The Age of the COVIDeo — An Interview With Jon Colyer About ‘Sanitizer’

Interview by Adam Abada
Original Photos by Jason Miller & Adam Concannon

The COVID age has coincided with a boom in local skate videography. The past year has given us incredible, fully-realized projects from places like Dallas, Pittsburgh, the eastern half of Connecticut — there were two full-length Seattle videos in the same week last year.

It’s not that these places wouldn’t have been producing great videos if not for the pandemic, just that through some combination of unemployment, no travel diluting the local color of the footage, and the time to take second and third looks at spots that have been passed on before gave the last year’s crop of hometown videos a sharper vision than ever before.

Jon Colyer‘s Sanitizer was one of those projects. Portland is a place with no shortage of skateboard mythology — and while there are influences from Dane Brady, Matt Beach, and the D.I.Y. culture that the city is know for, the video felt out of left field, stacked with skaters you likely never heard of, and spots you have never seen.

We had Adam track down its creator to talk about how Sanitizer came to be.

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Can you tell me a bit about your background?

I was born in Sacramento, but raised in a tiny town of about 7,000 people west of Seattle called Poulsbo. It’s on a peninsula separated from Seattle by about a 30-minute ferry ride, so it’s pretty isolated. I started skating around 11, went to high school there, and was one of two people in my entire school who skated. As soon as I could — when I was 17 — I left. I was accepted to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado and moved there for three years. I got a degree in journalism and that’s when I started screwing around with cameras a little bit. I got a VX for the first time at 18, and after college, moved back to Seattle for around five years, and made a couple of videos: Luxury Vehicle in 2015 and Aggressors.

In 2017, I moved to San Francisco for a year-and-a-half, and worked in the Thrasher warehouse for a bit. But that city was just too expensive for me. I decided to bag it and move to Portland in October 2019.

I got a job, got all settled down, and then COVID struck. I got laid off and that’s kind of how Sanitizer came about. Not only did I do a ton of shooting, but I was able to meet a lot of skaters I hadn’t met before.

So it’s very much a product of COVID?

Exactly. I knew this dude Alex Isenberger from North Carolina, and was skating around with him a bit. We shot a few clips during that rainy winter, but by the time winter ended, COVID started, I was laid off and able to shoot every day.

What was your job?

I had a job as an audio/visual technician at a really nice hotel that had just opened in Portland. It opened December 2019, and then closed in March of 2020. I was gonna be operating cameras and studio equipment for meetings. I was super hyped on that and learning. I think it’s still going to be a little while until those in-person meetings start again…

Photo Jason Miller

Why not go back to Seattle when you left Thrasher?

That was also on the table, but I found that living in Portland ended up being really cheap. I was on a sublease, but it turned into a full-time thing that was dirt cheap compared to what I was used to. Seattle is my home and I’ll always love it, but the entire city has really changed a lot in the last few years — even just with the influx of people from Amazon who have moved there. Rent prices have gone up and there’s all this new architecture that has taken up downtown and those zones.

Not too dissimilar from what you were leaving in San Francisco.

Exactly.

Well that leads right into my next question. As someone from the Pacific Northwest, what’s the difference in local scenes like?

Well, at least for me, as far as the Seattle and Portland scenes go — in Seattle there’s basically only one shop. It’s a pretty big city and 35th North is the only shop. 35th Avenue is there as well, but it’s 30 minutes south.

Portland has many skate shops and many skateboarders. I think that the image that is portrayed of the Portland skate scene of being an NHS-Creature-hesh-Burnside skater — that kind of stereotype of what a “Portland skater” is like — couldn’t be further from what it’s like. Those people are here, but mostly all the skaters that I’ve met in Portland over the years have been really interesting people who have a really unique take on street skateboarding. The city attracts people who see things a tiny bit differently, and that’s how you get the Dane Brady’s of the world.

The spots seem like they have a real local’s eye. One of my favorite aspects of skateboarding is imagining the skater’s lives that leads them to find and skate a spot. That’s to say – who picked these spots?

Well, in Portland, everyone has a set of cruiser wheels on them. That’s just a given. I know the ground sucks everywhere that’s not California – it certainly sucks in Seattle — but in Portland, it really sucks. It’s also a super bike-friendly town and everyone who skates tries to skate or bike to get around.

There’s one clip where Aidan grinds up a fence and catapults off it – that spot was there for maybe a couple weeks. I don’t know if a tree fell down on that or somebody rolled by it with their car, but the next time I drove by, it was gone.

Also, for a city of 650,000 people, it’s very small and neighborhood-oriented. The downtown is small and on the west side of the river where my friends and I don’t live. The smaller neighborhoods on the east side are full of spots. Whenever I ask someone if they want to skate, it usually ends up being something they saw on their way to work that morning and were wondering if it was skateable. Oftentimes, it is.

Those are my favorite kind of spots, but they feel hard to get a crew there sometimes. How do you capture that?

