoo York, and had permission to use that name, did you feel an enormous sense of responsibility to the name? A duty to respect that heritage?
After Marc Edmonds gave us his blessing he passed away not a year later. So then it felt like we were the keepers of the name, and we had to think about how we could represent for that legacy.
The thing about the Soul Artists of Zoo York, specifically Marc, was that it was politically active. For the time, he was very socialist, so he wanted to include as many people as possible and he did a lot of community outreach stuff. Back in the ‘70s the city was falling apart, and in America at that time there was the period of ‘white flight’, where all the rich white people left the inner cities to go live in the suburbs, and so the city had all these vacant store fronts. There was a program where if you did things for the community, the city would just let you have a storefront, so that was originally how Soul Artists manifested itself, as a meeting place for all the graffiti artists—and I’m talking about people like Basquiat, Futura 2000 and Dondi being up there, all the greats.
When we started using the name there were only a handful of skaters and nobody was really representing for New York, so it was easy, it was a bunch of local skaters and we were going to be Zoo York, getting the name out there, but as we started to get more popular and more people became aware of the company, people thought that we came up with the name and that it was only associated with a skateboard company so we started to take measures to ensure that people understood that there was a heritage to it, that it goes back generations and we’re not the creators of the name, we’re the implementors of the name, the ones who’ve been handed this legacy.
we started to take measures to ensure that people understood that there was a heritage to it, that it goes back generations and we’re not the creators of the name, we’re the implementors of the name, the ones who’ve been handed this legacy
In the ads, I used to do the gutter text where I’d write little messages along the side of the ad, and that’s where I’d give shout-outs to graffiti writers and try to explain that Zoo York isn’t some corporate concept, it’s generations of people who came before us. I did a shirt with all the people who taught me how to skate, from Ben Alverez, to Ian Frahm, to Bruno, I tagged all their names to get the message out, because we wanted to be clear that this was not some cleverly-constructed marketing scheme by some group of men in a boardroom, this is a legacy of friends. And that all seemed manageable, because Zoo York was just something for skateboarders and it was just us in a shitty warehouse.
When we made our first website, the opening page talked overtly about the heritage and we went out of our way for years and years to have the history of Zoo York on the website for anybody who cared to read it. It’s important to us. But then, after Kids had happened, we were unsure of how to utilise the attention we were getting to maximise the Zoo York heritage. At that point the choice was to either start a distribution company like Deluxe or NHS or Dwindle, basically an umbrella company for other companies…
Like Empire and Illuminati.
Yeah, well Illuminati got shut down because in America, the trademark classification there would be for ‘Sport and Games’, and there’s a card game called Illuminati, so we were told that we couldn’t have a skateboard company called Illuminati because it infringes on this playing card nerd game. It’s crazy to think that the NFL, the biggest sporting organisation in the world, are in the same category as Twister and Pictionary. The wheel company we tried, Empire, didn’t have much success, and then there’s the other problem: skateboarders. Not that they’re a problem, but the more skateboard companies you have, the more skateboarders you need, and that can be difficult.
Nowadays you’d have a lot less problem trying to get people to stay in New York City but back then a lot of skaters didn’t want to stay here. It wasn’t looked at as a skateboard destination, it was a sort of novelty that people would visit on a trip but nobody wanted to live here and explore the city. So since we weren’t getting into distribution, clothing was the only thing to expand with. Other companies would just dilute the potency of Zoo York, so we wanted to maximise the Zoo York name, so to do that we partnered up with Ecko Unltd. We had a lot of offers, but Ecko Unltd had the infrastructure. They had factories, shipping, production designers and they had connections to all the stores globally, so that was when we went heavy into making clothes, and it worked really, really well.
There was a really good time there when we were making really cool clothes that were going into department stores all over the world, and it was a serious brand, but it was always our idea to keep the spirit of The Soul Artists going. At that point we had a bit of a moral conundrum, wondering if we were selling out… ‘Would ALI approve of this?’ sort of thinking. Because on the one hand, we’re now working with huge international companies but on the other hand more people are aware now of Zoo York and what it’s about, and we can use that interest to teach people about where it comes from. About the original graffiti crew that started it. And oddly, on top of that, we’ve taken the Zoo York name and blown it up bigger than any graffiti writer ever could. Grandmothers know about it. So, that was how we looked at it.
The mission statement was always to involve more than just skateboarding, like with the Mixtape video bringing hip-hop in. The mission statement was always to promote New York City street culture, so that was always our guideline. If somebody wanted to use a ballerina with the Zoo York brand, for instance, we would think, “Are ballerinas part of New York City street culture? No. But maybe there’s something we could do if we put them in the street and have them dance there. That would be Zoo York”. That sort of thing is why it was important to have this guide and it worked really well for many years. But then the success started taking away the control that we had of the company. When it’s just you and your boys in a warehouse listening to hip-hop and having a good time, you can go and do whatever you want and that’s when you’re doing really creative stuff, but then when you have 300 employees in China making your clothes and 100 designers in America, then you have to be sure that you can sell enough clothes that these people can keep their jobs, never mind all the skateboarders.
So if you need to sell X amount of clothes, you need to have people like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s and PacSun selling your clothing, and if they’re selling your clothing you need to be accommodating to their needs and that means you can no longer do all the things you want. On one hand you have the giant responsibility of making this thing work so your employees get paid, have insurance and job security, and then you have Bloomingdale’s who doesn’t give a fuck about Zoo York any more than it gives a fuck about the other 200 brands it has in the store, so you have Bloomingdale’s coming to the meeting with sales reports and they start telling you what you have to make.
Basically, “We have 300 stores in the Midwest, and in the Midwest people are wearing jean cargo shorts, so we would like to order five different styles of jean cargo shorts, and we will buy 10,000 pairs of each in every size”. We don’t wear that stuff, we don’t know people who wear that, so are we becoming everything that Marc Edmonds didn’t want? Is that compromising the name? It started becoming a struggle. The people with whom we were working with at Ecko didn’t really give a fuck about Marc and the heritage, they were only really concerned with making money.
Did you make those cargo jorts for the Midwest?
Of course. You have to. And that’s just one example of one hundred piles of shit you have to eat. As an aside, Zoo York took off as a clothing company at the same time as Supreme opened as a clothing company.
