There is the man and the myth, the artist and the skateboarder. And the enigma that somehow binds it all.
Mark Gonzales and The Gonz are two sides of the same fable. There is the man and the myth, the artist and the skateboarder. And then there’s the enigma that somehow binds it all.
This story first appeared in Huck Issue 37 (2013). During lockdown, we’ll be republishing longreads from the print archive to help keep you occupied during the long days indoors.
“To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything. It’s irrelevant and immaterial, as the lawyers say. The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober.” – Eugene O’Neill, The Iceman Cometh
1) How do you make The Gonz sit still?
It sounds like a joke, but it’s a serious question.
It’s been roughly three months since Mark Gonzales came knocking on our door, armed with nothing but rolls of paper and a head full of mad ideas. In that time, he’s gone from being a near-mythical enigma – the harebrained kid who practically invented street skateboarding, and a contemporary artist whose work hangs on Donald Trump’s wall – to a guy we’ve spent a little bit of time with and, at a push, can say we know. Well, sort of. Because the imprint he’s left behind is becoming fuzzier each day.
As with almost every person ever featured in this mag – or, come to think of it, in any newspaper, blog or rag around the globe – there are approximately three sides to the piece of factual fiction that’s about to commence. There’s the story we get told. The story we tell you. And then there’s the truth.
Somewhere between the quotes that get captured and the things that go unsaid – the sidestepped answers, subtle observations, half-forgotten memories, fumbled notes, rumours and bizarre Google-fuelled research – a picture of a person slowly comes into focus. But no matter how ‘definitive’ it professes to be, it’s still just an approximation of an approximation of some version of the truth.
Now, throw in a subject who refuses to stay put for longer than, say, three minutes, and the whole ‘capture a person’s essence in 3,000 words’ becomes less a game of wordplay and more a battle of wits.
2) Day One: The Scene-Setting Snapshot
<Date: 1 November 2012 14:33:53 GMT>
I have Mark Gonzales with me. He wants to come and look at your space while he’s in London.
Emails like this do not land in inboxes every day. Or ever, for that matter. So when they do, you drop your little TeuxDeux list for the day, you get up and you go. But not before inviting your co-editors along, of course.
<1 Nov 2012 20:44>
Midday tomorrow, you and me have to go pick up the Gonz.
<1 Nov 2012 20:45>
Oh my fucking god. You’re kidding??? I feel sick.
This is the effect Mark Gonzales has on people. Yes, even people who ostensibly get paid to meet interesting people of the Mark Gonzales ilk. I’m not saying it to be sycophantic; I’m saying it because it’s true.
When we arrive at the Supreme store in London’s post-trendy Soho, the place is plastered with traces of The Gonz – the signature ‘shmoo’ characters that populate his drawings are bobbing here and there – but Mark Gonzales, the human, is nowhere to be seen.
“He’s out back,” says Jagger, who manages the store and, over the week that follows, will become one of a few unofficial go-to-guys when trying to get a hold of Mark. “He’s been up all night creating work, like every hour of the day. I think he wants to do a show with you guys.”
Just then, a hobbit-like figure pokes his head from out the stockroom. His eyes are as wide as saucepans and his hair’s frazzled like a nest. “Hey, I’m Mark,” he says, circumnavigating fame. “So, where’s your gallery? Is it far from here? Should we go get the bus?”
Mark Gonzales does not sound like a forty-three-year-old. He doesn’t beat around the bush like adults do, and is refreshingly direct. If there’s anything that sets the Gonz patois apart, it’s that pausing for faux niceties is just a barrier to real life, and now, evidently, really does mean now. His stubble is grey and wiry and his pitch is pre-pubescent. It’s a wild mix of old-guy body and young-kid intonation.
“Should we go there now,” he says without gauging a reaction. “I’m ready to go now, come on let’s go.”
He disappears for a second to grab a fresh-out-the-box hoodie – the rest of his clothes have a kind of slept-in look, offset by bright blue Adidas that belie his sponsored status. It’s the middle of November and he’s rocking shorts, socks pulled high like he’s ready to run and play. Everyone else in London is a self-serious shade of grey.
We spin around to leave and Jagger catches us at the door. “Don’t forget it’s that premiere tonight,” he says. “You know, the Bones Brigade documentary? Everyone’s in town.”
Mark cocks his head. “But I don’t have a ticket,” he squeaks. “Do you think I’ll get in?”
“Um, I dunno,” chuckles Jagger warmly. “I think they may just let in The Gonz.”
