This year’s London Tattoo Convention sees a skateboarding legend among the guests. ali catterall profiles the man who got his first skateboard in 1966 – then proceeded to become an icon of the sport
Steve Olson, 58, is one of the most revered skateboardists in the galaxy; a pioneer of the sport, with a raft of now legendary tricks under his belt by the time he was 16. The first vertical skateboard champion, he’s also credited with introducing the scene to punk rock and creating the game-changing Santa Cruz Checkerboard model, graphics courtesy of his older brother Bucky, one of the best surfboard airbrushers around (“a little brother could not have had a better older brother”).
Growing up in California, Orange County, where surfing rules, Olson was no stranger to a longboard. But skateboarding, originally introduced in the 1940s, was always a standby for thrill-seeking kids when the waves were flat. “Within the parallels of surfing and skating, one goes hand in hand,” he says. A competitive surfer as a kid, Olson had taken the competitiveness of sporting icons such as Bruce Lee and Mohammed Ali to heart. And when skateboards introduced groundbreaking polyurethane wheels, it changed everything – “it was the closest thing to surfing”.
And for decades, his life has converged at the intersection where surfing, skating, music, fashion and art meet. He’s also been a commodity broker, an advertising director, played the likes of the Viper Room in bands (“I love music beyond comprehension,” he says), dated catwalk models and Hollywood actresses, and raised a son, Alex, also a skater. We caught up with Steve in New York, en route to the London Tattoo Convention.
What were the parallels between skateboarding and Punk?
I liked the music, the energy, and the attitude. And they had something to fight for. Bands like the Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones, and the Buzzcocks; it was like hopped-up rock n roll. The clothing and fashion and record covers were really amazing too. Before skateparks existed, we had to improvise our own from empty swimming pools or drainage ditches, and we had a ‘Fuck you’ attitude because we were always being told, ‘You can’t skate there’, and we were like, ‘We just wanna do our thing, go fuck yourself.’ At 16, as a professional skateboarder, I’d be asked, ‘Aren’t you too old to ride this toy?’ And I’d be like, ‘Wow: not really. Because right now, I’m on the road and getting paid to ride this toy, and go fuck yourself. You never got it, you never will.’
And then in true punk spirit you dropped out of high school?
It was boring except for sports and art and crafts. I was in 11th grade, and in the middle of a skateboarding competition, when my science teacher said, ‘Go to the office, you have an attitude problem.’ And I was like, ‘No I don’t.’ The school counsellor told me I’d have to go to summer school, and then go to summer school again after I graduated just to make up the grades, and I was like, come on, I’m travelling, I’m doing something with my life already. I remember, he had a 1959 Corvette and I’d bought a 1969 Porsche. And I said to him as I was walking out, ‘Oh by the way Huey – Mister Huey – if you wanna trade cars, I’m down, but you’re gonna have to give me a grand.’ And he threw his pencil at me and I slammed the door and I left. Anyway, I convinced my parents I’d get my diploma some other way, and they were like, ‘Sure, as long as you don’t waste 11 years of your life, and you are doing something.’ I had cool parents.
You had a controversial moment at the 1978 Skateboarder of the Year Awards…
I’d won – which was unexpected in my world. I went up and got the award wearing bondage trousers, a white blazer and a polka dot tie. Everyone else had long hair too, and I’d cut my hair and pierced my ear. I was a little buzzed, and they said ‘Speech, speech!’ And I remember spitting at the cameras and flicking boogers at them. And Tony Alva, who came second, threw his trophy in the trash because he thought he should have won again, like the previous year. The industry was like, ‘These two guys are not very good reps for the sport.’ But the kids were like, ‘Fuck yes! These guys are in it because they wanna do what they wanna do’. I was so psyched about winning, but I had to pretend I wasn’t, just to be cool.
Tell us about the LA skater movie Thrashin’?
