The Koolmoeleo Interview

Koolmoeleo_marquisWith most of skateboarding’s rich history printed in magazines or recorded onto VHS tapes, the digital age has been slow in telling the full story of our past. As fewer and fewer people still have access to those sacred hard copies, a new role has emerged over the past few years, with passionate individuals stepping in to bridge the gap and digitize our shared heritage.

After Chromeball’s Eric Swisher scanned his way into our hearts—and then off to a Nike job—two years back, Instagram’s Koolmoeleo, AKA Dave Ruta of Uprise Skateshop in Chicago has more or less grabbed the wheel and become the go to “Skarchivist” in the field. We sat down for a conversation with Dave to find out how he turned a stack of magazines, a scanner, and an Instagram account into 23,000 followers and international acclaim.

How did this all start?
Well, I had a few mags saved from back in the day, when I first got on Instagram. I had just started playing around with it a little bit. Like if you look at the beginning, scroll way back to when I started everything was real crude and no real framing or anything like that. Then one of my good friends who lives in LA now, Andy Schultz, found me on Instagram and we hadn’t seen each other in years. He’s from Milwaukee and his Mom had basically kept his room untouched for all these years and was finally redoing his room. So he hit me up and was like, “Man, I got two boxes of mags here if you want them.” I was like, “Cool, send ‘em over.” So he sends me just a whole bunch of magazines. So that was kind of how it started. Then Josh Kalis, who is a good friend of mine, he kind of blew me up. I started getting all these people following me. Then (Mike) Carroll did the same thing, and a bunch of people after that kept mentioning me. So after a while I just kind of felt obligated (laughs.)

Obligated to keep doing it?
Yeah. I don’t know (laughs.) Then once I tore my ACL, I had more time to do things and I started actually scanning and making stuff look good. At first I was just taking pictures straight off my phone.

What was kind of your skate timeline? When did you start?
I can remember it like it was yesterday. Every kid in my neighborhood pretty much started at the same time. It was in ‘85 and because some kid from Encinitas was visiting—his dad lived in my neighborhood—and this kid ollied up a curb and that was it. It just erupted. There were already a lot of older dudes that were doing it, but by ’86 is was just full on. Everyone skated. Then by ’89-’90, between my brother, myself, and a couple other dudes in our high school, we were like the only ones left. All the older guys that we looked up to pretty much quit.

Dave barging a wallride in 1986. Chicago, IL.
Dave barging a wallride in his parents basement 1988. Chicago, IL. Photo: Uriah Ruta.

Were you ever like a sponsored skater? Did you go that route?
Yeah. I used to be hooked up by Deluxe. I know Jim (Thibaud) and Tommy (Guerrero) and those guys real good. Mic-E. Those are all my guys. I was on flow for Real. I went on tour with them in ’97. I had a couple of pictures in magazines and stuff. I had a Check Out in Thrasher. I was living in SF for a few months in ’98 and then ended up coming back here and it just kind of fizzled. They wanted me out there and I wanted to be here. Sometimes I still kick myself in the butt for not having stayed out there.

Plenty of dudes stayed out there and still didn’t go so far.
Yeah. Totally. I got to meet my heroes though. I don’t know if Tommy remembers this but we were on tour in ’97. They picked me up here and we went all around the Midwest and then out West—we drove to SF. About two days in to being in SF, I had talked to Tommy on the phone before a couple of times, but Danny Gonzalez and I were bombing a hill in the Mission and we get to Guerrero Street. It was like 16th and Guerrero—we’re headed to get a burrito and Danny goes, “Dude, there’s Tommy”. I had just looked up and seen Guerrero Street and then look up again and there’s Tommy on the corner.

That’s rad. Like an apparition.
It was crazy. But I got to meet all my heroes during those days.

So then did life sort of move on from there?
Yeah. I kept skating throughout. It’s been some 29 years or whatever.

How did you end up working at Uprise?
Well my brother Uriah owns it. And then two of my other brothers work there as well. He’s fully owned it since 2002 or something like that. My girl Maya, her and my brother started it up then she moved out to Oakland back in the early 2000s so he bought everything off of her then. I’ve always kind of helped out there but it’s never been my real job. I work for a trading firm downtown. I do like technical support for the trading platforms there.

Like stock market trading?
Yeah. Futures and options. When I came back from SF I started on the trading floor—the Chicago board of trade. I started on the floor as a runner where you run up the orders to guys.

