Purple Magazine
— S/S 2009 issue 11

Mark Gonzales

MARK GONZALES, legendary skateboarder and artist
photographed by ARI MARCOPOULOS 
text by JEFF RIAN


RADICAL and ELEGANCE are two words that are difficult to use together in any context. Yet they describe Mark “Gonz” Gonzales’s style of just about everything he does —
be it as a master street skater, a professional skateboard producer, or a recognized visual artist.

Watching Gonzales skate is like watching a well-trained dancer. But what he’s known for is street skating, not choreography. In this he performs the impossible, gliding across the concrete and metal geometries of urban sprawl with the practiced nonchalance of a person who has put in the requisite 10,000 hours needed to integrate a skill into one’s genetic apparatus — and then some. Known for his famous “Gonz Gap,” in which he “ollied” (popped the board into the air, the hero on his truckboard) across a disproportionately large airspace at Embarcadero, a vast organized environment of concrete and railings in San Francisco. Gonzales has consistently pushed the limits of street skating, of which he is The Master, jumping over moving cars, grinding down on one railing and ollieing up to another, and generally doing tricks that the pseudo-surfer’s terminology describes as a world and a language unto itself: surfing the agglomerated hardness of the urban environment. His world of street skating says a lot about his radical independence. If surfing is an escape into the salty seas, then street skating is like streaking almost naked through a car-world.

There’s a video of Mark all in white, skating in an exhibition gallery, gliding up and down ramps, stairs, and walls like he’s been choreographed by Merce Cunningham, i.e., given direction but not specificity. He’s graceful as a panther and just about as indifferent to the world outside his wheeling concentration — somewhat like Michael Jordan is with a basketball, free and fearless, at one with his art, a veteran of the surprise gesture. Yes, with Gonzales skateboarding truly is an art, a skill as non-saleable as hula hooping or arm wrestling, ideal for an independent spirit — or maybe for someone never quite in sync with standard curriculae. Or, as he has said, maybe it’s just a kid’s way of escaping boredom. 

Skateboarding is a skill that certain kinds of boys — and girls — dick around with, but few take it further than a ride in the neighborhood. Fewer will master it, and barely a handful can turn it into an art. Gonzales is notable for such singularity. But is it a sport or something only playfully game-like, one of those human activities that even Ludwig Wittgenstein had to admit defy categorical specificity and lack a reason for existence? After all, there are no Olympic skateboarders, no schools for skateboarding. And what parent wants his kid to devote his or herself to such a distraction? (Maybe that’s the right word for it.) Gonzales markets his own skateboards and has shoe sponsors, so obviously his name is heard and seen beyond the underground rumors that saturate the skating scene. But as noted, his natural physical élan, his grace, and his perfected elegance connect to the kind of radicalism the world associates with idiosyncratic artists, hermits, shamans, and even bums. Like those musicians who are so absorbed in their art that they can’t think about things like roots or security, Gonzales dreams his way through life. He’s known to travel light — once on a two-week trip to Europe he took only a brown paper shopping bag — and for his hygienic concerns, including the wearing of white gardener’s gloves. He’s given expensive items to bums.

He’s trashed exorbitantly expensive slip-on shoes in order to feel lighter in his normal skating shoes. But also, and this is a big “also,” he’s a visual artist who shows his work in what some of us in the business describe as top-drawer contemporary galleries, like Deitch Projects, for one. This is where the elegance is refined and where his radical independence, which of course lies at the heart of the skateboarding culture, further validates his particular artistic talent.

Anyone deeply involved in art knows that certain things cannot be learned or taught. One of those things is an aesthetic sensibility. No matter how many years a person may have spent at art school, this is one of those possessions one has to arrive with. A sense of taste and of order requires a specific kind of cultural inheritance and Mark Gonzales has it in spades. He has style in everything he does — skating, art, and his way of life. That’s one of the reasons that his kind of fearless skating stops people in their tracks: he’s more than just another rad dude ollieing, 50-50ing, 5-50ing, or skating goofy. It’s also why his visual art is unique and showable to art snobs, and why his singularity is, in essence, radical and elegant: he adds an aesthetic ingredient that is visible in his overall style.

We photographed him the only way he’s ever been photographed, on his terms, relaxed, outgoing, and generous. And full of surprises — how about the time he was invited to meet Adidas stockholders and skated out on stage with a tennis star on his shoulders? The sponsors lost it, thinking he’d crash and wreck their trophies, which, of course, he didn’t. Somehow, aesthetically, he won’t allow disaster to happen. One can only wonder what kind of crashes he endured to get this far. No one can teach you this kind of exceptionalism, it’s just got to be in you. As it in Mark Gonzales.

Heathermary Jackson, stylist — Alexandra Birchall-White, stylist’s assistant — Behati Prinsloo, model — Romy Soulinen @ MANAGEMENT ARTISTS, make-up — Holly Smith @ COMMUNITY NYC, hair — Barbara Pfister, casting


[Table of contents]

S/S 2009 issue 11

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