Tony Hawk on Staying True to Your Values and Aesthetics
Skateboarding doesn’t need a logo — but if it did have one, it’d probably be a silhouette of Tony Hawk. The skateboard icon became a household name starting in the 80s as a member of the legendary Bones Brigade, starring in skateboarding’s first skate film — yes, shot on film — The Search for Animal Chin. In addition to becoming Thrasher Magazine’s inaugural Skater of the Year, launching Birdhouse Skateboards, creating a massively successful skateboard video game series, and becoming the first skateboarder ever to successfully land the 900, it’s no understatement to say Tony Hawk is a living legend.
Amidst Tony’s many accomplishments, the Tony Hawk Foundation is one of his greatest. Since 2002, the Foundation has helped young people by issuing grants to low-income communities for building quality public skateparks, and providing guidance to city officials, parents, and children through these often complex processes. To date, the foundation has awarded over $5.7 million to 588 public skatepark projects in all 50 States, and $100,000 to support the Skateistan program in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa.
The foundation is now working with Adobe to host a skateboard design challenge for creatives 13-24 years old called #boards4better. Here’s Tony Hawk in conversation with Adobe’s José Vadi about how design, digital tools, and more have shaped his creative perspective:
José Vadi: Within your time skateboarding, what are some of the most innovative designs you’ve seen?
Tony Hawk: I think for sure footwear has influenced more mainstream fashion. Originally, skate shoes were designed for functionality but became iconic just through their look — you can easily identify what a skate shoe is now — but other than that, I think it’s more the aesthetics of skating, and the graphics that people have used.
Skateboards nowadays are very much acceptable canvasses. You go to someone’s house or restaurant and many times they are adorned by skateboards that are painted. Skateboarding has always been infused in art and culture so that’s not surprising to me, but the fact that it’s permeated other cultures and mainstream recognition is something to consider.
Beyond that, I think that skateparks have changed into looking more like urban parks and areas as opposed to strictly skate-specific designs. A lot of times it’s hard to distinguish a skatepark from an outdoor plaza area — which is great for city aesthetics, for incorporating these type of facilities into a city area where they don’t look too out of place.
As a kid, what were some of your favorite skate graphics/artists?
Obviously I loved any of the Powell styles, with skulls, very detailed and very real looking creatures that are sort of more fantastical, and some of the more basic stuff, like where the skateboard has a 3D element to it — where the board feels like a wall and someone’s breaking out of it. Graphics come and go so fast now that it’s hard to pinpoint any that have had a huge impact, but I think those early days of the 80s was the formative years of what skateboarding became.
Do riders at Birdhouse ever approach you with design ideas for their boards?
TH: A lot of times we try to do more of a themed series, so it’ll be like our last series, which was a Mexican-pulp-fiction cover theme, and everyone has their own personality embedded in it. It is great because they’re easily identifiable, and then other times it’ll be some one-off thing where it’s like, “Hey this would be really funny, let’s do that.” For instance, I had four of our skaters recreate this really iconic Damned album cover where they all have pie on their face. But I had them meticulously recreate it because I was listening to that album recently. They did it, and I thought of it just as a print ad, but it came out so well that it’s going to be a skateboard graphic.
Did you use Photoshop for any early Birdhouse ads?
When I started Birdhouse, I just really learned how to use computers for the most part, but I didn’t have the hardware that I could run it in a way that was easy or efficient, so I had to rely on using my hard drive space as RAM and literally leaving things to render overnight.
The very first Birdhouse logo I did, I followed a tutorial in Adobe Photoshop to make it look metal, by doing different blurs and embossing, and things like that. It actually took all night to render on my black and white Powerbook. And then I would wake up in the morning and if something was wrong with it, I’d start over — and that was the process.
A lot of the video sequences we were doing was just taken from video — digital video had just started to come into play, and it was way easier than trying to get a photo sequence of some super hard trick that took a hundred tries. So even though that was the baseline of modern digitizing, I guess I was all over it because for one, it was cheap, and for another, it was mobile. And like, skaters — we weren’t trying to win Cannes awards or anything, we were just trying to get the information out there and show people what we were capable of.
Skateboarding is rooted in film photography and print magazines. How are digital tools shaping the future of skateboarding?
