Guardian Angels — An Interview With John Petras

Intro & Interview by Adam Abada
Photos by Bradley Culebro & John Petras

At their best, skate videos use their subjects – namely, the skaters and the spots they skate – to blend the narratives of place and character into a cohesive whole. When this happens, you get a special product that recalls the intangible things we love about skating. John Petras‘ new Pittsburgh video, Celine, does just that.

In the height differential of a high-to-low ledge on a crusty Pittsburgh hill, I can sense the city-wide spot survey that led to this one’s constant reuse. In the high-contrast, black-and-orange-lit night footage at the Museum of Natural History, I can nearly see the frayed edges of a Toyota Yaris’ cloth seats and smell the stale spliff smoke from the half-day commute on I-80. The interim vignettes – gentle hugging of friends in quiet moments and the repeated handing off of a flower – drew me into the skaters’ world in unexpected ways. John Petras seems to have pulled off the difficult trick of imbuing Celine with a personal voice and a representative view of a city.

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I’m from New Jersey and though I’ve taken many trips to the Midwest on I-80, I’ve never taken the slight detour to Pittsburgh and have no personal experience with it. How would you describe it?

Pittsburgh and the region around it – everyone in this area seems to be stuck in the early 2000s. It’s kind of sick. People drink their beer and eat their greasy food. Your “rust” and your “crust” are certainly here. I think sports are what make Pittsburgh for people outside of the area. The Penguins, Pirates, Steelers…people seem to know Pittsburgh as the “sports city.”

Are you from Pittsburgh?

No, I was born in Moscow, Russia. My sister and I were adopted and moved here in 2001 when I was four. I grew up about ten miles outside the city. My life was very normal, if not spoiled, and my parents were super caring. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the best health. My dad was paralyzed and had some other health issues, so my mom raised my sister and I, as well as took care of him. She passed away when I was 17. After that, I was a very mentally unhealthy kid. I was doing every drug I could get to numb the pain and that led me to suicidal thoughts.

How did you get out of that thought cycle? How did you come about skating in the sports city?

I didn’t start skating until about three years ago. I grew up in the South Hills and went to a kind of preppy school with people from there. After my mom passed away, I was getting into trouble left and right. I also knew I was gay for a very long time and was in the closet. And I was an “adoptee” – an adopted kid. I was dealing with all that. I was surrounded by a bunch of old Catholic Yinzers. It didn’t feel like a very accepting environment.

Finally, I moved to the city of Pittsburgh. I got a lease right next to OneUp Skate Shop, not knowing anything about them. I snowboarded as a kid and started going to the skate shop every day. I was always attracted to the job of filming, so I saved up my money and bought an HVX200. I didn’t even know how to use the camera or have anyone to skate with. I just thought it was sexy.

“Those guys make Pittsburgh look the way it should look. They’ll pull a fridge out of an abandoned house and skate it.”

Was that before you were skating?

Yeah, kind of. I like, “skated,” but didn’t know what a skate sesh or filming was, you know? Probably like two years later, I had enough footage on Instagram where people trusted hitting me up to film. I’d never done a video or anything. In the beginning of 2019, I started really working with two guys – JTH, who has the ender, and my friend Ray. I started going out with them a lot. I had no theme or aesthetic, just five minutes each of these two dudes. Last year, I made some new friends from the east coast – Bradley from New York, Connor from Connecticut, Elias. I got lucky and would go to wherever they were to film them so they could be in the project. I filmed for two-and-a-half years, but all the footage in the final video is from the previous eight months.

Connor Noll • Photo by John Petras

And you did come up with an aesthetic. Can you tell me about the guardian angels theme?

It all started junior year of high school, right before my mom passed away. I started waking up in the middle of the night. Consistently, I’d see that the time was exactly 3:11 or 2:11, always something :11. So I used to reflect and to ask myself questions: “Are you on the right path?” These recurrences happened so consistently that I would get chilled. I did some research and found out these are called “angel numbers,” and signify a guardian angel is watching you and trying to direct you on the right path. About a week before I made the video, I brought that idea into it. At first, I thought the angel theme was too much and kinda corny. I’m not religious in any way, but I thought maybe with all the fucking shit going on, maybe 2021 needed it. Maybe I could pull it off.

