How Tony Hawk Became the Star of Skateboarding (2023)

Carlsbad, California, which is situated along a hundred-and-twenty-mile strip of sand between San Diego and Los Angeles, is a town where the impulse to stay upright on a fast-moving piece of wood has spawned two closely related but rivalrous tribes—the surfers and the skateboarders. Skateboard lore concedes that the sport was more or less invented in the early sixties by barefoot “street surfers,” who took to the pavement on days when the waves were flat. Over the years, however, the surfers and the skaters have grown apart, like cousins who secretly despise each other. The rift was to be expected. In Carlsbad, the surfers, who can be seen, day and night, strolling through town in wetsuits with their boards slung under their arms, are regarded as heroes. The skateboarders are viewed as something of a public menace. Like countless American municipalities, Carlsbad has banned the sport from many of its public byways: grinding a downtown curb with your board puts you in danger of getting slapped with a fifty-dollar ticket.

Still, Carlsbad recognizes that the local appetite for skateboarding can be contained, if not eliminated, and recently the town opened a small public skate park. One evening this spring, I went to check it out with a Carlsbad resident, Tony Hawk—a.k.a. the Birdman—who is widely acknowledged to be skateboarding’s grand master. Hawk, who at thirty-one is a venerable figure in a sport dominated by teen-agers, stands a gangly six feet three, and has a touch of gray in his sandy-blond hair. He was dressed as usual: in baggy corduroy shorts that came down past his knees, a pair of thick-soled, black skate shoes that looked appropriate for a character in an “Archie” comic, and an oversized sweatshirt bearing the logo of the skate-shoe company Adio. A garish column of pink and purple skin flecked with scabs ran down his right shin. As we pulled into a parking area, he pointed out laconically that the city had seen fit to locate the skate park on the grounds of the Carlsbad Safety Center, between the police station and the firehouse.

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Even so, the skate park, which was about the size of a baseball diamond, seemed designed to facilitate injuries. It consisted of three shallow concrete bowls, which were rimmed and linked by steeply sloping ramps and ledges, interrupted at various points by cement obstacles. We watched as one of several dozen skaters, a boy who had a shaved head and wore a black T-shirt that said “Products of Corruption,” dipped into one of the bowls, tucked his torso into a crouch, and glided along the sloped perimeter in a birdlike posture. Suddenly, he popped out of the bowl and flipped his board; feet and board parted company, and he kicked the air frantically before coming back to earth, with a quick stutter-step. “Cool,” Hawk said.

Hawk put on bulky elbow pads, knee pads, and a black helmet. Then he slapped his skateboard to the pavement, slanted his right foot across the board’s front (or “nose”), kicked his back foot in the manner of an agitated mule, and glided into the skate park. Although he is the devoted father of two children and the client of five stockbrokers, the William Morris Agency, and a public-relations firm, he looked as single-minded as a child sprinting toward a carrousel.

At first, Hawk seemed scarcely more adept at staying on his board than the others. When he tried to snap the board up a bank with his feet, he fell, and the board darted away from him. He got up, retrieved the board, skated along a ledge, and fell again, his impassive expression never changing. In this way, he blended seamlessly with the swarm of skaters, most of whom were half his age, and all of whom seemed immersed in the private rituals of flight and collapse. Skateboarding, I was beginning to realize, involves an almost masochistic willingness to fall, again and again, in pursuit of a perfect landing. It is also an intensely solitary activity. Despite the whine of urethane wheels on stone, and an occasional explosive curse, there was a prevailing hush in the park.

Finally, Hawk paused on a plateau in the center of the park. He careered down a ramp, scraped the tail of his board along the edge of one of the obstacles, bent his knees, went airborne, flicked the front of his board with a toe, turning the board into a perfect spiral, landed with his feet planted back on the board, and glided away. Then he signed autographs.