Well, it’s definitely COVID-inspired, but also the crew that ended up shooting for this – a lot of them are really good friends and know the whole city. They grew up in and adjacent to it, and have been walking, skating, riding their bikes through Portland for years and years. They know every corner, and no matter what neighborhood or quadrant of the city we were in, we would have something to skate.

How did you find the type of skaters you consider unique?

When I moved to Portland, I moved into a house that was me and two other skaters. Then, the house next to us had three skaters, and the one next to that was a skater. That was six friends right there, and then there’s the video. My friend Trevor, who has some tricks in the last section and rides for the Killing Floor, introduced me to some people. And that’s a cool, local company, so of course that was awesome to be involved in a little bit. They all are cut from the same cloth in how they look at spots. A lot of the time, we’d go look at a spot and I’d have to ask where the spot is.

This question often draws a different answer from people — but why do you make skate videos?

Growing up, I had a sincere interest in punk rock and hardcore, as well as skating. I think the D.I.Y. ethos that comes from there made me want to document some of the amazing skateboarding around me. That led to me buying my first VX and learning how to use it. I saw a bunch of people that I thought were criminally under-filmed and under-represented, and I decided I was going to do it, and taught myself. I don’t think anybody knew the name “Alex Isenberger” – he’s 27 and I don’t think he’s ever had a video part before – but a lot of people were really stoked on him! That wallride nollie to grass ride people were especially hyped on.

I had that in my notes! I definitely flagged a few of the tricks you mentioned. I like that one ride on curb that they were grind-shove-grinding and stuff.

Yeah, that was a new spot someone found, and we were able to go over there and get all these kind of crazy NBDs on.

Photo Adam Concannon

I can see your punk upbringing in this video for sure. Can you tell me about the music?

Some of the stuff had just been in the back of my head. The Zounds song that I used for the intro and Alex’s part, that was something that has been in my head for maybe ten years. I didn’t have the right skater for it. Alex wanted to skate to something really bass-y, and I told him I had a really good punk song for him.

Other skaters had ideas of what they wanted to skate to. Trevor wanted to skate to a female vocalist. I had always really liked that band Hop Along from Philly, and I thought that song would work great in a video. I pitched it to them and they were into it. Some of the music, like the Bobby Hutchinson track, were brought to me by the skaters. And Buzzcocks are classic, you can’t fuck with that.
Is there anything else you wanted to cover?

The clip of my friend Rocco Caravelli…

I have Rocco Caravelli starred in my notes too!

He’s the best. He moved to Mexico during COVID. That clip of him in the gas mask was shot when the air quality index in Portland was like the worst it’s ever been. I cut all these scenes of nature in right before that gas mask clip and I wondered if people would get that it was that bad air day.

Photo Adam Concannon

That’s what I thought was going on. As a 2020 video, I was thinking “Hmm, I wonder what reason to wear a gas mask in public this one was…”

Rocco is pretty special, I think. I also want to shout out to my friend Sean Motagheti and everyone who knew him.

Thanks for mentioning him — do you mind talking a little about that? You opened the video with a memorial to him.

He passed away last July, and was a great friend to a lot of people in the video. I was able to donate some money in his memory through digital download sales. He was a rad skater and used to manage North End skate shop in Lynnwood, Washington.

I appreciate you including it in the video, because I think it’s important to talk about mental health in skateboarding. What are ways you think we, as skateboarders, can help talk about mental health and de-stigmatize these kinds of discussions?

There’s been some pretty disheartening things in skateboarding in the past few years. On a large scale, from Ben Raemers to most recently Henry Gartland, to anyone’s personal things. Personally, I’ve struggled with some pretty serious mental health issues – especially in the last twelve months. I’m grateful to skateboarding for giving me something to focus on, but I really think that there’s no more room for the male bravado of not being open about the things that we’re feeling. We claim to be such a progressive group of individuals, but it seems things like this aren’t even on our agenda.

Having Sean pass in the middle of last year — at the height of COVID, before any vaccine hope or anything — that was pretty eye-opening for me to start taking my own issues more seriously. Luckily, my employer was able to set me up with a therapist, and that was extremely helpful for me in understanding my own issues.

Within skateboarding, we need to find who we can trust, and then talk to them. I try to be there for my friends and let them know they can talk to me. What happened to Sean adds more urgency to do so. I don’t want that to ever happen again.

Photo Jason Miller

I know that’s kind of a more serious note to end this on, but I’m happy you brought it up. It’s important to talk about these things so we can keep moving forward. That said, what’s next for you?

I’ve been skating with some new guys to get some footage for new projects. I can’t really talk about them yet, though. The response to this one has been huge, at least compared to my other videos, so I think I’m going to keep running it.

Before we wrap this up, can I just shout out Black Lives Matter and also the suicide hotline real quick? The phone number is 1-800-273-8255. To anyone reading this who might be dealing with suicidal thoughts or a mental health struggle, I’d urge you to call. Thanks!

John and his friends are currently working on a new project. You can be on the lookout for updates via his Instagram

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