For the past decade and a half the artist/filmer/photographer J Strickland has lurked in the skate industry shadows as the consummate dark-man. He created the iconic logos of Baker Bootleg and Life Extension (LE) skateboards, filmed some of the classic Baker Bootleg tapes, and even had a stint playing Tony Hawk's team manager in the 90s, but most people aside from industry insiders have never heard of him. Part of that might be due to his unique knack for pissing people off along the way with his brutal honesty, shit-talking sense of humor, and refusal to be bent over by a business built on dicking over creative people.
I've been friends with J for 21 years and he hasn't changed a bit. He's the same irreverent, crazy, and loyal guy who, on the first day I met him, I watched steal a beach cop's ATV as a distraction for his handcuffed friend to make a clean getaway. (J was ultimately taken to jail for the weekend after being tackled off the stolen ATV by a cop who jumped off another moving ATV like in an old Western.)
Since then he's gone on to film and photograph some of the biggest names in skateboarding, including the legendary Piss Drunx crew that Rolling Stone callously called "The most dysfunctional degenerates to ever bust an ollie." Tomorrow J will release his long awaited self-published photo book, Shoot to Kill, which documents his past 15 years in skateboarding with a photo show at Paradise Plus in Brooklyn. I caught up with J as he hung the show in New York.
VICE: Your Baker Bootleg videos are some of the most fun and beloved videos of all time. What do you think your place is in skate video history?
J Strickland: Doing those videos fun was kind of out of necessity. I always wanted to be involved in making videos and then I got the opportunity to work on Birdhouse's The End because I was the Birdhouse team manager. I don't want to say that video was over-produced, but it was a big production and after that I wanted to do my own thing. I also wasn't going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. I had been sitting on that footage for the first Baker Bootleg tape and nobody, like Tony Hawk or anybody, cared about it.
You were around for some of the Warner antics, like [Jim] Greco eating Ali Boulala's puke and that kind of stuff, which wouldn't get into most other videos so we were like, "Let's put that in our video with the skating," because that's what kids wanted. I wouldn't say I was the first person to do that; I was just lucky enough do to it with such high caliber skaters who weren't too serious. I don't know where I'd put my place in history because it was really just me taking a risk when everyone said I couldn't make a video because I couldn't film. Like, how many people would talk shit back in the day that Heath [Kirchart] would only film with me?
Why was it that Heath would only film with you? And what's the story of you strong-arming Transworld over his Sight Unseen footage?
At the time I don't think Heath liked that over-production thing. He just wanted one person to film him and one person to shoot photos. With that crazy level of skating he had his own process he went through and I was down to go film him by myself and a photographer at 2 AM. I never once gave him some pussy excuse like, "Oh, no, I can't film at 6 AM." I don't think Heath cared about the quality of the footage. As long as I got the trick it was cool. I think if I had been running around with dollies and weird shit Heath would have had a breakdown and tried to fight me.
All respect to Heath, and it's nothing personal, but at the time of the Transworld thing I had stopped being the team manager of Birdhouse and was on my own, freelance. That experience is why I wouldn't want to be a filmer now, because your footage gets raped and the skate industry doesn't give filmer and photographer the respect they deserve. At the time I was on the strug and didn't know what I was going to do, so when it was time to turn in the footage I didn't want to take $600. I had filmed him for two and a half years on my own dime, driving all over the place, paying for everything myself. So when it came time to get paid for that work I even think $10,000 is bullshit for two years' work. Ten grand is below the poverty line; you can't live in the projects on ten grand. Considering how much people jock Heath and that part nowadays I could've asked for 50 grand and it still would have been worth it. When it came down to them paying they were like, "We're just little Transworld," and I was like, "Dude! You guys are owned by Primedia!" I got this stigma now of holding the footage hostage but at the end of the day I was just trying to respect myself.
It seems like you've been the scapegoat and gotten the shitty end of the stick in a lot of situations.
