The Tony Hawk Interview

How is the Birdman Still Flying High After All These Years?

Photo: Nixon

Words by James Renhard

Mpora is stood beside a large, inauspicious, concrete outbuilding on a farm in Somerset. The entrance of which is fenced off to the public. It’s a strange place for a genuine legend to be housed, but somewhere inside is the one and only Tony Hawk. 

Hawk is more than a skateboarder. More, even, than a celebrity. The 47 year old Californian is an Icon. It’s a word that’s all too often used glibly, but it can legitimately be applied to Tony.

Like nobody else in action sports, and few people in modern history, Hawk simultaneously represents his profession and also transcends it. He sits comfortably in the ranks of Muhammad Ali, Michael Schumacher, Usain Bolt, and Diego Maradona.

After a short wait in the mild heat of a British summer’s day, a group of people emerge from the farm building that’s doubling as a media office, and Mpora is called inside. Waiting for us is the Birdman himself.

Mpora greets Hawk with the kind of child-like enthusiasm usually only seen in six year olds moment before opening their presents on Christmas day. “I’m pretty good, thanks.” he answers somewhat wearily. “Well, it’s been non-stop today”.

Hawks life is now an almost continuous parade of media appearances, business meeting, PR flesh-pressing and, of course, skateboarding. And while many of the commitments he’s bound to fulfil take him away from skating, he takes it all in his stride. It’s the price he pays for dragging skateboarding kicking and screaming into the mainstream.

“I got here at 9.30 this morning, went and skated for a bit, did some press over at the ramp, came back here to do some other press, some other interviews, signed a bunch of stuff, then I’ll do a meet-and-greet, head back out and do an exhibition here in a hour or so.

“Then tomorrow it’s off to Denmark, where we’ll do it all over again.” He adds with a wry smile.

The Making Of An Icon

Of course, life hasn’t always been this hectic for The Birdman. He started skateboarding aged nine when his older brother donated his battered old fibreglass deck to Tony.

It didn’t take the young Hawk long to progress from those first, tentative rolls along the driveway to riding ramps. By the age of just twelve, Hawk was dominating the amateur contest circuit in his native California. Just let that sink in for a second… What were you doing aged twelve?

By 14 he’d turned professional and was a part of the Bones Brigade – an elite group of skaters that included Steve Caballero, Rodney Mullen, Mike McGill, and Lance Mountain. Between the five of them, they shaped skateboarding more than anybody else has, either before or since.

At 16, Hawk was widely regarded as the best skateboarder in the world and by 25, he’d won 73 of the 103 professional contests he’d entered, finishing in second place a further 19 times.

The Bones Brigade, and Hawk in particular, not only dominated competition but, as Lance Mountain himself suggested, they “pioneered how to make money out of skateboarding”.

Hawk’s consistent success certainly meant that he wasn’t shy of sponsorship options. Yet as his star was rising and he began breaking into the mainstream public consciousness the dissenting voices from within the world of skateboarding started to become more vocal. Hawk was accused of selling out by some of his fellow skaters.

There were suggestions of favouritism towards Hawk by contest judges too after Tony’s father, Frank Hawk, established the National Skateboarding Association in 1983. The NSA oversaw many of the competitions in which the young Hawk found success. Skateboarding legend and original Z-Boy Tony Alva went as far as admitting that at the time, people would literally spit on Tony Hawk.

But if Hawk’s peers did all they could to drag him down, it only spurred him on further. He continued to push himself, desperate to improve and determined to be the best skateboarder he could be.

1995 saw the advent of the X Games, and the opportunity for Hawk, willingly or not, to drag skateboarding further into the mainstream. The annual televised event would eventually make him a global star.

At the 1999 X Games, during a Best Trick contest, Hawk landed the now famous 900 – two and a half rotations on the skateboard. The never-been-done trick happily coincided with the release of a video game called Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater which went on to spawn the third best selling game franchise of all time.

As the 1990’s became the 2000’s, Tony Hawk had become more than just a skateboarder. He was more even than just the skateboarder. He was a global icon. Hawk was the clean living, good-natured, media friendly manifestation of the American dream, and he was still doing tricks that nobody else in the world could land. Tony Hawk; The Legend was built.

The Olympic Dream

Today, Hawk is still active and still pushing skateboarding further into the mainstream than could have ever been imaginable when he first stood on that battered board back in the late 1970’s. During an interview with veteran US TV talk show host Larry King, Hawk became the unofficial spokesman for Olympic skateboarding.

The Birdman himself, however, remains modest about his role in campaigning for skating to be included in the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo. “I’m part of the conversation” he admits “but, to be honest, I feel like it’s going to happen with or without my participation or my blessing.”