Is Celine a guardian angel?

No. We were trying to figure out what to call the video and I thought a French girl’s name would be hot and cool. Ray suggested “Celine,” which he said means “heavenly” and “angelic.” JTH and Ray were hyped on the “heavenly” part and I was hyped on the “angelic” part.

Four months later, we still don’t know what to call it. We were leaving a filming trip in New York – the one JTH did that tailslide 270 flip [at Pyramid Ledges] on – to head back to Pittsburgh. Our last stop is a bodega for an egg sandwich, and when I’m walking out, a giant bus is parked next to my car with an ad for that brand Celine on it. That was it.

“I always keep asking myself, ‘How am I gonna capture Pittsburgh without biting their shit and make it mine and Yinzer like?'”

How has Pittsburgh helped shape your skating and who you are?

The scene here comes from Brandon and OneUp skateshop. If that shop wasn’t here, there would be no Celine. He’s down to help out any skateboarder in the community with what they want to accomplish.

Also, all the older FUCK YINZ dudes – Nick Panza, Zach Funk, Austin Kanfoush! If you see Pittsburgh footage, you should know who I’m talking about.

When I first approached one of the crusty spot sessions they were on, they looked way too intimidating – just like their footage. That shit was raw and rusty and just ratty in the most Pittsburgh way. Those guys make Pittsburgh look the way it should look. They’ll pull a fridge out of an abandoned house and skate it. They live off that. They’re why people like you think Pittsburgh is cool.

I look up to them very much. I always keep asking myself, “How am I gonna capture Pittsburgh without biting their shit and make it mine and Yinzer like?”

What makes you want to stay in Pittsburgh?

The best thing about Pittsburgh is that it’s so cheap to live here. I pay $200 for my room. Dope crib — I got a deck. On top of that, it’s five hours to get to New York. Philly is three. We’ve got D.C., Baltimore. Detroit. Chicago. Everything is so accessible from Pittsburgh. Do I want to move to New York and pay $1500 for my shitty room and have no spending money? Or I could just live in Pittsburgh, pay stupid cheap rent, have a shop that’s so supportive, and drive my car to all these other places.

Photo by John Petras

Do you mind if I ask you about your sexuality, since you mentioned it as part of your story? Given that the video was all shot in the last year, which is also the year you came out as gay, are there any connections when it comes to your identity in skateboarding and sexuality?

The connection is there. With skateboarding – after being involved in it for a while, and seeing the community on Instagram and other skaters come out – I realized what an accepting community it is. Growing up in Pittsburgh – well, let’s just say it’s not the best place for being in the closet.

After I was working with people in skating who have the right mindset, I finally thought maybe they wouldn’t look at me differently. The community was really so amazing, if anything they respected me more. If it wasn’t for skating and this community, I’d probably still be in the closet. The friends I did have before skating just played XBox every day, and looked forward to going to the bar on the weekends. Those people are still just super judgemental assholes. Skateboarding showed me that you can just care for yourself and care for others. Now, I can open up and talk about it. I’m so happy I’m gay. I get to meet so many different kinds of people.

“If it wasn’t for skating and this community, I’d probably still be in the closet.”

Have you connected with any other skateboarders who identify as gay or shared experiences with them?

I have met a few skateboarders in Pittsburgh who identify as gay. They’ve come up to me and reassured me. A lot of people have asked me if I feel better about myself. The answer for me is: yes! Sometimes, it’s people I don’t really have a relationship with, but Pittsburgh is a small community. There’s a girl Amber who identifies as gay, and talked to me about her experience coming out, which was similar. She was super supportive and knowledgable.

But I’m not sure I have that unique of an experience. I’ve created a little bit of a name for myself here, so I think I’m seen as a “cool gay skateboarder.” My biggest concern in coming out was that I was worried people would look at me or talk to me differently. That didn’t happen.

You being your true self can be helpful for more people than you know. Do you think about how sexuality is considered in skating?

I think as skateboarders, we’re very observant. We look at every crack in the world. We look at who’s wearing what pants. Sexuality doesn’t escape this; it plays a big role in what we’re thinking in skating. We’re maybe getting to the point now where it’s cool to be yourself or it’s cool to be “weird” or “a freak.” There’s maybe a less judgemental mindset.

