There are many luxuries I can live without. I don’t need my perfectly portioned Keurig coffee every morning or my lotion-infused toilet paper, but the idea of giving those things away along with a flushable toilet, usable shower, and full size bed is enough to make me shudder.
Giving up these luxuries is exactly what TJ Gaskill experienced living in a converted van for two years. While he was away filming skating a lot of the time (which he has done for 15+ years), it’s still hard for me to wrap my head around my home being parked in a Walmart parking lot.
TJ has since moved on from full-time van living, but through that experience he picked up useful skills that he now uses in his new endeavor: converting vans for skateboarders and other adventurously minded people.
Curious as to what Pimp My Ride-esque possibilities are out there, we hit up TJ to get the scoop on living on the road, his van conversion operation, and the question that’s on all our minds: can he put a stripper pole in a van?
How did the van living journey start for you?
I found a van for like $3,000 that was already kind of built out, but it basically just had a bed and that was it. I moved into that and slowly started buying tools and trying to make it better. I would literally work on it in the Home Depot parking lot. It was a pretty hectic time in my life. Overall it was almost two years that I stayed in the van.
Where would you park your van when you weren’t driving?
I used to just look up foreclosed houses on Zillow and then pull up and no one ever really fucked with me. I would go into the Hollywood Hills or Beverly Hills and stay in those areas. I actually thought about going to the Ferris Bueller house but never did it.
I’ve heard stories about crazy, on-the-road bathroom situations. Have you ever had to shit in a bag?
Dude, yeah. In my first van I didn’t have the money to buy one of those RV toilets. Twice I woke up in the middle of the night like “Oh fuck,” and you can’t just run to a bathroom so I just laid a trash bag on the floor and took a shit.
How long does that smell linger?
That was an instant get it out of the van moment. I’m not going back to sleep with a shit bag in the van.
Damn [laughs], sounds like a beautiful start to the morning.
Yeah, it doesn’t get much better.
Walmart and Planet Fitness are important when living in a van, or at least that’s what I’ve heard. Were you on that grind?
Yeah, I had an LA Fitness membership and I would stay somewhere around it so I could go take a shower in the morning. I would hit the sauna, sweat it out, and take a shower after, and that’s how I would start my days. I had the gym membership for two years and I never even worked out. Walmart was like the last resort if I needed to park, and they don’t even let you do it at all of them.
What makes the perfect parking lot?
I look for other vans, like not with people living in them, but sometimes I’d find a parking lot with a van that looked like mine and then park next to it so I blend in. Honestly, a well-lit parking lot too. It doesn’t seem as sketchy if there’s a van under a light. The number one rule when I was living in my van was: take your piss and shit before you find your spot because once you park, you put the window covers on and you don’t get out.
Are there any van life stereotypes that you don’t like or don’t agree with?
Yeah, everyone hates on it, but I’m not the Pinterest van lifer. For me, it’s more than just van life. I never say that shit. I just enjoy building stuff and vans happen to be an enjoyable thing to build for me. The thing is, I lived in that van before “van life” was a thing. This was like 2017, and now it’s a whole different thing. That stereotype is just annoying.
I’m actually in the process of trying to transition into building crazier, military type shit that attracts a different type of person that isn’t the “van life” type, but the van life people have money.
Do you think there’s something about growing up in Florida that makes you open to alternative ways of living?
I mean there might be something in the water. It’s funny because you would think it’s because I’m from Florida, but I just don’t know anything different. I would like to think it’s just because I don’t really give a fuck. There’s some homies that are from Florida who won’t even sleep on a floor, but I’ve always been down.
I changed a lot as I got older, like I used to hate the beach and now I’m down for the beach and I used to hate camping and now I’m down for it. I think it’s the skate mentality. You just roll with it. I feel like part of it is from Evan [Smith] and the No Hotels guys too. If they find out you’re staying in a hotel they give you shit. It’s not that serious, but it’s pretty funny, like I’ve said hotel in the group chat before and got roasted.
How many times have you taken the drive from Florida to California?
Probably 20 times at this point. I’ve done that drive solo like five times.
There’s something about being on the open road that is very therapeutic to me. It’s a good disconnect or a meditation almost. Everyone else hates it but I’ve learned to figure out how to enjoy it. When you have a van where you can pull up, kick it, and go to sleep whenever you want. I love that shit.
Seeing that you grew up close to Daytona and its car culture, did you grow up working on cars?
