Copyright © 2014 by (Lindsey Okubo)
New York skateboarding is not synonymous with the California, long-haired kook, Venice boardwalk-riding, sock-less, Van- wearing version of the art. New York’s obsession with concrete has created for its skaters an ever-changing and constantly evolving skatepark. Michael Cohen, the VP of SHUT Skates, New York’s first skateboarding company grew up with these streets and has long since been riding this concrete wave. He talks to us about change, SHUT, Zoo York, making friends and why you shouldn’t make those “fuck longboarding” stickers.
Lindsey Okubo: What’s your role at SHUT? What do you love most about this company?
Michael Cohen: For me it’s really weird because I worked for Zoo York a long time ago and I worked with these guys because I liked what they were doing, I liked what they were about. I was working with friends and it did come to a point where it got a little corporate and I started not enjoying what I was doing. I was working with accounts that didn’t make sense to me and working with people who didn’t even get skateboarding and that was when Zoo York was on such a big bubble that it was becoming mainstream and at the time were partnering with a mogul in the streetwear game I mean, you look at Marc Ecko he’s revered as a pioneer but I knew him as a guido kid from New Jersey, we’re the same age, I’ve known him forever and he’s one of those dudes who’s capitalized on what these guys built. They partnered with them and thought it was going to be a great partnership and it was basically a bad marriage which happens a lot in business and I understand it, I get it. I just so happened to be working for them when that happened, I left for a year, I was fired by a skate company that I was so psyched on, I wasn’t fired by the people that hired me I was fired by the people who took over and I swore I would never work in skateboarding again and went into the concierge industry I’ve always worked in hospitality, I love hanging out with people. Everything was great, I got the job through one of our pro skaters, Peter Beasley who was studying to be a fireman while being a pro skater and he was a bellman at the Hudson Hotel, which is Ian Schrager’s hotel, the guy who started Studio 54, the guy who invented the boutique hotel and at the time, this was in 2003, it was an amazing time to be working in that industry, it was new and exciting and I loved it. I stayed in touch with these guys and I knew that they all had left, it started with Eli, leaving first and being the creative director and being sick of working for Marc Ecko, and then it was Adam Schatz who went into international for them, and then it was Rodney, he was the last to leave and once he had left he told me that they were possibly going to be doing another brand. I said, that’s great, keep in touch. Fast forward, 2005-2006, a friend of mine is helping them out and doing sales and sent me a lot of questions and I said lemme come in and speak to these guys, became a sales associate, then sales director, our sales director was amazing to work for, he was one of the original Zoo York guys that started the brand, Kevin Carney, he now has Dave’s Warehouse with Dave Ortiz, they’re very successful with what they’re doing, it was a great experience coming in in 2006 at the ground level for a brand that had done it already, but would do it again and would have to change to the times and how everything was being done. It was amazing to watch them work, to be a part of it, and I left the hotel industry and came on full time in 2006 and then in 2012-2013, I became a partner and became VP, before that my title was “the concierge”, it was a basically a play on one of our employees a long time ago, Dave Ortiz, who started at Zoo in the beginning, and his title was Mr. Everything. I kind of took his position in 2006 as Mr. Everything, doing team manager, doing marketing, advertisements, collecting photos, events, basically everything working with Eli who did design, working with Adam with operations, Rodney with team management. It was like working under all of them and then taking responsibility of all those hats.
What were some of those changes and adjustments that SHUT had to make coming back into the game?
Back when these guys started when they first launched the Zoo thing they’re weren’t that many brands here, so they weren’t competing with anybody back then. They were showcasing what new York was like in the 90s. anybody you speak to who’s lived here in the 90s, it did have a different feel, a different je ne sais quoi, as you could say. You could be in Manhattan and go from one neighborhood to the next and really feel like you were going through a cultural shock and scene and seeing all the different all the different aspects of what New York has to offer. I now feel that it’s a bit cookie cutter and you’ll come to New York and see a look of hey this reminds me of Seattle, this reminds me of…, When I was growing up in New York no one said New York reminded them of anything, New York was it’s own thing. Because so many people are moving around and coming back and forth, it definitely is, I hate the word gentrification but you know it’s happening. I like it now, my ride to work is easier, there’s more green bike paths, skating around the city is more fun, there’s more skate parks popping up all over. That was something we didn’t have either, we didn’t have skate parks. The street was our park. Now doing events, I feel it’s a pleasure, working with the community boards, neighborhoods, and skaters and the amount of skate shops we have now. There were only 2 or 3 when I was growing up, now there’s like 20 just in Manhattan, because of how big it is I feel like there’s plenty of room for all of us to grow. I work with friends of mine that own other brands and we participate in events together, there’s a bit of camaraderie going on with the brands as well as the customers and the community, the skateboard community.
