Pioneer: Tommy Guerrero, Full Interview—The Streets of San Francisco

For this installment of our Pioneer column, we'd like to delve into the pivotal contributions of San Francisco's Godfather of street skating; Tommy Guerrero. In addition to having locked down the first street video part ever in Powell Peralta's Future Primitive ('85), Guerrero also became the first skateboarder to showcase San Francisco and its now world renowned hills. In doing so, he more or less introduced the concept of the natural urban skatepark as the alternative to dwindling actual skateparks while giving a step-by-step instructional course on exactly how to best exploit them. Along with Mark Gonzales (and a short while later Natas Kaupas), Tommy Guerrero also became the first official "Street Pro"—paid for and marketed specifically as a street skater. His style, flow, and high-speed lines set the table for everything. As a top shelf member of the Bones Brigade, at height of the '80s boom, Tommy basically became the face of "Streetstyle" at a time when that very concept was about to turn skateboarding on its head.

This is the full interview text from Tommy’s Pioneer Column in our August 2012 Issue.

How did you get into skateboarding?
Skateboarding? I thought this interview was going to be about fielding land mines (Laughs). Actually, it started when this kid in my school had a Black Night board with clay wheels. I lived on 17th Avenue, which is the hill that's in Future Primitive ('85) and all that. He came over one day and brought his board. He wasn't into it so he gave me the board and that was it. A kid living on hills, flying down—I was hooked.

Who were the first skaters you saw around after that?
There weren't that many other skaters. My brother got into it. We started going down to the schoolyard, Jefferson—where I went to school; people actually still skate there. That's kind of were we met our crew of friends like Bryce Kanights, Andy Myer, Joe Phuong, all these guys that are old friends now.
Early Mute launcher. Madrid days.

How did you eventually get on Madrid? Was that a bit later?
This is forever ago. This is like '75. Me and my brother started riding for this company called A-Lot-A-Flex, which was based out of Berkeley and made metal boards then trucks. The team was me, my brother, Tim Marting, the Fisher brothers, and Paco Prietto. All those guys were the ones that really taught my brother and I how to skate when we first started skating transition and parks. These guys were amazing. Much much later I rode for a skateshop here in the city. The Madrid thing happened really because of Chuck Treece and Tom Groholski. We became friends, Chuck and I would play music and whatnot and they'd come stay with me.

Were you skating the hills this whole time?
Yeah, we were all skating the hills before the skateparks opened. I think the Alameda park opened in about '77 or so. We skated that then more started opening up in the South Bay like Winchester, Peters and Campbell—where Stevie (Cab) grew up skating with all these other heavyweight skaters. We would travel down that way by Bart or bus and skate those. So I grew up skating the parks. The street thing really took hold after the parks closed. There was nowhere to go. Most people didn't have space for ramps, so we just hit the streets.

When did you first hear the actual words, "street skating"?
Really, I think it was just when they had the first contest in Golden Gate Park—"Streetstyle!" For us, it just didn't matter what you were skating—pools, ditches, hills, curbs—you were just rolling around. It became a marketing deal at some point I think. But these sort of fragmented ways of skating that emerged seemed really odd to us back then. We just grew up skating everything.The Ollie enters the fray. Fort Miley. Continue reading on Page 2.

When did you first see the flatground ollie?
I don't remember exactly. It might have just been Rodney (Mullen). I'm not sure. We had probably seen Alan Gelfand doing them on vert in the mags, but we would do an ollie to axle on stairs. They weren't full on ollies up curbs yet, but we would ollie to axle around '80, '81. It was just kind of a functional thing at first then it just went from there.

Was everyone paying attention to it? Or was it just another trick in the mix?
It became one of those things were everyone would sit around and try to figure out how to do the straight ollie. Most of the ollies we did would turn 90 or 180. The straight ollie up curbs changed everything. Because now you would be skating down a hill and all of a sudden there's something in your way and you can just ollie over it or up it. That opened the door to everything.

