The earliest indoctrinations of skating were set in its archetypical home, California. California has always been the dream. The golden light & temperature, palm trees and concentration of 'stars' underpinned this dream like impression.
California is a huge state that has a diverse natural and man made terrain. It took some years of discovery to understand the scale of such diversity there. The initial attraction to visit was nested in the skate footage of Dave Paine's Videogroove, particularly documenting the southern Californian (Socal) scene of mid to late 90s Los Angeles and Orange County. The colleges, schools and storm drains, coupled with an obsession with Terminator 2 were hyper inspirational.
During the period of the late 90s and early 00s, financial resources were squirreled away to afford this trip of a lifetime. On reflection, these holidays were ridiculous and formative in equal measure. We were groups of 10 upwards, staying in modest hotel accommodation for up to 3 months at a time. The Ramada inn, in Orange County will go down in lifelong memory for 'those who know'. No cars, we would rely on public transport to engage in the top tier of skate tourism.
We had crude internet help, irreconcilable to the standard of connectivity and information access now. Arduous treks by bus to legendary spots like UCI, Huntington Beach or Wilson High School were surreal. Seeing the storm drains in Santa Ana for the first time instigated wild imagination of 'drop ins' and avoiding T1000s crazed pursuit.
Having skates on your feet broached any awkwardness of meeting like minded people. Inevitably, relationships were established with skaters who were as intrigued about us as we were about them. Some of those relationships have grown strong over the years and remain intact to this day. We were blessed to have been given tours in the family van of Santa Ana based brothers Jose (Lethol) and Hugo Ledesma. A young Victor Galicia also accompanied us in these excursions. We had the earliest taste of his amazing skills and creative genius. The standard of skating within this crew was a microcosm of the elevated standard of skating in California at the time. This crew like many others at the time went by a name, the 'Frontline Mafia'. This crew, aren't still 'known' by that name. However, Victor and Lethol are both active and absolutely in their prime.
As tourists do, the objective was to bring back visual mementos from the journey. Rolls of film and DV tape supplemented the random souvenir purchases. The video clips can be found in early productions like 'Sidetracked', 'Lords of Movement' and 'Capital Rollas'. What was captured in the early California footage translates nicely over time. There was a high level of skating, genuine relationships established and so much laughter to transition between the adventures.
These forays into the international culture of skating were foundational. As young men, we didn't really know what was going to happen. Going to iconic skate spots with the expectation of filming tricks was also a real examination of our credentials. Could any of us perform at these 'perfect spots'? Could any of us register on the barometer set by the world’s best skaters? These questions would be answered over the coming decades.
It wouldn't be appropriate to be in California and not see some 'A list' celebrities. At this time we were not on the lookout for the Hollywood elite. I don’t think any of our minds were geared towards such people. We saw numerous household names from the biggest skate videos or teams. I remember seeing Aaron Feinberg skate at UCI, absolutely awe inspiring. We saw Kevin Gillan at the mall local to our hotel, we essentially stalked him for a few minutes. There was such gravity to seeing these people in the flesh. The stars of a 'golden era'. Our feeling as a group was heightened. We really did feel like we were in the centre of the universe for skating.
The way in which skating is practiced has changed and broadened. A more conservative, refined and creative approach is widely embraced. It is no secret that there is a large group of skaters into their 30s who value their health primarily. A form of skating that doesn’t implicitly mean death defying danger is appealing, especially on holiday with your 30 somethings group of friends.
This trip to California was a holiday. It was also a ‘skate trip’. The intention was to film, but we also wanted to indulge and treat ourselves well. Everyone works hard, deserved a break, and to be relieved of their day to day responsibilities. Some of us had traveled together before. Most could resonate with California and personally relate to those early trips described previously
The group were, James Bower, Matt Smith, Andy Spary, Mike Welland & Sam Crofts. Throughout the journey we connected with friends in the LA, Santa Ana and Long Beach areas too. The time of year meant attractive prices for flights and the tantalizing prospect of winter sun. Jon Julio’s annual takeover of Santa Ana ‘The Blading Cup’ anchored the trip at the beginning of November.
It was my first time attending this incredible event. Obviously this was more than a skate competition. The closeness in relationship Jon has with the local authority in Santa Ana allowed for an event that felt like a festival. Our group behaved accordingly. We indulged in what was on offer. A significant amount of time was spent socialising, meandering through the densely packed and tiny area. It was surreal. At one point I was tapped on the shoulder by Walt Austin, who I had not seen since 2004. I drove Walt’s car before I had attained my driving license. More profound a memory was witnessing this master skate first hand. Going on tour with Walt and being considered ‘good enough’ to tour with him is one of my highest moments.
