The first thing Gerry “Skatemaster Tate” Hurtado does when I start our phone interview is put a disclaimer on his famous stage name.
“I never got that name by being some master of skating,” he says humbly. “I tried to do some inverts once, and after banging my shins on the coping I decided Potatoes weren’t supposed to go upside down, so with the name I was honoring my favorite DJ, Grandmaster Flash. The Punk rock dudes had called me Potato Head for years, that got shortened to Tate, so, when I did the first Skatemaster Tate song for Thrasher’s Skate Rock, I looked at my turntables and was like: hmmmm Grandmaster Flash….how about Skatemaster Tate. That’s how it happened.”
In all the ways that really matter, though, Gerry Hurtado was a true skate master. Not a master like the skilled hero in a Kung Fu movie, but like the white eyebrow monk bowing in the background, or maybe he was skateboarding’s own laughing Buddha on a 48-inch longboard. Either way, when it comes to soul, there was no greater master of skating than Gerry Hurtado.
Flashback to 1988. I’m 14 and I’ve just got my first real set-up: A Sims Kevin Staab with Bullet 66’s and Indy trucks. I want the world to know I’m a skater even when I’m not on my board. That means I need some skate clothes. The nearest skate shop is a two-hour drive away and in a city my parents never have any reason to go to. There’s tons of Ocean Pacific Gear and Gotcha togs at the local mall, but I want something legit, something only a skateboarder would know about. One day I walk into Chess King and spot a whole wall of Jimmy’Z swag. Jimmy’Z is something new in my world, but I know they sponsor some of my favorite skaters. Sadly, most of the designs in the store fall into the generic, jock friendly, pseudo surfer vibe I was already familiar with. Then I see a white tee with a rasta colored logo on the front and the silhouette of a stout skater doing a nose wheelie on an extremely long skateboard on the back. I recognize that skater from Thrasher Magazine: It’s Skatemaster Tate.
Skatemaster Tate is not a pro, he’s never had a hot video part or a mega-selling signature shoe, but in ‘88, even before he’s on TV every week as host of Nickelodeon’s Skate TV, he’s one of the most famous skateboarders in the world. I’ve never heard a single one of his songs, but I know who he is.Tate is frequently seen in Thrasher doing his thing. He’s a fixture of the Venice Beach scene, where guys like Scott Oster, Eric Dressen, and so many others are laying the foundations of modern street skating. He’s also one of Hosoi’s tightest bros, and his music is a staple of Thrasher’s influential “skate rock” compilation albums.
Only skaters would know who Taters was. To me, that corny Jimmy’Z rag is a legit “skate shirt”. I beg mom and pops for $15 bucks and score the tee. People will have to know I’m a skater now.
Barge forward to 2015 and I am talking with Tate to discuss Sk8-TV, the short-lived but long-remembered Nickelodeon television show he co-hosted in 1990. Sk8-TV was mandatory viewing for a whole generation of skaters, and Tate was a huge part of it. It’s a great interview, but so much water has flowed under Tate’s bridge that going off on tangents is a constant. At one point, I mention that he was on my first article of skate clothing. He remembers the shirt I’m talking about.
“That was on a 38” or my 40” board, in the Jefferson Bowl,” he says. “In the original pic they made the graphic from, Eric Dressen is sitting in the background looking at me and smiling. That’s what got me stoked on it. That bowl was so fun. I carved it all over, and then Dressen just ripped it.”
I don’t know it while we’re talking, but, in less than a year, Tate will be gone, taken by Cancer at age 56.
It is hard to imagine the modern skate media embracing a figure like Tate. Think about it: In 1988, A big, chubby guy on a 4-foot long skateboard who doesn’t ollie and doesn’t have a pro board is a skate icon and a fixture in Thrasher Magazine. He’s got clothing endorsements and sponsors, and, sure, he’s a musician and DJ, and he’s producing music for Powell Peralta’s videos, but, in 1990, when he gets tapped to host the first weekly skateboarding TV program, it is not because he’s some pro hotshot or pretty face, it is because he’s in love with skating.
Could that happen today?
The inclusion of Tate in the pages of Thrasher in the 80’s communicated to Middle American kids like me that skateboarding wasn’t just an athletic activity, it wasn’t just an art, it was a culture, a culture that produced its own music, its own fashion…and its own kind of celebrities. In skateboarding there was a place not just for the Hawks, and Hosois, and Gators. There was place for Tate. A place for all of us.
