MIKE BLABAC INTERVIEW

Interview by Neil Macdonald
Photography by Mike Blabac
Portrait by Aaron Meza

 

Skateboarding is more advanced than ever right now, but you're here for a shoe reissue and a photo retrospective. Does skateboarding finally have a real heritage now? Does it have its Beatles and Stones? People coming into skateboarding now can pick and choose the bits they like from the last 40 years, and it's totally acceptable to be looking back - is that a good thing?

I think it's a good thing. Anything that you can look back on, and pull from a history or a heritage is definitely a good thing. I feel lucky to be a part of skateboarding that is now looked back on as such. I'm very good friends with Grant Brittain, and so I look at all the stuff that he shot when I was a kid - photos of Natas, the Bones Brigade, Tommy and Cab - so it's been a thing for a while. Skateboarding is relatively young, but I feel really lucky to have people look at stuff that I've been lucky enough to create in the same way that I looked at the things that Spike [Jonze] and Grant and Luke Ogden made when I was growing up skating, so I do think that it's a good thing, and it's an awesome thing to be a part of.

 

Just as long as we do actually keep moving forwards?

Haha! For sure. All of this is great, and I really like it, and I feel really lucky to have made a book and done all that, but I'm still lucky enough to be able to go out and make things and work with kids who are just coming up, and still hopefully be able to create the photos that kids want to stare at now, whether it's on their phone or if they get to rip it out a magazine and put it on their wall the same way that I did when I was a kid, and it's rad.

 

Bobby Puleo

 

That's cool that you don't have a preference to how it's seen, but Phelps said in your book that any kid with a digital camera could be the next big shot nowadays. I guess you must have agreed somewhat to let that go in your book, but is that not a bit dismissive of the artistry involved in shooting photos?

I don't know if it's that so much. But then again it's Jake... Ha! The learning curve of photography today is much shorter than it once was. The same goes for skateboarding - it's exposed to ten, or a hundred, or a million times more people than it was back then, but still there are skaters who are special, and they have a certain style, and I feel like any kind of art or photography is the same. If you have a certain style, then regardless of what the medium is, if that sets you apart from other people then it doesn't matter if it's digital or film or whatever. And that was the same back in the day. You could have shot with a pinhole camera, or whatever it may have been, and that's what would set you apart. The same goes for today - it's just what you do with that digital camera is what will set you apart from other people that have the same exact camera.

 

I was going to ask if you had a preference, whether digital or film...

I love the look and feel of film and that's what I grew up with, learning how to process and print, and it was tough for me to make the transition. But again, it's just how you use what you use. I mean, today DC needed something socially, so I can just shoot it and instantly it has to be uploaded, and placed in a certain way, and that goes for everything. So I don't really have a choice. Using film is very romantic, but professionally, it's difficult for me to do.

 

Was Mad Circle the best SF company ever? Plenty of people would say that it definitely was.

I mean... I can't say that it wasn't the best but I couldn't not say that it was because I was involved a small bit. Again, I was really lucky to be a part of it when I first moved to San Francisco and met Scott Johnston and Karl Watson and all of those guys. I actually ended up moving in with Justin Girard and working with them. I can't say it's the best, because there's Real, and Jim [Thiebaud] and all those guys are still killing it and doing an amazing thing. I love those guys. So I wouldn't say it was the best, but it was a rad thing to be a part of for sure. Back to your point of people being retrospective or looking back - it has a good history for being such a short-lived company. The 'athletic' look - if that's the word you want to use - was a big inspiration behind Mad Circle. They looked at baseball pennants and stuff like that for graphics, and that was so sick...

 

Jason Dill

 

That Mike Cao baseball card graphic...

Yeah yeah, the baseball cards. And just the artists they worked with, like Gorm Boberg from Sweden and Barry McGee - Twist - did a lot of the first Mad Circle graphics. It was insane. It has such a good history.

 

I just heard right there that Tampa Pro is pay-pre-view just now. What do you think of that becoming the standard?

I think that less people are going to be watching it. Hahaha! That's what I think! I'm not going to say whether it's good or bad, because I'm friends with those dudes. But I do think that as a kid skating, if I had the choice, I would be like, "Well, I'm not going to pay ten dollars to watch this". Or hook up with nine of my friends and we all pitch in a dollar, like any other pay-per-view thing. Maybe that's a natural progression, and the way things are going, but I don't know if the amount of people that are going to watch Tampa are the same amount of people that are going to watch a Floyd Mayweather fight.

 

So what was your first cover, and your first ad?

