Revisiting And Reconciling A Definitive Video
By: Kyle DuVall
Of all of his video parts, it is Mike Vallely’s segment in Public Domain that has followed him closest over the decades. The Public Domain segment has become more than a string of tricks on tape, more than a time capsule of 1988. Its impact has transcended generations of skaters.
“Just the other day, a young skater told me he had been talking about what street skating was all about at the local skatepark,” comments Vallely, “and someone there told him: ‘you just need to watch Mike Vallely’s part in Public Domain’. He told me he went and watched it and that it was eye opening, that it had a real impact on his skating.”
Public Domain has been a part of Vallely’s everyday reality for almost 30 years. “Ever since Public Domain came out, almost every single day someone has talked to me about it,” says Valley, but when the video premiered in 1988, the reaction to the now legendary clip was far from enthusiastic.
“At the premiere, every time a new segment would come up, the crowd would just go crazy” Valelly recalls. “When my name came up on the screen, it got the loudest cheer, the loudest bursts of anticipation of the whole night, but once my part started, no one cheered. There was no highlight moment. It gave nobody the opportunity to jump out of their seats or exclaim anything. When the part was over, I ran out into the street and I nearly started crying.”
Vallely’s initial perception of that video part would end up widening a rift between himself and Powell Peralta co founder/video director Stacy Peralta. The end result of that rift would echo across Vallely’s entire career as a pro skater, shaping the way skateboarders and the industry perceived him ever after. It took time for Vallely to realize and reconcile what Stacy Peralta was doing in Public Domain. Now, Vallely sees Public Domain as the purest expression of his skating ever captured on video.
“Stacy Peralta has always gotten the short end of the stick from me in my speaking on my past and it is completely unfair,” says Vallely. “(In Public Domain) Stacy Peralta knew me better than I knew myself. He understood my skating better than I understood it. He captured my essence. The skating that is in Public Domain is my skating today, it is a representation of how I’ve always skated. No video part after Public Domain was really necessary.”
But, that night at at the premiere, an 18 year old Mike Vallely couldn’t see what was crystal clear to Peralta: that Vallely’s worth as a skater was much greater than his impressive bag of tricks.
“I felt like he didn’t capture my trick skating,” says Vallely. “He just had me moving, moving, moving,” explains Vallely. “It was almost edited as we filmed it and so little of that footage is pre-meditated, so much of it is just ‘go Mike go’.”
The other Public Domain parts, such as the famous “Rubber Boys” street sequence with Ray Barbee, Steve Saiz, and Chet Thomas (who pulls an ollie impossible down a drop, 2 years before Ed Templeton would make the freestyle trick a street staple), were edited in a standard trick/cut/trick format that emphasized technical maneuvers. Vallely’s segment, however, was more flowing and much more lyrical, with long takes and the camera following him (or trying to follow him) as he moved.
“I had pioneered a lot of those tricks seen in some of the other parts. I had that technical approach to my skating as well,” explains Vallely. “I felt like my trick skating was not documented. In light of some of the excitement about Chet and Ray’s part, I felt kind of like: I got ripped off.”
In retrospect, Vallely sees something very different. “At the time we were filming the part, I was hoping, after all those moments we were filming we could go back and I could go: ‘now I can try this single trick, and this single trick’ and when Stacy said ‘no, man we got it!’ I thought to myself: ‘No way! We don’t have it!’ But we did. We had it. A few more technical maneuvers, would they really have stood the test of time? Would they really have mattered?”
Vallely wasn’t the only one who failed to see what was really being portrayed in that clip. The immediate feedback from his professional peers was just as negative.
“After the whole premiere was over, Natas Kaupas came outside and said: ‘oh man, that sucks, you must be bummed…’ The initial reaction of myself and everyone at the premiere was that this was a great letdown. This was not the video part that anyone expected. Most of my friends thought it was horrible. They skated with me and they knew what my abilities were and how much I was on the cutting edge of technical skateboarding. They put stock in that and when they saw the video they felt like that wasn’t captured.”
In hindsight, it’s ironic. Vallely’s legacy, from showing up in Speed Freaks riding a squared-off, double tailed deck, to his winning entry in the 2015 X-Games “Real Street” contest, seems built on defying everyone else’s expectations. As such, his view of Public Domain has radically changed over the years.
“There was no holy shit moment, in Public Domain, but isn’t that sort of true of my entire skate career? My career, like the Public Domain part, is this moving thing. There is no one moment. In 1988, I was looking towards the future as I saw it, but I was really lucky to have Stacy Peralta standing in my way. I didn’t realize it, but I wasn’t really a part of that fleeting future of skateboarding and Stacy knew it. That wasn’t me. What Stacy captured in Public Domain was timeless. Some skaters have a career that is kind of like a highlight reel. Sure, I could have a highlight reel edited together of what I have done on a skateboard but it would never truly represent my skating. Public Domain is what represents my skating.”
