Tainted by a tragedy, John Cardiel refused to stay down.
John Cardiel has lived his life at full-throttle speed. The aggressive energy he brought to skateboarding made him a hero amongst men, and the ideal pioneer for fixed-gear bike fiends. Some said he was indomitable. Then history proved them right, when his story was tainted by a tragedy that would knock a lesser man to the ground. John, however, refused to stay down.
“Yo, Tanya!” whoops a loud Californian accent, cutting through the low-level hubbub of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn red light district. “Taaaan-nya!”
‘Tanya’, an indistinct brunette, is leaning out of a fourth floor window above Pearl’s Table Dance Bar, inspecting the warm summer’s morning and completely unaware that the yelping tease across the street is directed at her.
“Hey, Tanya,” the voice continues, brimming with mirth and accompanied by some frantic arm-waving. “It’s me! John! From last night! You said I was the best you’d ever had!”
The booming voice collapses into laughter before turning away and leaving ‘Tanya’ in peace. He shakes his head but is still beaming with a rich, infectious grin. “All my friends who go to strip clubs always say, ‘She liked me for real, man.’ I’m like, ‘Of course she did, dude.’”
This voice belongs to John Cardiel, and these antics are being unleashed two minutes after we first meet. The skateboarding icon has journeyed from his hometown of Sacramento to put in some face-time for long-time sponsor Vans and help promote the European leg of their Downtown Showdown comp. When we meet, the thirty-seven-year-old is sitting on his own at a temporary bar set up for the event, head buried in a core skate magazine. But after a handshake introduction, his character ignites to life. All California stoke and upbeat verbal gestures, his manner is not atypical for someone who’s carved a career out of the board sports industry. However, there’s nothing stereotypical about this dude – he’s far too good-natured, too damn genuine, for that.
Stocky and statuesque, he’s dressed in a mid-nineties skate uniform of loose baggy cords and an Anti-Hero Skateboards hoody, featuring red, green and gold drawstrings that belie his Rasta leanings.
“You gotta hear this,” John says enthusiastically, pulling out his iPod and offering up headphones that blast out the reggae beats of The Heptones at eardrum-piercing level. It’s unsurprising, really: Cardiel has lived his life with the volume turned up.
John Cardiel was born in Half Moon Bay, Northern California, in 1974. When he was in sixth grade, he moved out to Grass Valley in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. As a country kid with tons of energy and a passion for “seeing what [he] could get away with”, he spent his childhood outside, riding bikes, skating and jumping off waterfalls. “I was really good at cheating,” he says deviously of his time at school, chuckling a deep, satisfied laugh. “Stealing different books from the teachers. I don’t know, just messing with shit, basically.”
When John was thirteen, he set up a launch ramp with a friend and, skating off it at full pelt, got his first hit of adrenaline. But unlike other bios, his story takes a left turn before joining the world of the paid-to-skate pro. With the mountain resort of Boreal on his doorstep, snowboarding was on the agenda first, and by the time he was fifteen, John had picked up sponsorship from the likes of Santa Cruz. His skateboarding, meanwhile, was also turning heads and he became sponsored first by Dogtown then by Black Label Skateboards. But something wasn’t right in this double life. So in the mid-nineties John quit snowboarding altogether and, believing “the whole sport is derived from a different breed [of people]”, he focused solely on skateboarding.
Then Anti-Hero skateboards came along. Founded by friend and fellow pro Julian Stranger under the Deluxe Distribution banner, Anti-Hero soon lived up to its name. With John at the core, the brand started repping skateboarding’s rugged side. Team videos such as Anti Hero and Fucktards epitomised skateboarding’s anti-systemic lifestyle, and the crew became renowned for drinking, fighting and generally not giving a fuck; taking off on trips with nothing but a skateboard and backpack of clothes, sleeping rough, shooting guns (of which John still has a fondness for) and smoking weed.
