Spread the Stoke

Jan 26, 2021

Spread The Stoke - Skateboarding Definition - Street Plant

     

    Kristian Svitak has saved, dated, and numbered every skateboard he has ever ridden. From his days as a young skate rat in the mid-80s, starting out on the streets of Garfield Heights in Cleveland, Ohio, through a professional skate career in the 90s and 00s that took him all over the world, every board is cherished. Even now, as a family man and forever hard-charging skateboarder in Oceanside, California, each board is a chapter of his autobiography.

    His collection is beautiful to behold—so many boards, so many memories. There’s not a skater alive who can view their collection and avoid a pang of regret for not being as thoughtful as Kristian in saving the boards they’ve ridden. Most lifelong skaters, myself included, go through boards like a box of tissues—after all, the board is a means to an end. They mean a lot, but the act of riding is always greater, and once a board is done, it’s done. At least, that’s how I’ve always looked at it.

    I haven’t saved a single board I have ever ridden (more on that later). Not my first board from Christmas morning 1984; not the board gifted to me by Lance Mountain in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in June 1986; not the board I rode to a win at the NSA National Amateur Streetstyle Championship in July 1986; not the board from my first professional competition, in which I placed third behind Natas Kaupas and Tommy Guerrero, in Eugene, Oregon, in June 1987; not my first pro model from Powell Peralta in the summer of 1988; not the board I rode when I won the 1st Annual Tampa Pro contest in April 1995; and not the board I rode while filming my gold medal video for X Games Real Street 2015.

    Skateboards are expensive and wear down quickly, and since most skaters go through boards like toilet paper, a decent used board is manna from heaven. As a sponsored skater since the summer of 1986, I’ve never lacked a steady supply of skateboards, so every board I’ve ever owned has moved from my hands to the hands of another skater—a hand-me-down meant as a pick-me-up.

    I recently came across some video footage from November 11, 2005, the night I broke my ankle at a skate demo in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It was at the height of my demo touring career—people had begun to follow my tours, from city to city, often traveling long distances to watch me skate. I prided myself on putting on the most excellent show night after night, so the injury in the early part of the demo was not only physically painful, but it also hurt me knowing that others had come a long way and they wouldn't get to see the show they came to experience. But before I fell, before the ambulance arrived, before I left the skatepark on a stretcher, the footage shows me make my entrance to the park amid chants of "Mike V! Mike V!" I had two boards with me: the one under my feet and another in my hands, a deck I had ridden the night before in Rye, New Hampshire. As I skated across the floor, I handed the deck to a kid who I had recognized earlier due to his excitement and energy, and because he was enthusiastically chanting my name. The camera lingers on this kid for a moment as I skate on to start the show. He is so stoked, and everyone around him is stoked, patting his back and smiling along with him. It's a beautiful moment at the start of the demo, a demo that would be one of the last times I skated at my highest level. Although I rehabbed my ankle extensively and did get back on the road to throw my body around for many more years, including one last demo tour in 2010, it would never really be at the level I attained before falling that night. In fact, I’ve come to consider that demo in 2005 as the unofficial end of my active pro skate career. But in watching the footage all these years later, I am content with how it all transpired—just seeing that kid's face when I hand him the board, I wouldn't change a thing. That was a great night.

    My chance encounter with Lance Mountain, outside of 17th Street Surf Shop in Virginia Beach, Virginia, just before my 16th birthday in 1986, where he gifted me his complete setup—board, trucks, wheels, even hand-done grip tape art—definitely has a lot to do with my attitude about passing skateboards on to others. I was just a local skate punk with a trashed board, but I had a deep bag of tricks, and a growing reputation as one of the more creative and original street skaters in the area. I loved skating for the physical, creative, and fun pursuit it is, but that wasn’t enough for me. I was determined to become a professional skater, and I visualized a path to that dream every day. So, when Lance asked me to show him some of my moves, it was as if I had been rehearsing for that moment for the past two years. Because I had been.

