We caught up with legendary surfer and skateboard pioneer, Tony Alva at Vans’ recent 50th birthday celebrations at House of Vans London for a chat about skaters who surf, exploitation in skateboarding, the Olympics and the secret to a 42-year professional career, among other topics.
Illustration: Marke Newton
Interview: Henry Kingsford
What have you been up to lately?
Christian (Hosoi) and I went over to Seoul, Korea then Shanghai for the beginning of the 50-year celebration. Christian and Steve (Van Doren) went to the factory in China where they’re making the shoes to witness the production. Christian even made a pair of shoes, by hand. It was pretty cool.
Was it a good experience overall?
Yes, I love Korea. It’s really nice because they’re very enthusiastic about youth culture, about creative things like music and art and fashion and skateboarding. I had a really good time there and the food in Korea is very, very good.
Back when you started skating, the link with surfing was very important. Do you find it strange that so many skaters don’t surf and have never surfed?
No, not really, because there’s not a lot of coastline. In the United States really it’s just the east and west coasts – the Gulf Coast is limited (for surfing). But to me, if you’re a surfer, but don’t have access to an ocean – and this is probably something that a lot of people can relate to – it (skateboarding) is sidewalk surfing. Just about everything we do, especially an old school skater like me, is still sidewalk surfing. It just depends how you look at the terrain you’re riding. Skateboarding takes you to the next level, where you really don’t need a wave or a beach or anything; all you need is your board. You can be in the middle of a huge city that’s land-locked, with no beach within hundreds or thousands of miles, and you’re still surfing. I look at it that way.
Do you think skaters who surf have a different style to non-surfers?
Definitely. Look at Curren (Caples), our little guy. He’s a total surf-skater. You can see it in his style compared to Chris Russell, who’s here with us. I don’t know if Chris surfs – he might do, because he’s from Hermosa Beach – but there’s definitely a different style. The skate-skaters have that kind of more technical style, and it’s geared more towards being ambidextrous and methodical rather than a really esoteric style. I would say that when I watch Curren Caples, he has a very beautiful style. He has that really graceful and aesthetically beautiful approach to skateboarding, like a really good ballet dancer or something. For me, it’s really the best to watch.
Who are some well-known skaters who surf and whose style reflects that?
The best was Jay Adams. He had the most versatility, was completely and totally spontaneous, had the ability to do things that people hadn’t even thought of yet and was always exciting to watch because you never knew what he was going to do next. And he was an amazing surfer as well, at a very young age. Anybody that’s tried surfing knows that riding the waves is the reward, the easy part of it. The gnarly part is the paddling and the all of that and being able to judge point a to point b. That has a lot to do with wave knowledge and geographical situations, not to mention dealing with other people in crowded situations. So riding the wave is really the dessert, that’s the reward. Once you get to that point, it’s all gravy, you know? But surfing is a lifetime. I’ve been surfing for 48 years, and I’m still learning. It’s amazing, though. It’s good for me because it’s a spiritual thing too. It’s very connected to nature and what god has provided for us. The human condition is about adapting to our surroundings and being able to enjoy the intensity of life but at the same time, it’s about making wise decisions. If you make bad decisions in surfing, boy you can get fucked up quick, not to mention drowned.
How often do you surf these days vs skating?
I surf during the week mostly – I would say three to five days a week – and I skate usually once or twice during the week and every Saturday: that’s my skate day. Sundays I kind of take it easy. I’m playing in a really good band at the moment, so I’m playing music quite a bit. I play live music and record stuff in the studio with them.
What’s you band called?
His Eyes Have Fangs. It’s a psychedelic rock band. We have a female singer who sounds a bit like Hope Sandoval. She has a nice voice. It’s a really, really nice sound, very bluesy with psychedelic undertones. It’s really fun. We have one record out and we’ve got another one coming.
Do you see yourself surfing longer than skating?
I think I’ll probably end up doing them both, because as long as I’m healthy at one, I can do the other. They counterbalance each other and that’s a beautiful thing. Surfing keeps me healthy and it’s so low impact that I can continue to beat myself up with the high impact. I go back and forth: I get all beat and I’ll go into the water and paddle, then I’m ready to go back out and skate again.
Hey (Chris) Russell, do you surf?
Chris Russell: Yes, a little bit. I’m not very good. I wish I was. The last three years I’ve just started.
Cool, I was just wondering. I had to get my facts straight. Now I know.
See you can tell that he’s not an avid surfer. Not to criticise, but the way he carries himself, he’s more like a rugby player and a lot of surfers have that more flowy, graceful thing. Curren has that. Chris is like a linebacker.
