Owning a mom and pop skateboard shop in 2015 is absolute murder. Last month my partner and I celebrated our 12th year in business at NJ Skateshop. In those dozen years we have gone from having upward of 30 demos a year to having just one in the past 18 months. We watched as lines hundreds of people long waiting for $150 Nike SB Dunks evaporated thanks to the brand selling their shoes direct to market on their own website. The small shops have seen the paltry profit of $10 per skateboard deck drop below the national minimum wage mark, while huge mall chains and online skateboard vendors are able to strong-arm a much lower cost and undercut the little guys. Just a half decade ago we were part of an exclusive group of Vans core skate retailers called the Hardcore 100 (full disclosure, I work for Vans). After enduring a grueling recession and the above stated bullshit, many of my friends and peers across the country have been forced to close up shop, and the Hardcore 100 is now the Dirty Dozen.
One of the saddest fatalities in this struggle was Enfield, Connecticut's Skate Lair, which closed in 2011 after 12 hard fought years in business. Skate Lair was owned and operated by the very loud, very colorful Connecticut skate OG, Erik Munday. Within skate retail Munday is the stuff of legend. When I met him ten years ago he told me he carried five board brands, none of which were the popular brands at the time and that he'd verbally abuse anyone who asked for anything else; that he made kids box in the shop for sport; that he had guns everywhere in the store; that he snapped a Zumiez manager's phone who was trying to secretly compare prices in his store and then beat him up... the stories went on and on.
At first, I thought he was full of shit. But when I started asking around, everyone I spoke to who had visited Skate Lair swore every word out of Munday's mouth was true. And while his tactics might seem kind of... intense, in some ways it was refreshing. Skateboarding is so sanitized and vanilla and focused on "training" these days that people often forget skaters have never been a bunch of jocks who followed rules; skating has historically been a lifestyle rooted in anarchy and lawlessness. Now more than ever skating could use a guy like Erik Munday.
But Munday has moved on and found a new job, a job that pays far more in one year than 12 years in skate retail combined. For the past 24 months Munday has been traveling around the globe as a hired mercenary. His assignment is to make sure materials being imported into war zones make it to their destinations without being hijacked.
While he has seen his fair share of combat, Munday is able to compartmentalize his experiences and discuss them with relative ease. I caught up with Erik in Brooklyn last week to hear his unflinching recollection of going from gripping boards to getting shot at by Somali pirates.
VICE: You used to own Skate Lair skate shop. Tell me how you ran that place.
Erik Munday: It was a giant shit-show. Skate Lair isn't and wasn't just a skate shop; it's a gang that runs almost 20 years deep, and because of the way I did it everyone said it wasn't going to work. I didn't carry any of the popular brands. I carried my friends' brands: Natural Koncepts, Shut, Zoo York, 5Boro, Traffic... the underground brands. Why would I push the bullshit when I can carry the real shit?
I remember you telling me that when kids would ask for any other brands you would yell at them until they cried.
I'd keep one Girl deck and if they asked for it I'd say, "If you buy that deck then we got to box in the bowl and you have to go at least two minutes with me." And I'd keep boxing gloves in the back.
I heard about those boxing matches in the shop and that you had guns lying on the counter at all times. How did you not get into any trouble?
Oh, we did. We got investigated by the cops. I just didn't give a fuck. I did demos for the outlaw biker gang because their clubhouse was in town. I'm not a biker. I look more like a cop than I do a biker but I can relate to them in the way people look at skaters as dirtbags. Bottom line: I gave a fuck about the kids in my area and those dudes respected that. When they'd get locked up I was the motherfucker taking care of their kids. But cops on the outside were looking at us like, "What the fuck are you doing?" We might have had questionable tactics but we were down for our kids.
Let's talk about your current day job and how you got into it: How do you go from being a skate shop owner to a paid mercenary?
Private military contractor is my actual title. But as the skate industry started fucking over small shops I had to close my doors in 2011. I started bouncing at a bar at first because I can fight and figured rather than just doing it to do it I might as well get paid for it. One of the kids I bounced with was a Marine and we'd go shooting and I'd shoot better than him. I'd fuck with him, like, "You're the one protecting our country?" Another time we were at a police range and I smoked everybody. I'd do shooting competitions and I'd whip ass. Turns out he knew my cousin who is military and he owned a private company and that's how that transpired. It came down to me being able to put rounds in a target and being in good shape and able to fight. That's all you need. It's not like it's the most brainiac job.
What does a mercenary get paid? I have no clue.
It depends on what you're doing and on the contracts, but I get paid more than a doctor, man. Obviously the more exposure and the hairier shit you get into and the more they can depend on you to do anything they need the more you'll get paid, but trust me, you're gonna earn every motherfucking last penny.
What does the job entail, exactly?
