Ishod the Great


Just remember all caps when you spell the man name.
-MF DOOM, “All Caps”

There’s something different about Ishod Wair these days. Lately, he reminds me of the nerdy kid in high school who gets their braces off during summer break. They come back to school in the fall totally transformed. They’re hot. They’ve got a newfound confidence. Even if their style is the same, it somehow looks better on them than it ever did before. They’ve got it now. They’re magnetic.

In Ishod’s case, summer break was the pandemic. Or perhaps it was his Saturn Return, a period during which many young people begin to question the trajectory their life is taking. Or both. In any case, the 31 year-old skater underwent a pretty holistic transformation, one not just in his skating or fashion, though those things changed. Rather, his outlook changed. His perception of the skate world, and how he fits into it has broadened. He has become more self-aware about what he puts out there. He seems to have gotten himself a decent agent, and has begun to cultivate his public image more seriously. Along with a constant output of skate content, he partners with luxury car companies. He models. He is the face of non-skate brands. He has sponsors, but in many ways, he is a brand of one.

How do we measure greatness in skateboarding? It’s a discomfiting question for a culture that has staged itself in contrast to traditional competitive sports. And these days, what counts in the evaluation of a skater’s greatness has changed. Volume matters more, but so do extracurriculars—you always have to be at the intersection of one thing and another. Getting your name on a shoe is important, but so is access to cultural institutions outside the subculture. Sure, you can kickflip a 12-stair, but is your rap career taking off? How many businesses do you own? Did your clip go viral or are you focusing on yourself these days? Are you sponsored by the clothing company or the secondary market resale platform? Are you fluent in any foreign languages?

If you look at the majority of Ishod’s career, it would seem that he believed a well-rounded approach to skateboarding was enough to earn himself a legacy. His output is nothing short of prolific: Real’s Since Day One (2011), Sabotage 3 (2012), the ender in Nike’s SB Chronicles vol. 2 (2013), Wair N Tear (2013), ECVX (2014), Sabotage 4 (2015), Told Ya (2015), Push Part (2015), Dunk Pro Low (2016), Back on My SB (2018), Be Free (2020), GODSPEED (2020), Real Presents Ishod (2022), plus 2023’s Spitfire part. As if an average of 6 minutes of top-tier footage per year wasn’t enough, he is also a social media manager’s dream, with every tour, filming trip, or even afternoon at the skatepark producing enough b-sides and auxiliary footage to support an entire cottage industry of content (see: Real’s Ishod’s Very Wair-y Christmas (2015), Double Rock: Ishod Wair (2016), Ishod’s Hits: Get it Strait, Roll Forever (2016), Fourstar’s Ishod Wair’s Obtuse Moments (2014), Spitfire’s Keep the Fire Burning Extra Rips: Ishod Wair (2019), 5 Days in the Bay with Ishod (2021), and more). And, as if to prove that he can truly do it all, the guy even includes his 2-minute cameo in Johnny Wilson’s 2014 New York-based video, Paych, on his personal website, alongside his other, more high-budget accomplishments. Back then, such underground productions didn’t get as much traction as they do today, which is to say, Ishod not only appeals to the mainstream, he also gets the respect of the skater’s skaters, as well.

And yet, even though pure skate footage has been Ishod’s primary way of standing out over the years, his latest part for Spitfire suggests a change. Perhaps it’s the choice of MF DOOM for the soundtrack. Or the skating itself. He does the Platonic ideal of a kickflip backtail bigspin, a clip so perfectly paced and hypnotic I could lose hours, days, years of my life watching it on loop. It’s basically my ASMR. In any case, DOOM’s leisurely track slows the part down to a walking pace, giving us a little extra time to linger on what we’re seeing, with every little adjustment, every grandiose moment, coming across with the satisfying, analog pleasure of a well-loved vinyl record. Unlike most of Ishod’s other parts, this whole production just has a kind of atmosphere to it. A sly confidence. A seductive exuberance. I don’t quite know what it is. All I can say is, there is just something different about Ishod these days.

