Somewhere in Arizona, a homemade video shows a group of teenage skateboarders tearing up a rough-looking backyard pool.
It’s 1997. The first Austin Powers film is in cinemas. Princess Diana is dead. The Spice Girls are very much alive. Bill Clinton is in the White House. Someone, somewhere, is still using a pager.
But here, in Arizona, a lanky kid wearing baggy blue jeans, a loose brown t-shirt and sunglasses hauls a kick-flip off the pool’s deck and into the abyss.
There’s a fleeting silhouette of flicked limbs and wild hair against the flawless Arizona sky before he lands – bolts – and rolls away into the deep end. The assembled crew lap it up. “Yeah, Ali!”
The words ‘Piss Drunx’ are scrawled across the pool, either side of a logo that consists of a backwards P and a D (D). A ‘Locals Only’ tag completes the picture. But Ali Boulala isn’t a local.
The 18-year-old is from Stockholm, Sweden, and has been flown to America at the behest of Flip Skateboards to see if he can make something of a name for himself within the industry. He’s in Arizona to drink and skate with Aaron Pearcey (a friend he met in Huntington Beach) and some other crew, including a guy known as ‘Punker Matt’. The boozing proves so full-on that, one day over breakfast, this trio decide to coin a name for themselves.
“We were listening to Notorious B.I.G. and somewhere in a song he says the words ‘getting pissy drunk’,” says Boulala, now 38, speaking over the phone from Thailand, where he’s holidaying with his girlfriend.
“And there it was: we were the three original Piss Drunx. It was just a funny thing to call ourselves, rather than alcoholics – because that’s what we were. We never thought people would become Piss Drunx fans since there wasn’t really anything to be a fan of. We were just kids getting drunk all the time.”
The Notorious B.I.G. song in question was called ‘Party and Bullshit’ – a title that would set the tone for what was to come. While it’s incredibly difficult to establish a timeline of events for a period when all involved were out of their minds, Aaron Pearcey’s apartment on Warner Ave, Huntington Beach, can be identified as ground zero.
In 1998, a year after the Piss Drunx epiphany, a crew of skaters – including Boulala, Elissa Steamer, Erik Ellington, Jim Greco, Shane Heyl, Alex Moul and a raft of other up-and-comers – moved into three separate apartments in a complex called Ocean Breeze, also on Warner Ave. Meanwhile some of the Birdhouse team – Andrew Reynolds, Brian Sumner, Jay Strickland et al – settled just a couple of blocks away.
Skaters would drift in and out of the picture but those four apartments laid the foundation for a level of skating and partying that would change the lives of almost everyone involved.
“We basically became like a biker gang of Huntington Beach,” says Australian hellraiser Dustin Dollin, waiting at a McDonald’s drive-thru near Sydney while on the way to visit his mum. He recalls being so taken by the D emblem – drawn up by Pearcey and inspired by the Dead Kennedys’ logo – that when he first saw it, he couldn’t help ask if he was in the gang.
“They were like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? You’re the mascot!’” he says. “Once I got that into my head – that symbol – I got a bunch of t-shirts made up and everybody started putting it on their boards, griptape and shit. It’s a fucking long, drunk, warped-zone story from there…”
Partying was nothing new in skateboarding but the Piss Drunx flaunted it in a way that hadn’t been seen before. The wealth of talent, energy and personality centred in one area helped amplify their collective impact. “Piss Drunx was fate,” adds Dollin. “There’s no way that crew should have met each other.”
Andrew Reynolds, arguably the most established of the Piss Drunx crew thanks to a breakthrough part in skate vid The End, was crowned Thrasher’s Skater of the Year in 1998. A year later, he and Steamer had their own characters in the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game – appearances that were reprised across various sequels. One royalty cheque from the series earned them in the region of $150k each. “We were super productive,” says Steamer. “That was the time where everybody turned pro, everybody got a shoe deal, everybody was in video games – we just partied, too.”
During this time, Reynolds started Baker Skateboards with Jay Strickland, the former Birdhouse team manager, and spawned a short-lived sister company called Bootleg. It’s impossible to talk about Piss Drunx, Warner Ave. and their influence without mentioning the impact of Strickland’s videos from that time – particularly Baker Bootleg (1998) and Baker 2G (2000).
Both included clips of what came to be known as ‘hijinx’ – various members of the crew drinking, smoking and wreaking havoc – which gave the videos a documentary-like feel. For one of the first times in skateboarding, instead of just being served trick after trick, viewers were invited into the skaters’ worlds.
And that world was wild. Dollin remembers lighting fires underneath a freeway. He remembers telling Chad Fernandez he couldn’t be in Piss Drunx. He remembers breaking into Reynold’s house, sleeping next to his bed and turning off his air conditioning (“He really hated that because he was from Florida”). He remembers outdrinking the Osiris team. “Half of us were basically immigrants,” he says. “How the fuck did we get away with so much shit?”
