In California is a new monthly series where we shine a light on things that are quintessentially Californian, or that could only have come out of California. This first installment is a great example: Dogtown -- an aligning of geography, weather, and a group of resourceful surfer/skaters from Santa Monica/Venice.
My early hero memories start with Speed Racer, leap to Evel Kneivel, then shift over to the Dogtowners, who’d insinuate themselves into my ten-year-old life and stay until, well, they haven’t really left. They enter the frame of my memory the way Mr. Brown, Mr. White, Mr. Pink, etc. do in “Reservoir Dogs,” only they’re on skateboards. Tony Alva, long frizzy hair, knock-kneed, balletically smooth, spins a riot of 360s. Jay Adams, raggedy, rat-like, throws a sweeping, screeching Bert. Stacy Peralta, stringy blond hair, tattered Vans, frontside carves with panache. Jim Muir, long red hair parted to the side, blue headband, ferociously grinds coping.
The Dogtowners appealed on an aesthetic, visceral level. Their styles were surf-inspired. Grace, flow, and a sense of effortlessness were all-important. Their clothes were scruffy and street urchin-like—they looked both distinctly urban and as if they’d washed in on the tide.
And then there’s the hallowed grounds from which they were spawned. 1970s Venice and the south side of Santa Monica (aka Dogtown) were by no means the upscale communities that they are today. They were ragtag, bohemian. There were cracks in the streets and cracks in the houses and cracks in the families that lived in those houses, and in the navigating of those cracks came a style of skateboarding that, like punk rock, was as much a thing of the mind as it was a thing of the board. “To see a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,” goes the great William Blake poem. Or, as Dogtown chronicler Craig Stecyk put it, “Skaters by their very nature are urban guerillas: they make use of the useless artifacts of the technological burden and employ the handiwork of the government/corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of.”
I recently caught up with Jim Muir, aka Red Dog, who carries the Dogtown torch by way of Dogtown Skates, which he founded in the ‘70s. Muir is tall, deep-voiced, a straight shooter. We met at the Dogtown Skates factory in Hawthorne. Between shelves of T-shirts, shiny new decks, and scuffed-up Dogtown skates from back in the day, we talked Dogtown. He told me something that stretches the ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ proverb to ‘necessity—and happy accidents.’ In the early days of pool riding and vert, they’d go through boards pretty quickly. With each one that broke/cracked/split, they’d trace that deck onto a new piece of wood, which would then make the next deck a fraction of an inch bigger. A few generations of skate decks later and they were substantially wider and longer—and worked great. This gave rise to the wider, longer vert skate.
I asked about the graphics. The Dogtown iconography was so powerful in my youth—the crosses, the sinister lettering, the wings, the dragons. It touched something rebellious and countercultural, as if I’d joined some secret society.
“It was a visual separation and branding genius,” said Muir. “It came from Craig Stecyk’s storytelling and the imagery that he provided, which came from a long hierarchy of values from surfing in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which was basically how to conduct yourself properly and respectfully in an environment within your community and outside of your community.”
I was familiar with this. When skating Dogtown spots like Kenter and Revere you had to be respectful. At the same time you had to be cool. Localism was big back then, and as a valley kid, I didn’t want to give away that I lived inland.
Dogtown was both a product of the place and a product of the times. A record-breaking drought in the mid-‘70s meant that backyard pools could not be filled with water. This created a skateboarding wonderland—but a wonderland to be kept on the DL.
“It was a lot of work to find these empty swimming pools—searching out construction sites and vantage points above canyons and looking down,” explained Muir. “And for every good pool you found, you found three, four, five that were shitty. So once you found a good pool, and knew you had a schedule that was good, you couldn’t tell certain people or put the word out because you would lose your location to skate. And there was nowhere else to skate. Skate parks and street skating weren’t a thing yet, and people still used skateboards as a transportation item. You could go skate big banks. But once the pools came along, the banks didn’t have the thrill. So it was really an underground scene until the early skateparks came to fruition.”
Up until the first aerials started happening in the mid-‘70s, skateboarding was a surf surrogate. You skated when the waves were flat or blown-out. Most days began with a surf in the morning glass and a skate in the windy afternoon. Idyllic. Distinctly Southern Californian. And distinctly Dogtown.
Said Muir: “That whole period of time when we were skating the school banks—Paul Revere, Bellagio, Kenter, Saint Clements—it was all about emulating surfing, and the moves that we were seeing in the surf magazines. We were all naturally attracted to the style of surfing that the Hawaiians were doing—Buttons, Larry Bertlemann, Mark Liddell. It was the lowest center of gravity, feeling the wave as they went. And when we got into the pools, we still tried to do that. But once the skateboard went above the coping into the air, then the tricks took on a whole new dimension. So then skateboarding found its own direction of style and tricks that kind of left the surfing aspect behind, other than the speed, flow, and style. Now surfing is getting its inspiration from skateboarders.”