Ben and Tas Pappas are probably the greatest skateboarders you’ve never heard of.
In the mid-90s when giants like Tony Hawk and Bucky Lasek roamed the earth, these Australian brothers exploded onto the scene like an angry, twin-headed David, squaring up to the American vert ramp Goliaths and beating them at their own game.
Their punk attitude and street-inspired approach to tricks was credited with inspiring a renewed interest in vert ramp riding, which at the time was increasingly seen as the less-cool cousin of street skating.
But if their impact was so massive, how is it that these two skaters’ names have all but disappeared in the decade and a half since their heyday? Where were their characters in the Tony Hawk games? Why are they not household names?
The excellent new documentary All This Mayhem (which will be shown in selected UK cinemas from August 8th) goes a long way towards explaining this discrepancy.
Made by the team behind Senna and Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop, the film tells the brothers’ story with snippets of incredible home movie footage (their childhood friend, videographer Greg Stewart cut his teeth filming them), interviews and archive shots from the skate comps of the 90s. And what a story it is.
A rough start
Born into a rough family on the wrong side of Melbourne, the Pappas boys had a pretty tough childhood. “My parents used to fight,” Tas recalls in the documentary, “Dad would hit Mum and then she would grab an ashtray and smash it in dad’s face and there’d be blood everywhere.”
“It was pretty hectic. We were always looking for a rush, and smashing things. We were basically little boguns. [Australian for white trash].” But they were boguns who, when they found a constructive outlet for their energy, turned out to be fantastically talented.
“Mum would grab an ashtray and smash it in dad’s face and there’d be blood everywhere.”
A chance trip to the Prahran vert ramp, a metal monster in Melbourne’s Princess Gardens, got the two brothers hooked on skateboarding at an early age. Although they were thick as thieves, the pair pushed each other too, and their balls-out bogun attitude meant they were soon the best skaters in the area, with hook-ups from Aussie shoe company Globe.
Realising that the opportunities to turn professional were limited in Australia, Tas, the older and brasher of the two, dropped out of school and headed to the US in the hope of making it big.
He quickly made a name for himself with a string of impressive contest results. His street-skating inspired tricks also turned heads – no-one else at the time was really doing anything similar on the ramp. When the quieter (but arguably more talented) Ben flew out to join him, the pair of them proceeded to take the pro-scene by storm.
Right from the off their hard-partying attitude was as notorious as their riding. Booze, coke, pills and anything else they could get their hands on were par for the course. Tas claims at one point that his most famous video part (in Let The Horns Blow, see above) was filmed almost entirely on acid. But their raw talent was undeniable.
Smashing Tony Hawk
“We had all these dreams,” Tas says in the movie. “We were going to go to America, we were going to smash Hawk!” And for a while at least that’s exactly what they did.
By 1996, Ben and Tas were beating the Birdman regularly and were ranked number 1 and 2 in the world. They’d compete with each other of course, but it was when one or other of them were challenged by an outsider that they got really angry.
And it was Tony Hawk, more than anyone else, who pushed the brothers’ buttons. At the time he was the clean-cut, all-American face of skateboarding for the mainstream. A man with big endorsement deals and a lot of power when it came to the X Games.
“Tony Hawk doesn’t come out of the documentary well.”
His establishment position and his old-school style of vert skating was the antithesis of everything that these Australian upstarts stood for.
Hawk, who apparently turned down requests for an interview, doesn’t come out of the documentary well. He’s portrayed as a very poor loser to Tas at the 1996 World Championships, when Pappas beat him despite skating with a broken rib. “Fuck off old man” the brothers apparently told him.
The older Pappas then started trying to learn the 900, which at the time no-one had landed. The movie suggests that a photographer friend of Tony’s deliberatly spied on his sessions and fed back to Hawk.
It then implies that Tony prevented Tas from entering the 1999 X Games best trick contest, where Hawk eventually landed the trick. “I’m not saying I would’ve got [the 900] but they coulda let me try at least,” says Tas.
Drugs, more drugs and murder
But for all the rivalry with Hawk is interesting (and it would be worth watching the documentary for those sections alone), it wasn’t this that lead to the brothers’ downfall, or their virtual disappearance in the past decade.
As their success had grown, so had their prodigious drug intake. Their attitude meant they made enemies easily and both fell out badly with their major sponsor, XYZ Platinum. And then Ben was arrested trying to smuggle cocaine back home to Australia.
It was a huge blow, meaning a ban on travelling to the US and effectively, the end of his career. Tas kept plugging away on the contest circuit for a while, but injuries and frustrations meant he was never able to keep himself off crystal meth or other substances for long.
In the film, Tas is unflinchingly honest about this period of his life. He talks about how his problems led to the breakdown of his first marriage, and how he ended up in prison in the US.
Back in Australia meanwhile, Ben was sinking further into depression and heroin use.
“Ben was sinking further into depression and heroin use.”
The quiet, more contemplative brother had met a quiet, contemplative girl called Lynette Phillips who had helped him escape his demons with a needle and spoon.
In a series of horribly poignant shots back at the Prahran ramp, the movie shows Ben as overweight, glazed-eyed and not really with it. But the worst was yet to come.
After an argument, Lynette’s body was discovered in a river wrapped in a sheet and weighted down with Ben’s dumbells. The younger Pappas went missing and police called his friends in to help find him.
Before they could get to him though, Ben’s body was found floating in Melbourne harbour. The coroner concluded he’d strangled Lynette and then taken his own life.
A cautionary tale
Tas is now making some inroads back into skating. Earlier this year, after the film was finished, he landed his first 900.
He makes it very clear – both in the film and in subsequent interviews – that he sees the movie as a cautionary tale.
After serving jail terms in the US, and then being busted for cocaine smuggling himself back in Australia, he’s had enough time to get clean and think about what went wrong. And it’s his honesty about the whole thing that makes the movie so compelling.
The story All This Mayhem tells is incredible – ridiculously bleak but also very, very powerful. And it’s this which makes it the best skateboarding film you’ll see this year.