adidas continues its “Respect Your Roots” campaign by paying tribute to legendary skate photographer Skin Phillips, honoring him with a clean black-and-white leather re-issue of The Skate. Skin has been ingrained in skate culture for decades, and his story is a unique one. If you look at the legends of skateboarding, they often come from skateboarding’s epicenter, Southern California. Proximity just naturally plays a part when someone is becoming part of a culture, especially when you’re discussing the days before the internet.
Skin’s story differs from other skate culture OGs as he hails from Swansea in Wales, during a time when skateboarding hadn’t even broke into the mainstream in the U.S. yet. It’s an unlikely place to come from when you consider how early Skin was involved in skateboarding. There wasn’t nearly as much money in it as there is now and it wasn’t considered a particularly cool thing to do quite yet. This is a testament to the obsession Skin has for the culture.
Skin’s passion and dedication for skateboarding led him to move to the US where he became editor-in-chief of TransWorld SKATEboarding, before landing his current position as manager of adidas’ skate team. We sat down with Skin Phillips at the opening of his retrospective photo exhibition at Known Gallery to discuss his roots with the culture and how he’s seen it evolve over the years.
When did you start photographing skateboarding?
I started skateboard photography in ‘82, when not many people were doing it. I come from a place called Swansea, it’s a good surf community in Wales. I finally got a camera for my 18 birthday and was sort of self taught. I did a little bit of community college but mostly went to libraries and kept on looking at magazines and started really plugging away at it. Towards the end of the ‘80s I started getting stuff published in Rad and in the ‘90s I got more published and in ‘94 I got a full time job with TransWorld and it really took off from there. I moved to California in January ‘94. Before that I covered all those guys in Europe and the ‘80s vert scene as well.
How underground was the scene when you started?
It was really underground; Thrasher hadn’t even come out. I was 18 at the time in like ‘82, the kids I were shooting were like 15 and 16, they were like these surfer punk kids, into Bad Religion and the hardcore scene that didn’t really exist, they just somehow knew about all this underground punk music. Swansea was just in one pocket and London had Palace Ramp and northern England had a scene and each of these cities maybe had like 1 ramp and 5 skaters in each city, literally 5 tops. In the UK at that time there was probably no more than 100 skaters.
What drew you to skate photography in the first place?
I think what drew me to it was to get away from where I was. Magazines at that time were just like a massive escape and when videos came along, like the first Powell video, that just took it to the next level. Being drawn to getting away and I just wanted to take photos like that, that were in the magazines, it took me so long to do it but that’s what I wanted. I looked at the photos and thought that’s all I want to do.
Yeah, but photography isn’t cheap and I came from a pretty working class family so it wasn’t even until the ‘90s when I could afford proper gear that my photos got better. It was all cheap glass before that. There was a lot of trial and error and disappointment in that era, which is easy to forget. It wasn’t digital either, it was all film. Film costs money to develop it, if you didn’t have the right exposure you didn’t get the right photo. There’s so much to skateboard photography to get it right. There was so many basic rules that nobody was telling you back then.
How has your photography changed through the years?
Definitely the gear has changed, but also skateboarding in general changed. It was really coming up in the early ‘90s and people look at skating during that time with these kind of rose-tinted glasses, but for a photographer it was kind of a rough time. There wasn’t many people doing it. The fuckin’ wheels were tiny. Skaters looked goofy with pressure flips and tricks like that. I came in ‘94 so Muska was just starting, Reynolds hadn’t even broke out yet, Jamie Thomas was just coming to San Diego, so there was like this new fuckin’ bigger skateboarding going on, rail skateboarding. That was a big change for me, it became more exciting to shoot. It became easier to shoot actually. That’s why they ran so many rail photos because it was easy to shoot and it was impactful. The aesthetic of it was just getting together. Then by like ‘95 or ‘96 when it really started taking off and if you think about what skateboarding companies started then, we’re still going off that.
For you personally, is there a “golden era” of skateboarding?
My era is the ‘70s, that’s when I first discovered it. It was like the Z-Boys and California was the dream. I think when you’re like 12, 13 or 14-years-old, that’s when you’re the most impressionable in your life. You’re going through all these changes and what you get hooked on then is sort of embedded in you forever. But, that’s my time. For a lot of people it’s the ‘80s or ‘90s. It all depends on when you were that age growing up. Everyone always complains about how it’s not the same as it used to be. Well, that’s not true, it’s just becoming the next generation’s time. The kids growing up now in 10-to-15 years will be like, “Oh it’s not the same as it used to be in 2016, that was the best year.” It’s the first time you hear certain songs or see certain people skate. By the time you’re 16 you’ve kind of made your mind up.
