After making a mark from his mid-western hometown then breaking out in Quasi Skateboards ‘Mother’ (2017), Justin Henry is one of todays most promising skateboarders. Here, he talks Ohio pride, the importance of video parts and Quasi’s upcoming project in an interview spanning his recent yet prolific career.
Justin Henry: Doing It From The Home State
Words by Farran Golding with photography by Dakota Mullins and Andrew James Peters. Additional images courtesy of Mike Chinner, Pep Kim and Quasi Skateboards. (Above: Mullins)
It was snowed over in Columbus, Ohio when Justin Henry booked a trip out of his hometown to finish an upcoming video part. “Of course when I land here, spring hits,” he tells me, laughing, over the phone from L.A. – “I’ve got, like, one trick I need to get. Then I’m going right back home.”
On a civilian level, Ohio’s notable exports include soul maestro, Bobby Womack and Tony Hawk’s favourite band, Devo (amongst others). Arguably, there’s Harmony Korine’s 1997 cult film, Gummo which was set (but not filmed) in the town of Xenia – a nod to an address found on the back cover of Memory Screen, released in 1991 by skateboarding’s pride of The Buckeye State, Alien Workshop.
I’ve long had the impression that what the Workshop is to skateboarding in Ohio mirrors what Factory Records is to Manchester. It’s just there. Out of sight but omnipresent even decades after the cultural heavy lifting has been done. But growing up there, just how ingrained is it? Are we talking dudes who can recite Memory Screen trick for trick?
“Yeah, actually, it was like that,” says Justin. “Ohio really holds pride in everything. It’s a little more tucked away too so having Alien and Habitat come out of there, and be so present in skateboarding, it definitely resonated back home. Throughout the generations everybody has ‘their video’. The older heads would know Memory Screen inside and out and for mine, Mind Field was the one. There’s a lot of New York in there, so we were inspired by the spots and that era of Alien Workshop.”
It’s not a stretch to call Justin a student of Mind Field and the evidence is written into his output. Rust tones and greenery, flashes of steel and skyscrapers, downtown Columbus to downtown Manhattan with a pit stop at Columbus Park to haul over the back of that red handrail…
“That’s another thing,” he goes on. “It comes from Ohio but I always thought it was dope they ran with the whole Midwest.”
Needle thread nollie flip, Los Angeles. ph: Mullins
Describing the region for those unfamiliar with it, Justin considers the Midwest “beautiful, in its own way” and adds that “It’s so unique compared to the rest of America – maybe even the world. The scenery is different and in the summertime when it’s warm, man, I’d take those days over any other day, anywhere.”
“There’s a lot of blue collar work so you see more industrial things. You’ll hear jokes about it all being farmland, which there’s a lot of, but the three main cities [Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati] are big. If you grow up on a farm then you’re going to be a farmer but if you’re from the city, like me, you’ll feel no difference with anywhere else that’s built up.”
Drive “an hour-and-ten” east of Columbus and you’ll reach Dayton – the exact home of the Workshop. “Growing up, that was big because a friend of ours worked at DNA Distribution,” says Justin. “Having local heads flowed boards, seeing people who were close to me getting boxes, it was heavy. Like, “Man, these dudes are doing it from the home state.” That shit will live on forever in Ohio.”
Justin’s hometown/state love comes with a strong sense of community, believing: “You’ve got to start with community if you want to make something grow,” as he says in ‘World Peace’. The short film, directed by Patrick O’Dell, was released last year to mark Justin’s first Vans colourway. An opportunity he built on by hosting an outreach event at his local park, Skate Naked, and facilitated a ten grand donation from Vans to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio as part of the proceedings.
“Ohio residents have this understanding that a lot of eyes aren’t on us so whatever your craft is, it’s a little harder to take it out there, to be seen, or even to be travelling,” says Justin, regarding how that community feeling exists outside of skateboarding. “So if I meet somebody from Ohio there’s an instant connection. I’ve never met someone who said they hated it and it always seems like you have mutual friends too.
“Oh you know Blah Blah?”
“Right there, it’s done. You’re friends. The state isn’t that big. You can travel damn-near the whole thing in six-to-eight hours so the connection runs deep.”
