Tony Alva is a name that is synonymous with skateboarding. Alva in my opinion not only represents the original foundations that skateboarding was built upon, but himself and the Z-boys gave the world the blueprint of the ‘spirit’ of skateboarding. During Vans 50th anniversary celebrations we were blessed with the opportunity to speak with TA, and in wanting to find out more on both the growth of Vans and skateboarding over the years, there aren’t many others who can offer his level of insight in to both. Through his work with Vans and his own company Alva, he continues to promote and share his knowledge in skateboarding and surf to help inspire the younger generations to this day. We’re stoked that we get to share some of that knowledge with you in our Tony Alva interview…
In your Skateboarder Mag interview back in 1977, you spoke on how you envisioned the future for professional skateboarding and your answers were quite prophetic as you predicted it’s growing popularity. Looking back, is skateboarding now what you thought it would be back then?
Yeah, I mean there’s a few things that I wish it would have improved upon, but other than that it is. I was having a conversation earlier and they were saying how I had a sense of being a little bit prophetic at a young age as well, which in a way I look at as kind of amazing, that at 19 years old I knew that some day skateboarding would be as big as it is now. But the bottom line is; I think that skateboarders still deserve more, as in the commercial side of skateboarding and to be treated more professionally. Professional skateboarders should be able to make a living and have health insurance and stuff like that, similar to other professional athletes you know? It’s not like that yet, but at the same time I think the media portrayal of it, the enthusiasm, the lifestyle, the attraction, is as big if not bigger than I thought it would be at that age. I never really knew it would be this popular, and this technologically advanced.
Do you think that skateboarding has lost elements of its ‘Punk attitude’ now that it’s become so big? Perhaps lost elements of it’s creativity with the introduction of the internet?
Not necessarily because technology is always there, and in a way a lot of skaters benefit from that. The thing that I get a little dissatisfied with is the aesthetic side of things – the beauty and the art of skateboarding. Where style and grace and using skateboarding as a vehicle of expressing yourself, especially with speed and power, is really not that important sometimes when it comes to how people look at it. More people are more in to how technical your ability is instead of how you handle your expression. Like with music and surfing, sometimes the best surfers and musicians are the guys that are aesthetically doing the simplest things with the most grace, I think it comes down to like an old American cliché – “less is more”.
Do you think it’s the case nowadays that everyone is learning the same tricks rather than finding their own ways to create through movement on the board?
Well for me that goes back to where we were just emulating the moves on the waves from surfing and then we would take it to the next level where we started going in the air and doing aerial tricks and stuff like that, so I think that it depends on your vision. Nowadays especially, there’s a lot of kids playing video games and then going out skateboarding, I mean some kids don’t even skateboard they just play the video games! So it depends where your mental attitude is and how you envision yourself doing something.
There’s a mental process too and the mental process of skateboarding is as important as the physical part of it. You have to envision that move before you ever execute it. Then it takes a lot of practice, and I love the saying “oh practice makes perfect”, you know they say that? That’s bullshit! Because the human condition does not allow for perfection, we are never ever going to attain perfection is any aspect of our life because of the human condition, so to me it’s more ‘practice makes permanent’. When you’re doing something over and over, and doing it religiously, it becomes permanent and becomes so much easier to a point where it becomes almost instinctive, you don’t think about it anymore, you just go out and do it. With your mind being the computer, the control over your body, the body instinctively follows. It’s almost like martial arts to where it gets to a stage of satori, everything is one and you’re just in it. That to me is the beauty, that’s the meaning of skateboarding. That’s the practice is permanent part of it to where you don’t think about it any more, you just do it and it becomes easy. It’s called just being in the moment. It takes a lot of practice. Especially for young kids, because young kids they just don’t get it. Their mind is going too fast, they’re just thinking about “oh man I gotta pull that tre flip, I gotta pull that heel flip”, always about the technical aspect of the trick when it’s just like dude, just go out and skate.
Do you think the rewards in professional skateboarding perhaps blurs their vision slightly?
Yeah, stop fucking obsessing on the rewards, the gold star, the money, the new shoes, what the girls are thinking of you. I know it’s part of growing up, we can’t help of thinking about all the “what am I going to get from this”, I was the same way. In the Dogtown film when I said “ I’m gonna get mine now”, that ego-centric, driven, selfish way of thinking, which in a way isn’t a bad thing because what it does is drive you to be the best you can be and everything I did back then got me here, but I don’t want to run my life like that now. I couldn’t, there’s no wisdom in that. You have to progress, you have to learn from your mistakes and I made a lot of mistakes from my selfish, self-centred and self seeking attitude towards life. It was mainly about ego you know, I thought I was better than everyone else and I guess I won a lot of contest and did a lot of really good stuff at that time, but no one wants to see a 57 year old man acting that way you know, its really ugly! [laughs]. There’s no grace in that. Absolutely no grace in that.
