By Kyle Duvall
1m 1989, World Industries released the Mike Vallely Barnyard “Double Kick” or “Double Tail” deck. It was the first professionally endorsed symmetrically shaped deck, and the first to rattle street skaters out of resigned complacency with scaled-down vert shapes. Designed by Rodney Mullen, bankrolled by Steve Rocco and ridden in a legendary video edit by Mike Vallely, the Barnyard is the universally acknowledged forerunner of the modern, elliptical “popsicle stick” shape, and one of the most important deck designs in the history of skateboarding.
By the end of the 80’s, skateboarding was changing faster than even skaters knew it. Street skating was well into developing its own complicated vocabulary of tricks and styles and, in the parking lots of America, concepts from freestyle like shove-its, kickflips, and varial-flips were fully infiltrating the repertoire of the average skater. 180-no complies and step-off shove-its were mandatory. In the elite ranks, skaters were probing a whole new frontier of nollie variations and even basic switch skating. Despite all of this, the boards everyone was riding were still based on the curvy, square-tailed, noseless paradigm of the mid 80’s vert stick. Boards were shaped to move in one direction, and any extension to the deck that went beyond the edge of the front base plate was largely considered a waste of 7-ply maple.
By 1989, it was obvious that skaters needed a board like the Mike Vallely Barnyard “Double Kick” model, but most were too afraid to admit it. All those flat ground varials, shove-its, and 180’s made putting a line together on a traditional board a complicated exercise in calculating what position your board would be in and when. The noses on those shaped late 80’s decks were so drastically different from the tails, skaters usually had a whole separate bag of tricks for each end of their board. Switch skating, which was just being conceived, was mostly hypothetical thanks to those stubby noses, and nollies, although pulled with some success by the likes of Andy Howell and his peers, were mostly a ground-skimming novelty. Deep down, everyone knew that a board that worked equally well going in either direction would simplify skateboarding and open up new possibilities.
Double kick boards had been released prior to the Barnyard, most notably Vision’s “Double Vision” deck, but none were a success. Some of this was due to a lack of refinement in the designs. The first double kick shapes were basically standard concave boards with a full-length, traditionally kicked tail at both ends. A larger part of the problem was a paralyzing fear of the new, in this case the radically new. Even when the advantages of symmetrical shapes were obvious, no one seemed to be willing to be the first guy in their crew to put their foot on one, and no pro wanted to put their street cred and deck royalties on the line by slapping their name on something so radically different.
It took the converging talents of skating’s greatest provocateur, its most innovative intellect, and one of its most uncompromising individualists to really break the symmetrical concept to rank and file skaters. In retrospect, it seems unlikely anyone but the trio of Steve Rocco, Rodney Mullen, and Mike Vallely could have pulled it off. A product of freestyle skating, Steve Rocco was one of street skating’s earliest advocates. Although not a talent on the level of Mark Gonzales, Natas Kaupas, or Tommy Guerrero, Rocco was, nonetheless, a forerunner when it came to mutating early 80’s freestyle into modern street skating. More importantly, he was a tenacious advocate of street skating, using his company, World Industries, to satirize and provoke the vert dominated skateboard industry, which often saw street skating as nothing more than a novelty. When Rodney Mullen left Powell Peralta to ride for World Industries, the company gained a rider whose technical skills both on and off the board gave Rocco the ability to take on the establishment with weapons more powerful than name calling and satirical advertising. A gigantically influential skater with a formidable analytical mind, when it came to the future of street skating, Mullen was not so much ahead of the curve as he was the engineer of it. Seeing freestyle maneuvers, many of which he invented himself, filter into street skating, Mullen was in a unique position to both predict and shape the future. He soon realized what would ultimately serve street skaters best was a larger, more refined and rounded freestyle shape, or, as teammate Vallely described it: “a freestyle board on steroids.”
As incredibly talented as he was, Mullen couldn’t have put the concept of the symmetrical board over on his name alone. Street skaters may have been breaking themselves off every day to make tricks Mullen had invented years before, but they still saw him solely as a freestyle skater, and pointless prejudices toward freestyle meant, ironically, many skaters saw Mullen as irrelevant to the style of skating they aspired to. In retrospect, it’s unfair and shortsighted, but the “Double Tail” design needed another standard bearer to become a success.