Like in the movies style, all yelling and shit?
Yeah. Totally from the movies, dude. It was crazy back then. Then I became a desk manager there and was on the floor forever and then finally everything started to go electronic so I got off the floor to do other stuff. It’s crazy though; they just announced that they’re closing down the futures trading pits. That was the old style pits were people used to trade the corn, wheat, and all the agricultural stuff. If you ever get a chance, watch the documentary Floored (’09). That was my life right there for a few years.

Koolmoeleo_05
Barrier vault in 2014. Photo: Frank Verges.

So back to the present sort of, you get this box of mags from your friend and start putting up photos on Instagram? Did you know Kalis through the time he lived in Chicago?
Yeah. Then he had just sort of posted like, “Follow my guy @Koolmoeleo…” and it built up from there.

Major stoke outs early on? Any pros commenting or following you that stoked you out?
(Mike) Carroll for sure. He threw me out one time on there. They came through town and I guess he posted like a text that he was sending to Kelly Bird. It was like, “Grab something or whatever… We’re going to Uprise to meet Koolmoeleo.” I saw it and was just like, “What!?” I saw it and like a second later my brother called me like, “Hey man, Carroll and (Rick) Howard are here to meet you.” It was pretty funny.

Were you tripping?
No. It was cool. They just asked me like, “Hey man, so what do you do? How do you do all of this?” So I explained my process. They were just like, “How do you remember who did everything?” So I showed them all my notes on my phone. Once I grab a magazine, I’ll look through it, make scans, then I write down all the info—like year and photographer. That was another thing when I first started, I wouldn’t credit photographers. Finally Lance Dawes, BK (Bryce Kanights), and all these dudes were getting all salty. So I stared listing all the photographers. I actually ran into BK last year out here at some Nike event and he was like, “Thanks for listing our names on there.” I guess at first I didn’t realize how much it meant to them but of course—it’s true, a lot of the time the photographers don’t get the credit they deserve. At the end of the day, none of these photos would exist if it weren’t for them. Another thing people ask me a lot is why I don’t tag everyone in the photos. Number one, I’m not trying to sweat anybody. Number two, if you go and press that person’s Hashtag, there are all these photos of that person that are logged now.

You’re building a database. What’s your process right now?
I just grab a couple of mags here and there and look through. Like I said, since I tore my ACL I’ve had a lot more time to do it. But hopefully within a month or two, I’ll be skating again so that might slow down the posts. Actually, it’s got to end sometime. I don’t have that many left. I’ve already started reposting some of the first ones from before I was scanning, back when I would just take a crappy photo of it.

One thing I noticed, to me there’s definitely a difference between scanning a physical hard copy verses reposting a digital file you found on the internet.
Oh yeah. Dude. I’ve talked to Eric at Chromeball about that. He’s good friends with my boy Rob who also works for Nike. When I first started doing it he thought I was just ripping all of it off of his site and reposting it. Then I guess Rob finally told him like, “No, man. He’s posting all these from his own collection.” I talked to Eric a few times and he would tell me that back in the day he was spending something like three hours a night scanning for a couple of years straight.

Koolmoeleo_06
Flowery wallride, 2014. Photo: Frank Verges.

With the day job too. You have to be obsessed with it to make that happen.
Totally.

But there are definitely people out there that are only reposting. To me it’s almost like you’re a DJ to a degree. And somebody like you is out there finding the original vinyls to play in your set. Whereas the other guy is just playing the mixtape that somebody else already made. And then, also like in the DJ sense—you don’t really own any of it, but you’re turning all these new people on to it at the same time.
Yeah. Totally. Like I said, I feel kind of like an obligation to do it now. I know that there are all those old dudes like me out there that are appreciating it. And then there might be young kids too that might learn something from it. Especially now with all the old tricks just being recycled.

You probably have a lot of younger pros and ams following you too. I noticed guys like Al Davis and Stevie Perez for example are heavily into the classics.
Yeah, you know what was funny. A little while back Dickies came through here on a tour. One of the dudes, this guy Daniel Wheatley hit me up to come meet them. I went down and met him and introduced myself, like, “Hey, I’m Dave… Koolmoeleo or whatever.” And he’s just like, “Dude! You gotta come take a picture with the crew!” I walk over to the van and they’re all like, “No way!” I couldn’t believe it.

Social Media celebrity. Do you ever introduce yourself as Koolmoeleo?
(Laughs.) No. No.

Where did the name come from?
The name comes from, obviously Kool Moe Dee. I used to do a little graffiti back in the day as Kool Moe Leo. I used to write Leo, so when I got on Instagram I had just stuck with that.

