I used to own a skate shop called Orchard in Boston, Massachusettes. One day while working at the shop, I saw a guy float by in a Victorian “Mad Hatter” style top hat and possibly a trench coat. From then on, it became a game for us at the shop to spot the Mad Hatter whenever he whisked by the shop.
Fast forward a couple years, I stumbled upon a guy on Instagram known as Joe Ledoux, who bore a strange resemblance to the Mad Hatter of years past. After some more investigating I figured out he was a skater who lived in the Boston area and was also a full-on magician.
It’s been said before, but as skateboarders, we’re part of a secret society based on artistry and tricks. Call it creativity or whatever you want, but there is some kind of invisible, unquantifiable energy that makes skateboarding rad.
So I talked with Joe, the Skateboarding Magician, to see whether skateboarding draws from a similar inspiration as magic.
Which came first for you: magic, art or skating?
I think the order was skateboarding, magic, then art. Growing up was strange. I was an outsider, I sat alone at lunch. I remember sweating and holding my food, trying to figure out what table I belonged at. So I just started sitting at tables alone. I felt alone, but then something saved me: I found out I could eat in the art room. Art gave me a place to belong to.
I remember being really depressed about not going to my prom, so I went skateboarding instead. Skateboarding has this way of clearing your mind. It can really help you cope with life. You can channel anything negative into a positive. I saw painting and skateboarding as magic. The way a brush moves like a wand and conjures an image on the canvas.
Around the same time, I heard about this trick called the impossible, where the board scoops into the air, wraps around your leg, and does a complete 360 before you land on it. At the time it just seemed impossible and I never saw anyone land it. I just went out every day, practiced, and imagined I could do it. Then one day I landed it, and that was the day I found magic.
Skateboarding taught me more about magic than anything else. It is authentic. If you can imagine something you can create it. That is empowering. That’s why I don’t use gimmicks [props or items that appear normal but are pre-tampered with] in my magic. I’m after the real thing.
Do you know of any other skating magicians?
No, a lot of things I see are magicians making cards disappear and appear into the grip tape of their board. They’re not really doing magic with the skateboard. There’s a huge difference. But every skateboarder is a magician in a sense. The kickflip was originally called a magic flip. People didn’t understand how it was behaving that way in the air. The things skaters are doing naturally on their boards is where I see the magic.
Has magic ever gotten you laid?
At MassArt, I had a crush on a girl and I decided to show her a magic trick. That’s the last time I ever talked to her. I think any time you’re putting on a kind of act to win someone over, it’s never going to work.
Can you survive off of performing full-time? How often do you perform?
I’ve done tons of shows. Kids’ shows, nursing homes, walk around magic at bars and weddings. I also performed with Le Grand David, which held a Guinness record as the longest-running magic show in the world. There came a point where things felt very entertainment-based to me, and I was unhappy on a personal level, so I shifted to only performing in art galleries where my paintings could be on the walls alongside my performance.
You can definitely make a living, but it won’t happen overnight. And yes, I’m going to make a living doing it.
“Being comfortable is the worst place to be as an artist.”
Do you get nervous before a performance? What do you do to get over that?
I used to get really nervous in my early performances. But eventually, when you find a style that’s comfortable, you lose some of that nervousness. However, once you find that comfort, I think it’s your job to disrupt it or make it feel new.
I get bored easily, so I never do the same show, which means a lot of things I’m doing are not perfected. For example, sometimes I have audience members take random objects from their purse or pocket and put it in a hat. I then play jazz music and improvise magic with each object from the hat. There’s a lot of room for failure. But I heard that being comfortable is the worst place to be as an artist.
Who is the most legendary magician, alive or dead?
[Harry] Houdini. He is way more mysterious than the public thinks. I don’t think he was as secular as most people think. Most magicians think he was a debunker [of the spiritual afterlife], but that was what filled the theaters in those days to make a living. Behind the curtain he was deeply spiritual himself.
Have you ever taken a magic “slam” where a trick failed in front of an audience?
Hell yeah, all the time. My magic teacher, Jeff McBride, teaches us to “fail forward fast.” The best jugglers in the world have simply dropped more than anyone else. I listened to an interview with the Gonz and the amazing jazz pianist Jason Moran. I recall Jason talking about how skaters and musicians have sessions.
That’s why I perform in art galleries. My shows are like sessions, like a skateboard demo. I wanted a place to experiment and not be judged, a place to be real. As Tony Hawk said, it’s the small stuff on the skateboard that’s dangerous. I broke my wrist trying to ollie over two boards. [laughs]
“If you stop caring about what others think and find a way to incorporate more play in your life, you’d be so much happier.”
Did you ever consider having Peter Pan Syndrome, since playing with skateboards and doing magic are both typically thought of as “kids’ activities”?
Ask any mystic what the secret to life is, and they’ll tell you: play. As we grow up we become jaded, and play is something that’s seen as childish. I think that’s a huge problem with our society. If you stop caring about what others think and find a way to incorporate more play in your life, you’d be so much happier. Skateboarders have found a way to play as they continue to grow up.
What do you think skateboarders could learn from the magic community and vice versa?
Almost all art forms, to me, feel like they’ve become stunt-driven. From studying magic, it’s really taught me how to add meaning into any craft. I think that’s why Animal Chin is such a big skateboard movie, because it’s one of the few skate videos that has meaning in it. One thing skateboarding can offer to the magic community is creativity and jazz improv.
You wrote a book about the connections between magic and skateboarding. What’s a good example to illustrate that link?
When people first saw a kickflip, they didn’t know what was causing the board to flip around, so they called it a magic flip. Polynesian chiefs would demonstrate their magical ability by how well they could surf, and surfing led to skateboarding. Someone’s sleight of hand (or sleight of feet) ability displays a certain amount of discipline and faith or belief to achieve a higher level.
Do you skate less because you’re worried about getting injured and having it affect your magic?
As I’ve gotten older, I had this realization that I wasn’t going to learn a skateboard trick unless it’s something I can do until I’m 80. A simple trick, like the coffin, is something I can do forever. I’m constantly looking for skate tricks that I can bring to the stage or in new videos, which allows me to progress with both skating and magic as I age. It’s a very zen way of skating.
“I had this realization that I wasn’t going to learn a skateboard trick unless it’s something I can do until I’m 80.”
If someone wants to get into magic, what are the best starting tricks or resources to go to?
One of the books I really liked as a kid was the Klutz Book of Magic. It had a big variety tricks featuring coins, silks, rope, and cards. I’ve heard good things from other magicians about the Tarbell Course in Magic. A lot of magic now is available to learn on YouTube and other online resources, but there’s a danger in mimicking someone else’s performance style, which also happens in the skate community. With a book, you can’t see someone’s style, so you have to create your own.
The Gonz – Nope, the Gonz is too original.
Can you tell us how David Copperfield flies?
The honest answer is I don’t know. There was a point in my life when I just stopped researching how tricks were done, because I feel like it’s a trap. There’s an infinite number of ways to achieve the same thing, whether it’s strings or magnets or cables or whatever. I’m more interested in the questions we cannot answer.