Josh Kalis & Mike Blabac interview

Josh Kalis and Mike Blabac chat skate plaza culture, the Olympics, Love Park and more

A demo and jam at Southbank is nothing out of the ordinary – any big names visiting these shores are more than likely to stop by the venerable, ammonia-tinged banks of the Undercroft, if not for organised events, then at least for a spot of skate tourism. DC, however, decided to do something a little different when they started sorting out plans to announce their DC Kalis Lite Slim shoe collaboration.

The recent demise of Philadelphia’s legendary Love Park has seen a flood of nostalgia for one of street skating’s most recognisable locations and with a Mike Blabac Love Park-themed exhibition scheduled for the Friday, DC and Slam orchestrated a recreation of the iconic Love Park ‘slab to bin’ obstacle, which played host to one of the most banging tre flips ever caught on film by Josh Kalis. Using precise measurements provided by Sabotage’s own Brain Panebianco, Slam and DC rebuilt both the bin and the kicker as an exact replica of the original and then had Josh Kalis himself oversee an intense session at the very fitting location of Southbank as both a celebration of the street plaza essence of skateboarding, and to announce the drop of the DC x Slam collab shoe.

We were offered the chance to catch up with both Kalis and Blabac a couple of days before the session to talk about the demise of plaza skating in the US, how the propped up slab to bin originally came about, Brian Wenning’s 6am skate missions and Ralph Lauren outfits for Olympic skateboarders amongst other things…

I hear that the kicker to bin that’s been rebuilt for this is a perfect replica in terms of size/scale due to Brian Panebianco and the Sabotage crew recording the details prior to Love Park being demolished – have you skated it yet Josh? Have you shot it Mike? Does it have a similar feel?

Josh: I haven’t seen it.

Mike: No, we haven’t seen it yet – I’m anxious to see it though!

Josh: If it is an exact replica, then whoo! I might be watching everybody. [Laughs].

Perfect replica in situ ready for a manic session

Even before Love Park was demolished, there seemed to be a constant struggle between skateboarders and the city to gain some kind of acceptance there – DC even offered $1million for the park’s upkeep with the proviso of skateboarding being allowed within its confines, right? How did that come about? Was there ever a time when the city came close to working with you guys in a positive, constructive way?

Josh: Well the mayor at the time said that if the skateboarders using it came up with $100,000 a year in maintenance then they would let us skate. That’s when DC stepped up and said they’d do it for ten years. That’s where the million dollar cheque came from, it was going to be 100 grand a year for maintenance and security. Then they backtracked, the city was like, “We never said that, there’ll never be skateboarding at Love Park!” And that was that…so, they lied [laughs].

Mike: I mean it always went in waves, which I’m sure is just like any other spot. I never lived in Philly, I would go out there to meet him and Stevie – I was just flying out there, not knowing if we’d be able to skate all day every day or whether motorcycle cops would be coming in from all directions kicking everybody out…it would always go in waves.

And there wasn’t even any sense of them trying to work with you around the time that the X-Games hit Philly in 2001?

Josh: No, that was just a whole bunch of faults right there, you know what I mean? The city tried to make it seem like they were cool with skating, but the reality was that they just wanted to profit off of it. That’s why we all wore – in fact I think I even got barked at by DC for this – a Love Park shirt rather than a DC shirt. Like we had anti-John Street [Ed: Then Mayor of Philadelphia]. I remember Ken was like, “What are you doing dude? You’re on TV, you need to be wearing a DC shirt!” [Laughs], come on man, it’s for the people!

You both talked about how the old 90’s version of Plaza skating has almost died in the US these days with the demolition of most of the iconic city plaza spots – are there any cities left in the states that still have spots of that scale and type that you’ve visited, with that EMB or Love Park vibe?

Josh: There just really isn’t man!

Mike: I mean the closest thing on the West Coast was J-Kwon, but that’s not really…

Josh: Yea J-Kwon, Pulaski…there are spots, spots that people could create plaza vibes at. The Island in San Francisco, there’s a ton of them. But I think the issue is the mentality of the kids that grow up skating now, they don’t have that super anti-authority, fuck school vibe. They just don’t have that, plus now there are so many purpose-built skate plazas; Stoner Parks everywhere, in every city. Kids are getting dropped off by their parents and it’s an OK thing to be a skater. So I just don’t think people have the mentality. You can go to New York City and there are fucking plazas all over the place, but no-ones creating anything with it. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, it’s just a different mentality.