And this was uncharted territory, there was no skateboard company that was in Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s or Selfridges, at that point, and the other people we knew who were making cool clothes were Stüssy, who had their own shop so they could be in Bloomingdale’s. But was that taking away from their own stores? It was always a bit of a struggle for them.
We met Nigo through Futura 2000 and Stash around then. Before Ecko. He wanted to do clothes with us. He wanted it keep it really small and under control, and open shops that were basically what Supreme is. We thought about it, but the Nigo/Supreme model of slow growth was totally unproven; the only people that did that was Stüssy and they had to close their stores down, and then Phat Farm who also had to close their stores down. And everyone who was killing it, like Polo or Hilfiger, were in Bloomingdales. We made a conscious decision to let Nigo and Supreme open their boutiques while we chose to go mass-market. Going mass-market, compared to the Supreme model, seemed like the thing Marc Edmonds would have approved of more because Supreme is for rich kids who want to wait in line. It’s elitist…
Some elitism might have been there at the beginning but the waiting-in-line thing took much longer. It wasn’t always like that.
Fair enough, you’re right. When it first opened, and I’m friends with all the guys who were there when it opened, it had a regular vibe, just a little bit fancier than a skateboard vibe, but when it started hitting in Japan—all of it, Supreme, Zoo York, the whole ‘90s New York skateboard/hip-hop thing—Japanese people would come into Supreme and just buy a hundred pieces of clothing to take away and resell in Japan. Once they realised these people were taking the stuff back to Japan and selling it for double what it cost, Jebbia put out a diktat that no-one could buy more than two of the same thing, all these proto-hypebeasts resellers are coming into Supreme, and the employees—who were all skateboarders, maybe with a little thug vibe because it’s New York—just started hating on them. “Put that the fuck down! Get the fuck out of the store!”, you know?
And that started opening up this whole other can of worms for Supreme, which was the customers figuring out that if they could do something nice for the sales guys they might then let them get fifty shirts, so the Japanese dudes started coming with limited edition G-Shock watches, Rolexes, digital cameras, all that stuff, and giving them to the the sales guys, and then taking them out to dinner afterwards. So that kind of thing was not in the spirit that Marc Edmonds would have wanted. It seemed elitist, greedy, capitalistic, manipulative and not embracing of everyone, whereas if we started selling clothes at Macy’s then anybody could walk in and buy it.
Similar to how anybody could look at a Zoo York tag on a wall.
Exactly. I’ve never really explained that to anybody, but that was all from me, Rodney, and Adam trying to be true to the roots of Zoo York. We had the opportunity to do the Supreme / Nigo / Bathing Ape model but that seemed elitist, and for us it was better to be in Macy’s and all those places.
That seems like the kind of socialist move that Marc would have approved of.
That’s it. So this took off in such a huge way and it was making a lot of money but all I really wanted to do was go and make movies, and at this point I was known for working on the movie Kids, but I couldn’t pursue that creative love of mine because I was so busy with Zoo York. What was I going to do, abandon all my friends who’d helped build this so I can go chase some dream in California? So I put that on the back burner and eventually got to a point where everything was moving along nicely and I was pretty excited, but some really bad things happened in 2003.
The Ecko people were on board with what we wanted for the brand, albeit begrudgingly because they wanted it to be bigger and to essentially sell out, but at that time I had become pretty good friends with Ashton Kutcher. We have friends in common, he’s an interesting and complicated guy, and we start hanging out. At this time he’s doing Punk’d on MTV, he’s just pulling pranks on people, he’s not from New York and he’s got nothing to do with skateboarding. The people at Ecko see a picture of us or something, and at the next meeting they’re asking if I’m friends with him and telling me that we need to put Ashton Kutcher in our clothes and make him our spokesperson…
The people at Ecko see a picture of us or something, and at the next meeting they’re asking if I’m friends with him and telling me that we need to put Ashton Kutcher in our clothes and make him our spokesperson
Now I didn’t want to do that, because he doesn’t fit with our mission statement to represent New York City street culture, so they backed off. There was a meeting to be sure we were all on the same page, and then I took a few weeks off to go surfing down in Panama. When I got back to Zoo everybody was kinda treating me weird, and it turns out that the Ecko guys knew I was away so they went behind my back to contact Ashton Kutcher and told him that I really wanted him to be our spokesperson but I was too embarrassed to ask so they were doing me a favour by speaking to him. They cut a deal with him to be the Zoo York spokesperson for 2003 for a million dollars.
Oh shit. And he’s doing it because he thinks you’re backing it.
Yeah. And it’s a million dollars. Haha! So I lost my shit, the Ecko guys stabbed me in the back and I couldn’t trust them anymore. And no disrespect to Ashton. He’s as much a victim in this as I am, albeit a more well paid one. Haha! One of the Ecko guys in particular was just a diabolical monster… Anyway. So I’m sitting in my office trying to rationalise how I can move forward with this when we’re about to go and shoot a year’s worth of ads with my friend who thinks that I wanted him to do this, and I can’t tell him I didn’t want him to do it because it’d fuck up the whole deal. So my two options were either to be a total dick, tell everybody to fuck off and destroy the whole thing, or try to figure out a way to make it work. So my thinking was Punk’d is similar to…
Yeah, Punk’d is a bit like Jackass, which is related to skateboarding and buffoonery, so I thought it could maybe work on that level, but once I did it that became the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. At that point it felt like some other person who had nothing to do with skateboarding or New York City had invaded. And where would this end? Would we get Shaquille O’Neal to wear Zoo York for five million dollars next time? I was burnt out on it and I knew if I tried to rationalise how Marc Edmonds would somehow approve of this, I knew that was it.
That was the final nail in the coffin for me, so I decided I’d cash out to go live in California and make movies. I still stayed on as a consultant for a couple of years until we got Mark Nardelli, who does 5 Boro, to come on as a design director and he knew straight away that Zoo York was about the old ads and graphics I’d done, graffiti tags, crumbling buildings and all the grimy New York City stuff. When he came on the whole vibe of the company was solid and I felt like I could free myself from the whole thing.
It felt like I was entering a new phase of my life, with skateboarding behind me, and then Rodney and Adam quit because Ecko had been making them miserable, and then they wanted to restart Shut, which they did in 2006, twenty years after it first started. They asked me if I wanted to be involved and I wasn’t sure, but they’d already drafted up all the contracts and I was a third owner.
