Growing up in a tiny New Jersey town with few opportunities for escape I believed I was doomed to follow in the footsteps of generations before me, never living life or seeing much beyond our county lines. That feeling changed the moment I fell in love with skateboarding. I remember seeing photos of Tom Groholski and Mike Vallely, local boys who grew up in neighboring towns, in the most exotic and fantastic locations and thinking, Well, perhaps there is some way out of here.
Then I saw a photo of Mark Gonzales ollieing some stairs under the Eiffel Tower and my life changed forever. They're skating in Paris? I thought. I need to go there. I didn't know or care anything about France, I just wanted to skate those stairs and the legendary ponds under the Tower that only emptied for a few days twice a year. Since that day my life has been in constant motion, always trying to find the ledges near the Sydney Opera House or a possible bank-to-curb by the pyramids in Egypt, the hill bomb at Mount Rushmore or some other utilitarian piece of architecture that no tourist would ever notice.
I am not unique among skateboarders in my love for travel. There's something about skating that inspires wanderlust and a strong desire for adventure. My buddy Jonathan Mehring, an award-winning photographer named one of the ten most influential people in skateboarding by ESPN, might actually need a travel intervention. I don't even know why he has an apartment. He has seen more of the world than all the parents of my sons' classmates combined. He is probably on an airplane as I type this. Jonathan grew up in a smaller town than mine in Virginia just outside Charlottesville called Covesville, which is no longer even on the map. Luckily, Jonathan's parents encouraged travel at an early age and as a result he has made the most of the opportunities skate journalism has afforded him, taking the road less traveled throughout his career, visiting places most of us have never even heard of.
The culmination of his love for the ongoing journey is a new 240-page photo book, Skate The World, published by National Geographic, with photos from over 30 countries from Chile to Ethiopia, China to Morocco. I caught up with Jonathan a few weeks ago in his Brooklyn apartment to discuss his book, contracting hairy black tongue in Hong Kong, the unique smells of India, nearly getting robbed in Azerbaijan, and the best city to skate in the world.
VICE: How on earth did you manage to get a skateboarding book made with National Geographic?
Jonathan Mehring: In late 2008 I was at a Christmas party at my folks' house and I ended up talking to this book editor, Susan Hitchcock, about my travels in skateboarding. At the time I didn't know she worked at National Geographic. I was telling her about my Tran Siberian trip and I had just gotten back from Kazakhstan and she asked if I thought there was enough of my work for a book. I had been shooting for nearly ten years at the time and so I said yes. We set up a meeting, which was pretty intimidating. They liked the idea but they had never done a book like this so it was kind of a risk and they asked me if I could find a sponsor to help with funding. That didn't kill the book but it put it on the back burner for a while.
Years later I ended up in Bangalore, India, on a trip I produced. While there I randomly got hooked up with Levis' skatepark building program—right place, right time—and then the following year I got hired to shoot their Boliviaskatepark project. After that I asked Erik Wolsky, who is running the Levis Skateboarding program, if he would be interested in sponsoring the book and he thought it was a good fit.
You are one of my most well traveled friends. When did you first get the bug to go out and see the world?
I always liked traveling. My parents took me on a road trip, cross-country; camping the whole way, when I was ten and that was amazing. I got into skating a couple years later and it has always been about exploration. Being from Virginia where there's not too many spots we were really into road trips so the roots are there, I guess. Slap magazine sent me on a couple tours when I first started working for them in the early 2000s, and Hong Kong was my first skate trip out of the country.
This is a funny story, I was a really strict vegetarian at the time and I figured I'd have some vegetarian options. Tofu was commonplace in Hong Kong but with meat sauce. I was a typical American kid who was scared to try food so I ended up eating focaccia bread from a grocery store for every meal. Eating bread for two weeks was fine at the time but then I got back to Philly, drank a bunch of PBRs, and ate pasta and in the morning I woke up and my tongue felt weird. I looked in the mirror and it was jet black. I called the doctor and they told me it was a fungus called Black Hairy Tongue from eating too much bread. They told me to eat some fruits and vegetables and it would go away.