I guess it’s a two pronged issue – the building of purpose built skate plazas, coinciding with the fast encroaching privatisation of public space and the authorities shutting down alternate uses of those spaces…

Josh: Hmm maybe, but then it’s also accepted a lot more now. So if you find the right spot and the right zone, you could…I don’t know. Like I said, I come from a different era. These kids have their era, I don’t think people are that interested in creating new plaza vibes. J-Kwon was cool, but it was one day a week and people flooded it. It was a small plaza and there’d be 150 kids there…with a 100 of them filming! I bet you all it would take is a couple of skaters from whatever city or whatever little crew to just start creating their meet up spot.

Mike: That’s what it really was; it was crews back in the day. There was Embarcadero, so much iconic stuff came out of that because so many people were filming and shooting photos there. That’s where the epicentre of skating was. Same thing with Philly and with Love, people actually went there and stuff came out of that. It’s a lot easier for kids to film themselves in their driveway now, but people came from all over at the weekend to skate Love – if they didn’t get kicked out by the locals [laughs].

Look at Pier 7; because Karl Watson and Mike York and Rob Welsh, those guys would go down there every day and hang out, film and shoot photos, that kind of built that reputation as it being somewhere to go which I guess is what builds up somewhere as a proper ‘plaza’.

Josh: True dat! Somebody just asked me recently about Chicago and why Chicago hasn’t blown up or whatever. There’s a lot of plazas in Chicago and I think it’s a lack of media. Also it’s people not going there – they don’t go to the same spot every day, all day, and there’s not people shooting their photos. That’s a big part of it too, it’s just a different mentality from the one a lot of us had when we were younger.

Mike: I mean the Pier was crazy…you could go there any day, there’d be people playing dice, someone would try and film a trick, everyone was hanging out and drinking – it was crazy, all day every day.

Josh: It’s a culture man…

Yeah, more than just the skating. I guess Southbank is still London’s equivalent to that…

Josh: Yea for sure – don’t get me wrong, plaza life is real outside of the US, know what I mean? Barcelona, Madrid, London…even in Prague, it’s still cracking out there. The plaza world is cracking, it’s just not getting the US media coverage. Just in the US, it’s kind of died out.

Is that part of the reason that the bump to bin was chosen to be recreated here, at Southbank? A street spot with a story, in the same way that Love or EMB had?

Josh: Nah it was because of the Slam City collab, the shoe. My shoe, the Kalis 1, was basically founded at Love Park. I lived there, that’s where all the ads were shot, and it turned into a pretty iconic shoe that was founded on the streets of Philly and at Love specifically. So Slam City Skates wanting to do the collaboration and put their name on it and it was only right to come to London, where Slam is from, and do it at Southbank which I would consider to be the London version of Love. It’s kind of dope to put the two worlds together, mash them up at this one spot, and it’s especially rad to do it in London and at Southbank.

Do either of you remember the first time you saw the propped up tile to bin set up at Love? Like who you saw skate it first maybe?

Josh: You know what, I was actually there the first time we popped up tiles. It was because there were some broken ones. The first coverage anyone ever saw of a propped up tile was of Keith Hufnagel doing a 360 flip off of one over, I think, three broken ones on the ground. It was in a Big Brother maybe…anyway, that kind of opened up everyone’s eyes. Then it was Ricky Oyola who popped up a different one and ollied over two cans for a 411 opener, that’s what basically set off the whole thing.

I’m pretty sure that it was the first iteration of that kind of DIY street spot – is the Love Park kicker to bin the original version of it do you think? It’s become a staple of nearly every video now and I guess it all goes back to that one.

Mike: Yeah it could be…

Josh: It definitely opened up the eyes, now everyone lifts up grates. I can’t think of anything featuring popped up tiles or grates before that…I’d never thought about it like that.

We were trying to think of other examples the other day, and couldn’t recall any…

Josh: [laughs] So it went from jump ramps, to Love Park, to now in any city when you look at a tree, then you look for a grate, then you look around thinking, “What could we do here?”