I alluded to a ‘golden era’ previously. Icons from our culture, prominent in the beginning, competed in the event itself! I was humbled to witness Scotty Crawford on the street course. Watching him skate provoked instantaneous reverie of every era from the early 90s up to this present day. When he showed the crowd his trademark zerospin technique, it seemed as if everyone felt the same thing at the same time. Mike Budnik matched Scott, performing an invert on the vert wall, silhouetted against the dusk backdrop. This was a genuinely surreal moment. Amongst the active experienced practitioners, was also Jon Ortiz. He was another walking talking time warp. His skating had been etched into my mind since his appearances in ‘Uncommon Ground’. He skated with the grace and style he has always embodied. The drama of this event solidified when Jon fell and hit his head badly, paralyzing everyone with fear and anxiety over his safety. Miraculously, he recovered well enough to a conscious but groggy state and could be seen socialising later in the evening.
Emerging ‘new school’ skaters like JK Park were at the event. He traveled with his Korean counterparts who were on their own ground breaking journey. The diverse collective of people did not cease to amaze. It was a family event too. Many children attended with their parents, both mothers and fathers competed in the event.
We spent the whole weekend absorbed in this wonderful atmosphere of socialising and competitive edge. The event itself, won by the incredible Phillip Moore, was engrossing and dramatic. We rode the wave of emotions and laughed into the night until our capacity for conversation and laughter was spent.
The blading cup weekend and memorial BBQ for Brandon Negrette felt like we had completed the trip already.
Fortunately for us, we had only just begun.
The trip was split between two AirBnb locations. The first spot was in the East Los Angeles region. The accommodation suited our needs perfectly. The group swiftly settled into the rituals that would suffice the rest of the journey. Morning coffee was a joy. Between this group, the energy was already hyper charged. We barely needed coffee for the ‘kick’. However, the process of waking up, bonding, coffee and breakfast was communal and highly pleasant. Within that morning period, we spoke about where we wanted to go and what we wanted to skate. The group’s sense of humour was seamless in being established. Conversation broached current skate themes to ‘taking the piss’ out of each other. We did not stop laughing. We also took this unique opportunity to talk about each other’s skating and the potential to achieve amazing things on this journey.
Matt Smith was a late and spontaneous addition to the crew. He confirmed a week before we were due to fly out. He added experience and organisation to this morning process. He suggested the use of a skate spot application (app) he had subscribed to. Prior to flying out, myself and James had spent some hours scouring the area around the house, extracting photos and addresses of very ‘core’ spots via google earth. The use of the app was in contrast to the notion of spontaneous street skating. However, Matt was keen to show us the capability of the app. It detailed a range of spots by location and even any improvements made to them. On the first day in that house, it was clear we had a surplus of spots to go to. Each would be adventure experiences in their own right.
Tripping around in our ludicrous SUV was in itself validating of an ‘American experience’. The decision was made to upgrade at the airport. It was an impulsive decision. Credit must be given to the airport sales person who read our situation perfectly. The car was spacious and allowed for us to cruise about with impunity as if in a comfortable tank.
One of the adventures led us to a ‘perfect’ ditch spot about an hour north into LA County. We arrived and were literally blown away. Never had any of us pulled up to a spot and experienced such challenging conditions. The wind had already been a destructive factor in the recent weeks, propelling wildfires in the north east of the region. We walked from the parking spot battling gusts strong enough to unbalance. We crept through a tunnel and it was revealed. However, for some of us, hearts were already sinking. The wind, dust and scale of the spot withered motivation to warm up. In stark contrast was the energy and expectation before arriving. Everyone had lined up their moves, visualising exactly how it would be captured. It doesn’t always turn out how you imagined. That’s the beauty of these sorts of adventures. What stuck in our minds was how the golden sun permeated the unsettled airborne dust. This visually stunning phenomenon transported us into an alien environment. The red hue left the impression of Mars. We each struggled to take moves away from this place, the ditch terrain proving to be an ultimate challenge. Adding up the factors that made this experience difficult also made it unforgettable. Sometimes, it’s a bizarre circumstance that sears a sequence of moments into the memory. On our journey home from this strange place, we encountered some traffic. Speculating on the cause, we passed by a plane that had crash landed on the freeway. This story was recounted in conversation on numerous occasions. Each time it was told, it consolidated how unusual and absurd being in America sometimes is.
Walking around in downtown LA is also a strong indication of the strange environmental and social milieu. Odd characters walked around, muttering to themselves. Others got on with their daily business whilst tourists and younger people reveled.
