You may not know Mark Nickels, but you’re almost certainly familiar with his filming. His first big break was filming with the infamous Osiris team during The Storm, one of the great pre-Millenial skate videos. Since then he’s been living in Berlin, filming for various crews here and there, and keeping a relatively low profile.
Recently, Mark started releasing unseen miniDV tapes from his Osiris days, showing Peter Smolik at his height of hype, Josh Kasper with his loyal Kasperholics, and Jerry Hsu when he looked even more pre-pubescent. We wanted to talk with Mark about his time at Osiris in its heyday, but we also wanted to talk about something else he brought up during his panel at Pushing Boarders: what it was like coming out in skateboarding in the 90s.
Ever since Brian Anderson’s very public coming out, we’ve seen amazing open support for LGBTQ skateboarders. Obviously, this is awesome, but it also makes it easy to overlook how things were in skating not so long ago. Mark broke everything down—from being called slurs by his teammates to being ostracized to help us understand the real dangers and fears gay skateboarders once faced (and hopefully won’t face in the future).
I just rewatched The Storm and noticed your name was misspelled in the credits. Did that bum you out?
[Laughs] Yeah? I didn’t know it was misspelled in the credits too. I thought it was only the box cover.
Someone in the art department asked me to write my name down and the ‘K’ in my handwriting looked like an ‘H’ to them. When I saw the cover art a few weeks later, it said “Nichols” and there was no chance to change it. It was flattering, but I wasn’t the only person to have their name misspelled.
Was that the first time you were making money from skateboarding?
My first paycheck in skateboarding was from 411VM in 1996. It was for $9 for three tricks [laughs]. It was enough to pay for gas to go skating all weekend.
“I really tried to keep my skate and personal lives as separate as possible.”
Why are you diving back into your tapes from The Storm?
On social media, people are so nostalgic for the mid to late ’90s era right now. The amount of stuff I’ve seen posted in the last year from The Storm days, it’s wild to see people digging in the crates like that.
Going through the old footage has brought up so many good memories, but also rehashed some pretty ugly ones too. It was a wild ride from the first U.S. tour in 1998 to Subject to Change. I still can’t believe I was somehow in the mix.
Were you openly gay by the time you were filming with the Osiris guys?
Around the time of the first tour in 1998, I was starting to come out to some friends at home. It wasn’t until I moved to SoCal in ’99 that I started to open up more.
In the beginning, no one knew, so I thought. I started by telling some of my closest friends I was skating with. One friend said he already knew but was waiting for me to tell him when I was ready. Just about everyone close to me had my back.
Outside of my circles, that’s where things got murky once people found out. It’s wasn’t like where Brian [Anderson] is posting that he’s coming out and we were all like, “Hell yeah!” This is right after Tim Von Werne came out and we learned some of the skateboard industry wasn’t as open as one would have thought. I really tried to keep my skate and personal lives as separate as possible.
What was harder, coming out of the skate shell in the gay community or keeping your sexuality closeted while skating?
Honestly, it was easier to be around skaters because we spoke a common language. Plus it’s all I knew since I was a kid.
When I was out with my gay friends, there was all this slang and lingo that I didn’t understand. I wouldn’t get any of the references. Sooner or later my friends would pick up on it and I’d get a quick history lesson in gay culture.
One story that always tripped me out was about Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz. Going back as early as 1940, if you asked someone, “Are you a friend of Dorothy?,” it was code to find out if someone’s gay or not. At that time you could be arrested for being LGBTQ+ in the U.S., so you had to be super cryptic about it.
Thank goodness times have changed and nowadays the whole world looks like a Skittles commercial during Pride Month.
“Thank goodness times have changed and nowadays the whole world looks like a Skittles commercial during Pride Month.”
I heard someone once outed you on an Osiris trip. What happened?
On the 2002 Aftermath U.S. tour, I was outed by one of the skaters at a team dinner in State College, Pennsylvania. In a full restaurant, the skater yells across the table at me, wanting to know if I was a “fuckin’ faggot” or not. It caught me off guard and a few guys next to him started chiming in.
Some of the skaters sitting next to me jumped up to my defense and it got ugly quick. This unspoken part of my life was now officially out to the rest of the world and there was no going back. I went into shock and left the restaurant.
I talked about it on a panel at Pushing Boarders last summer. I learned a lot about myself, my self-worth, and about the friendships I had built that day. It was actually something that changed me for the better. But at that moment it was pretty damn soul-crushing.
Did that mean life was all rainbows and unicorns after that? Far from it. That’s where I had to dig in and build a thick skin for what was to come.
It had to be a bummer knowing that some people wanted you out though, no?
Yeah, it was a horrible feeling, but I knew who had my back from that moment on. I was there to film for a video, not to play politics in some office. I knew as long as I did my job, everything should be fine. And for the few people who didn’t want to work with me, there were two other guys they could film with. Luckily there were a lot of other skaters in the program who were happy to use my time, so I kept busy.
How did that feel having to go back and film with the Osiris dudes after that?
Imagine finding out through friends, certain people thought it was a bad image for the brand to work with me. I even got called a “faggot” to my face going into the offices for a meeting one time. I just brushed it off and kept going.
