A job is like kryptonite to a skateboarder. A normal schedule, conceding to authority figures, responsibility — these bare minimum characteristics of employment are pretty unappealing. Many skaters’ job histories involve quitting abruptly or getting fired hungover. It’s not exactly an activity that promotes “growing up,” at least in the traditional sense.
One of the most commonly asked questions by people on the outside looking into New York skateboarding is “How do you afford to live there?” San Francisco might’ve just knocked us off for highest cost-of-living in America, but surviving here still costs a lot, especially if you’re intent on staying for more than a summer or two. A bit has been written on jobs in skateboarding; there’s less information out there on what type of jobs most skateboarders actually have. For as long as many of my friends have been above adult working age (post-“slumming it out to avoid any semblance of responsibility”-age), a sizable portion of them have worked for set companies.
This may come as a surprise, but a set company makes sets. The background of most ads or commercials you see is fake. Say a fashion company wants to do a photo shoot with a bunch of babes. Some creative director will scream at a bunch of people with MFAs to sketch out a concept for the backdrop. That concept gets given to a set-design company, who in New York, will potentially give it to a responsible skateboarder who they employ, who then, delegates work out to a team of maybe less-responsible-but-still-responsible-enough skateboarders to build out and deliver to the client.
Chances are, when you flip through some magazine and see a Victoria’s Secret or Ralph Lauren ad, the entire background was built by skateboarders you see in videos on the internet. See, it ain’t only Olson and Rieder — skaters come into fashion on all levels fam.
Photo via Dave Dowd
After years of hearing about this industry that employs at least a few people in every skate crew throughout the city (“can’t skate for three weeks, I’m on a job”), it made sense to shine a light on it. We asked Lurker Lou, a decade-plus-long set-builder / C.E.O. of Iron Claw Skates, Fred Gall, a freelance refugee in the set-building industry / Governor of New Jersey, and Paul Coots, a project manager at Ready Set who’s been able to help many skaters keep money in their pocket — about why the hell every skater works for a set-design company.
Lou: Back in maybe 2003, I was filming with Joe Boulliot for Vicious Cycle, and he had a friend with a set company. He’s one of those dudes that everyone knows. It’s a very “Hey, I need somebody real quick for this, I need somebody just for today”-type of job, so that came into play.
Fred: Boulliot definitely put a lot of people on. I had been filming with him for a while, so he became my go-to when skateboarding pretty much stopped paying me. I knew it would happen one day, but it was a pretty harsh reality check. For the first year I was working, I was fucked — completely winging it. I pretty much didn’t work my whole life, and all of a sudden, the checks stopped coming in. You gotta figure out something real quick.
Paul: I think a lot of skateboarders got really excited when they were younger. They either didn’t care about school, or moved somewhere and ended up piling out. When I moved to New York, I didn’t know what I was doing. I just met a dude at the skatepark who was like, “Hey, you know how to swing a hammer?” and ended up getting a job. I moved up and got a position where I can help other dudes like that get jobs.
Lou: At that time, a lot of skaters were moving to New York, and stuck working really shitty jobs. A lot of people were thirsty to work. Those Dobbin Block dudes were folding t-shirts all night at Abercrombie. When you have a chance to ditch that so you can work on a Vogue shoot with creative people, it’s a pretty easy decision to make. Most skaters are pretty good with their hands — not all of them — but when you’re a kid, you’re building ramps, boxes, putting weird shit together. Making something out of junk. That’s pretty much what set building is. Temporary objects that don’t need to be held together very long.
Paul: It’s almost weird going to a fashion shoot with creative directors and all these professional people. You’re obviously supposed to be there and all — but you’re working with a bunch of dudes who you skate with. It has crazy hours, and clients call randomly in the middle of the night demanding crazy things.
Fred: The work is pretty ballbusting, but it’s common sense. Anyone could figure it out. It pays pretty well, and you make a lot of connections working there. There’s a skater working at every set company. Pretty much everyone I know around here works for one.
Lou: The schedule is so good if you’re a skater. “I worked two weeks straight, now I have three weeks off.” When you hit your mid-twenties, you get sick of skateboarding every day after a while. When you’re away from it for a week or two weeks, you appreciate it so much more once you’re back skating. And best of all, you have a shitload of money in your pocket and you can buy whatever. You can afford a moderate apartment if you want, or get drunk all your nights off, whatever you want to do. You can live pretty comfortably with that job. It’s better than being a bartender. You’re not up until 5 A.M. every night and fucked every next day.
Photo via Dave Dowd
Paul: Andrew Wilson needed work and I hooked him up, but I told him right when he came in, you could get wrapped up in this job and be working 100 hour weeks. Dudes who are doing the skate thing to whatever extent they may be doing it gotta be honest about how much they’re trying to work. Some guys are still sponsored and go on trips. I’d rather see all these dudes out skating than stuck in the shop. It’s the sort of job that’s beneficial to dudes still trying to skate as much as they can. The work is steady but you can walk away when you need to. There are dudes who are still pro working for set companies, but for the most part, the people who work that sort of job skate on their days off.
Lou: I’ve seen some weird shit. Like, after Heath Kirchart retired and rode his bicycle across country or whatever, I saw him loading out 4 x 8 sheets of plywood at some studio. Like, “Heath Kirchart? What the fuck is going on?” You see the funniest people on those jobs.
The funniest thing ever was for a Dolce & Gabbana shoot, they wanted a leopard on set. They have two guys drive it all the way up from Florida. It’s late, and you can overhear people on the phone, like “What’s the ETA on the leopard? The leopard is in the Holland Tunnel!” It gets there, and everyone at the company is like, “Oh, it’s not a black-spotted leopard? We wanted a black-spotted leopard!”
They bring it on set, and the thing has a meltdown in its cage. The trainers were terrified, with like two chains around its neck trying to calm it down. Then they go, “The leopard isn’t working out, we need a stuffed leopard.” They get not even a taxidermic leopard — they get a stuffed leopard from like one of those booths you win shit from at the county fair and ask me to spraypaint it black. Then they go, “The leopard is not working out.” They just sent this leopard 18 hours back south right after it showed up. “No, we don’t really want this leopard anymore.”
Thanks to the support of Levi’s Skateboarding, we were able to secure some funds to put on a contest between two of the bigger shops / skater employers in New York: Pink Sparrow and Ready Set. Each crew puts a video together of them only skating inside their respective shops, and they get put to a reader vote. Winner gets
millions thousands of dollars. Check back Friday ;)