In a lonely fish camp clinging to a desolate headland in Baja California, a wiry man with scrappy dreadlocks pulls off his wetsuit and leans against a Dodge truck parked on the beach. He is changing into his clothes after surfing some clean little waves that are running down a sandbar next to the local panga launch. He appears neither old nor young nor middle aged. A transcendent stoke radiates from him as he talks to his companions about the waves he just rode on his unusual surfboard, which is short, wide, and double keeled. Wearing a pair of vintage 1980s Esprit sunglasses, he pulls a Paul Smith dress shirt from the cab of the truck and buttons it up, as if this beachside cluster of plywood shacks, fifty clicks from nowhere, is exactly the place to throw down a fashion statement. His voice is raspy, yet clear and distinct, his language peppered with the universal expletives of street slang. He speaks with the cadence and tempo of a hustler who has spent plenty of time on the wrong side of the tracks, but could still hold his own at a cocktail party in Beverly Hills.
Down by the shore, the panga fishermen clean the morning’s catch while gulls shriek and skirmish over the fish guts strewn on the sand. A stiff northerly breeze blows in off the wastes of the Viscaino desert, sending dust swirling down the streets of the little town. The wind carries the dust, and the man’s voice, to the ears of a boy who is doing tricks on a beat-up BMX bike near the dirt track that leads to the beach. A look of puzzled disbelief crosses the boy’s face as he gazes at the man and listens to him talking. Timidly, the boy approaches. Pulling a battered Nintendo Game Boy from the pocket of his jeans, the boy selects a skateboarding video game from the menu. A digitized recording of a man’s voice emanates from the device as a pixilated image of a skateboarder appears on the tiny monitor. “Tony Alva…” the boy says, as he stares at the man with the dreadlocks, transfixed. “Tony Al—el primero campeon.” The man’s face breaks into a grin, and he nods his head in the affirmative. Down on the beach, the fishermen continue their work, loading their pangas onto trailers and hitching them to the bumpers of their rusty pickup trucks, while the gulls wheel and scream overhead.
For Tony Alva, things like having his identity revealed in the middle of nowhere via a kid with a handheld gaming device are not that unusual these days. Moments like this are funhouse mirrors lining the path of his 43-year-long surf/skate sojourn. As he continues to surf, which is the core passion that defines his skating and his life, he is frequently exposed to all kinds of compressed, artificial interpretations of his reality. Key facets of his life experience, and those of his peers, have long since been transformed into a commodity—a marketing vehicle— available to the world, literally at the fingertips of millions, anytime, anywhere. Through a chain of events set in motion by Alva and his friends in the mid 70s, skateboarding has evolved into one of the most powerful forces in youth culture, rivaling music in its power to influence and set trends. In the case of Alva and the rest of the Z-Boys, the irony is particularly strong, but this sort of thing has become universal for surfers and skaters everywhere. When the commercialized mass identity of board riding intersects with the individual rider, a vast abyss yawns between the two entities.
At 53 years of age, Tony Alva still skates pools in a style that is not only a thing of grace and beauty, but also aggressive, flashing, and sparking with something best described simply as radness. For over three decades, this ephemeral quality has been most powerfully expressed to the world through skating, and Alva and his friends were the first to really let it shine.
Still, when asked about its origins, Alva states without hesitation that it all started with surfing: “I was a little jock until I was 10 years old, and then I got turned on to surfing and rock ’n’ roll and psychedelics and smokin’ weed, and after that my whole world was just turned upside down by the mysticism of existence. Surfing and surfers changed everything for me. When we were kids, we used skating as a medium to do what we wanted to do on waves. I was always a better skater than I was a surfer, but being a better surfer was the driving force for me, so I was applying surf stuff to skating. As I started manifesting that in my skating and drawing those surf lines, especially in pools, like hitting the coping and eventually doing aerials, it started making my surfing better. I started to be able to take it from the fixed medium, which was skating, to the moving, liquid medium, and I started to get better at surfing. I was able to surf more like I skated, and that was a dream come true for me.”