It can be tough to remember back to 2013, when Ishod was named Thrasher’s Skater of the Year. Back then, the first Black skater to win the award was still a scrawny kid from New Jersey who wore cut off shorts with a tye dye shirt and a saggy winter beanie. The skate rat uniform accompanied a certain goofy charm, a carefree mindset that suggested a single-minded pursuit of skateboarding. In the Push documentary series, Ishod’s mom intimates that her son never held a job, which I take as part apology for Ishod’s narrow worldview, and part pride in his all-consuming passion and incredible intelligence on the board. Still, his remarkable talent aside, there was just something endearing about his gap-toothed smile and raspy laugh. His energy was seemingly bottomless, and his habit of skating long after the session had moved onto other, more adult extra-curriculars earned him as much respect as it did teasing. Even as a spectator you wanted to tell him to quit it, that he was good enough already, a feeling echoed by his teammates on Real, and their loving, persistent ridicule.

Ishod’s output during this time was, unsurprisingly, remarkable. As a child, ADD made it hard for him to sit still and focus, but skateboarding’s haptic, sensorial ballet presented the perfect outlet for a kid who, as his mom says, is “moving while he takes in information,” and who would sometimes spin in circles as a means of thoughtful reflection. Indeed, his style at this time was as energetic as it was tactical, his 360 flips in particular trained at a low-rise consistency, rather than the explosive spectacle you might expect from a young skater looking to stand out. Across a pair of parts that came out during 2013, one for Nike and the other for the nascent Philadelphia-based video series, Sabotage, we see a dizzying array of frenetic ledge combos, run-on lines, and plenty of other bangers, every moment a chance to prove the full breadth of his potential. His final line in Sabotage 3 offers perhaps the best example. Every trick in the four-piece clip has the special meter on, even a high-speed wallie he adds right before hucking himself down the Love Park fountain gap. As he rolls away from this final kickflip, you can’t help but marvel at the technicality of his skill, and the breadth of his ambition. It’s one thing to go that hard, skate that long, charge that fast, and do the hardest version of each trick. It’s another thing to do it all at night.
Fast forward a few years, and you really have to ask yourself whether Ishod’s accomplishments were truly recognized at that time. For one, Ishod was only 21 years old, and there’s little to indicate that there was much on his mind beyond skating, cars, and hip-hop. Based on what would follow, we might even characterize his SOTY win more as a Rookie of The Year award than his career’s crowning achievement. And, later in the text, we will see just what a scholar of the board he will become. In any case, the prevailing attitude at the time is best summed up by former SOTYs Andrew Reynolds and Silas Baxter-Neal, both of whom chimed in about the 2013 candidates. “I think Ishod should get it because the amount of skateboarding he does—he has three video parts: Sabotage 3, Wair and Tear [sic], and the Chronicles video. I think he won a contest, too,” said Reynolds. “And he did it all without trying to get Skater of the Year.” “Ishod—skate rat ripping for himself not for a trophy,” added Baxter-Neal. “Skates EVERYTHING [sic], and looks sick doing it. Still puts out video parts for the homies while filming for corpo vids. If Thrasher stands for real skateboarding then Ishod should be the SOTY.”

While both of these comments represent high praise for the young skater, one has to wonder: what exactly do Reynolds and Baxter-Neal mean by “real skateboarding”? Or to have achieved something without trying to? Skate culture is obsessed with an ineffable authenticity, which is typically defined by a certain effortless on and off the board. The subtext is that you don’t need anyone’s permission to pursue your desire, you skate for yourself; it’s about a kind of freedom, not who’s best. While this self-deprecating attitude is partly what keeps skateboarding cool, and cultivates a cult-like allure, the same belief in the “quiet achiever” makes it more difficult for skate culture to acknowledge the efforts of Black skaters, and other skaters of color. The issue creates a double bind where matters of success are concerned: to make up for an absolute scarcity of visibility and support, Black skaters must try twice as hard to be seen. Yet, to succeed in skateboarding requires a level of ambivalence toward your own talents, thereby negating those efforts. For his part, Ishod has historically dismissed the roadblocks that have been put in his way. In a 2017 Thrasher interview, Michael Burnett asks him whether he has experienced racism in skateboarding, and I suspect that Ishod’s non-committal, and somewhat ambivalent answer—“Not really. I feel like skateboarding is pretty universal.”—was the result of having been put on the spot. It’s not his responsibility to say, or explain this to a white audience.

