Photo by: Jackie Sobon
My sit-down with Mike Vallely.
Article + Interview by @VeganFatKid
In 1984 Bruce Springsteen was “Dancing in the Dark,” Ronald Reagan won a second term and a 14-year-old Mike Vallely had just received his first skateboard. Now, New Jersey may have been a long way from my hometown in New Zealand, but these were definitely the times that shaped us both. He was on his way to redefining professional skateboarding and I was on my way to becoming a @VeganFatKid; we just didn’t know it yet. I sat down with Mike on a fine Sunday in Long Beach, California, at an all-vegan cafe renowned for its eclectic vibe and earthy menu. It’s funny to think that a couple of guys chatting over vegan nachos and tempeh Reubens doesn’t raise much of an eyebrow in 2016, but in 1986 when Mike was exploding onto the skateboard scene, “vegan food” hadn’t yet found its way into the public consciousness. I expected to learn just how contradictory the world of pro skateboarding was to ethical veganism, but instead I got a lesson on speaking your mind and owning your sh*t. Apparently being the voice of dissent is at the heart of both worlds.
“I was skating in a parking lot one day, the next day I was on the cover of Thrasher Magazine, and everyone knows my name, and you know, it was like a dream come true, but it came with such high expectations,” Mike muses. “I had sponsors that started trying to reduce me down to what they wanted me to be, and I had bigger dreams. I saw myself as an artist, not an athlete, I didn’t see my skating as competition driven or robotic or something. I wanted to be free and expressive in the moment and they’re like ‘you’re a kid, what are you talking about?’ So I had this kind of standoffish type of relationship with the business of skateboarding right from the start.”
In 1986, a 16-year-old Mike Vallely moved from New Jersey to Virginia Beach, Virginia, bringing with him his love of punk music and his insatiable appetite for skateboarding. He caught the attention of skateboarding legends Stacey Peralta and Lance Mountain, a partnership that quickly landed Mike an “amateur” deal with then heavyweight company, Powell Peralta. In the early years of the skateboard business, these “amateur” deals came with very “pro” expectations. It wasn’t until the following year that Mike officially became just that: a professional skateboarder.
Coincidentally, this was the same year that he embraced vegetarianism: “When I was seventeen I became a vegetarian. It was my reaction to the what I determined to be an uncaring and cruel world. My general distrust for people and their agendas at that time lead me to identify and feel sympathy with animals. Early on, I was very outspoken about it—and being a vegetarian at that time, further set me apart from the conventional ideals of everyone around me.”
And so, the Barnyard board was born. There was no bigger deal for a pro skater than his very own signature board and nothing more identifiable to the brand than the graphic. In 1989 the skateboard industry was pushing graphics with a harder edge – skulls, flames, etc – so when Mike released the Barnyard board with World Industries, not only was its “double kicktail” revolutionary in design and shape, it was also the first pro model to feature cartoonish graphics with a vegetarian message, “Please don’t eat my friends.” This was a bold move for a 19-year-old who didn’t just challenge the status quo, but blew it up.
“I was literally trying to leave the skateboard world, professional skateboarding. I thought that Barnyard was my last statement, my swan song, it felt so radical at the time in 1989.”
The Barnyard board would turn out to be a defining moment in Mike’s journey as both a skateboarder and vegetarian. Not only did it become his all-time best seller, but it showed the power of a genuine message and its ability to resonate with people, something that comes in direct opposition to what the mainstream industry was selling. For many of these young “pros”, the pressure to stunt for sponsors and tow the company line was tremendous. From “Got Milk” ads to McDonald’s campaigns, a professional skater trying to make a living while staying true to both his art and his core beliefs was a constant battle. The Barnyard board arguably represents the intersection of all three.
“I thought, well, none of those are gonna sell, I’m gonna be made fun of and laughed out of the industry and that’s ok, I was ready to leave. As it turns out, so many people were getting into skating and they were all people just like me, awkward teenagers. They had zits, weren’t athletes and they were gangly but they loved skateboarding. All the pro skaters being in position at the top at that time were jock dudes with good hair, tans, all buff and stuff, and here I am just weird and vulnerable, and they saw me and they related to me. The message of the board struck home with so many people. To this day everywhere I go I hear, ‘Dude, the Barnyard changed my life. I became a vegetarian because of you.’”
You only have to walk through a crowded vegan event with Mike, like I did at the recent Eat Drink Vegan festival in Pasadena, to witness the sincerity of his fans. The now 40-somethings profoundly impacted by a then teenager with a skateboard and a message, asking for a photo and letting Mike know how much he meant to them. It’s pretty clear from his response that they mean a lot to him too.
“I was able to make real connections with people, not just based on my talent on a skateboard, but based on who I was,” he said.
Carving your own path through the turbulent pro-skateboarding scene of the late 1980’s is bound to leave a couple of scars. What’s remarkable about talking with Mike today is that he seems more passionate than ever. Unlike many of his peers, he’s continued to be an active force in skateboarding; winning a Real Street X-Games gold medal in 2015, while his 100% independently family owned and operated business Street Plant exists to support and empower the entire skateboard community.
Identifying himself as a vegan in 1992, Mike continues to use his platform to highlight the benefits of a vegan lifestyle and reach an audience outside of the vegan mainstream. You’ll find him hosting meet-ups at skate shops, and always making time to engage with fans on social media. I learned a lot from Mike today, about the world of skateboarding and standing up for your beliefs, but I wasn’t about to leave without asking him to show us a few tricks. Minutes later an enthusiastic Mike Vallely is demonstrating a classic Street Plant on the sidewalk for a crowd, just like I imagine he did in the 80s. Sure the business of skateboarding may have taken its toll, but if you’re fortunate enough to spend anytime with Mike Vallely you’ll see an awkward kid that grabbed a skateboard and did it his way.
“I can’t imagine having a different career. I couldn’t imagine being cool….it would suck!”