But if there were dissenting voices back when Tony started out, how much louder are those voices now? Does skateboarding – at its heart a counter culture movement – really have a part to play in the Olympic games?

It’s a difficult question, but one that Tony, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a ready answer for. From his point of view the Olympics need skateboarding more than skateboarding needs the Olympics.

“Skating is more popular than most Olympic sports, both in terms of participation, and excitement.” he insists. “And they [The IOC] need the youthful energy that snowboarding brings to their winter games introduced to their summer games.”

“They don’t have anything that’s young like that. You know, they’re losing an audience, so I feel like skateboarding would fit right in, and it would increase global awareness in terms of countries that haven’t been exposed to [skateboarding].”

They were going to put their story out at whatever angle they wanted. It was all very manipulative.

Hawk’s enthusiasm for inclusion is clear, but he indicates that maybe he’s got a little lost in his passion as he quickly restrains himself and adds “Like I said, it could happen or it couldn’t happen. It’s not like I’m lobbying for either.”

Even if skating is included, critics have suggested that vert skating – the obvious choice for an Olympic competition – has had its day. Surely street skating is more likely to give the summer games the shot in the arm Hawk suggests it craves?

“I would have said that maybe ten years ago” Hawk interrupts “but I think, nowadays, there’s a whole new generation of skaters, and an acceptance of all-terrain skating.”

Tony looks figuratively to fellow Birdhouse rider and the internet’s current favourite skateboarder Aaron ‘Jaws’ Homoki to illustrate his point. “Jaws is the perfect example. He can do a McTwist, but he’ll jump down stairs, and there’s a [mass] appreciation for all of those different skills.”

All This Mayhem

While it’s clear that Hawk has had to suffer criticism from his peers at times during his career, the media have generally been wholly supportive. In fact, the only real criticism to occur in the press for much of his time at the top came as a result of his appearance at the White House at the request of the newly elected Barack Obama.

Even then, it was no more than a politically motivated barb from Fox News reporter Greg Gutfeld aimed more at the new president than Hawk, the intellectual level of which was indicated when Gutfeld suggested that anybody who disagreed with him was “worse than Hitler”.

However, 2014 saw the release of smash hit skateboarding documentary All This Mayhem. It’s the story of Australian skateboarding brothers Tas and Ben Pappas who had an increasingly personal rivalry with Hawk throughout the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

The film was highly critical of Hawk, with suggestions made throughout that he used his influence to affect the results of competitions – echoing the criticism he battled earlier in his career – and alleging that he studied photographs of other people’s attempts to land a 900 in a bid to improve his own chances.

When asked to participate in the film, Hawk refused. It’s easy to wonder if that was a decision he now regrets, given it could have been a platform to put his own side of the story across.

“No.” he replies forcefully and without a shred of hesitation. “They were going to put their story out at whatever angle they wanted, and I truly believe that if I was to have been in it, they would have cleverly edited my part to make it look like whatever they wanted it to look like. It was all very manipulative, you know? So I don’t, no. Not at all.”

Since the release of the film, Hawk has remained largely tight lipped about the whole affair. Aside from an interview with Transworld Skateboarding, this is the first time we’ve known Hawk to broach what must be a sensitive subject, both personally and professionally.

“I truly feel the story is too tragic.” suggests Hawk. “My part of it – or whatever part they made about me – is so trivial compared to these tragedies, and loss of life, and things that are just way more important than just a skateboarding manoeuvre or competition.”

Hawk is at his most measured, and yet his response is both heartfelt and compelling. “I just didn’t feel like it was that important to set the record straight because it would just… why? If that’s the story they want, if that’s the story [Tas Pappas] believes… ?”

We’re interrupted by a tap on my shoulder that indicates our time with Tony has come to an end, but not before he adds “I believe that’s what he thinks is what happened… but it’s just not the truth.”

The words of the skateboarding legend hang in the air for a few moments. I sense that there’s more to be told about this story, but today is not going to be the day.

The Legend

Perhaps Tas Pappas sums it up best at the start of All This Mayhem, when he says: “There are three sides to every story: there’s my side, your side, and the truth”.

With Hawk’s words ringing in my ears, I walk out into bright sunshine, wondering that now we’ve heard from both parties, are we any closer to the truth? Will we ever know?

There are three sides to every story: my side, your side, and the truth

Leaving the building, I notice scores of fans queuing up for the meet-and-greet Tony Hawk had mentioned to me earlier. People of all ages wait, clutching anything from video games boxes to posters, skate decks to magazines, all waiting for their brush with skateboarding’s biggest icon.

Their obvious enthusiasm makes me think they’re either unaware or undeterred by the decades of mud slinging, criticism, and allegations that have been thrown at Tony Hawk. Or maybe, the criticism simply doesn’t matter. After all, it’s all just part of the legend.

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