Ishod’s family and friends, however, have been more outspoken about the momentousness of his accomplishments. Echoing remarks made by numerous Black pros over the years, they recount numerous incidents when Ishod would be pressured from both sides of the racial divide: white skaters discriminating against him, and Black peers chastising him for his pursuit of what they considered to be a white sport. And while we can see a certain imperturbable confidence in Ishod’s current part, there still loomed (then as now) the unfortunate experiences of other Black skaters before him, in particular someone like Bastien Salabanzi. Following the release of his part in Flip’s Really Sorry, the publication of an historically unheard-of 18-page interview in Thrasher, and a slew of contest wins, Salabanzi was at the top of the skate world, yet rather than a SOTY title, skaters, ordinarily forgiving to flamboyant egos, seemed to have more to say about his personality than his abilities. After Salabanzi’s infamous boasting at the 2004 Tampa Pro contest, a contest that he won, he drew accusations of cockiness and arrogance, historically the type of language that white audiences level at Black men to diminish their abilities, and cast doubt upon their accomplishments. To simply acknowledge his own talents, even celebrate himself, earned Salabanzi widespread censure. Though it would be a mix of personal and professional reasons that would soon force him to move back to Europe, I often wonder if Salabanzi might have enjoyed a longer career in the States had skate culture proved more hospitable to Black skaters.

In a way, Ishod’s response to these challenges was to crunch the numbers. He has an elemental approach to skateboarding and has long immersed himself in the technical minutiae, the hard physics that underlie the act of skateboarding. It’s not such an uncommon route to take, in a way. As design thinker Prem Krishnamurthy describes in his book, On Letters, to pursue math or science offered a way to contend with systemic racism. “[A]s Black people in America,” he writes, describing the parents of artist Leslie Hewitt, “studying or teaching math meant that there was a correct answer that could not be denied based on race.” In Ishod’s case, he has proofed everything out, with hard math giving him ammunition against subjective judgments. And if that deep study were not enough, he pursued skateboarding with an obsessive zeal, directing himself toward practical mastery. The result is truly wild sometimes. The way Ishod approaches spots, thinking through them with a critical, nearly scientific objectivity, can sometimes seem absurd, as when he compares the angle of a kinked rail to a wedge ramp. “Go down that shit no beef,” he says, as if everyone approached skating with the same lucid analysis, rather than the fear of sacking yourself a kinked rail ordinarily brings to mind.

Such observational capacities have made these experiments easy for him to replicate, but as the ensuing years prove, he never repeated himself. And, rather than simply sit on his laurels, and harden into an easily definable shape, he would become one of the most well-rounded skateboarders in the world—a hard thing to achieve, and an even harder thing to pull off. Almost immediately, we start to see how Ishod refuses to limit himself to just one genre or style. Rather than capitalize on his widespread notoriety, he once again steeps himself in his local scene, putting out a part for Sabotage 4 and recording another Philly-heavy part in ECVX. His approach to local haunts advances, as well, as he veers between lackadaisical bangers, effortless bump to bars, and more cerebral use of Daniel Martinez, Renee Petropoulis, and Roger White’s public art tribute to boardgames, Your Move (1996) at Muni. As if playing a game of chess with himself, he approaches the spot with disarming confidence and improvisation, literally toying with the various game pieces in a strategic mix of stately ledge tricks and more off-the-cuff wallies and slappies—a wild, rangy combination of styles that both pays tribute to his East Coast roots, and proves a deft balance of high tastes and low forms. In general, he just seems to be as excited to skateboard and learn new things as he ever was, as in his unusual SOTY cover. Rather than some jaw-dropping banger, he offers us an image of a Black man of leisure, articulating a no-comply over a barrier on some Floridian boardwalk. The board? A reissue of Jim Thiebaud’s famous graphic, the “hanging Klansman”.

