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The Mutt: How to Skateboard without Killing Yourself by Rodney Mullen with Sean Mortimer

Samuel Carlisle

Skateboarding's like indie films or Nine Inch Nails fans: lots of flakes to wade through, but some truly interesting faces in there as well.

The Mutt

Publisher: Regan Books
Subtitle: How to Skateboard Without Killing Yourself
Author: Sean Mortimer
Price: $25.95
Display Artist: Rodney Mullen with Sean Mortimer
Length: 273
US publication date: 2004-10
Amazon affiliate

At least in its popular treatment, skateboarding's been an adult's impression of Young Cool for decades now. When you think of that typical teenage boy representation -- the bored, cynical-but-good-hearted kid in the unbuttoned plaid shirt with hair long enough to imply creativity but still coming in neatly trimmed waves -- more often than not he's got a skateboard by his side. It seems to convey -- to parents, anyway -- the bewildering out-there-ness of contemporary youth: they'll never, ever pick up their clothes, but, apparently, kids are so hip on this modern world that they can all hack into computer systems by eighth grade -- things grownups just don't "get," like skateboarding itself.

In truth, though, very few kids skateboard with any seriousness. The average 14-year-old still prefers stadium-style sports like his dad, still dresses much like his dad, and looks at these skaters as Art Fags for being so showy with their "individuality". There's an outsider's reputation to skateboarding, but, in an age where metal-studded belts are sold at Old Navy, do blatantly rebellious attitudes still mean anything? No, skateboarding is just a parent's limited impression of cool and just a kid's impression of breakaway independence.

This harsh characterization of skateboarding as a pseudo-significant phenomenon is half-deserved but also unfair. A great number of truly rare and interesting personas have come from skateboarding. Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, began as a skate photographer and video director. Johnny Knoxville, of Jack Ass fame, started out shooting stunts for Big Brother Skateboarding magazine. Skateboarding's like indie films or Nine Inch Nails fans: lots of flakes to wade through, but some truly interesting faces in there as well.

Skateboarding's been around long enough for lives to be lived within it, and now we're starting to get looks back at what all those years meant. Documentaries such as Dogtown & Z Boys and Gator have appeared lately, as have biographies of Tony Hawk (who's sort of the U2 of skateboarding: great at times, but too huge and too generic to mean much anymore). Now Rodney Mullen, the overwhelming freestyle skating champion for a decade, has his own co-written autobiography, The Mutt: How to Skateboard without Killing Yourself.

Rodney Mullen's innovations are one of the chief reasons for skating's growth from a toy or bike-substitute into a more firm cultural phenomenon. Think back to seventies skating: guys in beards and knee-high white socks doing stationary tricks that actually involved dance routines. Freestyle skating in the eighties lost the dance steps but remained largely stationary and technical while ramp and street skating focused on rolling and sliding and jumping via literally lifting your board with you on a ramp. Among Mullen's many inventions is the ollie, where a skater pushes the board's tail down before flattening out the board with the front foot -- a way of leaping into the air without actually jumping or pulling your board. So instead of running up to a handrail with board in hand in order to hop on and slide down, street skaters began rolling to the handrail and ollie-ing onto it -- a much more fluid feat and far less toy-related in execution. This was skating and it meant so much more than simply jumping on a trampoline or pogo-sticking down the sidewalk.

Mullen also happened to be involved -- in a very haphazard but eventually permanent way -- with the formation of the industry-changing company World Industries, which would entirely retool skateboarding's persona. When I first became immersed in skateboarding -- around my early teens, from the tail-end of the eighties through the first half of the nineties -- skating was moving away from the basically Hard Rock graphics of the then-dominating Powell Peralta company (skulls and bones, snakes and flames) to the more savvy, more sarcastic aesthetic of World Industries. (World Industries would name wheels after tampon products, like "Light Days".) The maturation seemed to occur at just the moment I was coming of age myself. Together, our styles changed from safari-patterned Jamz shorts to (and I stutter when referencing this as a progression of sorts) mute-colored cargo pants. (Well, in 1990 it was.)

Readers with a past or current life in skating, like myself, will find a good bit about the tricks Mullen invented and the bootlegged birth of World Industries in The Mutt, but what you have to mine through is the flat-soda story of a wide-eyed, pudgy-cheeked kid who needs the approval of his overbearing father -- which might affect us more had the whole book not been overloaded with forced "creative" writing such as "my life was split into two periods: B.S., before skating; and A.S., after skating". Otherwise, The Mutt is just a heavily graphic splash of a book -- lots of pictures in "cool" slanted layouts, huge typeface and "cool" (again in quotation marks) stencil fonts with scratchy, hand-written headers. The book's clearly written more for a 10-to-14-year-old -- for the kid looking to branch out from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater video game -- than for someone trying to sort out skating's significance.

I have to believe Rodney Mullen is a more interesting person than this fan-zine write-up allows. Anyone who craves quantum physics books and has actually read the entire Bible deserves another book written about him. Outside of skateboarding entirely, there may be a compelling biography to be written about this solitary, math-obsessed figure. It just isn't here.

But despite all I've said here about the deeper importance of skating that lies under its triple-X-sized shirts (is there anyway to avoid looking like a toddler in such baggy clothes?), do you know what brought my 11-year-old eyes to skateboarding in the first place? Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future -- in those stone-washed jeans and huge white sneakers, being the ultra-hip kid hitching on the back of a bus through busy traffic on his skateboard. I thought it was cool.

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