Once upon a time, surfing and skating shared the same culture and identity. Back then a person who skated but didn’t surf was perceived as someone missing the point. Those days are long gone, at least in the eyes of the nonsurfing world. Ironically, if there were a moment in time that has come to represent the perceived point of separation—the fork in the road between surfing and skating—it would be when Alva landed the first aerial in an empty pool in the mid-’70s. Suspended in thin air after launching off the coping, for an instant everything hung in the balance…and then he landed it. At that moment skating rolled away from surfing with such velocity, momentum, and infectious charisma that the youth of the world found it not only irresistible, but also affordable and accessible. And surfing? Surfing suddenly had very little to do with it anymore. A paradox, as surfing had everything to do with it.
Tony Alva is, was, and always will be a surfer. Surfing is his first love. His role as one of the prime instigators of the skateboard revolution, and the fact that he has surfed and skated continuously for over four decades, gives him a unique perspective on the current state of affairs in the realm of board riding. Many of the external changes he sees are contrary to his point of view, filtered through his own day-to-day life as a surfer and skater, a life that at its core has remained unchanged since the 70s. His attitude and approach to surfing and skating today reflect this. At heart he’s still just a kid from Southern California doing his thing like he always has…but the inescapable fact remains that in simply following the path laid out before him in beachside Los Angeles he helped bring about profound changes in surfing and skating.
“We kinda broke the mold,” he says, “and revolutionized the way people even look at skateboarding. They called it sidewalk surfing, right? But that kind of skating was based on 60s longboard-style surfing. To us that was kinda lame; we were like, ‘That shit’s for sissies.’ When we surfed, we were into doing radical turns on shortboards, so, when we skated, we started doing some new shit that nobody had seen before, and it got to the point where we were revolutionizing skateboarding because we were shortboard surfers.”
In many ways the rise of skating and skate culture— both directly and indirectly—had more impact on surfing over the last 35 years than any thing else. Skating influenced performance surfing and board design, while at the same time leaving surfing with an identity crisis that it is still trying to come to terms with. Today’s cutting-edge performance surfing in and above the lip is following a trail blazed across harsh and extremely unforgiving terrain by Alva and his peers nearly four decades ago. Through their skating they showed the way for today’s surfers. It didn’t come easy, and they paid a steep price in blood, pain, and broken bones.
“I was one of the first guys to complete aerial maneuvers on vertical walls in empty swimming pools, which basically led to everything that exists in skateboarding today, like the X Games and all that shit. There wouldn’t be any mega ramp, or whatever, if we didn’t do the first airs back in the 70s. So, yeah, I think my major innovative credit would be doing aerials on vertical walls on skateboards. Did that eventually have an effect on surfing? Yeah, I think it did.”
Alva, and a handful of others from his generation— especially Jay Adams—continue to bridge the gap between skating and surfing, between past and present. It is no exaggeration to state that these guys are among the most influential surfers of the 20th century.
Alva was born and raised in Santa Monica, and he started surfing in 1967 at the age of 10. His first board was a mini-gun made by Marty Sugarman. It was Glenn Hening who first showed Alva the basics of surfing by pushing him into waves at State Beach in Santa Monica. Hening is a dynamic personality who went on to establish the Surfrider Foundation and the Groundswell Society. This introductory surf session set the tone for Alva’s future, as he was continually influenced, inspired, and challenged by the people he met by simply going surfing.
One day when he was a kid, Alva was trying to get a ride to Malibu, hitchhiking with his board at the foot of the Santa Monica pier. A woman stopped and picked him up. Her son was in the car with her, a scorching bundle of rat energy named Jay. Naturally, the paths of Tony Alva and Jay Adams first crossed while they were embarking on a common mission, and that mission was to surf, by any means necessary, on land or in the sea.
As a kid, Alva became typically obsessed with surfing, but early on he realized that he was gifted with a supernatural talent for skateboarding. He was a good surfer, but he was a great skateboarder. When skating he innately manifested the ideal surf style, effortlessly locking into a technique that evolved into something approaching perfection. By the time skating entered the vertical realm, Alva was channeling the very essence of 70s surf, and his aesthetic was pleasing in the highest artistic sense.
