Ask Mike Vallely why he wears a helmet when he skates and you’ll get an obvious answer: He wears it to protect to his head. But to skaters conditioned by a culture of branded “defiance”, that simple answer never seems to be enough. The act of protecting one’s own skull from potentially life-threatening injuries has too often become something that requires convoluted explanations and apologies. Putting on the helmet before going skating… Any kind of skating, was a step that, even Vallely, a man with nothing to prove to anyone, had to grapple with.
“As a street skater I have always challenged myself, always questioned everything, set out to destroy barriers,” explains Vallely. “Wearing a helmet now is an evolution of those ideas.”
Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Sierra Prescott
Helmets have been worn by skaters since the beginning of skateboarding, so what’s the big deal? To see it clearly you have to pierce the smoke and mirrors. The real question the culture has to ask itself, the dilemma at the bottom of the helmet quandary is not “why wear a helmet?’ it’s “why don’t we wear helmets?” When you really unpack that question, a lot of the reasons seem pretty thin and some of those objections are outright contradictory to what we all think we value.
A little history review can put it in perspective.
Rewind back to the golden age of skateparks in the late 70‘s: at Big O, or Upland or wherever, the helmet was a non-issue. If you wanted to ride, the insurance policies and the dude at the gate said you had to strap one on. It’s just what you did.
When the parks died, the brain bucket lived on in the backyard vert session. Photos from those days show ditching the park rules didn’t mean ditching head protection. All those legends were padded up on the plywood. The wild west of backyard pool sessions were usually helmet free affairs though, and when the the rank and file of skating poured into the streets in the late 80’s, the helmet got completely left behind.
Part of this had to do with the fact that the safety gear that kept skaters safe when bailing on transition did little to protect skaters from the direct impacts and joint twisting injuries that were most common in street skating. With the ollie in its infancy, the low-to-the-ground nature of the basic street repertoire made the probability of banging your head pretty slim.
As street skating evolved, however, blowing it on a rail or landing too far back barging some stairs made severe blows to the back of the head a real possibility. The “rules” that had been established, on the other hand, were solidified, and they dictated “no helmets”. Gradually an expression of freedom had become a commandment of orthodoxy.
“I can relate to not wearing a helmet,” Vallely explains. “To skaters the helmet has come to represent authorities and pad nannies and rigid skatepark rules. When you talk about wearing helmets, skaters have a knee jerk reaction. It is in their DNA, it’s a part of who we are. Those roots run deep, but they’re also very archaic. This culture has moved forward.”
When Vallely applied the values of total freedom and open expression to all the reasons skaters don’t sport helmets on the street, what he saw was a reversal of context.
“There were years where I was playing a minor, sometimes even a major role, in developing that defiant part of the street skating psyche. At different times that sort of counter-culture to the counter-culture was really meaningful to me… But eventually things like that become imitation, people imitating something that came about in a real moment. It’s just putting on an outfit, and at this point that outfit doesn’t include the helmet.”
Never a man to be ruled by the dictates of fashion, the reasons not to wear a helmet evaporated for Vallely. “What the culture values, I have never used that as a guide.”
Bean Plant: Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Sierra Prescott
Other changes in skateboarding made the hardcore anti-helmet attitude seem even more irrelevant. “The new generation, they aren’t getting a skateboard in their teens now,” says Vallely. “They get a board when they are 4. It’s a different world. I’d rather be on the right side of history at this point in my career than being the guy that thinks: “I’m going to shred this without any helmet!’ and then getting carried away on a stretcher in a coma.”
“I’m not a different skater. In terms of how it felt wearing a helmet, it was weird for a couple minutes, then it didn’t matter. It was a hiccup. I put on the helmet, I got used to it, and then life went on. It’s other people’s perceptions that need to be challenged. As soon as those are challenged, it becomes a non-issue.”
Ultimately, though, the decision to helmet up was personal. “I’ve gotten feedback already that it’s making a difference to people, making a difference to parents when they talk to their kids, but the ultimate decision is for myself. Like I said, I want to be on the right side of history, not just because of my place in skateboard culture, but because of my place in my household. I didn’t need that concern of ‘I could have done something to prevent an injury’. I could no longer justify to myself not wearing a helmet.
I had to ask myself some tough questions. I answered them, and then I put the fucking helmet on.”
Kyle DuVall had been writing about skateboarding almost as long as he has been skateboarding.
Triple-stitch onepiece toe
Printed toe protection
Medial ventilation panel
Ventilated 3D mesh tongue
Tongue centering elastic
EVA Strobel construction
Molded dual density footbed
ServantStick dual density cupsole
HeelHeaven impact protection
Full-length EVA wedge
In 1995 skateboarding was at a crossroads, and so was Mike Vallely. Street skating was beginning to emerge from years of increasingly narrowing specialization. East Coast influences and general discontent with a style of street skating that might be better termed “spot skating”, were re-introducing free flowing diversity into the culture. Flow was back, along with wider boards, bigger wheels, and an increased mindfulness of style. The idea that getting from point a to point b could be a session in and of itself was on the rise.
