Life lessons from skate legend Chad Muska

Life lessons from skate legend Chad Muska
All or nothing — In a searingly honest interview, artist and skater Chad Muska shares the highs and lows of an extraordinary career.

The moment Chad Muska steps out of an Uber in East London, you can tell this person is different. Even with no knowledge of his unique career – pro skater, fine artist, music producer, shoe designer – or his journey from living homeless to flying by private jet, there’s an aura about him that says, “You better believe I’ve lived my life to the fullest.”

Ambling across a side street in Hoxton, skate manager Mario Miller at his side, ‘the Muska’ is dressed head-to-toe in white: tufts of blonde hair straggling out from his baseball cap, eyes framed by a pair of wraparound shades, a black camera-bag hanging low over his shoulder.

The 42-year-old has been on an exhaustive world tour with Supra Footwear, taking in Latin America, Australia and Europe before bouncing back home to the US. At every stop, his demos and signings have drawn skaters of all ages – a testament to the star power that, despite what his modest nature might tell you, continues to endure.  

In person, Muska is buzzing. He’s an introvert at heart, entirely unpretentious, but still manages to radiate the kind of enthusiastic energy that can take over a room. “You should see me after I have a coffee!” he says with a gruff laugh, stepping into the quiet games room of a pub on a sticky summer evening. 

The past decade has been an intense experience for him: a winding path of reinvention that has brought him to a place of self-acceptance. It’s why his Instagram profile is peppered with motivational quotes – a reminder that he’s picked up more insight along the way than several lifetimes put together.

As a teenager, you moved to California with no money and nowhere to live – a time you’ve described as maybe the best in your life. What made you enjoy something that would be quite scary for a lot of people?
I think because when you have nothing, there’s nothing to worry about except the basics in life. Then, as you acquire things, that can bring stress. I’m also aware that memories are always the way you want to remember them, so there may be some of that romanticism there. In reality, it was probably very hard and involved a lot of struggling. But I was also going after a dream. And to have that vision in your head, knowing that you’re going for something, is a beautiful moment in your life because you could be sitting at home just daydreaming of getting away from whatever situation you’re in. I think I was in the middle of manifesting that idea and even though the future wasn’t certain, I knew that I was at least giving it a shot. 

So you had a clear plan at the time?
Well… no! [laughs] It’s funny because I guess I wouldn’t have called it a plan; I would have called it just knowing that something at that time wasn’t right. In my heart. In my soul. I thought, ‘There’s something more to my life than this’ – and I needed to go after whatever that was, even without a plan. 

Before leaving Vegas, your mom’s boyfriend would drive you to work at four in the morning, telling you: ‘Skateboarding is not going to give you anything.’ Did you ever get to say ‘I told you so’ to that guy?
They’re no longer together. But I remember at one point before my mom and him broke up, he was like, ‘You never liked me! You never accepted me!’ or something like that. I think that was maybe his own way of recognising what he’d said and what I went on to do. But I’m not the type of person to rub something in somebody’s face; I was never like, ‘Haha, told you so!’ But there are many people in my life where, without having to say it, I did show them. In school, teachers were a strong source of doubt in my life. Skateboarding wasn’t accepted at that time, so it was like, ‘Oh, you’re a skateboarder? You’re a bad kid. That’s not going to amount to anything.’ So, yeah, there are definitely people who would have felt that without me having to say it.

What would you say you learned in your thirties that you wish you’d known in your twenties?
I mean, so much. [laughs] But I think with whatever you learn in life, if you just had that knowledge the whole time, it wouldn’t make it as special to acquire it in the first place. I think part of growing is learning from your past in order to better yourself in the future. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. But I think it’s a continuous cycle through life where we will all keep learning as long as we have an open mind.

When you look back at your journey now, what stands out as the biggest challenge along the way?
There have been so many, but I think the expectations of others can be a big one in life. With skateboarding, I had to prove myself to make my mark. Then after you get to that point, there’s a level of expectation that comes along with it: you need to keep outdoing yourself. 

Another big challenge was coming from nothing and making something of myself – because I didn’t know, really, what to do with it all and how to take it. I made a lot of mistakes financially along the way that I had to learn from and get myself out of multiple times. 

There are so many more life lessons… Maybe one of the biggest things that I learned – and this comes with drinking and partying and all that – was finding out who I really was away from the public persona that had been created over the years through skateboarding, through fashion, through art. 

All the things that I’ve done, at one point, became their own monster. And I was just following along with it. As those things faded away more, with me less in the spotlight as younger skaters came along, I wasn’t the hotshot I once was. I had to go through a lot of digging within myself just to figure out, ‘Okay, who are you? And who was this persona that had been created?’ Getting sober was a major step in me having the time and mental capacity to answer some of those questions.

