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How To Go Pro | Part III: “Big Bang Theory”


   

The late 90s and early 2000s may have been a dramatic boom time for skateboarding, but the crowds that rapturously greeted The Muska have only grown since then, and in the time since How To Go Pro, it would seem that Pudwill, and not the other skaters featured in the video, would be the one to take up The Muska’s mantle, albeit in his own unique ways. Pudwill has been busy. His long list of accomplishments includes several showstopping video parts in DVS’ Skate More (2005) and Dudes Dudes Dudes (2008) respectively, and for his board sponsor, Plan B, once in a solo part for Torey Pudwill’s Big Bang (2010) and the other in company’s full length, True (2014), as well as the concept video for Red Bull, Flatbar Frenzy (2017). He won the highly respected Tampa Pro contest in 2012, and though he has yet to win a Street League event, he has been a crowd favorite throughout the 11 seasons of the contest tour, netting himself a hefty purse each season. Throughout this time, he also received several profitable shoe deals, designing one of DVS’s most successful models. He appeared on the cover of Thrasher magazine three times, once in 2010, 2014, and 2015, respectively, ranking among the most anyone has ever held such an esteemed and coveted position. And he came within inches of winning the 2014 Thrasher Skater of the Year, barely losing out to his friend, Wes Kremer. He has started two companies, the griptape and soft goods seller, Grizzly Griptape, and the board company, which he co-founded with legendary pro, Daewon Song, Thank You. In 2010, Torey Pudwill was named Transworld Street Skater of the Year, an award that prompted the magazine’s editor, Kevin Duffel to predict that the next decade would be known as “the Torey Pudwill era.”  And based on his accolades alone, you would think that Pudwill had truly lived up to the hype, perhaps, in the mold of The Muska before him, exceeding it.

The differences between the two pros, however, could not be more clear. The Muska hails from the streets—ok, he actually hails from Phoenix, AZ, but he was unhoused for a long stretch of his early career and would sleep on the beach. In any case, the early Shorty’s video portrayed him patrolling the grimy streets of Los Angeles, a Dickensian king of the street urchins, whose regal staff was the ghetto blaster on his shoulder). Pudwill, on the other hand, is from a suburb of Los Angeles—so, a suburb of a suburb of a suburb. Simi Valley. It is technically a city, but if you are from Los Angeles, you would most likely refer to it via an epithet: the county. Ventura County, to be clear. The town boasts several world class golf courses in the middle of arid desert, but unless you’re into local military history, it offers little else to both residents and visitors alike. And perhaps it isn’t even the place that invites too many outsiders. A longstanding conservative holdout since way back, it is the final resting place of Ronald Regan, and plays home to his presidential library, which hosted the Republican presidential primary debates in 2008, 2012, and 2016. Many blame the verdict in the Rodney King Trial on Simi Valley, as the judge moved the trial location there, seeing its white majority suburb as a friendlier location to try three white police officers who were caught on camera beating a Black man. And if these details were not enough to deter a visit, in the 1950s, there was a “minor” nuclear disaster that some say released more radioactive material into the surrounding atmosphere than 3-Mile Island. Though the Chamber of Commerce boasts some beautiful terrain nearby—mountain lions even live there—Simi Valley has perhaps always been destined to be a nowhere place. It played a dusty, middle-of-nowhere backdrop in dozens of old Westerns, before Los Angeles’ overtook it, turning it into what it is now. A non-place. A commuter town. A site of no distinction. Secluded. Private. Atomized. Decentralized. Somewhere they would never think to make a movie again.

Another big difference between the two men was the nature of media. The Muska maintained a messianic appeal in an age when skate videos only came out every one to two years. On top of that, a magazine subscription was required to get access in the meantime, and even then, you could not count on an interview with the king everytime. If he showed up for a demo in your hometown in Kansas, it was like a visit from the Pope. Once in a lifetime, if that. The situation was that your teenage bedroom became skateboarding’s inner sanctum, an altar piece to the likes of The Muska, but with the rise of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and particularly of Instagram at the end of the 2000s, the door was suddenly thrown open on the entire skate world’s teenage bedroom, permitting access to information that had once only been the provenance of initiates who knew where to access such information, and who spent hours, days, years of their lives dedicated to the close study of the material. It was the age of transparency, a time when consumer technologies suddenly permitted the average person not only access to information, but also the agency to hold those in power accountable with a single viral tweet—and between the Arab Spring and WikiLeaks, some of the largest institutions were suddenly beginning to crumble.