3) The Bio Bit: For Those Less Familiar With The Legend of The Gonz
So, who is Mark Gonzales? Well, it depends on who you ask. To skateboarders, and all the circling culture-vultures that borrow from their world, he’s a godfather-like creature; a kid from South Gate, near downtown LA, who collided with skate history in the early 1980s, and pretty much reinvented the wheel. For them, our story begins on the monotonous flatlands of Southern California and the rudimentary skateparks that became a wavelike sanctuary for kids who never quite ran with the pack.
When the ’80s dawned, skateboarding dipped. After a decade of soaring progress – fuelled by Dogtown pool-thrashers like Tony Alva, who proved it was possible to soar high above the lip – skateboarders still saw the world in vertical lines. Ramps, bowls, ditches and pipes were the only things that mattered – anything that mimicked the skyward flow of a wave. But big air came at a big price. And as insurance costs mounted, more and more skateparks bailed beneath the pressure. Enter the homemade, backyard ramp – and a kid called Lance who had the best one in the state.
“As those parks started closing, I had a ramp and people started coming to it,” explains Lance Mountain down the phone from his home in Alhambra, CA, taking a break from working in the backyard. “Mark was a kid who lived a few cities down and he’d take the bus to my house, knock on the door and ask if he could skate – typically when no one else was skating, early in the morning. I didn’t know his name or anything – he’d be down on the ramp by himself, just this odd little kid.”
All neon shorts and bouffant hair, the kid started to make an impact. “There is one moment that really stands out in my mind, when I drove him back to the bus stop,” remembers Lance. “He got out the car, and the way he skated down to the bus stop was…” He pauses as if to take a giant breath. “Whoo… it was just the obvious change that was about to happen with street skateboarding. He rode away from the car, up the curb, down the street, the way we would ride a pool. Like, he rode it! And people didn’t do that on the street back then. He had a mix on what Rodney [Mullen] was doing with freestyle, with the ollie, and also with flow. As skateboarders, everyone looked for some kind of bank or vertical wall or something that emulated surfing. So there’s a wave, there’s movement, you’re on a transition and then there’s a lip that you can do tricks on. Mark saw that you could eliminate the transition and get from the flat to the top of something and create the same manoeuvres. That’s a huge leap.”
At 15, Mark got picked up by Alva Skates after being spotted at a Venice Beach contest, but moved to Vision within a year. He dropped out of school, stopped having to trade in second-hand completes for cash and started earning a little dough. But more importantly, perhaps, he went from being a talking point at skate spots – or, as artist Thomas Campbell puts it, “that Mexican kid with crazy, rad style” – to the guy who took the cover of Thrasher in November 1984. Though no one really knew it at the time, history had been re-written; the industry had just been hoisted from an early grave and street skateboarding was its saviour.
“Mark, as history has proven, was overwhelmingly the guy that people credited that to,” says Lance. “He is arguably the most important skateboarder to live because he redefined what it became.”
There were other skaters, though, most notably Natas Kaupas, who also saw obstacles as opportunities, and together they elbowed one another knowingly from the old world to the new. “Yeah, we compete against each other, but it’s not competing,” Mark told Thrasher in 1986. “You see, it’s better than a contest, because deep down inside if he’s skating better than me, I’ll know he’s skating better than me. And I don’t need a fucking judge there to tell me that I wasn’t skating better than him or he was skating better than me… Lately we’ve been skating a lot together and that’s fun. We invent tricks and junk. We invented one we haven’t done yet.”
Whatever, and however Mark and Natas did what they did, it never went unnoticed. “I can remember the first time I saw him,” says Thomas, who grew up skating around Dana Point with Jason Jessee, a close skate buddy of Mark’s. “My friend was like, ‘Do you want to go to this thing? It’s called a street skating comp.’ I was like, ‘What?’ It sounded really weird. Tommy Guerrero was there, Christian Hosoi, Stevie Caballero – I think it was the second-ever street style comp, in Huntington Beach. I just remember watching Mark – he had flames running up the left leg of his pants, and him and Natas were ollieing to pivot on a tyre. We’d never even seen an ollie before! So my friends and I were like, ‘What the hell was that?’ It was totally magic. I remember driving home and being like, ‘Remember that little Mexican dude? He was ruuuling!’
Seminal moments came and went (Google: the Wallenberg Set 4 Block and The Gonz Gap, Embarcadero) and by the time the 1990s rolled around, skateboarding was booming. In 1989, Mark found himself in on the action when he set up Blind Skateboards – a grand fuck-you to former sponsors Vision – under Steve Rocco’s subversive World Industries umbrella, creating a cult-like aesthetic with collaborator Spike Jonze, whose own career in filmmaking was forged from the brand’s game-changing videos. Throw in the perfect storm of a VHS revolution and Mark’s erratic sense of flow and instinct for fun soon had kids across the planet turning cities into playgrounds.
