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Ed Templeton: a life of leisure

The skate legend recalls a life of art and suburban deformity

Taken from the November 2008 issue of Dazed:

“I was born in Garden Grove, California, right in the shadow of Disneyland. It’s a very run-down, 1960s-style suburbia, but I think it looks kind of cool. I like it better than all the new suburbs. I travelled the world through skateboarding at a pretty young age, and when I came back home it was really driven home to me just how weird where I’m from actually is.

We moved to a trailer park in Corona when I was still a little kid. My father ran off with our 16-year-old babysitter. It turned out that the babysitter just used my dad to get a free ride to Colorado, where her real boyfriend was, then she dumped him. We never really saw him again. After my dad left, we moved in with my grandparents in Huntington Beach. I guess I was about nine-years-old at this point. My grandparents are really strict born-again Christians, and they sent me to a Christian school in Costa Mesa. My life back then was steeped in religion – going to Sunday School, praying... all that stuff.

By the time I was in sixth grade, we had moved out of my grandparents’ house and I’d started going to a public school. That was when skateboarding and punk rock music discovered me. It was a weird time for me – going into the public school system after being in this Christian school with really small classes. I wasn’t used to being surrounded by hundreds of kids. I realised pretty quickly that I was a nerd. I didn’t know anybody there and I was kind of an outcast. The only people who’d let me hang out with them were these punker kids. I didn’t really fit in with them either, but they skated too, so it was cool. At some point I transferred from hanging out with the punker kids to just hanging out with the skater kids. After that, I got pretty much obsessed with skateboarding and I have been ever since.

By the time I was 14 or 15, I’d been skating every day for about three years. I would skate all the time with Jason Lee, and we were really competitive. If he learned a trick, I’d have to learn the same trick as soon as possible, and if I learned something new, he’d be really angry until he’d mastered it as well. That rivalry really helped us in a lot of ways, and we pushed each other to get better and better until we’d surpassed pretty much all of our peers. We started winning local contests and getting noticed.

I’m officially a high school dropout. I’d had a couple of different board sponsors and then, in 1990, I turned pro for New Deal, who sent me straight to Europe for the contest circuit over there. I quit high school the month before I was due to graduate and I never really looked back. I was in Europe for a month and there was a contest in a different town every weekend. They were a huge deal at the time – whole stadiums, full of kids. All the pros ran around in a pack and it was crazy. I was a total unknown but I won every contest I entered. I was on all the covers of the mags, and my pro board actually started selling. I was 18 and a skate celebrity. 

“I quit high school the month before I was due to graduate and I never really looked back” – Ed Templeton

I never really drank or smoked or anything. My grandparents really drilled it into me from an early age that drinking was bad, and I’d had years of watching my parents being drunk all the time. I kind of realised it just wasn’t for me. On the contest circuit, while all the pro skaters I was with were in the bars, I was just taking off on my own with my board, going to museums and being really inspired by it all. The architecture in Europe, compared to the suburbia I’d grown up in, just completely blew my mind. I came back from that trip saying, ‘I wanna be a painter!’ I started making paintings, and I carried on for years without showing them to anybody. At the time I painted a lot of portraits of my wife, Deanna.

In the early 90s, the skate industry went through kind of a bad period. I quit New Deal and tried to start up a board company but it didn’t work out. After that failed, I started Toy Machine on my own. After a year, we went over to being a part of Tum Yeto Distribution, and that was sort of when Toy Machine as it is today was born. Todd Swank was always really hands-off about the company – he let me handle all the graphics and the ads and the team and just do my own thing. I just made it kind of wacky, kept it fun. I was just trying to do the opposite of what all the other companies were doing. The skateboard industry started really growing again around that time too.

We started touring a lot to shoot the video in different spots. I was travelling around with all these pro skaters – Chad Muska, Brian Anderson and Jamie Thomas and those guys – and watching them live this crazy rock star life. They’d be smoking and drinking, showing up in different cities and hooking up with girls. I had an epiphany and realised – ‘I’m the only one who’s sober! I should be documenting this stuff!’ That’s when I started seriously taking photos.

I’d still been making these paintings since around 1990, and in 1994 a friend of mine found them all in a closet. He said there was a guy with a gallery in New York who put on art shows by skaters, so I got in touch with him. That turned out to be Aaron Rose, and he put on my first show of paintings and Polaroids at Alleged. Lots of the Polaroids were of guys’ dicks, so that made a lot of skaters think I was gay or something. There’s a lot of homophobia in skateboarding.

That sort of stuff is basically what I’ve been doing ever since. I still skate professionally, I still go on tour, I still shoot photos and paint. I’ve had a bunch of exhibitions all over the world and I had a book of my photographs published. Everything I do has been the same since then, it’s just sort of got bigger.

I met Mike Mills when I did my first show in New York in 94. Later he came out to California to visit me and he couldn’t believe that these suburbs were where I chose to live. He made this short film about my life there called Deformer – that’s the name I have for the force that the suburbs exert over the people that live in them. It’s as if, rather than making people grow, the environment deforms you somehow. Since the time of Mike’s film, I’ve been working on a book of photos about those suburbs and it’s just about to come out. It’s called Deformer too. It had to be.”

Ed Templeton is currently exhibiting Roberts & Tilton Gallery in LA. The exhibtion, Synthetic Suburbia, is open until 30 May.