That sounds really hard. What was the key to getting through it?
Any type of fame, no matter how big or small, is like a drug. You come down off it hard. It’s like, ‘All of this ended, it’s over. I’m done in skateboarding.’ But that’s where I chose to remind myself, ‘I know I still have things to offer this world. My ability on a skateboard doesn’t define me. My actions in this present moment are what defines me. And I can make the conscious decision to continue with what I’m passionate about, like designing, creating artwork, photography, video – all these things that I love to do which are connected to skateboarding but don’t have anything to do with my ability to skate.

I guess sometimes when you’re known for one thing, it’s really hard to be taken seriously in another realm. How did you establish yourself to a point where people knew it was more than just a novelty and in fact something to be respected?
Well, I think there’s still a challenge with that. Like you said, anybody who becomes well-known for one particular action, it’s as if you can’t possibly do something else. But for me, skateboarding is performance art – everybody does it in their own unique way. Although I didn’t realise it until much later, that mindset has always been a part of my life – whether it’s with graffiti, hip hop, breakdancing, DJing, MCing, punk rock music, building launch ramps and half pipes, even painting on your grip tape. This is all stuff I did my whole life without ever even thinking of it as art. It was just an extension of skateboarding.

But back to the question: I mean how do you get people to respect anything? It’s by continuously doing that action and showing that there’s a true passion for it, as opposed to doing something because it’s cool in the moment and you want to be known for it – because that will come and go; it’ll fade away. But the art world is so ridiculous. Who’s the boss of that anyway? Like, what makes my artwork better than your artwork? Or vice versa? If it sells for more, does that makes it better? Or is it because a curator says that your art is better than something else?

It’s all bullshit; completely subjective. That alone leads me to not care whether the art world accepts me or not. If you look at the most celebrated artists ever, the majority of them weren’t accepted by the art world while they were alive. Luckily, I’m not financially dependent on it. I just love to create on multiple platforms. I just have to do these things because that’s how I stay sane – or make myself crazy! I’m not sure. [laughs] Whether it’s one of the other, it’s balancing out. It’s doing something

You’ve had your fair share of injuries. Most people would think that would be hell for any pro athlete, but it sounds like you actually found some positives that led to other opportunities.
I think I’ve been trying to make positives out of negatives my entire life. I know a lot of skaters who get an injury and think, ‘I don’t know what the heck to do with myself’ and end up sitting on the couch playing video games. That was never me. I have to be doing something with my mind and my hands; I can’t sit still. But my mentality in life is, ‘Okay, I can’t do this. What is it I can do?’ I believe in working with what you have, not with what you need. I always hear people say, ‘If I only had this amount of money…’ and it makes me so mad. It’s like, ‘Make it happen or shut up!’

You were once described as one of the most marketable pros that skateboarding has ever seen. What do you think it was about your image, style or personality that led people to see you in that kind of light?
It’s hard to say; I don’t know. Since there was never any plan for this career, I was just being myself skateboarding – and maybe that was something people could identify with. Even if some of the aspects of being myself got out of control throughout the years, it was all still an extension of being my true self in some way. 

Timing probably had something to do with it, too. The skateboard industry collapsed in the ’80s and when I started in the early ’90s, it was dead. There was nobody else that skated in my neighbourhood. I was the outcast. But that’s when I was skating the most; that’s when I was learning my tricks. As my career grew, the skateboard industry began growing again, too. But I think publicly, for non-skaters especially, there was a perception of, ‘Oh, skateboarding is all punk-rock, thrashing and violence.’ So maybe I was a kid who came in and represented something different at that time.

Do you think there were any misconceptions people had about you? Things you felt they consistently got wrong?
There are elements of my whole career that got overemphasised. There was a time when my dream for the day was getting a Taco Bell taco and a 40 [ounce]. To go from that to having an income, I was like, ‘Oh my God! I gotta go get this, get that. I want an Escalade!’ [laughs] I looked at the hip-hop dream that I’d seen in magazines and videos and thought, ‘I’m ready!’ So when that took over a bit more, people who didn’t truly know me may have been like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty corny.’ [laughs] Even myself, I can see that now. But I think it’s hilarious, looking back, because it’s just being a kid expressing yourself and doing whatever.

What was it like to make the hip-hop dream a reality when you actually began producing beats for the likes of Biz Markie, Guru, Ice-T, Raekwon and U-God?
At that time, I thought I was about to move on to a music career. [laughs] I was like, ‘I’m starting a record label!’ I’d always messed around with DJing and my friends were rappers, so we had little sketchy recording setups and stuff. But it wasn’t until I made some money from skateboarding that I was actually able to get my own recording studio. I was gung ho: producing music, starting a label, signing new talent, all that stuff. I invested a lot of money… and it was the worst possible time to try to get into music. 

That was the death of CDs: a moment when all the famous record stores started going out of business. My strategy at the time was, ‘All these places are shutting down so I’m going to sell music in skateboard shops because that’s such a natural place to consume music, especially underground hip hop.’ I didn’t have the foresight to really see the impact that the digital world would have on music. 