Younger skaters gravitated and soon the Blind team boasted new blood, like Guy Mariano, Rudy Johnson and Jason Lee. “Mark put out [Blind’s] Video Days [in 1991] and I think he shocked a lot of people,” says Guy. “That was a time in skateboarding where the average age of a skater was between twelve and sixteen, seventeen was old! He must have been in his twenties, and it was groundbreaking. He was doing tricks that people hadn’t done until a couple of years ago, like that 180 switch feeble that Chris Cole’s doing now. His video part [was around for] so long before people were finally doing the stuff he was doing.”
Mark eventually walked away from Rocco and Blind, tinkered with ventures like ATM Click and 60/40, and later founded Krooked with Jim Thiebaud and Tommy Guerrero. “It came about real organically,” says Jim. “We’ve all been friends for more than twenty years. I just think Mark Gonzales is a really smart man. Every time you’re around him something special happens – not in an artsy fartsy way, he’s just incredibly fun to be around. He’s just been consistent and stayed excited in everything he does – and if that’s a youthful trait then he’s kept it.”
And yet, in many ways, the business chapter of this particular skate story is merely a footnote. It’s not the reason Sean Malto can grind any handrail, or Eric Koston can fakie 360 flip a concrete abyss. It’s not the reason that countless, nameless, scabby-knee’d kids see ten-step stair-sets as a launch pad for self-fulfilment. There is a reason Mark Gonzales will forever be The Gonz, but it’s infinitely less tangible than any single moment or event.
“In every movement there is a pinnacle leader,” says Lance. “And he was given that position – well, ‘given’ isn’t the right word. I mean, you can’t give something to someone when no one else is doing it… It takes somebody that people want to be like, or act like, or emulate for it become a movement. Other than that it’s just tricks.”
4) A Memory Re-Written In The Present Tense – aka The Bit Where We Get The Bus
On the way to the bus stop, we drop the kind of conversation starters that are applicable to most social situations. You know, ‘So, where’ve you come from? What brings you here? Are you having a good trip?’ Polite stuff people tend to skirt around just to be polite. But in Mark’s world, questions are simply jump-off points for barely related tangents.
In the time it takes us to get from Soho to Old Street, we hear a trail of disparate stories. He’s just come from New York. But he’s been living in Paris. He can’t really speak French but he has a few favourite phrases. He once spent hours trapped in an airport terminal in Toronto – “like that Tom Hanks film”. He says he can’t stand to stay in one place for too long. His five-year-old son is going through a Spiderman phase, and is inseparable from his six-year-old girlfriend. He misses him like crazy. His nephew is a football player. He used to skate with him on his shoulders but now he’s over six-feet tall. Whenever he sees girls’ stuff he wants to buy it for his niece, Summer. Girls are rad. He has a video on YouTube that he wants to show us; it’s of his girlfriend, Alexandra, and she’s riding a skateboard coffin-style down the hills of Bel Air. They call it ‘Stalin’. Have you seen the Rothko show? The Pieter Brugel paintings at the National Gallery are amazing. Oh, you like the one in Melancholia. It’s called Hunters In The Snow and it’s his favourite, too. The shield on that building looks like a yin yang sign. He likes the pattern.
Mark’s world is woven from short divergent strands, bound together with the innocence of a starry-eyed kid. His openness is startling. Earlier this week, he started talking to a girl smoking a cigarette outside his hotel about the fact that he was a bit down when he first landed here in London. The girl went inside and told her friends about the “random weirdo” that was trying to talk to her “for no real reason”.
“It was super funny,” he laughs. “People don’t get how I just want to talk to them sometimes.”
5) Mark Gonzales on his gangster alter ego, Chavo.
Who is Chavo?
Not me. Chavo is like this real smart guy and everyone goes to him with their problems.
What kind of problems?
Girl problems for instance. Chavo was once dating this girl. He said, “Man Mark, she was so smart when I first met her. Then after a year or so I started hanging around with her a lot and she started acting just like me, you know. She was even saying the same words as me. She was like my carbon copy. So I told her how I felt, and you know what she told me, Mark?”
Oh, what did she tell you?
“When I first met you, Chavo, I was my last boyfriend and a few admirers of his.” And you know, she was so smart I used to wonder just exactly who her old boyfriend knew. She was only seven
What else did Chavo tell you?