Grace to me is when you make something really difficult look easy; graceful. And surfers are really good at that, I learned a lot from surfing. Guys like Jerry Lopez, the list could go on, but Jerry Lopez is the perfect example, riding the most dangerous wave in the world, standing there and making it look like he’s just completely a part of the wave. It was amazing, he was the guy who started Lightning Bolt Surfboards, Mr.Pipeline they called him.
I’ve heard you speak on the freedom and simplicity of skateboarding back in the 70’s. Do you feel that’s closer to being restored nowadays as it becomes more widely accepted across the world?
Well it’s always been a part of it I feel, that’s what attracts kids to skateboarding – there’s no rules. There’s no coach, no rules, no guidelines, limited supervision when it comes to competitions and skating in skate park environments, it’s still pretty wide open. I see it as like a colouring book, you don’t have to stay within the lines if you don’t want to, you can spray outside the lines, literally. When it comes to music, art and skateboarding, all those things are something that are really an expression of your inner self and you can’t really go out of bounds. You can go out of bounds and come back in, but as long as you do it successfully. Skateboarding isn’t about what other people think, it’s about how it makes you feel.
Z-Boy’s and Dogtown revolutionised skateboarding in the 70’s and helped to shape skateboarding as we know it. Who do you feel, if anyone, has had a similar impact on the world of skateboarding since then ?
Mark Gonzales. He totally changed things big time, so if I can mention just one person it would be him. I would say Jay Adams and Mark Gonzales, those are the two guys who took it spontaneously to the next level through their natural ability. Also through exposure; through the photos they got in magazines and the video parts they put out, and their attitude, like straight up “I’m not doing this to please anybody else, I’m just doing this because it’s what I like to do and I’m good at it”.
The Gonz is still doing stuff to change skateboarding, with his art and stuff like that. I saw him the other day actually, he came to skate with us in New York at the skatepark and he shows up with no skateboard! He had no board, he just rolls up with his Yeezy’s on riding his frickin bike, and we’re just like “Dude, you get your ass in here right now”. To me he’s like a 14 year old kid still you know ? So I’m like “Get in here”, he comes in and starts trying all our boards, it’s Caballero, Hosoi, Rowley, Grosso, Hussan and myself, and he ended up really liking Christians and Grosso’s board the best, I think mine was a little too wide I don’t think he was ready for that, he rode it though, he tried haha. But yeah Mark is just genius. He’s borderline idiot savant, but he’s still genius [laughs]. I think a lot of those guys are like that, on one side they are completely out of this world and on the otherside they are just crazy, he’s an artist!
One of many firsts for yourself saw you start your company Alva – the first ever skater owned and operated company – a huge move for a 19 year old…
I was lucky that I had met the right guys to help me with the business part of it because I wasn’t ready to really run the business and all of that. I was more the talent and I was good at designing and testing the products, but I wasn’t really ready to just full on accept the responsibility of running a business.
What pushed you to start Alva at the time?
I didn’t really want to ride for any of these other teams and continue to have to share the profits with all the teams I was riding for. There was a bunch of other teams that I rode for that sold a lot of boards and made a lot of money, and I felt like I needed to make the money myself and become a part of the commercial success of the business. So I had to step it up and take it to that level. Starting Alva is a major positive aspect of my career and my life.
And it’s still going strong to this day. Was it a conscious decision to invest in young riders on the team?
Yeah I have a bunch of young kids on the team, I like them the best because they are so much easier to deal with. With some of the pro guys back in the day it just became really high maintenance, even though it was great that I had some really good pro teams.
Are there any independent companies that you are backing today?
Just my truck sponsor Independent, I’ve always loved those guys. All I really need is my shoes and my trucks and my board company, I’m really simple when it comes to that stuff. I endorse and use products in the surf industry that I really like. One of the company’s I really love is Patagonia. I really like the stuff they put out, using eco-friendly and common sense products. The way they put their products together, the way they run their business, and the consciousness they have is great. I’ve been wearing one of their wet suits lately and that is made without petroleum. Neoprene in the past was made with petroleum products which can be damaging to the environment, and they are making a wetsuit now that is made from a hemp based rubber plant called Yulex and it works really well.
It’s just a matter of having consciousness about polluting the planet and global warming and the list goes on in terms of the things we do when it comes to manufacturing products that we need to be concious of. Any company like that that’s in the skate or surf industry, I’m in to backing them as much as I can for sure and letting people know that we need to save the planet. Especially the ocean and the air for future generations.