“People like to think that skateboarding is just random,” Ishod says in a 2018 Thrasher article titled “Ishod Wair Trick Detective”. “You throw your board at this thing and then things just happen. In actuality, everything happens for a reason. The smallest measurements mean something.” Ishod seems to have always possessed a probing mindset, and to have sought out opportunities for self-improvement, particularly on a skateboard. Following his SOTY victory, we have already seen that he refused to just soak in the limelight. But he not only puts out a handful of street parts, he also hunkers down and teaches himself something new. And, as a regular at FDR, it does not take long for him to become a proper bowl troll just like all the other hessians of Western, PA, though he brings to the genre something smoother and more urbane.
Historically, transitions and concrete skateparks are not friendly contexts to Black skaters, but in his Back on My SB part for Nike, Ishod has a commanding, irrefutable ease on the rough-hewn bowls under the bridge. In one, he nose picks the deep end of one secluded pocket, plunging himself back into the pool with the practiced tempo of a swimmer who had just come up for air. When he steps a backside boneless off of the highway supports he lets himself back into the bowl with the practiced confidence of a no-look pass—everything, including Ishod, is where they belong. His music choice is also inspired, electing to skate to Mark Morrison’s 1996 R&B masterwork, “Return of the Mack,” a song that brings to the part a party-like atmosphere. Alongside the track’s easy rhythm, and Morrison’s smooth vocals, Ishod appears entirely self-possessed. In every clip, he’s completely at ease with himself and his abilities. I rewatch this part every few months not only for the impressiveness of the skating, but also for the mood it puts me in. From the no comply he casually steps onto the coping in the deep end of some immense pool to the technical discipline of a switch crooked grind he takes back to fakie (adding a kickflip), we see Ishod relishing in his craft, each trick testifying to someone who has found his rhythm.

A lot has changed since Ishod first won SOTY, particularly in what we expect from a pro skater. Today, we expect pro skaters to be more image-conscious. We want them to possess a certain savvy, a certain awareness of trends. Whether perverse or profound, we want something that can stick out from the morass of never-ending content, and the algorithm’s all-powerful tendency toward middlebrow conformity. The situation puts extra pressure on a skater like Ishod, who has dedicated himself to a more classical image of skating, one which is more easily absorbed into the algorithm, and reduced to fodder. Basically, we want a content creator, who is also a skater.

Indeed, while there is something magical about his output of the last three years, you have to wonder if Ishod doesn’t feel a little left behind. His 10-minute part for Real was beyond masterful, but since it didn’t come out during #SOTYszn, his part was swallowed up by the flood of skate content. And not only that, but there is the question of art direction. Compared to the more cinematic atmospherics of someone like Bill Strobeck, who eschews a documentary style for something more impressionistic, Ishod’s recent video offerings seem a little staid and straightforward. Tyshawn Jones has also presented some competition for the throne—in a way, he looks like Ishod’s successor. The two-time SOTY winner has, over the last several years, wrestled the skate world into submission with his irrefutable athleticism and outspoken ambitiousness, resetting the bar at numerous historic spots. The model of a pro skater he represents also sees skating less as a milestone than a stepping stone. Having opened multiple businesses, including his mother’s restaurant, he has added business mogul to his string of titles. Within this competitive milieu, Ishod’s part failed to stir up the same sense of urgency as Tyshawn’s productions, which are more attuned to the current media landscape, and instead landed with the tepid greeting of a greatest hits album—satisfying, fun, but hardly new.