He used to tell me about this one kid. “Real stupid guy,” Chavo used to say he was. He used to come to Chavo and tell Chavo about how he did all these paintings that had so much meaning in them. So much meaning to him. He liked to talk about heavy stuff. I told Chavo that kid wasn’t stupid he just hung around with the wrong crowd. The next day Chavo killed himself. Then me and this stupid kid started analysing Chavo’s death. And now, I am Chavo.
(Thrasher, September 1986.)
6) Day One, Part Two: In Which Mark Hits Upon An Idea
Mark Gonzales is writing his mom’s telephone number in my diary. He has an idea. But given that he doesn’t have a phone or a computer because he keeps “blowing them up,” it all hinges on us figuring out a way to keep in touch.
“Let’s do a show next week.” That’s how Mark responds when, after a quick calculation of mundane things like schedules, deadlines, budgets and ‘viability checks’, we suggest that a doable timeframe to prepare for an art show could be something along the lines of, say, three months.
“I dunno, I just really want to do a show,” he says. “I can draw everything this week. Here, if you can’t get a hold of me you can always call my mom. She lives in California.”
7) Beyond VHS
There is a hidden YouTube channel that simmers away quietly, beckoning Gonz-o-philes like a lo-fi Easter Egg. Here, in varying degrees of shaky handycam, everyday life starts to blend with the absurd.
opera house boogie. A panning shot of a regal Beaux-Arts ceiling. The grand stairwell of the Palais Garnier. The girl behind the camera shows her face briefly. Men and women in long, dark coats jar with a figure in bright, white pants. He trips, stumbles and starts tumbling down the stairs, legs flailing like a ragdoll to the sound of rising gasps. The long dark coats rush to his aid, but he’s already side-stepping like Gene Kelly and waltzing back up the stairs.
Scroll deeper through the channel and videos of videos morph with reality, rendered through the lens of avant-garde punk. In a palimpsest of high and low touchstones, Edward Scissorhands melts into Ghandi, who melts into a monochrome skateboarding girl – white dungarees, stripy long socks, yin yang flag flailing in her hand.
In a realm where fat kids on roller-coasters and ninja cats rule supreme, Gonz has found a way to extend his lifelong experiment into the world of user-generated film. Life becomes art, movement becomes the message, and like the VHS tapes that helped spark a revolution, a version of history is caught before it passes – added to, twisted and left to dangle mid-air.
Send him an email with a list of questions and you’ll get a video response that holds no answers. come in london control. “How are you people in TV land, everything good?” squeaks the protagonist. “It’s all good in the pumpkin pie hood!” In one, he may be sprawled out on a giant canvas painting a naked blue lady (“I just love to cushy on her tooshy!”) In another, he’s creating a Frankenstein plush, sewing Donald Duck body parts onto a Disney Store-bought Dumbo.
There are artists who prattle on and on about ‘process’; Mark simply shows you things, but always with sleight of hand. He’ll send you photos, paintings, handheld movies – cryptic visual messages from a tilted, shifting dreamscape that make words feel the trifling of a blathering, anxious fool.
Elsewhere in this Gonzo corner of the ‘Tube, videos are ‘liked’ (Frances Farmer, Humphrey Bogart, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Kate Bush), comments are made (‘Killaugh!’) and films go up as quickly as they come down. The ones with female narrators sometimes vanish without trace.
<YouTube. Published on Feb 8, 2013>
17 mins ago:
i call a cab cause a cab will come fle flicker
Lady cab driver, can you take me for a ride?
Don’t know where I’m goin’
’Cuz I don’t know where I’ve been
(Adidas interview, 2009.)
“Skateboarders are envied by people because they just glide so free. Any time something moves like water, they’ll make a dam. Every time something moves in nature, they want to stop it.” – Mark Gonzales
8) One Week. One Show.
The Gonz draws as quickly as most people talk. He draws on napkins, jackets, postcards, floors, walls, shoes and body parts. He draws girls with Alexandra’s face, and invisible men; VW Beetles with swastika signs and jailbird Madonnas. There are words, too, and they flow even faster. Most times, he doesn’t fully register what comes out.
“I like how these two poems make a story,” I say, sticking a pin in what is obviously one half of a thoroughly thought-out, two-part piece.
TO GET A
“Oh, yeah,” Mark giggles, blue eyes flashing. “I never even noticed that.”
It’s been four days since we convinced ourselves that pulling off a 24-hour pop-up show in the space of a week would be a cinch. Every day since, at around 4pm, the relative calm of our pretty studious little office is awoken from its pattern as soon as Mark bowls through the door, arms laden with rolls of paper worked on through the night. “Hey, have you got any scissors?” he’ll squeal on arrival over conscientious heads. “Okay, bye now! We’re going to Ikea / to get nachos / to find some fish and chips,” come the various sign-offs not long after he’s arrived. He’s here one minute, gone the next. And even here, in our so-called ‘creative environment’, his energy is a welcome whack across the face.