In my community, at the end of the day, if you’re a caring person and trying to be a good person and yourself, that’s what we care about. Also, social media played a big part in my coming out. If I didn’t see some of my role models in the industry come out and how accepting the community was, I don’t know if I would have. I realized I don’t have to hide myself.

Photo by Bradley Culebro

If you’re willing, can I ask you what your experience has been like with depression in skating? It’s a personal, difficult topic but I feel it’s important to mention.

I agree. 100%. Unfortunately, there have been situations in skating recently that are waking people up to check on your friends. We need more consistency in checking up on people, at least our close loved ones. I still deal with depression.

What keeps me sane now is having a project to look forward to. It’s important for me to set goals for myself and surround myself with a productive atmosphere. Before skateboarding, I just went to high school and played video games and “had fun.” Next thing I knew, I was in a hospital because I was trying to kill myself. It got out of hand. Luckily, I was able to find a passion that made me hungry.

I was going down a very bad path before filming, skating and working toward something. Having passion for something to honestly focus on and work hard at helped me. Once I stepped into that door – into that Narnia – and experienced what was out in the world, it opened up for me.

“I was editing, got some goosebumps and it felt right.”

This is a difficult question that I’m not sure of the right answer myself: In skateboarding, do you think we’re doing enough in discussing depression?

That’s a complex question, holy shit. It’s hard to say. I don’t know what “enough” is. I don’t know where the finish line to truly make a change is. It sucks that people harm themselves from depression, and then we have awareness around it, and then it fades out, and we don’t see it on the page anymore. There’s so many people in the world. There’s so many friends left and right, and you don’t truly know who’s upset. We have hotlines and things set up, but we need to figure out more. Everyone’s shoes are so different. People won’t understand my depression, but I won’t understand theirs. Reaching out is the start.

I think you being open about it is helpful. And, while you’re not directly addressing it in your video, making that helps too. At the same time as it’s a contemporary view of skating in Pittsburgh, Celine feels personal. It has a strong viewpoint. You use some reflective editing techniques that hint at cycles. You’re directly talking about guardian angels, and ending with an R.I.P. to your mom, Martha. Were you trying to balance these things?

I read once that up-and-down emotions give humans traction. In a movie, a book, a song, it’s all about the rollercoaster and up-and-down of emotions. I wanted to use that technique in the video, which ended up making it a bit emotional. I was worried about including those things you mention; I thought it would be corny to a lot of people. I spent hours and hours and hours editing – there’s all these other versions of Celine. I thought I was done so many times but wasn’t.

At the end of the day, I got lucky and it all worked together. I was editing, got some goosebumps and it felt right. I decided to say “fuck it, I don’t care if people think this is corny.” You’re seeing me, in a way, when you watch it.

Photo by Bradley Culebro

That resonates. It’s an opportunity for expression that we picked up on, so I’m here asking you for more of it.

Once I saw I had this interview opportunity, I wanted to make it was not just about me and the video. I wanted to use it to help other people. I wanted to include my sexuality in it. I had a huge change in my life in the last two-to-three years and it was honestly because of skateboarding. I want to help to inspire others.

What’s your next move?

Well, last year I had a modeling gig in Palm Springs that led me to being signed to an agency.

Haha, yo. I was not expecting that.

I just did a Burberry shoot with a photographer who wants me to go to Europe for a bit. I’m into movies as well – that’s the reason I made Celine so emotional. There’s a lot I want to do, it’s not just skateboarding. My next move is to see what’s out there. Being my true self has got me my friends, my skateboarding connections, the energy. I just gotta keep doing that and working hard. Who knows what will happen, life’s crazy. I have ups and downs, but I try to deal with the downs in the best way I can. Timing has been everything for me, so – right place, right time.

10 Comments

  1. Great stuff, Quartersnacks!
    Thanks for shining some light on issues in skateboarding that truly inspires and matters.

  2. Dope video and article. 200 bucks a month is fucking great. Might just fuck around and visit Pittsburgh

  3. Loved the video, tons of personality and style. It’s awesome to think that skating is in a place where this video and Godspeed can come out within a few months of each other. The future’s in good hands


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