What do No Complys, Slappies and non-popsicle board shapes have in common? They were all invented or supported by John Lucero over the last 25 years, and happen to be popular today in 2015. Although John never got much coverage in the magazines or had that “one video part” he contributed several key tricks to early street skateboarding, and has run his company Black Label 100% independently since 1990.
What John lacks in financial power and business savvy, he makes up in pure heart and passion. If there were more people like John around in skateboarding, we might not be as “big business” but we would have more people in the industry making decisions for the culture, authenticity and fun of the activity, rather than just the bottom line.
I haven’t seen much action from your company, Black Label, over the last couple of years. No videos, promos, new riders or anything… what’s going on?
Black Label has never been financed by anyone other than my wallet and my wallet is pretty empty. And when it has made money, I put it back into the company. Tours, videos, stuff like that… When we have money, I try and give, and when I’m broke I try to give whatever else it is I have, which is either my encouragement or my knowledge.
The last couple years were hard, I lost a lot of team riders over financial situations. And I’m proud to say that still, to this day, all those guys are still my friends. They know I love them and they still say some of the best times in their lives was skating for Black Label. I do want those to guys know how much I appreciated the effort they put in and I’m happy to know that they appreciate what I did for them too.
But in this day and age, when everybody is losing their paychecks, nobody is getting paid like they used to. Except a select few that are doing well with a Nike sponsor or a Mountain Dew sponsor or something like that. And you know what, that’s not a bad thing. That’s a rad thing. If you’re that much of a rad influence in skating that Nike can pay you that much money, that’s awesome, because that means you’ve done something great in skateboarding. No one is getting fat paychecks for doing nothing or getting paid that doesn’t deserve it.
You’ve been known to not steal riders from other skate companies in the form of the “Cold Call”. Why not?
Yeah. That’s the one thing I can’t stand about the skateboard industry, the cold call. I was the first to sponsor Gino [Iannucci] from Long Island, New York. We started sending him boards, then we started sending him out to California. He was happy, he was sponsored, you know? Gino Iannucci rides for Black Label. As soon as the word started spreading, he just got phone calls. Instead of people just being stoked he rides for Black Label, like, “Wow, Black Label has got this rad dude,” people just say, “Hey, you should be riding for us.” I don’t do that. I don’t cold call people and I haven’t.
Another one of our ex-riders, he was at a contest, and a company owner got a hold of him on his cell phone somehow and just goes, “What’s Black Label pay you? We’ll pay you double.” Well fuck. It’s that kind of shit… there’s a new hot guy and everyone can’t just be happy with what they have, they have to have yours too.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these guys can’t get better opportunities, and they have. Gino made the right decision. But there’s so many rad skaters, especially nowadays. I get it… It’s just disheartening sometimes.
It’s so long ago, it’s not a big deal now, but it’s just something I hold dearly to my values. I always try to raise a team from the ground up, that’s why I brought up Gino. We sponsored both Gino and Dill from a young age. John Cardiel, we made his first pro boards. I feel proud to take notice, bring a guy in, give him a chance and give him first pro board. That’s what I really like to do. That’s what makes me feel like I’ve given back to skateboarding.
Your Bondage Chick Graphic, back in 1984 was pretty naughty. Do you think you designed the first “controversial” or offensive skateboard graphic ever?
It would appear so… My boards came out in very small numbers cause skateboarding was pretty dead at that time, and apparently a lot of people sent those boards back to Variflex because the graphic was too offensive, vulgar and gross. I remember Variflex calling me saying people were sending it back and I was like, “Oh fuck, that’s awesome!” I think there were only 200 of those boards made on Variflex. It was a rad first graphic.
Then when I quit Variflex to go on and ride elsewhere, they reissued that graphic and just changed the name on it from John Lucero to the Grim Ripper. I remember being pissed when I was younger, but looking back on it now, that board meant enough to them to do it again and keep it going, because it held some type of value.
Did you ever consider legal action?
No, I never did. I just don’t think that way. When I was young, I was kinda pissed about it, but it’s funny. I never thought too much about it. I’ll get them back somehow [laughs].
As a company owner and artist, do you feel any moral responsibility with your artwork?