But there was far more going on in his skating than mere stylish posing. Risk breeds radness, and at the heart of Alva’s skating was a relationship with danger that went far beyond an innocent flirtation, blossoming over time into a very serious affair. Danger provided the foundation on which Alva and the Z-Boys separated themselves from the rest and revolutionized skateboarding. As the original pool ruler of the 70s, Alva followed the example set in the surf by Barry Kanaiaupuni at Sunset Beach and Gerry Lopez at Pipeline by meeting extremely treacherous situations with grace, poise, and finesse.
Skating rolled away with its new identity and spread inland like a flood tide, and no skater played the rock star as well as Alva. He built his public image with a debauched flamboyance mirroring the decadent worlds of rock, glam, and punk. “My ambition and ego told me straight up, ‘there ain’t nobody skates better than me, and I’m gonna skate until I prove I’m number one.’ There was an era when I was probably considered the best skateboarder in the world, and I achieved my goal by winning the men’s overall World Professional Skateboard Championship. I felt like Muhammad Ali at the time, like unbeatable. So I lived that skateboarding rock star kinda life for a long time. I mean, when they start paying you all this fuckin’ money and throw you to this rock star frenzy type of atmosphere when you’re a young guy, man, you just eat it up. You’re a gladiator, y’know?”
Prelude to the Revolution
The prelude to the rise of Alva and the Z-Boys happened when Frank Nasworthy innovated the urethane skateboard wheel around 1970. Nasworthy was just as frustrated with stiff, slow surfboards as he was with dangerous and unforgiving clay and metal skateboard wheels. Landlocked in the Washington DC area at the time of his urethane wheel breakthrough, he spent eight months skating blissfully around the city on wheels that now felt so close to the actual act of surfing that he barely missed the ocean. In fact, the speed and traction of the new wheels allowed him to draw lines on pavement that he could only dream about in the water. When he finally did return to the beach in Florida in the spring of 1971, the first thing he did was scrap his conventional single-fins and buy a short, wide, dualkeeled fish surfboard. He wanted a surfboard that rode like his new skateboard, and this deliberate and radical board change by Nasworthy marks a pivotal moment in surf history. Suddenly, a skateboard was guiding a surfer into the future and making him crave new equipment to ride waves in new ways.
By the time Nasworthy brought Cadillac Wheels to market in California and Hawaii in 1973, the conditions in the lineup and on the street were absolutely perfect for an explosive revolution in skateboarding, and the effects this had on surfing are still being felt to this day. “We were doing really rad shit,” says Alva. “Even before urethane wheels came out we were doing some really risky shit. But when the urethane wheels came out? That was like all of a sudden we had juice. All of the things we ever wanted to do on a skateboard and on a wave just started to happen overnight.”
The introduction of the urethane skateboard wheel to the surf and skate scene orbiting around Jeff Ho’s recently opened Zephyr shop in California was like throwing a match on a swimming pool full of gasoline. In Santa Monica and Venice, Ho had already plowed the ground and sewn the seeds by showcasing progressive board designs and fostering a decidedly surf/skate mentality. The Zephyr surf and skate team was already taking shape, following the example of the great LA clay wheel skate teams of the 60s, like the legendary Makaha team. Torger Johnson, Davey Hilton, George Trafton, and others had ripped the local school bank scene (and even empty pools) on clay wheels in the ’60s, and Alva and Adams were doing the same in the early 70s. But while the 60s LA skate scene was mostly longboard-influenced sidewalk surfing, kids like Alva, Adams, Stacy Peralta, Allen Sarlo, and Nathan Pratt were coming of age during and immediately after the shortboard revolution. Their clay wheel skate style was strictly shortboard influenced. When urethane entered the picture everything was in place, and the kids transferred their latent shortboard energy and consciousness onto concrete with spectacular results.