Even Tate’s board probably wouldn’t pass the test in 2016. In the 80’s, a dude doing his own thing on a longboard wasn’t a kook, he was a guy having fun and connecting to the soul of skating, a soul that was getting lost even though the culture was still in its youth.
That just wouldn’t fly with the precious and pissy wheelbase police that regiment the culture today.
I have to ask Taters about his famous ride.
“One afternoon Steve Olson wanted to go to Tijuana and get some zebra skin upholstery for his Studebaker Presidential,” explains Tate. “On the way down we stopped at Del Mar Skate Park. Dan Sturt was there riding this really long longboard… he let me cruise around on it in the freestyle area, and I was carving and doing little nose wheelies, and I was like ‘Wow, I love this! Who makes this?’ and he was like: ‘it’s an Uncle Wiggley Snowboard second, a reject.’ Sturt had put wheels and trucks on it. I rode it in the freestyle area for an hour and I loved it and Sturt said: ‘Hey, you want it?’ I said “What? Yeah!” That was the mid 80s and I never rode anything else if I could help it.”
The Lone Ranger had Silver, Batman had the Batmobile, Tate had that longboard. That deck, a 4’ 9” behemoth, would become Tate’s trademark.
“When I grew up skating, the first stuff we did was bombing hills. In ‘75, ‘76 there was only a handful of tricks, and two of them were frontside and backside carves.” Tate explains. “I liked the stability of long boards. You know, it is like the difference between the Cadillac El Dorado and a Volkswagen. A Volkswagen is fast and maneuverable, but an El Dorado will go fast too.”
But 4’ 9”? That’s extreme even by longboard standards.
“The guy who inspired me, Ed Economy, he had a thing in Skateboarder magazine in ‘76 where he had five foot and even six foot boards. I saw that and I thought, I’ve got to have a looong ride.”
That extra long set up wasn’t an ironic affectation either. Tate skated that thing because it was what he wanted to skate, and he could make that extra hefty plank sing.
“With a 4-foot long board you can walk on it, walk to the nose, walk back, I could do g-turns on that board believe it or not, walk back to the tail, do a little manual…I just loved it.”
While filming Sk8-TV, Tate dropped into the deep end at the Pink Motel pool on that board. He even caught a slasher on the coping. “I remember when I was doing that, there was some assistant director for Sk8-TV yelling at me to film something, and I was just feeling it I was like: ‘fuck no! I gotta make it! I wasn’t usually like that, but you know how it is when you are about to do something. So I slammed a couple times and I got up and slashed the coping and I come down all stoked into the shallow end and all I can remember is Lance Mountain looking at me and saying in that funny Lance voice: ‘ooooh grindy…..’”
“That 4’ 9” was my every day board up until the middle of the 90’s” Tate recalls. “I had a smaller board for ditches, like a 38”, I had rails on the 38”. I used to do frontside rock and roll slides in the shallow at the dog bowl on it, I had to lay my hands down on it, but I could slide a few blocks. I rode a 36” inch board and wrote a thing for Thrasher where I said I was cruising on my yardstick, and a little later Paul Schmitt called me and said hey, I’m coming out with a 36” board and I’m calling it the yardstick.”
I have three phone conversation with Tate. He’s incredibly generous in every one. Exploring the landscape of Tate’s memories is like taking a guided tour through a Willy Wonka chocolate factory of everything awesome about skateboarding.
Tate knows I am big into curb skating, so he drops an anecdote about none other than The Godfather himself, John Lucero.
“It was ‘80 or ‘81 and I had an interview at Whittier Skatepark (Skate City). Before I walked in I see these two kids in the parking lot. It was John Lucero and Richard Armino. They happened to be doing slappies on the curb. I asked ‘What are you guys doing? Why aren’t you skating the park?’ Lucero said: ‘oh, we’ve been kicked out for life’.”
Always down to help his fellow skaters, Tate went into the interview with a new agenda.