In 1992, John was voted Skater of the Year by Thrasher magazine, appearing on the cover in a hoop of flames. And the Cardiel legend kept on growing. Whether he was pulling a backside 360 over a giant bowl gap in Oregon, nailing an incredibly long 50:50 on gold rail in San Francisco’s Union Square, or dropping in on a ledge to quarterpipe many times his own height in Burnside, John would push himself harder than anyone else – often pepped up on Advil to numb the pain.
Mickey Reyes, co-founder of Deluxe, has nothing but praise for John’s unique approach: “He’s a balls-out motherfucker. It wasn’t that you told him to do anything, he would just see lines that no one else could see, and do shit on another level.”
John, however, describes his skating as “surf-style”. But the Cardiel line is no laid-back, mellow ride; it’s white-knuckle Mavericks on a dark and choppy day. Throughout the nineties and early noughties, John became renowned for the untamed sense of urgency that he brought to skateboarding. Flying from one obstacle to the next, his style became synonymous with fearless speed. It was neither technical nor graceful: arms often flailed awkwardly as he ate up the terrain, never wanting to stay on any one feature too long. But this combination of energy and apparent disinterest in his own safety saw John capture people’s imagination like no one else.
“He’s an original,” says street skateboarding pioneer Mark Gonzales in his introduction to John’s classic part in Transworld’s 2001 Sight Unseen. “His style, there’s not too many people who skate like him. […] He skates so fast that it seems that the faster he goes, the more control he has, which is unexplainable.”
In fact, many a pro cites him as an inspiration, including Chris Pfanner and Tony Trujillo, who also shun ledge-dancing in favour of all-terrain charging. Bones Brigade member Ray Barbee believes Cardiel’s greatest contribution to skateboarding is the way he’s influenced so many influential pros. “His style of skating all terrain, you know what I mean, skating everything,” says Ray. “I think what he’s given to skateboarding is showing people that you can skate everything [and still] skate good, [whether you] skate street, skate trannies or skate vert.”
But as unconventional as Cardiel’s route into pro skating was, so too was his sudden exit. In 2003, a tragic road accident while on tour in Australia set John on a distinctly different path.
After a final wave to ‘Tanya’, we head to the backstage area of the event. The heads of young pros turn to look at John, seemingly envious of anyone who gets to sit down with the man himself. We take a seat at a picnic table. John turns down a coffee, despite admitting he’s exhausted after a transatlantic flight, and we set about reflecting on his brightly burning career.
You are renowned for always pushing hard and progressing skating to the next level. What is it that always drove you to go the extra mile?
I hate seeing repetitiveness. I want to do something different, a different way. Anything that is repetitive, I try to stay away from. If it looks to the eye that something is that easy, I will step it up in my mind to make it harder for myself, which in turn will push [me] and [make me] feel better about it.
Is that an adrenaline-based thing?
It’s a mental satisfaction thing. I want to feel good about what I did and not just be like, ‘Uh’. I don’t want to be light-hearted about something – I want to feel strongly about it.
During the nineties, at the height of your career, you never seemed to do many flips or other technical tricks. Was that a conscious decision?
Not at all. For me, it seemed that learning flip tricks just becomes repetitious [sic]. [When you’re] learning them, you are like, ‘Okay, [gotta] get a frontside flip over a double step,’ but it’s going to take a little bit of time – unless you’ve got it on lock. You get sick, you get frustrated after a while trying certain tricks so many times. […] Just skate everything.
You are a big fan of reggae. How does your taste in mellow music fit with your aggressive skateboarding style?
With different vibes, different music comes into play. To me, I am a mellow person. As far as skateboarding and being aggressive and stuff, maybe that’s just my outlet. I like things to work smoothly. When I’m in a situation, like at a restaurant, I try not to cause too much of a stink. I like things to flow. I don’t like things to be very abrupt and aggressive. I like to [be aggressive] with skating and bikes – things within myself. When it comes to other vibes, I like things to be mellow.