The other major influence on the birth of modern skating came from Hawaii. At the time the urethane wheel was introduced, Ben Aipa and Larry Bertlemann were in the process of electrifying the surf world with their uniquely Hawaiian style of new-school surfing and design, and this was exerting considerable influence on the Zephyr scene. Aipa and Jeff Ho were friends, and Aipa and Bertlemann had visited the Santa Monica area in the early 70s. The low, pivotal style of surfing had been practiced in the Islands for untold generations, but it reached its modern zenith with Bertlemann, whose well-documented mastery of Aipa’s swallowtail designs, and later, the Aipa Stinger, would fan the fires of the surf/ skate revolution. Bertlemann was already a skateboarder, having learned on clay wheels in Hilo before moving to Oahu. When Nasworthy’s wheels hit the Islands, Bertlemann’s surf act was state of the art and getting worldwide attention. He jumped on urethane wheels, got really into skating, and translated his surf moves onto concrete without missing a beat. For the next few years, his surfing and skating fused into one stylistic form that was distinct, readily identifiable, and highly contagious. Cross-pollination occurred with Bertlemann’s trips to California and Adams and Alva’s trips to the Islands. Bertlemania had spread to the mainland, and his urethaneskate-influenced surfing became a major inspiration to the Z-Boys.
Alva epitomized the symbiotic relationship between shortboard surfing and the birth of urethane wheel skating. His style was the synthesis of multiple influences. He grew up under the spell of the Australian surf magazine Tracks, admiring its countercultural editorial stance, and the surfing of George Greenough, Nat Young, Wayne Lynch, Peter Drouyn, Terry Fitzgerald, Midget Farrelly, Michael Peterson, and Ted Spencer. He appreciated their radical approach to surfing and identified with their brash attitudes. The streets and surf spots Alva frequented in LA were not soft places. They were tough and urban, and Alva’s persona reflected this. Skating was done in street clothes in the city, and Alva and Z-Boys had style. When photographs began to appear in SkateBoarder magazine, the effect on the youth of America was potent. Empty pools were more like punk stages than surf spots, and skaters like Alva and Adams were the boys in the band. Here was the surf/skate style, born in Mother Nature’s ocean, but clad in cooler-than-shit, in-your-face, punk-rock rebellion, and projecting an irresistible vibe. It struck land-locked kids in a way that surfing never could. To kids in the Midwest, surfing was a beautiful dance with nature on some faraway coast in tight board shorts and goofy wetsuits, but skating was sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, right there on the local streets, no ocean required.
Alva absorbed a deep and direct rock ’n’ roll/surf influence from his tight mentorship with Bunker Spreckels, who died in 1977 at the age of 27. Alva spent long periods with Bunker in Hawaii and California, and the two were tuned to the same frequency in music, surfing, skating, and life. Bunker was also instrumental in helping Alva win the World Professional Skateboard Championship. Bunker’s influence continues today: “I think about all the things he said, about his attitude on surfing and surfboards and the spiritual side of it all, about his reverence for Hawaiian surfing,” he says. “Lately I’ve been reading some of his interviews from 35 years ago, and he’s like a prophet. Everything he was into is so much a part of my surfing, and surfing in general, right now. I look at what he was saying about specializing in super-short boards, keel fins, and creativity in surfing, and all of it is so relevant right now. Today I’m surfing on similar boards, and I feel like I’m kinda carrying on something for Bunker, for my friend, by staying connected to the stuff he turned me on to a long time ago.”
Given Bunker’s tragically short life, Alva’s association with him seems preordained, a case of fate and destiny. It was through Bunker that Alva became a living link in a chain of closely related personalities, a lineage that passed from Gardner Chapin and Bob Simmons to Miki Dora and Bunker and on to Alva himself. Miki Dora was a mentor to Bunker. It was through their relationship that Alva was introduced to Dora in Los Angeles. The meeting occurred at one of Miki’s L.A. hideouts, and Alva was deeply moved by the experience. He identified with Dora and everything he represented, admiring his style and hustle in the face of a world that seemed to want nothing more than to throw him in prison. For Alva, Dora became a lifelong muse, a libertine saint guiding him on his journey, helping him justify his existence. As the martyrs of West Coast surf culture, Gardner Chapin, Bob Simmons, and Bunker Spreckels all died young, but not before exerting a cultural influence that would be felt far beyond the beach. Alva, more than anyone, took that influence to the streets. Ironically, after Bunker’s death the ideals of this lineage were in many ways abandoned in the mainstream world of surfing. It was in Alva and the Z-Boys, who were put into context through the words and photographs of Craig Stecyk, that they found a new life and meaning in the emerging youth culture of skateboarding. The enduring archetype of skateboarder as rebellious street outlaw was born from the legacy of surfing’s most notorious anti-heroes.
