For a skateboarder growing up on the East Coast in the 80s and 90s, Huntington Beach seemed like ground zero. Christian Hosoi, the most stylish skater of all time lived there; Jason Lee, one of the biggest early innovators in street skating was there; even my favorite skater of all time, New Jersey's Mike Vallely moved there and teamed up with fellow street legend Ed Templeton. And when the Flip team flew over from England with Geoff Rowley and Tom Penny, who would quickly take their places in the vanguard of new street rippers, I couldn't help but believe that Huntington Beach was the greatest place on Earth.
Then I visited when I turned 18 and it was like Hitler won the war. Blonde and blue-eyed was the norm. Not one person of color to be seen anywhere. Nazi regalia was sold in Army/Navy stores alongside Dickies and bayonets. Then I started hearing stories of teenage skinheads lynching black people like it was Alabama in the 50s. One of skateboarding's kindest, gentlest souls and my childhood idol, Ray Barbee, was chased by a rabid pack of skinheads and barely escaped with his life. Not trying to sound racist, but I hate white people. In the immortal words of Huntington Beach's local pro skater Jason Dill, "I don't want to be white as much as you don't want to be white." I vowed that day never to return to Huntington Beach.
This past weekend, nearly 20 years to the day, I found myself in Huntington for the US Open of Surf, which played host to the Van Doren Invitational Bowl contest, the preeminent skateboard bowl contest of our time. The neo-Nazi sentiment was still there, just a bit more subdued (I saw one yoked out, shirtless skinhead in the stands with a 10-inch snowflake on his chest, a poor attempt to cover up the Swazi over his heart). Of the daily 100,000 contest visitors I saw, all but two were blonde and blue-eyed, and neither of them were black. The only real noticeable change was that the scantily-clad girls I recall from two decades before hadn't aged. In fact, they'd regressed to pre-pubescence and their bikinis had regressed with them. A man's natural reaction is, "Hey! Wow! Tits! All right!" but once I realized very few kids were of age I began to get sick to my stomach.
I was working on a video project while in Huntington Beach, and when I began to search for boys and girls who were over the age of 18 I found it nearly impossible. Even the ones with very adult messages written on their bodies like "US Open your legs," "free blow jobs," "stick it here" (pointing to their ass), "rape me," "free rim jobs," etc., etc. told me they were only 15 or 16 (and I'm quite certain they were lying about their age). For the next four days I kept my head down and looked at the sand as if they were all Medusas. I've felt less creepy while on gang bang sets.
Naturally nine days of whipping children into a sexual frenzy could only end one way: a good old-fashion riot.
Luckily, I was long gone before the cops showed up. But Ed Templeton, skateboarding's most prolific artist and Huntington Beach's hometown hero/advocate was there capturing the entire week's festivities. I rang him up to get his take on the HB scene.
VICE: What was Huntington Beach like when you were growing up?
Ed: Downtown was surf shops, bars, and food. Quaint one- or two-story buildings. The locals ruled the place, and there were fights all the time. Skinheads hung out on one corner and said racist shit to everyone. Religious zealots would preach that we are all sinners. In many ways not much has changed.
How has it changed over the years?
Now it's Starbucks and Jamba Juice, microbreweries, and ice cream shops. There are still surf shops, but they are bigger and more corporate. The skeleton of the past is still there, but Main Street is bigger, louder, and more geared towards tourists. The skinheads have stopped hanging out on the corner—they are all grown up and breeding families. A few racist kids still hang out down there, but they're more stealth about it. Fights happen at night now when the meatheads who all think they are MMA fighters get their liquid courage to the right level.
You mentioned that racist element—I remember Clyde Singleton getting chased by skinheads with bottles, and Ray Barbee being as well on a seperate occassion. More recently, I saw a lot of Swazi tattoos this weekend. Why has that sentiment been so big in HB?
Orange County has the highest concentration of Nazi skinheads outside of Cologne, Germany. I'm not sure how old that fun fact is. But the gangs were here; there are remnants of it. Just today Deanna shot a photo of a guy with a white power tattoo on his chest walking shirtless down Main Street. It's out there. The Ray Barbee story is the worst. I remember Jamie Hart and his friends beating up skinheads when I was younger. I see the Swazi tats, but those fucktards and their way of thinking is on the way out. Or so I like to think.
You and Deanna are both born and raised in Huntington, but I always felt you outgrew it. Why stay?
Deanna was born here in HB; I was born in Garden Grove—still the OC. I started skating in HB, and that's where my life began. At the moment when I would have normally said, "Lets get the fuck outta here!" I was doing Toy Machine, and it was before the internet got so fast. I still had to Fed-Ex zip drives down to the magazines with Toy ads, and drive down often to arrange graphic stuff. I felt tied to being at least within driving distance from where Toy Machine was being made, which is San Diego. So the company kept me from moving. Now with the speed of the interwebs I could live anywhere, but again, when you get older you gain more perspective. And after traveling the world, which I continue to do, I realize that everyone in the world would kill to live where I do. It's paradise. Yeah there are douchbags, but there are douchebags everywhere. The weather is perfect, the beach is close, LA is a short drive away with all of its culture and art, but I'm not in the middle of that. I'm here in a quiet suburbia where I can drop out and get work done.
