On Friday, June 24th, Shareef Grady imagined he had set a milestone in skateboarding, one he had been contemplating for years. He thought he was the first person to ollie the Wilshire fifteen-stair since a set of poles had been installed in late 2011 to skate stop the spot. “As soon as they put the poles there,” Shareef told me, “I thought, ‘This is not unskateable. You just made it even more skateable.’”
But over that following weekend Shareef would go on to set a completely different precedence, one involving skateboarding’s biggest magazine — Thrasher — and the most prolific skateboard media disseminator ever invented — Instagram. His ollie would transcend trickdom and lead us to ask ourselves, “How do we want to watch skateboarding in 2016?”
Shareef, a.k.a. Reef, came to Los Angeles from Atlanta to film for Pretty #3, the upcoming video for the hometown clothing company Reef started, Pretty SB. As a homie-squad-turned-clothing-company, Pretty SB seems to be at the start of its lo-fi path toward success.
Before the hucking commenced, Reef prepared mentally and physically. Every day, before going out to other spots, he skated the couple blocks over to Wilshire and just looked at it. “This was a death defying stunt to me,” Reef said. “You could really get fucked up. The whole week before I was thinking about everything that could go wrong.” Every night, after skating, he would soak his feet in Epsom salt and ice, do a yoga routine, and receive shoulder massages from girls, all in preparation for the massive gap.
It’s doubtful even Nyjah gets this kind of treatment before Street League, but it’s no understatement that jumping over a fifteen-stair with solid steel poles five feet past the landing is crazy. Reef would either hit one of the poles and die, or sail past them and into the Wilshire history book. On his nineteenth birthday, he finally stepped to it.
Reef arrived at Wilshire with Jimi Britches, who manages the Fucking Awesome team and flows Reef boards. His plan was to ollie the ten-stair first, post that clip to Instagram, then try the fifteen. If he got it, that footage would go in Pretty #3. But now that he was actually there, he decided there was no point risking one crippling slam for another that could bring him a little more glory. “The filmer was ready, the photographer was ready, no more lollygagging,” Reef said. “Let’s fucking get this shit.”
His first attempt brought anguish and relief. “I’m hauling ass on the first try,” Reef said. “I stuck the fuck out of it and then slipped out. I was stoked and I was pissed. No lie, I was scared. I didn’t want to try that shit no more.”
Reef tried about ten more times before making it, either slipping out or catching wheel bite and bouncing into the sidewalk on the slams. “When I rolled away I was so happy,” Reef said. “I saw my homie Xavier, he’s this big ass dude, he’s ripped. I jumped over a barrier and he caught me.” Reef’s ollie is the gnarliest trick he’s ever done. It’s the kind of trick to literally call Mom about. “All week she was telling me, ‘You got it, I believe in you,’” Reef said of his mom. “It’s such satisfaction to call her and tell her I did it.” Even more so, Reef was hyped on the possibility of getting his first photo in a magazine. Reef said, “I wanted to do it for Pretty #3, but if nobody shoots this photo, I’m about to upload this bitch to Instagram. Brent [O’Donnell] came last minute, so then I had my hopes up. This photo might be in the magazine. My mom would cry to see me in the magazine.”
“I was like, ‘That son of a bitch, I really wanted my shit in a magazine’”
Later that night, Reef heard from Spencer Semien that someone else may have already ollied over the poles at the Wilshire fifteen. Spencer went to a skate park after filming and happened to show Reef’s clip to another filmer, Richie Valdez. Richie told him he’d filmed Clint Walker do it four months ago. “I was like, ‘That son of a bitch,’” Reef said. “I really wanted my shit in a magazine.” As frustrating as it was to learn that someone did the same trick he had been amping himself up for years to do, Reef was also in the distinct position to recognize the impressiveness of Clint’s ollie. “That’s crazy that anybody else would actually try that shit. I know what it was like to do that, to get your mind right. So definitely I was like, ‘Damn, Clint Walker is gnarly.’”
Yet now Reef was left with the question: “What am I gonna do with this mother fucking footage?”
The next day Reef got a phone call from an unfamiliar number. It was Clint, calling to ask what he was going to do. That call just intensified Reef’s feeling of disbelief. “Who would have thought Clint Walker would be calling my little black ass,” Reef said. Clint, who had ollied over the Wilshire fifteen poles in February, had been saving his footage for the next Birdhouse video. Clint asked Reef to wait to put his footage or photo online so that Clint could have his photo printed in the next issue of Thrasher. “I just shook my head,” Reef said. “This is crazy.”
