Saturday, April 19, 2014

Surf and Turf: Dogtown and Z-Boys

by Drew Martin
It seems like yesterday when I sat on the edge of a neighbor’s cool lawn on a hot summer day and watched the paper boys show off moves on the skateboards they bought with the money they earned from their routes. That was 1976. I was seven years old.

I have always been peripherally fascinated with surfing and skateboarding. I never surfed, and I only rode a skateboard for transportation at school in California. This morning I got my fix through the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys from 2001. Dogtown is the Venice/Ocean Park neighborhood of Los Angeles where “the debris meets the sea.” Z is for the Zephyr skateboard team, which came out of the Zephyr surfboard shop where Jeff Ho not only radicalized the shapes of boards but also decorated them with a look he lifted from the local gang graffiti. This is where surfing got a gritty makeover, and where the skateboarding revolution started.

The locals defended their area around the collapsing piers by dropping chunks of concrete from the piers onto the intruders who dared to ride their waves. One local went so far as to pull the carburetor from a visitor’s car, paddled it out on the nose of his board and then asked the guy if it was his before dropping it into the Pacific Ocean.

The Zephyr kids surfed the large morning waves and then spent the afternoons practicing their surf moves on skateboards. They started on the hills by the shop and then moved on to asphalt burms around school playgrounds, which were move wavelike. When a tough drought in California made it impossible to maintain backyard pools, the Z-Boys did the skater version of skinny dipping: they jumped fences and skated in the empty pools without permission until the cops arrived; then they split.

The Z-Boys, which included Peggy Oki, top, where known for their low-riding form, and their best technical rider Tony Alva, bottom, introduced the aerial to vertical skating. 
Surfing was originally linear: you caught a wave on your longboard and rode it in. Likewise, early skateboarding competitions were mainly about slalom races. There were also freestyle events but these were done on flat-surfaces for people who could do tricks such as handstands. The Z-Boys discovered that the skating world was actually round, and you had to ride on the inside curve of it to understand that. When the Z-Boys saw the films of Hawaiian surfer Larry Bertlemann, with his low-gravity cutbacks, they took that to the pavement. They were especially fascinated with how Bertlemann touched the water with his hands, which they incorporated in their own style by constantly putting their hands on the concrete and asphalt when they did berts.

There is a big emphasis in the film about style, but not as something superficial. Style here is expressed as the surfacing of one’s personality. Someone with bad form was said to have cockroach style because there was something rotten about it, and ugly to look at.

Dogtown and Z-Boys works really well as a documentary about how skateboarding came out of the water and evolved on land but there is so much more to it. It is about how these ragtag kids from broken homes actively filled their unstructured time, humanized neglected urban spaces, and redefined surfaces beyond the imagination of city planners and architects. More importantly, it is about how a culture is created. The Venice part of Los Angeles was once a fancy amusement area for Angelinos. It fell apart, left a void, and got filled by an alternative surf and skate culture.

From a media point of view this is a brilliant story that started from within. The Z-Boys style was captured in photos, film, and writing by Craig Stecyk, one of the founders of the Zephyr shop and team. Many of the stills and much of the footage in the film is from Stecyk. He took what was originally considered a kid’s pastime, which was lumped in with hula-hooping and yo-yoing, and showed it as an extension of society and more importantly, gave it significance. Stecyk introduced skateboarding to the world as an art form. He cowrote Dogtown and Z-Boys with Stacy Peralta, who directed the film and was one of the original Zephyr skateboarders.

Pictured here, middle, is Jay Adams, who was the most natural 
and gifted rider of the group. He did not achieve the commercial success of his peers, in fact he ended up in jail. The others say he had a stream of conscious way of skating: he turned mistakes into new moves, and pushed what could be done on a board with wheels.