Indeed, since the release of How To Go Pro, the entire landscape of power and fame has changed dramatically, radically reconfiguring how we conceive of the business of self. But for Pudwill, who grew up in such an unremarkable morass of sameness, who worshiped at the altar of The Muska, who was a diehard skaterat at Simi Valley’s infamous skatepark SkateLab, skateboarding seemed readymade for this type of leap into the public eye. Skateboarding has not only been an individualistic athletic endeavor, it is also an entrepreneurial one, with pros traditionally parlaying their capital into new brands. It is often how one generation transitions into the next, with skaters’ waning abilities guiding them off of the streets and into the conference room. Following from this example, Pudwill exudes all the presumed innocence of the American sensibility, invoking, if only rhetorically, the pursuit of happiness. All Pudwill ever dreamed of since he was 12 years old was to put his own spin on this formula. He just wanted to get a trick in a big skate video, and to run his own company, Grizzly. Against the morass of sameness that was Simi Valley, it was his entire identity, but at the same time, it is also what made him fit right in.
Monoculture is gone. There is no longer a single narrative, but many. Indeed, information has fractured infinitely. To narrow down the narrative it takes immense cross referencing, and already, some kind of linear, narrative arch is no match for the fractured, micro-consumption of our hellish and eternal present—even to research this article required no small amount of chronological collating, and even then, a timeline faltered to provide much cohesion to the sheer mass of material available. Much like the Kardashian’s have become their own multiverse, their image refracting into a million different representations all only fractionally different, so too has the contemporary pro skateboarding career. Google Torey Pudwill, and you’ll receive an endless amount of interpretations and re-interpretations, remixes of footage that combine old and new, images culled from social media alongside more polished, professional stuff, suggesting that his life is no longer in his control, remixed to tell whatever story it is the teller wants to tell about their fandom for Torey Pudwill. To borrow an expression from Jia Tolentino describing the situation for Kim Kardashian, to be a pro skateboarder involves strip mining your entire life—or at least seeming to do so.

The struggle, then, is how to be “relentless” like Kim. Or, as Stephanie Burt put it in a review of Kardashian’s photo book of selfies, Selfish in The New Yorker, “Since choice or chance gave me a way of life without privacy, the [Selfish] book says, I’ll violate my privacy myself, and I’ll have a good time doing it, too.” In short, to take control of your own narrative, and basically having to contend with the idea of being professional involves, to a greater degree, how you marshall attention. If you didn’t figure out how to navigate these new technologies of connection, the new paradigm of digital and physical enhancement, it did not only cost you friends, it cost you opportunities, access, and even employment. The entire straight world was learning the lessons the queer world and women had learned generations ago, that glamor is not just a facile play for attention, that it is power, and to possess the savvy to transform yourself into an empire with seemingly little more than your selfie game, hacking the system so that you not only regain control over the narrative, but are also shrewd enough to monetize it, then you really held the keys to the castle. Oversharing—or, at least seeming to overshare was the means to vast riches, and more power than money could buy.

Indeed, while The Muska may have been at the same parties as the Kardashians in the 2000s, it’s Pudwill’s life that more closely resembles the reality stars. The rest of his career can be seen as an endless playback of his glory days at Shorty’s. No matter how many appearances he makes online, no matter how many different ways his identity reaches his fans, there is a particular consistency in Pudwill’s appearance. As a sign of his credibility, it’s always the same saggy skate pants. Always the Grizzly Griptape t-shirt. Always a Red Bull branded hat. There’s never been a point at which he’s put on airs, or attempted a radical transformation of his identity. No declarative fashion statement. No theatrical dis tracks of other companies. No leapfrogging off a skate career in pursuit of acting, TV spots, video games, or to fight for respect from the high society world of fashion, Hollywood, or, snobby New York. Just your average skater, that, now that he has a little more money, shows some flash with a pair of Dunks. No matter how much his skating has progressed since those days, evolving into an impossible version of skateboarding in which no ledge is too high, no bench too long, and no amount of combinations impossible, never does he look too fancy doing it, conveying a comforting familiarity that he more or less still dresses like he did in 2006.


