Being Ed Templeton

Being Ed Templeton (5:27)

Ed Templeton seeks to balance a lifetime of skating with an ever-emerging career as an artist (5:27)

Follow Ed Templeton from his house in Huntington Beach, Calif., to nearby Costa Mesa, and accusations that Orange County is a cultural wasteland gain some credence. The roads are all massive boulevards lined on both sides by perfectly planned gated neighborhoods and strip malls filled chock-a-block with nothing but cheap Mexican food, dry cleaners and pawnshops. The median can wall you in for a half-mile before a left turn is allowed, and then always and only at a precise 90 degrees. Just driving around here can be soul-crushing.

Templeton was born and raised within this vast grid and, despite all that's happened in the 36 years since, he refuses to leave. You can argue that he owes his twin careers -- as a skateboard pro approaching legendary status, and as a fine artist with a growing international following -- to this place. You could just as easily argue that he's earned the right to live in a place that better suits his quirky sensibilities, a place that lacks the troubling personal baggage this one carries. Templeton has these arguments with himself all the time. He's still not leaving.

He pulls his Toyota Prius up behind a generic, low-slung warehouse that's surrounded by square miles of other generic, low-slung warehouses and emerges from the car. Flashes of gray in his beard betray his age, and a few extra pounds suggest all the hours he now spends in a studio, but Templeton is otherwise indistinguishable from the teenager who first took to these streets on a skateboard. He takes a board out of the trunk and rolls toward the front door. The muffled sound of urethane and wood colliding with steel and concrete suggests that the place is more interesting than it looks.

"In a lot of ways, I was just a white-trash kid," Templeton says. He's sitting in the living room of a well-appointed five-bedroom house that he shares with his wife Deanna, whom he's been with since they were sophomores in high school. "I lived in a trailer park for a while. My dad beat us, smoked weed, and drank. You'd think I'd naturally become a high school dropout -- which I did -- and work construction or something."

Templeton's father ran off with the babysitter when he was 8 years old. A severe case of chicken pox nearly suffocated his mother when she was young, resulting in a developmental disability that left her with mentality of a teenager. His grandparents stepped in to help raise him and his brother, and in the mid-80s he moved from the poorer inland communities of his youth to the comparably middle-class Huntington Beach.

At the time, the area was a crucible for skating's evolution from the vert era to the street era. Despite being something of a dark age for skating, punctuated by a floundering industry and virtually no support for pros, the future could be glimpsed on Friday nights at Huntington High. Once word spread that cops weren't breaking up what was originally a small session of locals, skaters from across Orange and Los Angeles counties converged. Amid hand-built launch ramps and PVC slider bars, pros making the transition from vert to street melded minds with skating's first post-vert generation.

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Some guys just embody what skateboarding is. … Skateboarding just meant more to him.

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-- Mike Vallely

Templeton made a name for himself at these sessions, often leading his friends beyond the courts to the handrails of the school's outdoor stairways. He wasn't the first skater to ride handrails, but the creative assessment of what was available to ride -- and the single-minded focus to ride it more creatively than anyone else -- were early hallmarks that characterize Templeton's skating to this day.

"Some guys embody what skateboarding is," says Mike Vallely, one of the established pros of the time who skated with Templeton. "I had a big name, but here I was with a guy without a significant sponsor, and he was inspiring me to skate harder. Skateboarding just meant more to him."

More often than not, he wasn't supposed to be there. Templeton was a distracted kid; distracted by the violence endured at the hands of his father, distracted by the emotional challenge of a mother whose maturity level he exceeded at a young age. And distracted by skateboarding, which prevented him from heeding the constant admonishments of his mother and grandparents to focus on school and leave the skateboard behind.

Follow Ed Templeton into a warehouse in Costa Mesa, and accusations that Orange County is a cultural wasteland seem a little specious. The space belongs to Volcom, one of the most successful arbiters of youth culture on the planet, and the entire back of the building is given over to a rough-hewn skatepark that's a not-so-secret spot for pros and in-the-knows on rainy winter days like this one.

There are no pros here today, but you wouldn't know it from the caliber of skating on display. A handful of teenagers are destroying the place with the sort of tricks that make pros nervous. As a skater, these are Templeton's people. As a company owner, they're his customers. As an artist, they're his subjects. But if they recognize that one of street skating's longest-standing pros is among them, they don't acknowledge it.

Templeton hasn't skated in about a week. On balance, over the past year, he's barely skated at all. He recently closed his third show at L.A.'s Roberts & Tilton Gallery: a 250-piece affair that mixed photos and paintings with his first large installations. Despite opening in the throes of the worst art market in decades, he still managed to sell 30 pieces. In a week he'll leave for Antwerp, Belgium, where another show at the Tim Van Laere Gallery will serve as a prelude to his 2010 exhibit at one of Europe's most prestigious modern art museums, Belgium's SMAK.

When a skater puts out more than fifteen film segments in his career, certain tricks just become their tricks. Templeton might not have invented the impossible and the nosebluntslide, but if skateboarding had a will, the tricks would be bequeathed to him. Still, as he tries his first few noseblunts on the warehouse's ledges and parking blocks, he falls. A lot. Templeton is generally relaxed and easygoing, but the bobbled tricks create visible frustration.

