One might call him the Thomas Edison of skateboarding. Having invented dozens of standardized tricks such as the ollie and kickflip, Rodney Mullen is one of the most decorated professional skateboarders in history.
Today, Mullen will visit UCLA to speak about his transition from outcast college student to soul skater. But first he sat down with the Daily Bruin’s Devon McReynolds.
Daily Bruin: What made you want to start skating?
Rodney Mullen: I grew up in Florida, and I never really felt like I fit in. It’s probably a common bond that a lot of skaters have and I certainly felt that. I really liked the individuality of it, where you don’t have to dress up all the same. You’re really on your own. You didn’t have a coach, no one’s going to tell you what to do and it never ends in terms of the possibility of what you can do. It presented problems from the folks because in the 1970s the culture saw (skateboarding) as a thing for bad apples. My father was really against it and thought it would lead nowhere. It was kind of a hard thing to overcome.
DB: When did you start skating, and what made you want to start in the first place?
RM: I started when I was 10. Jan. 1, New Year’s Day 1977. It was because my father had had a few drinks on New Year’s Eve. My dad was in the military, and so I thought that was the best opportunity, when he’d had a few drinks and was in a really jovial “˜I love my family’ mood. But he promised that the first time I got hurt I’d have to quit, and I said that’s fine and went with it. My dad’s a dentist, so the first thing I did was knock out my teeth.
DB: At what point did you realize you could make a career out of this and stop going to school?
RM: Almost too late, when I was trying to do both (school and pro skateboarding). I’d go out and do my thing and won all the local contests, and it grew and grew and grew, even when I was getting paid and traveling internationally. I was in my third and fourth year of college before it really started to weigh down on me of making a choice between one or the other. I probably didn’t have the courage or insight to believe that it would turn into what it did.
DB: Did running your company World Industries take away any of the fun of skateboarding for you?
RM: It certainly did. When you start to shift paths a little bit, you have to kick people off, you have to become a boss, and in their eyes that’s often sort of being a double agent. …You start to think in terms of not just the joy … but you focus on goals, which is always sort of a fire extinguisher when it comes to ideas. You know when you focus on goals so much it takes away from the things you need to create the thing ““ like enjoying it. It’s like a conceptual rigor mortis that sets in when you have the pressures of handing things in or turning things out.
There are a lot of challenges in it, that’s for sure, and just the hours it took. That’s part of why I always like to skate at night. There’s something about being alone to me that’s so conducive of it all. Plus the practicalities of living in the city because that’s the time to hit things up since no one’s around.
DB: You’ve invented dozens of new tricks. How do you come up with them?
RM: You can start sounding really airy when you talk about that stuff. That’s what I’m talking about, it’s just something I try, and this is what it feels like. Definitely, I look at all the magazines and watch all the videos religiously and see what everyone’s doing, but I don’t skate with anyone, and I think one of the reasons for my success is a “know thyself” type of thing. I know my weaknesses and I know I’ve always had trouble fitting in or being measured against someone else. I think it’s pride in a subtle form, but if I skate at a skate park there’s always that (pressure to) “make a trick,” you know, do your little checklist. There’s an entire industry of television shows and periodicals (devoted to it). I try to keep it low-key and just tumble around fundamental movements. It’s remarkable how many tricks are simple variations, different iterations of what’s right in front of your nose already that it’s unrecognizable because it’s sort of algebraic shuffling.
Does that make sense?
DB: Yeah, just a sort of building up on other things you’ve already invented.
RM: That’s right. It’s just a series of puzzle pieces and if you just turn them around in different environments, it becomes the nature of the trick, and there is such fertile ground for that. And that’s one of the reasons that I love it is because it’s easy to become cynical and say everything’s been done, but you can always come out on your own and come up with something different and there’s a real joy in that. …
I held a title for 11 years. I won 36 out of 37 contests. All I really did was be so fixated on it I wouldn’t even play anyone in checkers.
I can’t engage in that, it was so hard for me to be measured by a number. That’s sort of the era of Tony Hawk, too ““ he’s really good with that and we both were sharing these complaints about contest (culture).
DB: How do you feel about the active persecution of skateboarders?
RM: It feels like persecution sometimes for sure. In almost all ways, it’s discouraging the very things of the transcendental movement with Thoreau and Emerson with their individualism ““ that’s what skateboarding is. It’s not people marching in uniform. It’s creative, and it’s tough. The degree of individualism and poeticism involved in skateboarding should be rewarded when in fact it’s the flip side. I wish we could change that. I think there are a lot of good people out there. Tony Hawk has a foundation that puts us on a better face for a lot of people, but it’s such a shame. I just don’t get it.
DB: What would skateboarding be like if it were legal?
RM: In some ways we’re getting more and more amazing people. Ryan Sheckler is a good example of a really gifted kid who is treated with some really great places to skate around the world.
So many eyes are watching and the rewards are so high, there’s so much support for the younger guys.
A lot of the older guys bemoan this modern era with the MTV stars.
What’s going on with our culture? We’re losing it. And the flip side of it is all these guys talk so hard about spirit and everything else and half the time they’ve got to (support) a family and they have to throw it all away.
They’ve made it their whole lives and can’t afford to go on.
DB: What do you think about the bad reputation skateboarders get, and what do you think when you see adolescent skateboarders who act really obnoxious in crowded public places?
RM: Oh my God, it drives me crazy. Especially whenever I’m out and about, tour-wise, where people expect to see you, there will be a lot of skaters waiting for you. When you’re around some of them, they take that time to show off, like “Wow! We’re crazy!”
They think that skateboarding should be about being punks and being crazy and all that does is turn away from it. It’s this hyped persona, that’s not really the heart of it anymore.
DB: How fun is skateboarding after all these years, on a scale of 1-10?
RM: It moves up and down, but it’s right back up at nine and three-quarters.