It was not just the skating in Public Domain that wound up being influential. The portrayal of Vallely himself would go on to have a huge impact. The introverted, acne-scarred kid shying away from the camera was someone very familiar, and, in spirit, very close, to most kids who chose to ride a skateboard in the 1980’s. Even if they couldn’t ride like Mike Vallely, they saw themselves when they watched his part. The young Vallely, however had just as much trouble reconciling the personal image projected in Public Domain as he did with its portrayal of his skating.
“There is an awkwardness and a shyness about me in that part that doesn’t fit with what you think about when you think about any type of athlete or celebrity or professional skateboarder,” says Vallely. “I saw the video, I saw how awkward and off putting I looked at some moments. I had acne, and I had this sort of limp wristed style with the way I held my hands, and I wasn’t aware of it until I saw it on video. When I saw it I was devastated, I thought: ‘I look so alein. I’m making skateboarding look timid.’”
But, out in the streets, among the skaters, that sort of vulnerability had a much different and much greater meaning.
“When I started traveling around, I saw kids with shaved heads and army pants skating around emulating that style,” recalls Vallely. “My peers, pro skaters, were turned off by it, how alien and how awkward I came across, but that is who we were as skaters. A lot of pros presented themselves as pretty boys at that time. They accepted the idea of the pro skater as rock star, but it wasn’t true to the reality of a lot of us who skated,” explains Vallely. “Eventually, I realized that Public Domain helped give people a voice, a freedom to be as awkward as they were. People were thinking: ‘he’s a pro skater and he looks like that and acts like that?’ It was liberating. People have told me since the eighties: ‘you meant so much to me because I felt like a weirdo and I was watching a Bones Brigade video and there was this weirdo starring in it’. The thing is, I didn’t want to be the weirdo.”
The way his segment was set apart in the video was Peralta doing Vallely a great honor. The fluidity and relentless movement of the camera and the way Peralta interjects footage of his own skating into Valley’s part, through Vallely visiting the Smithsonian Museum, clearly shows a respect and deep understanding for Vallely’s place in the ongoing history of skating. For Peralta, skating had started in the streets, and Vallely was part of a new wave of skaters taking them back. Seen in that context, the way Vallely’s Public Domain part is put together, and Peralta’s presence in it, not just as a director, but as an actual skater, presents Vallely as a natural heir to Peralta’s own legacy.
“The care and love Stacy Peralta put into that video part, that he would put his own skating in with my skating, that is a great honor, but when it happened back then I was like: ‘this is messed up. Can you believe that?’ I was a kid. I was a dumb kid…” Valley comments. “What Stacy captured in Public Domain was timeless. That’s a gift he gave me. He valued me and my skating so greatly that he would single me out, and he cut in his own skating to tell this greater story of the history of skating through my part. That is crazy he gave me that. Now I am glad he did it the way he did, and I feel the need to apologize for my reaction to that video when it came out and the kind of grudge I held for many years about it. In the end, as we stand here to today I am just so thankful, so thankful for Stacy.”
He’s even come to terms with the infamous “run through the graveyard”.
“I loved Stacy Peralta’s storytelling in his videos Video Show, Future Primitive, Animal Chin; I would have killed to star in any of those videos, but when it came to my skating, I had my own vision, and when he said: ‘Hey, I want you to pick up your board and run through this graveyard…’ instead of thinking: this is Stacy Peralta, this is a Bones Brigade video, I was like: hold on a second, I don’t want to do this… I held so many bad feelings about Public Domain for so long, but the end result is that Public Domain lives and it tells its own story and it is much greater than that moment. I have no problems now about running through the graveyard, I think it does add something.”
In essence, for an 18 year old Vallely, the choice to powerslide down the road not taken in Public Domain did not seem like his own, it felt imposed by Stacy Peralta, and that was at the heart of so much anxiety, anxiety that would eventually become public. The passage of time, however, has told a different story for Public Domain. What remains is the vision of Vallely barging through an environment that combines rundown city streets, empty urban plazas, and some of the most famous monuments of our nation, into one landscape. The legacy Peralta crafted, even if it was unknown to a young Mike Vallely, was one of liberation through radical re-definition. It is a vision of a kid on a skateboard, not changing the whole world, but changing his world and the world of his fellow skaters. That vision has endured not because of some single jaw-dropping trick or line. It endures because it is about what skateboarding meant in 1988, and what riding a skateboard will always mean.
Kyle DuVall has been writing about skateboarding almost as long as he has been skateboarding.