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I called Michael Brooke, who is the author of “The Concrete Wave,” a recently published scrapbook history of skateboarding, and he gave me an account of the sport’s origins which might have come out of “The Hardy Boys.” Skateboarding’s roots, he said, “go back to the early nineteen-hundreds, when kids banged roller-skate wheels onto two-by-fours. Sometimes kids attached orange crates with handles to the two-by-fours, for steering. Sometimes kids broke the T-bar handles off scooters. This kind of thing continued through the Depression and the Second World War.”

It wasn’t until the early sixties that large-scale commercial production of skateboards began. Made by a firm in Los Angeles named Roller Derby and priced at a dollar ninety-nine, the boards were narrow slabs of wood with steel wheels bolted on. Boards with smoother-riding clay wheels soon followed, as did surfboard-shaped decks. As more people grew enamored with what Brooke called “the freedom of gliding,” skateboarding became increasingly acrobatic, incorporating wheelies, spins, and headstands. In the sport’s halcyon days, in the mid-sixties, fifty million skateboards were made. In 1965, Life ran a cover featuring a perky blond woman named Pat McGee doing a handstand on a skateboard; the headline read, “the craze and menace of skateboards.” Other warnings appeared, and, in short order, skateboarding was banned from the sidewalks and streets of twenty cities. Skateboarding’s reputation as an antisocial sport was born.

There are now nine and a half million skateboarders in the United States. Ninety per cent of them are male, and nearly all of them are too young to hop off their boards to vote. They are not, however, too young to spend money: this year, skateboarders are expected to drop eight hundred and thirty-eight million dollars on boards and related paraphernalia. Municipal skate parks are proliferating, and at last count there were about three hundred of them in places as far apart as Boca Raton, Florida, and Ketchikan, Alaska. The sport has also become a media attraction as never before. In 1995, the cable channel ESPN introduced the Extreme Games—now known as the X Games—which spotlight skateboarders and other alternative athletes, and the event has been highly successful. This fall, NBC is planning to air its own Gravity Games.

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Still, skateboarders cling to their outlaw past. Most of them are white and live in suburbs, but they tend to cultivate a taste for the baggy clothes and backward baseball caps, the music and the vocabulary, of hip-hop culture. Their rallying cry, which is repeated on T-shirts and bumper stickers, neatly combines a sense of persecution with bravado: “Skateboarding is not a crime.” A recent letter to the editor in one of the leading skateboarding magazines, Thrasher, begins, “Yo, waz up, I’m 14 and been skateboarding for four years.... Georgia has nowhere to fucking skate.” In Thrasher and its rival skateboard magazines, like Big Brother, which is published by Larry Flynt, the sport’s most beloved heroes are the renegades who persist in doing their stuff outside the bureaucratically sanctioned skate parks. These are the so-called “street skaters,” who infuriate landlords and security guards by riding their boards on whatever terrain is available—railings, steps, ledges, benches, hydrants, and loading docks—regardless of their safety or anyone else’s. Today’s leading street skaters, like Jamie Thomas, Chad Muska, and Eric Koston, are endowed with some of the street cachet of rap stars. On the other hand, as Kevin Imamura, the editor of Warp, a “skate snow style sound” magazine, told me, “The image of Tony Hawk is not so hard-core. But,” he added admiringly,“that guy, his level of skating is so ridiculous.”

In 1977, Alan Gelfand, a thirteen-year-old skateboarder, whose nickname was Ollie, spent hours in an abandoned, empty swimming pool in Hollywood, Florida, teaching himself how to pop his board into the air with his back foot, then stabilize it with his front foot and take himself airborne with the board seemingly stuck to his feet. This maneuver has been known ever since as the Ollie, and it has become an essential part of every serious skateboarder’s repertoire—the equivalent of a plié for a ballet dancer. Whenever you see a skateboarder sail along the pavement, lower himself into a crouch, then jerk himself and his board suddenly upward, you are seeing an Ollie. It’s the skateboarder’s way of expressing his desire to fly.