“So, I go in there during my job interview and I got kind of cocky. I had had some first place park teams I had managed and I was managing NHS teams… Indy, and Santa Cruz teams, so I had a little juice. So I went into the interview with the owner with my chest sticking out, and I told him: ‘This is cool, but if you’d like me to work here I need those two little kids skating out front here to be on the park team. They need to be able to skate the park.’ The owner just flips and says ‘No way! They’ll never skate here again because they are always here and they are always causing trouble.’ So I looked at him and said: ‘I’m sorry. If you can’t do that then I can’t work here.’ He looked at me for a couple seconds and then he said ‘OK’ and totally caved in. I got up, went out and let them in.”
The rest is history. Literally. And Tate had a hand in it.
“Grosso was a little grom in those days…” Tate recalls. “Hagop Najarian was there, those guys, Lucero, Neil (Blender) and Lance (Mountain). That was their little crew. Not bad, huh.”
It occurs to me that, had Taters had that interview a few days earlier, the history of street skating, and my favorite trick, might have turned out quite differently.
But this was just typical stuff for Tate.
“I used to manage Big O, and I kind of had my own thing going,” Tate recollects. “I had the keys, and I’d keep Big O open until 3 in the morning. I was stoked meeting all these great skaters in the mags. Some of my friends were beginning to become those skaters, At the park Cara Beth Burnside would show up and be ripping it, Steve Olson, Duane (Peters) would be giving me trouble…I did that at Big O until one of the owner’s friends was driving by one night and noticed lights were on a 3 in the morning. He went to the owner and told him something was wrong with his lights because they were on a 3 a.m., then I had to stop.”
The park era wasn’t just an exciting time for Tate, it was a lucrative one. “When parks came up it was like gravy on the biscuit. I started managing teams, that was a check, I was managing parks, that was another check…writing for Thrasher…I was getting four or five checks a month.”
Of course, anyone familiar with the narrative of skateboarding knows what happened next. The park scene collapsed, skateboarding imploded. For Tate, who had as big of a financial and personal stake in that park scene as anyone, the fall could have been devastating. Surprisingly, there’s seems to be no angst or regret for Tate when he thinks about how that era ended.
“To have a park, I was stoked, but when they closed… you have to understand there was just a bunch of guys for whom it just didn’t matter. We were going to skate no matter what. When the parks were gone, we just went back to what we knew. I started going back to a ditch, the Euclid U, I used to go there at 7 in the morning before high school…then on the way to Hosoi’s there was another ditch… there was another one across the street from this church. The parks closing, it didn’t worry me. We’d go to Grand Canyon for speed or Country Hill road at night. It was: go get buzzed and bomb hills. We had the Venice pavilion, we had Jefferson Bowl, we had Bronson Canyon. On Sunday nights we’d go to this parking garage in L.A., from 11 to 3 am and bomb the parking structure. There would be 30 or 40 guys: Oster, Hosoi, Dressen, Martinez, Block, we started doing that in the mid 80’s.”
An insider in the era of epic parks, Tate soon found himself front and center for the evolutionary leaps that created modern street skating,
“First I heard that term was was when Thrasher started.” Says Tate. “Ever since we started, we skated the streets, but it was a totally different ball game, we wouldn’t say: ‘let’s go street skating’. We’d say, ‘Hey, let’s go skate these banks, or let’s go skate this ditch.’”
Like many veteran skaters, Tate is amused by the branding that eventually resulted in the term ‘street skating’. “You gotta always go to the roots. Freestyle started in the streets, nose wheelies, g turns… back in ‘75 guys were doing those going full speed down hill in Box Canyon… We never called it ‘street skating’. From there it eventually got to the judos and methods and Japans off jump ramps, is that not street skating anymore? Is what they do now street skating or is it plaza skating? It goes back to the imagination and individuality of each skater.”
Whatever they called it, Tate bore witness to some of the heaviest stuff to go down in that seminal era. While Tate was deep into the Venice scene, I was a kid in Indiana, only seeing it through tiny, static windows in the pages of Thrasher magazine. Soon I’m lost in his reminisces.
“Hosoi, all those guys…I was best friends with some of the greatest skateboarders in the world,” Tate continues. “They would put the ramps up on the walls down by the beach, and I remember Hosoi and Oster were grinding the top of this wall, the vertical off the ramp was between 3 and 6 feet. Then there was Tim Jackson was doing crazy wallride chicks, Block was doing crazy wallride tricks…you had the big ramp to the low ramp over the walls in the Venice pavilion, where you had things like that picture of Oster, Aaron Murray, and Hosoi launching over it at the same time…I was there when they shot that, I think that Venice scene is where modern street skating started…that’s where the kids started pushing it. I got pics of Christian doing little hand rails on his hammerhead in like 85 and 86…to me, that’s amazing.”