First ad was a Pure Wheels ad, for Scott Johnston...

 

Scott Johnston

 

For Big Brother, where they ran the Simon Evans photo for Pure Wheels and the Scott photo for Experience by mistake?

Yep. Ha! You're good. First cover was Koston's noseblunt slide on the photo issue of Transworld [1998]

 

Was the noseblunt photo that ran the make?

It was film, and I believe it was, as a matter of fact.

 

With the Simon Evans and Scott Johnston thing in mind, have you ever sent a photo off to an editor and just been appalled at how it got laid out?

Absolutely! All the time. Hahaha! But, you know, that's the same with anything. I do work outside of skateboarding as well as inside of skateboarding, and that's something I've learned to accept as I've grown older. Don't get me wrong, it still annoys me, but I'm not going to complain about it in the same way that I once may have. Haha!

 

Gino & Keenan

 

Do you listen to certain music to get hyped to take a photo? Do you listen to Slayer when you're shooting Danny Way and East Coast hip-hop when you shoot Kalis?

Haha! No. But certain music reminds me of things that I've shot from that time. Slayer will definitely remind me of being at the ramp for countless hours with Danny, and certain music will definitely remind me of being with Kalis at Love Park.

 

You shoot some pretty big-deal stuff, some proper stunts, so what's it like shooting one of 'your' guys when there are other photographers around? Don't you just want to tell those dudes to fuck off?

No, not at all. It is what it is. As long as I can go and be in the place where I want to capture it the way I see it in my head, I'm cool with that. Something that's a spectacle, like the Great Wall, I'm just really lucky to be there and witness it. I mean at that time he [Danny Way] was already crooked grinding a rail across a gap that was almost as big but in hindsight, looking back on it, it was just such an amazing thing to be a part of. But I prefer being in a schoolyard or something. With shooting the Mega Ramp, no-one even knew we were doing that; it was before social media. Sometimes it was just Greg Hunt, myself and Danny. It was just the three of us in the middle of nowhere shooting something. Being able to witness and capture something that no-one's ever done is more special to me than being in a press box with people, or being there with several hundred other people, or millions or billions of people watching on TV. As a skater, I would prefer to be in a schoolyard with a dude and see something that no-one's ever done before. That to me is more special.

 

Justin Girard

 

Morgan Campbell asked me to find out what the most dangerous street photo you've shot is.

Haha! That's a really good question. Oh man. I can remember slams, gnarly slams where I've seen some really bad stuff happen, but I don't know if those are the most dangerous thing, or the most scared I've been for someone. To me, big rail skating spooks me as a skater - just thinking about doing something enormous. That's what's gnarly. As a skateboarder I was never really good at back tails, so seeing someone back tail a giant Hubba would spook me. For the general population, that wouldn't necessarily scare the shit out of them, but that's how I see things as a skater. But handrail skating has gotten pushed to the point where it's so gnarly now, and people are skating such massive things. It's difficult for me to think of one specific thing, but the Mega Ramp stuff was the most scared I've ever felt for someone, because we were literally in the middle of nowhere where we were filming all that stuff. There was no ambulance, there was no cellphone service, there was no nothing. You know what I mean? If something happened, we were in the middle of nowhere. That was by far the most dangerous thing ever for sure.

 

Tell me about the 1997 Scott Johnston photo with the parking meter. It's in the foreground, in focus, Scott's in the background, all out of focus, Smith grinding a ledge. Did you go there to get that shot, or just decide at the time?

I'd finally saved up enough money for a Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 lens, and I was literally just testing out the lens. That's the full story behind it. That photo was shot zoomed all the way out at 200mm, and I think I shot that photo at f4 - a thousandth of a second - on slide film. I remember Scott skating the ledge and being like, "Dude, why are you shooting photos of me doing a back Smith?!", and I was all, "Dude, don't worry about what I'm doing. You do what you're doing and I'll do what I'm doing". We never talked about it until the photo came out in Transworld a couple of months after. I remember the parking meter had just got hit, and there was a Deluxe sticker on it, so I think that's why I focussed on that particular parking meter.

 

Who did DC always want on the team that they never got? Who should have been on there?

I think we've always been lucky to have who we wanted. I mean, there's always been certain dudes who have left or just didn't stick around for whatever reason. Like Stevie [Williams] for example, who just fit everything in the short period that we got to work together. The stuff with him in the late '90s and early '00s is stuff that people still refer to. There's obviously people who have almost ridden for DC that now ride for other companies. I just feel lucky to have been able to shoot a lot of those dudes. Now even the younger guys that are on the team - guys like Wes [Kremer] - are timeless skaters. I feel lucky to be able to shoot dudes that in 20 years people will still want to see photos of and still want to see them skate. That's the ultimate thing.

