Intrigued by my son’s new obsession with skateboarding, a sport that entails aerial feats over concrete surfaces, I had to investigate to make sure this was something I could condone. In my mind, the sport belonged to Southern California’s empty pools and aqueducts and was better suited for super athletes like Tony Hawk. But as I found out, there is not only a thriving skate culture here in the Bay Area, but an interesting history, and more than a few pros who are proud to call the “415” home.
In Mill Valley, my son’s go-to spot is Proof Lab, a bastion of surf/skate culture a kid like him adores that contains an indoor arena with an emphasis on safety that a nervous parent like myself loves. There’s also many outdoor parks up and down Highway 101 and much more to the Marin skateboarding story than I imagined.
Marin County, like many communities all across the country, has a deep skateboard culture. While the activity started in Southern California, it also became popular here in Northern California, where it took on a more urban-street flavor; there was even a recognizable Bay Area style by the 1980s. From the old Embarcadero’s unofficial skate park and the influence of Thrasher magazine, founded in San Francisco in 1981, to the handrails of Marin high schools, skaters here began doing what skaters do everywhere — riding, flipping, grinding and honing their tricks.
Kevin Campion is one of the earliest impresarios of skate culture in Marin. He grew up in Terra Linda and founded the first surf and skate shop in the county in 1984. “I wanted to open a place where these skater kids, who had nowhere else to go, could hang,” he says from his current skate project, A-Town, in Atascadero. His first retail outlet had humble beginnings, in a studio apartment in Tam Junction, but was the first of its kind here in the county — a store that carried the things that like-minded surfers and skaters would want to buy. Campion combed the old Marin City flea market to find merchandise, which ranged from surplus German army tank top shirts to boxes of Michael Jackson sunglasses.
Eventually, the store outgrew the small studio apartment and he opened Marin Surf Sports at the current Proof Lab location on Shoreline Highway in Tam Junction. By the early ’90s he had three locations — Mill Valley, San Rafael and Novato. He also started the Poorboy clothing line and put together a team of skaters, which included many up-andcoming Marin locals.
Eric Kirkwood was one of those kids. A native of Detroit, he moved to Marin in 1992 with a group of friends to skate and never stopped. He currently makes a living teaching skateboarding to a whole new generation of kids. To watch Eric skate is to watch someone fully in tune with his body. He drops in at the edge of the indoor half-pipe at Proof Lab, his classroom, and effortlessly glides up and down the ramp. He then works with a couple of 8-year-olds and explains how to balance and “keep strong” — the secret to staying on the board.
Pat Duffy grew up in Corte Madera and is regarded as one of the most influential skateboarders ever by his peers. He honed his skills in and around Marin, and his legendary 1992 demo tape for sponsors shows him doing unbelievable stunts at many (and on many) local landmarks. Duffy not only changed the way people skate, he changed the way people thought about what’s possible for the sport and for the human body in general. He pushed skateboarding to the next level and was the first to show that skating huge, long handrails was possible. He was also a founding member of Plan B, the popular line of clothing and skateboarding equipment.
The aforementioned Proof Lab exerts a big influence on skate culture in Marin. It was founded by Will Hutchinson and Nate McCarthy in 2004 at the same location where Marin Surf Sports got its start. The pair grew up in Marin working for Campion. “I was attracted to the energy and action coming out of his stores,” Hutchinson says of Campion. Over the last several years, he and McCarthy have grown Proof Lab from a small space to a complex that includes a surf and skate shop, a Patagonia retail location, an Equator Coffee shop, Magic West Music School, a surfboard shaping/ding repair business, a tech start-up, a bio-diesel station and an art and garden space that is home to Mill Valley Potter’s Studio, CNL Native Plant Nursery and The Little Art Studio. But the crown jewel of the establishment is an indoor half-pipe where skaters can carve on the beautifully designed and custom-built wood ramp or practice their tricks in any weather. Hutchinson worked on the business plan for the complex and expansion (including the indoor ramp) as part of his master’s thesis in sustainability management. “There aren’t enough good places for people to skate around here, and we’ve always had some kind of skate ramp at our stores, either inside or outside in the parking lot,” Hutchinson says. “We wanted to make the store come alive for customers and employees, and to create a skate spot that you can’t find anywhere else.”
On a typical day there, you’ll find Kirkwood teaching a group of kids how to shred, their moms and dads watching from the sidelines or browsing the retail space for surf and skate-inspired fashion. Even the founder of Marin skate retail, Kevin Campion, marvels at the accomplishments of his protégés and the community feeling they created. Hutchinson and McCarthy “completely trust their customers and respect them,” he says.
Triumph, on Fourth Street in San Rafael, has been an epicenter of Marin skateboarding since it opened in the ’80s. Formerly Marin Skate Sports (another Campion creation), it became Triumph in 2003 and stayed within a tight group of skateboarding owners. Most recently in 2011 Isak Alisic and Evan Johnson took over and turned it into their own generation’s version of a true hub for skaters with independent clothing and skate brands and hard-to-find items. Not just a retail space, Triumph is also a community gathering place and a brand — producing its own line of Triumph-logo skateboards and clothing and even hosting a skate team. “That’s why we’re here,” Alisic says. “We’re here to build this brand and do as much as we can for all the kids who are here.”