As a father now, I definitely have a different view on what can and should be put out there. I understand both ends of it now. For example, I feel like everything with weed on it has been done to death. To the point of, who gives a fuck? That’s the kind of mentality the skateboard community kinda got into, it was just, how can we be more outrageous? But nothing is really outrageous anymore…I still get a kick out of putting beer and cigarettes and stuff on boards, but not to the point where every board is covered in pot plants and stuff like that.
Drugs have always been prevalent in professional skateboarding to some degree. As someone that has been skating over 30 years, was there a point when you ever fell into that lifestyle?
I partied most of my skateboarding career, mostly drinking, to the point of over consumption of alcohol. Anything stupid I’ve ever done or any major trouble I’ve ever been in is due to alcohol consumption. I’ve been fortunate enough where I get to party when I want to, and I can stop when I want to. The unfortunate part is when you can drink a lot like I can, just because you don’t feel addicted, doesn’t mean it’s not damaging your body and brain.
I’ve been skateboarding for a long time, they have always gone hand in hand. The only difference is, back in the 70s and 80s, the media didn’t promote it through the magazine. Of course, it went on behind the scenes. That’s what I feel the most disappointed about in skateboarding – the fact that the media has allowed themselves to carry on so much promoting the skaters being hammered. I’m all down for acid trips at Street League, that’s awesome. I’m all down for the Piss Drunx and all those guys partying. Those guys are rad. But just showcasing it all day long, I think that’s definitely damaging to a lot of young kids. That’s not to say I’m an old man and everyone doesn’t have a choice. Everyone does have a choice, but maybe it could be toned down a little bit.
”That’s what I feel the most disappointed about in skateboarding – the fact that the media has allowed themselves to carry on so much promoting the skaters being hammered”
Perfect example, growing up in the 70s, you would see Duane Peters winning a contest, pictures of him being rad with the big punk haircut. There wasn’t a picture of him slamming beers or a mention of him in the gossip column about how fucked up he was, but you knew it. As you got older, you learned and found out by being at the right or wrong places at the time, that’s how your learned about those things. There’s nothing sacred anymore when it comes to finding yourself through experimentation. It’s all mapped out for you. And now people are making their own videos and trying to push it to be more extreme. Like, “Hey, here we are throwing up. Here we are shitting our pants. Here we are smoking more weed than you can ever fucking imagine.”
Yeah everyone has to one up the guy in the video..
Yeah, not only do they want to out smoke them, they want to out smoke them on video. Drop 3 hits of acid, take 4 bong rips, down a bottle of tequila and then film it and try to skate! [laughs] I have seen that slowing down quite a bit though, guys like Andrew Reynolds who have reeled it back. I’d like to see even more guys speak up, but no one wants to be the preacher, you know? But at the same time it would be nice to know that some of these guys who have such an influence could actually help influence the kids in the other direction than the one they led them down.
How much money were you making back when you were an active pro skater in the 80s?
I was a pro skater, but I wasn’t a top guy at all, you know? But, I did all my own artwork and my boards happened to be one of the the top selling boards – the little guy busting out of the bars which I drew. I was getting $2 royalties and making anywhere from $15,000 to $16,000 a month. That’s just off of that one board and that one small royalty. That’s the most I ever made in skateboarding. Now imagine the Vision business structure at that time. You have my board, Mark Gonzales’ board, which sold way more than mine, John Grigley’s board, Gator’s board, which probably sold more than all of them. Vision must have been making millions.
”I was getting $2 royalties and making anywhere from $15,000 to $16,000 a month”
Are you bummed seeing all these non-popsicle boards becoming so popular? Seeing brands like Welcome really taking off when you have been making different shapes forever?
I’m stoked for those guys and it’s awesome. Just because we made shapes for a long time doesn’t mean we fuckin’ invented it. I’m stoked, and it feels good to know that I’ve always supported that market. I think Welcome’s great. They’ve helped to bring awareness to Black Label’s shaped boards too!
Back in the day, you couldn’t give away a board for free over 8 inches wide. Everything was from 7.5 to 7.75, and we would have an 8.25 board and that was considered “Old school hardcore!” The demand for other shapes says to me that kids are tired of having the same fuckin’ set up as their friend, you know what I mean?
