One of the founders of Zoo York, Eli Gesner, on immortal summers skating in 1993 NYC
Aged 7 I knocked my front baby teeth out on a little plastic banana board. That kind of turned me off skating. Then I got into graffiti writing. It was 1982 and I wanted a BMX bike. But all the older guys in my hood at the time – The Upper West Side – were the remnants of the original Zoo York Skateboard / graffiti crew from the 70s. BMX bikes cost a fortune, whereas I had saved enough money for a new skateboard. They just kept pestering me and I finally cracked.
My first board was a Vision Gator in Blue with Blue Rat Bones. It was easier for me to do hand-stands on the skateboard at first but with the older kids' help I got good enough to push around and then started learning some tricks. I still felt like a graffiti writer though. Then I got 360 bonelesses and that impressed everyone. All the guys downtown at Dream Wheels Skate Shop knew I had ill art skills and because I was getting some tricks they all wanted me to meet Ian Frahm – 'The best skater in NYC' – I waited all day to meet him and he fully DISSED me! I was so pissed at him and then so impressed with his skating that I went on full hate mode – I'm gonna be a better skater than Ian Frahm! I vowed to myself at 12! And that was it. I went full on skateboard and graffiti took a backseat.
Zoo York’s first video, shot in 1993 by Eli on Hi-8 video tape. In editing he shot the footage from a TV screen. It won 'Best Industry Part' from '411 Video Magazine.
Before Zoo York, in 1986, Rodney Smith and Bruno Musso started New York's first skateboard company called Shut Skates. They tapped me to do the original Shut Logos and some decks. Shut was a big underground success but it never really went mainstream. And by the time all the Shut skaters jumped ship for big money in California, me and my other skate/graffiti partner, Alyasha Moore started fashion line Phat Farm with Def Jam's Russell Simmons. We made up that whole company. So, just as Phat Farm was starting, Shut went out of business.
I'm gonna be a better skater than Ian Frahm! I vowed to myself at 12! And that was it
It was here in 1993 that Rodney got the idea to start a new skateboard company in NYC and he wanted to use the 'Zoo York' name. So Rodney moved in with me and then he hunted down Mark 'Ali' Edmunds, the old president of the original Zoo York graffiti crew and got his blessing to start the skateboard company. At Phat Farm we met Adam Schatz, and once he got on board things really took off. So, being that computers cost as much as a car, I would pretend to be a 'hard worker' and wait for everyone to leave Def Jam. Then, once I had the place to myself, I'd call up Rodney and we would use the Phat Farm equipment all night making Zoo York stuff. It went along like that for a few years until we finally made enough money at Zoo where I could buy a computer, pay my rent, and quit Phat Farm.
We had this older dude hanging out with us taking photos but none of us really knew just how influential and important an artist Larry [Clark] was. He was just the old creepy guy
At first we only took the guys who were in or around New York. Rippers who, for whatever reason, didn't up and move to California. We had a whole gang of kids who killed it and just wanted to stay in NYC. Our mission statement was "To represent New York City street culture". But our philosophy – "Practice Truth. Fear Nothing" – came about because we had such intense success right off the bat with Zoo that all these fake Californian companies tried to jump on the NYC bandwagon and one even conspired to put us out of business. We really saw just how fake everyone was. We resolved to just be as real as possible to who we were.
None of us thought [Kids] was going to amount to anything, It was like they were shooting us just doing what we did. Who cares?
From 1989-1993 there was only a small handful of skaters in NYC. I actually resorted to skating alone most of the time because all my friends either quit or moved to California. But by 1993, the 1-2 punch of Zoo York and Supreme really injected life back into the sickly NYC skate scene. Everyone had Zoo boards and we all hung out at Supreme.
From there I sort of flipped my connections in the NYC nightclub world to get Peter Gatien to let me build a mini-ramp in the about-to-be-re-opened Tunnel Night Club. And that sort of tied everything together. We had Zoo, Supreme, the City to skate, and finally a mini-ramp in NYC – and as a super bonus, our ramp was in the coolest club in the city. This all fed off each other and soon there were all types of new and different people coming out to see this whole new 'skateboard' thing in NYC.
Paper magazine was really into us and helped promote the NYC skate vibe. And then Harmony Korine was around. Harmony was actually a notable sponsored skater who moved to NYC to go to film school. But he was already done with skating. He was movie crazy. Then he made friends with Larry Clark who just sort of appeared at the Brooklyn Bridge Banks one day. Us older skaters thought Larry was mad suspect – but Harmony knew who he was. Harmony loved Larry's work and befriended him. And then we had this older dude hanging out with us taking photos, but none of us really knew just how influential and important an artist Larry was. He was just the old creepy guy. And then, out of the blue, Gus Van Sant gave him an opportunity to go make a movie – any movie – and, boom, everything was set up like dominoes. Harmony would write it, it would be about skaters in NYC, we'd get the skaters to be the actors, and let's see what happens. None of us thought it was going to amount to anything. It was like they were shooting us just doing what we did. Who cares?
All the Millenials, kids in their 20's and younger, they have grown up all digital. They romanticize FILM! And Lo-Fi! As an artist who suffered from the shortcomings of film and VHS, I love digital. More! More! But kids insist. It's got that look. Yeah. It does. Shoot it on digital. Dub the final edit to VHS and there – It's got a 'look'. But you know, as an old native New Yorker I always say 'Whatever gets you off'.
I'll take a bullet for skateboarding, but skating since the late 90s doesn't really get me too stoked. I mean, any trick worth its salt done whenever will always get me stoked, but, when I was a teenager, I skated to invent stuff. See what we could do with this new thing called 'street skating'. Growing up being able to invent tricks that no one had ever thought of was just the best shit ever. Now, it's like everything's been done so it's just become either Contest Super Robot Skating or Deep in the Streets Eclectic Urban Exploration. I like it all but it just doesn't have the 'danger' that it used to have. Nowadays everyone skates. When I was a kid, skateboarding was like belonging to a secret organization. You were playing in the rarefied air. And the whole world knew it.
The movement continues at Shut NYC.