Gleaming the Cube: David Gonzalez, Jake Phelps and the Pursuit of the Peso

Posted December 15, 2012 in Arts

Words: Danny Wilson

In keeping with one of grandest traditions in skateboarding, November marked the announcement of Thrasher magazine’s Skater of the Year (henceforth to be referred to as SOTY). For a culture that so often appeals to its supposed outsider, anti-competitive roots the SOTY award has become established as perhaps the only award in skateboarding that really matters in any real sense or at least the only award that guarantees the recipient a position in “skate history” alongside former winners and golden gods John Cardiel, Mike Carroll, Eric Koston and so on.

Though one really has to consider if the award’s position within skateboarding is down to its prestigious nature in and of its self or simply a reflection of the success of those that have previously won it. Essentially every “legend” of modern skateboarding has won skater of the year at the peak of their powers (glaring exceptions to this rule: Jamie Thomas and Chad “The Muska” Muska) but over the course of the last few years debate has arisen surrounding what the award has now come to mean as the role of skateboard magazines themselves has evolved with the skateboard culture’s transition into the digital age and the rise of so-called “solo parts” being release online.

Jake Phelps
Thrasher editor Jake Phelps

At this point it’s probably best to draw attention to the absurdity of this argument in itself as the SOTY has never been awarded based on public opinion or any real discernible logic but on the whims of Jake Phelps, Thrasher’s editor in chief. Phelps has always been skateboarding’s Marmite, a traditional Nor-Cal based punk type who has over the course of his 50 years on earth and good 30 years “in skateboarding” managed to rub up pretty much every member of the skateboarding community the wrong way at some point (see attached Jake Phelps Epicly Later’d).

Phelps bashing though is in essence a fool’s errand as, love him or hate him, the man for all intents and purposes is Thrasher magazine, or perhaps it is better to say he encapsulates Thrasher the “brand”. With his decision to award this year’s SOTY to Flip sponsored , Colombian born metal-head David (pronounced “DaVeeeeed”) Gonzalez, one cannot help but question whether the decision was informed purely by Gonzalez’s achievements on board over the last 12 months or by his easy association with Thrasher’s branding.

Something that has become all the more significant when one can only assume that the guts of their profit nowadays is surely coming from merchandise sales rather those of physical copies of the magazine it’s self. Thrasher as an enterprise, not to take anything away from the good people who put the work in every month getting it to print,shout out to amazing photographer, genuinely funny writer and by all accounts nice bloke Mike Burnet, is no longer too concerned with selling a magazine every month but selling t-shirts, beer cozies and ultimately a lifestyle.

Now it’s not just young David’s insistence on wearing sleeveless t-shirts, gurning and throwing up devil horns that cemented his association with Thrasher the brand and potentially secured his win but perhaps more significantly the decision to release his cringeworthily titled Possessed to Skate video part on the Thrasher website. Previous to the irreversible and seismic change in the role skateboarding magazines brought on by the adoption of the internet as the primary outlet for skateboarding content a part featuring a single skateboarder would only be released as part of full video alongside parts from team riders other than themselves from one of their sponsors be it their board sponsor, shoe sponsor etc.

Now, a production like this with numerous skaters, filmers and other behind the scenes types involved can obviously take years to reach fruition and with skaters voracious appetites for new content that has come with skateboarding’s shift to the digital age, waiting 4 years to see new footage from the hot young pro of the minute simply will not do. So, as a response to shifting expectations of their audience more and more skateboarders have taken to releasing “solo parts” to showcase themselves when there is no full length on the horizon for any of their sponsors. At first solo parts like these were usually released through the website of one of their sponsors but recently various magazines have begun hosting the video on their site meaning that if you want to see the new part from say Austyn Gilette/David Gonzalez/Forrest Edwards, you have to go on the Thrasher website which can only be good news for Thrasher.

Taking this all in to consideration, and if one has a natural predisposition towards cynicism, one could understand Gonzalez’s presentation of the award to be part of a broader bid for Thrasher to be the primary publisher of skate parts. With the massive decline in the sales of and the monumental cost of producing physical DVD copies of full length videos, if Thrasher were to guarantee a skater or that skater’s sponsor that if they produced 4 or so minutes of quality footage and released it through Thrasher exclusively, bringing with it more hits to their site from people eager to see the footage and an inevitable increase in the cost of their ad space, that they would automatically make that skater front-runner for SOTY Thrasher would undoubtedly become a much more appealing outlet for releasing their solo part than any of Thrasher’s competing magazines/websites who though having their own awards have nothing nearly as prestigious and significant to offer as the SOTY trophy.

When one considers the other front-runners for this year SOTY specifically Justin “Figgy” Figeruoa and Guy Mariano there are certainly questions surrounding the legitimacy of Gonzalez’s win. Mariano in particular would have been the obvious choice for a great deal of skaters of a certain vintage. Having recovered from drug addiction that essentially took him out of the picture for the majority of late 90’s and early 00’s and coming back to reach the top of his field, securing the final part in Girl and Chocolate’s much anticipated “Pretty Sweet”( a video that with the transition from full lengths to solo-parts is being considered by many to be potentially the last great full length video) and continuing to push skateboarding by performing countless tricks that this time last year would have been considered impossible or at least impossible to make look good.