Did you ever skate with the San Jose guys during those early days?
Not really. The San Jose dudes I would skate with when we were down there were more Stevie, The O'Brien brothers and all those dudes. Neil (Blender) and Lucero were more down in So-Cal. I'd see them at contests but not much else.

What about the Sacto dudes like Ricky Windsor and Randy Smith?
Yeah. Of course, Ricky, Snaggle, all those guys.Tommy’s TWS Check Out from his early Powell days. Circa ’84.

Where were they at with street skating? Did everyone sort of bring their own style to it?
They had their own approach for sure. They would kill the curbs.

What do you think yourself and SF brought specifically?
I would say for us, the hills were basically your environment. So you would grow up skating fast. Whether or not you were on a hill or not I think people from The City were most comfortable skating fast. Wanting to feel that. Then the ollie from there just really opened up everything. Because now you were cruising down the hill with speed and you had a tool to deal with obstacles or even just to do tricks. Like, "Oh, now I can 50-50 that little stair or ollie over that bush"—while you're flying down the hill. Now you could keep your speed too. Everybody got into it—after we started skating with Julien (Stranger) and Mic-e, Jim (Thibaud), Joey (Tershay). Everybody started killing it.

Is it fair to say SF became the world's epicenter for hill skating?
For sure. Geographically speaking there was no other city like it. We would skate from one end of the city to the other on a daily basis. You encounter hills. You just adapt. A lot of people brought things to the table. Then the EMB crew sort of became the second wave to just push ledge/stair skating and everything to a whole new realm.


The highly influential Future Primitive (’85) part.

How did you get on Powell Peralta?
I was skating Joe Lopes' ramp the day before a street contest was supposed to happen here in the City. It was like the second streetstyle contest with ramps and obstacles. I was skating Joe Lopes’ with a friend. After the session I was just sitting on the roof watching the session and Stacy Peralta came up to me like, "Hey man. I like the way you skate." I didn't know what to say. Just like, "Whoa. Okay thanks." The next day after the contest my brother told me that he had talked to Stacy and that Stacy was interested in me riding for Powell. At that point we called Powell the "Dream Team". I couldn't believe it.

Who else was getting on when you got on?
I guess I was the first just solo street skater on Powell. Mark (Gonzales) and I were really the only two pros at first just to turn pro for street skating. Natas was still am at that point. Which is actually an anniversary May 5, since turning pro in '85. I'm old (Laughs.) Everybody street skated, but for me that was actually my stated job description.

It was understood between you and Powell that you would be a street pro?
Yeah. Definitely.Lofty Frigid air at the height of launch ramp mania. Circa ’86.
How did the first dagger graphic come about?
Long story short—it actually started with Mofo. We wanted to do like a hot rod street machine car. The dagger was actually on the front grill of a ’30s or ’40s Ford coupe. The centerpiece was a fisheye photo of the grill and up top it had the V8 emblem. Basically, we had a rough version that I gave to Stacy that he then gave to Kevin Ancell, who did my very first graphic. He diminished it to just the dagger with roses around it but it still had the V8 in there. So people always wondered what the V8 was and it was left over from the hot rod grill.

Were launch ramps kind of a hiccup in the whole evolution?
That was my whole life based around the f—king jump ramp. When I first started ollieing off jump ramps that probably opened up the door. From the early grab tricks to more ollie grab tricks.

Is it fair to say the Future Primitive part, especially with that Stecyk quote, introduced the concept of the urban playground to skateboarders? It almost felt like an instructional video.
Yeah. He always talked about the way skaters would transcend obstacles and their environment and surroundings.


The San Francisco scene from
The Search for Animal Chin (’87).

How did that part come about? Did they talk to you about what they wanted?
No. They were just making a video. There was no preconceived notions in the sense of, "Let's showcase street skating." It was more just, "Hey, we're going to come up and film you doing what you do." I basically just cruised down the same hill I had been skating since the beginning. Like, "Ok, this is how we do it. We skate these hills, then I skate the dish, and then I go home." Nobody filmed for more than two days for any of those videos. So it really was just a snapshot of the way you skated on the daily.