When you finally let go of the company called Zoo York, what kind of design assets had you signed off to them, in terms of logos and typefaces they could use?
All of it. I wanted them to use it all. I always looked at Zoo York as my Frankenstein’s monster, like, “These are the parts you need to build this thing, keep the art right and it’ll keep going on its own”.
When were you first aware of Zoo York becoming more than a homie company? It got pretty big in a short amount of time early on. Mixtape and Peep This are pretty different videos, really.
So back in the ‘90s. Yeah. Maybe nowadays a tech company or a car company might set out to make the exact product that they want, but I’m not even sure that’s the case. When I get asked for advice about starting a company and how to make it work, I think of a quote from Andy Warhol, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art”. So when your art is in the gallery and people are deciding if it’s good or bad, you should already be making more art for them.
When Shut started, it was really just a cool name and the fact that everybody was from New York was secondary, but the reason why Zoo York was such a good idea is that the name literally encapsulates everything that the company is all about.
I mentioned the period where nobody was really skating, after people moved out to California, but this dead period almost made the few kids who did still skateboard, these lone survivors dotted around New York, the younger kids. In that crew was Keith Hufnagel and Keenan Milton, and those two specifically were hellbent on being pro skaters, and for them, being a pro skater meant moving to California. And that is what Zoo York was specifically crafted to address. You rip. You’re a New Yorker. No need to move to California. You’re on Zoo.
Rodney always had the nose for talent; he was the one who found Sean Sheffey, Coco Santiago, Dune and Mike Vallely, and he always had an eye on the scene, but by 1992 it was very easy to keep an eye on the local talent because there was nothing. There was no real skate shop and there was no skate community, and if, say, you wanted to find out who was ripping in Boston then there were one or two places you could call up and ask. “Who’s ripping right now? I’m trying to get a team together!” “Oh, this kid Robbie Gangemi is killing it”, that sort of thing. When I was doing Phat Farm I was so sure skateboarding was dead.
Jeff Pang had moved out to San Fransisco to skate for Underworld Element with Andy Howell, and he put Harold Hunter on the team. Jeff Pang and me were really good buddies, so when he left for SF I was bummed, but when we were just starting Phat Farm, he moved back to the city and brought Rick Ibaseta with him, this whole little crew just appeared, and they were sponsored so they brought boxes of boards, wheels and trucks, which meant I had a skateboard again. So I went from the ‘80s style boards straight to these popsicle style boards.
Those Element slicks were some nice looking skateboards.
Yeah, Andy’s an incredible talent, and with the little tiny wheels and all the new tricks. Pressure flips and crooked grinds were bugging me out, but it still didn’t seem like skateboarding was coming back, because there was still only around eight people skateboarding in our crew at Washington Square Park or Astor Cube, but we’d meet these other dudes, like Hamilton Harris and Ryan Hickey and Frank Natiello. Ricky Oyola and Matt Reason would come up from Philly, and they were pretty much the crew from Philly. If you called Sub Zero to ask who was ripping, it was Ricky.
It’s not like there was some magical talent scout, it’s just that there was nobody on the East Coast skating, so anybody that was good who didn’t want to move to California would skate for us because Rodney was really good at getting everybody excited about what we were doing. We had a bit of a reputation and people believed in that.
When we got the warehouse in the Meatpacking District, on 13th Street, there was a place to hang out so everybody would hang out there. After the first year we realised we had to get a video camera. All the hip-hop stuff I’d shot that’s in Mixtape was shot on cameras I’d borrowed when I was going to film school…
Most of those dudes went on to shape commercial hip-hop in the following years. Ghostface, Meth, Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, all those guys. How did you get to be around them back then? Do they know they’re in a little skateboard video?
It’s funny you should bring that up, I have a friend called Jeremy Elkin who makes skateboard videos, he made the Brodies videos, but through that he went on to make video articles for Vanity Fair, and he’s just finished this feature-length documentary that follows the story from Mars up to how Phat Farm, Zoo York and Supreme all came to be. That’s coming out at the end of April, and I think it’s called ‘All The Streets Are Silent’.
Sounds moody. I hope we can see it over here.
Yeah, it’s a real film and it’ll be on Netflix and shit like that I suspect. Anyway, one of the reasons I shot that footage was that one of my DJs at Mars was this guy Stretch Armstrong, Adrian Bartos, and he signed up to do a radio show at Columbia University. He lived a few blocks from me.
Didn’t you come up with his name?
Hahaha! How do you know all this stuff? Yeah—he’s tall and skinny. He was calling himself ‘DJ Adrian B’, but people called him ‘DJ Skinnybones’ which he hated, and he was kind of lamenting how he didn’t have a cool name so he asked me to think of something because I’m good at branding things. I saw a Stretch Armstrong doll and that made me think of Grand Puba saying, “Like Stretch Armstrong, I go on and on and on”, and it was the kind of name you could just drop in, like a scratch. And the rest is history.
I saw a Stretch Armstrong doll and that made me think of Grand Puba saying, “Like Stretch Armstrong, I go on and on and on”, and it was the kind of name you could just drop in, like a scratch. And the rest is history.
Bobbito Garcia was A&R for Def Jam so he and I basically worked for Russell, so that’s how we knew each other, although I don’t think they knew I skateboarded, but that’s how I got access to all that. If Stretch was DJing for three hours at WKCR, he needed three hours worth of records, so we’d all grab a crate and go along there. A lot of the time I’d carry the records and then just sit there, because most of the time it was just Stretch and Bobbito playing records and talking shit, but then rappers started coming through…
I can’t remember who it was but I remember the first time I was thinking how there’s a guy in here rapping next to me and he has records out and is on MTV, he’s rapping and I’m the only one here, so I asked if I could start bringing a camera in to film. I’d call up Bobbito to ask who was coming in, and if it was somebody I liked I would get a camera from college and film them. I had a tape that had Big L and Jay-Z but a girlfriend of mine recorded over it.
Exactly! So people started to notice Zoo York, and see that we weren’t doing some Californian thing and this is after all those skaters left Powell Peralta to start World Industries, when the lunatics took over the asylum.
The street skating revolution.