So much of what Pudwill is is also an abstraction of what we envision the career of a professional skateboarder to be. At a time when social media allowed the entire world into the inner sanctum of skateboarding, diluting its longstanding, direct-to-consumer intimacy, the backlash within the skate world was often to ramp up their notoriously cagey demeanor, as if to say to the entire world, “stay out of my room, dad”. It was a protective gesture: they kept their companies small, the skaters a tight-knit group of friends. Their graphics would be inscrutable, and border on an unnamable standoffishness—don’t try to get it, as so many of Quasi’s graphics suggest, because getting it is not the point. The point is deferring long enough to catch a breath. The point is never to have to answer to the commenters. The point is a diversionary obscurity, to keep you on the search, even if that search will likely never be rewarded. The point is to relish in making others look silly. The point is to feel like skateboarding still belongs to the people who care about it the most, even if saying that would be too much for them. The point is that they can always defend themselves by calling it art.

But Pudwill takes the opposite, and perhaps, more radical view. Such secrecy can also be seen to play back into the cycle of social media, creating a feedback loop between an audience that thirsts for authenticity, and a content creator that would call the entire enterprise fake. Pudwill, however, elects for direct communication, offering an ernest love and gratitude for skateboarding. As a result, he seems to open his door to any videographer or friend that knocks. There are dozens of videos from the last ten years that follow Pudwill for a ride along. In one, we meet the skater at his house. Get the tour. Meet the dog. Check in with the homies that stay with him, like Nick Garcia and Shane O’Neil. Get some food. Look at spots. Go skate. He’s jokey, friendly, welcoming. We get to see his grody bathroom, or his unmade bed, because he isn’t shy about how messy his house is. Sometimes we get to see his yoga routine, or we are offered a glimpse at his efforts to rehabilitate a knee. His age really comes through when he shows us the pool table in place of a dining table, his pride at pointing it out conveying no small amount of aww shucks irony that such an immature kid has the responsibility of maintaining a house (Pudwill is dad now, and he is doing what he would do if he were in charge). When he shows Chris Nieratko around the neighborhood, he suggests they get some food, adding, “Yeah, I want to get some candy.” He has a fancy car, but there’s always a Red Bull in the cup holder.

Here is Pudwill, a simple skater, just like you or me. Adulthood hasn’t changed him. His pro career hasn’t changed him. He owns Grizzly Griptape, but this is not a new development. He dreamed up the company when he was 12 years old with the help of a bear-shaped cookie cutter, but the pressures of owning his own business has done little to alter the skate rat that is at his core. The fundamental idea is that he wakes up and skates, and if anything else is required of him, it is in service of that basic routine, putting skateboarding at the center of his life. When he shows us his slimy, algae covered in-ground swimming pool (complete with slide), he really plays up like he’s a big shot, telling the camera that he had a huge pool party there just yesterday, that he has a pool boy, that it’s a blast, even though we can clearly see what a disgusting, un-swimmable mess it all is. Believing he got away with it, he finally cops to the ruse. “Just lie about whatever on camera,” he says with a laugh. The thing is, the big lie might not be that he’s just pretending. It’s more about his own suspension of disbelief. His own humble brag that betrays his own amazement that skateboarding has offered him such a comfortable life, and the opportunity to be charitable with his skate buddies. That keeping skateboarding at the center of his life, and never losing sight of it keeps him in this house.

Of course, there is always something fatuous about these images of success, and their suggestion that it’s just as easy as doing what you love, and following your dreams. There’s just something slimy about this transparency, and the fact that the story never seems to waver, never seems to admit any other detail, no political or social entanglements, no missteps—just stay focused, do what you love, and, particularly if it is the life of a professional skateboarder you want, you’ll never work a day in your life. Still, there’s something undeniably comforting in seeing an image of meritocracy work out, when the average young person faces a steep decline in job security, and little hope in career development. Against a backdrop of precarity, it’s truly comforting to see a young lad like Pudwill land on his feet, that his talents merit his success. The transparency also feeds into his skateboarding. There’s a kind of shamelessness about his style. His effort is so fully exposed on every trick by his self-described “weird arm steeze”. He doesn’t really cherry pick his locations. He doesn’t spot hunt. He’s not doing a minimalist refashioning of himself. Nor is he deskilling. There is no apparent schtick. Instead, the spots around his Simi Valley home seem to be enough for him. And his maximalist style matches up. He slides the entire bench on a back tail or a lipslide. He does the kickflip as tall as he possibly can. He commits himself to the full breadth of an outledge, catching it at its maximum height. He swats his flick like a baseball player swinging for the fences, his catch sounds the impossible thwap of a fastball hitting a catcher's mitt. Every trick is open, its mechanics mercilessly exposed, almost dissected. Not that it really gives us any clue of its inner workings, but here is the spectacle of laying it bare.