At the end of the day I don't think I got the short end of the stick. Shit has happened because other people try to leach off creative people. Skateboarding is a really artist-based thing, but the industry just rapes artists, designers, filmers, and photographers, and they let it happen. People might think I'm salty but everything I've said is true. The only thing I regret is not being a corporate asshole and going after people with lawsuits. I took the high road and that's why it's easy for me to be the scapegoat. But I don't base my success on money. I never have. I do what I do because I love it; fuck having a job. I don't cry about getting jerked or not making money. I'm perfectly happy being in the proverbial skateboard gutter because I stand by what I've done, whether you're down with me or not.
Why did Jamie Thomas and Chad Fernandez make you take footage out of your videos?
It was audio of Knox Godoy, a 12-year-old, prank calling Chad and Jamie Thomas. I have no bad blood with those guys and I wish they could have taken a joke. Skating got real fucked up back in the day. People were serious then and things were just overblown. I just wanted to make the next Rubbish Heap. Straight up. That's what I set out to do. I'm not going to compare it, it's not the same, but you can see the influence. Like that clip of Billy Waldman saying, " I hate reggae music ," was the birth of the stuff that Baker and all this shit comes from. That line is engrained in everyone's head from the 90s era, and so we talked shit and fucked with people but it was nothing personal. Chad Fernandez looked like a kook and he got called out. Jamie Thomas was one of us in the gutter and got uptight because someone did something he didn't have control over. People just get uptight when they don't have control. I mean, you can say I'm a fat fuck who can't skate but I'm not going to cry and try and sue you about it. Kids troll me out on Instagram still; I don't cry about it.
I heard you have a lot of taped audio recordings.
There are tons of tapes, dawg. But I'm not trying to get a federal indictment on some OG Edward Snowden-shit. Back before the internet the skate photographers were the ones who spread all the rumors because they'd go from crew to crew like, "So and so did this," or, "I heard this." People know about Shiloh [Greathouse] calling my house drunk, death threatening, and I just recorded it because it was funny shit. To this day it's funny. Knox and Terry [Kennedy] used to take my phone and prank call people, so I gave them a recorder, like, "If you're going to prank people, at least record it." I would say Knox's dad and Rick Kosick have the funniest shit.
You witnessed so many crazy things in that time period. What are the highlights for you?
All the fucked up shit and the party shit ain't nothing new. That was my life before skating and that was my life during that time, but I wouldn't say any of that partying and eating puke shit are my fondest memories. My thing is all about the skating that came from that. The best memories for any skater are the camaraderie. Like, you go on a trip to some different place and people look at you like weirdos, but we're doing shit, we're creating shit in some foreign place where nobody understands us. My favorite memories are of dealing with the Heaths and the Andrews when they didn't even have any idea what they were doing or how good they were. After Heath kickflip backlipped Brick Town, or Reynolds kickflipped the 5 in Paris… I couldn't grasp what I had just seen. There were times with Heath and Reynolds where it got scary, where I knew they could die doing that shit. I was not just a filmer, I had to be prepared to be an EMT; it was at that level. It wasn't Transworld in 1992 with Willy Santos skating a curb cut on the cover. No, those kids were taking shit to the next level and I just got to be there. But that was then, and for the past ten years I've been doing a lot more shit than I ever thought I would do and I'm more happy with my perception of skating now than I've ever been.
Which leads us to today. At some point you picked up a camera, and now you have this photo book, Shoot To Kill , with shots from the past 15 years.
I think every skater has the knack of an eye for photos, and I was one of the Yashica T4 bros back when I was filming. Mike Ballard was the first person to give me a real camera and a bag of film and told me to go shoot Evan [Hernandez], Knox, and Terry; the Baker amateurs who no one wanted to take seriously. That's when I got thirsty for shooting photos. Photography has always been more exciting because of the end result. Footage comes and goes but, coming from graffiti, the visual is always the most important thing. A photo is eternal and this book is like a band putting out a vinyl record to show that you can do it yourself; you don't have to work for someone to get your photos out. If you like taking photos, go make a book. If you like filming, make a video, burn DVDs. I love skating. I'm over 40 and first and foremost still a skater. I'm also a sensitive artist deep down, just trying to be a peacock and fly.
And if you're in New York head out to J's book release and photo show tomorrow, April 3, at Paradise Plus, 257 Varet Street, Brooklyn.