A Conversation With Skateboarding's Renaissance Man: Steve Olson

The skater-turned-artist talks early beginnings of skateboarding and his transition into art.

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If there’s one man that’s experienced and seen it all in the world of skateboarding it’s Steve Olson. Having pretty much grown up hand-in-hand with the sport itself, there’s arguably no one more qualified to recount the growth of the sport and debunk industry tales that have been passed down from generation to generation. It comes as no surprise therefore, that the 55-year-old is still held in high regard by his peers despite his tendency to spend more and more time in his Melrose studio than an empty backyard pool. Make no mistake though, the guy still rips and more importantly, with a lot of passion (an impromptu phone conversation with Lance Mountain during our interview confirmed just that).

The California native will always be known as the guy who brought punk rock into skateboarding but it’s his forays into the art world, as well as the occasional dabbling in music, that have shown a new spotlight on his creative alter ego. A quick Google search of “steve olson art” yields intriguing results such as “Skateboard Legend Steve Olson’s Art is Too Sexy for This Government Building” and “Artist and Skateboarder Steve Olson’s Art is Censored in Santa Barbara — County Supervisor’s Office staffer physically removes pieces from the exhibit,” both of which refer to a piece dubbed Buy Sexual that now hangs proudly on the wall of his studio. What’s important isn’t the fact that he’s making headlines, but more so that his brash and bold attitude from skating has translated into his art. Olson’s sculpture and mixed media work in particular has proven to be a hit success, showing at reputable venues such as Known Gallery, Hadid Gallery, Nye House and Museum of Design to name a few. More recently though, he has begun to try his hand at abstract canvas work which was scattered across his studio during our visit.

Getting to the bottom of his intriguing life story would require much more than an hour, but we did manage to touch upon various subjects such as winning Skater of the Year at age 17, the infamous checkerboard story, and his eventual transition into art. Scroll through below for the entire conversation.

Let’s start with skateboarding. What was it like growing up with the sport in its very early stages?

The ups and the downs and the peaks and the valleys of skateboarding. In the ’60s it started with department stores and toy stores, and skateboards were really considered a toy. Kind of piggybacking the hula hoop. But with the hula hoop you’re standing in the same place and with the skateboard, at least you move and you can use it as transportation. They moved a lot of units but it just died. Loss of interest maybe? Back then it was clay wheels and it wasn’t such an advanced type of product. It was still pretty amazing. I got my first skateboard in ’66 but it had metal wheels; it wasn’t such a smooth ride. Then the ‘70s came around. It’s always the same bullshit answer but it was the bastard stepchild of surfing. Then all of a sudden the urethane wheels came around. For kids I don’t know how to make a comparison to where they would understand it but maybe it’s like from phone calls to texting. I’m kidding. But it was insane because you went from riding these wheels that were hard and noisy and not so smooth, to then hopping on and riding on marble or glass. It was a really wild transformation. Then everything just started happening. Boards, trucks, everyday or every week there was some new advancement per se.

How did the sport itself begin to change?

Skate parks started happening and swimming pools were happening too. In the mid ‘70s street skating was freestyle — like gymnastic handstands, spinning and tricks — pre-ollie. It was just all over the place and it was wicked. In the very late ‘70s and early ‘80s skate parks were just flying everywhere and money was being made with pros and this and that. But then it died. Just due to the fact that there was some insurance problems with skate parks and people suing, and there was somewhat of a recession hitting. Skateboarding just died with everything else that happened. Skateboarder Magazine went to Action Now which was covering BMX, roller skating, to horseback riding, surfing — it was a little bit ahead of its time but it had to. It had no choice.

Then the ‘80s hit and all those kids, the Bones Brigade, GNS and Vision — the whole scene was happening; Santa Cruz, Powell Peralta and whatever. Vert was really huge and the street contests started. I rode in the first three or four or five street contests. It was dope, but skating died again. It went away, it just happened. It was just generational basically. In the ‘90s it came back gigantic and bigger than ever. Each time it came back it came back bigger and stronger, and each time it came back it came up to a different plateau. Then in the 2000s it died again to a point. Each time it reaches its plateau there’s a stronger foundation. Skateboarding will never die again like it did in the beginning of the ‘80s. Back then people were like, “Wow we’re going out of business. It’s going to be hard to keep our doors open.” And for a cat like myself, I was like 19 thinking, “Now what do you do with your life?” My little skateboarding journey was done, but it was just happening a year ago.