The worst experience I had was with someone who spread nasty rumors about me being a pedophile, just because I was gay. I had no idea until a skater’s parent asked to meet me. I totally understood a parent wanting to meet someone new who was taking their kid out skating, but your stomach twists into knots when you hear the reason why. I did have a face-to-face talk with that person the next day. Luckily nothing ever got physical, but it got pretty damn close a few times.
Stuff like that’s not normal in the workplace, nor should it be tolerated. But I really felt like I didn’t have many allies there toward the end. There was no workplace discrimination law on the books in California regarding sexual orientation until the end of 2003, so I had to take it or just quit. But when something like that happens to you, you do keep receipts.
Why did you stay at Osiris if you were being treated like that?
I already knew after the video premiere, I was done. The main reason I put up with so much was the promised video royalties at the end. That used to be a thing in skateboarding. If the video sold even half of the amount The Storm did, it was going to be a nice payday at the end.
How did you find out you were getting fired?
In late April ’03 I got a call from my mum saying my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was having surgery at the start of June and doctors weren’t so optimistic. In a moment like this, you bend space and time to make sure you’re there for your family.
Over the next days, I got a plan together and lined up some editorial space through friends at a few mags. The idea was to do a trip out east for two weeks, a week off for the surgery, then another trip back west after. When I went in to talk to the powers that be they told me only the video mattered. I offered numerous compromises but this person just kept saying no to anything and everything I proposed. There was always tension with this individual since he started working at the company. Ultimately Tony Mag [Osiris co-founder] listened and got me what I needed to make the first half of the trip happen. I walked out of the offices with peace of mind that day and left for the east coast a few days later.
After my dad’s surgery, we got good news that they got all the cancer out. In my excitement, I called up Chris Pastras [Osiris Team Manager at the time] to start figuring out the second leg of the trip. I was hyped to get back to work after all the stress and worry.
But when I got Chris on the phone, he said I needed to speak to someone in HR right away. I got transferred then informed I had been let go from the project. I then left a voicemail for Tony Mag and thanked him for the adventure. I was let go, three months before the premiere of Subject to Change.
“After this happened, Osiris became quite big in gay porn.”
Do you feel resentful towards anyone at Osiris from that time?
I could be bitter and just call out every single individual who wronged me at that time, but what would that really accomplish after 17 years? That was a lifetime ago and I really believe people can change and grow, especially after that amount of time.
Hopefully, life has thrown some stuff at these individuals and now they have more empathy for others. Who knows, maybe some of them were battling with their own sexuality at the same time and I was an easy target for their fears.
I do have to say, life can be quite poetic. After this happened, Osiris became quite big in gay porn. A few of the shoes became a must have in the fetish communities and you can find videos of people enjoying their shoes in oh so many ways. Not exactly the target market they were going after. [laugh]
What made you move to Berlin?
My dad’s cancer ended up coming back in 2005 and he passed away that summer. Then, a guy I was dating for close to a year in DC moved to Berlin. We remained quite good friends after he moved and there was always an open invitation to visit. At the end of that year, I took him up on the offer and bought a ticket to Europe for six weeks.
When I got to Berlin, there was no plan. It was a fresh start in life and I had a lot to figure out.
When spring hit, I started meeting some of the local skaters out and about. I found out there was no full-time filmer in Berlin, which was wild in such a big city. Thanks to Soy Panday coming over to visit, he introduced me to everyone he knew and the guys welcomed me to the city with open arms.
When I came to Berlin, I thought skateboarding was done for me. I could have never imagined I would be more successful here than I ever was in the U.S. Plus, I’ve done this all while being out and not compromising who I am.
So I heard that you’re a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
When I was coming out, the people that were the nicest to me at the clubs were always the drag queens. Being super shy and a wallflower most of the time, I became a big target for them. If I wasn’t having fun at their party, they wanted to know why. That interaction normally broke the ice and they pushed me off into the crowd to be more social [laughs]. I thank every single one of them who did that for me.
I even met RuPaul in 2004 at a Starbucks in NYC. That was pretty epic, actually. He was the first drag queen I ever heard of as a kid and you don’t meet gay icons like that out and about often. It was an absolute pleasure to chat with him for a few minutes. But this was pre-iPhone, so no selfie.
Do you see any parallels between drag queens and skaters?
There are so many parallels, it’s ridiculous. They’re the only group of people I have ever met who are as passionate about what they do as skateboarders are. Plus the projects I have done with a few queens, they’ve always been way too much fun.
Just like a skater trying to get sponsored, their come up is just as hard. You have to get out in your local scene, go to contests, get coverage, and this all while breaking yourself creating content that no one’s paying you for. And if that’s not working, you create your own lane. A lot of careers have been built via social media these days.
A lot of queens want to showcase and drag is their medium to do it. They can be singers, dancers, comedians, designers, the list goes on. Think about how many skaters have to build second careers while using skateboarding as their launching pad. Ed Templeton and Mark Gonzales with their art, too many skaters to name and their bands, Spike Jonze with everything.
What could skateboarding learn from drag, if anything?
I never forget RuPaul’s number one rule, “Be professional.” Show up early, do the job you were hired for, and be pleasant to work with. At the end of the day, people will remember how it made them feel to work with you. No one wants to work with a “Negative Nancy” who complains about everything. That’s how you create longevity in a career.