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Z-Girls, Too: Peggy Oki, an original Z-boy, plays with the big boys.

The Z-Boys of Summer

'Dogtown and Z-Boys' carves the new wave of old school

By Sara Bir

Northern California, 2002. There are skate parks all over the North Bay. If you ask a random person on the street who Tony Hawk is, he or she might very well know. The X-Games have brought underground sports to the mainstream. If you skate, you probably won't get beat up for it.

Dogtown, 1975. When you can't surf, you skate. Forget about helmets and knee pads--sometimes you don't even skate wearing shoes. Prevailing style sees skateboarders rigid and upright on their boards, but you crouch close to the ground, carving the urban undulations of asphalt and concrete the way your surfing idols ride waves. You look like a bunch of shaggy-haired misfits with ratty deck shoes and torn-off back pockets, and you don't give a shit.

Even though skating has graduated from a worldwide network of pariahs to a very visible billion-dollar phenomenon, the story of how it evolved from the stick-figure-stiff tricks on banana boards to today's monster-sized extreme stunts has been quietly dormant for years. Dogtown and Z-Boys, a documentary chronicling the pivotal years that saw the birth and explosion of skateboarding as it is practiced now, may be the movie that communicates skateboarding's appeal to the nonskating public.

"Watching that movie brought back a whole lot of memories," says Kurt Hurley, who's been skating since 1963 and in 1978 went pro for three years. Now he owns and runs Brotherhood Board Shop in Santa Rosa. "These guys rode for a surf team and skated, which would never happen today. Skateboarders and surfers don't connect like that anymore."

Dogtown was the nickname for a rundown section of Santa Monica and Venice that was the antithesis of polished Beverly Hills and a truly urban beach neighborhood where, in the 1970s, kids from broken homes hung out surfing all day. The hot spot was the Pacific Ocean Park pier, which just happened to be in the middle of a tangled mass of rubble that jutted out from the water like a broken skeleton. Dogtown's footage of surfers navigating the spiny wreckage is mind-blowing.

The Jeff Ho & Zephyr Productions Surf Shop became a sort of clubhouse for Dogtown kids, who passed time by skateboarding. "Their motions reflected their surfing style, and it crossed over," Hurley says. "They got into skateboarding because [the surf] got blown out by 10 or 11 in the morning, and they didn't have anything else to do."

What they wound up doing was getting very good at skating, which, with the introduction of the urethane wheel in 1974, was seeing a resurgence of popularity. Noting their talent, the Zephyr Surf Shop shaped them into a team, the Z-Boys, and sponsored them.

It's the old 8mm and 16mm footage of the Z-Boys skating schools and pools that makes Dogtown and Z-Boys. Even though they're 25 years old, the images flow with a vibrancy and immediacy that's spine-tingling. It's a time capsule bringing us into a singular, complete moment, simultaneously fleeting and timeless, that wordlessly explains why they skated: Their motions have a stunning purity.

"All the good skateboarders then, they all surfed," says Hurley. "Ninety-nine percent of the skateboarders today don't surf. It was the difference between the guys that had style and they guys that didn't. It was more fluid. Skateboarding today's more technical; it's not as styled out.

"Now guys are so into skateboarding, they start at five years old. You could go to any town, anywhere in the world, and there's someone skateboarding. Back then there wasn't. We took all of our p's and q's from those guys in that movie. Those were the guys I skated against, those were the guys I looked up to. We were trying to be as cool as them. We wouldn't admit it, but we were."

Hurley was one of the first skaters doing frontside airs, a move that's integral to the high-flying style known as vertical skating. Dogtown and Z-Boys shows Tony Alva doing what is arguably the first ever frontside air. So why don't kids today know about him or any of the other influential skateboarders from the '70s?

"Skateboarders today owe everything to us," says Hurley, who was actually at one of the pool sessions filmed in the movie. Still, he doubts that kids skating now will incorporate more style into their tricks as a result of seeing Dogtown and Z-Boys, whose mantra is "going big works only as long as you look good doing it." "I took a couple of my good friends to see the movie," Hurley says, "and one of them brought his son--who's a really good skateboarder--and he fell asleep. They can't relate; it's not even their style. It's almost like watching Elvis. Some people get how profound he was, and some people don't.

"The one thing that I think is really cool about skateboarding today is the guys who are really good don't have an air about them. It's almost cool to be not cool now. Back then, if we walked into a pool, everybody stopped and watched us, and we made sure they watched us. But nobody took us seriously, and we wanted to be taken seriously. So we had something to prove."

The Z-Boys broke up after their first contest and simply receded into the background as the years passed. "After the skateboard revolution of the '70s died off, that next generation took over," says Hurley. "Most of those guys took off to places that they wanted to be, to do what made themselves happy."

"I'm 43 years old, and I still skate. You're going to see more 40-year-old guys like me skating in the future." In fact, right after this interview, Hurley was off to skate a pool he had just found out about. The discovery of an unskated, secret pool still holds the same allure that it did in 1978. The style of skating may change, but the reason to do it never will.

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From the May 16-22, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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