VICE Meets New Zealand's First Skate Legend
Lee Ralph

VICE Meets New Zealand's First Skate Legend

Lee Ralph on what skating has given him, and what skating has to give the world.
January 19, 2018, 2:56am

Tomorrow, House of Vans comes to Auckland for the first time. Register to attend here (it’s free!) and no matter your age you can learn to skate, check out the skate photography workshop, or if you're 18+ there's the evening party with The Bleeders and Yukon Era.

You may have heard of Lee Ralph as the Barefoot Phantom: a New Zealand skate legend from West Auckland whose huge ginger beard was an unmistakeable feature among the best skaters of mid-80s California.

There were only a handful of professional skateboarders at the time, and they were almost exclusively based in California. Ralph lived an almost impossible dream, journeying from New Zealand to California to skate with the best. He gained quite the reputation: talk of his style, his beard, and his name was everywhere.

He was set to dominate the sport when a series of events—injuries, Green Card issues, booze—forced him back to New Zealand. Ralph’s sudden disappearance from the scene became skateboarding folklore. Today, beyond the skating, he is an accomplished carver and is currently enjoying the summer working and skating just on the coasts of Wellington.

So, you were 18 when you went to California and beat the best skateboarders in the game. How do you feel looking back at that now?
Honestly, some people grow up and want to be the All Blacks, you know? They try to achieve and work real hard and to be honest they’re the lucky ones. That’s how I feel, I’m one of the lucky ones and only the luckiest people in the world get to live their dream.

Was that mentality influenced by anyone in particular?
Absolutely. My dad was a strong guy and was always really into sports—I mean my entire family was real huge on sports. He was also a very talented Māori wood carver and so I did also grow up with a lot of Māoritanga around me.

Y**our dad sounds like a legend—was making him proud something you wanted to achieve through skateboarding?** My dad didn’t even like skateboarding. He thought it was stupid. He never really wanted me updating all the gear. I really wanted this new deck and one day my mum bought it for me without telling my dad and so we hid it under my bed. I revealed it later on hoping he wouldn’t notice. So, yeah, my mum always had my back with my skateboarding dream ever since I was young.

When did skateboarding start for you?
My parents went overseas for work and they came back with a board and it had this banana on it and that was my first ever board. We had this driveway at our neighbour's place so I would skate down it every day.

Was skateboarding quite popular with people around you at the time?
Definitely. The rest of the brothers all started skating when we were all like nine and 10. We had the meanest races and there weren’t many tricks those days, like maybe a 180 or a full 360 which the real cool dudes would do. But this dude down the road made a quarter pipe and shit got serious. I was never able to reach the top properly but everyone else did so I would always want to be them.

Skateboarding sounds like it was really exciting and almost this new energy?
Yeah man it was! Like skateboarding has definitely gone a long way now, but at that time it was new. Like really new. There were no limits because no one knew what could be done.

You’ve been through it all and looking back what do you think you’ve learnt from it all?
It goes back to my family: we have a lot of pride and we believe in ourselves. I don’t want to sound arrogant but we always thought we were special: it was only just 100 percent believing in ourselves. And I always wanted to live up to them and make them proud.

What puts you in that skate mindset now?
Nothing really changed for me. Skating is the ultimate. I mean, I can only do half of what I used to now. I’m 49 but I won’t stop.

What do you think is the best thing someone can get from skateboarding?
Honestly, as cheesy as this may be, it's the camaraderie in skateboarding that is the best thing. The camaraderie: man, in skateboarding it’s different to any other sport. People you meet and connect with are the best.

What’s your advice to youngsters?
Just because you’re not a pro and you don’t become a legend or whatever, that doesn’t mean skating doesn’t rule. The pro title doesn’t mean anything: you just get to meet more people and honestly it’s still the same feeling. When you land a new trick or learn something new the feeling is still the same: the title, the badge, it doesn’t matter.

To all the skaters in the world, we’re an army of love. When I meet other skaters they’re always lovely. I’ve never not liked anyone I meet. You need to be happy that we've got it—we have skateboarding and the numbers of people that are into it have grown and now there’s more people to talk and learn with. But remember to never stop.

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