Exactly. And at the time, in California, all the same skaters knew all the same photographers, and they were all skating the same spots in the same cities so around ’93, ’94, if you picked up a mag it’d always be the same stuff and it started becoming boring. We sent Kareem Campbell one of our first shirts, and I think he wore it in an ad for someone else, so that was when we thought we had something. We were friends with Fausto at Thrasher and so they started giving us free ads.
That’s something I wanted to ask about, it seemed strange that you and Sub Zero advertised in Thrasher at that time. Transworld was the fresh mag, and Thrasher was still hanging onto the ‘frontside airs in bowls’ thing then.
That’s a whole other story. Deluxe distribution wanted to buy Zoo York when we first started, so they flew us out to San Francisco to show us the company and how they make everything from Independent trucks to Thrasher magazine.
You must have been considering it, to have gone out there.
Yeah for sure. And Dune was doing Stereo through Deluxe. I’ve known Jim Thiebaud and Tommy Guerrero since I was 14 years old, and one time they got in trouble because my sister and her friend ran away from home with them on a Bones Brigade tour. The cops came and arrested them and my mom had to get everyone out of jail. She saved the day and they still love me for it.
Skateboarding back then was very much a family affair because there wasn’t a lot of us. But yeah, so they said they’d give us some free ads. All the ads we had there were from Thrasher and Deluxe trying to seduce us to go with them, which ultimately we didn’t, and that led to a little bit of a fall out, which then led to 411 wanting to do an Industry section, so I got a little Hi-8 video camera and went around filming the team. Just whatever footage I could get of Harold, Frank Natiello, Ryan Hickey, Mike Hernandez and Jeff Pang, and Ricky Oyola and Robbie Gangemi sent footage, so we had enough footage for about a minute-long skate part, so I went and shot B-roll of the office, the decks, the wheels.
Because I was hanging out with Bobbito I got him to interview us, because he can do interviews and he really sounds like he’s from fuckin’ New York and also because he’s not a skater. He’s a New York City street basketball legend. We wanted the video to seem really ‘street’, really New York and thugged out. Not just skating. Overtly New York. I picked Melting Pot by Booker T. for the song because that’s one of the early songs that hip-hop comes from.
That part went down really well and we realised we had to start making more videos, but I had so much graphic work to do that I couldn’t be running around chasing skaters all day, and that was at the time that RB Umali moved from from Texas to NYU. Ricky Oyola went down to Houston after watching RB’s Metrospective and put Anthony Correa on Zoo flow. So when Anthony came to see us he had RB with him and RB had a camera. So that’s how that worked, RB would go out and film everybody and stack footage.
When it came time to edit it all together, I realised I still had all the old footage of Method Man and all those guys from a few years ago, so, being idiots, we just did it and didn’t ask for permission or anything. That was right when analogue was going out and digital was coming in, so from a technical standpoint that video is so complicated.
We had to break it into multiple sections because the computers couldn’t handle the amount of data we were putting in. We’d have the video footage of Method Man rapping, then dub it to digital, but the tape that I’d shot it on a year earlier had already stretched out and we only had the audio from the camera microphone in the studio, so we then had to go find the recording that went out on the radio, but then when you find that, that’s another tape running out of sync!
We’d have the video footage of Method Man rapping, then dub it to digital, but the tape that I’d shot it on a year earlier had already stretched out and we only had the audio from the camera microphone in the studio, so we then had to go find the recording that went out on the radio, but then when you find that, that’s another tape running out of sync!
Holy shit. I had no idea.
Haha! The audio never worked so we dubbed all the Stretch Armstrong studio stuff to our computer and then got the instrumentals of what the rappers were rapping over and we’d watch the video and our studio engineer and all around creative cat, DJ Ani would look at the rappers and push the record to make it all synch up while I was trying to press down on the audio cassette of the recording of the actual radio show. It was an orchestrated low tech miracle.
Even Mixtape was a real, live mixtape. Wow.
Yeah, and whatever random beat the rappers got fed by Stretch at WKCR, we had to use that beat for that part. We didn’t have a choice! If they’re rapping over Blahzay, or when Busta Rhymes is rapping over the Tribe Called Quest’s Spirits instrumental, then that’s the song we have to use, so that means we have to then find that instrumental and use actual turntables to do actual mixes to keep the music going along with all the rest.
Something that worked well was the second half of the Busta Rhymes stuff, which was him rapping over The Champ, and it was really boring because it’s basically just a drum break, but it was when that Blahzay song, Danger, came out, “When the East is in the house”, you know? So we mixed Danger over The Champ for Robbie Gangemi, and that came out really fuckin’ dope. The whole thing was just the jerry-rigged house of cards. It was a real juggling act, and from a technical standpoint, even aside from the skating, I’m very proud of it.
When we finished the video we showed it to Stretch and Bobbito, to make sure they were cool with it, and to check the rappers would be cool. Stretch and Bobbito told us that they called up all the rappers to say that some kids were making a skateboard video and they wanted to use that old videotape and every one of the rappers gave us their blessing, which was cool, so we got the VHS tapes made and sent them out globally on PAL and NTSC.
But then our lawyers looked into it, and asked if we had permission for all the music, and we’re like, “Yeah, we talked to the rappers and it’s cool”, and the lawyer just went, “Not the rappers! The music they’re rapping over!” Haha! We didn’t even know how to find out about that. So that’s why it never got released on DVD, because we were very lucky to have got away with it at the time.
You didn’t have those issues with the next video because you made the music for that yourself. Almost the complete opposite approach.
When Peep This came out I’d gotten into making music, just making beats, since I’d been using samplers kind of on the periphery for years, and after Mixtape we had a lot more space in the office, so DJ Ani wanted to bring his turntables in to keep them in one of the corners. Adam, our partner, is an incredible drummer who grew up playing in bands, so he brought in his drum kit, and Rodney had all these bongos that he brought in, and then this guy had a bass guitar, so we had a whole room of instruments. We were also really good friends with the Allies—DJ Craze, A-Trak, all those guys—who needed a place to practice in New York, so we let them come and hang out in our studio.
So there’s music stuff going on, and I have all these computers, and it starts to get a little easier to make music. It was hard for me, coming from a computer background rather than a musical one, but I started to figure things out mathematically, with a pocket calculator, and things started working. One time Harold came in and really liked this beat I made and he’s dancing all around, and told me he wanted a microphone to rap into but I had no idea who how to do that and and I only had this shitty Macintosh microphone, for vocal commands.