For Vallely, a man for whom professional skateboarding was not just an occupation but a mission, 1995 was the year he was supposed to “retire”. Even though his skating was as passionate and creative as ever, and his efforts had re-vitalized his sponsor, Powell Skateboards, presence in the culture, the conventional “wisdom” of the industry still dictated that it was time for Vallely to fade into the background, or fade away altogether.
“In 1994-95 I was being told my pro career was over. Pro skateboarding was an expression of who I was, my identity,” says Vallely. “I always thought pro skaters were people who can communicate the bliss of skateboarding. I’ve always thought I did a good job at that, so I considered myself a pro even when a lot of people thought I was over.”
Among all the noise and turmoil, Vallely produced a video part that was more than a simple catalog of tricks. Vallely’s segment in Powell Skateboards’ “Scenic Drive” video expresses a substantive point of view. There’s a whole philosophy embedded in the edit, and, although it was never as influential as Valley’s seminal parts in videos like Speed Freaks or Public Domain, it may be the one edit that says the most about Mike Vallely himself.
“That Powell era symbolizes a time when I started really deciding how I wanted to present my skateboarding,” says Vallely. “I was claiming ownership over my own skating. Before that video part, I was still skating my own way, but it was more of an unconscious thing, I would just do it. In the Powell era I was becoming more conscious of why I was doing it.”
Vallely’s segment in the video is titled “Death Vallely”. Perhaps no more than a throwaway pun on the surface, considering the pressures on Vallely at the time, the comparison of his video part to a dried out, arid wasteland synonymous with death attains a bit of significance.
“In ’95 I had a young family and no future prospects. My peers didn’t respect me, my boss was telling me to hang it up. I was feeling depressed. It was a bleak time. The only time I felt good about skateboarding was when I was actually riding a skateboard.”
The first clips we see are of Vallely skating one of the big European contests. As the massive crowd cheers, Vallely pulls 3 tricks over the street course’s pyramid, including a huge kickflip up on to the deck from flat. These opening shots are images of a man in his element, going all out, feeding off the crowd and amplifying their energy. This is the glamorous side of the pro skate life, and Mike V appears to be thriving in it.
The footage then fades into a montage of bleak images from Vallely’s hometown of Edison, New Jersey and the surrounding areas. Dilapidated buildings and cryptic street signs are superimposed on scrolling footage of a mural that states, “you’re a stranger here.” Underneath the images you hear the ragged harmonica solo that starts Bruce Springsteen’s “Johnny 99”, the song which scores the whole segment.
Next we see Vallely pushing down a seedy urban sidewalk, characteristic intensity on his face. The surroundings seem unclear. After that montage of images, the viewer’s first instinct is to assume he is in New Jersey. Wherever it is, the scene could not be more different than the preceding one, with its cheering crowds and flashing cameras. Still, Vallely seems totally in his element, maybe even more in his element, even when he slams hard on his second trick, a huge frontside wallride on a steeply angled wall.
The scene then cuts to Vallely going hard down another strip of urban sidewalk. Although a careful viewer might notice Southern California palm trees in the background, it’s as anonymous a strip of urban concrete as the previous clip. Vallely pops some big ollies and boardslide transfers a big telephone pole on the side of the road and pushes on. The majority of locations that follow are equally mundane.
“Nothing was planned out, I didn’t have spots,” Valley says. “Most of the places are not even locations, we’d just be going down a street and I’d just say ‘park here’ let’s go skating down this street.”
There are still a few familiar locations sprinkled in the edit, but in an era of celebrity skate spots, the segment conspicuously avoids all the fantasy terrain skaters of the time might expect to see.
“The reason I was not at the L.A. Courthouse was because everyone was clamoring for the L.A. Courthouse,” Vallely explains. “It was at that time when you’d get in a car, hear all the noise, see a pic in the mag and then everyone wants to emulate that idea ‘Hey we gotta go to this spot and get this trick…’”
There are a few shots of Vallely sessioning an indoor vert ramp, and one looping line at Seattle’s Seaskate Skatepark, but even the clips in prominent locations show a skater out of step with the mainstream of skateboarding: His line through a Camarillo school campus avoids familiar rails, stairs and benches. When Vallely approaches a trashcan tipped on its side for ollies, he just rolls on through it. As characteristic a moment as one could find in the edit.
Johnny Oliver’s videography helps give the skating a solitary, spontaneous feel. The camera either has the filmer struggling to follow Vallely flying down the sidewalks, schoolyards and back alleys, or alternately, shooting him from a distance, as if the skating is something happened upon by a bystander. This, combined with editing that utilizes quick fades instead of hard cuts between shots gives the part a feeling of an ever-forward drive. It’s a slice of Vallely’s skating, not a cherry picked, pre-planned “highlight reel” of Vallely’s repertoire. It’s raw and spontaneous, while always stylish. Vallely doesn’t seem to be sessioning, he’s skating. Skating hard.
