Tony Hawk: 'I Guess I Flew Too Close to the Sun'
“He’s still trying to skateboard?” asked a friend of Tony Hawk’s then-wife, Cindy, in the early 1990s. “Are you fucking serious? Grow up. Get a job.” By then, Cindy’s gig as a manicurist made her the breadwinner for the household. It was an astounding state of affairs because Tony Hawk had already been to the mountaintop—a skating phenom, the boy wonder-turned-technical master, a winning machine at competitions across his native California and beyond. “What’s it going to take to win?” a rival said ahead of one event back then. “You’re going to have to beat Tony Hawk.” And then the bottom fell out of the skateboarding business, and he went from world tours through Europe and Japan to selling his house and doing odd jobs for cash.
It’s not a well-known side of Hawk’s story to members of my generation, to whom the now 53-year-old is the archetype of all-conquering success in what we’ve come to know as extreme sports, the one who brought the essential countercultural pastime to the mainstream. But it’s one explored in a new documentary on his life from HBO, Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Come Off, out Tuesday. The film traces Hawk’s life from his childhood, where he was born many years after his siblings to older parents—his mom would call him “our little mistake”—leaving him feeling like an only child and something of an outcast.
He was a natural fit, then, for the land of misfits that is the skating scene, even if in his early career he was far too small to emulate the big-air high-flyers that dominated the circuit at the time. “Tony did not display any physical talent,” says Stacy Peralta, a bit of a mentor to Hawk who ran the famed Bones Brigade skating team. He was tight, technical, and precise with his tricks, and in the beginning it earned him raucous boos from the crowds packed in around the vertical skating pools. He simply wasn’t what people came to see. Plus his dad, Frank, was organizing the competitions, trying to impose rules and structure on a culture of rebellion. It was a rough ride for a while there.
But everyone asked in the film will tell you one thing in particular: Hawk has a steely, relentless determination, and he will try a trick—and fall—over and over and over until he nails it. And falling is a big part of things. In the movie, all the Bones Brigade members discuss the physical toll that their craft has taken. “Is something wrong with your neck?” Hawk says to himself, “Yes. 40 years of whiplash.” And Hawk just experienced a new level of pain after he shattered his femur while skating, an injury he says has been like no other—although it didn’t keep him away from the Oscars, where he met Wesley Snipes and took a photo-callback to one of history’s great memes. In a conversation edited for length and clarity, we talked about all of that, and how long Tony Hawk can go on doing this thing that he calls his purpose and his salvation.
Esquire: Do you remember when you came to shoot a video at Esquire a few years ago? You did an ollie over a guy on the video staff in the kitchen.
Tony Hawk: Someone turned a couple of those videos into memes, somewhere down the line. So I see them make the rounds every once in a while.
The joke there was that you were an intern, but what's your favorite odd job that you did outside of skateboarding?
Well, it started with a paper route. Because I wanted to get money to buy a skimboard. And after that, I think that the oddest jobs were when I would be a consultant for either a brand or an agency for a commercial shoot. And it always felt weird because I was in my 20s. And so it was like, "Well, you're too old to be skating in this, but we need you as a consultant for it. We need you to tell us what's possible." Well, I could just show you what's possible, do it on camera and we could just get this thing done. But it was more like, "Oh, well, he could jump over that rock, I guess." And then at one point they were giving me a very small budget to build little tiny ramps. And it was just like, now I'm a grip.
Was that at the stage where skateboarding experienced its downturn? Before that happened, you were on top of the world, you were in Japan, you were everywhere. Did it even occur to you that skateboarding wouldn't always be the phenomenon that it was in the late 80s?
No, I was too young and naive to think that would happen. And I kept increasing my expenses. I mean, I had two mortgages and I had no limit to what I would be spending or all the friends I could buy stuff for or take them on vacation. And I just wasn't looking towards the future.
How important was the X Games in the sport’s resurgence?