Being a producer rather than an artist, it was a complicated thing to get my label either picked up by a major or to continue investing in it. So I kind of scratched that and jumped back into skateboarding full-time for another round. I’ve had these roller-coaster rides coming and going from the industry and I think that also helped keep my interest within it as well. Had I skated every single day of my life, maybe I would have become burnt out on it or something. [laughs]

You would have learned so much from all these different experiences, though. I was wondering if people ask you for advice – and if so, what kind of things do you tell them?
I feel like I have an obligation to talk to skaters so that they can learn from my mistakes. Pay your taxes! [laughs] I got jacked a few times and had to pay up a lot of the money I made thinking I was set. Then I finally got a good business manager who helped get me on track. What skaters don’t realise is that almost half of what you’re getting paid is going to taxes. There’s not a lot of people guiding them, unfortunately.

That’s why it’s also important to think outside of skateboarding. I’ve been blessed to have a career in it and continue to have some sort of financial income from this passion I’ve dedicated my life to. But it’s not going to happen for everybody, especially these days. It’s different now; there’s such a quick turnaround. It’s like the world’s not making as many long-lasting, iconic skateboarders. It doesn’t feel like we’re seeing the best of the best that ever existed right now. It’s almost like we’re desensitised, like the over-saturation of content that we’re exposed to can limit the impact that almost anybody can have in any industry. 

How does the brain retain all that information? It can’t. Back when I came up, kids got one video every two years and they watched it over and over and over again. If they had a couple of magazines they picked up from a skate shop, they would read them over and over until it became embedded in their mind. Now it’s just swipe, swipe, swipe; on to the next thing, on to the next thing. So it’s changed the world a lot. 

Was there ever a piece of advice that someone gave you that really stuck out?
I think maybe Ed Templeton or Jamie Thomas told me to be careful, that it can all end real fast if you do the wrong thing in skateboarding. If you mess up, it could literally mean the end of your career… But then maybe that never even stuck with me because I never gave a shit, really. [laughs] I guess I went against that. I’m such an anti-authority, anti-establishment type of person that when almost any type of structure was placed on me in life, I would automatically try to break it. It’s embedded in my DNA for whatever reason.

I have a hard time with structure or rules or authority in general. I would rather be homeless than sacrifice the belief in what I want to do. I’m an all or nothing person. That’s just how I operate. If I’m feeling it, you got me 100 per cent. If I’m not feeling it, peace out. 

What would you say skateboarding represents in your life these days as an outlet? Does it still have the same significance? Or is there a different feeling that you get from it?
The feeling I get from skateboarding right now is pain. [laughs] Lots and lots of pain in every part of my entire body. It hurts, but it hurts good. At the same time, it fuels my soul. I still have a slipped disc in my lower back; I’m constantly aware of it. But about eight months ago, this crazy, small miracle happened: I just woke up and said, ‘This injury is not going to control my life any longer. I’m not gonna sit here in my house and wait to die; I’m going to go out and get it.’ 

I just flipped a switch in my head that day and started skating down Hollywood Boulevard. I felt this energy come up through my spine like magic. I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna come back, I’m gonna do it.’ It wouldn’t be to the level where I once was, of course. Some mornings I’d wake up and couldn’t even put my socks on. I would have to put one toe in and then roll around on the ground, barely reaching one part just to pull it up. 

That’s gnarly for me because I’m such a doer. I can barely accept help for anything in my life. But I was mad depressed, rock-bottom style as far as my soul goes. Going skating that day was the start of something: I started stretching, doing yoga; I tried to eat more healthy, have a mental awareness of this injury and a more positive thought process about life in general.

And it’s worked wonders… though it’s not cured by any means. I flew to Manchester on the first day of this trip, got psyched, skated with the homies, then the next day I couldn’t put my socks on again. But throughout the day it gets a little bit stronger; I move around a little bit more, keep my core tight. But I can say that it has completely uplifted me once again. 

When I started getting back into the skateboard industry and doing more events, going to demos, I felt the love of that community come back to me. Up to that point, it felt like my career was done and nobody cared about me anymore. I posted a couple of tricks on Instagram – not even good tricks by my standards – but something I felt like showing the world. 

All of a sudden, it was like, ‘Man, you’re back! You’re doing it!!’ There was so much love coming my way. Then that turned into people saying, ‘I haven’t skated in 10 years, I had this or that injury, and you inspired me.’ My inbox was full of all these different stories about how people are feeling better now and they’re going for it. I had no idea that something positive in my life could have an effect on other lives as well. I get a little emotional even thinking about it.

It was a crazy experience. Even on this trip, homies tell me stories about how I inspired them through their life. And I’m like, ‘Holy shit! How do these little kids even know who I am?’ It just pushes me to keep going. I love being a part of it.

Chad Muska was in London as part of the Supra ‘Rise And Defy’ Euro tour. Check out for more info.

Follow Cian Traynor on Twitter.

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