"Lately, it's just been logistics," he explains about the lack of skating. "There's always a gallery show, always a painting that needs to get done. I feel like I can't say no to [the art], because it's a future career move. But if I say no to [the skating], it's one more nail in the coffin."

By 1994, Templeton had exceeded all reasonable expectations of what a high school dropout with his background might achieve. He was a dominating presence on the contest circuit, an established member of street skating's vanguard, and the owner of TV Skateboards with Vallely.

"He was in that pantheon stage," says Geoff Rowley, who met Templeton in '94. "He was a god, one of the most creative skateboarders of the time."

But, at 21, Templeton was just getting started. 1994 also saw his first solo show as a painter at New York's Alleged Gallery, which was dedicated to spotlighting street artists a decade before it was fashionable.

Templeton credits his grandmother for making sure his upbringing included regular trips to museums, but it was his first trips to Europe as a sponsored skater in the early '90s that convinced him to begin painting.

"All throughout Europe, public art is really important -- especially where I was growing up around here. There's not a plaza with an interesting statue everywhere you turn. In Europe, it's no big deal to have a whole museum of all the people you read about," he says.

By his own admission, Templeton's early work was unpolished and "naive," but there was a clear artistic identity from the beginning; vivid use of color combined with highly stylized characters that crossed the line from illustration to something more complex. From the beginning, his work had the uneasy feel of the confusing, dangerous terrain between adolescence and adulthood.

1994 was also the year that Templeton began seriously pursuing photography, which required none of the learning curve of his painting. He lived in a world of awkward teenagers who had gone from social outcasts to empowered individuals in breathtakingly short periods of time, all thanks to a skateboard.

"I started shooting the skateboard life because I knew it was interesting outside of skateboarding. This was an inside view of this world, with the money, the touring, the relative fame -- all that stuff shows up in the photographs," he says.

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In a lot of ways, I was just a white-trash kid.

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-- Ed Templeton

The photography is a mashup of Walker Evans' sincerity and Larry Clark's prurient interest, and is ultimately what attracted representation from Roberts & Tilton in 2003. "It's really hard as a photographer to walk into a world and have those people trust you," explains Aaron Rose, the owner of the Alleged Gallery and curator of a street art exhibit, Beautiful Losers, in which Templeton's work was an anchor. "Because Ed was one of them and is one of them, his subjects chill out around him. He's not a voyeur who wants to take pictures of skateboarders. He is a skateboarder."

But while access is obviously a huge part of Templeton's photography, it's far less important than experience. In every image -- whether it's a disturbing display of teen lust, a snapshot of adolescent isolation, or a raw glimpse at America's grim lower middle class -- there's an implicit understanding: he's one of them, too.

Templeton started Toy Machine Blood Sucking Skateboard Company after TV Skateboards ended because, even as an established pro, he was aware of his own shelf life. He figured the company would ensure he'd always be involved with skateboarding even when he could no longer skate. As his art career has taken off and his pro career has leveled off, he's become increasingly obsessed with the possibility that he's milking it: earning a paycheck to skate based on name recognition alone.

When his segment in Toy Machine's "Good & Evil" dropped in 2004, he figured the jig was up. At two and a half minutes, there wasn't one pucker-inducing handrail in it -- just a series of impossibles, nosebluntslides, and other standards cleverly applied to unexpected terrain. But the reaction surprised him: instead of whispers about his age or relevance, the part was hailed by fans and media as a perfect example of why creativity is just as important as balls in contemporary street skating. "Everyone kind of ended up saying, 'You can't milk it, Ed. People like seeing you skate,'" he recalls.

About 30 minutes into the session at Volcom, Templeton finds a groove. He begins to link together tricks -- a front side Smith on a low bank extension to a nosegrind on a flat box to a frontside nosebluntslide on some pool coping. He pushes a few times before popping an impossible to noseslide down an angled parking block. It's not a run that will win contests and it will never see the light of day in a Toy Machine segment, but it doesn't have to.

"Whether he's progressive or impacting in the same way is irrelevant," Vallely says. "The fact that he's doing it is the real story. Guys quit. Guys burn out. Ed is a skateboarder. He always will be. He may be known for his art, but there would be no art without the skateboarding."

The kids sessioning the warehouse may or not they recognize him, or grasp that as skaters they're partially molded in his image, but they begin to notice the crisp style of this guy nearly twenty years their senior. With each landed trick, a hoot comes from one corner of the park, a tail cracked on coping in approval from another.

There are whole cities -- whole continents, even -- where Templeton would be welcomed as skate legend or an artistic genius. But it doesn't matter if he's coming home from art shows at Belgian galleries or the Volcom skatepark, he's going home to his unremarkable, well-appointed five-bedroom home in Huntington Beach that he shares with his high school sweetheart.

"There's a lot of pretense and fake snobbery out there, in the art world especially," Templeton says as sweat drips down his nose and he takes a break to watch the kids skate. "The art-damaged, hipster world with its ultra-coolness -- I'm in that world, but I keep a healthy distance down here. I don't really hang out with artists. I'll take the skater kids any day."

As you watch Ed Templeton blend into a warehouse skate session in Costa Mesa, accusations that Orange County is a cultural wasteland are completely beside the point. Outside lies a vast, sprawling grid that encompasses his past, present and his future. And inside, the place is a lot more interesting than it looks.