Most skaters know of the benihana as a kook trick. It’s forbidden, only done in jest or ignorance. Benihanas feel like the red-headed stepchild of skateboarding, firstly because they’re so widely ridiculed, but secondly, and more interestingly, because they’re so overlooked.
If you’ve ever wondered how far back the anti-benihana sentiment stems, or even just where benihanas came from, you’re not alone. Although I’ve been fed the ban on benihanas since I first started skating, I don’t want to accept it blindly anymore. So I set out to find the full history of skateboarding’s most hated trick. It may be kooky to be a full-on benihana truther, but I need to know.
The following article contains copious photos of young men doing benihanas.
Scroll at your discretion.
Lester Kasai, who became a vert pro in the ‘80s, is generally credited with inventing benihanas. Lester told me he first did them in 1985, and just to try to fact check, I reached out to Sean Mortimer, who rode for Powell in the ‘90s and has written books on skating, to talk with other vert skaters. With his help, I heard from both Lance Mountain and Tony Hawk that Lester did indeed invent benihanas. But the name was a duel effort by Tony and Lester.
“I spent much of my time hanging out with Tony Hawk and skating Del Mar Skate Ranch during the mid-‘80s,” Lester told me. “We were both haphazardly trying to make up new tricks [and] coming up with funny names for them. Tony and I liked to eat at the Benihana Japanese restaurant, so that is how I came up with the name for the trick.”
However, of everything I learned while writing this, the most important point is that the benihana Lester did in the ‘80s is not actually the one we’re accustomed to seeing today.
A true benihana [according to Lester] is a tailgrab where you take your back foot off, but you do the trick going up fakie and coming down regular. “The idea was to do a fakie thruster without planting your foot,” Lester told me.
If you’re going forward and do the trick, as most commonly is done today, that’s actually called a benibonga.
The benihana/benibonga mix-up has been noted in a few places, but it’s surprising that a correction hasn’t been made in skate history worldwide. Well, the fucking buck stops here: this is a benihana, and this is a benibonga.
Anyway, when Lester first did these tricks in the ‘80s, vert and pool skaters were coming up with new tricks so often that they had to give them flashy names just to make sure other skaters would remember them. That’s why we have trick names like Stalefish, Sean Penn, and Madonna.
The Madonna, like the benihana, came exactly from this crisis. As the story goes, Tony Hawk came up with the trick but it wasn’t catching on. When he asked Lester for advice, Lester told him to come up with something trendy, and since it was the ‘80s, Madonna was one of the biggest names they could think of.
While the benihana’s name was memorable, the real benihana trick didn’t really take off. Lester told me he never thought either benihanas or benibongas would become popular. “To be honest, I seldom did either of the tricks,” he said. “I think I did the benihana in only one contest and the benibonga once in another contest.”
The benibonga, however, ended up sticking around for unintended reasons (i.e. becoming perhaps the most hated trick of all time). Although it didn’t always have such a bad reputation.
It’s not like no cool skaters ever did benihanas in the history of skating. Christian Hosoi, arguably the biggest figure in skating in the ‘80s, did benibongas. The untouchable John Cardiel did a street benibonga at EMB in 1991, just as that spot was becoming a proving ground run by James Kelch, Henry Sanchez, and the Carroll brothers. If you think doing a benibonga at EMB today is sus, imagine doing one there in the 90s.
However, benibongas have the fundamental problem of not being easily styleable. “Taking your back foot off is so fundamentally wrong in skating,” Mortimer said. “Half the time it looks like when you do a shitty ollie. And I can’t think of any other air trick where you do that.” Spreading your legs apart to expose your sweaty butt crack doesn’t help either. “If you look at Hosoi in the ’80s doing Judo Airs or Christ Airs, they’re kind of flowing. When you look at a beni[bong]a, it just looks irregular,” Mortimer said.
Secondly, the benibonga didn’t have many ambassadors to carry it forward. From the beginning, Mortimer told me it wasn’t a widely popular trick. “I don’t ever remember it being like a judo air or any trick where people took it to different stylish levels,” he said. “It always just seemed like a goofy one.” And years later, the one skater who most strongly associated himself with benibongas wasn’t a trendsetter.
Andy Macdonald, who once made stickers for his personal website that were in the shape of him doing a benibonga, was intrigued by benibongas at first sight. “The first time I saw it as a kid was Lester doing it frontside on a vert ramp,” Andy told me. “There was no sequence so it was like, ‘How did he get into that position?’ Like, that’s the coolest thing ever.”