I couldn’t get it to work because it would feedback, so I recorded the song he liked on to an audio cassette and played it for him through a Walkman—just a five minute loop—so we started recording on the computer, put the Walkman headphones up to the computer microphone to get the time signature, and he starts singing that song, that, “You messed my fucking heart up”, you know? Just made it up as he went along, and then he just hit the road. So I matched up the beat up and that was the first time I recorded a ‘track’. At this point RB is filming for the video, actually shooting parts and he’s all excited, but this was when we were trying to get the DVDs of Mixtape done, and our lawyers were telling us we didn’t have any music rights. For Peep This we told the guys that we didn’t have much money, so we could pay for whatever song they wanted, or they could pick one of the songs that I made and keep the money.
You had enough to go around?
At this point I had twenty or thirty songs, so it was cool. And I was stoked that my songs were going to be out there in the world. It was pretty well received, and a lot of people liked that Jedi lightsaber beat, so that sort of became my hobby, at work. Something to do when I was burnt on doing graphics or t-shirts or catalogues. When everybody would leave at night I’d eat food and make beats with my little calculator. The program I was using was not a music program, it was for putting audio on to CD-ROMs, so there was no BPMs, there was only seconds and fractions of seconds. So everything got timed mathematically, down to decimal points. One of the songs was called Algorithmic, and as I started to get more complicated with it I realised that I could divide things by three, and that’s what a triplet is, which makes things more interesting.
The magazine ads were amazing. They were completely different each time, but were always immediately obviously a Zoo York ad and they made the idea behind the company really clear. Those guys had rough streets, it was dark all the time, and they cared what they wore. It was relatable.
I was lucky because if you look at the other ads that were running around that time, you could see that it was pretty remedial shit, whereas I was a Photoshop and Illustrator wiz-kid. Rave culture was pretty popular then, where they would take the Tide or the Marlboro logo and make it into their own, and when Big Brother started coming out I’d look at the ads and it was a real mess.
Every skater owned company was all over the place making whatever they wanted. They were trying to run away from the super well-designed Santa Cruz, Powell Peralta and Vision style graphic direction; those companies had really great graphic design and corporate identity. It was immediately identifiable. But the reaction against that vibe just muddled all the skater owned companies into one big graphic mess.
And then the lo-fi thing came in, and then everybody did that, and it got commercialised. Helvetica bold next to a black and white photo got corny fast.
It did, and the main problem I had with that was that you’d open up a magazine, see a guy skating and then see the Tide logo, so if you wanted to know what was going on you’d have to search through it before you figured out it was a Simon Woodstock ad.
After about a year of doing ads in Thrasher I knew we had to keep the grimy thing going on, and the graffiti was cool, but we needed something that was going to consistently subconsciously or overtly state that this is a Zoo York ad. We got everybody together in our building and had a big meeting where I explained that we needed a standardised font for Zoo, and that we would eventually get sick of, but we had to decide the font.
I printed out four or five fonts and we all discussed it and agreed that we were going to go with Futura Condensed Regular. We could do different tags, and different images and different skate photos, but it was always going to be something New York, kinda grimy and would always use Futura Condensed Regular. Period. After that people would know straight away that they’re looking at a Zoo York ad.
Nowadays I can make an ad in an evening, but back then, even if I had a skate photo—which was hard to get, period, because we live in New York City—I would probably have about one work week to get an ad done, and that would mean getting the photo scanned, then figuring out what I wanted to do and then the computers would take fuckin’ hours to do anything because they were slow.
You’re probably pushing those machines pretty hard too.
Yeah for sure. So when I’d go to work I’d walk down the street—and it’s where I still live, it’s one of the nicest neighbourhoods in New York now, but in the ‘90s it was the shithole neighbourhood, it was really industrial and it was where they’d kill all the meat and there was garbage everywhere—and I’d find things in dumpsters or on the street, or I’d walk by something that I thought was cool, so I’d take these objects to Zoo and scan in the ripped piece of paper, or the book or the piece of rotted wood or whatever it was, or I’d go out with my camera and shoot a doorway or a stencil I’d done or something.
The whole neighbourhood was just a Zoo York manufacturing garbage dump. There were no cops and nobody stopped you doing anything, so I could hammer shit into walls or spray paint anything at all. The Highline was this empty disaster area. There was that Robbie Gangemi ad with the big Zoo piece, and everybody hanging out, and that was across the street from Zoo York. I painted that piece one day and then got everybody to stand in front of it, and I’m running back and forth trying to get the camera’s auto timer to work. That’s why I look like I’m jumping up on something in that one.
For me, that was the most creative time. Knowing everything on the computer that had to do with graphic art, music and video gave me this kind of circular, spherical view of how I could make the clothes, the music and the videos and it was really fortunate to have all the skaters be happy with what I was doing.
So as the success started to happen, we’re now doing double page ads in Big Brother, Transworld and Slap, so now I have to make way more ads a month and I kinda got obsessed with challenging myself, seeing how I could keep this going and keep it fresh, and a lot of the stuff people remember from those ads was just me working in desperation.
So there’s a thing. You’re already kind of unique as a brand because of where you are geographically, but now it’s gone global with this very particular aesthetic which you’re now obliged to define month by month.
I see ads now that I completely forgot I made because everything was moving so fast that there was no time to catalogue or appreciate it. I’m a massive proponent of the notion that necessity breeds invention, still. When you’re a kid and you have pressure on you to get something done, you just do something and hope that it might be cool. One story that exemplifies this is when Anthony Correa went back to Houston in the winter, to skate, and he sent me two skate photos from Houston of him ollieing over a hip or something, and these were good skate pictures. Half the ads we did for Zoo York were of somebody doing a frontside noseslide. Hahaha! Everybody in California is doing hammers down ten-sets and but it’s too cold and wet for that stuff here.
Fuck hammers, your guys had the styliest frontside noseslides on metal-edged loading bays in the dark ever.
Haha! That’s it. Half the time when we realised we needed a picture we’d just tell the guy to go out and get a picture right there, like, “We need a fucking picture, go out and get a picture!” and Giovanni Reda and Danny Supa would then be running around the city trying to figure out what to do. It was very hard. So I had these Anthony Correa skate pictures and I really wanted to do something cool looking with them. I had a huge collection of out-of-print New York City photo books which I would steal ideas and graphics from all the time, so I’m looking through these and listening to music when I have to go and get a cup of coffee.
