A Search for Meaning, Part 1: Skateboarding, Surfing, Punk Rock, and Self Actualization

My mother, my younger brother Corey, and me with my Skull Skates "Hosoi" Hammerhead. Photo: Peter Zappo

My mother, my younger brother Corey, and me with my Skull Skates “Hosoi” Hammerhead. Photo: Peter Zappo

“People ask me: ‘What is punk? How do you define punk?’ Here’s how I define punk: It’s a free space. It could be called jazz. It could be called hip-hop. It could be called blues, or rock, or beat. It could be called techno. It’s just a new idea. For me, it was punk rock. That was my entrance to this idea of the new ideas being able to be presented in an environment that wasn’t being dictated by a profit motive.” -Ian MacKaye (The Evens, Fugazi, Embrace, Minor Threat, Teen Idles, and owner of Dischord Records) 

Skateboarding being the offspring of surfing, is said to have been birthed some time in the 1950s by wave-hungry Californian surf devotees looking to capture a feeling similar to wave riding on their concrete and asphalt surroundings. Instead of suffering in silence and boredom through flat spells, they ripped trucks and wheels off roller skates and attached them to 2x4s. This was the genesis of “sidewalk surfing”.

Although the roots of skateboarding are firmly planted in surfing, eventually skateboarding took on a powerful life and culture of its own. By the 1980s, skateboarding’s influence on its place of origin, namely surfing, was ever apparent. With the advent of more skate inspired radical maneuvers and airs on waves, its impact was undeniable. These days, high-performance surfing looks more like skateboarding then ever before. Skateboarding’s influence didn’t stop at surfing. If you look closely you can witness that its nearly omnipresent force has found its way into almost every facet of underground and even pop culture. The predominance skateboarding has over youth fashion alone is astonishing and unarguable.

Skateboarding, as it was more accessible, is where my own personal surfing roots began sometime around 1985. First my friends and I were bombing hills in front of my house, soon after we could be found doing spinning in place 360s all summer long. Then before I knew it, we were blasting through the air out of launch ramps or perched upside down with hands planted on the street and boards on our feet performing inverts. Thrasher Magazine became our Holy Bible and skaters like Natas Kaupus, Tommy Guerrero, and Mark Gonzales become our modern day mythical-like prophets. Eventually the child led me to the father so to speak, skateboarding soon brought me to the beach and surfing. Just a year or so after getting serious about skateboarding, a friend of mine that I skated with and my older cousin who I looked up to helped push me to take up surfing at the age of 11.

Soon after my first summer of riding waves, surfing, skateboarding, and music became my main elements of focus, as well as my saving graces. In a sense, music was my first true love. I owned my first vinyl record at around five years old, which was the KISS “Alive” album. I loved KISS and was somewhat obsessed with Gene Simmons and his demonic tongue. In kindergarten I wanted to go to school as Gene Simmons for Halloween, but I wasn’t allowed because my school wouldn’t condone it. My mom convinced me I had to settle for being the “Starchild” aka Paul Stanley.

In any event, my love for music only blossomed from there. I was always searching out music that excited me, I remember taping hip hop radio shows when I was in fourth grade and then breakdancing in class when the teacher would leave the room. Simply stated, I’ve always had a deep appreciation and love for music. I was introduced to numerous bands through the subcultures of skateboarding and surfing, eventually being lead to the powerful force that was hardcore punk. Where I grew up and in the era that I came into the world of surfing and skating, it was almost an unsaid rule that surfing, skating, and punk went hand in hand.

Repo Man. The Soundtrack.

Repo Man. The Soundtrack.

The first punk cassette I had was a copy of the Repo Man soundtrack which featured bands like Fear, Circle Jerks, and Black Flag. The bands on this tape were mostly California-based punk, although the sound was exciting and galvanizing it was also dark and negative, something I would describe as nihilistic now. After my initial introduction the California version of punk, I was turned onto the bands coming out of the Washington D.C. area and this music resonated with me more. It had the same aggressive sound as the California punk, but behind the walls of seeming musical bellicosity, there was a message of hope and self empowerment that was trying to reach the surface. At this point I still wasn’t totally sold on punk, although these newfound bands seemed like great amping fuel for a session, to be honest, a lot of it still felt like pessimistic and ultimatly depressing stuff. I was already dealing with my own depression as I looked out at a world that made me feel like a square peg getting shoved into a round hole. I didn’t think getting deeper into negative emotions seemed like a good answer. I needed something that was both real, aggressive, and at the same time, uplifting. I craved a release from my own inexpressible pain and confusion. I was searching for others who felt the same disgust and lack of faith in modern society, yet I desired a light at the end of a seemingly blackened and twisted tunnel.