“Around this time I got a call from Stacy Peralta,” Vallely recollects. “He wanted to interview me for some segment he was doing for MTV. While I was talking to him I started getting kind of philosophical about skating and I think it kind of gave him pause. He asked me: ‘Mike, do skaters still drive to a spot, get out of the car walk up the stairs, put their board down do a trick down the stairs, then walk up back the stairs and do another trick?’ I said, ‘yeah, that’s pretty much what skateboarding is now.’ He thought about it for a second and said ‘Yeah, that’s NOT skateboarding.’ It rubbed him so wrong that that was the currency of the day. Once videos and mags become trick catalogs, you lose the culture and the bigger picture.”
The closest the edit comes to resembling “session” footage, is 4 or 5 tricks Vallely pulls off the embankment of a dilapidated, square swimming pool, but even then the tricks are broken up into two separate segments. Whether it was by design or a coincidence of the limitations of contemporary video cameras, the images are murky, as if, somehow, every clip was shot on a perpetually, overcast day. This, combined with the spare, often indistinguishable spots Vallely is riding, make it seem like he’s skating miles and world’s away from California’s eternal sunshine and fantasy-level skate spots. The whole part is about Vallely moving ahead, never staying in place, yet never actually trying to get anywhere. A journey that is the destination.
“I was never, have never, and will definitely never be part of any kind of ‘skate crew’,” says Vallely. “I never had the ‘high five’ mentality in my skating.”
That cryptic statement: “You’re a stranger here…” echoes through the whole segment. Pushing through barren cityscapes, floating through vacant skate spots, Vallely does seem to be a stranger, but a stranger from what? Is the “here” the sunny, skate paradise of Southern California that Oliver and Vallely have portrayed as bleak and rugged as any New Jersey industrial sprawl? Is it the larger cultural space of pro skateboarding? A place where an idealist like Vallely has always fought to maintain his identity and values?
“Honestly, It was all of it” says Vallely. “The skate industry, what the ‘competition’ was doing… From the day I got sponsored I’d never felt like I had been part of any of it. I knew that my skating was built to do the distance but all I ever heard was that it was played out. In 1995 I was supposed to be done, but I had my own ideas about that.”
Predictably, there is no small element of bleakness in the part, and it’s heightened by Vallely’s music selection, Bruce Springsteen’s “Johnny 99”. Springsteen’s connection to Vallely’s New Jersey roots is obvious, and in the post “Video Days” 1990’s, picking an obscure pop song over a Hip Hop or Punk track was nothing new. Unlike other pop tracks used in the era, Vallely’s was made without a sense of irony. The song is dark, spare and anthemic, a song about a man with his back against the wall with no options. It exists in lock step with all those muddy shots of lonely streets and empty cityscapes. Rarely has song and skating been more in sync in a video part.
“In a lot of ways,” Vallely explains, “I was projecting bleakness into the bleakness.”
But ultimately, the desperation is trumped by that ever forward drive, the repeated, even repetitive, images of Vallely charging through empty spaces and flying over everything in his way. That statement in the first moment of the edit “You’re a stranger here…” still echoes. Vallely is a stranger in the empty California streets, a stranger in an industry he has helped sustain, a stranger in the culture he’s had such an influence on. But Vallely’s skating in the edit is in defiance of those feelings. In those moments, on his skateboard, pushing, riding, attacking whatever comes under his wheels, Valley can never be a stranger. As long as he is moving forward on his board, Vallely is exactly where he’s supposed to be.
“At that time the only way I was able to ‘push forward’” Vallely recalls, “was by pushing forward on my board.”
Beyond what was going on with Vallely’s career at that moment there is a much bigger theme in play in this slice of skating. If the disposable commodity that is the skate video part can ever be said to present ideas, then this one presents a very important one.
“I wanted to talk about grabbing your board and skating everywhere. That is the main idea I’ve tried to present in my skating. I saw all these guys doing the daily meet up, sitting around, then driving around trying to find a spot to film a video clip, all the effort to document tricks at all these spots most people don’t have access to. It’s kind of elitist to me. It’s more prominent today, but it kind of rubbed me the wrong way even back in the 90’s. I saw the motivation behind it; go get a trick for the magazine or for your video part: document, document, document. Is skating becoming something you spectate now? Or is it something you participate in. My idea is that it is something you participate in.”
In a world where kids enter skateboarding with the monkey of documentation clawing at their backs, and parks create whole breeds of skater who never drop urethane outside the perimeters of the local municipally funded skate playground, these are essential ideas, ideas too often lost by virtue of their simplicity. Whether you just bought your first set up, or you’re one of the greatest skateboarders of all time, the streets, any streets, are always out there, and they’re where you belong. In school, at work, at home, even at the skatepark, you may not fit in, but out there, you’re never a stranger.
Kyle DuVall had been writing about skateboarding almost as long as he has been skateboarding.