It’s 11pm, it’s freezing, and I’m in this coffee shop looking at bagels trying to think of something for an ad, then I see this 24-hour disgusting fucking grocery store in the Meatpacking District called Western Beef. I go in and I’m looking around the stuff in this grocery store for inspiration, looking at boxes of cockroach killer and coffee cans and all that, and then I wander to the meat section and see a steak with really cool marbling, and I wondered if I could do an ad with meat in it. Haha!
And you did.
I did. I bought the steak, scanned it, flipped it over and scanned it again, and made that the background. I made the skate pictures black and white, and then this blood-red meat… I liked that ad a lot.
It’s 11pm, it’s freezing, and I’m in this coffee shop looking at bagels trying to think of something for an ad, then I see this 24-hour disgusting fucking grocery store in the Meatpacking District called Western Beef
When I saw that I was impressed. Like, these guys aren’t just into skateboarding, hip-hop and good clothes, these guys appreciate quality steaks. These guys are gangsters.
Hahahaha! Our offices were literally above a place called Dave’s Quality Veal, and we would never buy meat from a grocery store, we’d always buy it from the butchers because they know what’s good meat. Those guys said that if we ever needed meat they’d be able to give us good steaks.
Dave’s Quality Veal? I guess that was one of two stores Dave had then?
No, no. Dave Ortiz who created DQM has been one of my best friends and closest co-workers since I was doing the nightclub. Dave was one of the promoters who’d run around handing out passes. When we started Zoo York, Dave was our first employee. Our everything guy. Packing boxes and helping out. He started writing a graffiti tag that was just MEAT, because we were in the Meatpacking district, and so when he’d ship all the boxes out he’d write MEAT and do his chicken bone, and write ‘I boned your mom’. Hahaha! Years later when we were all doing different bigger things he started the skate and sneaker shop Dave’s Quality Meat, and copied the logo from Dave’s Quality Veal, which then turned into DQM.
So anyway, that meat ad ran, and six months later Nike came out with their catalogue, and it was all scanned-in pieces of meat. Hahaha!
Oh shit. I guess they had somebody keeping an eye on what was cool.
Yeah. That’s how come we have a Virgil Abloh running Louis Vuitton.
What can you tell me about Ducky?
Ducky?! I was never really super close with him but he was around towards the end of Shut. I think he did the original Zoo York Shut Skates board graphic of the aardvark with a shotgun, inside a cage smoking a cigarette. I think either me or Alyasha did the letters, but he definitely drew the weird aardvark. He was one of the really good skaters around New York City, and he was a good artist, but to tell you the truth I kind of lost track of Ducky around the beginning of the 1990s. I don’t know where he went. He was always a good guy. He was a really nice dude. I think he doesn’t have the impact of other New York City skaters because of when he was around. He appeared as skateboarding was dying at the end of the ‘80s and I think he got out of skating too early.
The Justin Pierces and the Harold Hunters of the world probably grew up skating under Ducky. He was one of the few that kept skating when everyone stopped. I shouldn’t say everyone stopped skating, because if you talk to Keith Hufnagel, that was the best time of his life skating! But everyone I grew up with in the ’80s stopped, and I don’t think there was much of a presence. We would hang out at Washington Square Park and skate around downtown. In the ‘90s when ledge skating kicked off, people started skating Midtown, so people like Hufnagel, Mike Hernandez, Keenan Milton, guys like that kind of grew up skating at night around Midtown, so no-one ever really saw them then.
Holding it down in New York when nobody else was.
They were skateboarding for the love of skateboarding and I think their relationship with being skaters in New York was secondary to just being great skaters and that’s why the second they had the opportunity to get out of New York City, they left and never came back.
You ran a double-page BMX ad once, for Robbie Morales, and it didn’t seem weird.
Hahahaha! Rodney has always been into bike riding, alongside skateboarding. He got really into downhill mountain biking, but BMX was on the come up, and in a way Robbie Morales is like the BMXer version of Zoo York. He’s from Long Island, he’s this big burly dude and he was hanging out at our offices. He’s even got a little section in the Mixtape video. He was our boy and we were all into what each other were doing, so we put him in our video, in the friends part, and once we’d done that it was like, “Fuck it, he’s our boy and being our boy is more important than being a skateboarder”, you know?
At that time, that really came across like Zoo was saying they weren’t a regular company devoted to selling product, rather it was a group of friends doing their thing, and this is part of it.
Ah! That’s exactly correct. Now that you say it like that, it seems like that was a concept. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t thought through strategically like that. He was just our boy. But now that you say it, yeah, it was like, “Fuck skateboarding, this our our family”, and we always tried to promote that.
Speaking of Long Islanders, is there anybody you always wish you’d got on Zoo York?
Haha! I know where you’re going with this. Of course we did! Gino. Of course we wanted Gino!
Did you have the conversation?
It was kind of weird, I think Gino was so good that he just went straight to the championship table. I think Gino just up and left for California really early, so that kind of eliminated him from what we were trying to do at the beginning. There was always talk of Josh Kalis and fuckin’ Chad Muska getting on.
Me and Muska now are actually really good friends and when we hang out that always comes up, like, “Damn man, I should have skated for you guys!” and we totally wanted him! He was so Zoo York but we just thought he was so all about Shorty’s, and that was his crew. I would love to have seen Muska, Kalis and those guys on Zoo. That’d have been heavy.
Have you seen Lennie Kirk around since he’s been back?
No. Haha! He’s like a Billy Waldman type, a legend of his own weird design. I really love skaters who do their own thing but there is often a bit of mental illness that goes around with that. Some of my favourite skaters, including some who skated for us, could often go to a very dark place. Justin Pierce had demons he had to contend with. There’s that quirky, poet-artist soul that floats around in skateboarding, that Neil Blender or Ed Templeton character who’ll go off and do their own weird shit. Quim Cardona is one of those guys who doesn’t skate like anyone else, and when he skated for us I got him into making beats and he would do his own weird music. I like that in skateboarding.
Skateboarding always has outsiders inside it. Nobody expected Ben Raemers to take his own life. He was such a positive dude, but he wasn’t.
