Between F.S.U. and laying down Hesh Law with the Creature fiends—Al Partanen has also had his hands knee-deep in concrete over the past few years helping build DIY skateparks around the world for scenes in need. Having survived a near-death experience with salmonella poisoning in Bangalore, India—then hospitalized again in La Paz for an allergic reaction this past April—he breaks down the origins of his third year of traveling with the Levi's® Skateboarding and Zweier building crew, his '80s NHS roots at The Turf in Milwaukee, and lends new meaning to giving until it hurts.
Intro and Interview by Mackenzie Eisenhour
First off, can you run through your Bolivia experience? Had you been out there before?
No. This was my first time down there. I was hyped to go. Any opportunity to get to travel to a place like that—some place I've never been is amazing.
How was the skate scene in La Paz? Is there a skate scene?
There was a bit of a scene. I don't think there was a skateshop there initially. So it's hard to get product. I would see kids and they would have pretty thrashed boards. Doing basic tricks and stuff. But I think towards the end when we kind of got the park going, I started to see a few more people surface. The locals eventually showed up and gave some ideas for obstacles. We had them and then our hundred or so volunteers working together. They wanted like this big '90s X-Games wedge kicker thing. It ended up sort of becoming a huge pump bump that was totally needed because the park had so much flat.
How did Levi's initially get all of these volunteers? I get where the pros came in, but what about all the other volunteers from Europe, Japan and all that?
It basically grew out of this thing they have been doing for a few years now. The India build (Holystoked skatepark ) and this one came about initially from these guys in Hanover, Germany. They're called the 2er crew, or "Zwei-er" crew (Ed note—Zwei is two in German). They had this thing called the Builder's Jam, which was basically five different groups of five guys each—they had a week to build anything they wanted—and than at the end, they had a big party and a skate jam on all the stuff that got built. That was the initial idea of the Builder's Jam. And it was Levi's Skateboarding that helped bring all that to life.
Are you pretty familiar with the DIY concrete building process?
Yeah. I worked for Grindline a few years back, for like a summer basically. It's actually really hard work. I found out that it was a lot harder to build than to skate. So I was like, "You know what? I'm going to stick to skating" (Laughs.) I love building shit but it's hard work. I have a lot of respect for those guys that do it day in and day out. We get to go and gallivant through these month-long projects and be like, "We're busting our asses!" But there are dudes that do it for a living and it's fucking gnarly!
You guys get to get your photo taken…
Yeah. "Dude, here's a picture of me holding a shovel. Look what I did!" (Laughs.) No. But I mean we bust our ass too. Everybody busts their ass. Everyone has a role to play.
I'm sure the kids are as excited to see the pro skaters skate too as the dudes building.
Exactly. And we're kicking it with them around the fire at night. Having breakfast at the same table. Living in the same huts. There was no separation between any of the people there. It was a big family. It was awesome. Everybody looked out for one another. You wake up in the morning and they would genuinely ask you, "How do you feel?" If you weren't feeling well, if your stomach was messed up—some dude from Japan would be like, "Here, try this", or some guy from Belgium would have something else for you.
Skateboarding in La Paz: The full-length documentary made by Levi’s. Directed by Simon Weyhe.
The other dudes mentioned the altitude and food poisoning and how the cocoa leaves were sort of a local medicine to keep you going. Did you find them useful?
Yeah. Definitely. I had been to other countries in South America before so I had experience with them. It helps for sure. It's pretty mandatory actually. It helps to get acclimated and get you revved up to keep jamming. At the camp, they always had a couple big pots of cocoa tea going. So if you needed a break, you'd just go run some tea or chew some leaves.
It seems like these types of skate-charity projects have been growing over the past few years, from Levi's Skateboarding and others—like the Skateistan one in Afghanistan. Do you back it? Is it rad to give back like that?
Oh, for sure. This was my third one like this. The year before the India one, Chet and I went down to Costa Rica—not tied to Levi's and did the same thing. That was just on our own. That was how we got invited to India—because one of the guys we worked with in Costa Rica, Alex Irvine (Ed note: Photographer for Kingpin Magazine) hit us up to go to India. We had bought our tickets and went out there before we even found out it was a Levi's deal. Then it turned into an even bigger deal with them making the film about it and sending photographers and all that.
Skate-wise, how did the actual park work out? The space looks pretty big and the park looks gnarly.
Yeah. It was fucking amazing. I was actually in the hospital the day they had the opening. It got an allergic reaction to the concrete after being knee deep in concrete from morning 'till ten at night. I had all these blood tests done and it wasn't a bacterial infection it was just an allergic reaction to the concrete mix. So I didn't get to skate on opening day and I let the guys that were doing the film know the day that I was leaving and they were like, "Fuck, we don't have any footage of you. You have to skate it now for an hour at least." People were still working on all these parts after the opening but I got to sweep out a couple little spots I wanted to skate and get in there. I actually really liked the parts I skated.
I saw that you also made the whole Zine deal that came with the park.