    I went wild, bouncing off the walls, into the gutter, and back onto the sidewalk. Stalling out street plants, spinning and flipping my board in all the ways I had practiced for months, and spontaneously manipulating it in ways I had never tried before. Lance, the legendary Bones Brigade pro, looked ecstatic. He was beaming, seemingly radiating gratification and kindness. When I finished, he said he only had one question for me: “How are you doing all of that on that board?” I looked down, with eyes sobered by Lance’s words, and realized just how trashed my board was. I didn’t know how I was able to ride such a mutilated board, or how I would continue to do so. Lance went to the trunk of his car and pulled out his skateboard. He handed it to me and said, “You need this more than I do.”

    And then he got in his car and drove off, leaving my friend Chad VanAuken and me stunned on the sidewalk. Together, we ran several blocks—ran, not skated—to the beach, onto the sand, out in front of the surf. We passed Lance’s board back and forth to each other, and we jumped up and down, spinning in circles, hooting and hollering, as if we’d won the lottery. In a way, we had. We had met our favorite pro skater, and he was cooler than we ever could have imagined, even gifting me his own skateboard. Of course, this left a deep impression on me, ultimately informing my approach to a professional career and the rest of my life.

    Lance says, “A pro’s job is to make others fall in love with skateboarding and never want to stop.” Obviously, he had already done that, embodying the very best of skateboarding, becoming everyone’s favorite skater. Lance had such a welcoming energy, and he made skateboarding feel so accessible—even in a photograph. But when my best friend and I met Lance, basking in his energy and love for skateboarding, we were given a gift of stoke so deep and true that, to this day, is not even close to being depleted.

    A few days after meeting Lance, he and Stacy Peralta asked me to join the Powell Peralta team in the parking lot of Mount Trashmore Park in Virginia Beach. Suddenly, the condition of my board would never again be an issue. As a sponsored skater, I would have a seemingly never-ending supply of skateboards, so from day one of my professional career, I made sure to spread the stoke by passing on boards and skate gear to others, the way Lance had done for me.

    I regularly receive messages and emails from men and women in their 30s and 40s who say they met me when they were kids or teenagers, at some critical point in their lives, and that I had gifted them a board, showing them kindness and genuine interest, which made a positive, long-lasting impact in their lives. I recently sent Lance the same sort of note, and he said, “You have been able to take it to another level, and many more face-to-face interactions and I’m proud of you for that.” Well, I learned from the best.

    You don’t have to be a professional skateboarder to spread the stoke of skateboarding, though. In fact, since the early 2000s, when corporate America really began to co-opt skate culture, it has been my experience that non-sponsored, amateur skateboard enthusiasts around the world have done more to welcome others to skateboarding than professional skateboarders. While the pros are battling it out for inches, pennies, and eyeballs, everyday skaters have been getting skateparks built in their communities, nurturing and developing their local skate scenes, engaging with other skaters and skate communities around the world via online platforms, and generally protecting skateboarding from the predatory nature of corporations only looking to turn a profit.

    Tommy Storey of Brazil, Indiana, personifies the concept of spreading the stoke. Tommy started skating in 1986, but after suffering a bad injury while skating in the mid-90s, Tommy went down a dark road with drugs. Fifteen years later, he found himself lying in a hospital bed, dying from congestive heart failure. Tommy had only 10% heart function, and doctors gave him a few months to live. He checked into a medical rehab facility, then a halfway house in Bloomington, Indiana, where he discovered Rhett Skate Shop and met owner Jon Prather. Jon was “straight edge,” meaning he abstained from drugs and alcohol, but more importantly, he was brimming with positive energy. Tommy’s rehab counselor said that hanging out at Rhett Skate Shop was okay, and it was there that Tommy purchased his first skateboard in over a decade. He would soon start skating again.