I guess the replica kind of keeps Love Park alive in a way – do either of you have any physical mementoes of the place yourselves? Like bits of the ledge/tiles etc?

Josh: Me? Yeah I actually have a full tile, but I had it cut into four squares because it was too big and heavy. I also have two City Hall benches, which aren’t Love but they’re right across the street. Most of the time, back in the day when we would film at City Hall, people would think that was Love Park.

Mike: Last summer I went there in June, when it was being demolished, and I jumped over the fences and grabbed a few pieces of it. I use them for bookends…[laughs].

There was talk of the city donating some of the ledges from Love to a local park on the Sabotage Instagram back when it was being torn down – do either of you know whether that happened?

Josh: Yeah it did – some of the long benches, the benches that were in between the ledges. Those are at Paine Skatepark, the outdoor Philly park. Also they dropped off a ton of the granite at FDR, but then those guys fucking used it to hold up the tunnel that you walk through to get into the park…they concreted it into the wall! But there are piles and piles of ledges and tiles that Brian Panebianco and them have, they know where they are. I guess you can buy them from the city?

What are both of your favourite Love park skate photos and why?

Josh: Just any? You know what, one of my favourite ones is the Stevie Williams switch front nose on the high ledge. It wasn’t even called the high ledge back then, it was just where everyone sat and smoked cigs all day. It was too high to even be called the high ledge, then Stevie did the switch front nose which Blabac shot. That’s definitely one of my favourites from there.

Mike: I’d probably say his tre flip, just because it’s been one that so many people have looked at, referred too, asked for. You know what I mean? We went out there just to shoot a sequence of it, pulled a frame out of that and that was pretty much it. Which was rad, because we were just doing it because we were out skating.

There was no story behind it, it was just a day out skating?

Mike: Yeah pretty much…which was all the stuff there, you know? I think that Stevie’s photo, the tre flip, the photos in front of the Love sign all happened in the same summer. Because Josh’s shoot was coming out that summer, I spent a lot of time there with him.

What about lines filmed there, or sections that feature the place heavily?

Josh: Man, there’s just so much good stuff from there! I really like a lot of the Brian Wenning stuff from there. He was funny [Mike cracks up], because weirdly he didn’t like filming there when other people were there. So he would wake up at 6 in the morning, a lot of his stuff was filmed at that time – right when the sun came up, before the business people came around, before the cops would come and kick you out. He would go and film super early.

And I’ll tell you what, Pappalardo’s switch flip over the bump to can was always a real good one. Then I remember cock blocking Wes [Kremer], big flipping the bump to can, because he was on a Zip Zinger. I remember being like, “Dude, you can’t do it on a Zip Zinger bro.” Cock blocked him, but it was gunna go down! And I was like, not gunna let him do it on a Zip Zinger. Me and Wes are cool as shit, but every time I see him I wonder if he’s pissed that I shut him down on that.

Josh: ‘Kalis in Mono’ is widely regarded as one of the first (if not the first) ‘standalone’ video sections, which, intentionally or not, paved the way for the ‘solo video part’ that the internet is filled with today.

Josh: You know what, I think that full length videos haven’t changed at all; I still see them coming out. The problem is in my opinion that there’s too much coming out, via Instagram and all that, that it doesn’t have the impact when the videos do come out. The video comes out, a solo part comes out, whatever it is – there’s only one big platform, and that platform is Thrasher, Transworld, whatever?  Every single one of these platforms, the dudes’ video part comes out and, two hours later, there’s a new video. No-ones given the time to…I don’t know, we used to rewind videos….

Mike: I think it takes a while. A video can come out and, going with Josh’s point, can get overshadowed by whatever. It used to be that, when a video part came out, that was the only thing that people watched for a long time. But now, if something is truly good and meant to be watched over and over again, people still do that; it just takes a little longer for it to be recognised as such.

Josh:  But dude, I mean I’m 40 years old and I’ll still download a video – but I’ll download it in a way where I can slow mo tricks. I’m still doing that on the computer, hitting the arrow like you were hitting the arrow on the remote back in the day. So if I’m doing it at 40, you fucking best believe some kids are doing it too! It’s just Instagram, Youtube, all that shit, it takes away from the impact that full length videos do have.

