Before skateboarding as we know it came into fruition, there was Tony Alva.
It was the decade of disruption (aka the 70’s) and everything was changing politically, culturally, and aesthetically. At this stage, skateboarding was a contest freestyle-based sport more than anything else. It was only until the Zephyr Contest Skateboarding crew, now better known as the Z-boys, took over the landscape of the entire industry and molded it into the hyper-aggressive gravity-bending sport we know now.
At the forefront, there was a colorfully clad 19-year old with as much bravado in his personality as his skateboarding skills. Tony Alva was a walking and talking brand with a sweet persuasion to all who watched him do what he did. It was him and the rest of the Z-boy greats, Stacy Peralta, Jay Alvarez, Peggy Oki, etc. who took surfing styles to skateboarding and brought the sport from downhill to stylish swoops in your neighbor’s empty swimming pools. It was Tony that revolutionized skateboarding into a lifestyle that came with lucrative brand deals, the first skater-owned skate company, fashion features, and the clout that comes with being a skateboarder.
Now a 62-year old man and the oldest professional skateboarder in the game, Tony is the topic of recently deceased Jeff Grosso’s ‘Love letters to Skateboarding.’ In the biopic, other industry titans such as Christian Hosoi, streetwear line, OBEY, founder Shepard Fairy, as well as musicians like Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam talks about how Tony Alva shaped skateboarding and the alternative street culture as a whole.
But how did he get to becoming the ‘Godfather of modern skateboarding’ and live to tell the tale? Let’s find out.
The birth of a legend
Photo credit: Sequence Magazine
Tony Alva was born to Mexican-American and Dutch parents on September 2, 1957, in Santa Monica, California. He started skating at age 6 and became pro when he turned 10.
Under the influence of his own surfing experiences, Tony made a new free-form surf style popular in skateboarding. It was something that was never before seen in the industry, considering that at that time, most skateboarders were still doing tricks formulated in the 1960s. It was this unique style and his impalpable charisma that launched to fame early on in his teenage years.
As chronicled in the documentary “Dogtown: The Legend of the Z-boys,” the legendary Venice skate crew was formed when Tony met Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta in 1972. It was during this time that their empty swimming pool takeovers made it into the mainstream and cemented their impact in skateboarding forever. It was because of this, that Tony is largely credited for being the originator of vertical skateboarding and frontside airs.
His rap sheet of competition wins include a 1977 triple threat of Men’s Overall World Professional Skateboard Championship, Skateboarder of the Year in Skateboarder Magazine Reader Poll, and setting a World Record Barrel Jump. In 1999, he was awarded an X-Games Lifetime Achievement Award from Tony Hawk. In the year 2000, he received the Legend Award from Transworld Skateboard Magazine. I-D Magazine also named him one of the 100 Most Influential People In Fashion in 2003, and in 2009, he was inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame.
Contributions to skateboarding, fashion, music, and beyond
In 1974, his imprint on fashion loomed as far as being the one to advise shoe brand, Vans, founder, Paul Van Doren, to add a collar padding and heel cup for support. This made the Vans Era Style the first shoe designed by skaters for skateboarding. The very first “Off the wall” shoe. He has been sponsored by Vans since that year.
Three years later at age 19, Tony, who was already known to actively shun major skate companies, struck out on his own to form the first skater-owned and operated company named, ‘Alva Skates.’
The company was the first to use layered maple plywood for the skate decks. It was because of this career move that he became known as the prototype for a modern professional skateboarder. Some might say one of the first street style influencers.
Since his television debut in ABC’s 1977 Wide World of Sports for the World Professional Skateboarding Championship, Tony has endorsed a variety of products on television including Vans, Mercedes Benz, and the Fuel television network.
In 1983, his strongest team, famously known as the “Alva Posse” was formed with innovative skateboarders on board by the likes of Christian Hosoi, Ray Barbee, Mark Gonzalez, Dave Duncan, Eddie Reategui, Chris Cook, John Thomas, Jeff Hartsel, Craig Johnson, John Gibson, Bill Danforth, Fred Smith III, and Jim Murphy.
In 1986, Director David Winters even commissioned the team to act in his film, ‘Thrasin.’ Here Tony plays himself with his team playing the “daggers” crew.
This would not be his last participation in a film feature project. In 2005, Tony was hired as the authenticity consultant and stunt coordinator for a film loosely based on his and the rest of the z-boy’s youth.
Apart from skateboarding, Tony also has a love for music. This was shown with the formation of the punk band, skoundrelz in 1981. Dave Mitchells held the helm as the band’s vocalist and frontman, while Tony played the bass, Bela Horvath, the drums, and Micheal Dunnigan and Mike Ball on guitar. Later on in his life in 2009, Tony also came to form another punk bank named GFP– General F***ing Principle with Crazy Tom on vocals, himself on bass, Joey C on drums, and Greg Hetson on guitar.
In 2006, Tony was finally featured in Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland videogame.
The Price of Skatbording Fame and Fortune
Reaching the pinnacle of success at an early age without any guidance or direction, Tony eventually fell prey to the consequences of his lifestyle choices and behavior. Partying, fame, and money nearly led him to death. It was because of this realization that Tony made the wise decision to get sober.
“I competed with the sun for the center of the universe – ‘no más.’ I’m not living that way anymore,” Tony says. “I refuse to go back to that style of selfishness and self-centeredness in living. I don’t want to be that guy anymore. I want to be the guy that evolved to where we’re at now.”
Looking back, the ‘mad dog’ of dogtown reminisces that while he was born into the lifestyle he led, it was no excuse for the downhill spiral he went on.
“I was born in 1957 so it was right in the middle of the hippie movement – people were experimenting with anything that would alter their minds and calling it spiritual. But it was like a roller coaster version of spirituality – the highs were super high and the lows were super low, and I found out: the older you got, the lower those lows became,” he says.
Tony has been clean and sober since September 20, 2006, and continues to do what he loves to do: skate, surf and play music. At present, he still plays the bass for the band “His Eyes have Fangs,” and is still sponsored by Vans to this day.
Despite having a couple of turbulent years fueled by fame and fortune at an early age, Tony has successfully managed to emerge as the diamond in the rough. These days, he actively ensures that he is a better role model and encourages the youth to skate and to rise above life’s challenges.
At age 63, Tony is the oldest living professional skater with major sponsors still in the likes of Alva skateboards, Independent Trucks, and Hurley Wetsuits.
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Vans’ Pass the Bucket film features Tony Alva now in his 60’s, still shredding with decades of accolades behind him.
When asked about his age in his profession, he shrugs about the very importance of the concept.
“… it’s not even so much about the number as it is that I’m here, I’m still alive. As a surfer and a skater and musician, so much about my life is staying in that present moment,” Tony says.
He continues that he merely tries to stay connected to what’s in front of him in the moment and credits prayer with his focus.
“I live like a 60-year man – I am happy and healthy and at peace. And that’s a miracle. I never realized what a gift life was until I became connected to what I call a high-grade spiritual experience – not the roller coaster that sex and drugs and money and fame provided.
That was all about a false sense of spirituality. And that gift is free if you’re open to the Grace of God – and yet at the same time, you have to work for it. I don’t carry any of that excess baggage anymore in my life. Once you get that terminal uniqueness out of your head, you stand a chance. You get the chance to really be alive. And it’s not always such a smooth and beautiful path. But when you admit that you’re powerless over something when you’re ready to take that first step, you know it,” Tony adds.