Back to what we were saying about Chromeball, you almost have to have a near obsessive passion for this to do it. Do you feel like it’s still that way for you?
Oh, it’s complete passion. Especially like when you get that Natas interview (We sent Dave the Natas Pro Spotlight issue (Feb. 1989) as he had some clippings left from his wall but didn’t have the whole thing.) When I got that I was just like, “Ooooooooh!” Or that Frankie Hill photo you just posted. When you posted that I was just like “Oh my God!” I totally forgot about that photo. That was just one of those ones.

How did the “Sequence Saturdays” come about?
That was another thing that came from the wall. My brother Uriah and I shared a room forever and our room was just plastered with skate mag cutouts. We had this one section of the wall where we would cut out all the sequences and then tape them together, so it would just be one long sequence. And literally, we had hundreds of them on this one wall. All our boys would come over and we would all just hang out there and stare at the wall. That was basically where “Sequence Saturdays” started.

Koolmoeleo_92
Dave, sitting on his bed with “the wall” in 1992. Check the “Sequence Saturdays” collages on the left. Photo: Mom.

That’s rad. Do you think kids still put stuff on their walls?
I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s like that anymore. Now, there is so much other media. I don’t think it’s as important to them.

Now it’s just a kid with an iphone sitting in a blank room.
Yeah (Laughs.) But magazines were just it back then. Even up to ’90-’91 when videos started really getting mass-produced and more frequent. Before that, all you really had were a couple of videos here and there, and then tons of magazines. I still love mags to this day. I was trying not to buy them but any time there’s a (Guy) Mariano or (Mike) Carroll photo or something in there I have to buy it. So my collection is still growing.

What kind of scanner are you running?
It’s just an old cheapie. The flatbed isn’t even big enough to scan spreads. I used to do those by hand. It was crazy. Before I started scanning It would have to be a sunny day, but not with direct sunlight on the photo. I had this whole process (laughs.) You need a steady hand too.

Any more Holy Grails, mag-wise that you’re trying to hunt down?
Well, you guys gave me that Natas one. That was kind of a Holy Grail. I don’t know. There are still just so many mags that came out that I don’t have.

I can imagine that anybody who has mags to give away too must be hitting you up.
Yeah. After my boy Andy sent some, then there have been a couple other guys that were moving out of houses or apartments and they would come by Uprise like, “Hey, I need to get rid of these. Do you guys want them?” So my brother had a pretty big collection already just sitting in his loft. Then there was also this shop Sky-High Skateshop in Milwaukee. It was this old shop out there that had been around forever. The old original owner from the ‘80s hit me up. He threw me some that he had. There’s been a couple more.

I used to hunt for old boards and it was that feeling of maybe uncovering that one old shop that might have everything mint just sitting in their cellar or something. It’s almost the same feeling with the mags.
Yeah. I’ve actually gone to some to look for old stickers. But my brother has some OG boards stashed away too.

What’s the future plan? Just keep it going?
I’ll probably just fizzle out. I’ll probably run out of stuff and then just call it a day.

You gotta get that Nike job a la Chromeball or whatever. The exit strategy.
(Laughs.) Oh man. He’s hooked up pretty good now.

I do think it’s rad though. To sort of rise up into the spotlight almost solely on the passion.
Yeah. I’m not trying to get famous or anything off it. It just kind of happened that way. People kind of picked up on it.

Anyone else out there you follow. It seems like you’re almost on your own.
Well, I’m definitely following your stuff (@deadhippie). You’re throwing some heat out there lately.

(Laughs.) I’m just trying to mimic yours. They’re so sick when you find that one photo. I get so psyched on it.
Yeah. It’s the best feeling man. There’s a couple of guys from Europe too that are really good. @sameold and then this other guy @scienceversuslife. They have all the mags that I never got.

Yeah. A lot of those Euro mags, RAD, NoWay, AnyWay, would buy the b-roll shots from US photogs so they would have these crazy photos of known dudes that you never saw.
And some of that stuff is just gem.

That’s the next frontier. All the non-US mags.
Yeah. The real final frontier would be to just check out the archives straight from the actual photographers. Like I bet somebody like BK (Bryce Kanights) just has so much incredible stuff that has never even been seen. More than anyone though, I would love to just be able to look through Spike (Jonze)’s archive. He was just with the right people at the right time and his photos are just gems. Between him and Luke Ogden I think—those are probably the two guys whose archives I would want to see most.

Spike and Luke, the ball is in your court.

Have some old magazines you were going to get rid of?
Send magazine donations to Koolmoeleo:
Uprise Skateshop, Chicago
1820 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago IL 60647

And of course, follow Koolmoeleo on Instagram: @Koolmoeleo

Check out Koolmoeleo’s picks for the 10 All-time Best TWS Photos (TWS 10 page) in our May 2015 Issue. On newsstands now.