True Stories from an Unseen Archive of 90s NYC Skateboarding
Photographers Mel Stones and High documented the "kids" who came to be known as New York skateboarding royalty.
Harold Hunter. Photo by Mel Stones.
Immortalized in countless brand campaigns, books, zines, gallery exhibits, and most famously, the Larry Clark film, Kids, written by a young Harmony Korine, the last life of pre-Giuliani New York street culture was originally documented by Mel Stones and High. Stones, from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and High, from the Lower East Side, met several local New York skaters who may not have been the most "mainstream," but who have gone on to become icons—Ryan Hickey, Jefferson Pang, Ivan Perez, and Steve Cales, among others—and began photographing them candidly around 1990.
Recently, the duo felt the need to collect this largely unseen archive of black-and-white images into a monograph now titled, That's a Crazy One. Stones and High were driven to make the book not to monopolize on the renewed interest in 90s NYC culture and fashion, but to create a yearbook of their youth, focusing on the actual dynamics of their tightly knit group of skaters—and not the sensationalism. A fully DIY effort, the book is, "a cathartic journey to set the record straight," according to the press release. "All profits from the sale of book will be donated to NYC Public Schools Photography Program in memorial to their departed. Pay it forward."
Tonally, the work hits different notes than most published images of 90s New York skateboarding, displaying a vulnerability that was perhaps masked by some of the men who photographed them. Their images not only show a lighter side of the group, but also a familial one. When I ask about Larry Clark or Ari Marcopoulos' images of her friends, Stones is careful to not throw shade, but emphasizes endearingly her work was that of an insider—a part of the group, not a spectator.
"I was using a 50mm lens—I was so close to them," Stones tells Creators. "They were very comfortable. No one was acting. It was like I was a fly on the wall because I was so much a part of this group. I skated with them to keep up."
Though the book partially intends to tell a different side of the kids from Kids, a movie that confused some as to whether or not it was actually a documentary, Stones and High felt that the blurring was intentional by Clark through the employment of non-actors. It was supposed to feel loose and real, but the sensationalism and Hollywood story arc didn't mirror the reality.
"My famous line whenever I talk to anybody about this is like, 'Those guys were way more interested in popping an ollie than popping a cherry,'" Stones says.
With most of her friends still in their teens back then, the crew was green. Stones recalls the late Justin Pierce, who played Casper in Kids, asking Clark to look at some of her photographs. "She's got some sick flicks," Pierce told him, but Clark seemed unimpressed, which was discouraging to her at the time. The reality is that there were few people in New York wired into the small scene that served much of a mentoring role. It's something that partially plays into the tragedies that followed the release of Kids, including the loss of Pierce and, later, Harold Hunter in 2006.
"There was this dude in Sunset Park named Ducky, who did 'Skaters for Christ,'" she says. "He was religious, but he helped. Sunset Park was an immigrant, poor, drug-infested neighborhood, especially in the 70s when I was growing up there. He'd put on little contests, trying to get kids into something positive, but you can only do so much. I think it was easy for people to slip through the crevices. You know, and people were dealing with real problems. Skateboarding for a lot of them was just a way to get out of their neighborhoods."
With Washington Square Park as a central artery for New York City skateboarding in the 90s, skaters from all five boroughs convened there and gained notoriety for both their abilities and their attitudes. As elite as it's been portrayed, Stone mentions that things were so small then that Pierce and Hunter acted as glue—as ambassadors who welcomed everyone. "It wasn't like this exclusive kind of weird attitude that people have now," Stones says. "They were very much cool in that way. Their brand of cool was different."
That particular cool was largely shaped by what happened outside of the actual skateboarding, in part because few of the major skate magazines were covering what was happening in New York. As the 90s emerged, the "Suicidal Tendencies" image of skating had faded, especially in New York City, where hip-hop began to move further downtown. Part of that migration can be attributed to Shut and Zoo York co-founder Eli Morgan Gesner, who had established himself as a hip-hop party promoter in the late 80s and was tapped by Eric Goode to help design and implement a mini-ramp adjacent to the dance floor.
"Eric was the guy who backed skating and the idea, but at first he wanted us to wear silver jumpsuits while we skated," Gesner recalls. "It was rough at first, with people throwing drinks at us and just waiting for us to fall, but eventually anyone carrying a skateboard could get in the club and get free drinks. We essentially had a whole VIP area on top of the ramp, where you could leave your shit, bring girls, and smoke weed." Gesner's involvement with the Tunnel nightclub actually led to it being a location in Kids, and with Funkmaster Flex's Wednesday night party becoming the largest hip-hop party in the city, the cultures continued to commingle. This was the kind of happenstance intrinsic to New York City in the 90s—the opportunity and access resulting from hustle and being in the moment. Timing coupled with youthful enthusiasm were key to this crew becoming downtown icons.
"We had the keys to the city," Stones says. "We'd end up at parties in SoHo with really wealthy, famous people and just roll their liquor bar over and leave. It was good times. We wanted to put that into a book and make it our yearbook for people and make it a good memorial for those that aren't here with us anymore. What I say at the beginning of the book is that some of us made it, some of us didn't, some of us are still in limbo. It's a network and a web of people that have known each other for over 20 years."
That's a Crazy One is currently available for pre-order here.