    As his health improved, Tommy became a fixture of the Terre Haute, Indiana, skate scene. Along with friends Dane Selph and Gabe Greve, they took it upon themselves to cultivate the local skate scene at Vorhees Skate Park, where they started a “Sunday Fun Day” meetup. At one of these early get-togethers, Tommy noticed a young boy with a beat-up skateboard from Walmart. Without thinking twice, Tommy gave the boy his own board. When the young skater asked Tommy, “How much?” Tommy simply said, “It’s free, little man.” Wide-eyed and stoked beyond belief, the kid ran over to his father and showed him the board. Dane and Gabe witnessed this and decided to start regularly bringing their used gear to the park, where, alongside Tommy, they support skaters in need and welcome other skaters to the local community.

    These days, Tommy has his health back, and “Sunday Fun Day” has turned from a weekly meetup to a thriving community-based skate scene of positivity, love, and family. Even non-skaters come to the park just to be a part of the weekly stoke. Tommy says, “Skateboarding and this community we created here have saved my life. I can honestly say I’m living my best life now.” That energy is one that Tommy passes to others in his town and in the online communities in which he takes part. Tommy’s reach now goes all the way from Terre Haute, Indiana, to Melbourne, Australia, to Tampa, Florida, to Rockenberg, Germany, and beyond. Tommy believes that it’s all about “creating the scene you want to be a part of,” and if you do that, “not only are you making your life better, but you will enrich the lives of people you never expect to.” That’s skateboarding at its finest and professional skateboarding has nothing to do with it.

     

    Craig Hanaumi, of Bellevue, Washington, is another great example of the “spread the stoke” approach to life, more so than any other skater I’ve ever met. Craig uses skateboarding, ukulele music, jiu-jitsu, dance, and his kind, youthful, playful spirit to make connections, always trying to find common ground. Oh, and he’s a police officer. Officer Hanaumi represents community policing at its very best, and skateboarding is a big part of how he brings people together.

    As a skateboarder, it seems strange to sing the praises of a police officer, but that just goes to show how far skateboarding has come since I first set foot on a board back in 1984, in my hometown of Edison, New Jersey. My first run-in with a police officer, a few days after I received my first skateboard for Christmas, resulted in a beatdown I’ll never forget. Subsequent encounters with Johnny Law were equally as deflating, creating a strong personal distrust of the police, and adding to an intense anti-authority viewpoint that I’ve carried with me my whole life. But when I was a kid, it didn’t have to be that way. It was a decision that the police made in each incident to positively or negatively affect the kids and skateboarders of the area. Most of the time, these adult men chose dismissive, macho, authoritarian posturing, when they could have easily chosen to get to know us, kids in their community, and made an effort to build a bridge.

    Today, the Edison Skate Park sits across the street from the police station. Some theorize it’s so the cops can keep a close eye on the skaters, but it has been my experience that the Edison Police, several of whom grew up skating with me, are supportive of skateboarding in our hometown, and have become the bridge-builders that we so needed when we were kids. It’s funny, in spite of my general hatred for the police throughout my teenage and adult life, I have always considered becoming a police officer as an alternate career path, one of service to my community. I think there’s a fine line there between indignation and inspiration for change, in asking one’s self how they could do better. I see that question answered in everything Officer Craig does. As a young skater who dealt with the police himself, he thought, “They just don’t get it,” and remembering those interactions helps to inform the relationships with skaters he has now as a police officer.

    Growing up in Hawaii, Craig started skating in 1985 after seeing Back to The Future, and then a couple classic skate videos, The Search for Animal Chin and Public Domain, which planted the seed for a lifelong love of skateboarding. For Craig, spreading the stoke comes naturally. It’s what his parents taught him, the aloha spirit, the idea of sharing goodwill toward your fellow human beings. This was ingrained in Craig from birth, and he saw it in action as a kid on Oahu, as his parents were always looking out for others, always offering to help those in need. This set a very high standard for Craig, one he says he could never live up to. But seeing this officer in action, via social media, it is clear that he sets a very high standard not just for community policing, but for overall human decency, as well.

