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Tommy Guerrero - Unsung Hero of Krooked Skateboards

During the 80s the Bones Brigade was the biggest thing in skateboarding. Their mission was to take skateboarding into the mainstream, and they succeeded. George Harrison even invited them to dinner, for Christ's sake.

by Chris Nieratko
Jul 17 2014, 8:21pm

Tommy Guerrero in Future Primitive

During the 80s the Bones Brigade was the biggest thing in skateboarding. Their team was made up of the decade's greatest Anglo-vert skaters with names destined for greatness (Hawk, Mountain, Cab, McGill), and they were all hand-picked by Dog Town superstar Stacy Peralta. Their mission was to take skateboarding into the mainstream, and they succeeded. George Harrison even invited them to dinner, for Christ's sake.

But one member of the Brigade stood in stark contrast from the rest. Tommy Guerrero, a San Francisco skater with Filipino ancestry whom Peralta decided to market as a street skater, was in many ways the antithesis of his teammates. To a generation of city kids who didn't grow up with vert ramps in their backyards, Guerrero was the most important skater on the Bones Brigade.

In the early 90s, when vert fell out of favor and street skating took center stage, Tommy teamed up with old friends Jim Thiebaud, Eric Swenson, and Fausto Vitello to start two companies with a focus on city skating: Deluxe Distribution and Real skateboards. At the time they were barely pressing 300 boards for each new graphic. Now, 23 years later, Deluxe has grown to encompass some of the biggest companies in skateboarding: Real, Anti-Hero, Krooked, Spitfire, Thunder, and Venture. They are a dominating force in the global skateboarding industry in much the same way that Powell Peralta was in the 80s.

Over the years Guerrero has worn nearly every hat imaginable at Deluxe, but none have been as challenging as trying to make sense of the genius/madness that is Mark Gonzales's artwork for Krooked skateboards. On a recent trip to the Deluxe offices I got a firsthand glimpse of the 10,000-piece puzzle that makes up a line of skateboards from Gonzales: bins, flat files, boxes, rolled tubes, old skateboards, shipping boxes... anything and everything covered in unfinished artwork waiting for Tommy to piece it all together. Mark Gonzales is every skater's favorite skater, and perhaps the greatest artist to come out of skateboarding, but Krooked skateboards would not be Krooked skateboards without the loving hand of Tommy Guerrero.

I rang up Tommy G. on his way to the studio to discuss the Bones Brigade, the early days of Real, the Deluxe mafia, being the unsung hero of Krooked skateboards, and his latest album, due out on Tuesday.

Photo by Claudine Gossett

VICE: The most important question everyone wants answered is—
Tommy Guerrero: Is there a God? I don't know, Chris.

No. What was it like being the only black skater on the Bones Brigade?
It was hard. I had my struggles, you know. I'm the epitome of an American. I'm everything under the sun, actually. I'm a complete mutt. I am everything except for what people think I am. I am not Mexican, from what I'm told. I wish I were Mexican. I'm Filipino, Chilean, Portuguese, Ohlone, Irish... all kinds of shit up in there.

How did you get on the Bones Brigade as a street skater from NorCal?
I had this lawyer who had some dirt on George Powell, and he kind of forced the issue that way. No, I saw Stacy [Peralta] at Joe Lopes's ramp the day before a street contest in San Francisco. After I finished skating he came up to me and said, "I really like the way you skate." The next day at the contest he spoke with my brother, and when my brother relayed the information to me, I thought he was just giving me shit—he was always giving me shit—but it turned out that Stacy actually wanted me to ride for the Bones Brigade.

The Bones Brigade ruled the 80s. What was the highlight of that time for you?
The highlight for me was when I got a Christmas check.

How many zeros?
Like 70! No, I got a really good one once, but the highlight was the traveling. That was by far the best and it still resonates with me today. I love to travel and to be on the road. Just getting to experience stuff outside of San Francisco was great. I'd never been on a plane until I went to my first contest for Powell. My mom didn't have a license or a car, so flying to contests was amazing.

Photo by Claudine Gossett

When people think of bombing hills in San Francisco, they generally think of you. Do you get royalties whenever anyone films an SF hill bomb?
I do. I get a small residual. I make sure I have my lawyer on it. Anyone who is ever skating down a hill should know I have cameras hidden in trees that people don't know about, Big Brother–style, and I'm watching. I'll be like, "Dude, I saw you skating down 17th Avenue the other day. Where's my 26 cents?" Beware. I'm watching.

Skateboarding was relatively small when you guys started Real in 1991. What was that like in comparison to the enormity of the Bones Brigade in the 80s?
The rad thing was being part of it with Jim [Thiebaud] and just doing stupid shit. We'd come up with stupid ideas and be like, "Yeah, Sure. Let's do it." We didn't have to get permission to do anything—we did whatever we wanted and that was the coolest. Whatever lame graphic we wanted to do we could do it. Or we could make six wheels that came in a package... and Eric Swenson and Fausto Vitello funded it all. It started very small, just the four of us sitting on the floor, Xeroxing, making our own graphics, and my brother doing sales. Pretty low budget.

