The name ‘Rodney Mullen’ means something to you. Maybe you’ve been gripped by old videos of his cirque du soleil-level precision on a skateboard. Maybe you’re a skater and awe at the gravitas of effect that the man has had on skate culture, or maybe you just found him while lurking TED talks. The story of the kid who ascended from skating in the solitude of his farm’s concrete-floored barn to joining the Bones Brigade along with Peralta, Alva, Hawk et al. to winning virtually every freestyle championship there was and paving the way for modern street skating is lore. Add to that this was all 30 years ago and his story almost seems fantastical. You look at what he’s done and think ‘Shit, is this real life?’
With skating being so entrenched in authenticity, I almost bitched out on interviewing Rodney Mullen. Like, I skate, but I’m not a skater. Being the only one who shows up to the office with a skateboard, I’ve been pegged as one anyways, and while it means that I’ve gotten to bluff my way through interviews with people like Eric Koston, it also means that I’ve gotten Silas Baxter-Neal to shade me as much as it’s possible to shade a stranger over the phone for asking dumb questions. I thought of approaching a local skater, someone legit to do it for me. But the boss wasn’t having a bar of it, which I’m thankful for because it ended up being one of the most insightful conversations of my life.
Mullen was in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago for the launch of Globe’s all-encompassing 4.5kg brand-anthology of a book, Unemployable. The book details how founders, Australia’s Hill brothers, started a world-beating brand from a love for skateboarding that was fuelled by Melbourne’s 1970s skate scene. It’s obvious that love has been pivotal in Globe being so successful. “We didn’t set out to make a a business” says Peter Hill in the opening pages. “We set out to make sure we didn’t have a job so that we could skate”. The fact about Globe is that it is a brand made by local heroes who have been killing it in Melbourne since Collingwood’s Skate City days when they convinced the owner to put a skate park above the rollerskating rink.
The adept way that Rodney Mullen compares adjacent theories using his unique skateboarding insights have commodified his thoughts on a wide array of topics. Especially technology, where he’s taken particular interest in coding and hacking cultures. Fittingly I met up with Mullen after bailing on my programming class and skating to Globe’s HQ. After intros from Jason Boulter, I sat down and got into an hour-long convo about things he’s been up to, some skating theology, whether he’s going to drink VBs while he’s over here, coding in Python, and getting his girlfriend to longboard.
ON THE UNEMPLOYABLE BOOK:
What’s your involvement? You feature a fair bit.
The Globe guys brought me in, must have been 20 years [ago]? And you know I’ve been getting to know them over time. They just let me know they were going to do a book, and eventually Matty goes, ‘Hey would you like to do the intro?’ And I just, I wrote what came out most naturally to me—why we all skate. Especially after years of seeing pros and thinking ‘Oh this guy’s really talented, he’s going to go far’, and then ‘Oops, he didn’t’. And other guys who just feel it and make a way inside the community and make a distinctive mark, and end up doing more than anyone could have ever expected, so that’s what I wrote about… you know, it’s distinctiveness more than anything. It comes out of people’s spirits. To me, the best skaters are those that you can see their character and personality in what they do. That’s what connected with me. So I was just like look, I’m going to write what it means to me and why I feel I belong with you [Globe] guys because I feel the Hills have alway represented that to me. And I realised when I saw the book that these are themes that purvey the whole way. They just wanted to be able to skate and found any means they could and ended up making a business around it.
ON PUBLIC SPEAKING
You know, it kind of came out of no where, I got asked to do a TED X talk in 2012 or something like that. I don’t even know how but it happened because of this really brilliant women who had faith in me and thought I had something to give. And now I think in the three months leading up to this I spoke at Apple, this little venture capital group with Elon Musk. Wired did something with me, and Anna Wintour from Vogue—you know the lady that runs Vogue?
Can’t picture the face but I know the name.
Well neither would I until she asked. She brought me to Conde Nast that owns all those mags, they bring in guys like Jony Ive and I was one of these people. So I spoke in the World Trade Center to the editors of Conde Nast, and I’m just talking about skating and the same themes. But of course, I focus on, ‘OK how do I relate it to them’. And of course I can’t sleep sometimes the whole night before… I keep thinking if I can connect some of the beauties of skating with the people who are in these powerful positions, if I can help show the beauty of what we do in language that they understand and get respect in those areas then, for all us, it makes it things easier. And it imbues us with a sense of self respect, you know?
ON “TINKERING” WITH HIS BODY
There was this magic combination of things where the scar tissue actually got wrapped around my femur, so when I flexed the muscles to use them on my leg it would yank the bones into my hip. It would grind maybe 20-30 times a day. I could go from breaks to gas pedal and it would grind. So I went to a doctor who said ‘Look, when bones grind together eventually they calcify, they lock themselves down and weld’. I had a really bad limp and I’m thinking ‘theres no way around this’ and I saw the doctors and they’re like ‘Well, we can put you to sleep and tie sort of like a boat crank to you and just crank, crank, crank until something breaks but the problem is, we can’t tell you what else is going to break.”
I met a stunt man when I did Walter Mitty, who had surgery on his knee and it fused in the same way. They put him to sleep and did the boat crank thing, and then it ripped up all this other stuff and he was in a bad way. He was like ‘I can’t believe you did this to yourself’.
What exactly were you doing though?