    For years, Craig’s approach to policing has included handing out skateboards from the trunk of his police cruiser to skaters in need, or giving that magical first board to a young person in his community. When I first found out what Officer Craig was doing, I immediately sent him a box of boards to assist and further encourage him in his efforts. And I will continue to send boxes of boards, because I so love and appreciate what Craig does, including the love and kindness with which he does it. Craig says he “feels blessed to be able to use his position at work to bring people together,” that he’s “found his calling in the idea of bridging gaps with people from all walks of life,” and that policing allows him to “incorporate all of the things he values: youth, exercise, music, plus skating, too!”

    What Craig and Tommy share with pro skaters like Lance Mountain, Kristian Svitak, and me is a welcoming spirit and a desire to spread the stoke of skateboarding to anyone we meet. Lance says that he always wanted to make others feel the same way about skating that he did.  For him, the stoke is “like a song” and in sharing it, “you will be taken back to the feeling of when you first heard it. I just always wanted to stay feeling the way I did when I first saw skateboarding.”

    Lance’s early heroes were 70s pros—the Logans, Torger Johnson, Ed Natalin, Russ Howell, Skitch Hitchcock—and Lance was one of my early heroes in 1984. Then, I was one of Kristian Svitak’s first heroes in 1988. Before any of us had pro heroes, though, we had local heroes and mentors that introduced us to skateboarding and encouraged us to keep pushing. For Lance, it was an older neighbor and friend, Enrique Esparza. He gifted Lance his old board with clay wheels once urethane wheels came out in 1973. For Kristian, it was a group of local skate misfits known as Team Insanity. When they saw a cool young kid with a “skate ’do” in the summer of 1988, they recruited him into their crew and gave him a Dead Milkmen tape. Almost four years earlier, I had a similar experience when I met local punkers Keith Hartel, Don Bruno, and Keith Smith the first day of freshman year at Edison High School. They saw my slightly spiked hair and wanted to know if I was a “punker.” Without knowing anything about punk, I told them I was. It was a feeling I had. After some interrogation, they realized I didn’t know anything about punk, and I thought I was about to get my ass kicked. But the leader of the group, Keith Hartel, said, “That’s cool, come with us.” To this day, those are the coolest words ever spoken to me.

    Keith was one of those kids who didn’t fit in but found a way to “lean into it.” For him, it was music. By the time he was fifteen, he loved the Sex Pistols, but it was a Circle Jerks show at Patrix in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on November 26, 1983, that changed his life. That was where he felt he discovered “a whole cool world I could be somebody in.” From there, Keith got turned on to skateboarding through the band JFA, who were “all about skateboarding,” and Thrasher Magazine, which was “such a total lifestyle thing.” Keith says, “It was all about transcending the horrible conditions of adolescence.” He wanted to share his interests and recruit friends who weren’t “clueless squares.” When he saw me in the hallway that day, he says he recognized me as a “kindred spirit.” It was a fateful meeting for me.

    That evening, Keith cut my wannabe spikes off and gave me a buzzcut. Next, he and Don made me a mixtape, which opened with Black Flag’s “Rise Above.” Finally, they told me I needed to get a skateboard as soon as possible. When I asked where to get one, or where to find out more about skating, they told me to check out Thrasher Magazine.

    The quest to immerse myself in skateboarding led my new friends and me to another fateful moment, in a place we heard stocked skateboards: Freestyle, a bikini store at the Woodbridge Mall in Woodbridge, New Jersey. In 1982, owners Bruce, Ron, and Spencer Rockman opened Freestyle, a store focused on surf and skate culture. Walking into Freestyle was intimidating. First, there were the bikinis, then there was the tall, new wave-looking guy behind the counter. He seemed way too cool to interact with punk kids like us. But the Rockmans knew what they were doing. When they opened Freestyle, they wanted an employee who lived and breathed skating. In Rodney Smith, they found a skater with plenty of knowledge, but more importantly, plenty of warmth and kindness. Little did I know he would become a close friend and mentor to me.

