Inside Tony Hawk and Vans' Quest to Revive Big Vert Skating

Two enduring skateboarding icons have teamed up to return Big Vert events to their former glory

May 21, 2020 9:03 am
Tony Hawk wears Vans sneakers, rides a skateboard down a hill, and waves
How did Tony Hawk become the king of skateboarding? It's gotta be the shoes
James Kerr

I’m a Southern California native who grew up at the epicenter of ’80s skateboarding culture — a time when old school was new and radical was a fitting description for pretty much everything. I rode Powell & Peralta skateboards complete with rails, nose guards, skid plates and copers. (Remember The Bird? I had that too.) I wore vibrant collared T-shirts, undersized corduroy shorts and a pair of Vans. Each day after school, I would join the ranks of our neighborhood’s teenagers of ill repute and skate on a self-made mini-ramp. We would crank British punk rock, drink Jolt Cola and get radical in emulation of our skateboarding heroes — Lance Mountain, Steve Caballero, Christian Hosoi and Tony Hawk. 

Through the ’90s, most of skateboarding’s popularity followed the skaters who took to the streets, but my loyalty remained with the halfpipe legends of my formative years. I’ll never forget the ineffable feeling I felt while watching Hawk land the first ever 900 in competition. For many including myself, there was no more-iconic skateboarder in the world. The Birdman and company pioneered the possibility of a career riding skateboards. They also influenced my fashion choices, including the only one that survived beyond the ’80s: Vans shoes. The fact that both Hawk and Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High both chose Vans Slip-ons, well, my footwear choice felt supremely validated — in fact, I still rock them today.

Fast-forward to 2020 and skateboarding is on the verge of making its inaugural appearance as an Olympic discipline. Both Hawk and Vans have remained consistently powerful brands in the world of skateboarding, but never had an official deal in place — until now. It’s no surprise that my inner-’80s adolescent got a full-on chubby when I heard news that the two had just announced a new global brand partnership in order to share their strengths and continue to grow skateboarding in communities worldwide. “I’ve always respected how Vans has upheld the integrity of skateboarding,” Hawk tells InsideHook. “Vans never devalued skateboarding, even with massive success. And you can’t really say that about any company that has its roots in skating.”

Hawk is currently isolating and social distancing at home and on his ramp in Southern California. “This is definitely the longest stretch I’ve been home in 15 years,” he says. “I’m usually on the road or there is at least a weekend trip for a demo or an event in L.A., but it’s totally different now. I’ve been skating almost every day and playing video games with my daughter and my wife — she’s into VR and has pulled me into a couple of VR video games recently.” (For our VR geeks, I asked Hawk’s wife Catherine which VR games they’ve been playing, and she gave me an extensive list that included Techno Lust, Paranormal Activity, Arktika and Red Matter.)

James Kerr for InsideHook

As we dive into the new Vans partnership, Hawk is elated to share his thoughts about their first giveback initiative — “Foot the Bill.” Essentially, Vans is giving up to $4 million in net proceeds from Vans custom shoes back to the skate shops that are suffering during this challenging time. “I chose Carlsbad Pipelines, my first skate-shop sponsor, as my recipient,” says Hawk. “People can buy a pair of custom Vans with a photo of me on them and support the local shop.” 

For Hawk, the new brand partnership feels natural. “I wore Vans as a kid up until Airwalk was created,” he says. He scored his first pair of Vans in the late ’70s after seeing a full-page ad in Thrasher featuring Jerry Valdez skating a pool with an assortment of Vans shoes spread along the coping. “I saw the ad and I just had to have Vans. They were low-tops, because they didn’t have high-tops yet,” recalls Hawk. “But the ad also announced a new ankle-guard accessory that basically amounted to creating your own high-top. I asked my dad for those as well.” 

This brand partnership is a big deal, since neither Hawk nor Vans relies on the other for credibility or success. So why partner up? 

“I think it represents a way to work together and promote skateboarding to a larger audience,” Hawk explains. “It’s more about combining our strengths and sharing our audiences to put out the same message — to help skateboarding as a lifestyle and activity that people will gravitate towards.” Hawk will help promote Vans’ global brand platforms, including his colorful commentary in the Vans Park Series competitions. 

But what’s really seductive about their deal is the promise of a new vert skateboarding competition. According to Hawk, vert skating has become a bit of an underdog despite its attachment to the sport’s founders. “I don’t want to say that it’s been forgotten, but it’s definitely become underappreciated, in part because of all of the recent hype on park skating and it being a discipline in the Olympics now,” Hawk tells InsideHook. “But when you really look at the details or technical aspects of what is happening between vert skating and park skating, there is really no comparison. Not to dismiss park skating, but the tricks happening are just basic vert tricks. Of course, it’s difficult and there is challenging terrain that can be used in unique ways, and I appreciate those elements. But the fact that there are only one or two vert contests a year is really disheartening, since the tricks happening in vert skating are way more technical and progressive.”

Currently, the only vert competitions happening are held at X Games with a select few skaters and a specific format. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Hawk says. “We just need more quality vert-skating competitions. We need to invite the best skaters and host a structured format with elements of the fun kind of chaos that comes with a best trick event and different categories for the skaters — masters, legends, pros.”

My fondest memories of vert skating came from attending Tony Hawk’s Boom Boom HuckJam, which began back in 2002. The show was a raw and fun display of some of skating’s top vert guys soaring high above the ramp. If these new Hawk-Vans events represent any sort of manifestation of those epic tours, we are in for a real treat. In my opinion, they represent a beacon of hope for all vert skating and potentially the catalyst for its appearance in future Olympic games. 

I ask Hawk if he was hopeful to see vert skating as an event in the Olympics. “That would be good. But honestly, I just want to see more events,” he replies. “One Olympic event every four years is not very enticing to me. I think there should be at least three or four landmark vert competitions throughout the year, because the skateboarders who are focusing all of their efforts toward vert are incredible. And when they do get any kind of coverage in the skateboard media world, the core audiences are blown away, because they don’t even realize what’s happening. So it’s really about increasing exposure and awareness. Vans is willing to do that with me.”

While no details on the vert events have been officially released, Hawk assured me that the programming is well underway. “The original plan was to hold our inaugural event at this year’s Vans Parks Series finals,” he says. “Everything has shifted now, so we aren’t certain of the date. But we are definitely moving forward. We had a crew from Vans at my ramp last week trying to figure out the best way to put up the ramp. So it’s all moving forward, we just aren’t sure of the dates yet.”

One thing is certain — this is the beginning of what will likely be a longstanding partnership for the betterment of all skateboarding. “Vans has supported skateboarding since the very beginning, and never wavered in its commitment, even with massive mainstream success,” says Hawk. “I have always respected their integrity, so it is an honor to officially join forces and help continue to grow skateboarding culture in the most authentic way possible.”

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