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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 28, 2001

Thrash culture Thrash culture (March 28, 2001)

Palo Alto skateboarders have own language, clothing and customs

by Daryl Savage

Palo Alto, 2001. He was no poser and everyone knew it. The crowd watched him gap a six-stair and roll away clean. He then fakie flipped a fatty gap and launched into a sick switch shove-it. He followed with a sweet benihana transfer to a quarter pipe, then finished with an attempt to melon the leap of faith, but bailed. (For a translation, see the "skateboarding lingo" sidebar.)

Palo Alto, 1964. James Witt was a child ahead of his time. Just for fun, he removed the wheels of his roller skates, nailed them to a two-by-four and made what is now known as a skateboard. Ten-year-old James and his friends skated in the driveways of their Ilima Street cul-de-sac on the homemade boards until the hard metal wheels made visible cuts in the cement.

"We would skateboard in circles in the driveway for hours and then we'd have to sweep up all the dust caused by the indentations we made in the cement," Witt said.

When Witt was a student at Terman Junior High, "I made a new skateboard in woodshop. My dad had thrown out my old one." Now 47 years old, he still skateboards occasionally. Witt, however, admits he's not in the same league as today's skateboarders.

The latest generation of skateboarders can be found any day at Palo Alto's skate bowl in Greer Park. It was one of the first such facilities on the Peninsula. Now, even though it's also one of the most outdated in the area, it still gets its share of skateboarders. An estimated 6,000 boarders use the bowl every year, according to Palo Alto Recreation Supervisor Patrick Larkin.

Many boarders prefer the more modern skate parks in Mountain View, Fremont, or Milpitas, which has the distinction of being the most elaborate one of all. But Greer still gets its share of the action.

"The park is real convenient, a lot easier to get to than the one in Mountain View," said "Mike," 16, who didn't give his last name because he was supposed to be in school at the time of this interview. He tries to skate every day because, "It picks me up. Boarding clears my head."

Mike's friend, who also was missing classes from "one of the high schools here," identified himself only as "Ike." "You can't skateboard on campus or they'll confiscate your board. That is so not cool," he said.

Another boarder, 23-year-old Bill Mitsakos, skates at Greer on his lunch hour. "I find most the kids here pretty positive," he said.

Mitsakos, an engineer at Digidesign in Palo Alto, recently moved to the Bay Area from Boston. "Skateboarding is much better here. The season in Boston is too short. You can only skateboard a few months a year there," he said.

Mitsakos wears baggy shorts, socks and shoes when he skateboards, the apparent standard garb for the sport. "I own a helmet," he said, "but it gets in the way."

As Mitsakos spoke, a long bearded man sped by on his stunt bike, doing tricks in the bowl. Just a few feet from the biker is a large sign on the front entrance. The sign, posted by the city of Palo Alto, states, "No BMX biking." It also says, "Skateboarders must wear helmets, elbow and knee pads."

Palo Alto evidently has trouble enforcing these rules. "The bikers are a definite problem," Larkin admits. The bowl is not designed for such use, he said, and the bikes cause their share of damage.

It's also dangerous. "The bowl is too steep for bikes and inline skates so it becomes a safety issue," Larkin said.

"I try to go over there a few times a week, but they know me, so they clear out when they see me coming," he said.

Palo Alto police Sgt. Ron Watson responds to citizens' complaints concerning skateboarders. He said the boarders usually don't cause too much trouble. "We don't issue citations to offenders, but we try to reason with them," Watson said. "They're generally pretty good about complying after we talk to them."

Skateboarding has become big business. What started with a few nails and a piece of wood is now a multimillion dollar U.S. industry. While company layoffs and stock market jitters are on the minds of Silicon Valley workers, the popularity of skateboarding continues on the upswing.

"We have a hard time keeping skateboards in stock. The turnaround is so quick," said skate shop owner Jon Hoag, 28, who opened Black Diamond Sports in Palo Alto about 15 months ago with his business partner, Ed Olsen, 35.

"The business has far exceeded our expectations," Olsen said.

Hoag and Olsen have a store policy, which, simply stated is: "We don't sell anything we wouldn't play with ourselves," Olsen said. The two are skateboard enthusiasts, as well as inline skaters, snowboarders and surfers.

The skateboard trend is here to stay, as both a sport and an art form, Hoag said. Each skateboard is a work of art in itself. Its laminated surface depicts a range of graphics - everything from cartoon characters to maps of major cities.

The roadmap of San Francisco is a hot item, as well as the cities of Tokyo, Houston and Los Angeles - all painstakingly accurate on the surface of a skateboard. "The graphics are awesome. We have graphic designers checking out our skateboards on a daily basis to get ideas," he said.

"Wet Willie" and "Flame Boy" are popular skateboard designs for the younger crowd, according to Hoag. "Wet Willie" is bright blue and featured as a drop of water with a smiley face. Some board designs show him about to be annihilated by either a jackhammer or a huge wave. "Flame Boy" is an iridescent orange and appears as a little piece of fire with an impish face.

"The 18 to 30 year-old crowd is more conservative. They go for the maps and more subtle designs," Hoag said.

Skateboard designs change every three months. "The companies are always coming out with new ones. It's absolutely incredible artwork," Hoag said.

The brand names are as unique as its art. A few popular skateboard manufacturers are Birdhouse, World Industries, Think, Shorty's and Zero.

But skateboarding is not cheap. A skateboard can cost more than $160. The helmet is another $65, the shoes can run as high as $100, a skateboard shirt is about $18 and the shorts cost $40. All together, this little ensemble totals $383, and that doesn't include various skateboard accessories like stickers, hats and gloves.

The skateboard trend has not gone unnoticed by local businessman Terry Hertl. "My total sales have climbed 60 percent in two years," he said.

Hertl, owner of Aggressive Skate and Snowboard in Palo Alto, relies on the advice of his employees to determine what to buy for his shop.

"I hire only kids here, age 16 and up. They must have a B average in school. It's the kids who select the stock, not me. I'd get it all wrong if it were up to me to pick things out," he said, "especially the shoes. There's no way I could pick out the shoes. I have my 16 year-old son do it."

Skateboarding shoes have taken on a life of their own. "The shoe is so important," Hertl said. It is made with a flat sole, no arch and has padding on the sides to protect the ankles. A padded tongue protects the top of the foot.

"The shoes are specifically designed for skateboard use," Hertl said, but they have become a fashion statement for kids who don't even own a board.

Hertl's employees not only select the boards and shoes, but clothing as well. Skateboard clothes can best be described as "big and loose," 18-year-old Danny Biran said.

Biran, who has worked at Aggressive for more than a year, said, "We talk to our friends to find out what's hot. That makes it really easy to sell stuff here. You learn a lot about skateboards." <@$p>

E-mail Daryl Savage at


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