Tate’s presence in all that insanity was not a privilege granted to him because he was some top pro. It was a privilege earned by his dedication to skating, and his innate and contagious stoke
“I was a longboarder in a shortboard world, but they didn’t care and I didn’t care. I was there, still making the rounds…meeting up with skaters.”
The Skatemaster starts keeps going farther back. At one point we start talking about the emergence of the ollie.
“I got pics of Steve Olson doing a no-handed pipe transfer at some place no one ever heard of in 1975…you know, going over a gap from pipe to pipe. He didn’t exactly ollie, he didn’t slap the tail, but he was intending to get air…I still think we’ve got give that one to Gelfand, but that was a no handed air in 1975.”
Like many of my best interviews, after a while Tate and I are just talking like two old skate bros with time to kill. In the back of my mind, the writer in me is coming to realize that Tate is a sort of skeleton key to unlock the entire history of skateboarding. He’s seen so much more than what went down on the set of some cult TV show, so much more than the years spent at the pavilion and as a part of Hosoi’s entourage. It’s all there in Gerry Hurtado’s brain, a body of lore extensive enough to fill a wing of the Smithsonian.
“I was at some amazing skate sessions that will never be duplicated. I took pictures sometimes, but sometimes I just hung out,” Tate reminisces. “It took me a while to learn that I should always carry a camera…but I’ve been blessed…it’s been a part of my life. Skateboarding is what it’s about.”
Its also clear, at that moment, that Tate doesn’t feel like the ride is over.
“I’m still one of skateboarding’s biggest fans,” he says, “Now I’m like a kid again, I meet these guys like, Ryan Decenzo, Elijah Berle, I met Curren Caples….these kids are amazing and they blow me away. Meeting them is like it was in 1976 with Jay Adams and Shogo Kubo…when I met those guys we all had so much in common…I’m going out in a few hours to meet some other kids today. I love skateboarding, I love humanity and I’m here to give whatever I can give.”
On the phone, I’m thinking that Tate has indeed given me a lot in our 3 phone conversations. I’ve got over 3 hours of recordings. Only about a quarter of it is about my Skate TV assignment. I’m so bowled over by his legacy and his joyful enthusiasm about sharing what he loves, I start full on pleading with him.
“Man, you’ve got to find somebody to get this all down!” I say. “I’m sure you know guys. There is a book in you. Hell, there’s probably several. It would be awesome to have that.”
Tate still stays humble. He tells me maybe someday it will happen. He’s certainly thought about it. I find myself wishing I could drop everything and hop a plane to Southern California. Still, I know Tate has so many friends, one of them is probably better prepared and connected to put the whole story of Skatemaster Tate down on paper than I am. We get back to talking about skating. I know that Tate has had some health issues, that he has to walk with a cane, but he still rolls.
“I take it easy but I’ll never stop skateboarding,” Tate asserts “As long as I can grow old I’ll be on my skateboard for life.”
Eventually, I say my goodbyes and thank him. I don’t know how soon the Skate TV article will happen because my editor wants to put me in contact with the shows producer/director/all around mastermind, Stacy Peralta, (it still hasn’t happened), but I’m stoked beyond belief.
For the next two hours my phone is blowing up with texts from Tate. He sends me dozens of epic photos from the park days and the pavilion years. One shows Tate bombing a hill, crouched and headlong into the wind, Steve Olson hot on his heels. “The only picture ever of me in front of Steve Olson”, the caption reads, with a ‘cry laughing’ emoticon.
A few months later, Tate is gone. The outpouring of love and support from the skate community is enormous. For a few days everyone is talking about Tate again.
Still, even in the face of all that acknowledgment, the bulk of Tate’s recollections, perspectives, and knowledge have died with him.
The book will never get written. The stories will no longer be told.
We lost a priceless body of knowledge with Tate’s passage. We can’t blame that entirely on the cancer that took his life either. We also have our own apathy to blame. Tate was there for years, a million stories in his head, all up for the asking. But, sadly, very few of us asked.
Skateboarding can’t afford to let that happen again. We have no excuses.