No, I never built anything until I bought my first van in 2017. My dad was not a handy person and never built anything growing up besides a skate box in my driveway. I think that’s why I’m so attracted to it because it’s like skating where I’m learning how to do a new thing.
In high school there were a couple of kids who would soup up their Subaru’s or whatever but I was never really into it, but I do have a thing for tinkering and modifying stuff. I can’t ever say I was a car guy with spinner rims.
Is the plan to make van conversions a full-time job?
Not really, to be honest. I just want to film and skate, but it just happened. I was doing it in my garage for fun, trying to make some extra bucks because there isn’t much money in skateboarding, and it kind of just spiraled. It just happened. Now it’s to a point where I can’t go back, like with the scale of the business. I have three guys who work for me. It’s actually like a thing now, it’s not just a hobby anymore.
Any notable skate van build-outs you’ve done?
Yeah, I built the Primitive van and they were like, “Here’s our light case and our generator. We want to be able to lock our cameras in here.” I built a pullout tray for the generators so you don’t have to reach into the van and then I built a locking cabinet for the camera gear and lights. The top shelf also fits all their boards. We also blocked out all the windows so you can’t break into the van and steal the gear.
I built the Vans van too, with the same idea of no windows in the back, just secure. The van got broken into in SF but they couldn’t get into the back where all the cameras and gear were.
Have you ever gotten an outlandish, Pimp My Ride-esque request?
Matt Bennett was telling me I need to put a urinal in a van, like not a toilet but a urinal that just drains out under the van so when you gotta get up and take a piss it just drains out. He was pretty gung ho about it.
Have you ever been asked to make secret compartments for smuggling contraband?
No, but my last customer asked me to make a gun safe. For the record, I didn’t make it.
Would you include a stripper pole in a build if someone asked?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s been talked about, but I’m down. If anyone out there wants one let me know.
Have you heard of govdeals.com? Have you ever been tempted to buy something crazy off there like a plane and fix it up?
Yeah, I use that, but nah I don’t have space for a plane [laughs]. My friend just got into that website and keeps sending me shit, but I haven’t officially bought anything on there.
My friend also has an auction license, like for government auctions where you go in person and they pull the vehicle up. You have to bid on the vehicle without even touching it, but you can get really good deals like that. The truck I’m driving right now is from an auction. It’s an AT&T truck, like a retired work truck. I got it super cheap.
Tell me about the people you hired. Are these homies or people that have specializations in carpentry?
I had my friend Isaac who helped me when I was in my garage. I had two vans to build for people who asked me, and I was just like “Hey, you ever worked with tools,” and he had and that’s how that started. He and my friend Billy basically helped me build the whole thing and and now I have a couple of guys who work for me that I didn’t know prior to working here.
It’s pretty wild managing people. That’s probably the worst part about this whole thing.
Do people ask you to fix a bunch of things now? Are you the local mechanic around town?
I do get a lot of calls about random shit [laughs]. My friend’s ex-wife brought me her car that had a bunch of water leaked in, and it was all moldy. She asked me if I could help fix it and I was like “I will not touch that,” but you know, everyone knows that I have a shop. Everyone’s always asking me if they can borrow vans to move too, like “Hey, I have to move, you got a van I can borrow?”
Honestly, it’s hard to find a place that’s reasonable out here and a place where you can work on shit, so a lot of homies come through the shop and work on random stuff. It’s kind of a free space after hours, like Matt [Bennett] comes around all the time and fucks around and Tyson [Peterson] was working on some cabinets up here. It’s cool to have a space where everyone can come and work on projects.
Do you think that more skaters and filmers should have a vocation or trade as a backup plan?
Zion [Wright’s] dad told me this yesterday: “You gotta have more than one fishing pole out there because you don’t know which one’s going to catch the bigger fish.” I thought that was cool, but I think having a hobby is really important for your sanity. Some people can skate forever and that’s all they want to do and they’re happy as hell, but for me having something else to do helps me balance my brain.
Does this job make you appreciate going out and skating/filming more?
Absolutely. To be honest, I would rather be skating, so it does make me appreciate it more. Life’s short, and the memories you make with your homies while out skating can’t be replaced.
That’s a big thing I learned after I had a really bad head injury a couple years ago. I was bombing a parking garage with Kyle Walker in Oklahoma and just went down, got knocked out badly, like blood out of my ears, and was in the hospital for a while. I was down bad for close to eight months. It was a close one for me, so after that I had a realization about trying to spend more time with family and checking in with everybody. Life is precious.
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