Perfect example, I manage Nakel and Tyshawn Jones and when I first met them I thought they were from another planet. They were fuckin’ crazy, they talked their own way, and it was really hard. I’m just so much fuckin’ older than those dudes, I could be their grandfather. I found it, not difficult, but it was just really different. Then the second time I met them I was sitting between them and they were rapping and it didn’t even faze me. Just because you don’t understand it, it doesn’t mean it’s bad, you just can’t comprehend what’s going on then. People do that with skateboarding all the time. Things change, people get old and they can’t comprehend things so they complain about what they don’t understand. No one takes time to understand it and that’s just the way it is from generation to generation. You become like your father whether you like it or not.(laughs)
How did you find out you were getting a shoe with adidas and were you involved in the design process?
I didn’t do any of it. It was a surprise, but I used to wear The Skate before in yellow and black — it was Mark Gonzalez’s colorway from Mexico. I wore that yellow shoe for ages; it looks a little like the Gazelle, like a football casual shoe. Back then different countries would make different shoes/colorways which doesn’t really happen as much today since they’re shipped all over. In 1977 or ‘78 France made that shoe, so I freaked out when I saw the shoe there again. They took the Skate and made it in this kind of Kangaroo leather, which was this other shoe I loved.
Can you discuss what it means to be honored and surprised with this shoe?
It is such an honor and a surprise, especially from a company like adidas, who doesn’t do that for everyone. So to tell my story was a great honor and to tell it to the different eras makes it even better. Respect Your Roots is just a good idea. adidas did it with the Shelltoe for Kareem Campbell and some guys last year. adidas was in skateboarding when it wasn’t supposed to be yet. People have been skating them for decades. Getting this shoe freaked me out, but it freaked the family out back home and my friends out more. It’s pretty cool.
Can you talk about how the digital age has changed skateboard, especially coming from your background with Transworld’s print team?
I think it changed for all media, not just skate media, for TV, for everything. The digital age, no one really knew what was coming. At one point, if you weren’t in TV you weren’t going to survive; now you’re like how the fuck is TV even going to survive, right? I don’t look at TV or ads anymore, I’m like everyone else, I look at the phone. It’s something that you can’t get away from. I still look at magazines and play vinyl from time to time but I listen to Spotify like everyone else, because you have to. Again, it’s not good or bad, it’s just the way things evolve and you need to either embrace it and get on board or you’re going to be left behind. Even in the digital age a website can get old quickly, what’s the next thing after that? There’s so many variants.
It’s all down to the quality of work that goes on those channels for me. The good thing about it is, skateboarders now have commodity in things like their Instagram followers, and they have some control of their own media. A lot of people have gotten new contracts because of their Instagram followers, we’ve never had that before. Social [media] is really expanding the careers of pros. Also, 40 is not that old, Lance Mountain is going to be 52 this year and he’s skating maybe as good as he’s ever skated. So they’re all going to that new era where they can keep going through different mediums and you can get more longevity. You see the skaters that are adapting, I mean Biebel is a good example. He’s posting a trick every day, and him and Marc Johnson are skating everyday, for like eight hours every fuckin’ day and they’re in their late 30s now.
Can you talk about the transition to digital photography and your first experiences with it?
I found it really hard. Photoshop and all that was hard for me and I still haven’t mastered it. I found that transition difficult since I’m not really computer oriented. But the photography was the same and those aspects remained the same. I don’t find it as hard now, but it’s difficult if you’re not computer savvy. It’s more work than it was with film with the post processing of a picture sometimes too. I think there’s more time spent on photography now. And there’s more cameras, the F3 was my camera for so many years. With digital photography there was a time there where you had to spend money every year to fuckin’ keep up with the technology. Digital photos look really good when you blow them up large scale though, they’re not too grainy.
Who are a couple of your favorite skaters?
Matt Hensley, Gonz, I loved Lance Mountain growing up. Alba was like the hero. Rowley, Penny and all those British guys. Marc Johnson and Chad Muska and Duffy, Cardiel, it’s all the same people everyone else likes for the same reasons.
What does being the team manager for adidas entail?
Doing all the travel, making sure everyone’s getting taken care of on the day-to-day, looking at the larger projects. Right now, it’s been over two years since we started filming Away Days. We’re premiering that May 12 in LA, that’s a massive project. The last two years have just been world traveling and filming.
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