All images: Chris Johnson (unless stated). Words: James Renhard. Additional reporting: Jono Coote & Tristan Kennedy
“Whenever I'm connected to that kind of shit, I'm heading back down that sheet that’s going to take me straight to hell".
There’s no sense of theatre about Tony Alva, as he talks about his demons. There’s no drama, or performance designed to distort the truth. There is, however, the combination of a still calm, mixed with arrow-straight intensity that somehow feels familiar from the man credited as being one of - if not the - father of skateboarding as we recognise it today.
It’s not uncommon to see people try to find the right noun for Tony Alva. In his 60 years, he’s been called a surfer, a skater, a musician, a leader, a businessman, a criminal, a menace, a party animal, a villain, a hero, a legend, a Z-Boy...
"It’s hard to be aware of starting a new sport when you’re constantly running from police"
When you’ve lived the life that Tony Alva has - assuming anybody else would have the metal for it - you’re going to attract a few labels over the years. We meet in London’s House Of Vans, which is throwing a 60th birthday party for Alva (although he does let slip “my actual birthday was on September the 2nd, but we’re still going").
Few 60 year olds find themselves celebrating their birthday halfway around the world surrounded by the great and the good of British skateboarding. This is no ordinary celebration, but Tony Alva is no ordinary man.
Born and raised in Santa Monica, California - a tough neighbourhood known as Dogtown, where gangs and crack houses were part of the DNA - Alva found himself a stone's throw from the municipal pier, a grubby surf spot that was fiercely protected by the people who rode there. It was a world away from the white-toothed smiles and good-clean-fun woven by the Beach Boys
Along with childhood friends, Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta, Alva’s ability on a surfboard saw him get on the local Zephyr surf team. When the waves were flat, the boys looked to skateboarding to hones their surf skills on land. The Zephyr surf team quickly became the Zephyr Skate team, or the Z Boys, and Alva was at the centre of it all.
With a combination of smash-mouth attitude, raw talent, and aggression, it wasn’t long before word spread about this gang of rebels who, at that time, in that place, were creating skateboarding as we know it today. They were, unquestionably, the genesis.
Did Alva realise at the time the impact they’d have on the world? “No. There's no way. It was always a grass roots thing to us. It wasn't ever about how big it was or how much money we could make doing it. It was more about the adventure, and having fun."
Fellow Z-Boy, Stacy Peralta confirmed how unaware the whole crew were, when we caught up with him recently “Not in the early days at all. Certainly we were aware of how much fun we were having and how much we loved what we were doing but it’s hard to be aware of starting a new sport when you’re constantly running from police."
The early development of skateboarding coincided with the early development of punk rock. Throw into the mix that housing developments in San Diego were being built but left vacant, the drought in 1970 that left many backyard pools in California empty and skateable, and for the first time, the emergence of Skateboarder magazine, with writers like Craig Stecyk and photographers like Jim Goodrich to document it all, and you had the perfect storm.
Skateboarding as we know it today was born, and Tony Alva’s star was rising.
Fame and fortune followed. There were Skateboarder of The Year titles, shoots in Playboy and film roles all before Alva had celebrated his 20th birthday.
By this point, the former Z-Boy had already been integral in the design of the first ever skate shoe - the Vans Era - as well as starting his own company - Alva Skates - despite offers from other major brands looking to cash in on his name. It was the first skateboard company to use layered Canadian maple plywood in its decks - a design still widely used to this day.
Imagine coming from nothing to find yourself, within 20 years, at the pinnacle of your profession, a pioneer, a star, with all the trappings that always seem to come in tow with fame. For Alva, the partying was as hard and aggressive as the skating.
"Coke turned you into an arsehole over time. Meth could turn you into an arsehole overnight"
Drugs were always part of the skateboard scene, as Jim Goodrich remembers. “Weed was always popular, from the earliest days on. But then cocaine came in, and got popular. Meth was shortly after that. I used to say that I noticed that coke kind of turned you into an arsehole over time but meth could turn you into an arsehole overnight."
The lifestyle caught up with Alva, who’d begun drinking alone. “I was never a social drinker." he told us, adding with a cackle, “I was never a moderate drinker! And I drank till I got out of self, and I drank to be The Guy. The tough guy. The leader. The pirate. The Captain of the pirate ship". Alva’s voice never breaks from its calm, reflective tone. He seems at peace with his past, rather than ashamed, or resentful, or embittered.