It was one of the most fun things I’ve done in my life, and such a great thing to hang out with your friends. [But] there were injuries on set. During the climactic downhill race between the good guys and bad guys, I broke my wrist. I was pissed, because I thought, all the money I’ve made on this will have to be spent on hospital bills. And someone said, ‘Call the Screen Actors Guild.’ The SAG said, ‘We can get you 25 grand.’ And on the last day of shooting they brought me in and said ‘We know you have a case with SAG and we want you to drop it. We can give you a cheque for three grand.’ I had a cowboy hat on at the time, and they said, ‘It’s like you have a gun to our heads.’ And I said, ‘If I had a gun to your heads, I would have fucking blown your heads off. So your little analogy is wrong.’ I stepped off the set, and everyone got the proper day rate. We won, in the end. But the fucking movie turned out to be such a piece of shit. It’s more funny than anything; it’s got its own little cult bullshit thing.
How did the Hollywood adventure work out?
I wanted to get a SAG card, so I went to an acting class in New York. I thought, I’ll figure out this whole acting thing. And it was just like fucking drama class in high school. A bunch of fucking lame people. So I did a bunch of commercials, and got 50 grand for a day’s work. I thought, ‘This is the fucking dream.’ I’d met a manager who represented Jenny Agutter and she said ‘I’d love to represent you.’ One of the auditions happened to be for the TV spin-off of Teen Wolf. In the waiting room I was crawling around like a wolf – kind of taking the piss. The other actors were like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ And then the casting agent came in and I growled at her and she went ‘Oh my God.’ She called my manager to complain. Then I read for a part in [Brat-Pack Western] Young Guns. They were like, ‘We love your audition, but there’s no way we can hire you. Because all these other guys are established acts and you might just take their fucking glory.’ And that was it – that was my whole acting thing.
And now you’re a painter…
I fucking love art. Art is very cool. I’ve always fucked with art, even with skateboarding. I started painting using a bunch of rags and a squeegee. And I sold some of them, and now I’m deeply into it. I draw a little bit of inspiration from the Dada movement, and from punk. I did a show with a proper gallery with a gallerist, Diane Rosenstein, and she said, “You’re a painter now, you can’t really do this whole skateboard thing as well. And I just thought, ‘That’s my life. I make art, and I skateboard and I surf and I snowboard and I do whatever.’ Anyone can do whatever they want if they put their mind to it. There are so many amazing artists in the world, so this is the most competitive thing I’ve ever been involved with in that sense. I like Banksy’s messages. We used to do stencils on our skateboards, and here’s a guy taking it to this whole new place. I like that kid’s stuff a lot. I just did a lifesize bronze sculpture of a guy on a bicycle down in Houston. He’s upside down and doing a skateboard trick. It turned out really wicked.
What do you think the future of skateboarding is going to be?
It’s really more commercial and mainstream now: there are so many more people in the world, which means there’s gonna be that many more kids skateboarding. And there are so many good cats out there. My friends are like, ‘Those guys aren’t really skateboarding’, because it’s often based on single-trick performances, strung together, whereas back in the day, it was a combination of a different tricks in one run. And I just think, ‘Are you out of your mind? These kids are taking it and they’re smoking anything we did.’ Someone asked me what I thought of skateboarding coming to the Olympics in 2020 and I thought, ‘I’m really pissed! I wanted to get a gold medal!’
What’s the ultimate appeal of skateboarding for you?
For me, I always relate it to surfing and to skiing. You’re on this tool, and you’re just flying; you’re floating above the actual ground. That’s a pretty cool sensation. I use my skateboard to get myself around a lot, too, wherever I go. I always bring my skateboard whether I’m skating or not. I went on one trip and didn’t bring my skateboard and I felt completely naked. I thought, ‘Wow: I will never leave without my skateboard again.’ It’s part of you. It’s a part of me, that’s for sure. I’m 58 years old, and people still ask me, aren’t you too old for that? And I’m like, ‘Yo bitch, I’ve been dealing with that question since I was 13-years-old. No, I’m not too old. If you do something that you love, you’re gonna win.