Lately, though, Ishod seems to be making up for lost time. Swapping pro-skater for content creator, he has sought to rebrand himself as a multi-hyphenate, adding model and photographer to his original distinction. Like many other young Black skaters, such as Lil Dre, Na-Kel Smith, and Lucien Clark, Ishod was tapped for modeling gigs by creative director Virgil Abloh, who wanted to foreground the influence these young Black skaters have had on style and culture without deracinating skateboarding like his fashion contemporaries. Now, Ishod is the face of the SS23 campaign for Acne Studios, which photographed him in and around his home, and a spokesperson for BMW, both of which foreground his skateboarding career as a sign of authentic individuality—“You need to do it in the way that it’s you, or it just becomes unauthentic [sic],” Ishod opines at the end of his BMW IG spot. Whether it’s true of Ishod or not, he nonetheless has the savvy to recognize the thirst these non-skate companies have for skateboarders, who many young people and brands alike see as cultural connoisseurs endowed with the coolness they hope to siphon into their own cultural engines.

Some aspects of Ishod’s new influencer identity are more convincing than others, with his own earnestness occasionally shining through the more thoughtful facade. The Acne campaign photographs Ishod at the LA River, and claims it is his favorite spot, but I’ve never seen a clip of him skating there. And a recent IG post from the Super Bowl seems to show the ambivalence at the heart of Ishod’s new medium—a sort of influencer paradox. At first I cringed when he demanded a new Telfar bag after security made him throw his out. He seemed to miss the point about the high-concept bag’s subversion of luxury, and how its accessible price point, affordable materials, and made-to-order “secure the bag” campaigns overturn the exclusivity that undergirds high fashion. Not to mention the space Telfar, a queer Black designer has carved out for himself in the fashion world—let’s just say, Beyoncé shouts him out. Yet, at the same time, what was Ishod going to do, not attend the Super Bowl, and give up on a once in a lifetime event to defend the somewhat easily replaced status bag?

While it’s unclear how far skate cachet will carry Ishod into the influencer space, we are nonetheless witness to someone who is trying to build some additional equity for himself. In “Architecture,” a recent episode of filmer Davonte Jolly’s YouTube series, A Day With The Homies, we follow Ishod and friends for an afternoon of skating and shopping, which they cap with a little photo shoot at the golden hour. Gripping what looks like an 35mm Olympus Stylus, Ishod coaxes fellow pro Robert Neal into a pine tree, poking fun at Neal’s initial awkwardness. As the latter struggles to look effortlessly cool without falling out of the tree, a sort of tenderness passes between the two pro skaters. With their skate talent aside, we witness a beautiful feedback loop of self-identification—cameras on cameras on cameras—as Jolly captures a moment when two (and really three) Black men negotiate their own public images for themselves—and unlike his early days in the industry, Ishod is in on the teasing this time.
It’s perhaps in this twilight moment, this lush light at the end of day, that we might view Ishod’s more sophisticated and lyrical Spitfire part, which itself reflects a kind of awakening. He’s finally fessed up to the pro ambitions, gone to where skate dreams are made of, and his style is unabashed, unrushed, finding new ways to skate familiar avenues. There’s just a certain satisfaction in every clip. When he hits us with stairs and drops, he always stands up slowly, deliberately, as if to savor the impact. Twice, he celebrates landing a hammer with a kickflip so compact and beautiful it nearly steals the entire clip, its precision velocity sucking the wind right out of your chest. And when he sticks out his tongue in a Michael Jordan-like expression, I see it as not only a gesture of concentration, but also of someone unafraid to be fun-loving. His style has also matured from the sweaty five-panel hat of the skate rat into the more chic look of the professional, which, ironically, involves jorts (it looks good). Pacing, too, seems much more important, giving the feeling of a much larger project at play—of someone who knows the importance of taking his time, because no one will take it for him. No longer needing to prove the extent of his abilities, he talks about “experience points” in interviews like someone who has finally broadened their purview beyond the skateboard industry.

