HOW SKATE STYLE CAME TO RULE THE WORLD
PART 1: THE 1970'S
Illustrations by Sarah Larnach | Text by Goodhood Creative
In the first of a three-part series exploring the influence of skate in modern street style, we take a trip to ‘70s Southern California where the seeds were sown for a counterculture revolution: the birth of modern skateboarding as we know it…
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN: VENICE BEACH
THE COUNTERCULTURE ZEITGEIST
Ellen O'Neil riding a penny board in the freestyle manner that was popular throughout the 1970s.
Ever wondered why tube socks have horizontal stripes? Or why pretty much everyone wears Vans skate shoes? The answer lies in a forgotten corner of LA: Venice Beach, the counterculture zeitgeist. And it goes back further than you think. By 1958, Los Angeles was embracing all things ‘can do’; the aerospace industry was booming, Hollywood was fast becoming an entertainment hegemony, skyscrapers were rising and the area at large was on the cusp of instigating a technological revolution. It was Eisenhower’s Space Age dream.
Venice Beach, however, was a different story. Filled with beats and artists, it was a cheap haven by the sea where people whiled away the hot summer days surfing the heady Pacific breaks. But being a forgotten corner meant it was inevitably left behind. It turned seedy, and by the ‘70s the area was in the midst of a significant decline. Pacific Ocean Park, once a thriving amusement park, sat occupied by bums and drug addicts. Eventually, it partially burned down. Throw in the Californian drought of 1976-1977 where pools and city drainage channels lay empty, ripe to be turned into makeshift skate parks, and a ragtag youth cohort sat around with little to do and what do you get? The birth of modern skateboarding.
THE LORDS OF DOGTOWN
THE Z-BOYS & THE ZEPHYR SKATE TEAM
A young Jay Adams in the Zephyr Competition Team uniform.
Skateboarding may have been happening in many places, but not like it was in California. In the early ‘70s, freestyle skateboarding was all the rage – longboard slaloms and penny board tricks (that Ellen O'Neal, amongst others, became known for) defined the style, with proponents such as Russ Howell figureheads for what was a distinctly laid-back style of tarmac surfing. However, all was about to change. Skip Engblom, just like many others, lived for Venice’s surf. At the end of Santa Monica Boulevard, the terminus of Route 66, it’s claimed he experienced perhaps the defining moment of his life seeing a surfer bobbing up and down amongst the breaks. “I completely flipped out... I knew it was all I ever wanted to do. I needed to do that more than anything” he later recalled in the now-legendary Dogtown Chronicles.
In parallel, other seeds were being sown. Jeff Ho was an underground board builder working in Culver City, California who sold to shops in South Bay and Santa Monica. One day, Skip Engblom and a pal he’d met at a festival in Pismo Beach in 1966, Craig Stecyk III, approached Jeff Ho on the beach to compliment his craftsmanship. They were producing boards themselves in a factory in West Los Angeles but didn’t have a retail space to sell from. Luckily, one of their dealers was going out of business and together the group opened a shop: Jeff Ho Surfboards and Zephyr Productions.
It was unique – both a space in which you could buy surf and skate equipment and a space in which you could have your own idea of creative freedom. Unsurprisingly, there was a distinct sense of community and culture surrounding the place. This gave birth to the Zephyr Skate Team sometime around the mid-70s, a competitive team that would come to redefine the rules of the sport and push it forwards, albeit with much grittier and radical tricks. Out of the original Zephyr line-up came some of the biggest names in skating that have ever shred a bowl, including Jay Adams, Tony Alva, and Stacy Peralta.
THE ZEPHYR TEAM COMPETITION T-SHIRT
& THE BIRTH OF THE SKATE SHOE
The Zephyr Competition Team blue t-shirt.
Any team that’s worth its salt has a uniform, and the Zephyr team was no different. Distinctly utilitarian in nature, the team’s unofficial dress code is the pillars of skate’s wider influence. Make no mistake, everything you see your favourite brand doing today that looks even remotely ‘skate’ almost certainly goes back to the original Z-Boys. Whilst the predominant look for freestyle skating lay in short shorts and tube socks, the thought behind the Zephyr team’s style was pure practicality.
The Original Vans Authentic from the 1970s in a red and blue colourway
Vans were simply the best shoes available for the job – the guys on the team were allegedly going through a pair of shoes every 10 days. The Vans Authentic provided the right compromise of durability, with its signature vulcanised rubber waffle outsole, and easy availability, with them originally being produced in nearby Anaheim. After all, it wasn’t as if you could simply order online for click and collect. Levi’s jeans again fit the bill in that they were one of the hardiest, most robust trousers you could own. Originally designed to work in, they were affordable for kids or people with precarious income. Venice Beach wasn’t exactly an affluent neighbourhood, and many of the kids on the Zephyr team came from broken homes. As for the Zephyr team shirts, they were originally meant to be black but since black t-shirts at the time were hard to find (Skip Engblom recalls them only being available at Harley Davidson stores) they settled for blue, with a simple graphic to the chest and back. Does any of this sound familiar?