Currently, the skaters with the greatest public visibility are the masters of the “half-pipe”—a steeply graded, U-shaped chute, into which the skater plunges, only to spring up, an instant later, on the opposite wall. Tony Hawk might be called the Baryshnikov of the half-pipe, a skater who combines speed, aerial elevation, and agility with fearlessness. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that he is a skateboarder as he bounds above the rim of the half-pipe, twisting his almost horizontal body into a spiral, as if he were trying to disappear into thin air. Performers like Hawk display their aerial skills in contests devoted to vertical, or “vert,” skateboarding. Vert competitions get prime coverage on ESPN, which has made stars of such half-pipe artists as Hawk and two of his neighbors in Southern California, Andy Macdonald and Bob Burnquist.

One afternoon, I went with Hawk to the place where he does most of his professional workouts—a thirty-two-thousand-square-foot skate park at a Y.M.C.A. in Encinitas, ten miles south of Carlsbad. I followed him up a flight of stairs to the deck of an eighty-foot-wide half-pipe. As a teen-ager, Hawk had pioneered the art of vert skating by learning how to Ollie off the ramp at the end of his upward ride, springing into the air with the board still clinging to his feet. On his runs at the Y, Hawk managed to sail six or eight feet above the top edge of the half-pipe; getting this “air” gave him time to perform stunts before descending to the ramp again. He also sometimes combines his aerials with “lip tricks,” precisely timed maneuvers on the narrow edge, or “lip,” of the ramp.

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Hawk has been credited with inventing dozens of tricks. In recent years, the splashiest one he’s come up with is called the Loop. It requires him to skate a loop-the-loop on a ramp that he compares to “a twisted Hot Wheels track.” In another trick, the Kickflip McTwist, he flips his board with his feet while spinning his body five hundred and forty degrees. To pull it off, as he put it, “The stars have to align.” He added, “I have dreams about skating all the time—anxiety dreams. Dreams in which I’m riding a board with a sawed-off tail, or in which the ramp is made of carpet. And dreams that I can’t skate.”

For Hawk, this was an unusually revealing statement; generally, he had difficulty talking about skateboarding in anything but the most technical terms. Unlike baseball, skateboarding was not to be analyzed; it was to be experienced. The moment Hawk’s feet touched the board, he became a kind of genius of recklessness, propelling himself high into the air, stretching and twisting his frame into Brancusi-like postures.

Hawk was born in San Diego in 1968. When I asked him about his family history, he said that all he knew about his parents’ origins was that they were both raised in Montana; he had no idea where his grandparents had come from, or what had brought them West in the first place. Hawk’s father, Frank, who had been a Navy pilot during the Second World War, worked as a salesman. He and his wife, Nancy, raised their four children in comfortable suburban surroundings. Tony’s older brother, Steve, was a dedicated wave rider who went on to become a longtime editor of the magazine Surfer. One day, Steve allowed Tony, who was then nine, to jump on his narrow fibreglass skateboard. I invited Hawk to relive the moment of his first skating experience. He paused. I waited. Finally, he said, “I don’t know. It was fun.”

Like many other skateboarders I met, Hawk told me that, as a child, he had been something of a misfit. When he was eleven, he committed an act of serious filial disloyalty by quitting his baseball team during his father’s tenure as president of the local Little League. Around the same time, he also quit playing basketball. “I just liked being freer, not having to submit to some practice schedule of repetitive passing and shooting, not having to rely on all the other players in order to do well,” he told me. “There’s a lot of practice and repetition in skateboarding, but it’s at your own pace. It’s not someone telling you what to do. That was the bottom line. I just didn’t want to be ordered around.”

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Hawk’s mother had told me that Tony was “a very intense child, difficult and stubborn and hard to handle,” and that his discovery of skateboarding had come at just the right time. “It’s a wonderful means of containing all the hormones and rages that a kid goes through,” she said. “We were just glad that, after a while, he took out his energy on the skateboard and not on us.” Hawk doesn’t challenge his mother’s memory. “My brother and sisters had moved out by the time I was a kid, so it was like being an only child,” he said. “I was impatient and uncoöperative. I’m sure it had something to do with my diet—soda, candy, ice cream all the time. I’d drink Cokes until I had a sugar buzz. If I were growing up now, teachers would probably say I had attention deficit disorder.”