I think that was a big push. It was weird for us as skateboarders, because suddenly we were lumped into this extreme category and it was like, we never heard that word. And we don't really parallel what we do with bungee jumping and rock climbing and sky surfing. Suddenly, we’re under this umbrella, but I think the skating itself shined through, and kids got a feel that these guys were the real deal, and they’re not doing it because they think there’s fame or fortune. It was the MTV generation, instant gratification, high-energy daredevil aspects. That was when Jackass was coming through too. And so it felt like the perfect storm of movement in terms of culture shift.
You mentioned you guys were in it for the love of the game, but you talk in the film about how you fell into the trappings of celebrity in a big way. Do you think that had anything to do with the fact you’d known what it was like to be at the top and then have it taken away?
It was different because the first time around, yes we had success, but not on the scale where I was getting invited to Hollywood premieres. It was this counterculture success, like a punk band that had a pretty good run, but never was played on the radio. That's what we were like. So then fast forward, and we did make it into a more mainstream success and we were getting played on the radio and I was getting invited to all kinds of stuff. And that's when it sort of took hold, because then it was like, "Oh, I'm flying high, I'm on top of the world. This is what everyone dreams of." But it wasn't fulfilling.
Did you feel pressure to accept every invitation?
Not pressure, I think it was just more, when am I going to have these opportunities? And I did feel like, isn't this what you're supposed to do as a celebrity or as a star? At some point my mindset was like, "Oh, you're supposed to have full-time childcare." And you're expected to be at all these events and that's how you keep the machine moving. And it's all just, not nonsense—I mean, in a way it's nonsense—but it's all materialistic and there's no heart to it. And I chased it for longer than I should have.
When you first started to dominate as a younger competitor, and you really made it to the top, you’ve said you started to feel like a machine. Self-expression is so core to skating—does that come into conflict with competition?
Absolutely. I mean, every once in a while, something clicks. You're in the zone and you can bust out and take chances, and then people see the more creative and spontaneous side of you. But for the most part, you're keeping it pretty conservative for a competition. You're sticking with the tricks that you know you're going to make. And maybe you've got some in your back pocket that you can up the ante.
In the documentary, when you see the whole Boom Boom HuckJam tour, that was my chance to really let it fly. And that was when I feel like I was probably at my absolute peak of skating, because I had all these competitions that I had done well in as backup. So I knew that kind of skating, but at the same time I was free to try stuff and fall and try it again in front of an audience. They got a taste of what it takes to do these things, but it wasn't excessive We were doing every night the best skating we had ever done, 30 shows in a row.
Is skating an art form? Another speaker in the film says how you skate is you, is an expression of who you are.
It is. To be honest, competition, yes, I had a great run of it. Today’s skater is different. Today's skater can be a YouTube star, right? You don't have to compete, you don't have to compare yourself to anyone else. You can just do your own thing and maybe be successful at it. In my day, the only way that anyone's going to notice you, or that you're going to get any sort of success or coverage or sponsorship, is through competition. So I did it just by default. But I always thought that skating was much more of an art form and that we were just doing it and it was all a blank canvas and we're just painting it however we want and trying everything and anything to see what works.
There seems like a real conflict between structure and the culture of skateboarding. Your father organized the National Skateboard Association, and in the film some people say his personality clashed with skaters when he tried to enforce rules. But was it also something inherent to skateboarding, where people are just resistant to rules and structure?
Sure, in the early days. Absolutely. Because to choose to skateboard meant you were choosing a totally alternative way of living, and you were going against the grain. Jeff Grosso put it best. Skateboarding for me was, "Fuck you. I do this, I don't care what you do. And we love it, we don't care if you fit in, we don't care if you even want in, or that you accept this."
While I understand that, and I did feel that a bit, I did love the community of it, and I always wondered why more people didn't appreciate it. But when you're in it...to be in it was already to be rebellious. And so to have structure within that rebellion. It was a paradox. It was like, all these kids are misfits and they found each other, and now you're going to get them in line and make them do competitions and timed routines and practice sessions? How are you going to contain it? It's like herding cats..