Over the years Deluxe [distributor of Real skateboards] has developed a Mafioso mystique. How did that develop?
I think that's because Fausto and Eric were full DIY type people. Instead of giving someone the money to do something they would just start their own company. They'd be like, "I'm not paying that asshole to print shirts! We'll just start a print company!" And it makes sense because I'm that way, DIY by nature, where I'm going to make my own music and CDs. I think Fausto and Eric were both hardasses, and they'd tell anyone to fuck off with the blink of an eye. Thrasher magazine controlled content in NorCal and pushed their products, the people they liked, and their agenda just like Transworld pushed their products and their agenda down south. It was just different up here because we had the whole fuck you attitude and down there it was a much cleaner version of skateboarding.

At what point did people start getting beaten up for quitting Deluxe companies?
That's Mic-E's deal. Mic-E instituted that "jump in, jump out" program. I don't know who it started with, but I think Danny Gonzales and a few others might have felt the wrath of that. That was not Deluxe's policy; that was Mic-e's personal policy, which we didn't help or hinder.

What's the best urban legend you've heard about Deluxe?
I heard that I was smoking crack; that was a good one. One big urban legend is that Jim and I own Real. We don't own Real. We're small shareholders in Deluxe, but we don't own Real unfortunately. If I did, I would be driving two Porches stacked high, or maybe a Porche limo.

How did you go from being there on day one with Real—owning it or not—to being the man behind the scenes at Mark Gonzales's Krooked skateboards?
I've worn many hats here at Deluxe and have had many duties, and it just sort of happened. I've done everything here from filming to editing to layouts and design to team managing—which was hilarious. Mark and I have been friends forever; he used to stay at my mom's house when I was still living at home before we were pro. We have a good rapport and I kind of know where he's coming from, I think. Just a little bit. At least with his work. So I ended up working with him directly—getting art for Krooked, coming up with ideas, and doing all the layouts for the boards and catalogs, which totally sucked. Now I'm removed from that and am just art directing, because we have a great crew here who is way better than I'll ever be. So it's actually aesthetically even better now. I just tell Mark, "We need art. Send it, son of a bitch!"

Photo by Tobin Yelland

You're downplaying what it took to make the Krooked graphics all those years. Weren't you receiving random faxes and packages of art in the mail, with no rhyme or reason, that you had to make sense of?
Yeah, there was a long period of time where he was just faxing the work in. I had to clean up all the line work and go over it with a Sharpie so it wouldn't look completely terrible. I've actually scanned boxes that he's sent with art in it because I liked the art on the box better and I'd use that for boards. I've scanned napkins, line paper, Fed Ex boxes, shitloads of faxes, tons of original art, boards that he's written on... He draws on everything and writes on anything in sight. He even draws on the mail he sends us and we'll scan that. Plus there are archives of shit from when he moved out.

How do you mash all that together to come up with something cohesive?
Really meticulously. You'll find images that relate that kind of make sense to create a whole. Sometimes, once in a great while, he'll send something that's almost finished. It's a process.

Mark Gonzales. Photo courtesy of Adidas

What's your best Mark story from over the years?
There are so many. He's just a funny guy. And he's super generous, too. Once one of our employees at Deluxe commented on Mark's shirt, like, "Cool shirt, Mark." It was some nice button down because Mark has an affinity for things that are expensive. Mark was like, "You like it?" And he took it off and gave it to him. I still see the guy around and he's like, "I still have that shirt. I ain't never getting rid of it." And then just his skating! Way back in 1986 or '87, everyone was practicing in the heat and I was skating behind him when he went at this quarterpipe and did a frontside 180 on flat, so now he's going backward and then does a switch frontside 360 ollie. People weren't doing that. Back then you wouldn't even call it switch, you'd be like, "I don't even know what that is." I was right behind him, like, "Did anyone just see that?" That shit fucked me up.

Earlier you mentioned your DIY approach. Let's talk about your new album coming out Tuesday: No Man's Land. You handled everything, soup to nuts?
I have a couple guys on it. My friend Money Mark plays harmonica on one song, my friend Mark Capelle plays trumpet on one, and Matt Rodriguez plays different percussive instruments on some songs—but other than that I engineer everything and play everything. It's a one-man show. A lot of love, joy, happiness, and positive vibrations went into it.

So you're making hippy music now?
Come on, I'm from San Francisco. Give me a break.

Tommy Guerrero performing live

Follow Tommy on Twitter and buy Tommy's new album, No Man's Land, here.

More stupid can be found at ChrisNieratko.com or @Nieratko.