Tensions were on display too. We stopped to skate the legendary Pershing Square, kink wall rail and ledge. The epic 3 hour session was enough to report back about. It was made even more dramatic by the surrounding social interactions. At one point, a disaffected rambling woman approached a man, who drew his taser and set it off in her direction. The disturbing crackle seemed inconspicuous to most onlookers. In moments like these, you realise you aren’t on the outside looking in. As street skaters, you fit into the fabric of that culture & society in any given moment. Many thoughts raced through my mind. Suddenly the degradation we saw throughout the journey was compounded. A grim reflection of the irreparable lives of LA took hold. In contrast was us. We came from relative comfort. We had witnessed levels of bizarre human behaviour and degradation in the UK. However, the darker reality for these many was a consistent and humbling undertone.
The darker undertones of what we witnessed was not lost upon the group. When skating in certain environments a level of respect should be exerted. The ‘privilege’ to be out in the world, skating, and having fun should be ‘checked’. Inherent to the American culture is a simmering social tension that could erupt into murderous behaviour. The reality of guns as common place is always unsettling. Upon our arrival, yet another mass shooting had taken place in a bar in the north west of the region. Between the wildfires and the shooting, our pleasurable morning diner experiences were subdued with the incessant and terrifying reports on the TV.
Close friend Gregory Preston can testify to the impact of gun violence. He was recently assaulted, ‘pistol whipped’ whilst stopping over in Denver, Colorado. Thankfully, Greg was not hurt, but the widespread coverage of the story punctuated how real this threat is.
Greg remained a constant throughout this trip. His positive insights & humour was a potent source of inspiration. Greg is familiar to Europe and the UK. He had made numerous trips to London, filming for projects, but mostly keen to hang out. He had been to my family home, spending Christmas with me, Mum & Dad in 2017. Greg’s prominence in the skate world has been built on his extraordinary skills. Greg has also constructed a platform with a unique identity to develop his vision of skating. ‘TooEasy’ has been one of the most productive sources of skate material, documenting Greg’s perception of skating in the places he has traveled to. Recently, Greg had traveled back home to Long Beach (LBC) following his ejection from Denmark. I had anticipated spending time with him in his home city, hoping to experience LBC in the way it had been envisaged. One particular day filled the heart and mind with positivity and joy. Their beloved ‘home park’ session spot ‘Dolphin Park’ was rumoured to be torn down. The circular ledge spot has been widely documented. The tricks that have been done there are amazing, and a reflection of the years spent exploring this circular space. A big session had been organised to commemorate Dolphin. There were taco’s, a video premiere and a strong sense of community and family. Long-time friend and Californian legend Ryan Northway introduced me to his daughter who was also skating around. It was beyond a pleasure to be part of this intimate event. Days like these accentuate the most positive aspects of the skate culture, embodied in this moment by the skaters of Long Beach.
Our journey sought out these sorts of experiences. As a group, our bonding and relationships were strengthened day to day. Edging towards the end of this epic few weeks, the skating and filming accumulated. We would each be forgiven be being slightly forlorn. The skating had been incessant and the riders fitness levels were exposed. One of the coolest things about this trip was the consistency of fitness and cerebral attitude to our skating. Mike Welland has a rich history in the UK skating world. His attributes are well known from his past sections, leaning towards huge gaps and other wildly dangerous tricks. In the more recent years Mike has had his physical issues which at times affected his ability & perception of his own skating. He synthesised the energy within the group and developed his skating in a direction I had not previously seen. The standards & expectations of the past were tempered with more conservative tricks he could have fun trying.
Sam Crofts, who had never been to California before took to this new environment like a duck to water. Firstly, he overdosed on dickies emptying the outlet clothing racks. He measured the dangerous tricks he is well known to try. He too reflected the collective attitude, skating creatively, smartly and retained his health throughout. James was thoughtful in his approach to skating. As always, it was easy to translate his ideas into a cool looking video clip. He represents the core of London street skating identity, filling his boots when the environment spoke to him. Andy Spary, who would say he is the protégé of Mike, was highly animated throughout the whole trip. He hardly looked defeated, on the contrary, brimming with ideas and hustling his tricks. When some or all of us were deflated, there was Andy looking to hold the group on his own.
The atmosphere between us created a fertile ground for us each to develop our ideas. There was a freedom to suggest moves to each other or validate an idea in the making. Filming together was harmonious. Each respected the time it took to complete a move, understanding that the collective goal was to create something special between us.
In the end, we knew we had achieved this. It would not be the video or the photos that prove something special had happened. These moments, seared into our memories, leaving an impression that is as evocative as it is hilarious - The darkness of life, evident in our brightest moments on holiday together.