Encinitas Skate Plaza looks like a parody of Southern California. It's the kind of place where a boombox is always playing early 2000s Offspring singles, where shirtless dads are forever weaving through crowds of shirtless teens, and where, at any given moment, a helmeted eight-year-old stands on the brink and prepares, for the first time, to drop herself down the cement walls of a never-functional pool that's twice as deep as she is tall.
Poods, as locals refer to the park, is a 13,000-square-foot slab of grey and orange concrete planes and waves and ledges, pierced by flatbars and stairways to nowhere, and surrounded by a parking lot, a soccer field, and a few palm trees that don't provide any shade. Show up most days around noon and there's a decent chance you'll notice one skateboarder, Jagger Eaton, standing out slightly from the rest. It's not that he's doing bigger tricks, necessarily, nor anything especially complicated. And it's not that he literally stands out—he just hit 5'7''.
There's just something almost effortless about the way he cruises around the park. There's an ease in the way he pops his board out of a ramp, the smile as he bails, the pat on the back he gives to check on the well-being of whoever he just slammed into at the bottom of an eight-stair rail. When Jagger does a run of tricks through the park, other skaters stop whatever they're doing, watch, and ask their friends if they saw that.
Though he still has to, as he puts it, "finesse" his way into R-rated movies, Jagger has already taken the top spot at many of the major contests open to amateur skateboarders; this year alone he's won the Phx Am and two gold medals at the X Games, in Amateur Street and Amateur Park. But as the website Quartersnacks often notes, we're in the "everyone is good" era of skateboarding: "Anyone (well, anyone who's good) can nollie flip a fourteen-stair nowadays or switch crook a gnarly rail, but it will be the behind the scenes videos that help us decide where our allegiances with various athletes stand." Jagger might have more contest wins, but there are dozens of other kids who are just as eager to make a name for themselves, who can do (most of) the same tricks and who would like to go pro in his place. For now what really separates Jagger from other 16-year-old skate phenoms—and, presumably, the reason VICE Sports sent me to San Diego to talk to him—is that he is also a TV star.
Jagger Eaton's Mega Life was a Rob Dyrdek-produced reality show that premiered on Nickelodeon late last year. During the show's 20 episodes, Jagger, family, and friends travel around the country partaking in "mega" adventures—outdoor activities like shark diving, jousting, heli-boarding, and playing beach volleyball with the U.S. women's beach volleyball team. The show gets its name from the mega ramp (also the subject of episode 17), an approximately 60-foot skate jump that Jagger has been riding since he was a child. It was on this ramp, when he was 11, that he captured his first major headlines by becoming the youngest-ever X Games competitor. While even Jagger will admit that there are times when he cringes to hear his younger voice—"I'm like, how do people even watch these videos?"—the show is more entertaining than you'd expect a Nickelodeon reality show to be. He possesses a boundless enthusiasm—evident in the way he uses G-rated swears like "gosh" and "heck" to intensify the "unreal"-ness of an activity—that makes me wish I could recapture that pre-cynical YA worldview wherein it's possible to be passionate about things like ziplining.
Since Mega Life ended, Jagger and his brother Jett, 18, have moved from their hometown of Mesa, Arizona, to Encinitas, a suburb in the North County section of San Diego that's been an epicenter of the skateboarding world since the '80s. When I met him at Poods, he was setting up a new board (he goes through one every three or four days, about the same rate as shoes) and eating a plastic cup of Fruity Pebbles. With his sunspots and striped Stussy shirt, he looked like a quintessential California teen—Zonie or not.
"I wouldn't say my life is the typical 16-year-old life," Jagger admits. "I mean I'm living out in Cali by myself. I took my GED so I basically dropped out and graduated. I'm stoked where I'm at." There was a time when having a TV show meant someone was definitely a celebrity, but, thanks to the internet's destruction of what was left of the monoculture, it's easier than ever to be huge in some circles and totally unknown in others. When I ask Jagger if he feels like he's famous, he seems to have a pretty accurate gauge on things. "I get recognized at skateparks and sometimes at, like, grocery stores, but mostly I just focus on what I need to do. I never think of myself like I'm some sort of celebrity. [Having the show] was super cool and I'm stoked to have a following off it, but I don't think I'm famous at all. I hang out with my family and my friends."