I think that it’s opened up the opportunity, especially geographically, for kids. If we’re talking about social media, kids can get noticed in the most unlikely places if they’re good at skating. Before that, you had to go to the hub, which was here in Southern California, and you had to try to woo the photographers and jump through these hoops. Now you can very much be your own entity and create your own content from wherever you are, and so long as it’s compelling, good people will watch it ‘cause they can access it.
So I feel like that stuff that we were doing, especially the stuff I was doing in the early days with digital video and Photoshop and laying out ads and stuff, where it’s come to now is where we always hoped it would — and we hoped it would a lot faster. This is sort of the realization of all of those elements. You can literally create a skate video on your phone, which is beautiful — that was the dream. The things that I used to do that took me all night to render I can also do on my phone. And I do them on a regular basis.
In the age of social media, do you feel like pathways into the skate industry, other than being a pro-skater, have increased and/or diversified?
Yeah it has, but it’s also a challenge because now it’s like, “What rights do you have for photos or graphics?” and it’s all over the place and murky waters, especially when you’re trying to make a living. So that gets tricky and I’m very cognizant of that, especially when I’m getting photos or if I’m getting graphics. I want to make sure that the artist is compensated for it and that they realize this is going to be used beyond just a print ad, it’s probably going to live online too. And so those are challenges that come with how widespread everything is.
What’s your biggest design accomplishment and biggest design failure? These could be skate tricks, deck designs, ramp ideas, etc.
I’d say the biggest accomplishment that I had in design was creating my ramp system for the Boom Boom HuckJam tour, because it was so far ahead of everything else. My ramp is now sixteen years old and it’s still the best portable ramp in existence. It can be put up anywhere and can still be in perfect shape. I can’t take full credit for that, I put that task onto a staging company, but gave them the dimensions and told them what we needed, and then hooked them up with a guy who did portable ramps in Europe who I thought had a good process for it, so sort of marrying those two helped me create this perfect ramp setup.
We took it on the road for years and eventually put it up permanently because, in the past, we only go to ride it while we were on tour, and it was like “Why do I have this perfect ramp that only gets ridden on the road? I need to house this somewhere!” So I bought a building literally for that purpose. It’s still the best around and we use it on a daily basis, I was just on it yesterday.
Failure-wise? Where do I start? One of [Birdhouse’s] mistakes, ten years ago I’d say, was we started having an aesthetic that was not so unique, and it wasn’t in line with what we built our success on. We had gotten lazy and doing whatever I thought was “Industry Cool,” or trendy. And my team was the most vocal and said, “We can’t just follow this trend in skateboarding. We are Birdhouse — we should to go back to what it was.” And they were right. In the past five years, we’ve really come back to that aesthetic and what people originally identified Birdhouse with. I’m really thankful that they spoke up and I followed their lead because we were at risk of getting lost in the shuffle.
The Tony Hawk Foundation is celebrating 15 years of existence, supporting numerous projects including Skateistan. How has the foundation grown? What are your favorite moments doing the Foundation?
I think there are a few parks that represent what we’re trying to do with the foundation, in terms of empowering communities that want to help themselves. If I were to pick specific ones, I’d say Compton is a great example, especially in an area that we felt was important to be in. There’s a park in Atlanta — the Fourth Ward — that was a great use of space in an area that has a lot of challenged youth that need an outlet like that. Partnering up with Skateistan, helping them to fund projects in Cambodia and South African is something I’m hugely proud of because I believe in their model and it was our way to do work internationally.
There’s a park opening soon in San Diego that we helped out with in Linda Vista that is going to be a destination facility. The scope of it — it looked big on paper, but I got to get a sneak preview of it the other day, and it’s unbelievable! It is the dream realized. It’s in an area that needs that sort of facility, and the fact that it’s in San Diego is also close to my heart, but it is an incredible use of space. It’s one of the biggest and well-designed skateparks I’ve ever seen.
Any advice for designers and creatives trying to enter the skate industry?
Stay true to your vision. Don’t think that you have to conform because, if nothing else, skating is irreverent — new ideas are welcomed, new direction is something that’s encouraged. So I feel like if you’re going to enter into skateboarding, stay true to your values and your aesthetics. Start your own movement, get your own crew, and don’t try to fit in — or risk getting lost in the noise.
Ready to show the Tony Hawk Foundation your best skate design? Take the #boards4better challenge today.