     

    When we first entered Freestyle, Rodney immediately struck up a conversation with us, asking where were we from, how long we had been skating, what bands we were listening to, if we had any good skate spots by us. And then he told us how he had been skating for six years, how he had skated in California, had met various pros, etc. We were blown away by his gracious and sincere interest in us. We could tell he possessed a deep knowledge of skateboarding and that he was stoked to share it with us. It was like we stepped into another dimension when we met Rodney. I honestly don’t know what my life would have been like if we hadn’t walked into that bikini store that first time.

    Rodney’s skate mentor, David Saddler, introduced him to skateboarding in the mid-70s. Like some great fantasy movie, David was an older figure who imparted myriad lessons about skating to a young Rodney before mysteriously disappearing, never to be seen again. David had done his job, though: the desire to spread the stoke was passed down to Rodney, who then offered it to kids all over central New Jersey. Skateboarding in our area was blooming and Rodney was the seed.

    Rodney says, “Spreading the stoke was an attempt to fill the void. I had been a lone skater at one point, and it was my way to make friends and recruit newcomers to skating.” Even though Rodney was five years older than me, we became instant friends and began skating together. Rodney made a deep impression on us with his welcoming demeanor and encouraging approach to skating. He encouraged us to just have fun when we skated. As he says, “It all starts with the fun of it and that’s it, no skater should forget this fact. To just roll around on a skateboard opens one’s mind to many possibilities. The level of concentration and conscious awareness within that arises from skateboarding is like no other.”

    We learned so much from Rodney, and he has played a huge role in my personal development as a skater, and as a person striving to make a positive difference in skating. He was so instrumental in my early days of skating that when the time came to film for the Powell Peralta video Public Domain, I pushed for Rodney to be featured in my video part. After all, I couldn’t claim an independent path to success—Rodney’s friendship, mentorship, and encouragement was a huge part of it.

    Mike Vallely Des Moines IA

     

    The board I skated in Public Domain was the first-ever pressing of my pro model, and it was the first time I saw a finished version of my now iconic Elephant graphic. When Stacy Peralta delivered it to me personally in Edison, New Jersey, I sat on the steps outside the townhouse I shared with my family and basked in the glow of my first pro model. For the next few days, I skated the hell out of that board, filming for Public Domain, which included the session at the Brooklyn Banks in New York City with Rodney Smith.

    A few days after the Public Domain sessions, I was in Louisville, Kentucky, for the NSA Bluegrass Aggression Session Pro Vert, Street, and Freestyle competition, where I skated in all three disciplines. One night in a hotel room, I was setting up a new board and hanging out with Sean Mortimer, an amateur rider on the Powell Peralta team. As I took my Public Domain board apart, I handed it to him and asked if he wanted to ride it. It was a new street shape, and I knew he’d appreciate it compared to what was currently available. 

    Sean barely skated the board before Powell Peralta sent him an entire box of my brand-new pro models to skate. He stored the board I gave him in a box, where it sat in his parents’ attic for years. Sean went on to become the editor of Skateboarder Magazine, as well as the co-author of biographies about Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen. At some point, Sean’s mom shipped him the boards she had stored in her attic, and in November 2006, Sean paid me a visit at a warehouse space I was leasing in Signal Hill, California. He brought a bunch of items for me to sign for a skateboard museum he was helping to curate in his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. He brought all of the usual suspects: my Thrasher cover from 1986, my Poweredge cover from 1989, and my Transworld Skateboarding cover from 1994. But the real treasure of the collection was one of my old Powell Peralta Elephant boards that was unlike any other one I had ever signed. The colorway wasn’t one that had ever been officially issued, a color that I remembered only having ridden in Public Domain. As I held the board in my hands, Sean asked, “Recognize it? That’s the board you skated in Public Domain.” I couldn’t believe it. I asked him where he got the board. He told me the story from years ago, and I was blown away. 

