Lennie Kirk and the Crazy Side of Skateboarding
Photos by Dennis McGrath unless otherwise noted.
To be canonized a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church you have to perform a miracle from the grave. To be deified in skateboarding you have to put out one good video part. Skateboarders have the uncanny ability to turn a blind eye on any former pro skater's shortcomings (drug addiction, rape, murder, domestic violence, etc.) so long as he made some type of minuscule impact on skateboarding. That's the case with North Carolina's Lennie Kirk, a skater with a short-lived pro career who suffered major head trauma and wound up preaching the word of the Lord while robbing people with a sawed off shotgun.
But boy was his 1997 Alien Workshop Timecode video part good! That's why nearly 20 years later we're still talking about him. That and the fact that my old friend and roommate, legendary photographer Dennis McGrath, just so happened to document Lennie's entire ascent and the downward spiral that recently landed him in prison for 13 years on kidnapping charges. The whole journey is chronicled in his latest photo book, Heaven.
If you choose to search the internet you'll learn there's a whole lot more to Lennie's kidnapping charges than just driving a girl around in a car. And personally, I abhor any man who lays his hands on a woman. I grew up with extreme domestic abuse and have zero tolerance for it. So despite being a huge Alien Workshop fan and worshipping the Timecode video, including Lennie's part, I'm not inclined to place him into the annals of skateboarding greats. But it is quite the story, and Dennis captures it brilliantly in Heaven. And who knows? If Lennie can truly turn his life around in prison this could be the next big Hollywood movie.
VICE: For those who don't know, who is Lennie Kirk and why should anyone care about him?
Dennis McGrath: Lennie was a pro skateboarder from North Carolina in the 90s. I first met him in 1992 in Houston. Then in 1994 I moved to San Francisco to go to art school and skate and Lennie moved there with my brother in 1995. He had just gotten sponsored by Alien Workshop and was skating really good. I had a flat on Grove Street with a bunch of skaters and our house was the hang out for a bunch of dudes. Lennie was there all the time. He was one of the more interesting people to photograph at the time, and that's where this book all started. Lennie was always kind of different.
He was crazier than most skaters, which says a lot. There are so many crazy stories about Lennie and they're all true. Like the time he followed the Planet Earth team on tour in his own car. The owner of one of the skateshops they stopped at had a party for them at his house around the 4th of July, and the one thing the guy said to everyone was, "No fireworks!" There was a dried up field across the street from his house and he didn't want it to catch on fire. Low and behold Lennie starts lighting Roman candles off and the whole field goes up in flames. Apparently it was a bad fire and everyone jumped in the van and had to leave town.
Another time Lennie was at a party in Houston and got beat up. He left the party, went to the liquor store and got whatever he needed to make Molotov cocktails and went back and drove by the party and threw them at the house. He's that dude.
I feel like back then kids weren't attracted to skating for its lucrative career options. Skaters tended to come from broken homes, and there was a lot of accepted mental health issues in the community.
It's true. But Lennie came from a nice Christian family, which is what I always trip out on because his mom was a really sweet woman. I know his dad was a fisherman and I don't know if he was around a lot. Maybe that was part of the problem. Of all the family photos his mom sent me for the book there's only one photo of him and his dad. I think that's real significant.
Thirty-three seconds into his part in the legendary Alien Workshop video Timecode, we see the footage your brother, Jon, shot of Lennie falling off a dumpster and hitting his head. That injury would ultimately change him forever. Let's talk about that.
He and my brother were out in the Presidio, in the middle of nowhere. Lennie was trying to grind a dumpster off a loading dock and basically flipped into it and hit the back of his head. He went temporarily blind and was bleeding out of his ears. Jon called 911 and they went to the hospital and the next day Lennie wakes up in SF General Hospital and doesn't know what happened. He doesn't remember anything. He rips the IVs out of his arms and runs out of the hospital. The nurses are screaming after him and a cop followed him but he got away somehow. He headed up Potrero, hopped a fence, and hid for two hours by the 101 Freeway in a hospital gown. Then he thought the coast was clear so he hopped on a city bus but the bus wouldn't move because they were warned that Lennie might try and get on a bus. A cop who worked for the hospital got on and grabbed him. Lennie was like, "You're not going to bring me to jail, right?" The cop was like, "No, you need to go back and lay down. We know you don't know what's going on because you hit your head so hard." And that day was when everything changed. He already had some screws loose...
