When your magazine gets the chance to talk to Tony Hawk, you talk to Tony Hawk, especially when you get a chance to shine a little light on the darker aspects of Tony’s trajectory to millionaire celebrity status. So when Sean Mortimer, a friend of ours and someone who’s known the Hawk when he was still rocking the mcsqueeb, asked us if we might be interested, of course we said yes. Read on to hear about the world’s most famous skateboarder scrounging for quarters, mortgaging houses, and doing parking lot demos for chump change during the early 90s when skateboarding was dead.
“One day in 1993, when things were particularly tight, I remember helping Tony Hawk look for change underneath the floor mats of his Honda. Taco Bell had a cheap menu and we were trying to scrounge up lunch money.
In 1991, skateboarding had suffered such a rapid loss in popularity that the scene now had a distinct post-apocalyptic vibe to it. Most established brands died or declared bankruptcy, contest checks bounced and once-thriving pros now lived below the poverty line.
Rodney Mullen was living in a simple apartment using yogurt containers as dishes while other lucky pros begged themselves onto demos as second-tier talent behind more popular rollerbladers.
But this was nothing new. Skateboarding had also turned dystopian in the early 1980s when magazines and major brands died; skaters horded trucks and some feared they’d have to pour their own wheels. The 1990 crash repeated the cycle of death and rebirth, so veterans assumed that skateboarding would rotate through this hardship every decade as older generations of pros aged out.
Obviously, Tony Hawk found a way to stay in the skate scene and prosper, and it’s partly his loose-change scrounging attitude that allowed him to persevere. He looked for any way to meet his goals, with no ego attached to a past status.
He’s a skate rat who currently skates a custom ramp that cost a cool million with the same mixture of fun and determination that he employed while avoiding holes in his crumbling backyard ramp in 1993. I haven’t seen him eat at Taco Bell for a while, though.”
– Sean Mortimer
There was a time in the early 1990s when your value as a pro was considered worthless. That door slammed pretty quick considering that just a few years prior in 1987 you were cashing $20,000 monthly royalty checks. When did you realize it was all going south?
By 1991 I sensed that skating’s popularity was waning and definitely the interest in vert skating was falling even faster. My checks were getting cut in half pretty much every month starting in 1991. I had salary from Airwalk shoes and Tracker Trucks and royalties from Powell Peralta. Powell paid royalties based on a certain percentage and I think it worked out to around $1.50 per board. Around 1987 and 1988 there were some $20,000 months.
But by 1991 it started going from $4,000 a month to $2,000 a month. It wasn’t ‘dead’ yet, but I could sense the sky falling and I wanted to do something new. I didn’t want to just be a sad, old, washed up vert skater struggling to make a living and that’s why I started Birdhouse. I knew it was a risk and that I wasn’t going to make as much money, but I had to do something that I was passionate about.
You turned pro in 1982 at age 14, but by then a lot of the skaters you looked up had already stopped skating. Was that just part of the cycle at that time?
Before our generation, it was more accepted that once you reached the age of adulthood and responsibility that you couldn’t skate as a pro because there was no living to be made. My generation came in and was making a good living into our twenties, which was unheard of. But, by 1990, the market began getting flooded and there was a lot more competition and everything was being geared towards street.
There was the notion that vert was dead or vert was basic. Street skaters would make fun of you. They’d make fun of you because you wore pads or used rails. We were becoming the joke. It wasn’t that that was so discouraging, but it was becoming really difficult to stay relevant and make a living. It didn’t discourage me so much that I stopped skating vert, but it was harder to find a place to do that.
I had a backyard ramp and in 1992 and 1993 my ramp just fell apart. It disintegrated because I couldn’t afford to re-ply it anymore. It was so slow [because the wood was rotting] and weathered that it was really hard to get any speed. We’re talking about Masonite that had been on the ramp for eight years. It was beyond repair. Luckily, the Encinitas YMCA had a vert ramp. A couple ramps popped up for a brief time like Plan B and Human, but you had to catch them while they were hot because you knew they weren’t going to last.
There was a lot of negative attitudes from skaters and the industry towards vert. ‘Vert is dead’ was bandied around the magazines and the fast forward button on VHS machines was renamed ‘the vert button.’
Yeah, and we played into that too. In a Birdhouse video we’d put up a message that said, “The following section contains vert, which may be offensive to most skaters.” We didn’t care. It wasn’t going to prohibit us from doing it. We were making fun of the people who were becoming elitist and only recognized street skating. But, even though we were making fun of it, it didn’t mean we were being successful at bringing it back.