SHUT is the oldest skate company in NYC—what was it founded upon?
I was a little kid when it all happened, growing up in New jersey coming into the city, I was 14 when shut launched in 1986. It was done by Rodney Smith, Bruno Musso, Aliash Amoor, Eli Gezner, there were a lot of kids that were involved in it in the beginning but pretty much Bruno and Rodney ran the business and it was mostly just to combat with what they weren’t getting, what they were doing was different than what was coming out of California and there was a void that they felt, and a gap for East Coast skateboarding. It started on Mott Street in 1986, the space was shared with Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys, these guys were all street skaters and had an amazing, amazing team and the team was getting bigger, they were traveling more and getting coverage in the magazines and people were starting to take notice of the fact that there was something homegrown coming from not California. It was a big thing and they were touring a lot on the East Coast, strategize it perfectly and bring a perfect number of boards on the road with them and sell some stuff along the way and make ends meet because they weren’t backed by any wealthy people; like I said, it was very grassroots, do it yourself kind of thing that they were experiencing. Over the years a lot of the kids that skated for them got so big that they left and went onto other brands or moved out to California to pursue their careers because of how big it had gotten and that was kind of the demise of when SHUT first went out of business and when they went out of business in 1991 they kind of fizzled out, it wasn’t like doors shut that day, it was just over time Rodney wanted to keep the momentum going and got right in with other friends and started another major East Coast brand which we all know as Zoo York, then from there it went to these guys doing Zoo York forever and I started working for them in 2001-2002 and I’ve known Rodney since I was 14, he worked at a skate shop in our hometown. He’s from Metuchen, I’m from East Brunswick, neighboring towns and the mall that we had, the Woodbridge mall and was where I met Rodney first, he worked for a skate shop and sporting good shop but I used to go in there before it was a skate shop and it was soccer. A lot of us, if you grew up in the tri-state area soccer was huge, we’re big soccer players and played up until our senior year in high school. So I knew Rodney then and other Jersey skaters, Chris Pastras, he was an original SHUT kid and now owns Stereo Skateboards so the amount of people who came out of New Jersey, Jason Lee, Steve Rodrigues, Mike V., it was a huge skateboard community coming out of Jersey infiltrating into NY. NY street skating was getting bigger and bigger especially going into the 90s, that’s when it was in its heydey and when the popsicle stick was invented, the double kick-board, also it had a lot to do with the freestyle movement that was happening back then, it was transcending into street skating because no one liked the standing in a circle kind of vibe of freestyle skateboarding and that’s what evolved street skating to move around a little more and then you had creativity of the tricks. That was the early start of it.
Can you talk more about that void between West Coast and East Coast skateboarding? Was just the fact that NY was just so physically different than California and out East you just didn’t have these abandoned swimming pool bowls at your disposal?
You would see in the magazines people doing certain tricks and it was done in a pool and they were coming up and grinding the coping of the pool and we had curbs that looked like pool copings and emulating stuff we saw in the magazines. The other thing too was that we didn’t have a big amount of video back then so if you saw someone doing an invert coming out of a bowl, well we did an invert in the street. So the lack of pools was a huge thing but we still sought them out, in the 80s there was a lot of ramps getting shut down and that was because we live in awesome America and we love to sue everybody so there was a lot of lawsuits in people’s backyards which complimented the demise of skateboarding at a point. Florida if anything, everyone thinks skateboarding was born out of California but the ollie was invented in Florida, Ollie Gelfand was the original dude and Florida had the biggest mecca skateparks and that was like the 70s. Going into the 80s they lost a lot of em because of the insurance bullshit.
How was it growing up skateboarding back then? When it wasn’t so saturated and not everybody was trying to be a “shredder?”
When it comes to, well I remember when I was a kid that I was looked as a fucking derelict, like an outcast or part of a weird kind of crew growing up being skaters or anything. We weren’t the goth kid, or the punk rock kid, or heavy metal kid but we listened to the heavy metal music, went to the punk shows, except we weren’t violent, skateboarding was weird. I remember going to these spots in Jersey when I was like 11 or 12, they were called Transitions and there was this section where the water would collect like retention ponds and we would go skate there. I remember showing up one time and my friends and I were like sweeping up glass and it was like we know the kids that were throwing the bottles the night before, we know they’re the kids that get kicked out of school and they’re the ones who say “fuck everything”, and are doing the crazy drugs, and you know it was us, the skate kids who were getting more out of that spot than they were. They were there to just fuck around. We had the same thing to when we would go to our favorite BMX spot, one of our jumps would be all messed up with broken bottles and glass and we always had to clean that up. Even when you go to certain skate parks and they’re brand new and you don’t even see a single piece of graffiti on them, that’s because there’s kids skating there all the time, it doesn’t give them the opportunity to fuck it up. Even the Banks, when I first started going to the Brooklyn Banks there were bums and people doing crack in the corner but where we skated, and the sections we skated were always maintained. It’s so funny because you get a bad rep for it but that’s just because we’re sharing the same space as the hobo basically.