In 1969, Miki Dora drew a graph depicting the rise and eventual decline of modern surfing. He believed that surfing’s West Coast golden era, which he called the Genesis period, occurred from 1949 to 1954. Dora’s halcyon epoch ends with the deaths of two of his heroes: Bob Simmons in 1954 and Gardner Chapin in 1955. Dora marks the decades following their deaths as the start of surfing’s slide into conformity, mediocrity, and commercialism. After 1970, Dora predicted a “Great Cataclysm,” when surfing would plummet into a cultural and spiritual depression, a time when commercial interests would make a profane mockery of the Hawaiian Sport of Kings. In the end, sometime in the distant future, Dora offered redemption, but only through a “return to genesis,” a return to 1954 and beyond, farther back in time to a place where surfing’s true spirit abides. Forty-two years have passed since Dora’s prophecy, and to many, it has been fulfilled. Tony Alva and the Z-Boys were the children of the cataclysm, riding out surfing’s apocalypse on an ocean of asphalt and concrete, rolling recklessly down a course that seemed to somehow always be pointing the way back to genesis.
Skateboarding is now the most universal form of board riding in the world, practiced from the high-risk streets of Tijuana and Juarez to the alleys of Amsterdam to the bombed-out ruins of Kabul. Any thorough contemplation on how the surf/skate style evolved from the surfing of people like Larry Bertlemann will ultimately lead to the Hawaiian paipo board and the ancient alaia, which are the elder siblings of boards like the Simmons planing hull and Lis’s fish. Bertlemann was, after all, raised on a paipo. The paipo and the alaia were the traditional boards of the ancient Hawaiian commoners, and the skateboard has a historical and spiritual connection to them. In a sense, it has emerged as the board of the people worldwide.
For Alva, having an awareness of the tangled network of design threads leading back to these ancient boards is an important part of his surf and skate experience. An avid surf historian, he’s always seeking the story behind the boards he rides. From Simmons to Greenough to Bunker to Lis, he has pursued contemporary interpretations of vintage designs, pulling facets from different eras in an endless quest for an aquatic skateboard. He’ll go back and forth between surfing a 4’11” fish and skating a pool in the course of a day, always seeking a continuity of sensation between the fluid and fixed medium.
“Being a surfer and a skater, it helps when it comes to riding those boards because they give me the same feeling I get from skating a pool or something,” he says. “There’s a lot of acceleration I get from those boards that is very similar to skating, and I can use the same technique I use skating to get that skatey feel from them. On the flip side, my skating is affected by it. I get so loose and my technique gets better and I start feeling like I’m surfing when I’m skating. One gives balance to the other, and the more I surf the better I skate and vice versa.”
Alva’s passion for surfy skating and skatey surfing affects his board choices in both disciplines. He likens the rise of the thruster to the advent of urethane wheels, a revolutionary design breakthrough that raised the performance level of surfing instantly and permanently. That being said, his taste in boards leans toward the flat, the wide, and the ultra skatey. He’s after a different feeling. He wants to skate on water. When it comes to skating, he wants to surf on land.
About six years ago, Alva hooked up with Michael Early, a surfer/skater from Michigan who had relocated to San Diego years ago. Early was so frustrated with the generic popsicle decks available on the market that he decided to design his own based on what he rode in pools in the early 80s. He committed to a 50-deck production minimum and figured he would end up with enough decks to last him the rest of his life. Once he got the decks, he found there was a demand from other skaters who shared his frustration, and he went into business as Pool King Skates. He teamed up with Alva and the two have been producing and designing decks that allow them to skate the way they want to in the terrain they like to ride.
“From my point of view, the tiny wheels, baggy pants, generic popsicle-stick deck era of the 90s was a low point in skating,” says Alva, “which is weird because it kind of coincided with a time when I thought surfboards were becoming too generic and over-specialized for tricks too. Skating on the street and trying to do one trick over and over and over again and making it one time in 30 tries just ain’t fun for me. Basically, for me and a lot of other oldschool skaters, it’s all about speed, carves, and flying through the air. I just wanna go fast. It’s a surf line. All my decks now are fuller, and it’s kinda crazy because they have a lot of visual similarities to the surfboards I like to ride.”