Enter Mike Vallely, the perfect skater to push something radical and innovative into skateboarding’s mainstream. It wasn’t just that Vallely was one of the most popular skaters in the world in 1989, but he also had a reputation as one of skateboarding’s most outspoken and intractable personalities. Vallely had left the biggest skateboard company in the world, Powell Peralta, to ride for the fledgling World Industries, and the consensus on the street was that he had left his spot in the legendary Bones Brigade solely over artistic and creative differences. In an era when skateboarding was still nurtured by the ethos of punk rock, giving the middle finger to skateboarding’s equivalent of the “in crowd” and throwing in with the kids shooting spitballs at the back of the class established Vallely as a rider who was not only extremely talented and creative, but one who would not compromise for any amount of money. In skaters’ minds, Mike V. would never put his name on some contrived gimmick board. Vallely’s street cred was impermeable, and it would take that sort of integrity to get skeptical street rats to even consider the wildly divergent design of the Barnyard double tail board.
Initially, even Vallely took some convincing. The first time he rode the prototype, he made sure no one was around to see him skating it. He didn’t want to be seen riding it, but, true to his reputation, once he rode the shape and discovered its potential, he didn’t hesitate to get behind it. Vallely wasn’t content to simply put his name on the design and ride it the same old way either. He quickly integrated the advantages of the “Double Tail” design into his own style. This was on full display in Vallely’s legendary segment in Santa Cruz Speed Wheels’ 1989 “Speed Freaks” video. For the first time, skaters saw, in full motion, what one of the greatest street skaters in the world could do with a double-tail design. Vallely integrated varial tricks, shove-its, and nose manual variations right alongside his trademark gigantic ollies and tweaked grabs. The edit not only showcased the creative potential of a double-tailed design but also showed that a blunt, linear shape did nothing to hinder a riders ability to skate with style. At first glance double-tailed boards like the barnyard, which lacked the streamlining curves of the vert-inspired shapes of the 80’s, couldn’t help but seem clunky when compared to the sinuous sticks sitting next to them on skateshop walls. The Speed Freaks part laid that idea to rest forever. Valley’s skating was not simply innovative, it was seamlessly smooth. The segment is still a classic, endlessly re-shared by veteran skaters on social media. Beyond the skating itself, the clip’s role in showcasing the Barnyard board, a board which would help determine the future of skateboard design, was enough to solidify it as one of the most important video parts of all time.
The Barnyard became Vallely’s biggest selling board. Shops could not keep it in stock. In the wake of its success, the industry couldn’t help but re-think certain tried and true elements of board design, and the design innovations of the Barnyard deck went beyond its double-tailed shape. Unlike its predecessors like the “Double Vision” deck, the Barnyard was more than just two tail ends of a board stuck together.
The concave profile of the Barnyard was a radical departure from the norm. Spurred by the success of H-Street Skateboards and their deeply bent “hell concave”, deck manufacturers were locked in a sort of concave arms race in 1989. Everyone was striving for the deepest pockets, waviest rockers and steepest kicktails and noses. As technical freestyle tricks began to cross over into street skating, the deep concaves that locked a skaters’ foot in place actually became an impediment. More and more, tricks required skaters to get their feet off and back on the board within a fraction of a second. Mullen was one of the first to recognize this and, inspired by freestyle decks, he designed the Barnyard with a subtler, shallow concave and a flatter and shorter tail profile. Because of this concave, the board’s “pop” was quicker and the shorter point of contact between tail and pavement meant the board was at a shallower angle in relation to the ground when the tail hit. This meant less force was needed to boost the skater into an ollie. The quicker, less powerful pop also opened up the possibility of subtler application of force when popping the tail, allowing more control for technical tricks. The shallow kick also meant that, on the other end of the board, it was easier to make contact with the ground when using the weaker, less coordinated “front” foot to pop a nollie or a switch ollie. This innovation would turn out to be crucial in advancing both nollie and switch tricks.
The Barnyard’s eye-catching art, which was both a stylistic departure from the deck art of the time as well as a strong personal statement for Mike Vallely, would turn out to be nearly as influential as its shape. Created by Mark Mckee, the graphic, which featured a cavalcade of cartoonish farm animals frolicking free in the eponymous barn yard, was both a reference to George Orwell’s novel Animal farm, and an expression of Vallely’s strongly held belief in vegetarianism and animal rights.
