There are many unwritten rules in skateboarding. Don’t carry your board by the trucks, don’t push with your front foot, Benihanas are bad, etc., etc. Drilling down further, there are certain tricks that are cool or lame depending on how they are executed. Perhaps the trick that best illustrates this principle is the frontside flip.
A frontside flip involves the board turning 180° toward the skater’s heels on the X axis and 360° on the Y axis, while the skateboarder turns 180° on the X axis in the same direction. The standard technique for this trick is to keep the board directly underneath the feet while flicking and turning, as demonstrated in the gif above. But while this "flick-and-catch" style, as it's known, may be considered the proper way to do a frontside flip, it’s not the only option. If instead the skater flips the board upright between the legs, as seen below, it’s called an illusion flip and is generally frowned upon. Illusion flips haven’t always been hated, though, and from what I can tell they’ve actually been around longer than “proper” frontside flips.
So how and when did the shift in public opinion happen? It's difficult to say.
The first published photo of a frontside flip is often credited to Mark Gonzales in 1987. But it’s hard to tell from the image whether he and his board both rotated 180° or he rotated closer to 90°. If this is the first frontside flip, it would be considered proper, non-illusion style. However, two of the first frontside flips caught on video, done by Natas Kaupas in the 1989 video Speed Freaks and Matt Hensley in Hokus Pokus the same year, were definitely illusion flips. Hensley and Kaupas both do the trick on ramps, clearly spreading their legs wide to let the board flip up and rotate in between before bringing their feet back down. And one of the first frontside flips documented on flatground, by Ali Mills in 1990’s Useless Wooden Toys, was directly inspired by Natas. “When I saw Natas do that I was like, ‘I wonder if you could do that on street,’” Mills told VICE. “People do backside flips, why doesn't anyone do frontside flips?”
Mills’s trick was a sort of hybrid illusion. The technique for illusion flips relies on smacking down the tail of the board and moving the front foot out of the way so the board can flip. Frontside flips, however, are more clear combinations of the two tricks they’re named after (a frontside 180° ollie and a kickflip) because they actually involve kicking the front of the board. Mills definitely kicks his board, but the board pops almost straight up and rotates between his legs. “Conceptually, I didn't even see the difference,” Mills said. Without intending, and before skateboarders were even talking about illusion versus frontside flips, he presented both sides of the argument in a single motion.
Ali Mills's frontside flip in Useless Wooden Toys
At that point, in 1990, frontside flips in general (both illusion and flick-and-catch styles) were so new that even the biggest skateboarders in the world didn’t fully comprehend them. In a Transworld article from December 1990, Tony Hawk misidentified an illusion-style frontside flip by Jason Corbett as a “backside ollie shove-it while turning his body frontside.” Funnily enough, Corbett was on the cover of that same issue doing a flick-and-catch style frontside flip down a small stair set.
Over the next three years skateboarders continued to do both types of frontside flips without distinguishing between the two. There was no formal divide because few skateboarders had developed the ability to do a “proper” frontside flip.
Aaron Snyder, who rode for Shorty’s skateboards in the 90s and later went pro for Darkstar, told VICE the early ambiguity surrounding frontside flips stemmed from the awkward motions the trick requires. “A backside flip” (like a frontside flip but turning 180° in the direction of the skater’s toes rather than heels) “is such a logical thing. I can turn that way and kick the board. It makes sense,” Snyder said. “Going the other way doesn't make a whole lot of initial logic.”
Snyder thinks the illusion flip emerged as a workaround to complete the basic frontside flip motion for those who weren’t able to flick and catch the board. “[Skateboarders] hadn't developed enough technique with flip tricks to be able to implement it, so the first time you ever saw frontside flips was this weird hybrid version that looked like a new trick,” he said. “You knew it was a frontside flip, but it looked like something totally different.”
That lack of technique might also have contributed to the illusion flip’s name. “It had this illusiveness to it where you had to learn a new technique that you had never implemented in any kind of skating before,” Snyder said. “By the time the tail strikes the ground, the [front] foot is already off the board and the thing still flips, which is my interpretation of why the name ended up as an illusion flip. There was no actual flick.”
“There's not really a proper frontside flip until Koston or Carroll. [Carroll] kind of cements the proper form, catching it sideways and then turning it.” - Mackenzie Eisenhour
Skateboards in the early 90s were also heavy and clunky, so flipping them at all was a challenge. Mackenzie Eisenhour, associate editor at Transworld Skateboarding, told me the flick-and-catch technique became more widespread as skateboards became smaller and narrower. “The Ali Mills one is totally through the legs, but you can see it’s on a big-ass fucking boat board,” Eisenhour said.