You have been with Vans since 1974 right?
On & off yeah, but I’ve been with them quite a while…
During that time I think it’s fair to say that you’ve played a key role in the brands development…
Because of Steve, because Steve listens. I can’t really take credit for that, most of it goes to Steve Van Doren. He’s our ambassador and he’s always listened to the skateboarders. He’s our champion, he’s the guy that told his brother, his father, everybody else in the Van Doren family that the skateboarders were the ones that knew which direction to take the business.
Do you feel Vans has helped you to develop and grow?
Totally, it still is. Steve has given my career longevity by believing in me, not only as a person, but as an athlete and ambassador for Vans and that’s what I do, that’s my life. A lot of my trips and a lot of my business, how I make money as a skateboarder, as a surfer as a musician, are geared towards doing promotional events that Vans is involved in. I’m able to benefit from these things in more ways than just the money, it’s the experience out on the road, the travelling and basically just being a representative of the lifestyle that is Vans. Steve Van Doren is an amazing guy.
Being a part of Vans for so long you must have seen many changes, not only within the company, but also in the world of skateboarding and surf. Now celebrating it’s 50th year, what is it about Vans that has allowed it to remain relevant after all this time?
We never lost our roots. We know where we came from and the history is important to us. We give back to the culture, we don’t just take take take. We give back through things like the House Of Vans and through sponsoring different events. We are there for the youth, not just using the money we have to make ourselves look cool or on meaningless marketing campaigns to make people buy our products, there’s a lot of other companies that do do that, but they can’t buy what we have. They can’t buy the roots, the soul, the image that Vans has, because of the fact that we are a family run business that isn’t just about the products – it’s about the people. We really care about our people, we care about our team, we care about the people that use our product. We want people to have a good attitude towards Vans; therefore we provide events with music, food, art, everything that comes under the umbrella of our culture and that is what the kids like. It’s all about creativity for us, using the brand as a vehicle.
Do you feel your career in skateboarding & surfing helped you to pursue your interests in art & music?
Yeah definitely, because my attitude towards surfing was that it was like an expression of your freedom, and it’s spiritual, it has a spiritual connection to it like art & music. Surfing came first to me and skateboarding just fell in to that attitude I have with surfing, it overlapped with my skateboarding for sure. At one point it separated and started to go in that direction to where skateboarding became its own entity, its own thing, but I’m glad that it didn’t get too far away from that. Surfing and music allows me to be creative, and skateboarding fit’s in to that too. It’s like a frickin’ sandwich cookie you know, one side you’ve got surfing and on the other you’ve got music and skateboarding sits nicely in the middle.
You’ve also expressed your interest in fashion in the past and also spoke on how you introduced elements of fashion in to the marketing of Alva in the early days. What’s your views on the fashion industry and it’s relationship with skateboarding?
I like vintage fashion better than anything and high end stuff. I love the stuff that Yves Saint Laurent did back in the day. I like the form and function side of things, that’s really rad. Even though that stuff isn’t functional for skateboarding, some of it aesthetically is so beautiful and to look at even women’s fashion, like John Galliano, the stuff he has done in the past is so amazing. When you look at the couture end of fashion, it’s just art. Functional fashion to me is almost like making a beautiful surf board that looks so beautiful, but at the same time it actually works really well. That’s the kind of stuff that I like. So even when it comes to surfing and skateboarding stuff, a lot of the clothes and the shoes that I wear is stuff that looks and feels good, but really what it is is that it functions well. I think the improving technology in manufacturing in the fashion part of the action sports industry is really fun. If it really works and it’s functional that’s a big part of it, but its got to feel and look good more than anything. Coz I’ll wear funky stuff sometimes that makes me look frickin’ homeless, but it makes me feel good. We have a little saying back home ” I look like a homeless guy, but I feel like a frickin’ prince”.
With such a great career already behind you, what’s next for Tony Alva?
I’ve been doing some pretty interesting things with my surf line and surf boards, I’m doing some really cool hybrid surf boards and that’s called Alva Surf Craft. That’s been pretty fun and I’m putting a lot of energy in to that. And other than skateboarding and surfing at the same time, cross training with the two, I’ve been doing some really really cool music, writing and playing bass guitar in a band called These Eyes Have fangs. We’ve been doing some psychedelic bluesy rock stuff and putting it on records and playing live, playing a lot of shows based around what we’ve recorded. Just being a part of things that I really love, and things that I really love in life is being expressive and being creative.
Words: Kieran Sills
Imagery: Lily Brown
Additional imagery courtesy of Vans and Alva Skates
Shout out to Paul from Vans Brighton for contributing towards the interview also!