Taste changed in the last ten years. Taste couldn’t just be an aesthetic appreciation. It had to consider the entire organism. It had to represent savvy, but also a kind of guilelessness. A knowing naivety. An approachability that betrayed no secrets—because there were no secrets anymore. There was the thing, and the memes about the thing, and the hot takes about the thing, and the politicization of the thing, and the tragic refashioning of the thing into a far right propaganda tool, and the eventual declaration that the thing was dead—one had to contend with a moving target in real time. In spite of his transparency and the consistency of his own appearance and narrative, it can still be hard to pin Pudwill down. Though that’s not entirely his fault. If fault is to be assigned at all. Rather, the issue is whether he was able to balance his behind the scenes appearances with his actual skate footage, so that he would not simply become some fatuous personality, but could always back it up with his abilities on a skateboard. The ratio is tricky, an incredibly challenging balancing act. To his credit, he never made the leap into being a reality star himself, preferring that skateboarding be the stand-in for his personality. It’s fortunate, because we get a glimpse of how awkward this might have been when he guest hosts Ryan Sheckler’s Sheckler Sessions YouTube series, which frequently nets between 500 thousand to a million views. Traveling to Sydney, Australia, each time he steps in front of the camera, he clearly proves that he has no talent for selling the implausible, lifestyles of the modestly rich and social media famous, to the point where, on an afternoon swimming escapade, he almost drowns on a reef. The awkwardness of him explaining the fiasco to the camera desperately reassures us that his place is on a skateboard.

Still, it can be hard to keep skating in the center of our sights, as if that’s what is meant to be at the center of all of this other behind the scenes action. After seeing all this scattered candidness, one wonders at a certain point what is at the front of the scene, what makes Pudwill such a compelling or interesting person, and needs a stronger proof of concept than a day in the life. One needs skating. One craves some meat. That’s the built-in authenticity test of skateboarding. And in many ways, Pudwill always delivers. He has a tremendous command of his skateboard, sometimes seeming as if he could do anything. There’s just a depth to his bag of tricks, out of which he seems to be able to pull anything at will, and, before our very eyes, combine it to any number of other tricks. And not only that, but a single trick never seems to be quite enough, it always has to have all these extra flourishes, as if this additive process were reflective of a viewpoint, rather than simply a hunger for more and more. It’s a style without nuance in many ways, a surface as frictionless as the long, waxed tops of benches he skates with such frenetic technicality, and which facilitate an endless array of recombinant options.

Knowing replaced being in the tug of war of self that was forced upon us by the blitzkrieg campaign of images social media mounted over the last ten years. It has the profound and deleterious ability to reduce us all to observers of our own lives, as if they take place on the platforms to which we subordinate our efforts as someone else’s content and consumption. But while Pudwill finds such a chief balance here between life and skating, he also offers a compelling narrative to navigate this imagistic cannibalism by always representing himself as a fan. He invokes his time on Shorty’s with a quaint nostalgia, likening his present experience of professional responsibility to the days when all he longed to do was to get one trick—just one one trick—in a skate video. He still speaks with reverence for all of the skaters he looked up to as an up and comer, able to list every pro that came out to his (no) neck of the woods to skate his local gap, listing off a litany of tricks that went down over the nondescript Van Owen bump. Skateboarding is an individualistic sport with a horizontal, peer-moderated social structure, and to some extent, it has always used taste and fandom as a captcha test to authenticate ones membership in the clan: select the frames that have the sickest skaters in them to proceed (long ago there also used to be the scuffed up shoe test). But even as Pudwill transitioned into being a business owner with Grizzly Griptape, there, too, he employed his model of fandom as an image of honesty and trustworthiness, locating his most trusted business associates in other skaters such as Mikey Taylor, Jeron Wilson, Nick Tershay, and Daewon Song, the latter of which is not only Pudwill’s business partner in Thank You skateboards, but also his favorite pro of all time, describing him as “...true and authentic when it comes to putting a part together.”