“The original concept I had for the graphic was of a folksy looking farm setting…” recalls Vallely “Like a Warren Kimble painting. The ‘Please Don’t Eat My Friends’ concept was meant to be more serious and heartfelt than a cartoon character painting it on a barn. I was not thinking ‘Animal Farm’ at all… That was how Rocco interpreted my idea, clearly, for the better. I understand that now but at the time I felt like he was making fun of my beliefs.”
When the Barnyard hit skate shops, deck graphics were still dominated by the refined skulls and aggro images of Powell Peralta’s boards, the magnificently detailed, and often grotesque, works of Santa Cruz’s Jim Phillips, and the new-wavey neon artsiness of Vision’s skateboards’ graphics. The juxtaposition of the humorous, even cute cartoon animals, with a more serious subtext of animal rights, was not merely distinctive, but massively influential, becoming an early example of a style of graphic that would dominate deck art for the next decade. Graphics that combined graffiti or animation inspired imagery in depictions that collided childlike themes with dark or taboo subject matter would define 90’s skate art.
“Mark McKee brought Rocco’s idea to life and in the end it was hard for me to argue with it.” says Vallely. “I’d never seen a board like that before. The colors, the lines — It was a departure from everything that had come before. I’d argue that the graphic had a greater effect on the future of skateboarding than the shape, but that’s just me.”
Still, the Barnyard didn’t revolutionize skateboarding overnight. Despite the massive popularity of both the deck itself and the accompanying merchandise, there was no immediate switch to double-tailed decks. In fact, even Vallely’s own follow up to the Barnyard was not a “double-tailed” design.
“I didn’t believe that the Barnyard was the new measuring stick. To me it was just another board. No one was thinking revolution. We were just trying to design a viable option. The Barnyard was radical and I liked that, but, as versatile and functional as it was it didn’t strike me as the new standard. I didn’t think: ‘I’ll never skate another board but the Barnyard again.’ ”
Of course, there were a few imitators in the immediate aftermath (most notably an ill-conceived and generally unpopular Tony Hawk double-tail by Powell Peralta), but the Barnyard, like many other innovations, was just a little too ahead of its time to change everything instantly. Skaters weren’t quite ready to completely abandon stylish shapes for full functionality. Others had trouble adjusting to the new shallow concave and kicktail. Popping a Barnyard with the kind of force one applied to the hellbent tails of other boards of the time usually resulted in a low, uncontrollable ollie if not a full on bail. Some skaters made the adjustment with great success. Others didn’t have the patience. Subtler influences on board design, however, were evident immediately. Deck manufacturers and skaters started paying more attention to the nose of the board. Noses got much longer and blunter. The rail lines of boards became straighter; deep curves and money bumps began to disappear in favor of straight lines or slight angular tapers. Concaves gradually became less cavernous and tails began to flatten out.
By 1993, these mutations had culminated in the establishment of the capsule shaped, freestyle inspired, symmetrical “popsicle stick” that has dominated skateboarding for two decades. Looking at the Barnyard now, with its fat width and blunted nose and tail, the indispensable connection to the standard shape of today seems less obvious, but a closer examination shows the important concepts are all there: The symmetrical nose and tail, the parallel lines of the rails, the restrained concave… The Barnyard wasn’t the end of the line in board design, but it showed what was not only technically possible, but economically feasible in the market.
The extent of the Barnyard’s influence is inarguable today, but not without controversy. For many, the Barnyard’s part in creating the now standard deck shape is the first rueful step in an ongoing homogenization of skateboarding. A skate culture where every board on the skate shop wall has the same shape is a less interesting one for some, no matter how well those shapes actually work. Others see the eventual dominance of the symmetrical “popsicle” as a prime contributor to the waning popularity of vertical skateboarding. No matter what side of the argument you stand on, from a purely technical standpoint, the concepts put forth in the Vallely Barnyard “Double Tail” eventually lead to the most diversely functional and popular skateboard design the culture has ever seen. The next time you put your foot down into a nose slide, pop a nollie that goes more than an inch or two off the ground, or do anything switch, pay a bit of respect to the Barnyard, the deck that helped get your board where it is today.
Kyle DuVall has been writing about skateboarding almost as long as he has been skateboarding.