Steve Olson Skateboarding Art Studio Los Angeles

What was your relationship with the Dog Town crew like?

I knew the Zephyr team through surfing. Then they became like this skateboard phenomenon. If your team is competing another team you wanna win, it wasn’t a rivalry. They had a rivalry with the down south dudes which was like the San Diego guys and not us. We were the next generation that kinda stepped up when the pool thing became a competition format. That’s where we got our start in the whole world of skateboarding. They were part of the pioneering aspect of pool riding but there were a lot of people riding pools and they just had the movie that claimed they were the dudes. But there were thousands of people riding pools, and there were dudes who ripped riding pools as well. In the documentary aspect of narration, of course you’re going to say, “We were the ones!” and they were rowdy and badass and very dope. But they were not the only ones but they’re not going to say that of course. Why go against the myth? Stacey Peralta is a super good friend of mine and I said this film is going to blow minds to the people who don’t really know it. No one is really aware of it outside of the core skateboard people back in that time. That’s the way it is. And it won. It won the best documentary at Sundance and he was like, “How did you know?” I was like, “I didn’t know man.  A. I was talking shit, B. I wanted it to win, and C. It won and I’m totally psyched because it looks like I knew when I was just being positive for you.” As a skateboarder from that time we all win. And skateboarders in general we all win.

You had a very successful career yourself. What was it like winning Skater of the Year as a teenager?

I won it when I was 17 maybe 18. That’s the trophy right there (points to the trophy). The trophy was fucked back then because this was the face right. Then my son moved in with me and he was young so I bought him G.I. Joe action figures and stuff. All of a sudden I came home and he had put this mask on and it made the trophy sick. But anyways the first year Tony Alva won, and it made mad sense because he was popular and ripped and had attitude. And then year two, they started calling the top 10 and I was like, “Wow.” [They] get down to the top 5 and you’re like, “Wow, I didn’t even make it in the top 10. That’s so pathetically sad and lame.” I was like “Oh well whatevs.” Then all of a sudden you got down to the top 3 and someone said “it’s between you and you and you.” I was like “you’re out of your mind bitch!” And then they got down to the top two and they called out Alva. They were like, “You’re the guy, who else is there?” I was like, “No way, it’s not possible.” I was so stoked. I was hammered. I still remember it though. I was a punk rock kid back then. I think I had leather pants on, some black shirt and a polka dot tie, and a white dinner jacket and these fucking pointed shoes that had white tips. They were way too small for my feet. Then they were like, “Speech!” and I was like, “Fuck you!” and didn’t give a speech and spit at the cameras. I’m like rebelling against the whole thing. It really helped because they were like he really doesn’t give a fuck about winning this award but in my heart I was totally psyched. On the outside as a kid I was like “this is not cool,” but inside in my heart I was like, “this might be one of the best things ever.” I was totally proud and happy.

Steve Olson Skateboarding Art Studio Los Angeles

What’s the real story behind the checkerboard pattern? You brought it in to skateboarding right?

I did but I’m not going to be the guy who’s going to sit around and boast about myself. I’m going to tell you what my take of it was. As a kid I liked surfing, skateboarding, and cars and I’m sure I liked fashion in my own sense. I liked Levi’s jeans, Hang Ten shirts, and a certain type of shoe. I wasn’t like a Vans guy. I got a model with Santa Cruz and they did this graphic and they put my signature on top as a kid — I was 16 at the time. It was like Joe Namath’s name on a football or Reggie Jackson’s on a baseball glove. That’s how I was relating to it — it was pretty intense. Do I deserve that? I don’t know but I was kinda proud without being a jerk about it. Anyway then the whole punk rock music scene started opening up and I got into it deep because of my older brother. They had rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s and we had punk rock in the late ‘70s for us. That was our energy. With that I really dug and enjoyed the fashion part of it as well. It was totally different. If you weren’t into the scene you looked completely different from the actual normal person. And then they didn’t really dig that so they would call you a freak or faggot or whatever.