Rodney Mullen believes that nowadays pro skaters are encouraged to go too big and skate in a way that’s unrealistic or harmful to their career in the long term. How do you feel about that?
Hmm, really? Fuck man, go bigger! I wanna see kids do switch backside noseblunts down a handrail, then [try] a switch flip switch backside noseblunt down a handrail. [That’s how] shit gets progressed. I was watching some Dylan Rieder footage today on the Gravis website and he would tailslide frontside flip out of a fucking ledge that was this high [he raises his hand above his head]. Skateboarding is so sick dude. I’m amazed. The tricks are getting gnarlier and gnarlier.
But won’t this ultimately cut short their careers?
Nah, because I feel that [Mullen] was trapped within himself because he didn’t broaden his spectrum. If you are burned out on doing tailslide 180 flips, go skate a pool. […] Don’t trap yourself within one style of skating.
What do you make of skateboarding today?
The progression in skateboarding is fucking awesome. I love to see how gnarly people are getting. I just wish I could get some of Maloof’s money, that’s all. I see all these kids making lots of money and they’re killing it and I just wish I could do that. [Laughs] That’s the only thing I’m missing out on.
Was making money out of skateboarding important to you when you were younger?
Only for a time [when] I knew that if I needed money, I needed to sell a board that day, you know, to make ends meet. That’s when it got important, when you didn’t have any money.
What do you make of high-profile skaters, like Paul Rodriguez and Ryan Sheckler, who have traversed into the mainstream spotlight?
Get your money, that’s the way I see it. Whatever you are doing, do it. Real people recognise real skating so [you might as well] take what you want from it. I don’t think you should begrudge or bad-mouth a person for what they’re doing. Skateboarding is [about doing] whatever you want to do, that’s why skateboarders have so much love for each other. You can’t be judged, really, on your skating. One person’s kickturn can’t battle someone else’s frontside flip. The way Tony Alva does a kickturn on a ramp, you can’t say that’s worse or better than P-Rod’s 180 flip. I may take Alva’s turn over P-Rod’s 180, [but] that’s just the way I see it. You can’t judge or regulate it.
Has being financially comfortable become more of a priority for you over the years?
Not necessarily, it’s still the same. I don’t have children or anything so I’m just taking care of myself. I’m happy today, so things are good.
Is there a particular moment in your career that you’re most proud of?
Everything has its own sincerity. You know, sometimes when you are just at a local parking lot, and you do a big fakie manual – you just lock into it perfect – sometimes that’s just the best feeling ever. I can’t say that one feeling outweighs another.
As any skateboarder knows, progressing onto the next level is as much a mental battle as it is a physical one. Did you ever have any doubts about a particular trick?
Sometimes on vert ramps I would have doubts about trying some stuff because it’s really hard to get the airtime that you need. […] Doing big tricks on vert, like a big indy 360 backside, is super gnarly.
Your skating has always come across as fearless. Is there anything that scares you?
Um… Basically police, because they have control over you. Police can pull you over and if you are talking bad to them or whatever, they can just take you and hold you in a cell. Bare wickedness. That stuff scares me, but nothing that I can do to myself scares me… It’s the things that are out of my control, like planes and stuff, that scare me.
Why do you think so many skaters look up to you?
I dunno, it’s nice. It makes me feel good. I appreciate that love, but I look up to people as well. I look up to Mark Gonzales and other people. I understand it and it makes me feel good that someone could even look up to me.
You skated with Mark Gonzales a lot throughout your early career. What influence did he have on you?
Man, just his way of looking at things, taking things a little bit further. Mark would always do things the hard way. He would ollie into his tricks and then grab. That was so gnarly as back in the day people were doing early grabs. Then Mark Gonzales was ollieing to grab, you know. Everything he does, he does it the hard way. If you watch his skating, nothing he does is really easy. You watch him do a frontside invert and think, ‘Oh, he did a frontside invert.’ But if you really look at it, and really watch the way he does it, it’s so hard to do it that way. Even a frontside ollie, the way he drags his back leg and floats his front legs, that’s so hard.