Yeah. Your dad’s telling them to get off the ramp [during a competition] and nobody’s listening.
Always. It was always like that. But also the fun thing about it was the irreverence. It was still anarchy. When people are taking extra runs and going beyond their time and doing goofy stuff. There was no etiquette.
And you’re dropping into these pools and the crowd is just all around, two feet away as you’re doing this.
Yeah. That's just the way it was though. We didn't know any better. No one's putting up grandstands and barriers. It was just like, "Hey, put up the banners on the chain-link fence that surrounds the pool and then keep everyone behind.”
People did not react well to your style of skating in the beginning. Everyone wanted high-flyers and all of that. Did that strike you as another paradox, that there seemed to be this unwritten rulebook? That it was all about doing your thing, but also you shouldn’t do your thing in a certain way?
It wasn't like I had a choice. I couldn't just redirect my style and suddenly become Chris Hosoi or Jeff Grosso or Jeff Phillips. I just was like, “This is how I skate, this is how my body works. This is my approach to doing it. And I just love the tricks, take it or leave it."
In the movie, you talk about how the McTwist became the defining trick, where if you wanted to finish in the top three, you had to have it. Is that an aspect of skateboarding, that in theory everybody could do the same routine, and it comes down to execution? And does it ever feel like mimicry?
No, not mimicry. We definitely all were inspired by each other's tricks. And every once in a while someone would learn someone else's signature trick, and hey, more power to him. The stuff that we were doing was not easy. It was very unlikely that anyone had the same bag of tricks, but if you had two people do the same routine, it was either who did it with more speed, with more style, or honestly, who was more down with the judges. I mean, that was a lot of it. And they loved the underdog, they loved whoever was not the favorite to win or who went partying last night and was hanging out with everyone. They loved rewarding that. I had to always fight above that.
At one point, your Dad mentions that even in the midst of competition, there's a lot of support between skateboarders where they'll cheer each other on. How does that work?
Like I said, we all are this ragtag group of misfits that found each other, and even though we're competing with each other, that's more incidental to us all getting together, because the competitions were the gatherings. And so the idea that we're all hanging out together and skating together and feeding off each other, it's just super fun. That really has carried through all the way up to the last Olympics. Misugu Okamoto was the favorite to win in the Park category. And leading up to the last run, all she had to do was make her last run and she was going to get the gold medal. She fell on one trick and ended up in fourth. And at the end of the event, all of the other girls in the event hoisted her up on their shoulders. What other sports is doing that? In the Olympics.
"It was the MTV generation, instant gratification, high-energy daredevil aspects. That was when Jackass was coming through too."
When you were working on the 900, you said you didn’t know where you were in the air. It made me think of Simone Biles in the Olympics when she felt she could not compete. When you heard her situation, did you know what she was talking about?
Honestly, no, because I think she got some almost ailment that suddenly she couldn't figure out where she was in the air. I'm spinning and doing something that I've never even considered and I've never tried to push that far. So to spin two and a half times in the air was something completely foreign to me. It wasn’t like I was trying and trying, and then suddenly I was like, "I don't know where I am." It was very much like, as soon as I took off on the wall, I didn't know where I was from the get-go. Because I had never explored actually turning my back twice to my landing zone. The first two times, I literally landed on my back, because I didn't understand that I had to just keep on spinning.
I never really appreciated before how much skating is about falling and eating it.
The documentary cherry picks a lot of different falls or stuff that's definitely a lot more traumatic. I fall all day long. And usually when I'm trying to learn a trick, I know how to fall out of it safely. So to watch me learn some new trick would not be as intense. In fact, it would just get more boring, repetitive, and it feels like that. But I don't care about exerting all that energy and trying it over and over and over, because I know that eventually I'm going to get it. All the stuff that I've done, especially in the last couple years, it's lower impact, it's more technical. And I know that at some point, my board's going to land in the right position, my feet are going to be on it, I'm going to have to commit to it. And those are the moments that I live for. Obviously I'm out for a bit, but to this day, that feeling of landing something for the first time, even if no one's around, that's the dragon I've been chasing my whole life.