I wasn't infantry. I was armored escort. I was on the gun. On my first deployment I did merchant-marining. We went around Africa to bring the shit into the ports: rubber, metals, and machinery. But as you go into that part of the world it gets hairy, and the company I worked for, they got jumped by pirates. So my first deployment there was a bunch of us on this huge freighter. It's a huge area to cover, so when the pirates swarm the boat you're kind of fucked. They know what they're doing too and they have nothing to lose—they don't give a fuck.
Our boat was going 10 knots and they set up a trap and waited for us to come into it and swarmed us. We had loudspeakers and tried to keep them at bay, let them know that we're not one of those boats they're just going to jump on, but they felt us out and then they jumped us. It was crazy. Suddenly I was like, Holy shit. Here we go. I'm in this shit! I've been shot at before but this was different. This was surreal. You're out at sea in such a big open area and when a shot is fired it's like seeing a flashlight. We're up like eight stories from the water so I remember seeing the lights then hearing the pinging of the bullets hitting the ship and hearing the crack of the air pressure dissipating above me over and over. I'd never been in that type of engagement. We were trained for it, but all I could think was, Six months ago I was gripping boards in a skate shop. I've been in fights but I never went up against Somalis.
How do you react, being in that situation for the first time?
If you come at me I'm putting you down. They came at us that time harder than they normally do. They wanted to get on that boat. In that movie Captain Phillips they show one guy climb up the back and take over, but those guys were clearly amateurs. If they get on the boat they don't stay there. What they do is kill a couple dudes and then take the prisoners on their boat and go onto shore and ransom their asses.
I may be wrong, but your job isn't so much to protect the materials on the boat as it is to protect the cash each boat carries, correct?
The official policy of most governments is that they don't do ransoming because it just encourages more taking of hostages, but that's a bunch of bullshit. On most boats there's a certain amount of cash so the pirates know they're going to get paid if they can get onboard and grab someone. On the deployment before my first trip they got on the boat and grabbed one of our guys, took his ass to shore, and then made the ransom call. Once they get to shore you're fucked. You're either paying or he's dead. And you better pay quick; there's no time for debate. But basically my job is to keep them off the boat. I'm on a mounted M240; it's a large weapon that shoots 700 rounds. It sprays a whole lot of lead. It's like spraying a hose.
Do you lose sleep over the fact that you've killed people for your job?
No. It's not that I'm proud of it. I don't go around bragging about it. I usually downplay it, but you're asking me point blank... the fact is I signed up for it and on the other side they did too.
Do you think we're making any impact over there?
Everyone has an opinion over here in the US but they've never been there. They should talk to the guys who actually go over there. The military and private military are putting their asses on the line. I have nothing but respect for those guys, but in the grand picture, the "fighting terrorism" thing, it's a bunch of bullshit. We're creating terrorism. It's all about making money. When we go over there, dropping bombs, there's going to be so much collateral damage. I've seen people with their intestines hanging out—and innocent people do get taken out. You have a family. What would you do if someone kills one of your sons? Even if it wasn't a personal thing, it becomes personal.
You told me you pissed in Saddam Hussein's pool.
Yup, that shit was personal because my family was there before. I was like, "I'm going to piss in this guy's pool." People were looking at me with my dick in my hand and I didn't care if I got chewed out or not, fuck that guy even though he's not there anymore. It was principle.
I've seen photos of soldiers skating his palaces. Did you skate at all over there?
I don't know how they got away with that. If I did that my outfit would kick the shit out of me. I'm a skater for life, but I do this for money. I can't fall and hurt my ankle while on deployment, so for two and a half years I didn't even touch a board.
How long do you think you can keep doing this?
I knew at 14 I was never going to be a 9 to 5 guy. I did work in a factory 60 hours a week and I hated it. That's why I bounced—I'd rather get paid to punch someone in the face than kiss a boss's ass. But I could do this as long as I have to. It's like I have a split personality. I'm here talking to you but when I'm there to do a serious job I'm dead serious about doing it. But it's interesting; through this and through skateboarding I met a guy named Johnny Hickey who made a movie, Oxymorons, about his years running the pills trade in Boston. It won a bunch of awards. In October he starts filming his new movie called House Rules, with Tome Sizemore, Bill Burr, and Eric Roberts, and Johnny doesn't want to see me get my head blown off so he cast me in the movie as a skateboard guy who whips ass. So I'm going to run with that. Maybe I can do that instead of ducking bullets for a living. I'm also going to be working with my good homeboy Josh Zickert helping run Natural Koncept skateboards; so I'm still out there connected to the skate world.
If and when you completely stop being a mercenary can you leave it over there? Or are there already things, mentally, you're not able to shake?
Nah, man. My eyes are cameras. There's shit I wish I'd never seen and I'll never forget that. If I live another three lifetimes I'll still remember that shit. I mean, when people are trying to kill you, you remember that. But I have the ability to not let it affect me.
Follow Erik Munday on Instagram.
More stupid can be found at Chrisnieratko.com or @Nieratko