It’s rad skateboarding is going back to this. Lets call it de-evolution. It’s taking it back, I’d say one step back and two steps forward. We’ve been doing the same thing for so long, let’s do something different. If you gotta borrow from the past a little bit, do it! Skateboarding is so new, people are just starting to realize there’s a rich, radical history. To me, ten years ago, the history was just like, “Oh, that’s just kind of old.” Now we have history, and that’s cool. And if you look at the shapes, all the stuff we’re doing, and that other companies are doing, they’re not the shapes of the 80’s or the early 90’s. They’re new shapes just to give it a little bit of aesthetic, a little bit extra radness.
Skateboarding is 100% raw, uncut and open right now, and it feels good. I’m excited about it. I feel it’s a great time for Black Label too. There seems to be a resurgence of people, kids, skaters that wanna back brands again. For the longest time no one wanted to back anything. It was just my white t-shirt, my flooded pants and my cigarette, and that’s because the brands didn’t mean anything anymore. People are getting behind brands again. I think they want to be a part of something again.
Black Label used to be distributed by Blitz Distribution, but you just recently left and took the company back, operating it out of your house, DIY style. Why?
Basically, the writing was on the wall and that model just wasn’t working for Blitz distribution or the brands being distributed by them. It couldn’t go on anymore. There’s too much overhead and not enough action. Everyone suffered because of it, and we’re relieving everybody’s problem by ending this.
The old model is dying. There’s not enough slices in the pie to divvy it up. It just got to the point where everything got too big, and now it has to be reeled back in. It has to be taken back, and that’s the stand I’m gonna take. That’s the best thing for Black Label, that’s the best thing for my team, that’s the best thing for skateboarding. The best thing is to take it back to curb level and make it real, and that’s just what we gotta do.
It’s a roller coaster ride. We’re gone through a few ups and downs, and you crash. Early 90’s was one of them, but what’s rad about it is those crashes result in the survival skills where only the strongest survive – the most creative and the ones that are willing to put in the work and the time. The ones that aren’t willing to lay down and die.
I feel like with Black Label and myself, the reason I’ve been here for 26 years is because I’ve done whatever it takes to make it happen. I’ve ran Black Label out of a garage, I’ve ran it out of a small warehouse, I’ve hired my friends and I’ve hired family when things were good. I’ve worked with distributors like Giant and Blitz, and they’re all great people and great businesses, but those models are a thing of the past.
”Skateboarding is 100% raw, uncut and open right now, and it feels good”
The perceived value is sometimes very high at Black Label, but there’s times where I’m working out of my garage, by myself, calling people up. I rent rooms out for my roommates, I’ll answer the phone in the hallway, “Black Label Skateboards,” and I’m sitting on the toilet!
Over the last ten years, as things got big, people started selling their companies. That started with Rocco, selling his company for $30 million dollars. When people saw that, all these skaters wanted to start selling their companies too. That’s how Element got sold to Billabong. Before you know it, these skater owned companies, their main focus was having titles and CEOs or whatever. Business people took over the industry and skating became corporate, you know?
So it’s just a good time to reel it back and look back at what’s important to us. It’s just skateboarding, it’s just fun, it’s just hanging out with your friends on a curb, drinking a Coke. That’s fucking skateboarding. It’s not CEOs and a bunch of bullshit, and the people that know that are the people that are excited right now.
As far as I know, your first modern skate part was Label Kills (2001). Why have you had so few video parts?
[Laughs] I am probably the least documented skater from my era. I just hung out with my friends. Neil [Blender] and Lance [Mountain] were always on photoshoots with top magazine photographers while I was at home with my other friends skating curbs and doing whatever – I just kind of I missed out on those opportunities. Looking back at it now, I should have taken advantage of it because there aren’t any good photos of those days. There’s hardly anything, any documentation of me and my early street skating because we just did it. It’s just based off memories and stories. I am grateful for how things have happened. I still feel the skate world has been more than kind to me in terms of recognition.
You created the Slappy right?