When I follow up with a similar, slightly more pointed question—"You're a 16-year-old living a state away from your parents, with 163,000 Instagram followers, many of whom are girls posting emojis about how cute they think you are. You never get into trouble?"—Jagger tells me that, "Me and my brother both have career goals that we want to accomplish. We're not playing heehaw with the fuck-around gang." And, partially because skateboarding has been his entire life since he was five and partially because he tells me he says he spends time listening to self-help audiobooks like Rich Dad, Poor Dad, I believe him. Though, when pressed, he admits to sending the occasional DM. "It's always important to make new friends," he laughs, but adds, "I don't ever let it get to my head. I'm just stoked to have some fans and some people who like me."
Jagger has more contest wins and TV appearances than the average 16-year-old skater, and he's sponsored by core brands like Plan B, Independent, and Bones. But, even among skaters, he's not a household name. To change this, he's spent the last few months filming a video part—basically a highlight reel of a skater's most impressive tricks, set to music (Jagger is hoping that the licensing fee for Parliament's "Flashlight" isn't too expensive)—which he believes will show people that his skating stands on its own. "I have about two minutes of footage right now, I just need to film another minute and a half." He says he plans to submit it to Thrasher, the magazine-turned-website so influential it's known as the "skate bible." He feels confident they'll accept it. (Thrasher owner Tony Vitello told me that they've expressed interest in distributing a video part but nothing is set in stone. "He's obviously a good skater," he says, but their involvement "would most likely start towards the end of the project.")
"Me and my brother both have career goals that we want to accomplish. We're not playing heehaw with the fuck-around gang."
Most days, he and his friends skate at Poods for a few hours, break for lunch, then head out to spots around town filming tricks. This goes on until it gets dark, unless they're filming with lights, in which case they can stay out all night. (High-level skateboarders spend an inordinate amount of time on schoolyards and grocery store loading docks.), His crew can fluctuate, from his brother Jett and other locals to fellow Plan B riders like Chris Joslin and Trevor McCLung, and SK8 Mafia's Wes Kremer. San Diego is something of a skate mecca, so he's managed to make a big impression on legends like Danny Way, who says, "Jagger has one of the most diverse skill sets and is one of the future legends of this next generation of young rippers."
There's a foundational paradox in skate culture: It's an industry that runs on advertising—the major websites and magazines are basically trade publications, and anything critical about brands is extremely rare—while priding itself on being anti-establishment. Jagger has the commercial side down, but, with his Nickelodeon show, he's anything but counter-culture. Jagger has heard his share of criticism, but says he doesn't care. "[Jagger Eaton's Mega Life] was one of the coolest experiences of my life and I don't really give a shit what anybody says about it. I would never want to take it back. I had so much fun doing it. I got to meet so many cool people. It was just completely worth it." Despite its underdog mentality, skateboarding has long been a dominant force in pop culture. It shapes everything from entertainment (Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Rob Dyrdek's empire, the stylings of Spike Jonze and Harmony Korine) to fashion (skateboarders, once responsible for the tight jeans resurgence, are to blame for the half-decade-long high-waters with Vans Old Skools trend). It would almost be weirder if a super-talented 16-year-old skater didn't have his own Nickelodeon show.
One might think Jagger's contest wins would silence the commenters, but skateboarders are probably even more suspicious of the X Games than of Nickelodeon. Traditional sports (and some purists even bristle at the thought of skating as a "sport") revolve around winning, but success in skateboarding has largely been about getting enough children to buy shoes with your name on them. Being cool is more important than being the best—among skaters, the word style is as common as it is vague—which is part of why so many look down on contests. Jagger knows he has to prove he's more than just a good contest skater, because skating in a contest is fundamentally different from skating in the street, and street skating is what dominates coverage on the skateboarding internet. Contests require an automaton-like ability to manage a series of tricks in a row without falling, so skaters default to things they know they can do. On the street, a skater has infinite chances, not ninety-second runs; it's about pushing yourself rather than beating others. This is why Jagger feels like he has to show his worth with a video.
Watching him tell our photographer which lens and angle will work best for a given shot, it's clear Jagger possesses a level of professionalism unknown to most teens, let alone teen skaters. He has a pretty solid idea of how to bring his plans to fruition, which is good, because he has a lot of plans. Right now, these include filming a street part with skateboarding's foremost cinematographer Ty Evans, turning pro before he's 18, and, most pressingly, getting his driver's license. Three years from now, skateboarding will make its Olympic debut. When I asked Jagger what he thinks of the possibility of skating in the Olympics, he tells me that "I would love to compete for my country." It's true that the name "Jagger Eaton" seems almost designed to appear on a chyron, but he'll be competing against dozens of the world's best skateboarders for just a handful of slots on Team USA. Plus, even the qualifying events for the games are years away. When you're 16, anything seems possible and everything can change in just a few months. Right now, he says, "I just have to prove I can hang in the streets."