Didn't he also get hit by a car?
Yeah, after he hit his head. A few weeks later he got run over by a Pac Bell van. Ran up his leg and over his chest and barley missed his head. He got up and was fine. That's the night he called my house preaching, saying God had saved him and he was going to come over and save us all. From that day on he was saved by Jesus. And as much bullshit as I think it is it happens to some people. But I think it's a scapegoat at this point, because it's all about God's will, it's not up to Lennie what happens, it's up to God. And the reason he gets in trouble is because of Satan. That's what he wrote me in a letter, that the laws in California are of the devil and Satan wrote them. You can keep blaming it on someone else all your life but it's not helping you be a better person. I'll ask him when he's getting out of jail and he says, "When God wills," and I'm like, "You might be there for a while."
When he was out of jail last time he wasn't doing good stuff. He was missing court dates and had warrants out. Before he got to appeal his case he got chased by the cops on his motorcycle. He laid the bike down, his girlfriend fell off, and he got up and mashed out of there and kept going. He's gnarly. He's been in and out of prison for the last ten years of his life; he's institutionalized.
Now he's locked up on the three-strike rule with the last offense being a kidnapping charge.
The 13-year sentence is stemming from the kidnapping and domestic violence charges. He said he didn't kidnap his ex-girlfriend. He said he put her in a car and made her drive with him, but if you move someone even ten feet that's kidnapping, technically, and it's a felony. And that's the law and the girl threw the book at him because she didn't like him. He obviously beat her up and so you can see where she's coming from.
There was another abuse story that Rob Dyrdek told me back in 2004 before Lennie went to jail the first time. Lennie was down in Nicaragua or El Salvador on a Christian mission with his girl and he didn't vibe with the mission people because he's so militant in his way, so the main preacher made him leave. Him and his girl trek through Central America and somehow get a bus to the Greyhound Station in San Diego. He calls Dyrdek and Rob goes and picks him up and takes him to his place. Lennie and his girl go for a walk and when they come back the girl has a big shiner. Rob was like, "Dude! What the fuck is going on? What did you do to her?" Lennie says, "She was acting up and God's will, I hit her with the Bible." Dyrdek got freaked out and told him he couldn't stay there, gave him $100 and brought him back to the Greyhound station and sent him to San Francisco.
When he got back to SF that's when he started getting in trouble. He ended up having a kid with that girl. They were living in a car for a little while, she ended up getting a restraining order on him, and then Marcus Brown called me while we were working at Big Brother saying Karl Watson was down at the pier and Lennie was robbing people with a sawed off shotgun. Karl tried taking the gun from him and telling him he shouldn't do that because he'd get in a lot of trouble and Lennie was like, "Fuck that! Don't try to judge me. This is how the Lord is providing for me and my family." That's how delusional he was.
There are some guys in skateboarding who just get a pass, no matter what they do. I was a big fan of Lennie's skating because we all loved Fred Gall and Alien so much, but I remember seeing him at a tradeshow, waiving his Bible, screaming that rhetoric in people's faces and I was like, Fuck this dude.
Exactly. A lot of people don't like him because of that; he's very overbearing with it. In the book there's a story that Dyrdek talks about, where Lennie gets on the plane to Australia, this is pre-9/11, and screams, "Everyone needs to get saved by God right now or this plane is going down!" They took him off the plane and detained him.
Do you think Lennie can exist outside of jail?
I don't think so. He just got 13 years; he'll probably serve six to eight. He's 37 now; he'll be 45 when he gets out, that's old. When he got out last time he didn't want to work. If you're an ex-con you have to try and be a part of society and be normal. It's not easy to get a job when you're an ex-con, but you have to try. The one thing I'm trying to do with this book project to get him some money was that we did a shoe and some t-shirts with DC Shoes, and after I pay taxes on it I'm giving him all the profits. I don't want people to ever think I'm exploiting him. I'm trying to give his life some dignity. He's going to have a lot of time to look at this book and maybe this time he will try and change. What he did isn't right, but by happenstance I was just there and able to document his life since he was 16 years old. I remember in 1997 I was in New York with a box of prints with a bunch of photos of Lennie and I showed them to Larry Clark and he said, pointing to Lennie, "Follow this kid around, every time you see him take a photo of him." That was the weird seed planted almost 20 years ago that started this book.