Before skateboarding, it was sports. Basketball for Justin and baseball for his older brother, Brandon. “Anyone who grew up with a brother will understand that if you’re playing tag in the backyard then you’re gonna play as hard as you can,” he says, laughing.
“Anything he’d do, I’d want to do it too. We fed off of each other but rocked with everything we both did. Especially with skating when we were younger, we had the same friends so we’d just pull up to the skatepark together. When I think about my brother, and how having him pushed me to be a better skater, I think of all the good times we had and him being a real dude. I always had friends who were older too. People will embrace a younger head a little more in skating.”
Baseball didn’t stick for Brandon (he still skates), whereas Justin loves basketball to this day. A little while before we got on the phone, I listened to him get into a ‘Jordan vs Lebron’ debate with Cephas Benson on The Bunt.
“Course that’s what the 23 year-old would say,” quips Cephas over Justin’s choice of Lebron.
“But hold on, hold on, nobody will ever do it like Jordan did it. Ever,” begins Justin. “Three [championship] rings, leaves the league, three more. Come on, that’s gangster. But as a basketball player, Lebron James is bigger, stronger faster…” His diplomacy makes for a compelling listen – even if you don’t know shit about basketball.
“So what’s the skateboarding equivalent of Jordan vs Lebron?” I ask, when we get on the phone a few days later.
“Man! That’s a good one,” he says, racking his thoughts. “I’ll say this at least: growing up, the people I looked up to was a revolving door. I could never pinpoint one person to be ‘the greatest’ because the influence would come from so many. I’ve never seen too crazy of a comparison for that in skateboarding, unlike with other sports, but you see a lot of these ill-ass duos which I fuck with heavily.
“Skateboarding is such an interesting activity. There’s no number system that can track it. It’s part-sport, part-art form. There’s the athletic ability but an artistic side which I’ve always felt leans towards music. If you’re filming a part, you’re making an album so my influences are whatever’s hitting at the time. That’s how I always looked at it.”
I hear you joke about having a “gym routine” – putting in the hours at your favourite flatground spot in the summer then hibernating at the skatepark in winter. Does that come down to trying to stay versatile as well as consistent? Because whenever I’m into skating something specific, something else is usually slipping…
More or less it’s trying to keep the blade sharp, just for myself. I’m always making jokes about staying on point. I’ll call skateparks “the gym” because a real gym rat has to stick to a work-out regimen or they’ll lose muscle.
That goes for anything. If you’re a basketball player and you’re not in the gym, shooting, then you’re not perfecting your craft.
I’ve never found anything in my life that’s more fun than skating, I want to do it as much as possible because I know Father Time is going to catch up with me one day. I don’t want to look back and think, “Man, I wish I tried to learn that one damn trick,” because learning tricks is the thing that keeps me skating. When I go to a park, I always try to and I feel learning tricks keeps my mind a little sharper with navigating the world outside of skating too.
When did Embassy Boardshop come into your life? Or, rather, when did you come into theirs?
My brother and I were always getting our gear from there. The skate community in Columbus is so tight knit that whether you’re going into Embassy regularly or not, you’ll always end up there at some point. I want to say I got on in 2015.
There were these shop contests in Chicago and the owner, Eric Barkow asked me to skate in them. I filmed some street clips while we were out there too. We had a good trip and as time went on it naturally happened that I came to ride for the shop.
How’d you find working there and what’s something that didn’t cross your mind about working in a skate shop beforehand?
I loved it. I’d worked a lot of different jobs – an Italian restaurant, Walgreens – but working at Embassy was as close as possible to the thing I wanted to do the most. I was at work but still involved with skateboarding.
You don’t have to learn the job, you already know it. There’s no question somebody could ask me that I don’t know the answer to. You get so many people who aren’t skateboarders so you end up answering more questions than you expect in that regard. The interaction with non-skateboarders was something I didn’t really think about. It’s not a bad thing but you dabble with both worlds. You’ll talk and sell skateboarding but it’s retail too.
Frontside flip – Columbus, Ohio. ph: Mike Chinner / Below: Tonita Henry cameo in Quasi’s ‘Mother’ Below again: backside nollie shot by Andrew James Peters
“Older heads shaped me around the idea that the footage you saw was in a video or the photos were in a magazine. That made the drive to achieve that so much stronger.”
I know family is important to you and it sounds like you’ve held down jobs from being young. Did the work ethic rub off on you from your parents?
