I’m in the Riviera Maya, an 80-mile slice of paradise along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, with skateboarding legend Tony Hawk. The humidity is rampant and Hawk is about to drop in on a massive vert ramp at the inaugural launch of Hard Rock Hotel Rivera Maya’s new lifestyle facility by Woodward – a 30,000 square foot paradise for skateboarders, BMXrs, gymnasts – even parkour athletes. With a full crowd of spectators, the Bones Brigade legend sends it and soars over the seemingly perilous ramp with ease, trading combinations of tricks with pro skaters Elliot Sloan, Neal Hendrix, Andy Mac, Clay Kreiner and Sandro Dias. His run ends with a back flip from the ramp onto the top of the deck.
Hawk is soaked with sweat, but still beaming. He’s not only here to christen the new park in Mexico, but he’s also celebrating a quarter century of his skateboard company: Birdhouse Skateboards. “This is the first company I started and this is the one I want to keep alive,” Hawk says.
In between shredding the vert ramp demo and signing autographs for his south-of-the-border fans, Hawk sat down with Rolling Stone to discuss a quarter century of Birdhouse, share his thoughts on the new action sports digs in Mexico and talk about Saturdays, his skateboarding teams’ latest full-length video endeavor.
Congratulations on 25 years of Birdhouse Skateboards: What was the climate of skateboarding like when you started out?
Thank you. Well, it was uncertain at best. Skateboarding was in a lull of popularity. I think that the biggest reason was because skateparks basically all closed down due to liability laws. Up to that point, skating had come and gone in waves of popularity, and we were in the low part of that cycle in the Nineties and a lot of my peers were struggling to figure out what they could do to make a living. Starting Birdhouse was actually my way of transitioning out of being a pro skater and into being a company owner.
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This is your first visit to Hard Rock Hotels Woodward facility in Riviera Maya. What are your thoughts on the park down here?
I’m excited. This facility is cool and I think it’s a great opportunity for the skaters in Mexico to skate in world class parks like this and get better and more recognized and it’s going to be fun to watch them shine here. You have to keep challenging yourself. No matter how far you get, no matter how good you think you are. You gotta keep trying to get better and do things outside of your comfort zone and skate all types of terrain so that you’re prepared for anything. That’s what is going to help you win.
You’ve laid the groundwork for skateboarders to make a living by doing what they love and have become an inspiration worldwide. What’s your reaction to that?
I’m honored that people take direction, or inspiration, from me – that was never my intention. I just wanted to get better at skating, something that I was doing at a time when it was not very popular. I’m thankful that it’s come so far, and I get to keep doing it.
So you were really a grassroots company, trying to figure out a new way of living?
We didn’t know what we were doing. We were literally three dudes in this warehouse and office space in Huntington Beach, calling shops and saying, “Hey, we started a new company called Birdhouse. You wanna buy a board or two? Please?” [laughs]. I was making phone calls, doing the team managing, creating the ads, and doing the videos.
So the first couple of years, 1993 to ’94, were a struggle.
I was in over my head in terms of mortgage payments and things like that through the late 80’s ’cause, you know, we didn’t see an end in sight. And then, all of a sudden, I was stuck with this huge mortgage and took out a second mortgage to start Birdhouse – so I found myself in a really tight financial position. My son Riley’s mom was a manicurist so we survived on her cash tips for food. We cut back on all our costs – our food budget was very slim, so there was a lot of Taco Bell, a lot of Top Ramen and a lot of peanut butter-and-honey sandwiches. And I still got to skate and that’s what made me happy in terms of my job, so I don’t look back at it like it was the most difficult time. It wasn’t like we were destitute. We got to skate, we still got to travel, we still got to do demos like we were living the dream, you know. It’s just the dream wasn’t penthouses – the dream was simply skating for a living.
What was the catalyst that changed everything, if you could pinpoint a moment in history that put skateboarding back in the limelight?
I think it was X Games. You know, as much as people don’t want to admit that – or don’t want to give them credit – when the X Games came around in 1995, I mean, it was all an experiment. They hosted stuff like bungee jumping, sky surfing, rock climbing and skateboarding. Dudes were literally bungee jumping off on a kayak and I was like, “What is going on? This isn’t a sport and this isn’t pushing the envelope. This is just – a circus.”
But I realized that they were putting on a televised skate contest and that was a big deal – that wasn’t lost on me, you know. It was our chance to shine through all this chaos—through all these strange fringe activities, because we had been doing this for a long time, and I felt like skateboarding was more refined than any of the other activities they were showing. So for us, well for me personally, I felt the opportunity to show that we were serious and passionate and I definitely felt like, especially in those early X Games, that skateboarding rose above the rest.