Around that time I decided if I was going to keep traveling I was going to eat everything. I truly wanted to experience the cultures I was documenting but also I didn't want to get sick again.
The places you go are so remote that I generally have to google them to find out where in the world they are. How do you go about picking these places and are you always certain there are skate spots there?
Not always. I used to have a map on the wall and I would just stand in front of it and stare and think, I've never heard of this city. Let me google it. That's how it was with Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. I had never heard of it and I looked it up and it has crazy architecture, glass buildings in pyramid shapes and this tower of white spines sticking up 200-feet that holds a gold sphere that is at least 50-feet across. It's nuts. It's like one of those Chinese ghost cities. It's more city than the population could utilize. It was a damn goldmine for skateboarding and no one has been there ever since. Maybe because it's so out there. It took us 36 hours to get there.
That's another thing about you—you go to all these places and you never take the easy route in.
I like adventure. When things are a little more difficult something more exciting might happen and make a memorable story. Keegan Sauder once said to me, "Disappointment is the greatest adventure." And that rings true. If everything goes perfectly as planned, what was your adventure, really?
What's the greatest disappointment you've encountered over the years?
Well, you want to walk the line; you don't want a real disaster. Something that makes you use your head is what you're looking for. The scariest was the Vietnam trip. We rode motorbikes from Hanoi to Saigon, about 2000 miles, and not the most direct route. Jerry Hsu and I had never ridden motorcycles, motorbikes, scooters, or anything. We both went down. We bought these bikes when we got to Hanoi and I could barely get around the block. It's sketchy as fuck driving there. I went down once. Jerry went down twice. It was a tough trip because the first three or four days we rode 12 hours a day in the rain. It was so sketchy.
'The Killing Season' - A Motorbike Trip Through Vietnam
I imagine skateboarding is a foreign, if not an alien, thing in some of the places you've traveled.
Two trips stand out when you say that because they were the most extreme opposite ends of the spectrum. The first is India where people love having their photo taken, they walk up to you and ask you to take their photo and they're fascinated with skateboarding. Every time someone would try a trick at a spot there were crowds of 50 to 100 people gathered around, almost to the point where you couldn't skate the spot. It felt amazing and so fun to be there because everyone was kind of happy about skating.
In direct contrast was Azerbaijan. It's an oil-rich country that sits between Russia and Iran so it has this Persian/Russian culture collision happening. There are a lot of sensitive areas of social interaction. For example there was a woman sitting on a ledge we wanted to skate, wearing a burqa . We had a local guy with us and we asked him to ask her to move and he was like, "No. We can only ask her husband. She is a closed woman." Aside from that we almost got in numerous fights in Baku, the capital city, because people hated skateboarding. They would see us skating and be like, "What is that? I don't like it."
There was one point where these guys tried to trip Theotis Beasley as he was filming a line and then they went back again and tried to snatch his diamond earring out of his ear as he flew by. Then they tried to grab Jason Hernandez's camera out of his hand. The next night Stefan Janoski was trying this trick on a hubba and these drunk guys came up and one of them body checked (skate cinematographer) Scuba Steve. So Theotis just walked up and punched the guy in the throat. They were probably going to rob us but they saw they were outnumbered and they took off.
We were detained by police for six hours for photographing an oil field. There are lakes of oil bubbling out of the ground everywhere, no fences, it's the most polluted city in the word and we were photographing these fields and they took us to the police station for a while, but eventually let us go. That kind of stuff kept happening to us there.
I have a ton of ideas but now that Skateboarder magazine is done and I'm a freelance photographer I have to find sponsorship for every trip, which has been harder and harder to do so I haven't been traveling as much lately. I'd like to go to Africa more; I've only gone to a couple countries there.
If you had to dub one city the best for skateboarding in the world, which would it be?
For spots? Barcelona. China has a bunch of spots. I don't really like the good spots though. I like the ones that you have to battle for. They tend to look better in photos and, well, I'm not the one skating it…
The launch party for 'Skate the World' is tonight, October, 6, at the Soho Arts Club (76 Wooster Street) from 7 - 10 PM in New York City.