Triumph has hired former skateboard pro Shane Reuter, who grew up in San Rafael and rode for Poorboy in the mid to late 1990s. About three years ago he transitioned out of his construction job to work full time in the Marin skate business. Besides working at Triumph, he also designs the Ender line of skateboards, teaches privately, and is editing The Marin Resurrection, a new video featuring skaters sponsored by Poorboy in the mid-1990s. This tight group of friends met each other skating in Marin and all still skate today, although not all work in the industry. “It was like getting the band back together,” Reuter says. Besides himself and Kirkwood, the group includes Lucian Moon, Jesse Hotchkiss and Bart Jones, and the video will include clips that made them famous 20 years ago. Reuter is grateful for the continued growth in popularity of skateboarding. “I get to share what I’ve spent my life doing and it’s awesome. It’s the best thing. As much as it’s changed, it’s still so fun.”
And what does the future of skateboarding look like locally? If Keith “K-Dub” Williams realizes his goal, Marin City will be the home of the next Marin skate park. A visual artist and a Youth in Arts teacher at Sausalito’s public charter school, Willow Creek Academy, he founded Tha Hood Games in 2005 and has been a big supporter of skateboarding — even helping to get Oakland’s Town Park skate park built in 2007. After successfully promoting two Marin City Sk8 Days in collaboration with Proof Lab and Triumph, he began to envision a colorful destination skate park and art center at the entrance to Marin City. “For the young people who live in Marin City, it will give them not only a place to skate, but a place where they can express themselves through art and athleticism,” he says. “It will serve the community in more ways than one, as skaters from all over come to experience skating Marin City. Skateboarding has a way of drawing people in because skateboarders will go where they can skate.”
The future of skating starts with youth, as it has always done. Mill Valley local Chris von Blohn, a 19-year-old skater, also makes a living exposing a new generation to Marin skating. In the summer of 2013 von Blohn started Shredders Skate Camp out of Proof Lab, where kids hone their skills. “Skateboarding for me is a lifestyle,” he says. “It’s brought me friends, opportunities, release — everything I ever could have wanted. It’s one of my favorite things to do.”
People young and old love to skate. “There’s nothing like the feeling when you make a trick that you’ve tried over and over again,” Kirkwood says. “It’s elation, a feeling that you can do anything. I’ve seen it in my 5-year-old students and my 51-year-old students. That’s a powerful thing.”
Additional information about skate talk and skateparks on page 2.
Skating is a lifestyle, and with that comes jargon. Here are terms — furnished by the Exploratorium’s Skateboard Science Glossary — to help familiarize you with skateboard culture. exploratorium.edu
BACKSIDE When a trick or turn is executed with the skater’s back facing the ramp or obstacle.
CARVE To skate in a long, curving arc.
DECK The flat standing surface of a skateboard, usually laminated maple.
GRIND Scraping one or both axles on a curb, railing or other surface.
GRIP TAPE Sandpaper affixed to the top of the deck with adhesive, used to increase the friction between the deck and the skater’s feet.
GROM A future shredder, a young skateboarder in training.
HALF-PIPE A U-shaped ramp of any size, usually with a flat section in the middle.
KICKFLIP A variation on the ollie in which the skater kicks the board into a spin before landing back on it.
OLLIE A jump performed by tapping the tail of the board on the ground; the basis of most skating tricks.
SHRED To perform a sport such as surfing, snowboarding or skateboarding exceptionally well.
TRUCKS The front and rear axle assemblies that connect the wheels to the deck and provide the turning capabilities for the board.
Where to Go
MESA PARK SKATE PARK Located in Bolinas’s Mesa Park, this small concrete skate park features a street course and a 30-foot mini-ramp.
TOWN PARK SKATE PARK The Corte Madera Town Park Skate Park features professional-grade plastic ramps. It’s located on Tamalpais Drive and is open daily until dusk during all months of the year. ci.corte-madera.ca.us
PROOF LAB The indoor half-pipe is open to skaters whenever the shop is open and no classes are taking place. prooflab.com
MILL VALLEY SKATE PARK Located behind the middle school, Mill Valley Skate Park is a small but serviceable park with a variety of metal ramps. cityofmillvalley.org
HAMILTON SKATE PARK Skaters in Marin were some of the first to benefit from legislation like California’s 1998 law stating that skateboarding is an inherently Hazardous Recreational Activity, which meant municipalities were no longer liable for injuries suffered by skateboarders. One result was a boom in skate park construction around the state. Built in 2002, Novato’s Hamilton Skate Park was the first concrete skate park constructed in Marin. Designed by skate park architect Zach Wormhoudt, it has a 15,000-square-foot skating area. cityofnovato.org
MCINNIS SKATE PARK Indigo/Hammond & Playe Architects, renowned for building skate parks across the U.S., also designed this facility. According to the website, the architects were inspired by McInnis Park’s history as the site of a Nike missile base. At 25,000 square feet, it is the largest skate park in the county and contains areas for all skill levels. marincounty.org