Years later Andy ended up learning benibongas with help from Christian Hosoi. “Christian had one of the best beni[bong]as. That’s what made me fall in love with that trick, watching Christian Hosoi do it,” he said.
But no matter how well Andy can do benibongas, and all things considered, he does them pretty well, he doesn’t have the clout to popularize such an unpretty trick. Andy recognizes this, and likened his decision to do benibongas for the same reason he rocks the notoriously (hated) yellow helmet.
“As far as the stigma attached to it [the benibonga], I’ve been wearing a yellow helmet my whole career and people hate it. So I wear it more, like, ‘Fuck you,’” Andy said. “There’s part of me that’s like, ‘Oh, that’s not cool? I’m going to do it more.’” Hence posts like this, where Andy does a benibonga “for the haters.” A couple other vert skaters can do benibongas well, but for a trick that can be so easily stunk up, it would have needed a much cooler representative to keep people hyped on it.
Thirdly, and most importantly, benibongas never really took off because of skatepark groms. While I can’t responsibly estimate how many benibongas were throw out of wooden launch ramps in the ‘80s, I can promise you that on any given day at any given skatepark with at least one bowl, ramp, or quarterpipe, there is a kid doing benibonga fly outs.
The skatepark fly out benibonga was my introduction to benibongas, and it only served to tarnish the reputation of a trick that many weren’t doing well or doing much at all. Fly out tricks go splat, while the same tricks done properly on a vert ramp are more fluid and sexy. Fly outs are only meant to draw attention to yourself, whether for comedy or vanity. So with its gaudy, “yo flip” nature, the benibonga is the perfect fly out trick.
Andy Mac blames fly outs for cementing the hatred for benibongas. “As far as I’m concerned, this stigma comes from beni[bong]as [done] out of a bowl onto the deck. To me that’s not a true beni[bong]a,” he said. But Andy doesn’t necessarily see that hatred, or fly outs, as problematic. They’re more representations of skateboarding’s multitudes. “If you think it’s cool to fly out and do it onto the deck, more power to ya. You just won’t see me doing it.”
With so much going against it, the benibonga seems ripe for extinction. And yet, it persists. Why?
“Of all the tricks, this is the one that’s stuck around because it’s ironic,” Mortimer said. “And I think you kind of make it rad by making it ironic. Like, it seems like it’s come full circle.”
Jamie Thomas is maybe the best example of an ironic benibonga-er. Jamie, like Andy Mac, got hyped on benibongas after seeing an idol do it. “I saw John Cardiel do it in a sequence at Embarcadero,” Jamie said. “Cardiel was my favorite skater at the time and I just thought, ‘That’s amazing that that is possible.’” Then after Jamie learned benibongas, he basically did them to get a rise out of people. “It’s a hometown hero trick and I was a hometown hero, so the trick fit me and I embraced it. I knew it was corny but I did them anyways because it was fun.”
“It’s a hometown hero trick and I was a hometown hero…”
Over time Jamie became more resolute about benibongas, despite people telling him otherwise. It didn’t matter if friends tried to pressure him — “I told [photographer] Gabe Morford I wanted to beni[bong]a the Gonz gap and he told me he wouldn’t shoot it. I remember thinking it was weird. This is a dividing trick, he doesn’t want his name to be at the bottom of it.” — he included them in two video parts and still does them to this day.
So yeah, we talk shit on Jamie Thomas and Josh Kasper for doing benibongas on street, but we don’t despise them for their faux pas. We actually kind of love them for giving us opportunities to rip on them, which Jamie can appreciate. “I spent a lot of my career taking myself really serious, and I felt like it was an opportunity for me to not be so serious and to do a trick that people don’t really like and embrace that.”
Now, I’m not saying benibongas don’t deserve to be ragged on. They’re not an inherently great-looking trick, and no one should encourage kids to learn them as fly outs. But the hate around benibongas wasn’t inherent. We constructed it, and we can dismantle it if we want to, so it’d be hypocritical of us not to recognize that.
Whether you’re firmly anti-benibonga or only mildly anti-benibonga, just remember that they’re actually not called benihanas (or for that matter, “kasperhanas”). Unless you happen to be talking about actual benihanas, which are kinda sick.