Do you have favorites in those videos?
Honestly, my favorite section to watch is actually Lance (Mountain) in The Bones Brigade Video Show ('85). Him just cruising around, pushing through gravel, doing goofy street plants. I love that shit. It makes me want to go skate to this day. It just looks so fun.

Did Stacy understand the importance of street skating at that point?
I never thought of it that way at the time. That was just the way we skated. But Stacy might have intuitively known that it was going to be big. He knew all the skateparks were closing. It was the obvious next step.
The Bones Brigade: McGill, Tommy, Hawk, Cab, and Lance in the Animal Chin ad.

Is it fair to say that part put the SF scene on the map?
Yeah. I think so (Laughs.) It was before Sick Boys.

Did you interact with Natas and Gonz at all during those years?
Mark used to come up here and stay with me when he was probably 15/16. We would just go skate all day. Natas would come up all the time, or (Jim) Thiebaud and me would go down to Santa Monica and stay with him. I think those dudes really pushed each other in a different direction. The way we were skating here was different. We sort of adapted to our surroundings and skated that way and they adapted on their side. LA is super flat, so it just led to a different approach. They were pushing rails and stairs. We had the hills so we adapted to that.

How did you feel when you saw the rail stuff coming in? Did you see Julien (Stranger) and those guys pushing that?
It seemed like a natural progression. We were already ollieing up to boardslides on benches or flat bars or whatever. One of the first guys that I saw try it was Danny Sargent—a really long time ago. He was such a rad skater. Then seeing Natas try it at some contest—just kind of huck himself at the rail. That opened the doors. Then Mark too for sure, at contests killing the PVC rails.
TG’s first Flaming Dagger board and a stair launch for a Jimmy’z Clothing ad.
Did you adapt the kickflip next. Did you see all the tech. stuff coming in?
Yeah. Once the kickflip came into play, everybody had to learn that and it obviously opened up even more doors. Variations and so forth. We would always skate this flat section in Golden Gate Park that was closed off on Sundays. We would sit there and try every possible variation of kickflips imaginable. Thibaud and I probably had like 10 different variations of kickflips we could do and we'd just go back and forth. Doing them in contests was a whole other deal. Very few people actually did them in contests because it was a bail trick.

Did you skate EMB before it got to be a scene?
Yeah. We would go down there and see a lot of those guys skating. We knew most of them. I knew Jovontae (Turner) when he was really young and watching him. He was basically the changing of the guard. Jason Lee was too. Just really precise, technical tricks done smoothly. A lot of us saw that coming in and were like, "Oh shit."

Did you ever ollie the Gonz?
I did try. I think I might have broken my board. But I tried it.
An ad for TG’s second Flaming Dagger board. Circa ’88.

Did you hear about Mark ollieing the Gonz and later Wallenberg? Were you tripping on that?
Oh yeah. Definitely. That's just Mark though. No one else could have done that. It takes somebody like Mark to make us all aware that those things are even possible. Most times people thinks he's crazy, until he just does it.

What have you been credited with specifically in terms of tricks?
The only one I can really lay claim to, and I probably did it at the same time as someone else somewhere but the ollies into grabs off of jump ramps. That happened by mistake at a demo. I went to ollie off this ramp and leaned back too much so I grabbed mute and made it. That just fired off into every grab I could possibly imagine.

That was a huge deal though. I remember it was like all of skateboarding got that memo. No more early grabs.
Yeah. You could go way higher and it just looked cooler. Who wants to roll up crouched grabbing early? The only other thing I have heard was I guess I was doing kickflip backside grabs on miniramp. I hadn't really heard of anyone doing those and then the next person to do them was Matt Hensley.
Sequence of the kickflip backside grabs Tommy pioneered on mini ramps. Circa ’89.
How did you feel watching the World Industries style coming in? That whole vibe?
It was just a different approach. Things change. I didn't think much other than, "Wow, these guys are gnarly." I remember when J.Lee came up here and was doing kickflips to back tail on this curb. We were pretty blown away. With such grace. You could see that the next generation was coming.