One wonders how much to read into the choice of song, too. “One Beer” was, in part, a response to the crunk era of rap, the bombastic style of which DOOM lampoons throughout the track. To him, these rappers are ostentatious and course. They look like goofs as they yell (rather than rap) about chasing money and women. It’s not like DOOM doesn’t want these things. A self-fashioned heel, he too takes part in hijinks and capers, but he has a particular code, which comes across when he challenges his fellow rappers to a drinking contest, before offering to pick up the tab. “Tempt me, do a number on the label,” DOOM challenges, soon suggesting that he will easily keep himself together when others succumb to the intoxication of success. We might read something similar in Ishod’s part, that he wades back into the industry periodically not because he has something to prove, but as a regulatory force, as someone who needs to set the record straight, and make sure that kooks don’t find their way in. After any clip, you could easily imagine Ishod muttering to himself DOOM’s rejoinder, “Like, ‘It's on me—put it on my tab, kid”. These little flourishes and flaunts are not many, but they do punctuate his part, a sort of chest-out counterpoint to his general skate-centric focus. Back in 2017, when Michael Burnett leveled the claim that Ishod was the best skater out, the latter countered, “I’ve just been trying to have fun and learn.” When he skates, he does let himself show off here and here, mostly with a big smile.

Historically, the truest sign of self-confidence is to not take yourself too seriously. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t celebrate your successes, nor does it mean you are off the hook when you do something dumb. The point is, for all of his success, Ishod has never been afraid to flaunt his own foibles and missteps either, even if he sometimes gets in his head about it, and tries to over explain. In any case, here, he’s poised, and puts his incredible talent once again toward reestablishing himself within the skate world zeitgeist, taking his seat back on some throne. As he says in a recent interview, he approached this part with a clear sense of purpose. As he lacks the time to just go out and skate, pulled in other directions by other interests, other forums, other ways of speaking, he knows what he wants and goes to get it—no wasted time. And he goes about the process organically, adjusting to circumstances when an idea does not prove fruitful. In short, he’s gone back to basics, basics he knows better than virtually anyone else.

Such an inside-out grasp of skateboarding certainly plays out in his ability to inject stylish nuance into countless hammers. He finesses a fakie hardflip down some stairs, drawing out the explosive power and impressive engineering of its trebuchet-like motion. On a fakie flip at a famous SF triple set, he keeps the movement kind of low, sweeping across the long distance like a low-flying jet plane—were there no music, we would hear a deafening woosh as the board sucks up to his feet. In both clips, he ekes out a distinct poetry from the trick, stretching out certain flourishes, and recalibrating our attention to subtle nuance on a grand scale, as if he could only draw these tricks to their appropriate emotional tension by leaping from these enormous stages. Really, there’s a magisterial presence to these gestures that approaches the epic, as if he were a painter, who, having reached maturity, finally feels confident enough to approach a larger canvas, expanding his intricate vision to fill this new breadth.

To stay at the top, one will always need to adapt. Old hardships don’t go away, while new ones present themselves. And sadly, for a Black skater at the top of his game, those challenges are far from gone, having to deal with everything from ignorance to microaggressions, undermining to outright bigotry, even in the skate world. As Ishod describes in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd for the September 2020 issue of Thrasher, a short walk by himself in small town Idaho presents a mortal danger. Yet, as Ishod adapts and grows over the years, it is not just his talents that have kept him at the top, but rather, his perennial dedication to the details. He’s a master, a skater just as comfortable on a podium as at the random ledge spot. A decade of fame has, paradoxically, also reinforced his position as a skater’s skater, two conditions that, in most people’s minds, seem contradictory.

Ultimately, Ishod is a classicist, breathing new life into old forms, and not afraid to occasionally be goofy with the fundamentals. He knows himself, in short, and is not afraid to embrace his internal contradictions and imperfections. And somehow, as he discussed with Tim Fulton in the February 2023 issue of Thrasher, even on the rare occasion that he slams, skateboarding remains the most natural thing in the world to him, the language by which he understands it all. “I’ll never forget that time you ate shit on that big hubba in LA,” says Fulton. “We thought you were going to be out for awhile but after the session you skated a skatepark.”

“Yeah, that sucked,” Ishod replies unperturbed. “I just be skating, though.” •••

Special thanks to Dena Yago and Max Harrison-Caldwell for the thoughtful edits and support.