Looking back on skateboarding’s roots, what’s changed since then now that it has become a “sport?”
This is the thing with what I love about skateboarding and working in skateboarding, one, that the part that I love the most is not a sport. The act of skateboarding is an art, it’s not judged, it’s not measured, it’s not critiqued, it’s what you make of it. when it does become a sport and competition and all of these other entities, I’ve never been a fan of. I’ve judged contests, I’ve worked in that end of it, it’s just it’s a small entity of what skateboarding is, that I’m not the biggest backer of but it’s something that helps it evolve because as an art form, and just an art form, skateboarding wouldn’t be as big as it is if it wasn’t for the activity of it being a sport. What I’m saying by that is that we wouldn’t get it on a global level if it wasn’t being watched by 20 million viewers at a time, like the Olympics. We did a snowboard this year and no one knew the name of the brand that we did the board with because we went with a company that was snowboard owned, Regis Rolland started it in 1983 with Apocalypse snowboards and he did that here in New York and we were always fans of his so we partnered with him on the board, it was Apo Snowboards, no one knew of it until Sage Kotsenberg won slope-style with it in front of 20 million people. So when it gets that kind of exposure, that’s when you really see it and it’s almost like it sold out but it has to sell out and get bigger and evolve.
What does this whole “selling out” thing mean in skateboarding? Is that represented by companies like Supreme? Does selling out necessarily mean you have to abandon your roots?
When it comes to like a big company, like Supreme, and the Supreme-thing for me is just a label. Before it was a movement and it was a movement when there were certain people there. I think it’s really important that when people hire the right people, work with the right people, the person at the top sometimes doesn’t have to leave their office or ever do an interview. It took James like 20 years before he did an interview, no one knows about the guy that owns Supreme, no one knows that he didn’t skate. If he was at the counter when they opened would they be as successful, no. but he did put the right people and he was smart enough to not sit at the counter and not do the interviews and sit back and cash in. a company like Supreme I have a hard time appreciating. When they took off they took off at the same time that Zoo York took off and it was a lot of the Zoo York infamous in the early 90s, all these guys were essentially families with them. It was Zoo York it was Stussy it was Phat Farm, it was all these brands and everybody I knew at the time worked for those brands. Take the cast of kids, that’s your Zoo York, your Supreme, that’s what the kids wanted at that time and that’s what the companies held onto and that was the look and feel of selling us, now, it’s saturated and played but that’s like how when you come to New York now and you see everybody wearing American Apparel, New York doesn’t have its signature anymore. Supreme isn’t a signature. The other thing to is that people ask me where I see SHUT amongst others, and I don’t. we’re kind of riding this boat down a different river, and we’re definitely not to say trendsetters but yeah. We don’t do too many bytes, we don’t do too many leans, our graphics are New York and what we’ve been doing, the hand of SHUT is the hand of Zoo so the look and feel of what we’ve been doing here is nothing new. We’re not re-inventing skateboards, we’re not re-inventing the wheel, we like all aspects of skateboarding, we embrace all aspects of skateboarding. It’s funny we have a lot of fans and customers who diss longboards but if you go on our website we have long skateboards. I call them long skateboards because they’re all skateboards and you can’t call one thing longboarding and one thing skateboarding, freestyle, and this and that, it’s skateboarding. They’re all skateboards. And when I talk about re-inventing the wheel, some people in what they call the longboard community I feel that they’re doing a disservice to when they open up a “longboard shop”, or a freestyle shop like Supreme, you can’t go in their and buy a cruiser board. If you’re gonna call yourself a skateboard shop or you’re gonna be a skate brand you gotta do all of it and you can’t diss any aspect of it. don’t make fun of the kid of the scooter, because the kid on the scooter is going to get off the scooter and get a skateboard, that’s where it begins it’s the crutch. If you’re gonna make fun of somebody, make fun of somebody driving a car everyday and not skateboarding. That’s about it. we also have seen a big change as far as, we see it with our store and with the kids in New York, skateboarding has become friendly. We try to make sure that the kids are friendly, that there’s a friendly aspect of skateboarding because if you’re gonna be a dick, skateboarding will disappear and skateboarding will leave again if we don’t preserve it.