I wanted to do a graphic for my board because the graphic for my board looked like fucking hippy. It didn’t represent who I was. So my brother and I sat down and said “let’s do checkerboard.” It was from race cars and the whole motor world. My brother did the graphics and it turned out to be really good. Vans, before they became the powerhouse that they are now, were really the only skateboard shoe going down. I went to get some custom Vans made. I took checkerboard material, black leather material and gold lamé – like Elvis’s outfit back in the day. They made the gold lamé good and they made the checkerboard good. I wish I had them because I just threw them away. It’s so sad. ‘Cause then I could back my story. The one dude that really knew the story died last year. Anyway yeah I did that and the next thing you see is see the checkerboard shoe come out and whatevs, I don’t own the checkerboard and I never did but I definitely introduced it. They did a couple of graphics and just bastardized the shit out of it. It was due to my brother and myself really. The guy who did the screaming hand logo, Jim Philips, he’s a good dude but he doesn’t have to take credit for something that he didn’t do. It’s so sad. You got the artwork and laid it out — like get the fuck out of here you didn’t have the creation for that shit. Anyways that’s that story and that’s reality. It would be nice to have a nickel for every checkerboard sneaker they made. I’m so sad I don’t have those shoes. I’m sure someone has a picture though.

[Editor’s note: Steve Olson receives a 10-minute phone call from Lance Mountain]

Who are some of your favorite skaters to date?

I’ll just give it to you quick and straight. In the ‘60s I loved this guy Danny Bearer, Bruce Logan, Torger Johnson, Mike Hansen. Then in the ‘70s I really liked Tony Alva, Jay Adams and Kevin Anderson. And then there were dudes in my generation like Brad Bowman, Shogo Kubo, Ed Nadalin, Stevie Monahan. Then in the ‘80s there were guys like Lance Mountain, [Christian] Hosoi, Tony Hawk, [Steve] Cab[allero], Jeff Phillips. In the ‘90s and ‘00s I really liked Rick McCrank, and I loved the Muska. He just did it his way which was cool. I just remember my son, he would come back from the skate park and be like “We saw this guy Muska and he would ride up to the rail and talk to the rail and be like, ‘Come on man, we’re gonna do this!’” He had this full conversation with the rail and I just thought, “How amazing is this weirdo!” There was so many dudes. Dwayne Peters was badass, Kevin Taylor from New York, Spanky was good, Andrew Reynolds. There’s so many — I love all of them.

Also watching my kid skate in a contest. Seeing him skate in the downtown Vans contest when he was an amateur and win was really another giant highlight for sure. It was such a proud dad moment. And then doing a cover with him. We did a cover in 2007 at Supreme. He’s doing some boneless thing and I’m doing a frontside grind. And then when I see his parts, I’m sorry but I’m a dad for sure. To see his Lakai part in Fully Flared, which was his first big thing, was probably the best thing just as a skateboarder or dad or whatever. A. He killed it and B. I’m so proud of my son. It’s dope to be able to say that cause other cats might not have that positivity of their sons going forward and actually making it happen. I’m blessed, I got lucky man. Do we really need to keep going on because I’m about to cry. Just kidding. It is wicked to have a son skateboard.

Steve Olson Skateboarding Art Studio Los Angeles

Could you talk about your transition into the world? Where did that interest originate from?

I’m almost 60 so yeah. But I still skateboard. I got into making art a couple of decades ago and I thought about what I could do to keep my attention. I’m into it now and it’s happening. With the art thing I don’t know though, I’m not a formally trained artist. If you have the will then just go for it. I’m down with the attitude of “if it’s possible, you’re going to do it.” And that attitude comes from skateboarding. There’s a correlation between the two, definitely. The principles, not that they’re the exact same, but the attitude of doing something till you learn it. I guess it’s kinda academic but not in a formal educational way. I’m not worried about that world but it seems to be getting better and better. Maybe now I’m a little more serious about doing it. I just got into painting. My mom passed away and I was just hanging out with my dad making sure he’s cool, and I was like I’m going to lose my mind if I have too much time to think so I just started painting a bit. I never really even touched paint before. But I definitely use my color centrum from what I’ve learned in my life — punk rock, rock ‘n’ roll, fashion, and skateboarding and everything. You throw it all in there.

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