Bryce Kanights: Decades Deep

The history of skateboarding in San Francisco continues to evolve. Up until about three years ago, skate photographer Bryce Kanights lived here for 43 years, from the meager beginnings of the SF skate scene, through "Sick Boys," the early years of sponsored skateboarding, the late '80s, early '90s street takeover, the rise of EMB and the early years of Thrasher. As he transitioned from sponsored skater to photographer, he saw locals and transplants alike get into the ever-changing SF scene. As a sort of compendium to his photo gallery of San Francisco, Kanights talks about skating from the early years through today.

What was the scene like when you were younger?
The scene was really small. There were like 20 of us who skated in SF with two skate shops in town. We were more influenced by the older guys on the Santa Cruz and Alot-a-flex teams who lived in Santa Cruz and Berkeley. That was Tony and Tommy's first sponsor — the Guerrero brothers. They lived in the Avenues and I lived centrally located to the city in Eureka Valley which is now known as the Castro District. We were too young to drive around, so skateboards were a way to get around the city. Over the months and years, we formed a community and built ramps in our backyards. Downtown, we'd ride China Banks ... the Pac Bell building on 2nd street had banks in front of it. Later on, we started to get little sponsorships from shops and stuff like that.

What year did it start feeling like a cohesive scene?
I'd say 1983. Skateboarding was growing and Thrasher magazine was around. TransWorld [Skateboarding] came around in the middle of '83. We started to have contests up and down the coasts. By '84, there was recognizable push for skateboarding. That was when Tommy got sponsored for Madrid Skateboards. I was on Madrid right when he left for Powell-Peralta. We were winning amateur contests and skating Joe Lope's backyard ramp regularly in San Leandro — that was where Thrasher put on the first Pro Ramp Jam. San Jose had its skate scene. Caballero had his own backyard ramp. We used to have these street style events. They weren't contests ... everyone just brought their jump ramps, rails, curbs and crews to a school and just had a skate jam. We just made our own scene. There was no one doing it for us.

Then, '88 was when "Sick Boys" came out, right?
'87, actually. We were filming and this guy Mike McEntire, who was a surfer, befriended me. He skated a little bit and he had this Super 8 camera with a fisheye on it and he wanted to follow us around and film.

Whenever we got together on skate sessions, he'd come on over and we'd skate. He didn't even tell us that he was working on a film or anything. It all happened organically and then at the end, he said he wanted to put the footage out on VHS, which was huge back then. But, the only person who really had a part was Natas [Kaupas], because he went down to LA to film with him and accumulate so much great footage at the time.

It's basically a montage until the end, right?
Yeah, totally. From there he [Mike McEntire] ended up doing H-Street's "Hokus Pokus." Through those two videos, he became good friends with Noah Salasnek and that's how Mack Dawg launched into the snowboard world very early on. He created a whole career and company that originated out of skateboarding.

What memories stand out from the filming of "Sick Boys?"
Really, just Natas would come up to SF and we'd go down to Santa Monica to skate with him as well. We formed good friendships skating new spots and meeting lots of other people out there doing there thing as well.

That was filmed before Natas kind of blew up, right?
Yeah, he hadn't yet. That was the first glimpse of Natas' abilities — the Santa Cruz videos still hadn't come out.

At the time when "Sick Boys" came out, there were the Powell videos and a few contest videos, like the Vision videos for Skate Escape, but there weren't many videos produced touting, "This is our team ... this is our video promoting our brand." After "Sick Boys," there were a lot of videos, like "Shackle Me Not" ... street skating really changed in '88, '89 and took vert over. By 1990, vert was pretty much dead.

We were discovering new spots daily in SF. We never had to leave the city at that point. We didn't go to Berkeley, venture out to San Jose...we skated downtown SF. It was free of skate stoppers, free of security guards. We could just skate anywhere without driving — it was like a big skatepark. And, I remember going to NYC in 1989 and they had the same exact thing going on. These hot beds of activity were happening in different urban areas, like ATL, Miami — everyone had their little area. It was really cool.

Who stood out to you at that time?
Well, obviously, Natas, Julien Stranger, Tommy, Mike Archimedes, Ron Allen, Jim Thiebaud. On the ramps , we had Joe Lopes, Jeff Hedges, John Insco, Chris Cook, Don Fisher, Ken Takeda, Livmo Joe ...there were guys that definitely didn't skate street that much. You either only rode the vert ramp or you did both, at the time. Sam Cunningham, Ricky Windsor ... there were so many guys that skated everything. If you were a street skater then, you actually skated everything.

You did the voiceovers for that video, right?
Yeah, there were only a thousand copies made. The first 500 copies — Mack Dawg [Mike McEntire] did all the voiceovers. Then, we did a second issue with me and Mike Archimedes. I sat in the studio with him, we smoked a joint, had two bottles of wine and did the whole thing in one take. We didn't stop the tape once. We never really pre-planned anything at that time. It just sort of happened. It was skateboarding ... we did it on our own.