 

Mike Carroll

 

What's your favourite city to shoot in, for whatever reason?

For me, I think San Francisco is my favourite. Just 'cause I love The City so much. I didn't grow up there, but I moved there when I was very young, and that's where I kinda got my start into photography so I have a lot of really fond memories of San Francisco. Any big city - like New York - is a lot of fun to shoot in. I kind of took San Francisco for granted because I lived there and that's where I shot photos, but now, in hindsight, when you shoot a photo in Southern California where it's stucco and blue skies and palm trees it just doesn't have the same vibe as an alleyway in San Francisco, or in London, or in New York City or wherever it may be. Photographs in big cities always look so sick, it's just so rad.

 

Another Morgan question; he wants to know who that you've shot has focussed the most boards.

Hahahaha! AVE. Filming for the DC Video, he went through quite a few of them.

 

That was a quick answer.

Well it stands out, let's just say that. There's the footage of him slamming his board into a sign in the DC Video, and that's just what he is, and that's one of the reasons he looks the way he does on a skateboard - because he's just charging and he's really intense - and it's a good thing, not a bad thing. Now that he's older, maybe he doesn't focus as many boards, I don't know. Unfortunately I don't get to be out with him so much these days, or at all really. But he went through quite a few boards. Haha!

 

Girl Skateboards

 

Is it more frustrating for you, lying in the gutter with a camera trying to get the shot, or for the dude you're shooting who is slowly killing himself over and over and over?

Oh not for me. It's definitely more frustrating for the dude. I mean I'm just sitting there! I grew up skating; I know how it is, sometimes you're not feeling it or sometimes things aren't working out. As long as someone tries, it doesn't bother me at all. If I go to the spot and someone focusses their board, or their cat is sick, or something happens where they don't want to skate then I'm like, "Alright, fuck this dude", but if someone's honestly trying then it doesn't bother me at all.

 

Have you ever had your gear jacked?

Yes. When I was, I think, 20, I had it stolen out of a car. And now I never leave it in the car! Haha! Someone tried to take it from me on a bus in San Francisco, but I fought back a little bit... Haha! Got a busted eye but I made it out with all my gear.

 

I'm obliged to ask- what's your preferred camera?

Nikon. That's the camera that I first picked up when I was a kid and I've always been into the way - as a tool - it feels, and that's what I still use today. My first camera was an F3 and I think I got it in... 1987? When I was a kid in 7th Grade and my parents got one for me at a swap meet. I had that and a darkroom, and it kind of just went from there. I still use Nikon DSLRs today.

 

Lee Smith

 

I don't know if this was just Slap making a big deal of it or what, but did you hear about Kalis having a problem with Mark Sucui shooting that adidas ad at Love..?

Haha! I do know that Josh is a big fan of Mark. It was just a comment. Josh likes to talk shit and that's all that was. There was nothing to it. He's a good dude.

 

What's your all-time best DC shoe?

The DC shoe that comes into my head the most would be the Lynx. There are ones that just stick out in my mind; there's Kalis's first shoe as well as the Lynx. Probably Josh's. I wore that one a lot, and just that era - it was around that time I started working for DC - so for me that would be a favourite.

 

Karl Watson

 

So there's a massive marketplace for OG '90s skateboard stuff just now, and with good reason. Do you have a garage full of boxfresh DCs, by any chance?

No. I always kinda took everything for granted, so I never really saved a lot of stuff. Now, I'm more of a hoarder of things than I ever was. But unfortunately no! Haha! I don't have a garage full of anything. The only thing I ever really held on to, was when Danny gave me a Mega Ramp complete from filming the DC video, I knew that was something I'd want to keep. I do remember him giving me boards, and just throwing them in the bushes. Boards from that video that people would probably kill for today. When you're younger it's like that stuff's gonna be around for ever, so y'know... Unfortunately I never had the foresight.

 

Yeah, nobody ever thought, "I'm gonna buy two pairs of the first Rick Howard shoe and only skate one". How are you with people uploading scans of your photographs on Instagram? People like Koolmoeleo and those guys...

Haha! I think it's amazing. Sometimes I see stuff that I had completely forgotten about. I think it's rad. I actually know Dave [Ruta, aka Koolmoeleo), I know him a little from skating a little bit in Chicago with Kalis, but I think it's just amazing.

 

Stevie Williams

 

Published in North 14