You’ve had some injuries in your day, but does this femur issue feel different?
Yeah, it feels different. My pelvis was the hardest one to overcome, but once I started to get on a skateboard and distribute my weight evenly, it came pretty quickly. This feels like it's a much slower gauge of my milestones. I mean, I am three and a half weeks out, I can walk without a cane. I feel very lucky in that, but I am impatient.
Has this changed your thoughts at all about how long you can keep doing this?
I think that what this taught me is I cannot take for granted these tricks that I used to do without even considering any danger. And I will be much more careful and cognizant of that. I feel like it’s a major warning. If you want to get into the weeds of it, I was doing a McTwist and I didn’t really have enough speed for it. I knew that going into it, but in the past, and in my younger days, that's not a problem. I just tuck it up and spin faster and I force it around. I don’t have that same snap. I can't ball up the way I used to, but I refused to believe that in that moment. And suddenly I was on the wall when I thought I was still in the air, and I was not ready to ride back down the ramp. And so I was recovering from that all the way down, and that snapped my leg.
My parents are on the older side, and you’re in a similar spot. Because my parents are older, I see the arc of life and where things are going. And I want to squeeze everything out of life now, knowing where it goes. I'm wondering if any of that fuels you, that you're aware that everything is temporary?
Yeah. Or take advantage of my skill sets. Because honestly, in the last two years, especially being home for the most part and skating regularly, I got my rhythm back and I was starting to feel like I really am skating better than I have in the last 10 years. And so it was like, "Why not? Why would I give this up, why would I slow this down?" That's how I felt. And it was amazing. I guess I flew too close to the sun, because here I am, broken leg. I know I'm old, but if I can still do this, why would I not do this?
I loved your photo with Wesley Snipes this week at the Oscars, and that meme. Does it interest you how you’re seen across the culture now, and how it’s changed?
Hey, I'm thankful they even know or care who I am. I'm an aging skateboarder who a lot of people think his heyday is over. And the idea that people think I'm still relevant or worth paying attention to, I'm just thankful for it. And it's not like I'm clamoring for the attention, but I embraced these silly things, like the meme. Then when I saw Wesley Snipes, I was like, "Oh my God! I could get a photo with Wesley Snipes." That is exactly my mindset when I saw him. And he saw a couple friends of mine, the guys who did the food for the governor's ball, Ghetto Gastro. He stopped to talk to them and I immediately just swooped in. I was like, "Wesley, I got to tell you this. I know it doesn't make any sense, but there's this meme and it's you." And he's like, "What movie, what movie?” And I showed him and he’s like, “Oh, New Jack!”
That interaction is what I love. It's not like, "Oh yeah. I met Brad Pitt.” It's those other things that are way more obscure and way more entertaining to me.
In the film, Rodney Mullen says, “Watching Tony learn and fall is more interesting than watching him land tricks.” Why do you think that is?
I think it's because I do make these tiny adjustments each time and sometimes change up my approach entirely if I feel like I'm just stuck. But for the most part, it's these tiny adjustments and sometimes it's as much as shifting your foot this much on the approach. I think a lot of people get stuck in repetition and they do not change their technique. Maybe one goes awry and that's the one that works, but you're not actually learning how to remedy that. And I feel I'm always changing it just enough that I'm getting to it in a way that I can do it again after I do it.
That's probably the crucial thing because in skateboarding, there's a lot of stuff that we call NBDs—never been done—and they're so technical and they're so hard that you got it once and that's it, you're never going to do it again. As long as you documented it, it's good. And as much as I appreciate those and have plenty of those myself, I like the idea that I've figured it out and then I can put it in my arsenal and come back to it.
From: Esquire US