His passion for skateboarding, Hawk told me, made him an “outcast” in high school. “I just didn’t relate to anyone,” he said. “I never went to a single school function—sporting events, dances, prom. I just didn’t care. I was going to school because I had to.” Hawk dressed like a skater—in tight shorts when those were the fashion and, later, in neon-colored Jams. Like other skaters, he listened to the cutting-edge rock music of the time—bands like Devo and Depeche Mode, and punk groups like X, the Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, and Agent Orange. His boyhood hero was Evel Knievel: “Just seeing someone overcome danger and fear—he seemed like an immortal.”

A 1983 photograph of Hawk in a skateboarding magazine shows a scrawny kid, looking closer to eleven than to fourteen, with one hand on hip, helmet on head, and shredded pads around an elbow, as he glares at the camera with a tense, glum expression. “I’d take the bus to the skate park after school every day, and my dad would pick me up at night,” he recalled. “I’d skate for two or three hours, stop, hang out at the park, then skate again for another two or three hours. I was living at the skate park.”

FAQs

Why is Tony Hawk considered the best skater? ›

During his 17-year career, he won more than 70 competitions including the X-Games on the vert ramp in 1995 and 1997. He was also the first skateboarder to land the “900”, yes, that is two and a half turns, in mid-air! We are, of course, talking about the uncrowned king of skateboarding, Tony Hawk aka. The Birdman.

What did Tony Hawk do for skateboarding? ›

Skateboarding Career

At the age of 12, Tony Hawk turned into a professional skateboarder. In his 17 year professional career, he won gold medals at the 1995 and 1997 X Games, and won over 70 competitions. After struggling financially in 1990, Hawk co-founded a skateboarding company known as Birdhouse.

Is Tony Hawk one of the best skateboarder ever? ›

Tony Hawk is undoubtedly one of the most iconic athletes of all time. With a net worth of around $140 million, he's also the most successful pro skater ever. He very obviously made a huge impact on the sport and did things no one has ever done before, such as him doing the first ever 900 in the 1999 X Games.

Who is the greatest skater of all time? ›

The greatest skateboarder of all time is Rodney Mullen.

He is also credited with inventing some of the most iconic tricks in skateboarding, such as the one-footed ollie and the 360 flip. For all of these reasons, Mullen is commonly bestowed with the title of “Godfather of Street Skateboarding.”

Who is the goat of skateboarding? ›

Kelly Slater, 43, and Tony Hawk, 47, are the undeniable Greatest of All Time (GOAT) in their respective sports of surfing and skateboarding.

What trick did Tony Hawk invent? ›

He also invented dozens of moves, including the ollie-to-Indy, the gymnast plant, the frontside 540-rodeo flip, and the Saran wrap. In one of skateboarding's defining moments, Hawk executed a 900 twist (2 1/2 turns) at the 1999 X Games, a feat that had previously never been performed.

Who made skateboarding famous? ›

In the 1970s Tony Alva quickly became recognised as the best skateboarder in the world, right as the sport was reaching its first peak of global recognition, which catapulted him to superstar status.

Who made skateboarding popular? ›

Skateboarding's 1970s rise to mainstream culture was best popularized by the 2005 film, “Lords of DogTown.” In 1975, as seen in the film, the Zephyr skateboarding team spearheaded by Tony Alva, showed the world skateboarding's potential at the Ocean Festival in Del Mar, California.

Did Tony Hawk invent the McTwist? ›

One of the tricks Hawk is most proud of inventing is the kickflip McTwist, according to the book, "Tony Hawk: A Life in Skateboarding," by Time Inc. This highly technical trick combines a kickflip, a move invented by Rodney Mullen, with a McTwist created by Mike McGill.

How much is Tony Hawk? ›

Introduction. As of October 2022, Tony Hawk's net worth is roughly $140 Million. Anthony “Tony” Frank Hawk is an American professional skateboarder, actor, and owner of skateboard company Birdhouse.

How old is Tony Hawk? ›

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