I was reading a Skateboarder interview with you from 1977 that someone scanned and posted a few years back and I though it might be interesting to reference a few things you said. Firstly, you complained about being exploited and talked about getting an agent and lawyer. Do you see skaters as being more savvy these days?
A bit, but that stuff is still going on. I think a lot of skaters get taken advantage of. I was complaining about it because some people had used some of my images without paying me and I ended up having to sue them to get paid. I think that stuff still happens in skateboarding and I think skateboarders have to be protected and watch themselves on that level. Now, with all that experience I have, I do have people that I can rely on to protect me. I even have people that do all of my social networking, so that if anything negative comes up or people are trying to create chaos, they can that deal with that so I don’t have to. That’s great, because the nature of the internet can be very negative sometimes. I hate to say it, but Facebook can be really fucking toxic. People start slinging all of these opinions around and slandering people…Protection comes in many different forms, but when it comes to getting paid and having your likeness protected, you have to be wise. If you’re going to do movies, and be involved in books and different things where other people are using it (your image) to make money, I think the skateboarder should get paid as well.
When asked how you saw the future of skateboarding, you said: “In my mind, I always keep the positive image that it will become as big as say tennis or golf.”
Wow, that was a little bit prophetic, huh? I think it’s cool that I had that type of vision. But we still have a long ways to go. With tennis and golf and that, you’ve got to look at the sponsors those guys have, not to mention the health insurance. (They have) a lot of things we don’t have. They fly around in their personal jets, they have huge endorsements for watch companies. Look at David Beckham, guys like that. If skateboarders got to the next, next level, they would be like a David Beckham in skateboarding. Don’t get me wrong, Tony Hawk makes a good living and he was good for the sport to a certain extent, but I think it can go much further than where even Tony Hawk took it. And I’m not just talking about how much money they’re making, I’m taking about the benefits too. Especially in our country, in America, our heath system is just fucked up. We have some major issues even with getting insurance for your teeth or whatever. It’s gnarly. So one of the most important things for older skaters like Christian and myself and Cab (Steve Caballero) is that we eventually need to be covered in those areas too so we can continue to be able go out and do our job to the best of our ability. Because shit happens, especially to skateboarders.
The other thing is that there is a lot of media proliferation when it comes to skateboarding and surfing, you know, television, movies… Everyone wants that southern Californian lifestyle and it gets exploited as much as ever now. I hate to be contemptuous to anything because I’m grateful for all the blessings we’ve been given in the surf and skateboarding worlds, but you’ve got to be smart about what you get involved in. There have been movies about my life, books, I’m still working on different projects involving my image and my brand and I do a lot of stuff with Vans, but I have to be selective and not just take anything that comes my way.
How do you feel about skateboarding possibly being in the Olympics?
I’m not a pro-Olympics guy if you want to know the truth. A lot of people are, including our vice president. Vans feels that it’s a good thing and that’s cool because he (the vice president) probably has his perspective of it, that it could be nothing but positive. I look at it more like: they need us more than we need them. It’s just that simple. I don’t really think of skateboarding, especially the type of skateboarding that I enjoy doing and watching, as very easy to judge. It’s not like figure skating or anything that can be just judged mathematically. I see it as pretty difficult to really judge who’s best in that situation. As far as racing goes, that’s different. I think that could be a part of it and I think it would be much easier to judge and you could definitely come up with gold, silver and bronze medals in that situation, if it was downhill or slalom. But as far as guys doing freestyle, riding bowls or street skating, I think it would be very difficult, even in an Olympic situation, to judge who’s best.
It seems like Street League is aiming in that direction, as a formula.
I guess the kids dig that, because it’s kind of like a video game. I would rather see it (skateboarding) stay kind of rootsy and more soulful and artistic instead of go full commercial and be in the Olympics and shit. That’s just my personal opinion. I’m not really anti the Olympics, I just don’t think we need it. It’s back to the quote that I said originally: they need us way more than we need them.
You’ve been skateboarding for 47 years I think.
48 years, 42 of them professional.
What advice can you give in terms of longevity?
Health. I would say health more than anything. A big part of that is your diet and daily exercise, but also conditioning. And last but not least, I would say my sobriety is definitely a key to it. Big time. No smoking, no drinking, everything in moderation. But I would say more than anything, it’s important to have a spiritual balance in life, equanimity. That leads to happiness and joy, so there’s not always irritable discontent. Christian and I are really happy with the things we have and if you want to know the truth, it comes from our sobriety and the fact that we don’t smoke weed, we don’t drink and we don’t use any mood-altering substances. This just keeps our perception clear and we have a true appreciation for the things that we do have. We don’t take the things in life that have been given to us for granted.