John’s pro career was totally authentic: no gimmicks, no cheese, no ill-fitting endorsements. But in a cruel twist of fate, skateboarding was taken from him early.
In December 2003, during a skate tour of Australia captured in the movie Tent City, John was involved in a freak road accident that would change his life irrevocably. The team was touring in two vans and, while stopped at traffic lights, John ran over to speak to the other van, leaning into the passenger side window. The driver was unaware John was there and drove off with the truck’s wide trailer running him over.
John describes the accident as “blurry”, but it resulted in severe trauma to his spinal cord and the resulting scar tissue prevented him from moving – and feeling – his legs. He spent five months in an Australian hospital, with doctors telling him that the nerve damage was so severe that he would never walk again. John, however, had other ideas.
“He was fully done. He was completely paralysed and was looking at his toe, trying to move it,” says Mickey Reyes. “As soon as his toe moved, he just said, ‘It’s on! It’s fucking on!’”
Over the next year, John pushed rehabilitation to the next level, rebuilding his core muscles and reconnecting the severed lines of communication with his legs. It took a year before he was able to walk again without the assistance of a cane. Then in 2005, he shot an ad for Anti-Hero that paid testament to his battle: it featured him stood atop a skateboard.
“If anyone could step into that hole and turn it into a positive, it’s John Cardiel,” says Reyes.
John may have tackled his rehabilitation head-on, but seems reluctant to talk about the accident, referring to it loosely as the day he “got hurt”, as if dwelling on the details is a total waste of time. He walks with a palsy-afflicted limp, his stocky frame lurching awkwardly with every step, and admits to it being a struggle at times. But for every negative there is a positive spin. Laughing, he recalls the time he burned his leg while skating over hot coals during a Beauty and the Beast Tour in Sweden, but was unable to feel the pain. And yet beyond the jokes, there is a frustration in his voice – perhaps not quite sadness, but audible nonetheless – that speaks of a freedom that has since been ripped away. His tone is one of pained acceptance. But behind the stoicism there is a rugged determination that leaves you with a single truth: nothing, it seems, can hold John Cardiel down for long.
Can you remember how you first reacted to the accident?
I didn’t have any legs and it was crazy.
What got you through that period?
Basically, reggae music. I don’t know what else to say. Friends and family.
Who inspires you, outside of skateboarding?
Handicapped people really inspire me. People who don’t have arms and legs, and are still doing their thing – still happy and smiling. That’s so gnarly. I’ve seen people in hospitals and they’ve just lost their arms and legs and they are still pulling it. I try not to be too involved. I just have a feeling for them. You never understand [how it feels] if you don’t know. You won’t understand how hard it is [to be disabled]. The simple things people take for granted, like going to the bathroom, eating or just walking. I have an admiration for people who are dealing with that struggle every day. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s not just the accident itself that sets people back, it’s every day. So when I see people who are happy in their day, it’s awesome.
Are there aspects of daily life that you struggle with?
I just struggle with life, as everyone does. […] Basically walking. I have to consciously think about what I am doing. Every step I take I have to consciously make. I try not to even use the cane, sometimes I use the cane but that’s about it. I never want to sit in a wheelchair again – it’s scary to me. […] That’s just life. I’ll be dead soon. When it’s my time to die, I’ll be gone so I can’t really trip on it.
Do you think about death a lot?
No, I just think that when people live their lives, you are just a blink in time. Everything is really fast, you know. You can’t really trip on stuff too hard.
Are you religious?
I’m not in any religion. I love Rastafarianism but I’m not a religious person, I’m a man of God but not a religious person. I go to church every day. As long as I’m on earth, I’m at church. That’s the way I look at it.
What’s been the biggest mental obstacle you’ve had to overcome?