David Broach, a long time Thrasher staff photographer, shot the photo of Clint’s Wilshire ollie. Broach told me if Reef had waited one month, Clint’s photo could have been published. Many online speculated that Clint’s photo was in line to be a cover, and while Broach had been hoping for that, it wasn’t a certainty. “If [Reef] had just waited,” Broach said, “we would have got it in the magazine the next month no matter what. I don’t know if it was gonna be the cover, but it’s a cover worthy trick.” Where that would have left Reef is uncertain.
Dealing with two different photos of the same trick at the same famous spot is never easy. Broach thought there could have been a way to eventually print both photos. Maybe not both in Thrasher, especially if Clint’s had turned into a cover, but Broach suggested Reef’s photo could have been published somewhere after Clint’s, either as editorial content or an ad. “If you know someone’s already done it and you know that kid wants to post his footage, we could have worked it out,” Broach said. Speaking of Reef’s photo, Broach added, “That photo was really good, and he shiftied the fuck out of it.”
“If Reef had just waited we would have got Clint’s photo in the magazine the next month no matter what”
Yet a look at the history of cases of competing photo coverage would suggest Reef’s photo wouldn’t have ended up anywhere. In most instances, a skater only finds out he has a competing photo when he sees the other photo in a magazine, letting him know his is no longer viable. In rare instances of two skaters finding out they have competing photos before either is published, the deciding factor will probably be whoever has the closer magazine connection. If one of them shot with a freelancer, and the other was working on an interview feature or shot with a staffer, the latter is the photo we’re going to see. In Reef’s case, he looked like the odd man out. Not only is Reef less established and connected in the skateboarding world than Clint, but the guy who shot Reef, Brent O’Donnell, is a younger freelance photographer, while Broach is on staff at the most prominent magazine in skateboarding.
There’s no way of knowing what would have happened if Reef had let Clint publish his photo first. Perhaps Reef could have flipped through Thrasher, Transworld, or another magazine in the coming months and seen himself in the pages. Perhaps not. My instinct says not.
Reef told Clint he wasn’t sure what he was going to do, and they agreed to talk again before making any decisions. For the next couple of hours, Reef stayed at his friend’s house going over his options.
If Reef had been in this situation even five years earlier, he wouldn’t have had much of a decision to make. But because social media platforms, especially Instagram, have developed such a presence within skateboarding over the past few years, Reef wasn’t so restrained. With his few thousand followers, and connections to the more prominent networks of FA pros Kevin Bradley and Nakel Smith, Reef could post his photo and be seen by an audience large enough to solidify him as the groundbreaker of post-skate stopped Wilshire. He didn’t need Thrasher or Transworld or any magazine to tell the masses. He could do it himself, and he could do it instantly.
Eventually, Reef made his decision. “I’m not about to hold my footage so he can drop his, then I drop mine later,” Reef said. “If I can’t have the cover, nobody can.” Reef called Clint back. “I told him, ‘I respect you, but I’m sorry. I’m ‘bout to upload that bitch to Insta.’”
Reef didn’t post his footage or his photo right after hanging up, but Clint couldn’t wait to find out and risk losing credit for the ollie. Of course if Clint posted his photo, he knew he would never see it in a magazine. Broach confirmed for me that as soon as either Clint’s or Reef’s photo went live, they would have no chance of being printed. “[Michael] Burnett and Thrasher are all over Instagram,” Broach said. “They catch everything. Especially that trick. There’s no way Thrasher would have missed that somebody ollied that.”
So that Sunday night, while Reef was chilling on a couch in LA, listening to music to take his mind off the whole situation, Clint and the Birdhouse team were walking back to their van from a spot. They all posted Clint’s photo at the same time, shut the van doors, and drove on. Minutes later Reef posted his. Both were now sentenced to life on the ‘Gram.
“I told him, ‘I respect you, but I’m sorry. I’m ‘bout to upload that bitch to Insta’”
In the online commentary that followed, there emerged a veritable Team Clint and a Team Reef. Clint’s backers were primarily disappointed that they would never see such a gnarly photo in print. Some of Reef’s supporters were excited simply to see him recognized for landing the same insane trick, but many were more fired up by the opportunity to shit talk a pro skater and veteran photographer for being affected by Reef’s photo at all.