Pudwill’s image of fandom might be understood in a different way, however. In Adam Curtis’ 2016 documentary HyperNormalization (2016), there is a chapter that focuses on the development of Artificial Intelligence during the 1990s at MIT. When the lab’s experiments were not showing any promise, one developer, Joseph Weizenbaum expressed his disappointment by writing a program for a digital psychotherapist he called Eliza, in whom participants could confide using the keys on the keyboard. The program was based on the methodology of Carl Rogers, who was known for simply repeating what his patient said, rephrasing it back to them as a question—a version that has been parodied for ages. Yet, in spite of the obvious and cynical joke the programer was making about human beings, and the underlying disappointment and anger he expressed in its creation, these same feelings would come back to him tenfold when early users of Eliza took to it immediately, such as Weizenbaum’s secretary, who asked him to leave the room, so she could be alone with the computer. Of the many take aways about computer science that could be read into this particular instance, Curtis’s take seems especially relevant to the way fandom is used as a measure of authenticity, particularly within something as subversively anti-authoritarian as skateboarding purports to be. “In an age of individualism,” the filmmaker says in a voiceover, “what made people feel secure was having themselves reflected back to them. Just like in a mirror.”

Again, the point is, you never have to stray far from home. You don’t have to explore. As Billie Eilish became a global superstar by issuing moody, vibe-driven pop music from her childhood bedroom, Pudwill skates the same spots he has since childhood, never needing to find new ones, or even to creatively reinvent his approach. He just stays in the neighborhood. A local hero on an international stage, setting the bar for the locals each time he returns to the Van Owen bump. His final trick in the Plan B video, True, harkens to other times he’s visited the crooked street gap over the entrance of a narrow alleyway, even as the streets of Southern California seem so utterly contextless. It is the comfort of home, the known. It has always been enough for him, practically putting in enough time and energy, committing so much of his entire career to the same look and feel that it has practically become a genre all its own. At the Skittles Ledges, a series of knee-high planters painted with the colors of the rainbow, he keeps going back for a taste. That it is a superfund site is only a minor detail compared to the comforting continuity it brings to his videos’ appearances since DVS’s Skate More. Each time he goes back, each time he strings a set of tricks into a line there, it has the homey feeling of a stomping ground, the home stadium, as if he’s performing for the home crowd. Even once local officials decided to mount skate stoppers to the outside ledge, he waxed the planter’s inner edge. The attempt to keep this image untrammeled, though, produced a grand distortion in the tricks that he was doing there, somehow growing distant from the initial referent, a sort of image of themselves. Suddenly a standard backside tailslide required a massive ollie to clear the initial bench. Rather than simply pop out, tricks were finalized with the dramatic arabesque of a bigflip. A backside noseblunt seemed performed as if in a mirror, the posture having an uncanny relation to forward motion, making the footage look as though it were filmed in a reflection.

“Everyday I’m hustlin’. Everyday I’m hustlin’,” Pudwill sings at the beginning of his part in Transworld’s Hallelujah. He’s quoting “Hustlin’”, a 2006 song by rapper Rick Ross, but losing the tune, Pudwill quickly trails off, repeating the lyrics as if they were the chorus of some nursery rhyme, and not a rap song about being a drug kingpin. The same kind of self-satisfied, childlike wonder informs the moments when Pudwill does travel. He visits China, as if he were on a cultural mission to the far East, there to deliver the gospel of skateboarding, and mine the country’s construction boom of the 2000s for its untapped natural resources: heretofore unskated spots. That it took all but half a decade for many of these spots to go to ruin should in no small way contribute to the image of the world crumbling around Pudwill, while somehow, the pressures faced by his peers, and political and economic exigencies of his day never seem to make their way into his life, or impact his skating, having definitively been kept out. It is just pristine marble ground, and perfect, crisp granite ledges, accompanied by a public ignorant to what he is doing, and the rules that typically dictate it. Lost in translation is the kindest way to put it, but it also supplies a typically American image of presumed innocence, of a boy who has been given infinite slack. Not to get down on Pudwill. Rather, I actually think he has done well to stay in his wheelhouse. He is that boy, and while he lacks an awareness of the context, one has to wonder how much that would actually change the situation, how much is actually being communicated in the first place. >>> Part IV