VERT RAMPS AND POOL CULTURE
LIP TRICKS & THE FRONTSIDE AIR
A frontside air performed in one of Southern California's empty pools during the drought, captured by Glen E Friedman of Alva.
Intrinsic to skateboarding’s shift from counterculture activity to mainstream sport was the development of pool culture which holds a unique place in the sport’s legacy. The 1976-1977 Californian Drought was undoubtedly instrumental in popularising the sport, but with that came a radical shift in style that would come to define the essence of Dogtown through and through. Across two of the driest years in California’s history, city and state officials became increasingly distraught at what was fast becoming an outright crisis. California was dry. Over a two-year period crops were spoiled, livestock died, hosepipe use was banned, and reservoirs lay almost empty. Economic losses were placed at over $1 billion, and the drought caused a shift in Californian culture, with the population becoming much more conscious of water conservation and farmers switched to crops that required less water.
Throughout Southern California, swimming pools were being emptied and left dry which gave Dogtown’s skaters the chance to hop fences and ride the bowls. At the time in California, everyone had pools with steep curved edges which, together with the Los Angeles river’s vast network of flood control channels, gave birth to DIY skate parks where vert/bowl and big air styles of skating developed. Jay Adams effectively invented the Lip Trick, a whole series of moves concentrated on the pool rim, whilst Tony Alva was the first to take it out of the bowl, over the pool lip, and towards the sky with seminal tricks like the frontside air. With this came the requirement for boards tailored to a new and novel style of skating. As the style developed, boards became shorter and less like ‘adapted surfboards’, complete with polyurethane wheels, improved bearings and enhanced trucks that, together, could better handle the tight turns and the vertical style Dogtown was pushing.
DEATH TO INVADERS
A selection of 1970s boards and early skate brand graphics with improved trucks and polyurethane wheels.
As for the sport’s graphic identity, again it all stems from Venice Beach. Los Angeles and Southern California at large had seen numerous waves of migration from south of the border throughout the 20th Century and with that came Hispanic gang culture. Before skateboarding was heavily commercialised, the early logos and graphics took influence from all the gang graffiti dotted around Los Angeles – the famous Venice Beach 'Death to Invaders’ and ‘Locals Only’ graffiti by Craig Stecyk III are a rudimentary replication of this style – and this was reflected in early skate decks, particularly those painted by Wes Humpston. The ‘skate logo’ gradually emerged as the sport was popularised, signalling a transition from fringe activity to a commercialised industry, and gradually brands came to adorn boards rather than individual artists. Everyone wanted a slice of the action, and a whole host of labels arrived on the scene, each with their own riders and their own idea of what it meant to skate. Amongst the earliest were Powerflex, Sims Woodkick, and ACS. Eventually, Tony Alva had grown to somewhat legendary status, at which point he became fed up of riding for other companies, so he started his own. Many of the original Zephyr team followed suit in one way or another, with their original host being unable to rival a more corporate form of association or sponsorship as it’s known today. This, if anything, was the nail in the coffin for the Z-Boys.
THE ADVENT OF BIG SKATE™
So there you have it: the birth of modern skateboarding. Those long summer days may have been wiled away scuffing elbows, but little did anyone know the wider impact it would all go on to have, and not just in terms of style. As with most game-changing moments in our collective cultural conscience, it’s a case of the right circumstances, in the right place, occurring at the right time. The seeds sown in the ‘70s were by no means the end of it. As the ‘80s rolled around, so did the advent of Big Skate™. Yeah, Santa Cruz may have begun in ’73 and Powell Peralta in ’78, but the ‘80s saw the rise of the skateboard manufacturer as a corporate sports brand. Along came names like Christian Hosoi, Tommy Guerro, and Natas Kaupas who all had bowls to shred, kicks to flip, and boards to sell. Vert got even bigger, kneepads were a thing, and the decks became both graphic-laden and colourful. In a way, it was all a rather garish extension of the ‘70s. But then that’s all for Part 2, right?
Skateboarding is Not a Fashion by J. Blümen and D. Vogel
Bustin' Down the Door: The Surf Revolution of '75 by Shaun Tomson
Lords of Dogtown (film) by Catherine Hardwicke and Stacy Peralta
Dogtown: the Legend of the Z-Boys - the Original Stories by C. R. Stecyk III and Glen E. Friedman