According to Eisenhour, the first widely-known skateboarders to do well-executed flick-and-catch style frontside flips were Eric Koston (in Falling Down  and Goldfish ) and Mike Carroll (in Virtual Reality  and Goldfish). “There's not really a proper frontside flip until Koston or Carroll,” he said. “[Carroll] kind of cements the proper form, catching it sideways and then turning it.” Once skateboarders saw they could do frontside flips with more finesse and dexterity by flicking and catching the board, they both declared that style official and marked illusion-style flips as distinct and inferior. “In Big Brother, Thrasher, or Transworld there'd be captions where they'd clown on shit,” Eisenhour said of tricks that fell out of style, like illusion flips. “Once that happened you knew it was a hard rule.” From then on, only flick-and-catch style frontside flips could be called frontside flips. The through-the-legs version that relied on brute force tail smashing became known as an illusion flip.
However, illusion flips weren’t simply abandoned once people learned how to do the now-canonical frontside flip. For a brief period in the late 90s, they were extremely cool.
It started when Chad Muska, who famously tended to do his frontside flips illusion style, became a breakout star. “I learned them on a quarterpipe like Natas, so I started doing them like that,” Muska told VICE of discovering illusion-style frontside flips. Years later while skating demos with Tom Penny, who was beloved for his flick-and-catch-style frontside flips, Muska fully adopted the illusion style to stand out in his own way. “I knew I could do them this certain way on the mini ramp,” Muska said. “So I would try to blast those as high as I could to make up for not being able to flick them like Tom. Then that developed into my style of frontside flipping, and whether I was doing it on a mini ramp, on flatground, or down stairs, that became the way I started doing them.”
Eisenhour described Muska’s style of frontside flips as new and improved: “This isn't even a frontside flip, this is the Muska Flip.” He also said some skateboarders were even made fun of at the time for not being able to do illusion flips. “I remember skating with Ali Boulala in Sweden in the summer of ‘96 and Boulala could only do [frontside flips] the [Mike] Carroll way. Everyone was clowning on him because all the other dudes could do it through the legs style,” he said.
Although Muska told VICE he never personally claimed the “Muska flip” name, he kept doing them, and eventually influenced his teammates (like Brandon Turner and Peter Smolik) to do them as well. While the spread of illusion flips bolstered the trick’s legitimacy, it also sparked its downfall.
The illusion flip technique can be applied to more than just regular frontside flips. A skateboarder can do switch, fakie, or nollie illusion flips, as well as regular, switch, fakie, and nollie hardflips (in which the board does the complete frontside flip motion but the body doesn’t rotate at all). When skaters began to use the technique for all these other tricks, they essentially oversaturated the illusion flip market and ended up killing the trick, according to some.
“It took something seemingly very advanced and dumbed it down to the point where people with lesser skill could learn these quote-un-quote harder tricks. It was the guise of sophistication under the reality of shoddy craftsmanship,” Snyder said. “You see kids that probably could not do a proper nollie kickflip [say], ‘I got nollie hardflips, switch frontside flips, nollie backside flips, I got all of these things,’ and it's all based on this technique of basically not having the refinement to do the trick correctly."
“At the time, Muska could do whatever the hell he wanted,” Snyder said. “‘I'll rock a headband with some swishy pants and do an illusion flip and people are gonna love it.’ And they did.” Snyder used to be Muska’s teammate on Shorty’s, and even as he and the rest of skateboarding moved away from illusion flips, nobody thought less of Muska for hanging onto the technique. “We still want to be blessed with an occasional Muska flip,” he said.
Muska suggests an additional reason for the trick’s decline. As skateboarders increasingly did flip tricks into and out of grinds and slides, the flick-and-catch technique became more useful. “Most people choose to do it the [flick-and-catch] way because when you flick it, you have more control and the ability to use it in different ways,” Muska said. “If you do it the illusion flip way, it’s a lot harder to be precise.”
Eisenhour told VICE that by 1999, the year after Muska’s famous part in Shorty’s Fulfill the Dream, skateboarders had gone back to mocking illusion flips. This was a year after Andrew Reynolds picked up the torch of the flick-and-catch style frontside flip with his part in Birdhouse’s The End. Specifically, his frontside flip featured on the cover of Transworld served as a style guide for how all skateboarders should aspire to do frontside flips. Since then, Reynolds and the flick-and-catch style of frontside flips have reigned supreme.
While skateboarders collectively decide which rules are worth following and which techniques are proper form or not, these decisions are also influenced by key tastemakers and the abilities of top skateboarders of the time. When Natas and Hensley filmed their frontside flips in the late 80s, they had no previous form by which to be critiqued. When Muska came along, skateboarders knew better but fell in love with his style anyway, then they changed their minds when the more impressive technical skills of Reynolds won them over.
“The culture kind of decides who are we gonna follow. For a minute we're like, ‘Muska's is the shit!’ And then as a culture, Girl [skateboards] kind of tells us, ‘This is actually a better technique,’ so the culture goes with that,” Eisenhour said. “It's a group decision but it takes some pointed opinionated individuals to lead the way.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.