Mike: I choose not to watch a lot of it, because it’s too much for me, but a lot of it too is that skaters themselves put out stuff that they would have never put out of themselves a generation previously. Now, dudes will film stuff of themselves in a park, all day long every day. That’s not really what…

Josh: I gotta tell you Mike, we were just talking about this; how there’s this whole generation of motherfuckers watching people play video games. They’re watching people play video games and they’re watching people build shit on Minecraft. This whole new generation of kids are watching other people do shit! So yeah, when you watch Mariano, or Appleyard, or whoever putting up slappy grinds, sloppy kickflips  and shit like that, it’s the same mentality of that kid who wants to watch that person play the video game. They just want to see what that person’s doing and how they are as a normal person – it doesn’t matter, Appleyard…I always use Appleyard in interviews, don’t I? He could put himself up playing video games and the kids would be just as stoked. It’s like anything goes right now, your fans are your fans no matter if you’re tre flipping bump to cans or slappy grinding curbs. And you never knew that before because you never got instant feedback, whereas now you get that; “Damn, I only got 500 likes on that shit? I won’t be doing that again.” [laughs].

People are down to watch a video of the Gonz ride his bike around New York for five minutes.

Josh: And I don’t know if the Gonz pays attention to that shit…

Mike: I’m pretty sure he doesn’t. [laughs] Did you watch him caveman that icebox, cooler, whatever the fuck it was? That was amazing. I guess that’s the good thing about all this – that may not have ever even seen the light of day years ago or ended up in the credits section of a Blind video or something. Now, you get to watch that! There are good aspects to it too.

Going back to Love Park, Mike, have you ever seen a photo of Josh that you looked at and thought “damn, I wish I’d shot that”?

Mike: I mean…you mean like a photo that’s been shot, and you’re bitter that it wasn’t you? [laughs]. Probably the switch back tail on Hubba, if I had to pick one. I mean I lived in the city at the time, but he had to do that one with Ballard because he had started to ride for DC and Droors. So if I had to choose one – that would be it.

So to finish off – with the Olympics taking in skateboarding in their next round, do you see skateboarding moving even further away from the plaza vibe?

Josh: I don’t…

Mike: Nor do I…I mean there’s good and bad aspects of it and you have to take the good with the bad, or vice versa. It will shed light on skating, but at the same time people will be in plazas, skate street and not give a shit about all that. I think there will always be those kids out there and I don’t think that will ever change.

Josh: Here’s my thing man; maybe I’m tripping, but I think that there were more skaters that made more good money – pro skaters that made a good, living income – before all that shit even fucking existed. Before Monster and Red Bull and Nike, before that shit was even here and it was just ma and pa skate shops, skaters made better money. Skate shops were thriving better…how long is it gunna take before these motherfuckers figure this shit out? Think about it…

Mike: Well there were fewer skaters too…fewer everything.

Josh: And there were fewer skaters! The hard goods were kicking ass, shoes were kicking ass, you had skaters buying cars and houses – we’re talking the late 90s, early 2000s. Then as soon as the big corporate money came in…how the fuck did that come in? Then the skaters made less money, skateboard companies started going out of business, skate shops started going out of business, what the fuck happened?!

So the  Olympics is coming in, maybe it’s just gunna completely kill a huge side of skating…then real skating can come back, you know?

Mike: Well I do think that there’s a huge group of kids who just won’t be about that, know what I mean? There’s dudes like Wes, Wes will never be in the Olympics [laughs].

Josh: I dunno, Wes could be in the Olympics dude…

Mike: Maybe we can bet on that one right now? I’m pretty sure he will not, I’m pretty sure he’ll be driving his mum’s Volvo still, not wanting anything to do with it.

Josh: Nah, he’s secretly stacking chips! [Laughs]. I mean I’ll watch it for sure…

Mike: Yeah I’ll be watching it just out of curiosity, but I want to see the first fool who walks out in a goddamn uniform, like a Ralph Lauren Olympics uniform!

Blades of Glory, peacock style…

Mike: Exactly, it’s going to be insane!

Josh: We should go and heckle everybody… I just want to go and see who gets kicked out for having weed in their system.

Mike: It’s going to be just two dudes left, competing against each other…

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