That’s kind of interesting too because since it is such a unique community and subculture in a way, people who don’t skate don’t always get it. It’s like the surf community in a way where if you surf, you get it, the people, the lifestyle. But in being able to open it up and create an image that isn’t so “fuck you guys” kind of a thing, does that really open doors?
I get mad when I see people doing that. That’s one thing that bothers me in skateboarding when people do a negative graphic, there was a company that did a board and it said “fuck longboards.” It’s just kind of moronic and it just leads me to believe you’re not doing the right thing. But at the same time, that company doesn’t make their boards in the United States, they’re not using the best wood, you’re not gonna make money on skateboards. If you wanna own a skateboard brand you’re gonna make your money selling t-shirts and sweatshirts and the accessories, the boards have to be top quality. To make a top quality board you’re gonna have a hard time making money but that’s not what it’s about. If you’re in skateboarding for money you’re in it for the wrong reasons.
Is that what has enabled for SHUT to stick around for such a long time: making quality products and being open to the community?
With what you just said, the open aspect of things has a lot to do with when we opened a retail store and being a wholesale brand for such a long time and having this store has really just transformed us, all of our minds. Now we get the kid on the scooter who comes in and might come back and get a skateboard. I love it. having the doors open to the kids and the community, having our pros, our ams, our family coming through all the time. Everybody is just excited to be in here, the atmosphere is great and we try to portray that to all our friends and customers.
How did you start skateboarding and how has it changed you?
I started skateboarding when I was a little kid through the neighbors, I had neighbors on my block that had boards and I think my dad got me a board when I was… well I know I had the neighbor’s board first and that was a hand-me-down plastic board in 1978, and then in the early 80s I got a board from a hardware store where SHUT’s boards were first but I didn’t get one. Because my dad, we walked into the store and he didn’t know anything about it, it was just really easy to get a complete. And they had the SHUT boards on the wall but they were just decks so it was just one of 6 components ready to go. So I got a Gordon and smith complete and it was giant, it was one of those old school dogtown shapes, the thing was such a pig. I brought that home, bombed some hills, I remember getting wrecked a couple times and more and more kids in my neighborhood were getting into it. growing up in New Jersey it was pretty predominant as an activity and then we started seeing skate shops. My mom worked in the apparel businesses here in Manhattan and she had friends who worked at Macy’s, and she would come down from Gotcha, Maui and Sons, Town and Country and these were all brands that were being sold at Macy’s in the 80s and my mom had friends that worked there and she got really into the clothes; vision street wear, skulls, crossbones, she went to FIT and lucky enough I had a cool mom and she got into it at the same time I did, and she saw it and she was a bit of a trendsetter in the apparel’s business and she got me involved in it and then I started going to a skate shop down in soho in the 80s. my mom was friends with the owners and I don’t know, I guess I’m blessed that I had cool parents. I had other friends that their parents would saw their boards in half when they got bad grades, those kind of parents. I got my bad grades and my parents reprimanded me but they knew skating wasn’t the root of it luckily. But yeah, I would have to thank my mom and dad for supporting it, my dad for pulling the car out of the garage so I could practice when it was raining and practice with spray-paint in the garage. I think that was the other thing too, building the ramp was a way for us to connect and I owe a lot of it to cool parents, open-minded parents.
What has skateboarding given you?
It’s opened doors, and I think that’s the biggest thing, between skating and snowboarding I’ve gotten to travel. The first time I ever went to Europe was through skateboarding, it was also too when I first started coming to NY it was a great way to ease into meeting somebody, it was a gateway to friendship, common interest. You didn’t have to have that 5 minute conversation to find out if this is who you wanted to be friends with, as soon as you heard the wheels and you went around the corner and saw the kid, there weren’t that many kids skating then so when you did meet somebody you knew right from the start that, one, he skates, two, he probably listens to the same music I do, and three, he already dresses like me so we’re already friends. So it was just that instant gratification of not dealing with bullshit and only hanging out with skater mindsets that was just easy and that’s where it was.
What was that “skater mindset” to you?
To me when I was younger it was a rebellious thing, non-conformity, a kid that might’ve not been into football or baseball and it’s almost like that if I was to run around with my easel, I probably would’ve met more art friends but I didn’t, my skateboard was my paintbrush so it was a cool way to meet a whole community. those were our paintbrushes.
So has that rebellious image changed at all?