Somewhere in the midst of all this, Boulala and Greco flipped from baggy jeans and white t-shirts to full Sid Vicious-mode, their capers cementing them as rebel icons and spawning a cult-like following. “They were almost like superheroes,” says Dave Carnie, former editor-in-chief of Big Brother magazine and unofficial skateboard anthropologist. “They were able to produce skating-wise and live like rock stars. It just looked exciting.”
Rolling Stone published a feature about the Piss Drunx in 2001 with a headline that read: “The most dysfunctional degenerates to ever bust an ollie.” The crew, particularly Jim Greco (the primary focus of the story), were allegedly embarrassed by it.
Playboy also ran a story about hedonistic skateboarders that year and, although it wasn’t specifically about the Piss Drunx (though they were mentioned), it included this ridiculous line: “… the ultimate expression of the skate ethic is to be a dirty fuck-up and still get paid.”
“It’s fucking astounding that they made it into popular culture,” says Carnie, laughing. “I think they were popular because they were such a perfect combination of everything that an adolescent skateboarder aspires to be. They were raw, rad and had that ‘I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want’ attitude. It was punk rock. That’s attractive to kids. I’m in my fucking forties and it’s still attractive to me.”
The Warner Ave. era came to an end in 2000, when the last apartment was vacated and the Piss Drunx fragmented. Many journeyed up the road to Hollywood, where the party continued for at least another couple of years, until sobriety came calling. Steamer admits that while she gathered some great memories along the way, the Piss Drunx label helped mask their alcoholism.
“Personally, I was fucking mental. I was depressed. I didn’t know how to connect with people. We were productive, but I look back and realise how lonely I felt, even with all my friends around.”
She sobered up in 2007, at the age of 31, and now lives on a quiet suburban street in Richmond, California, where she surfs and jogs as part of a more well-rounded existence. “I didn’t quit partying to focus on skating, I quit partying because I was miserable,” she says. “I’m just happy I made it through.”
Steamer isn’t alone on that path. Andrew Reynolds got sober in 2002, following a harrowing car crash at the age of 24, burnt out from cocaine and booze binges. “It’s the most focused I’ve been on anything ever,” he told Huck in 2011. “Every single day of my life I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to stay away from that stuff, hopefully for the rest of my life.’”
Jim Greco has been sober since 2003, while Erik Ellington’s sobriety was triggered after he got into a bar fight in Colorado in 2014 and risked jail time. “There’s no time I’ve had in my life from drinking that I can go, ‘I’d trade that for 30 years in prison’,” he said in a mini-documentary released by Desillusion Magazine in 2016.
But of all the original Piss Drunx ‘members’, Boulala would go on to pull the shortest of short straws. After being deported from America for pushing his luck one too many times, despite being too young to buy alcohol, an unsettled life awaited. He picked up a heroin habit (sniffing and smoking) in Brighton, England, where he also learned how to cook crack cocaine. “I can’t remember how long I was there for, but it was long enough for me to think I was going to die,” he says. Then, in Australia, he was involved in an accident that shook the world of skateboarding.
A drunken, late-night motorcycle ride with Flip teammate Shane Cross went wrong when the pair hit a curb and were thrown into a wall. The accident killed Cross and left Boulala in a coma for four months. It was March 2007 – some 10 years after that pool session in Arizona. Boulala spent two years in an Australian prison after pleading guilty to one count of culpable driving. “It’s a miracle that more people didn’t die,” he says of the Piss Drunx era, which he describes as “more self-destructive than important”.
Boulala struggled with substance abuse in the years that followed his release from prison – it was his way of coping – before eventually getting clean in July 2013. He now lives back in Stockholm and gives talks about his life to people struggling with addictions of their own. “I’m not trying to say, ‘Don’t do this or don’t do that.’ I’m just saying, ‘This is what happened to me.’”
Still unable to skate as a result of his accident, he’s also learning to play the piano. “Every time I learn to play something, I understand a thousand new things about how this or that works,” he says. “One little tiny door opens, then there are a million new doors.”
One of the only original Piss Drunx members who hasn’t embraced sobriety is Dollin. The 38-year-old has built an anarchic, enigmatic persona around his drinking shenanigans and, of course, his on-board talents. “We just wanted to destroy the normal,” he says. “Anything that was normal was not good. It was just something to identify with when it felt like no-one else understood you. That’s what it was for us when we started.”
Today, Dollin finds comfort in the fact that he may have inspired kids to wreak their own brand of havoc. Every day he’s flooded with Instagram notifications of D tattoos from around the world. “Watching the kids be naughty is beautiful,” he says. “Skateboarding is meant to be a rebellion and now everyone’s trying to make it perfect. And it’s fucking bullshit.”
“It was a weird phenomenon,” says Dave Carnie of the Piss Drunx legacy. “This group of people came together in a synchronistic manner and all this talent and personality was just concentrated… What’s that phrase? ‘A butterfly flaps its wings in Japan and a hurricane happens in Texas’?
“Maybe a butterfly flapped its wings and that’s how it all happened. But that shit doesn’t last forever. They crossed the line, and fortunately they all made it back onto the other side. Thank God they’re all still alive.”