The irony is that we were still being progressive. Even though vert was so-called ‘dead,’ the whole kickflip movement had just come into play. I learned 360 flip mute grabs in 1993 or ’94.
Vert skating existed in such a pared down existence that is was difficult to get the right equipment.
Street skaters had decreased wheel sizes down into the 30s and you guys rode at least 60mms. How did you manage that?
I was riding the biggest wheels that were available then and they were 55mm. You can see how we’re all struggling for speed if you watch videos from that time.
So you have no speed, no decent ramps, no livable income stream and then Riley is born in 1992. How did you manage a family?
I scrambled to sell my house. I took a second mortgage on my house and sold it for basically what I owed on it and moved back into the condo I had bought [ed note: when he was 17]. I took some odd jobs editing videos for Foundation and I did a video for NEC Turbo Graphics. I had bought a Commodore Amiga early on because it was so advanced with graphic capability. The first non-linear editing system was made for an Amiga, so I bought that and had a digital editing system before anybody else.
I borrowed money from my parents to buy the equipment and we were living paycheck to paycheck. Between my dwindling income and Cindy’s [ed note: Tony’s first wife] income as a manicurist we were barely getting by.
You started Birdhouse in 1992. How much did you have to invest to start a skateboard brand?
$40,000. And that was from my second mortgage. And then my partner, Per Welinder, put in $40,000 and we started Blitz distribution and Birdhouse at the same time.
Had you ever had a job with any similar job description before?
Not like that, no, but it was exciting to learn all that stuff and take control. It wasn’t that I was so overwhelmed, but there were only three of us. We’d all literally call shops and try and get them interested in our brand and try to make ads and design concaves and shapes and get the team going and make videos. It was non-stop.
You ended up grouping together one of the gnarliest teams of the 1990s. You had Jeremy Klein, Heath Kirchart, Steve Berra, Andrew Reynolds, Willy Santos, Bucky Lasek and Rick McCrank. Klein was a shocker as he was arguably the most popular skater on World Industries and that was the hottest board brand at the time. How did you get him?
I just asked riders I had good relationships with — ones that I thought were really strong skaters and were going to work at it and into doing something new to build a brand. Willy was one of the most technical skaters of the time and Jeremy was super creative and a pioneer of street skating. I thought Jeremy would be the one to not want to join Birdhouse because he had such a good deal at World Industries and was doing well even though skating was dying, but he was the first one to say yes.
What were your thoughts on your career as a pro skater? In 1992, you released an unofficial last model that was a giant ship sinking and that was it for Tony Hawk decks, or so you thought.
I thought I’d transition into being a company owner and be behind the scenes doing ads and art directing and mentoring skaters like Willy. I felt like I was a dying breed and I didn’t want to just have a model out there for nostalgia.
But the turning point was around 1994 when Jeremy said I was more effective as a skater and a representative of Birdhouse than as an art director. He wasn’t as nice about it, in true Jeremy fashion, but I took it to heart and I understood he was right. He was totally right. You know how he is — he’s just brash and harsh. Basically, it was him saying that I was better at skating and that I sucked at doing ads.
How long were you not a pro skater?
I don’t know what that means, but for two years I didn’t have a model and I wasn’t really competing. But I was still skating just as much as ever.
Were you bringing in any money from demos?
Barely. In 1994, I was doing three demos a day with Rollerbladers and BMXers in a Six Flags parking lot for $100 a day.
In 1994, Rollerblading was way bigger than skating, right?
That’s not a lot of income for a family, even when you combine it all.
There was a time when Per called me in 1994 and said that we might want to just give up on Birdhouse. I said that I didn’t start this to give up on it. I still believe in it and I’ll take a cut in pay. We kept taking cuts in pay. We were barely making any money. I think I was making … $30,000 a year. I got a signature Airwalk shoe in 1995 and that was when I was able to start paying my bills again. They made signature shoes with Jason Lee and I. I think it was based upon us being with Airwalk for so long.
Why do you think skating regained popularity around 1995?
It was due. Street skating had come of age and there was an interest level from a whole new audience. It was cyclical and that cycle, as far as we were concerned, was due to come back again.
When did things return to where you could focus on skating like you did in the 1980s?
I’d say probably 1995, ’96. There were more opportunities and the X Games had started. There was definitely a resurgence in interest and when I’d compete, I was almost always winning because a lot of the vert guys had dropped out and I had never lost any of my skill set. By 1997, ’98 things really picked up and there were other sponsors who were interested that weren’t endemic to skateboarding.
What was the key to making it through the tough years?
I think just my determination through and through—just being a skater and being stubborn and not giving up on stuff. But definitely, those years taught me a lot about believing in something even when it feels dire.