Right now we’re sticking, pegging, pinning and pasting dozens of pieces up onto the wall. Mark wanders the floorboards in pink fluffy socks, adding frantic flourishes to garish spray-painted scrolls, armed with the fattest Sharpie money can buy. “Stick ‘em up punk!” he squeals to absolutely no one. He kneels down and starts drawing a warped world at lightning speed. If he’s thinking while he’s doing it, it certainly doesn’t show.
“I just draw whatever I see,” he says. “Like for a while, I drew high heels, because Alexandra really likes them.”
When it comes to art shows, Mark’s seen and done plenty. He’s soaked up dozens of London’s galleries in a matter of days, and weaves film and art references into most conversations. His own biography carries all the right names: from Aaron Rose’s Alleged Gallery to Franklin Parrasch in New York; from ‘zines with Nieves, to a Chaplin-esque cameo in a Spike Jonze short. He fucked shit up in Harmony Korine’s Gummo, turned skateboarding into a performance piece in a film shot by Cheryl Dunn (see: Coconut Records’ video for ‘West Coast’). P-Diddy has entire walls covered in his work. There are photography shows in Paris, clothing lines in Japan, Adidas ads co-starring Snoop Dogg, giant ‘shmoo’ installations in Supreme stores. And there’s a pop-up art show opening in London tonight. Everyone wants their own little Gonz.
Later, as the clock starts ticking and the hoards gather at the door, Mark is still sitting and drawing on the floor, socked feet curled beneath him, eyes in a glaze.
“I swear, sometimes I morph back into a little kid.”
“I don’t know, it seems like everyone’s an artist nowadays. I like drawing a lot. I used to draw cars and stuff, hot rods. It’s fun to draw, you know. After you’ve done a drawing you look at it, you put it away and then when you see it later you go, “Man, I drew this? I like it… But I hate when people go, ‘Oh I know what this means, I can understand what you’re trying to say through this drawing.’ When I do drawings and they do have meaning, if they do, I don’t do it for other people. I do it for myself so I can just go, ‘Yeah, cool.’ But I hate when people look at it and explain it to you.” – Mark Gonzales
9) The Conclusion (That Never Concludes)
One day after our week with The Gonz, Mark fades away as quickly as he appeared. He was getting a train to the Scottish highlands. Then it was an overnight bus to Milan. When you think he’s back in Paris, he turns up in New York, in the same hotel suite where the Marx Brothers used to stay.
Soon, our relationship descends into a chase. Off the back of the adrenalin and excitement of the show, we decided to collaborate on a guest-edited issue – the very magazine that you are holding in your hands. But phone calls, messages and high-priority (!!) emails are not always in tempo with the vagabond beat.
Getting a hold of Mark is still as hard as ever. If you have to email him, make sure it’s pretty – “I don’t read the words, I just look at the pictures. Can you send a fax?” I haven’t yet tried to call his Mom.
All it takes is a quick flashback to the night his show opened (to the queue that wormed it’s way down the road; the skateboarders and collectors standing shoulder to shoulder, elbows at the ready, eyes on the art; the constant flash of cameras and hungry iPhones; the Instagrammed moments – ‘Me and #thegonz!’; the signings, bear hugs and incessant high-fives; the way he went out and bought Jackie O’ sunglasses ten minutes before doors opened and kept them and a beanie on all night) all it takes is this half-cast memory of the man to remind you that predators have a way of wearing down their prey.
But that’s the magical thing about Mark – he never sits still long enough for anyone to keep up.
“If I say something good, people can make it bad, you know, they can just make it bad. If I say something bad, people can make it beautiful. They could say, ‘Oh, it’s so good.’ It’s like fortune cookies, whatever they say you can somehow make them fit with what’s going on around you. I think about what I want to say and I wonder how some people might take it. It’s hard to say what I feel.” – Mark Gonzales
Three hours ago I typed the last words of this story, went downstairs and watched Leonardo DiCaprio lose his marbles in Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Now it’s 01.22am and a message has just landed in my inbox. So I guess I better begin again.
<firstname.lastname@example.org has sent you some files>
interview with jocko for gonzales guest editor
<Files (267 MB total)>
<Movie on 2-8-13 at 2.49 PM.mov>
Andrea is Huck’s Editor in Chief. Follow her on Twitter.
This story first appeared in Huck 37. Subscribe here to make sure you never miss another issue.
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