And so, four decades into the game, Alva refines and enriches his surf/skate trip according to his personal tastes and experience. Traveling the world as an ambassador for Vans, Alva interacts with today’s youth, transcending generations as he represents his era and shares his message of old-school skate aesthetics. He simply shows up, skates, and hangs out, and the kids love it. “I’m always looking for kids that are like I was, the ‘at risk’ ones, the hungry ones, the ones that have that fire I had when I was a kid. I take ’em under my wing and pass a little knowledge on to ’em, just to keep it alive in the next generation.”
He has nothing to prove to anyone, and it shows. “Tony Alva is an icon and a true skate legend,” says Jeff Ho. “He has the style and the ability to back it all up.”
He laughs and smiles a lot, going about his business with the gratitude and humility of a true survivor. Years of alcohol and substance abuse nearly took him down, but these days he lives clean and lets the universe take care of the rest. He tries to live his life based on a simple, practical spirituality that involves minimizing his ego and helping others. He has two children, a son, Zephariah Levi, 15, and a daughter, Avalon Victoria, 22. He serves the community in a number of ways, whether hosting an art exhibition at his gallery, Exhibit A, on Fairfax, sharing his life experience with Native American kids on a reservation in New Mexico, or casually hanging out with a thousand awestruck fans at a skate spot in Mexico City. “In some of the places I go, I see these kids where I know skating is all they got. It’s like the only positive thing in their lives.”
Alva’s reputation during most of his skate career was notorious, and he was not known for his sensitivity or kindness. His past was loaded with controversy and conflict. As the first skateboarder to independently brand his name and image, Alva was infamous for stepping on toes and looking out for number one. Today things are different. Tony Alva does his best to walk humbly with a love for surfing and skateboarding that is as deep and true as it gets.
Alva still lives in Los Angeles where, for the most part, he’s just one of the boys, and that’s how he’s treated. He moves among the social strata of the city’s art, skate, music, and surf scenes with the unpretentious ease of a born-and-raised local who knows everyone and has seen it all. Most days he’s up before dawn on a surf mission, scouring the coast for one of his hidden nooks and crannies with a carefully selected quiver in tow.
“For years and years I was so self-centered and ego driven, rude, obnoxious, mean, arrogant…really the only time I was mellow was when I was surfing,” Alva says. “I look back on all that and I just want to get back to where it all started, I want to keep it close to surfing and not ever let my life get away from surfing ever again. I want to keep my skating joined at the hip with my surfing. Surfing slows me down. It puts me more on God’s rhythm than my own rhythm.
Recently, Alva’s new life principles were put to the test. In August 2009, tragedy struck the skateboarding community when 48-year-old Andy Kessler died from an allergic reaction to an insect sting he received while surfing at Montauk. Kessler was a skater of great influence. He formed the nucleus of a skate scene that evolved in New York City during the 70s and brought skating to a place in American street culture where it merged with the worlds of hip-hop and graffiti. Kessler and Alva were tight friends; both were prominent figures in skate scenes that essentially shared the same spirit. In recent years, their friendship had grown even stronger as Alva began to follow Kessler’s example of overcoming substance abuse and being of service to the community. After all they had been through, both Alva and Kessler had arrived at a place in life where they were profoundly grateful to be able to simply continue surfing and skating. On hearing of Kessler’s passing, Alva flew to New York to pay respect to the memory of his friend and do his part in easing the pain the New York community was experiencing. Later he went skating in Brooklyn, a simple tribute to the loss of a fellow elder.
A few months later while visiting friends in San Diego, Alva got the call that his old friend and fellow Z-Boy Bob Biniak had died of a heart attack at the age of 51. He put down the phone and stared at the floor in silence for a long time. Finally he looked up and said, “I gotta go skate today, for Biniak. I gotta do a few runs to remember him by.”
For Alva surfing and skateboarding provide relief and an outlet for physical and emotional expression. They give us a taste of freedom in a world full of constriction and confinement. In the end, we are all slaves to gravity, the one force above all others that binds us to our limited existence. Through his surf-inspired mastery of a little rolling board, Tony Alva takes his place in history as one who inspired millions to shed the shackles of gravity and fly.
[Feature image by Todd Glaser]
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