Have you ever had a masseuses elbow dig into you and you feel an electrical thing and then it relaxes the muscle like throwing it into neutral? Point being, there’s some sort of electrical thing. You’ll feel the heat and then the muscle will relax. So I’d stick [my leg] in whatever I could crank it in. I started with fire hydrants and the wheel well of my car, and the racks on shopping carts are really useful. You can stick your leg in a way and then turn your body in a way where you can feel this tissue that’s not you, it’s this numb string in you, and then you feel it get it to where it’s wrapped around the bone and sometimes it will slip off. Because it’s growing everywhere and you can’t see it, you’re just going by what your feel… You just pull and pull, and right when you can’t take it anymore that’s when you pull the hardest. It’s horrible, I vomited a couple of times. I did that everyday, just breaking a little bit of tissue endlessly for a couple of years. Finally I got really desperate and I was hanging in my car like using my whole body weight upside down and holding on to the frame, and I’d pull and pull and pull and I felt this thump and then boom! My head hit the ground. Have you ever broken a bone?
It doesn’t hurt much but there’s this thump and this hot flush feeling and you get nausea. I was like ‘ah I know that feeling; I broke my bone’. I lay on the ground waiting for the numbness to go away and when I got up, for the first time–it moved. I broke the calcified bit, and my body I guess interpreted it as a broken bone.
It’s just amazing that you did that to yourself
Man I’d scream so much, but I got through it. And yeah it changes you and makes you a better man and that type of thing. Now I do these talks and I skate a little bit and I’m so stoked Globe brought me here.
ON HIS TECH ASPIRATIONS:
The reason with the tech stuff is when I couldn’t move, and with [the tinkering] you can only do that so much. I was pretty alone. I was trying to find something to do, and I had always been into the math stuff and there’s so much happening with the computer world. So I ended up playing around with them, pulling them apart and building a couple little computers but that’s boring after a while. Then I found the Linux community, basically an open-source computer system, and I love the open-source communit—the whole hacking community. I was like ‘Oh my gosh, they’re like skaters.’ They’re really good at what they do, they’re born of innovation, and they share what they do so they can all get better. They have a very similar ethos, it’s a little edgy, it’s certainly not illegal but some of it is certainly not authorised.
ON SKATING CULTURE:
Do you know a guy called Marshal Macluhan?
Yeah, ‘the medium is in the message’?
Exactly. He talks about the medium being so embedded in its function that it becomes representative of it. Do you think that is the case with skateboarding? Like, the message of skateboarding as expression is usually misinterpreted by people who think of it purely as a medium used by misfits, which is changing right?
But, is that necessarily a good thing?
That’s a heavy question. Like going back to my father, the older I get I realise I’m still that kid that I always was, and the stuff that was hardest for me was my dad in particular saying you should doing something else like golf. But I understand what he meant. That by looking at the guys at the time, back then it was the 70s, these guys were like surfers and I grew up in a druggie-ish area. A lot of stoners and a lot of guys partying and by the look of them you wouldn’t think much dedication, right? Even when I won a series of so called championships he was like ‘Great, I’m glad that you won, and the fact that you’re winning again and again only proves that there’s nothing to it, so would you take up something real’. And I get it. You could look at these people like, if you looked at the Hill brothers and what they were doing. These guys are just doing what ever they had to do to continue to do what they loved. And you can easily understand how people are saying ‘well I don’t see any use for them otherwise’ and that’s certainly what my dad thought and what other people thought. That follows you. The nature of what they do is violent component. Especially if you watch people skate stairs… I understand how people think they’re self destructive, that they’ve got issues with all those tattoos, and they’re going nowhere. That has definitely changed and now you see healthy looking kids at skateparks, now it is more uniformly accepted. That said, if you’re going on tour with the most known guys, you’re still going to get those looks and that sort of bias. You can see it. So I think the very act of skateboarding is kind of harsh. It has a nature of non-conformist bend to it that I don’t think anyone in society appreciates because the nature of society is, to some degree, to conform. You know? So all of these things push the direction.
I met this guy who was both an MD and a scientist and he was doing medical research for cancer. He was saying that we turn out so many good doctors, but the problem is we don’t turn out good researchers, because you have to be willing to take risks in the very nature of the work that gets them to where they are, but if they make a mistake, it could cost them a life. The flip side of that is, if you just continue to do what’s known, how can you delve into the unknown. In the same way I wish you could teach what you’ve shown us in our schools. I had a Yale law professor say pretty much the same exact thing in different terms. The exact idea. That gave me such pride and it’s something that’s still tethered to me being this little kid told that I’m going to be a bum. Because people misinterpreted skateboarding and the good that it can do even though it’s wrapped in this sort of edgy nature. Because of that, it naturally pushes against neutering forces of conformist society. And that what makes it cool. That’s what makes it beautiful and all these things, but it’s also what’s going to give it something to be bigoted against. But what you’re saying as it gets more accepted and standardised maybe there’ll be more compulsories and guys will be judging you, and whether that will be possible to encapsulate what it means to be a great skateboarder and how it will change its nature.
ON THE END OF HIS SKATING:
[At one stage] I was thinking, what am I going to do? My math teacher taught me this: if you don’t know what to do, do what you know how to do. So this time I thought ‘Huh, well I’ll do what I know how to do, just start prying myself apart roll around the way I can, try to use my brain, and try to see anything connected with a culture I feel most relevant so I can wrap what I’ve learned in skating and somehow use it in another way in another field.’ Look, skateboarding is more than happy without me, skateboarding doesn’t need me but if I can give back, I get joy from showing people the beauty of what we have. I’m comfortable with that. It still gives me this feeling of connectedness… This brings me back to Globe. They were always unwavering like, ‘Do whatever you do, you’re part of us’. They understood and they had that respect and they never pushed and I just feel indebted to them. Maybe I can just work with Peter on new technology. This is the longest I’ve been with anybody and I think this is the way I want to go out. But, I hope it goes on forever.
Event images by Anthony Strong