What do you feel are your proudest moments of Birdhouse Skateboards over the years?
Well, I really liked what we created in the beginning because we did create a team that was based on quality skating first and foremost and not, you know, not being shocking and not being offensive and not being combative with other brands. So I’m proud that we started on that foot. I would not have been able to do half of what we did without Jeremy Klein’s creative input. I mean he was such an integral part of our aesthetics and he’s very opinionated, but he had great ideas and when we did “The End.” It was probably the biggest project that we did up until now. And Jeremy was the one who came up with almost all the sort of threads and the stories and you know, that video was, at the time, that was our magnum opus.
“The End” featured elaborate skits played by Steve Berra, Heath Kirchart and Jeremy Klein. And you had a massive half-pipe, custom built by Animal Chin ramp builder Tim Payne inside a bullfighting arena. How did all these ideas come together?
A lot of those ideas actually came from the riders themselves. Basically, because we had the team and we could justify doing it on that level and we wanted to make sure that it would be special. So we took the plunge and budgeted a bunch of money on the film, knowing full well that most of the film was going to be wasted away because of bails. But at the time, we felt like we had to honor our team and do something special like that – not just put out another VHS video.
“The Beginning” was insane too. You guys built a wild ramp in the middle of the desert, in the salt flats, and had a Jeep installed at the top of the deck to grind. Was that also an effect of the teams’ creativity?
Well see that’s a perfect example of how different it is doing a video now. I got that whole shoot funded by Jeep because Jeep sponsored me at the time. They used to have – when we would do tours like the Huck-Jam tour – a dummy Jeep up on the deck that we, like, grinded and stuff like that. People didn’t know it wasn’t real. But this one in the desert was a real Jeep that was craned up on the deck. To do a shoot like that now would be next to impossible because all sponsors want today is some short burst of social media blast, a little bit of hype, and that’s it. And there are no three-year contracts with budgets like that anymore.
Doing this new video has been very different in that sense. I was looking for sponsors initially to help offset all the costs that I’ve been putting into it. But at some point, I was like, “You know what? I don’t really want to answer to anyone and no one is going to pony up the amount that it would be worth giving them that much advertising.”
Birdhouse just released its first full-length film in 10 years, titled Saturdays. Tell me about that experience.
We were in Europe doing demos in places like in Paris and London. I would go out with the guys and go see them on the streets and I was like, “Holy shit, we have something really amazing here.” You know, the level of talent and just the sheer amount of footage that we were getting in between our demos was unparalleled. So it was during that trip that I got everyone together and I said, “We have to make a video. This is such an opportunity and you guys are all ripping; you’re in your prime.” I don’t want to say it would have been a waste, but I feel like it would have been wasteful to just put this out as some tour video.
Your son Riley Hawk used to ride for Birdhouse – he’s now pro for Baker and quite the musician and artist – a true Renaissance Hawk?
Yeah, he picked up the guitar really early. And Riley tagged his balcony when he was a kid. I came home one day and his whole balcony had graffiti on it – he’s always been creative. And it’s been fun to see him implement all those things into his adult life. And with those interests, he’s actually making a living from them. It’s fun for him, but it’s also legit.
He’s really taken off on his own and avoided being cast in your shadow. How has that been as a family?
I think growing up, and seeing how hard it is on both ends of the spectrum, gave him a lot of perspective. During his early years, the struggle was hard and definitely his childhood was not easy. He was bouncing around houses. At one point, his mom was living in a trailer on her boyfriend’s dad’s property and it got rough. So he’s seen it all.
Those years when he started coming into his own in skating, that got hard for him too. He didn’t like the pressure that was put on him just because he was my son. I was worried, because he was starting to shy away from it. At some point, I just said, “You know what Riley? You’re leaps ahead of anyone your age in skating and you’re becoming better than a lot of guys I know who’ve been for skating most their lives. If you want to really do something that involves sponsorship and stuff, I think you should take skating a little more seriously.” And I think he took that to heart, and then he realized most of his close friends, they all still skated – that was their thing. And that was kind of the beginning of Shep Dawgs.
Well, congratulations again on all your success with Birdhouse and not giving up.
Thank you. I still can’t believe it’s been 25 years. It’s so crazy and it’s been super fun. It’s still my passion project in so many ways, you know. Even like when things took a down turn and we weren’t necessarily profitable every month, I’ve never thought about giving up. That was never even an option. For a long time, I kept it alive through licensing my name to more mass-market stuff. My name on boards, which we sold to mid-tier sporting goods stores, and places like Target – those royalties were allocated to Birdhouse, to pay for the team. That’s pretty much how I kept it afloat. I mean, not afloat – that’s how I was able to pay the team what I thought they deserved.