Did you feel like you were winding down when Real was starting?
No. Really it was Powell—they put me on the back burner after they got all the young guns coming up (Guy, Rudy, Hill, Barbee, etc…) I knew it. I could tell. It came down to a contest here in San Francisco where our TM came up and started telling me like, "Oh, I heard you're doing drugs or this or that." Trying to instigate something. So I skated in the contest and got second and he was like, "Oh." I was like, "Yeah. I skate every day. That's what I do." I knew they were trying to phase me out so I started looking at other options. Thiebaud approached me with Jeff Klindt at the time. Of course, I already knew Fausto Vitello and Eric Swenson—I had known them since I was 10. So they talked to me and told me they wanted to do this thing and I just said "Let's do it." I made 1/5 of the money I had been making at Powell, it was one of those big leaps, but I knew we would be able to do what we wanted.

What was the order of Tony (Hawk), Lance, and everybody leaving Powell?
I left first. I was the first one to quit.

Tommy’s last part with Powell Peralta in Ban This (’89) before leaving to start Real.

Was skating changing? How old were you when Real started?
It was '91. I was already probably about 45 (Laughs.) No. I was still skating hard at that point. It wasn't until '95 that I "retired." And even then Fausto thought it was a bad idea. I had another few years in me. But everything was changing in skateboarding. Everything was evolving. These days it's different. You can have a board out forever now if it's like a legacy deal. Either way, you can't give up skating even if you don't skate. It's about the way you perceive things. You'll never see anything the same again. Ledges, stairs, banks. The average person doesn't see those things. And that never changes for the rest of your life.

When's the last time you skated?
I just went to a couple of skateparks this weekend with my son. He's super into it now, he just turned 8. So we've been going to skate. We skated Alameda and Berkeley park on Saturday, then another park on Sunday. I'm feeling it, don't get me wrong. But my back is f—ked up. My knees have always been f—ked up. But whatever.
Early Real ad in homage to Red Cloud. Circa ’91.

Was Punk Rock kind of fueling a lot of the early street?
Oh yeah. Back then too everybody had a band. If you skated, you were in a band. Everybody had bands. Punk just made sense to us. The whole punk movement came to the West Coast and of course when you're young you have a ton of energy, a lot of angst and aggression. So it makes sense. Now I'm an old man, so I play more mellow music (Laughs).

Do you still get the same things out of both skating and music?
Yeah. I don't get to do either enough, but skating and music have the same effect on me. They both help me maintain a certain level of peace, without being completely nuts. Both are forms of therapy—physical and mental. Completely. It just helps me to keep my gears from constantly turning.

How much actual office time do you put in at Deluxe?
It's not even that much. Jim gets most of that. In the beginning everybody pitched in packing boxes and the whole nine. But now, I've been running Krooked, or Art Directing it for almost 10 years now. For a while I was doing all of the layouts. Now I'm trying to diminish that because I just don't want to stare at a computer all the time. Don't get me wrong, it's amazing and I love it, but that's not why I'm here on this planet—to color Mark's doodles (Laughs.) I just direct now which is less hands on and I'm happy about that.

Tommy’s part in The Real Video (’93).

Looking at street skating now—do you trip out on where it has gone from where it started?
I would hate to grow up street skating today (Laughs). It is too f—king gnarly. Those guys are incredible.

Do you think the evolution is pretty much complete, or is it still going to change as much as it did in your day?
I honestly don't think it can. Now it's more just variations of the building blocks already in place. The human body can only endure so much, so nobody will be jumping down 100 stair gaps. I don't quite know where it will go. Obviously the technicality is such a high level, and that will probably continue to refine itself. But more or less it's variations of what has already been done. I think it will get to the point of gymnasts though. Were you have to make everything. I think it will get to that level.

What about the free flowing side though? I feel like that was really the side you brought to the table. Can that still exist even if every spot is illegal?
It will always be there. They can never stop us. It's like technology. You can program whatever you want but there's some kid out there hacking it right now. Skateboarders are like civic hackers. You can skate stop everything but they'll always find a way around it. Nothing is safe.
Timeless style for a timeless spot. China Banks corner air. Circa ’87.