What is Huntington Beach to you?
HB is what you make of it. Some people come and say, "Look at all these sluts and surfer bro jock meatheads, this place sucks!" And others come and say, "Beautiful women in bikinis everywhere, epic waves, perfect weather, this place rules!" You get what you look for. I look for good weather, skaters, music, art, punk kids, I look for the extremes of Beach Culture because I want to make photographs of it. You can't judge a place by the people on Main Street; one block away you can have a deserted beach to yourself. And in the suburbs amongst the perfect families and their perfect houses are people like me, printing photos, making art—and not only me, there are teenagers making music in garages, and printing zines at Kinko's.
When did you start documenting the Huntington suburban sprawl and the Huntington Beach pier on a daily basis?
I had always shot down there, but as far as starting to go quite frequently just to shoot, that was probably in 2004 or 2005. In 2010 we started making it our daily walk, just to get out of the house. We go down and get something to drink and cruise the pier like some old couple, but with cameras. Almost every day now.
How do you regard the time capsule of photos you've taken of Huntington Beach over the years?
I think it will be an important document of this time period. Well "important" may be a stretch. Hopefully it will be embraced by lovers of photography. Deanna and I want to do a book of our HB work. We shoot the same area and people, but very differently. Sort of a "his and hers" perspective book.
I've never experienced anything like the scene at the US Open, and I've been on porn sets, to spring break, Sturgis motorcycle rally, and other questionable locales. Describe the US Open scene, and was it always like that?
Yes and no. Yes there have always been girls in bikinis, drunk people looking for fights, skateboarding and surfing. There have even always been girls who want to show off their bodies. But now those girls are teenagers. The bikini styles have changed and in most of them you are virtually naked.
Being an older fellow do you feel like a creep documenting the madness? I felt like one just being there.
Not really. It's such a cluster-fuck of humanity that everyone is documenting on their cell phones anyway, stupid me with my film camera means nothing. Plus, compared to the roving groups of long-lens cameramen who just blatantly shoot the boobies and butts of any girl in a bikini what I shoot is like Sesame Street. The creep factor of those guys is off the chart. I'm just documenting what's going on in public for all to see, on a crowded beach with thousands of people, there's nothing creepy about it.
What's the most tweaked stuff you saw this year or in past years?
I felt like the last two years were worse, as far as body messaging went. My wife Deanna had a book published of her work documenting the body-messaging trend. Girls and boys let companies stencil their logos on their half-naked bodies, people write messages on their skin, girls let people hand print their butts and cleavage, people slap stickers on girls and they stay there all day... This year was not as bad in that department. Last year girls were writing—or letting people write—vile or racist messages. Swastikas, "I give head, no teeth," "jailbait," "free hugs, whites only," jungle fever," "I like big black dick in my ass." I have seen young men and girls walking around with those messages festooned on their bikini bods. Fights happen every year. Those suck to see. This year was pretty tame; a few boob flashes, some twerking/grope fests with young bikini girls dancing in the middle of a crowd of touchy testosterone-filled boys. The worst new development this year was just rampant ass slapping, with or without a sign that allowed it. It's like the 60s all over again. I saw only one girl get angry the entire time I was there. Other than that it was just a butt slap, ass grope fest. Then there was the riot.
Yeah... what happened with that, and how do you think things will change in Huntington Beach, if at all?
Nothing will change. There will be more cops. But there will also be more kids armed with riot tools showing up in hopes of another one. Maybe Vans will change some things in hopes of reducing the crowds. I saw the whole thing go down. There was a fight on Main and PCH in front of Jack's. The cops showed up and tried to clear people. Meanwhile there were NO cops on Main Street one block up. And another fight broke out. No Cops. Another fight. No Cops. This kept going on for 30 minutes and the cops never came. Fighting, dancing, general lawlessness. The crowd got whooped up and when the cops finally came with riot gear, all shit broke loose. Kids took the opportunity to start breaking shit. Why? Because it's fun to break shit. They acted like the place was Disneyland and that committing crimes was somehow OK. Damaging property and documenting it to share on their instagram. "Hey look I'm rioting!" Stupid idiots just ID'ing themselves committing real crimes. I heard a kid on one YouTube video yelling, "They shot me in the head with a bean bag? Why? Fuck the Cops!" Why? You were part of an unruly crowd who was supposed to disperse, that's why. He acted like he was just walking his dog and got brutalized by the police out of nowhere. You were taking part in a riot, asshole. That's why you got hit. So the kids flipped the script and tried to justify it as a riot over police brutality, but it was a riot by wannabe thug suburban kids who watch too much TV.
You were laid up with a broken leg for a while recently; did it make shooting the daily pier shots tough? And how are you feeling these days?
I was OK. I got out just as the people started running and the cops started shooting. I should have stayed to shoot photos, but it was my birthday and I was over it all and wanted to eat. My leg is feeling pretty good. Still doing physical therapy, some days are better than others. It's a temperamental leg.
What were you working on while injured? What projects do you have coming up?
I was just making Toy Machine graphics and working on paintings for upcoming shows. My next exhibition is in Milan, Italy on September 19 at Jerome Zodo Gallery.