By 1983, skateboarding had seen both a crash in popularity as meteoric as its rise a decade earlier, and somewhat of a resurgence. Alva found himself Captaining yet another pirate ship, this time the infamous second incarnation of the Alva team, commonly known as the Alva Posse. Along with Alva, the team featured skateboarding luminaries such as Christian Hosoi, Mark Gonzalez, Jeff Hartsel, and Jim Murphy.
“We had a lot of good riders then." remembers Alva. “Some amazing talent on that team. Besides the Bones Brigade, I don’t think there’s ever been a team that versatile. We ended up with this kind of pirate ship vibe going on."
With many of the team living in Alva’s house in Venice beach, the lifestyle remained hard. “The living conditions were gnar. Uninhabitable to most, but as a skater, it was perfect. You had to be careful whenever the house ran out of toilet paper. Your t-shirt would disappear, only to be found a few weeks later in the trash with somebody’s ass wipes on it." Alva House resident and team skater Jeff Hartsel told skateboard blog Chrome Ball Incident earlier this year while recalling his days in the house.
While some memories remain fond, and anecdotes - undoubtedly polished with time - raise a smile, the reality is that the lifestyle took its toll on Alva. “I wasn't really happy with myself because I used drugs and alcohol as my spiritual experience in life," he confesses. “Whenever I'm connected to that kind of shit, I'm heading back down that sheet that’s going to take me straight to hell.
“And I'm not saying ‘hell’ as an imaginary place where you go to and burn. A place where you spend your eternity because you're a bad person. I'm talking about just being a slave to your own devices and your own negativity, and emotions that take you into the darkness".
On 20th September 2006, Tona Alva stopped. Stopped drinking. Stopped smoking. Stopped taking drugs. Addicts often talk about an event, a road to Damascus moment that changed their life. While there was no one particular incident or event, Alva tells us that “To make progress took hitting a bottom and then starting a process that cleans up the wreckage of the past."
Alva, now celebrating 11 years of sobriety, must have noticed significant changes since his decision to be clean back in 2006. “Blaming my actions on other people, places and things was a bad habit of mine. And it kind of connects to my disease, which is alcoholism.
"And so, today, I think I’m more of that true-to-the-game skater and surfer than I ever was, because of the fact that I don't wake up in the morning hungover. I'm not irritable and discontent. I don't have these huge resentment against people, places and things from my actions."
As he speaks, Alva retains his charisma and, of course, that quiet intensity that has been unswerving. However, when he speaks about his addiction and recovery, his words seem like part of a process that’s carefully choreographed. While not forced, or a struggle, it seems like something that definitely takes conscious, cognitive control.
“I still have my good and my bad days. I'm not perfect, and I'm not a machine, but the human experience is part of the deal. For me to go out and feel that human experience is really important, and I can't feel that when I’m under the influence of chemicals, or the influence of alcohol. I don't live in the dark any more. I live in the light, and that's where the solution is, and that's where I plan on staying for the rest of my life."
Today, celebrating his 60th birthday having lived a life that’s virtually unparalleled by anybody, Tony Alva remains as revered as he ever was. Many of the labels attached to him over the decades no doubt have been warranted, for better or worse. However, his status, along with his legacy as a genuine pioneer, innovator and icon within skateboarding are assured.
Maybe the biggest difference now is that Tony Alva himself can really love who he is now. Now that the self-imposed pressure to be the Captain of the pirate ship is long gone. His role in skateboarding remains just as pivotal, however.
“I've done a little over eleven years and I can share that experience and actually help others. I can show people another path that's connected to the stereotype of skateboarders being party animals, and all the bullshit that has, number one: killed half of my friends, two: the other half have ended up in and out of prison, and last but not least, took me down a road that was a dangerous, slippery slope. I don't have to go there, and live like that any more."
Life at 60, for Tony Alva may no longer be in the fast lane. The slams may take a day or two longer to recover from. The cops are almost certainly not chasing him out of backyard pools anymore, but his status as a true icon in skateboarding endures. It always will.
Happy birthday, Tony Alva.