Growing up, there wasn’t a silver spoon and I saw what real work was. I’m not talking fake work – like, get-yourself-a-nicer-car type of work. I’m talking hold-the-family-down, type of work.
I’ve seen my parents touching hours I can’t touch. For them to never give up and work as hard as they could to provide for my brother and I, that always resonated with me – that if you want to get where you need to be, you get your head down.
Each person is dealt different cards but… Hey, I don’t know if too many people know this but my very first job, my first little hustle when I was mad young, I had a paper route! Then I’d never throw my old gear away because somebody would always buy it. Another younger head would be like, “Yo, let me buy those trucks for five bucks?” Because my beat trucks would be less beat than their beat trucks [laughs].
On the other hand, how do you think being around older skaters has shaped your outlook?
I’m not old but the bulk of skating was pre-Instagram, for me. I can see the difference between someone who grew up with that and someone who didn’t.
There’s no good or bad there but the older heads shaped me around the idea that the footage you saw was in a video or the photos were in a magazine. That made the drive to achieve that so much stronger because being on a DVD, or in a mag, as a kid is unheard of. But now, I could go skate, post it and it’s seen.
I’m hyped on growing up with older heads. They’ll keep you in check. When you’re the youngest, you’ve got to build yourself up the ranks – for lack of a better phrase. At least in my crew. I’ve got homies who are younger than me and it makes me wonder how I’d have turned out if I’d only skated with people my own age? I don’t know if I’d have the same discipline.
We’re the same age, your first video was The DC Video and, incidentally, mine was too. Recently, in a Thrasher interview, you talked about us being the last generation to grow up with videos of that scale. With what we were just talking about in mind, do you ever find yourself feeling “old” at 25?
A little. In the sense of, like, are my beliefs – not outdated – but…
Okay, if you’re a younger head, and you talk to me about skating, I’ll give you what I got given. I’ll treat somebody how I came up. Which is: “Get your head down in the street and film parts.”
25 is an interesting age, it’s not “old” but it’s definitely not young [laughs]. Our generation saw so much advancement so when I think about it, I’m like, “Eh, technology boomed.” You know?
Yeah. 1995 was a good year to be born if you started skating in the early-to-mid-2000s. The ‘classics’ weren’t so far in the past – so my older friends clued me up on them, there was a bunch of different magazines, some big deal videos were still in progress. Then seeing skating on the internet grow from a video every so often to what it is now, I think all that set me up to appreciate the past and the present pretty equally.
No doubt. You saying this – right now – made me realise I’m not tripping because I’ve thought that. I saw both worlds as pure as they got. I don’t trip on how fast parts come out nowadays but I also respect it if somebody wants to film for years. We see both now too. The individual parts are booming but the full-lengths are still there. It’s cool to see both worlds meshing.
You got your foot through the door with Quasi after sending some footage to Chad Bowers. Before that, you had a little 5Boro hook-up so were you looking for something new or was it the Ohio connection that encouraged you to get in touch?
Shout out to 5Boro for holding me down in that little stint, for real. Everybody was out in New York. I’d take the bus over, and I got to skate with them one time, but after Alien ‘died’ I was like, “Man, there ain’t nothing in Ohio anymore.”
Then Quasi came out.
I’ll never forget the very first ad I saw. It was Jake Johnson, Gilbert Crockett and Tyler Bledsoe. Just their faces. When I asked about it and I heard it’s over in Dayton, I was like, “What the fuck?!” Whatever the buzz around the world was, in Ohio it was really amped.
I was like, “I’m gonna send a tape in” because it would be the dream to ride for something in my home state. I wouldn’t feel any pressure to leave, I’d have somebody who understands you don’t have to go to New York or California as long as you have the right things in your own city to produce the work. That was the biggest thing for me. I felt if it worked out, they’d understand if I wanted to stay in Columbus.
And Chad basically emailed you back saying, “You’re good but not quite there”, but in a thoughtful way, right? Could you talk a little more about the guidance he was putting across?
Sometimes people will say “you’re not there yet” in a way that feels like a diss or that they don’t care. The email Chad wrote to me, I keep that one tucked – so I won’t go into great detail – but in reading it I saw more than what was said. I could see opportunity.
It wasn’t: “Ah, you’re not there yet, kid. Send it back later.”