I think skateboarding really used to attract an outsider type who is talented and wants to express themselves. I never knew Ben personally, I only saw how much he affected people, and how heartbroken they were when he passed away which is a testament to what a great guy he must have been. A similar thing happened with Quim’s brother Mike, when he took his own life. We never saw it coming. You never think about it, but if you see something, say something. It’s sad that somebody, at one point of weakness, could stop everything that’s great about them. It’s better to talk, it’s better to ask for help.
I never knew Ben personally, I only saw how much he affected people, and how heartbroken they were when he passed away which is a testament to what a great guy he must have been
Absolutely. So to get up to date, you’re back running Zoo York now. How hard was that? How hard was it to decide it was what you should do, and how hard was it to actually get it back?
Every five years or so after I first left we’d have a meeting with the owners, and at first that was Ecko, who owned Zoo York outright. The guy I mentioned before, the guy who ran Ecko, is a complete moron, he’s a compulsive gambler. Not a businessman. When we started working with that company it became very clear that when all the sober heads in the room would agree on the smartest thing to do for Zoo, he would always force us to take the opposite, insane risk. Bet it all on black. Nobody wants to work in that kind of environment, so that was why I left.
He, of course, continued to act that way and ended up taking Ecko and Zoo York into a hundred million dollars worth of debt with with a popular Merchant Bank. To make a long story short, this bank essentially sells the debt to Iconix. Iconix brand group is a publicly-traded multinational company which does not manufacture anything. Their business is owning trademarks. They also own Starter, Joe Boxer and Umbro, and many other brands, including Ecko. So instead of building a company to manufacture all this stuff, they license out the usage of the name, per-country, so if you’re in Italy and you like Zoo York you can pay Iconix for the right to manufacture Zoo York clothing in Italy. This is also a wild oversimplification.
That explains why some horrendous Zoo York print ads appeared here for a while…
Oh god. When I was doing Zoo York, when we started it, the buck stopped with me. Whatever I said happened, and whatever we made, you could either buy it or not buy it. So we’d make a pair of shorts, five t-shirts and a hat, and you’re welcome to buy it, and if not, have a nice day. But once we got into the higher tiers, that kind of unilateral totalitarian control is given up because you have to work with the department stores I mentioned before, who all come with their list of demands where you have to make something that you don’t want to.
The business that is Zoo now is a completely different world for me. I like challenges and this is an entirely new business for me to get behind and learn about. It’s also a very interesting problem to try to fix and it’s manifesting itself in ways I never thought. When we first agreed to do Zoo again, one of the reasons they wanted our help was that they ran Zoo into the ground. It was a complete disaster; it was in low tier stores in the US, but that doesn’t mean that’s what’s happening globally. We had a meeting with Zoo York Chile, and they brought some of their clothes, and for American tastes it was not good. It was really bad stuff. Jeans with stripes down the legs…
Yeah, exactly. My immediate reaction was that this can’t be allowed to happen, but they had Chilean videos and Chilean magazines, and sure enough, that’s what people in Chile like. They’ve opened up three Zoo York stores there and they do skate contests, DJ battles, all that stuff, and the clothes aren’t what I would have made, but Zoo York Chile understands their market and they’re really profitable.
That sounds like the kind of thing that Marc would have approved of.
Exactly! And that’s what I keep having to go back to. There’s a lot going on in skateboarding right now, and it’s about to be in the Olympics for the first time, and the vast majority of privately-owned skate shops—where this entire industry spawned from—stay in business now specifically because of sneakers. If there wasn’t Nike, adidas and Vans supplementing the income, if they only sold decks and trucks and wheels, they wouldn’t be in business.
I heard recently that in snowboarding, the top people don’t even have board sponsors, it’s just a shoe logo on a board. That can’t be far away for skateboarding.
Yeah. It’s getting to the point where there are only going to be those three shoe companies paying any meaningful money in skateboarding. Another problem was the contract Chaz Ortiz had with Zoo York. See, if you’re Champion you can pay somebody to wear your pants for one day, take some photos and then you put the ads out. The problem with skateboarding is that it has to be actual skateboarding; you can’t just have one logo on some model. You need to have a skateboard team, you have to make sure that skateboard team is out there getting enough footage for you and for their other sponsors.
So as soon as you get involved in skateboarding, it’s this big clusterfuck of lots of moving parts and it’s almost too much trouble for a giant multinational company. They want schedules and ease of use. Not chasing skaters around with cameras. Running a skateboard company in a lot of ways is far more difficult that running a standard clothing line… Off topic, but remember the Ricky Oyola fire hydrant boards with the spray fade? All those really cool early Zoo York spray fade boards? We only did those because we didn’t know how to screen print a double kick board from tip to tail. When we went to Deluxe they showed us how they printed on wheels, how they forged trucks, all this interesting stuff, just not how to screen boards!
The one thing you kinda needed to figure out.
And they knew that. I’d go down to World Industries and they’d be all, “What do you need to know how to screen boards for?” like it was some big trade secret. We were trying to move the board under the screen, then tried making the screen pivot on a hinge. Turns out you just need to make the screen in the shape of a double-kick board. Haha! But we were too dumb to figure that out. So we started hand spray fading boards. But then, when you would see them on the wall at Supreme amongst World Industries and Deluxe boards, they totally stood out.
People were impressed but that was just necessity breeding invention. As always, when things go bad for you, that’s frequently when the best things happen because you have to figure out a way to make it work.
So that was 1993. Today, I can take a picture on my iPhone, upload it to my computer, write my name and some jerk-off skate company name, go to a website, upload my picture, pay fifty bucks and then in three days that iPhone photo turns up as a skateboard graphic.
Or worse, it appears on fifty skateboard decks and then you announce on Instagram that you’re a skateboard company… The small companies are the best, Bronze and whatnot, but it doesn’t mean anybody is able to do that right.
In a way that’s what Zoo York was. We call all these little new companies ‘crew companies’, In New York we have The Homies, and The Brujas, and The Gnarmads, and Gang Corp, and we give some of these kids Zoo boards, but the way it is now, at the end of the day they’re all really just all about their crew. Their friends. And that’s how it should be. Skate crews are like the new graffiti crews. Like The Irak crew. Shoutout to Ear Snot.