Eventually one day after a surf session at our local break, my cousin who now had acquired his driver’s license, was playing some punk rock in his car, but it sounded different than the other bands I had previously heard. There was a positive urgency and a powerful melody that was infectious without having the musical fluff factor of mainstream rock. I was really interested in this band and my hand drumming on my thighs must have made that a somewhat annoyingly obvious fact. As we pulled up to my house, my cousin ejected the tape, slid it into its case, and put it in my hands. It read Dag Nasty on the cover and the record was called “Can I Say”. As I began to exit the car, he grabbed my arm and spoke firmly, “I want this back next time we go surfing, don’t break it!” I put my surf gear in the garage and I ran in the door, swiftly gliding past my parents, heading straight for my room, and quickly closed the door. I rewound the cassette and started it from the first song entitled “Values Here”. I pulled out the the lyric sheet and read along.

“Fear of failure
Fear of reprimand
Two big problems I’ve never had
I never doubted what I had inside, what I have inside

Finally! I had found a band that had the mind-blowing intensity of the first bands I had heard, with a sound that, although still biting, carried an uplifting feeling which was coupled with a message that was a positive one. From that point on I was on the search for new bands, trading tapes with friends, and slowly learning more about the variety of bands that existed and stylistic differences based on geographical location. The same week of receiving the Dag Nasty tape, I was given the Bad Brains yellow “Roir” cassette by an older punker girl in my school. The cassette had no case and, therefore, no lyric sheet or information on the band. When I popped this into my walkman at lunch, my mind was blown and I was floored. It was the fastest thing I had heard, the tonality of the entire record was like nothing I had heard before, the song structures oddly unique, and the vocals sounded like they were sung by a being from another world. To this day the Bad Brains are one of my all-time favorite bands, they are legendary to say the least and have influenced some of biggest names in modern rock over the last 30 years. Their message of “PMA” or maintaining a positive mental attitude, coupled with their spiritual passion did wonders for myself and many.

By the time I was 13 my music collection was growing by trading tapes with friends and weekly trips by bus to the local record store. Some of my favorites at the time were the aforementioned Dag Nasty and Bad Brains; as well as the Cro-Mags, Sick of it All, Raw Deal, Judge, Youth of Today, Underdog, Crippled Youth and Gorilla Biscuits. I was particularly drawn to the straight-edge bands, bands that promoted a healthy drug-free lifestyle and an overall inspirational message. The straight-edge movement of the mid to late 80’s was plowing through the scene with vigorous power, I was swept up in the wave, and based on that fact I avoided a lot of unnecessary trouble.

Youth of Today, 1987. Photo: Michael Lavine

Youth of Today, 1987. Photo: Michael Lavine

The presence of the punk and skateboarding ethos in my life proved to be a nice balance, as much of the surf culture, as sold to me through it’s media outlets, seemed very preppy and almost frat boyish. It certainly appeared almost totally void of any counter culture or nonconformist attitude of it’s origins.  The vagabond, free spirited, and rebellious elements of surfing had seemed to be almost completely destroyed in the process of its commodification. As competitive surfing was the primary focus of the surf media and it was the only avenue to take if you wanted to “do something” with your surfing, I started competing at the age of 12. Taking second in my first contest, with a shop sponsor following, and soon after getting hooked up with free gear from the local surf reps, I stepped into the whirlwind that was amateur competitive surfing.

Surfing started to take on a serious tone for me as I became more dedicated to the competitive aspect and although I loved surfing wholeheartedly, many times I felt burnt out. At these times I would retreat, finding solace in my other avenues of expression, namely skateboarding and punk. Skateboarding became my free space where there were no time limits, wave minimums, rivalries, or judges scores; while punk became my voice for the feelings I was unable to give expression to.

A tweaked frontside grab of my sketchy launch ramp. 1987. Photo: Peter Zappo

A tweaked frontside grab of my sketchy launch ramp. 1987. Photo: Peter Zappo

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Growing up in New Jersey, Shawn discovered and quickly immersed himself in the sub-culture of surfing and skateboarding in the mid 80’s. With a diverse and eclectic background, Shawn has walked the path of a competitive surfer, Hare Krsna monk, action sports industry player in NYC, DIY theology and religions major, and a touring punk rock musician. Now a father and self-proclaimed seeker of the “soul” of surfing, Shawn enjoys sessions with friends at uncrowded peaks along his home state’s shoreline and writing about his surf related experiences.

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