It was more: “Dial in. I see it in you.” You know?
Chad still talks to me the same way to this day!
You need those people in your life that will always bring the best out of you. Maybe he didn’t even write it like that but he could have just said “no”. For him to take the time to write to me, it was heartfelt.
Bar to bank nollie half cab and a bump to bar crooked transfer, ph: AJP
“Everybody’s first piece of hope usually starts with a skate shop. It drives the community.”
You were flow for Vans and Quasi by the time you popped up with your ‘OPM’ part for Embassy. What was the motivation behind it?
I’m a skate rat in general so I’m going to produce parts, that’s what’s fun to me, but if I’m to look at it that was my first part after that email. After I felt I’d gotten an opportunity. I’m skating the first board I ever got sent from Quasi in some of those clips.
I took my skating to a different level than where it was at. I’m extremely proud of it and the time I took to make it with my friend, Joe [Charlton]. I think that caught some eyes. A lot of it was the Midwest, there’s some New York in there. Even you talking about it now has got me hyped. That’s my earliest work in the form of a “career”.
It’s cool how your earliest coverage is tied up with Embassy. I imagine that gets more meaningful as the years go by. I also feel a little parallel there with Gilbert because my first point of reference for him was Venue’s Old Dominion.
No doubt. I try to do something with Embassy any chance I get. It goes back to how everybody’s first piece of hope usually starts with a skate shop. It drives the community. Embassy has done so much for Columbus and myself.
That [Gilbert section] is a great part. It was sick to see that he and his boys went out and did that on their own muscle. Nobody funds those shop things. They’re really from the heart.
After ‘OPM’ you had a ‘Video Check Out’ for TransWorld and you’ve got a bunch of New York footage in there. Elaborate how an Ohio skater’s idea of a “rough spot” compares to an East Coaster’s “rough spot”?
It’s rough in New York, I’m not saying it’s not, but the spot itself will be dope.
Then you go to Ohio and the ground is rough as shit, the spot is buck as shit and then the spot’s got some inconvenient shit going on too. There’s a chunk taken out, it’s weathered, it’s springtime and there’s salt all over the ground ‘cause they’re trying to melt snow.
Our spots will be rough – and then they’ll be huge! I’ll go to New York and they’ve got the dork around spots, the spots that are rough and then there’s some gold out there too. If you gave us a spot from New York, people would be crazy hyped. But the Midwest has a unique look to it and I like that.
Nollie noseblunt as seen in ‘Mother’, sequence: AJP / above: kickflip nosegrind, also by AJP
When did you tie the knot with Quasi and how close to that did you start working on Mother?
I started working on Mother beforehand and “got on” during it. It all tied in together. I went on a lot of trips while flow, which ended up in there. I got on Quasi, fully, in 2017 and Mother came out in 2018 so I had a nice year of being am before it came out.
Vans and Quasi were exactly the two sponsors I wanted to be with because there’s a good track record with them. I was excited by Gilbert being on both and I got the opportunity to go on my first ever skate trip with Vans. It was a demo tour but we were in the streets as heavy as you can be. We were stacking a lot of footage.
I came home and then I went straight to New York. Chad was like, “If you’re doing that, go filming with Paul Young” – who was filming for Quasi at the time. I linked up with him and it snowballed.
A lot of key clips for Mother that I was really proud of – like that wallie noseblunt – happened on that first Vans trip and the trip right after when I went to New York.
Is that when you switch ollied over the rail at Columbus Park?
I tried it for the first time on that trip. After a month of staying on a buddy’s couch, that was the last thing before I went back home. Then I went back out and got it. The backside noseblunt on Grant’s Tomb happened then though. I was excited because I knew it was a fairly famous spot. I was trying to show the work [laughs].
Justin’s a fan of revisiting spots and his favourite example of personal one-upmanship is watching AVE skate here over the years. Switch ollie in a different place called Columbus. ph: Pep Kim
“It was a dream come true being in there with dudes I truly believe in and I believe work as hard as I was, if not harder. I was just proud somebody put my name alongside them.”
How did you picture working on a full-length video, for a company, and how close was the reality?
I was so locked into the mission that it was exactly what I thought it was, just with different people. If you’re an NBA player, you’re still playing ball, you’re just on a different level.