Were you taking pictures during that time?
Yeah, I started taking photos in 1980. Prior to that, I used to assist the photographer Ted Terrebonne, who was a photographer for Skateboarder back in the late '70s. We used to catch a ride with him to Winchester skatepark in San Jose. I was a little kid and I used to hold his flashes and such between skating the park. So, I had an interest in photography at that point. I followed the photos published in the mags, and I was influenced by Craig Stecyk, James Cassimus and Ted's work. In 1980, my dad got me a used Nikon F camera and I started shooting. Anywhere we went skateboarding, the camera came along. I've documented my life since 1980. During the time we were filming "Sick Boys," the camera was with me. Sometimes I'd shoot, sometimes I'd just skate.

When did it start turning into more of a job?
Once I started working at Thrasher magazine, in summer of '83, I started shooting and learning more and more through Kevin Thatcher and Mofo alongside working in the darkroom and sweeping floors at the mag. Those guys showed me the ropes. I really got into it in the mid 80s, I guess. When I was a professional skater, I worked at Thrasher magazine. You didn't make much money back then as a sponsored skater. I sold a lot of skateboards, but we didn't have a lot of the soft goods endorsements then. I was the first sponsored skater for Billabong...I got paid a hundred bucks a month, you know? That's what it was back then. They sent me to Tahiti to do a demo — I got some good travel out of it. You weren't making boat loads of money to buy a house or anything. My income was more from Thrasher and skateboarding board sales were good, but they were a supplement at the time.

From the late '80s until now, how would you describe the different eras of SF?

Well, there was our generation ... we were the, I don't know, I'd say the foundation of skateboarding in SF. Then, as spots started getting shut down, EMB became the skate hub by proximity. The features that it had and the Gonz gap, the C block, the big 3 and such made it a great place to skate on a regular basis. Skaters came from all over the Bay area, even the world, to skate EMB. At that time, Mike Carroll, Rick Ibaseta, Jovantae Turner, Lavar McBride, Henry Sanchez, Mike York, Sam Smyth—the list goes on and on—were coming in after us. And, they were taking skateboarding to another level. They were doing kickflips, heelflips, shovits — all the technical street tricks. That was their office where they hung out and they regulated. Well, James [Kelch] did. It was a very significant time for skateboarding.

Around that time is when I first saw Wade Speyer skate. He blew minds — same with John Cardiel, Kris Markovich and Alan Peterson. It was cool to see skateboarding moving on from what we had done in our careers—not even careers — as skaters, and then the next generation really took it a step further. Although some of it was really ugly and slow, it was still progression.

Do you think EMB had a big influence on that kind of small wheel, big pants skating?
It was happening everywhere, but EMB was definitely the Petri dish that everyone was looking at. Then, there was Webb park in San Diego and Love Park — everyone had their own scene. But, EMB was close to Thrasher and Slap, so there was more coverage going on with what was happening at EMB. Then, video really made it take off. 411 was like the Internet is now.

What were other influential Bay area spots?
Hubba Hideout, straight up, was a big one. I mean, now every ledge going down stairs is called a Hubba. That's straight out of the mouth of James Kelch. I shot the first photo of Wade Speyer on Hubba hideout, doing a nosegrind for a Dogtown ad. That was before it had any wax on it or anything — he raw-dogged it. Then, there was Sproul Plaza in the Cal Berkeley campus. Of course, there was Fort Miley...always a great, fun spot. It has bars on it now, but it didn't back in the day. There's the DMV, Wallenberg, Fort Mason, Union Square, Presidio Banks, the hill bombs in the Avenues, the Safeway curb, Bart bricks and Black Rock. Then came Pier 7, Three Up Three Down and 3rd and Army.

How long did you have your ramp in the city, then?
It went up in '88 and lasted until '91. It was called Studio 43—it was private, not public. It was for us to skate, rain or shine. At one time there were maybe 12 to 20 key holders. I'd go away on a photo shoot and the place would just be trashed. Then, I had to regulate it more.

There's a funny story. Back in the day, dudes would just show up at the door while we were skating. I had to deny Salman Agah once, before he was "Salman Agah." Dan Drehobl came to skate my ramp back then and I had to ask him, "Who the f**k are you? Get the f**k out of here." I'm friends with both of them now and I've apologized, but when you have a ramp, you have to have that tough love or you get run over.

We had great sessions there, though. The Hellride was born there. Every Friday night, it was on. We would have big sessions where pretty much everyone from San Jose ... all parts. Hosoi, Danny Way, Alphonso Rawls, Andy Howell, Noah Salasnek, Steve Caballero, Gonz, Jason Lee — tons of people skated it. Those were some great times.

Who do you see as the kids carrying the torch in SF?
Well, I haven't lived there in three years, but, I don't know...Jake Donnelly's really good. And, although he's not a kid whatsoever, Dennis Busenitz is probably one of the best in the city right now. Peter Ramondetta, Brian Delatorre...Peabody and Sean Gutierrez are good in the bowls. Jeremy Reeves is awesome. There are so many, really. The City's always going to be on the map. It's one of the best skate cities in the world and there are still spots and hills to entertain and enjoy.

To see more of Bryce's work, check his site, www.brycekanights.com and check out The Sickboys website.