And you’re right, there’s really no money in skateboards anymore, so if you make money, you make money from a sneaker. If you get a shoe and it sells, you’re paid in the shade, you can go do what the fuck you want, but since it’s not 1985 and you’re not Tony Hawk, there’s no money in selling the actual skateboard anymore.
Years ago, at a big internal Zoo meeting back in the early 2000s, before I left, we looked at all the sales reports, looked at how much we were paying the skaters, how much we were making from t-shirts, and how much we were making from boards. At this point we’ve got Danny Supa, we’ve got Jeff Pang, we’ve got Zered Bassett, we’ve got Billy Rohan, we’ve got Forrest Kirby, we’ve got Anthony Correa, we’ve got Todd Jordan, and it’s a serious fuckin’ team and these guys are making money. So we’re analysing everything with all the accountants there we look at how much it costs to make a skateboard and how much we sell skateboards for, and we look at how much it costs to make a t-shirt and how much we sell t-shirts for, and in that one meeting we took the entire skateboard program, cancelled it, and moved that entire skateboarding program into marketing. Because there’s so little money to be made in making skateboards.
If you buy a deck for $60, we probably got it out of the factory for $55, so what, we’re making five bucks on a skateboard and then giving two bucks to the skater, whereas if we make a t-shirt for $3 in a factory in China and sell that t-shirt for forty bucks, that’s a huge profit. So in one fell swoop we absorbed the whole skateboard program into the marketing budget. All the skaters would get paid from the marketing budget as ‘models’ for the clothes, and skateboards were just going to pay for themselves. We probably used the money we made from skateboards to pay for trips to market the clothes, so all those times in the early 2000s where you’d see Zoo York on a different tour every month, that was paid for by the marketing budget from the skateboards.
In the ’90s, World Industries was really into data… Sales reports, who’s buying what and where, all that stuff. Remember companies like Shaolin and Metropolitan, and everybody trying to do a Zoo York kinda thing? We just thought it was because people were trying to jump onto he new trend, which we were, but that’s not what it was. Steve Rocco said that all the little kids see Wet Willy or Flameboy, they buy that board, and they put it in the cupboard. That’s one skateboard sold. We were selling skateboards to serious skater kids in college, who break boards all the time, love the company, and then buy another Zoo York board, over and over. We had serious, committed repeat customers. Not one-off kids. And that’s what Rocco wanted. Haha! That was pretty amazing.
It’s one thing for Rocco to acknowledge that, but to actually mention it is something else.
I think it might have been Natas that explained that to me. Hahaha!
I’d be happy to go along with what Natas told me there. He’d know.
I used to stay in the back of Natas’s house. We became close through graphic design. He and I used the same kind of equipment, so I’d see all these cool techniques he came up with for his 101 ads. We both had our own little secret techniques we were using, but we’d share them with each other. We were really close for a long time. He’s a super creative guy. Obviously.
You both made ads with an aesthetic skateboarders would appreciate, without making skating the focus of the ads.
Right. He’s one of my heroes and I’m happy to call him a friend. The point that I was trying to make is that if I do believe in what Marc Edmonds wanted and what he believed Zoo York was for—the people—then we want to embrace people and not be elitist. We want to invite people in to what Zoo York is. I’m not in this for the money and I never have been, I’m in this to represent New York City street culture. And to share skateboarding with the world. To indoctrinate as many people as possible into skateboarding. That’s the point. Times are changing. Skateboarding is going to be in the Olympics.
I’m not in this for the money and I never have been, I’m in this to represent New York City street culture. And to share skateboarding with the world. To indoctrinate as many people as possible into skateboarding. That’s the point. Times are changing. Skateboarding is going to be in the Olympics
But everybody knows it’s the three OGs back running Zoo. There’s no more yoga pants.
Ha. When we came back we knew we only wanted to hook up New York kids to represent New York City. No more SLS contest guys, New York City street culture is our fuckin’ mantra and what we need to stick with. But I want to help proliferate skateboarding and I want as many people as possible to experience how awesome skateboarding is. Is skateboarding better than basketball? Fuck yeah, to me it is, but there’s a lot of kids out there who might never get to learn that because of that old skateboarding localism vibe, that elitism vibe.
I think for me, I feel we should put our energies towards getting as many people into skateboarding as possible. And as much as I hate to admit it, the Olympics might do that. To go back to the Marc Edmonds ‘Power To The People’ ethos once again. Skateboarding is for everyone. There are more skateparks now than ever before. There are more skaters than ever before. And there’s power in that. Real power. Cities and communities have to listen to us now and allocate money to build skateparks for us now, Not arrest us. ‘Cause I was arrested a lot for skating as kid and it wasn’t fun. I’m proud to be part of the normalisation and mainstream acceptance of skateboarding. Seriously. Fuck the fly shit. There’s power in numbers.
Just like the older guys looked out for you when you were a kid. How did you get involved with this Uproxxx thing? What is that?
Well, I don’t know if you know, but Zoo York made almost all of Rawkus Records’ music videos. Mos Def, Talib Kweli and all those guys, we did their music videos because we had all the video equipment for editing skateboard videos, so I’d been super good friends with the owners of Rawkus for years. Obviously they sold the company and it went out of business, but they went on and created a website, Uproxxx. A couple of years ago I went over to Uproxxx to hang out and they’d realised that across their entire site they didn’t have any fashion or style presence, and they wanted me to be the editor for that part.
It’s not like a full time job, I interview people who I feel have made a huge contribution to the culture over a long period of time. Basically it’s the people who I want to interview, who are often friends. But would I want to interview Virgil? Of course I would, I have so many questions, but I don’t know him and I don’t know if he knows who I am.
I think Virgil’s people would know to keep him away from an interview with a skateboarder. He doesn’t know the difference between Shiloh and Stevie.
Hahaha! It’d be interesting to hear his history in this world. I guess he’s just a guy who’s in the right place at the right time but it’s one of those weird things: this guy is a black straight man from Chicago who is now in charge of Louis Vuitton. That’s kind of interesting because he didn’t come from the usual route, and skateboarding, streetwear and street culture have obviously influenced him to get to where he is. He’s also hooked up my friends, like Futura, but is he a fake skater? That speaks for itself.
What’s the most valuable commodity on Earth?
Knowledge! Knowledge is the most valuable commodity on Earth. That’s it.