I got extremely lucky with Vans. They’d produced a great video with Propeller and when I went on that first Vans trip, it was right when they’d started filming for newer things. Their work ethic was extremely cool to watch. I was this shy, flow-kid but I got to sit back and try to catch up to them. They taught me the way.
I always go back to my first Vans trip as the point where I could see the difference between being a kid, filming in their hometown, compared to being on a trip where it’s go-time and amped up.
Is the attitude you bring to a video what you get out of it?
Each person’s mindset is going to be different. Again, it goes back to making an album. Everyone’s music is different. If you go buck the whole time, people will see it. Personally, I just skate whatever calls out to me.
Tell me about watching Mother for the first time, start to finish, and what being in there meant to you?
I always wanted to be on a team and work on a video. Growing up, I thought that was the coolest thing so being accepted in that way gave me a lot of confidence.
The first time I watched it was in New York. We had a private screening, just us in the theatre testing it out. Even without anybody else around, I leapt out of there after those thirty minutes and I was so sweaty. I was so nervous.
It was a dream come true being in there with dudes I truly believe in and I believe work as hard as I was, if not harder. I was just proud somebody put my name alongside them.
You’re wrapping up another part for Quasi right now. What’s the deal with this video?
It’s going to be me and Dane Barker but other dudes are going to have footage in some form. I don’t know who’ll have full parts but I know for a fact Dane and I will.
This is the next work after Mother, you know? Chad approached me about starting to film and then Dane got on so it made sense for him to film a part.
Ollie, Ohio. ph: Mullins
“Whenever the day comes where I’m somebody’s favourite skater, I’m always going to give them the time of day because you never know if they’ll ever see you again.”
You’ve compared skate videos to albums a couple of times during this conversation. There’s a long-running thing in music about how you’ve got your entire life, up until that point, to write your first album so naturally the second one’s way tougher. Does that translate to skating?
For sure. This one’s beatin’ my ass [laughs].
I’m playin’. The first one, there’s nothing to think about – you’re just doing it. You put so much into it, you want it so bad and then the second, the motivation has changed. I’m hungry for this one in a different way.
The first, nobody knows you. Whereas now – and I’m not hating on this by any means – but I’m on a trip and we’re doing an interview, you know? So there’s more responsibility and you think more about wanting to make sure it’s on par with your last.
Do you get involved with how it’s coming together or prefer to trust the filmer/editor and see it at the end?
It goes both ways. I trust they’ll steer me in the right direction but also, to me, shaping your footage is the art form.
There’s a mutual understanding and we all have our input. The filmer is filming – he’s a part of the trick so I want to know what he thinks. The owner of the brand owns the brand so I want to know how they see it. The team manager has a role, you know?
You want to make sure the collective agrees.
Your output has had breathing space which I think has let it be soaked up a little more. Is pacing yourself under-appreciated nowadays?
Maybe. When somebody asks you to do a project, you’re at the grace of other peoples’ time as well as your own. It naturally happened that way but I’m hyped I’ve been given the time to travel to places I want to go, see spots I want to see, and get the tricks I really wanted to get. There’s no right or wrong and everybody’s career is different. I’m due for some footage to come out though [laughs].
I’ve heard you’re always down to interact with people at events whether it’s getting on the microphone to bring a vibe, hooking people up with gear or just taking the time to hang out. It sounds like it’s important for you to stay approachable. Is part of that not losing sight of how you felt when skating as a career was new?
For sure. I ain’t “too cool” for nobody, man! There’s nobody I’d never talk to if you’re not being disrespectful. I love the opportunity to travel and meet new faces.
To me, it’s like, whenever the day comes where I’m somebody’s favourite skater, I’m always going to give them the time of day because you never know if they’ll ever see you again.
Growing up in Ohio, you don’t get to see pros and all that, really. To this day, I remember all the interactions I had at demos because they were few and far between. I think about those days all the time and as a skateboarder – or somebody involved in anything where people are following your work – you’re always moving so quick but at the very least you’ve got to say, “What’s up!”
You never know what it might mean to somebody. You never know what somebody is going through and you – you – could be the reason they get out of a funk.
Justin would like to personally thank his sponsors – Vans, Quasi, Spitfire, Independent, Mob, Bones Bearings and (“of course”) Embassy Boardshop – for their support.