Oh hell yeah, now it’s called you have bullies. We didn’t know about bullies when we were younger they were just jerks. Now it’s weird, with the helicopter mom and it’s funny that I get kids coming in here and getting a board just so they can ride the board to soccer or football. You go into kids garages nowadays you probably have like 10 different sports. And when I was a kid too I was into skiing and snowboarding and surfing and biking and you did it all but as you get older you start honing in on one or two things. I don’t go play football with my friends I haven’t done that since I was a teenager. But you just hone in on what you like and kind of who you are and you kind of also invest on it when you get older. You might take a trip that revolves just around skate spots where as most people are getting in a car with their girlfriend and going apple picking.
What would you include in a guide to skateboarding in NYC?
Like a check out? We do them, we did one on NYskateboarding.com. we tell everybody, but it’s like sometimes you don’t tell them everybody everything. You’re not gonna tell them all of em and it’s the same thing with food critics and surf culture, everybody wants a little bit of it to themselves. But for me it’s always the obvious, right now it’s certain parks, it’s certain spots that were just cemented by different friends and you wanna tell some people things. It’s really like taboo in skateboarding and in surfing and we were just watching an old surf video the other day with Donovan and those guys and they go down to like Panama City and they get to the airport and then they put stickers over all of the places and when they did the final production they blur out the airline and the airport and all of it and you have no fucking clue where these guys went.
It’s like embarking on a journey then? You yourself has gotta find out where you fit into the community on your own terms, but how does that happen in a place like New York?
I think it’s back to your early childhood of how do you pick your friends? I think that’s it and today it’s even easier because of the way we connect to each other you get to sniff somebody out a little easier.
How has New York as a place made you, you? how does place impact a person?
NY has made me if anything I could say ever since I was a little kid, I grew up in jersey but we had an apartment on 81st and Columbus so it was like coming into the city all the time. My parents are very open-minded, I think it has a lot to do with my upbringing and the trust that I was given. Even though I shouldn’t have been given that much trust and think I should’ve had a bit more of a leash on me but I’m kind of glad I didn’t. New York is definitely a place that has been a proving ground for me, you know like I just find it more rewarding that I made it through here rather than say any other place. If I lived somewhere else, things would’ve been easier but at the same time I wouldn’t have gotten these life lessons. Especially the independence, that’s the biggest thing for me is my sense of independence and enjoying and hanging out with just me in a city like this.
How is a New York skateboarder’s mindset different from say someone from California?
I think it’s different because NY kids are a lot more resourceful like when I meet these cali kids there’s a lack of creativity among other things and friends of mine that live out there, they all seem to kind of are like going through the motions whereas here, we kind of create our own roads and create our own styles. It has a lot to do with the fact that we have to, or not that we have to but the city was built this way, you skate to and from the places whereas in cali they don’t allow them to skate, and they have such restrictions for such an industry grown out of California there are still shunned upon for skating in the streets and it’s like wait a minute, you guys are supposed to be the pioneers of all this shit and yet you get in trouble for doing it there? whereas New York, they’re more relaxed because they got so much other shit on their plate that they don’t sometimes bother busting us. If anything, New York is getting more acceptance of skateboarding than other places. Especially with now LES, Chelsea piers park, the Tribeca park, all this came after Maloof but when you see a million dollar vegas guy come to New York and build something people are going to be like oh wait what? They take notice when these big people are investing in it. I think they’re going to take more notice as these companies grow. I just want to state that with all these big companies and skateboarding going in and out because we’ve seen it happen before and it can happen again and the rug can get pulled from under us from a big brand like a Nike who’s done it before. I have a hard time when it comes to Nike doing a go skateboarding day. Four years ago I started my own go skateboarding day which is anti-corporate and it shies away from watching skateboarding and it’s about participating in it.
Which is what it’s about.
To wrap it up, what are some of your favorite memories from skating?
That’s funny, my favorite memories of skating in general usually have nothing to do with anything we’ve covered or anything that’s monumental. I have friends that come into town and they always wanna do the loop with me. What we do we start out in this neighborhood and we skate and it’s not about going to a specific spot and landing a trick, it’s about going through the streets and seeing the different neighborhoods, it’s tasting the foods in those neighborhoods, and hanging out with the people in those neighborhoods. I think my ultimate rush that I get is when I take somebody that’s not from here and I take them out skating through the city and it’s the same thing even if I didn’t have a board under my feet, it’s exposing anybody into your world and that they embrace it, there’s nothing better.
Published for Contrast Magazine: http://contrastmagazine.com/an-interview-with-shut-skates-vice-president-michael-cohen/