To a considerable portion of the skateboard community he would have been considered the obvious choice. Though, the logic behind the assumption Mariano would come out on top is not entirely watertight. At the end of the day the award is skater of the year not skater of the decade and if one is to just view Mariano on the merits of what he has done since this time last year it is arguable that he perhaps doesn’t deserve it to the same degree as Figgy and Gonzalez. Though Mariano’s pretty sweet part is mind-blowing in it’s technical wizardry especially when viewed through the lens of what has happened in Mariano’s life over the last 10 years releasing a video part of that kind of quality is almost a prerequisite for being considered for SOTY not a certainty that one will receive the trophy and one could argue that Mariano simply “didn’t do enough for the mag” as Jake Phelps would say, to be awarded SOTY. This is just another example of the discrepancy between what SOTY is and what it is considered to be in the minds of the skateboarding population as a whole.

Mariano is the kind of legend that just seems like he should have won skater of the year but just never did and considering he is now pushing 40 and will most likely never put out another part of the same quality it seems like he never will. Essentially this was Mariano’s last chance and having already assured his position as one of the greatest skateboarding has ever seen one has to wonder should he be awarded SOTY out of recognition of his position alongside the other greats who have secured the title over the years? In essence SOTY is pretty much a skateboarding hall of fame and the notion of Mariano of all people being excluded seems ludicrous and though it may come down to a certain personal bias the inclusion of David Gonzalez alongside such illustrious company seems a little premature almost bordering on the ridiculous.

Though Mariano being passed over leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many ,when one considers the supposed criteria for being awarded the prize (a skater’s performance over the entirety of a 12 month period) it could be considered legitimate, as hard as that is to swallow when it comes to somebody as unimpeachably brilliant as Mariano. The question of why Figgy was passed over doesn’t have quite as obvious an answer especially when he appears to have jumped through all the various “repping the mag” hoops that would lead you to believe he was in with a healthy chance if not the certain winner.

Justin 'Figgy' Figueroa
A dog.
Figgy dog
Justin ‘Figgy’ Figueroa

At a glance, Figgy released a quality full part in this years Shake Junt video had 3 Thrasher covers was undoubtably the MVP on the Thrasher organized Skate Rock China tour, was on a killing spree all year in terms of always having some sort of photo or sequence in pretty much every Thrasher that came out and most importantly he had last part in the cross–marketing dream that was “Bake and Destroy” the collaborative video between Thrasher and Baker skateboards which was released on the Thrasher website and came on a DVD packaged with the November Issue of the magazine.

Most significantly though resulted in pretty much every member of the Baker skateboards roster, arguably the most popular with young skaters, the kind of young skaters that actually buy products and keep the industry afloat, wearing some sort of Thrasher merchandise at all times all year. Figgy seemed to have it sewn up, nobody and I mean nobody put in as serious a shift as he did in 2012 and the cherry on the top was his trick on the cover of the bake and destroy issue of Thrasher, a crooked grind down a monstrous Long Beach double set, some serious Tony Hawk’s pro skater 3 type shit.

But he didn’t win. Instead he got awarded a limited edition bobblehead to be sold through the Thrasher website as some sort of bizarre consolation prize. So why didn’t Figgy get it? Now this is when we get into the proper conspiracy theory stuff. “Coincidentally “2012 also marked the launch of “Thrasher Latin America” a Spanish edition of the magazine and the website with a focus on all things south of the border. Y’know yerself, new markets and all that.

And do you know what, broadly speaking, the Latin American skateboading community love? (The ones that don’t love giant jeans, flipping in and out of ledge tricks and listening to Supreme Clientele I mean.) Shitty metal bands and little Colombian-born David Gonzalez, who dropped out of school at 12 to move to the States and make it big. What better way to ensure a strong opening quarter for new Thrasher latin america than to fill the first few issues of next year with lots of David Gonzalez? The early issues of Thrasher every year always features a great deal of coverage for the SOTY and his sponsors.

Now, some would say it’s kind of ludicrous even disputing David’s legitimacy as SOTY when he is out there grinding 32 stair double sets and essentially throwing himself off buildings and those people have a point. Gonzalez is obviously extremely talented and bordering on suicidally unhinged in his selection of things to skate and would no matter what have been one of the front-runners. But what’s the point in obsessing over something as trivial as skateboarding if you aren’t gonna really obsess over it, right?

Maybe Jake Phelps thought David genuinely deserved it more than anyone else and the win had nothing to with the fact Gonzalez is the only person I have ever seen skating that most crass and money grabbing of products, Thrasher-branded grip tape. Like all things in skateboarding it’s a matter of taste and Phelps is entitled to his opinion it just so happens his is the only one that matters. But if there is any truth to all this salacious speculation then it’s a shame to see one of skateboarding’s few grand traditions being subverted by commercial concerns, just the sort of commercial concerns that people like Jake Phelps would go through such great pains to say have no place in skateboarding.

Personally I think Austyn Gilette should have won it. But that’s just me.

Words: Danny Wilson



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