Basically, to me, when someone tells me, ‘You can’t’, you always tell yourself, ‘You can’. It’s a constant struggle. It’s irritating because I can’t skate the way I used to. That’s the only thing that sucks – not being able to skate. I can’t run or whatever, but I’m still able to breathe and vibe with people, and see my family and stuff so things are good. I don’t really trip on it. You move on, but not having the skating is the gnarliest thing, I just take it out on other things – bike riding or whatever.
John is still officially a pro skater today. With his own pro model decks on Anti-Hero, he’s still very much involved and says that he would like to own a skate shop some day, too.
But always eager to “do something” John’s taken to fixed gear bikes with the same zeal. He talks of regularly hunting down skate spots, albeit now trying tricks with two wheels instead of four, and often rides with San Francisco bike collective Macaframa, appearing in their self-titled 2008 film and the forthcoming Macramento, due for release in 2011. Bikes, it seems, have become his primary outlet – a way to break that cycle of repetition that he so dislikes.
UK fixed-gear rider Juliet Elliot witnessed his rolling antics firsthand on a recent tip to San Francisco: “He took us all the way up to this giant hill, paused at the top and said, ‘If you get it right, then you can whizz all the way down without doing any skids to stop.’ It was like this giant, giant, giant hill and he just bombed all the way down it mega, mega fast and made it all the way to the bottom without stopping.”
But there’s more to John than just a need for speed. Boasting a large collection of vinyl – mainly dub and reggae – John is also a keen deejay. In 2010, he was invited to join fellow veteran skater Ray Barbee and his band on the Get Out and Do Something Tour, which aims to show kids that they can be into all sorts of things beyond skateboarding. “What a better spokesperson for being motivated and doing something, you know?” says Barbee, who personally asked John to be involved. “He still has that same tenacity, that same desire and will to live life and enjoy it.”//
How much can you skate today?
I can skate bowls. Anything that is not too fast, or whatever, because I can’t run. So I can only go as fast as I can walk. If I go faster, I’m going to take a slam so it’s kinda like you’ve just got to gauge it. As far as pumping the grind, I can do stuff like that. But it’s kind of burned out – it’s not the same. It’s irritating.
Coming to comps like this, do you find it hard to watch other people skate?
It’s hard, but you know, I just try to see what I would be doing. I keep looking at the line and maybe I’ll tell someone else to try it. Still get it out of my head. Yesterday, I was watching some kid skate and I was like, ‘Yo man, do this trick,’ or whatever and he did it. I gave him a hundred bucks: I was stoked to see it. It was cool.
Will you ever move away from skateboarding?
To me, skateboarding is in every single thing I do. [Points to crates of beer] Those look like stairs to me: do a nosegrind. I see [skating] in everything and I think that every single skateboarder is the same way. If you skate, you can’t look at a rail or a set of stairs [like other people do]. You see it [differently]. You know what you’d like to do. If you drive by a set of banks, you are a skateboarder and look at those banks and think, ‘Fuck, that would be sick to skate.’ There’s no way you can’t do that. That’s forever. So there is no getting away from it.
Have you thought about trying snowboarding again?
I haven’t tried it. The thing is, my rear leg, my left leg, is really weak… It’s not giving me back what I put into it. It would be tough but maybe I could ride switch. I’m gonna try this year.
Do you worry about the long-term implications of your injuries?
I just deal with what’s in front of me. As far as the future goes, when the future is there, I will deal with it then.
What influence has music had on your life?
[It’s been a] major inspiration. I’ve always collected CDs and tapes. The vibes that are going into your head, it’s major to me.
Do you play an instrument?
No, I always stray. I can’t hold the beat for too long. I always want to add an extra beat or something. Playing an instrument, it seems you have to be repetitious [sic] and I can’t do that. I can’t do the same thing over and over again for a long period of time.
I understand you are heavily into fixed-gear bikes. A lot of people are starting to carve something of a pro career out of that world. Are you approaching it with that mindset?