Yeah. For both projects I got to make a Zine. That was just another super cool aspect to it. The one for India was called "Bangalore Blowout" just because we all got really gnarly blowouts (Laughs.) That one was just Chet and I's photos and then I laid it out. Then for the new one—everybody contributed to it and it just came out super sick. I got to make it and then Levi's Skateboarding paid for the printing. It's almost like a little yearbook for all the builders, contributors, and photographers that were there. Levi's also sent it out with their new line for the season to all the shops. The new one was "Bolivian Blowout #2"—just kind of following the whole blowout theme (Laughs.)
Biggest differences between building a park in Bangalore vs. building a park in La Paz?
It's definitely very different. Just each place having their own culture. This one in Bolivia was sort of living in the camps, in India—we were living in these rooms called service apartments. India was crazy because there would be these massive high-rise buildings right next to people living in tarp tents. Whereas Bolivia was just sort of poor for the most part, but consistent. India had these massive class divides. Like right next to the skatepark there was this huge house some lawyer owned, then literally right next to him would be like five people living under a tarp between two trees. It was actually dirtier in India too. I actually got Salmonella poisoning there and almost died. Just this gnarly infection in my blood. I came home basically half-dead.
Skateboarding in India: The full-length documentary by Levi’s from the Bangalore build back in Spring 2013. DIRECTED AND FILMED BY Simon Weyhe & Mathias Nyholm Schmidt.
Damn. Living some adventures out there.
Yeah. You just don't know what's instore when you head out on these. I just try to go with an open mind and an open attitude and take it as it comes—roll with it. Give what you can when you can and if you're down—stay down for a minute—everyone will have your back.
What else has been going on? What's new with Creature?
I just got back a few days ago from the Copenhagen bowl contest. We also went out to Spain for the Volcom Bowlerama thing in Algorta. So that was cool. I got to travel with the homies again, along with Grant (Taylor), and Raven (Tershy), and (Peter) Hewitt, and Colin Provost. Just a bunch of good people—Remy (Stratton), and Rune (Glifberg)—a bunch of homies. So that was sick. I love going with my Creature crew. Every trip is a good time. But traveling with a different group of people is super sick too.
I thought that was one of the coolest things about the Levi's concept. How it mixes you with like Joey Pepper, Sebo Walker, Steffan Janoski, and Josh Mathews and guys that people might not expect you to be traveling with.
Right. It makes for strange bedfellows or whatever the expression is. You're just out there with them—and at the same time you realize—"these dudes are awesome!"
You're all skaters.
Yeah. Those dudes are all sick. As long as they keep doing the projects, I'm going to keep volunteering for them.
NHS turned 40 last year. Are you proud to carry on that legacy?
Absolutely. That's major heritage right there. When I was growing up, a lot of the guys that I looked up to rode for Santa Cruz. Not only the pros but even some of the guys out in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—where I'm from. Some of my friends out there rode for them and the Santa Cruz team would come to Milwaukee in the '80s to skate The Turf Skatepark (Greenfield, Wisconsin). I was inspired by all of those guys—Jason Jessee, Salba, (Jeff) Kendall, Keith Meeks, (Rob) Roskopp, and all those guys. I remember when they were filming for Streets on Fire ('89) at The Turf and Salba celebrated his 30th birthday there. They smash the cake on his face in the video. It's crazy; he must be like 55 now. But twenty-five years later, getting to be on a company with those guys (Creature and Santa Cruz are both under NHS Dist.) is amazing. Getting to go to NHS and just look around the screen shop is like becoming a little kid again.
Do you have a favorite era in skateboarding since you started in '83/'84?
I always loved the classic Santa Cruz era—mid to late '80s with all the dudes. (Jeff) Grosso, all those guys. I love that. But then right after that, on the cusp of the '90s—the team managers then were Steve Keenan and Birdo, but Keenan was so crucial. He brought all the amateurs at the time out to skate The Turf—and they were all my age. But that era, it was like a new era of Santa Cruz that I really liked too. It was like Sean Andrew, Peter Hewitt, Andy Roy, Jaya Bonderov (RIP), and Alan Peterson. I got to travel with those guys and we're all the same age, so that era too was really special to me.
It was like a weird crossover era—right before the 90s, little wheels thing.
Yeah. Exactly. Like right on the cusp—the tail end of vert and the beginning of street—and all those guys were like ATV dudes.
It seems like kids now are really into that era—1990. The last of the shaped boards, cut-off pants, and ATV skating. Like Alan Peterson would be their champion right now.
Oh yeah. Alan had just turned pro for SMA when he came out to The Turf. He could rip the streets but then he could do a 540 in the capsule at The Turf. So sick.
If you could choose anywhere next for a Levi's build, Where would you do it?
Wow. I would have to say somewhere tropical (Laughs.) Somewhere near a beach where I could maybe try to learn how to surf in some warm water.
Tahiti or Bali?
Yeah. And somewhere they need it too of course (laughs.)
Check out more about the Bolivian Pura Pura skate park build at levi.com/skateboarding.
Follow Al on Instagram: @parts
Follow Levi’s Skateboarding on Instagram: @levisskateboarding
Stay up on the La Paz scene on Instagram and follow: @sk8lapaz
Follow Creature on Instagram: @creaturefiends
Follow NHS on Instagram: @nhs_inc
Follow Mackenzie on Instagram: @deadhippie