Everyone credits me with that, and I accept that – It’s just a lot to take a cut for something like that… it’s just curb grinding. You can ride along the street, carve onto a curb and grind it. But a real slappy is when you haul ass forward, and you don’t lift your fucking trucks. Your front trucks hit first, and with enough back end momentum you swing in and use your heel to slide it up and boom, crack over the top. That’s the slappy, and that’s Lance Mountain’s and my technique. I don’t want to take all the credit, there were a lot of guys around.
You also are responsible from the No Comply too right?
The no comply originated right after the boneless first came out. The boneless was a trick that once you learned it, you could adapt it to all sort of things from vertical to street skating. That trick just kind of opened up street skating. When you are doing a boneless, obviously your front foot is on the ground and you’re flying through the air, but I figured out how to do it off a curb without grabbing on to the board. I learned how to do a boneless bonk off a parking block, and that’s what I was kind of making fun of – the boneless without any hands.
We were doing these no grab bonelesses off of this parking lot block, and Neil [Blender] was with me and we we’re laughing and he’s like “I don’t understand it, I don’t understand, it’s stupid. No comply,” that’s how the name came about, we called it no comply for no understanding, that’s all it means. No comply means, “no one understands, no comprende.” It didn’t make sense how it worked. I also used to call them curb smashers. It started off as a joke and then Neil ended up being in an ad doing one and it started taking off from there.
So the original No Comply is where you would bash the board against a parking block. At what point did it become where you would use your knee to hit and pop the board instead?
That kind of came later. It all started getting pop off of a parking block or sidewalk crack and that’s all it is. We used to do pressure ollies, crack ollies – all that stuff has been going on for just so long that sometimes it’s just the funnest thing you can get out of skateboarding, just a crack ollie. You get a perfect one just a couple inches off the ground, fucking awesome. All of that came out of just playing around sitting on a curb like I told you before. That’s all we used to do, sit around the curbs, drinking Cokes, and talking shit, you know what I mean? And kicking your board around. Always kicking the board around.
Sometimes I’m thankful there’s no film or video or an over abundance of it back then cause seriously, it would just be a couple of dorks grinding curbs. It’s not that fucking cool. It was just a rad time in your life. Now everything is so overdone, you basically don’t need to have a memory anymore because it’s all just documented every time you go out.
”Try this next time you go out street skating with your friends: everybody leave their phone and video camera at home, and then just go enjoy it and see what happens”
Yeah, if you go to a skatepark, everyone is either skating or glued to their phones.
Try this next time you go out street skating with your friends: everybody leave their phone and video camera at home, and then just go enjoy it and see what happens. Or even just leave your cell phone in your car for an hour, man. It’s one thing if you’re filming your friend, but we all get drawn into our phones. It’s ruining our attention span for life.
Try it, it’s hard. You feel like you are missing something. You ever not have your phone and then feel like sometimes your leg is vibrating? A ghost vibration and you are patting your pocket! We can all manage a day without taking our cellphones, have a rad memory, and go one day without having to document it. With no documentation, you’re gonna get a little bit more one on one time with your friends. You’re gonna get a little more stories around the water cooler. More, “How are you doing? More, “Wow, did you see Betty at school? She’s hot.” I think we’re losing out on a lot of life by being on our phones all the time.
Some of the best times you have in your life is just hanging out with your friends, joking around at the curb. That’s the beauty of skateboarding back then. No cell phone, no internet, very few film cameras, it’s all just based on you, your friends and your memories, and those are the things that last the longest.
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February 2, 2015 3:21 pm
A nice read. Thank you Jenkem for enriching our skateboarding history. And hopefully we can see something from Black Label in the future. More power guys. Greetings from The Philippines
February 2, 2015 3:38 pm
Thought one: Thank you times one million. Thought two: I spent the afternoon at the curb yesterday with friends I’ve had for twenty five years. Both my ankles feel broken and the smile won’t leave my face. Thought three: John has always had the right idea.
February 2, 2015 3:39 pm
Awesome! Makes me want to squeeze everything I can out of life, or at least my can of Coke.
February 2, 2015 3:50 pm
Easily one of my favorite interviews ever. Incredibly insightful and a flawless show of one’s true character … this should be mandatory reading for all skaters.
February 9, 2015 7:01 pm
Making this a mandatory read would sort of defeat the meaning of the article.