I just have fun on the bikes – I’m not trippin’ on it. I’m not trying to make a statement. I’m thirty-six years old and have done skateboarding. That’s where my heart is. With the bikes, it’s just a fun thing to do. I’m not trying to best anyone or outdo anything, or do anything I’m incapable of. I’m just having a great time moving forward.
Why fixed-gear bikes in particular?
At first I liked it because it helped me pedal. On a bike without clips, my feet fall off the pedals. [A fixed-gear bike] helps you pedal and does all the work for you – all you gotta do is push down. That’s the cool part for me. As far as tricks and stuff go, anything that people do on a regular bike is that much harder on a fixed-gear. There’s a kid in Japan that does backflips on them, it’s amazing, man. It’s insane. Every trick that kids are doing is groundbreaking. I see it as a cool thing. These people are moving forward in a new direction.
What do you make of people who see customised fixies as a status symbol, rather than something that’s just fun to ride?
Yeah, if you look at [that process] in skating, [with] all the old boards that used to come out – the old plastic boards, the Variflex, the cheesy K-Mart boards – in bikes, we will go through this as well. Real people will stay involved and the kids who are into it for what it is, they will stay involved.
You seem to push yourself on a bike as hard as you used to push yourself on a skateboard. What makes you keep taking risks?
The thrill of living. It makes you feel alive. When you’re done with a good day of riding – when you’ve taken in some risks, gauged how steep those risks are and still feel good about what you did that day – there is nothing that can beat that. So, of course, I want to keep doing that.
It’s late October, a few months after John and I first met, and I’m in a city that neither of us call home. I’m wandering through the streets of SoHo in New York City, killing time before a flight to LAX. As I turn the corner of Prince and Mulberry, I see John straight in front of me, weaving his bike slowly through the pedestrian crowd. I double take in disbelief, bowled over by the coincidence as he cycles past me. In a flash, I turn instinctively and chase after him down the street.
“Dude,” he says brightly, his face opening up in recognition as he reaches to shake my hand. “You want a beer?”
He’s here filming a promotional video for Chrome bags, one of the sponsors he’s picked up since falling for fixed-gear bikes. John pulls us both out a frosty bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from his backpack, pops them open with his lighter and hands me one. He takes a quick break from filming and we lean on a shop window, taking in the crisp autumn sunshine. I mention the interview and the plans for the feature. John seems interested, but a little bemused by the idea.
He pulls a strange-looking cigarette out of a plastic baggie, wrapped in a green leaf and tied with a thin string of cotton at one end.
“Is that ganj?” I ask, aware of his penchant for all things Rastifari.
“No dude, it’s a beedi. It’s Indian,” he replies, taking deep drags and exhaling light smoke in fast and tight bursts.
“Oh, you’ve got to check out the girl in the shop a few doors down. She’s so gnarly, dude!” he excitedly tells me, seemingly far more comfortable engaging in laddish bravado than any earnest dissection of his life.
I turn the conversation to the bike propped up next to him, the steed that escorts him everywhere he goes. Its white Bianchi frame, blue handlebars, lion crest and head tube fringed with Rastafarian colours have become renowned.
“My bike is my wheelchair. I take it everywhere,” he enthusiastically remarks, before talking me through its every beloved feature and making a strong case for why he flies with it everywhere he goes. Indeed, much like skateboarding, this bike seems to represent something vital to John’s life. He admits he’d rather cycle anywhere than walk. But more than just a form of transport, cycling seems to provide an outlet for some kind of otherworldly energy – the same sense of urgency that once fuelled his skating style.
When it comes time for us to part ways, John rides off up Mulberry with the two-man film crew, whooping and hollering in delight. Loud he may be, but his riding has far more resonance. He pedals with the same distinct aggression that so defined him on a skateboard. He pushes down hard on the pedals and shoves the handlebars side-to-side, pumping out the most power possible as he weaves in and out of the yellow taxis and SUVs that litter this New York scene. It’s recklessness over style, which becomes style itself. I’m left with the impression that as long as John is still breathing, he’ll be loving life.