    My assistant at that time, a good friend named Larry Ransom who was living in the warehouse, came around the corner and saw the board. He immediately recognized it as “the holy grail” and dug out an old Thrasher ad featuring me with the board. The three of us lined up scuff marks, drill holes for rails, etc. Yep, it was THE board. I couldn’t believe it. Sean asked me to sign the board, but I couldn’t do it. I felt that a signature would take away from the unique story of the board, and that it would serve the museum better to showcase the board as is—ridden, in its pristine state, and not marred by my signature. When Sean saw “the intense connection” I had to the board, he offered it back to me. I declined, because I couldn’t take back a board that I had gifted to him. But he replied, “It would be a gift to me now to be able to gift this board back to you, for it to come full circle.” I was so touched by his kindness. I did feel an intense connection to the board, unlike anything I had ever felt before.

    The Public Domain video had been a source of angst for me for many years. When it was released in 1988, I felt it didn’t represent my best skating, but by 2006, my feelings about it had softened. My part in that video had endured and meant so much to so many people around the world, and in turn, it had really begun to mean something to me. I began to see it as a very significant and positive chapter of my pro career. And now, here was the board I had skated in that video, back in my hands. Talk about spreading the stoke—the stoke had come full circle. Sean giving me back that board was a beautiful form of closure, as I felt able to process and accept my past in a new way. 

    Today, the Public Domain board is one that visitors to my home always ask to see, and it never fails to make for a great photo op. I smile every time someone poses with the board, and I love telling the story. While Kristian Svitak has every board he has ever ridden filed away on a shelf in his garage—when visiting him, one would be tempted to pose with the entire collection, as the collection is the story—I have just the one board with the one story, which is really enough to encapsulate my entire career.

    Kristian and I spent many years skating and traveling the world together as professional skateboarders for Black Label Skateboards. We spread the stoke around the globe. Kristian may hold on to his personal riders, but we were both in the position to be handing out brand-new boards and other skate products to skaters everywhere we went. To have a supply of skate gear to give to others, to see that Christmas morning excitement as a brand-new skateboard passes from your hands to someone else is truly a special feeling. It’s compassionate, respectful, and an all-around act of gratitude. Kristian and I count ourselves blessed to have been fortunate enough to be in such a position.

    In 2010, I did my last big skate demo tour—The Glory Bound Tour—and I invited Kristian to come along. After breaking my ankle five years earlier, I wanted to give it one last go, so that I could end my touring days as a professional skater on a high note. It turned out to be the best skating I had done since 2005. Every night Kristian and I were joined by Cyril Jackson and skateboard legends Duane Peters and Bill Danforth. We skated hard in cities all across the USA and spread the stoke everywhere we went. When the tour ended in Simi Valley, California, and I was still in one piece, I handed my board to a fan in attendance, confident in the knowledge that I could retire with my head held high. I had done my best. I remember hugging Kristian that night, thanking him for being on that tour with me, for being in my life, and for being such a big part of my skateboard career. Of all the skaters who had come up after me, he was the one who I felt truly got it, who skated hard and always spread the stoke.

    Five years after that final demo tour, when my daughter Emily and I started Street Plant in our garage in Long Beach, California, and Kristian expressed interest in joining us, we knew we were onto something very special. We loved and respected Kristian, and it meant the world to us that he wanted to be a part of what we were doing. With Street Plant, spreading the stoke and welcoming others into skateboarding with a handshake, a hug, and a smile is in our DNA. We may not have the budget to give away gear like we did in the gravy days of being sponsored skaters, but we feel we’re doing something more. From Keith Hartel to Rodney Smith, from Team Insanity to Lance Mountain, we learned from those with the kindest hearts, and they inspire and influence our actions to this day. Seeing the Street Plant Battalion—a community that includes Tommy Storey, Craig Hanaumi, and dozens of others—profoundly influence and mentor countless people is satisfying right down to our souls.

    We’re spreading the stoke.