Their argument was that Clint had waited too long to publish his photo, and Reef was just doing what any kid in his situation should do — and with Instagram, effectively could do — to climb his way up skateboarding’s ranks. Clint accepts this reality and doesn’t hold any grudge. “If you try a trick and don’t get it,” Clint said, “somebody’s gonna come along and get it. Whether it’s me or some kid from Atlanta. That’s skateboarding. I don’t have anything against Reef at all. He was just fucking skateboarding.”
At the same time, Clint was doing what any sponsored skateboarder does when he’s stacking clips for a full-length video. And if any skater was told a photo of him had potential to be a cover, he would hold onto it tightly. “It’s one of the gnarliest tricks I’ve ever done,” Clint said. “I would rather it get used for a cover if possible, versus an ad. So you sit on that type of thing.”
The common ground between Clint, Reef, Broach, and Brent is that none of them wanted this to happen. And in fact, it almost didn’t. “Maybe it’s karma that bit us all in the ass,” Broach said, “because Lizard King had been trying that trick [even before Clint]. I kind of wish Lizard would have landed it so none of this shit would have happened.”
As difficult as this looks to be for sponsored skateboarders, it’s much more dangerous for magazines. If a skateboarder can post a photo himself whenever he wants and have it seen by thousands of people, what purpose does a magazine serve him? Magazines used to be one of the most potent envoys of media coverage. So if skateboarders, sponsored or not, can publish their own digital content on a similar scale, they can surpass magazines. As Broach asked me, “Isn’t it fucked up that some kid with 3,000 followers dictated what was on the cover of a magazine?” If skateboarders wield their internet savviness and connections well enough, they can even make mags compete with them. “It’s gonna be interesting, who catches up with who,” Clint said. “For kids that are up and coming, I think their most direct link to the entire skateboard world is Instagram. Why would [Reef] not put it out? That’s probably the best way for him to go about it.”
“I sold them seventy Instagram photos for $500. Whereas it used to be that an ad got you $500 for one photo.”
Social media has already changed how the producers of skate media can stay in business. Freelance and staff photographers used to be able to go on trips for different companies and sell unused editorial photos for ads. “That’s how you made your living,” Broach said. But now both the increased number of skate photographers and the presence of Instagram have changed things. Companies can haggle lower prices for photographers and pay less for photos they intend to post on Instagram, which unlike a magazine, doesn’t charge a publication fee. “I just went on a skate trip,” Broach said. “The brand didn’t buy any photos for ads, but I sold them seventy Instagram photos for $500. Whereas it used to be that an ad got you $500 for one photo.”
In addition to driving down the price of photos, Instagram can divert ad money from magazines without affecting how sponsored riders win out. “Companies actually give photo or video incentives for Instagram,” Clint said. “If something has over 50,000 views or something, you might get $100 or $200. Just as many people are seeing it on fucking Instagram versus in a magazine, so why should you not get photo incentive for it?”
“I grew up with magazines,” Clint said, “so I loved them and still do. Every time I have a photo in a magazine I’m fucking hyped because that’s the shit I grew up on.” For skateboarders in their late 20s like Clint, as well as photographers like Broach, investing their attention and coverage output to Instagram feels a little off. “It kind of comes down to what you cherish more in skateboarding, magazines or social media,” Clint said.
Magazines are still important to skateboarders’ of Reef’s age — he was thrilled enough at the prospect of being in a magazine to compete with Clint for a spot in it — but if magazines don’t continue updating their relationship to quicker, decentralized forms of publishing, it’s unclear if younger crowds will view them with the same reverence. We’ve reached a tipping point in skateboarding where no one can ignore Instagram in favor of magazines. “Eventually social media will take skateboarding over,” Clint said. I would say it already has.
Reef did nothing wrong. The problem is that his and Clint’s photos, aside from being shown in this article, are lost in the void of the ‘Gram. If Instagram is going to be the place where coverage breaks first, instead of on magazine covers or in skate videos, it shouldn’t be the last place those photos and videos are seen.
Magazines can’t always beat social media to the punch, but they can trump Instagram by showing those tiny photos in bigger forms we can all actually enjoy. Skateboarders, of course, would have to accept this multi-platform coverage. Seeing a photo before the video is one thing, but does that count if the photo is on Instagram? “I’m not sure how long the printed page will be around,” Broach said. “10, maybe 20 more years? Who knows. But in the meantime, we need to figure out how to get the most mileage out of what we do, or we are all screwed.”