The Z-Boys of Dogtown

Concrete Surfers
Creators of Imaginary Oceans

The Z-Boys were a gang of unwitting artists on wheels, turning their barren concrete wasteland, known as ‘Dogtown’, into an imaginary ocean. Their paintbrushes and spray-cans were crude planks of wood with roller-skate wheels attached. On the days when the waves at the local Santa Monica Pier were too flat, the Z-Boys (Zephyr Surf Competition Team) would go sidewalk surfing on skateboards, just to kill time.

But this was not any kind of skateboarding.  The Z-Boys were creating a whole new style of street expression, something akin to four-wheel calligraphy, sliding and gliding on the bone-breaking pavement with long flowing surfing strokes, as if they’d turned bitumen into salt water.

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea”. Isak Dinesen
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Their smooth laid-back style was completely their own, crouching down low whilst dragging their hands across the pavement, a move influenced by Pro surfer Larry Burtleman, who would nonchalantly drag his hand along the face of a wave, leaving his trademark. Style, to the Zephyr team, was everything and all their inspiration came from surfing. In 1975, the first big skateboarding competition since the 1960s was held. The Zephyr Team showed up to the Del Mar Nationals in their blue Vans Authentic shoes, Levi’s and blue Zephyr t-shirts. The crowd loved them and watched as they out-styled the stiff and upright establishment skaters. From this moment on, the Z-Boys had cult status in California.

With their low, aggressive style, signature hand-dragging “Burts” and freestyle inventiveness, it was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Within twelve months, the Z-Boys style of skating would sweep the world. The mid-1970s brought a major drought to Southern California that parched Los Angeles. This drought brought on severe water restrictions, forcing many pool owners in the wealthier neighborhoods to leave their swimming pools drained. For the Z-Boys, this was an untapped ocean of fun. They would scour the neighborhoods for empty or semi-empty pools. When a pool was found, they’d sneak in and drain the remaining water so they could skate it. They even went as far as to bringing in their own hoses and water pumps just to clear out the dank water collected at the pool’s bottom. In the empty pools of LA, the Z-Boys took their surf style of skating to a whole new level.

Every day, the skaters would try something new, pushing themselves and each other. They would skate the sides of the pool, closer and closer to the top edge as they got better. This was the birth of vertical skating, and it became the basis for skateboarding and many of the extreme sports seen today. One day during a skating session in the fall of 1977, in a pool nicknamed “the Dogbowl” in Santa Monica, the eureka moment arrived. Tony Alva pushed more and more on the pool’s top lip until his board completely cleared the edge of the pool.

He then twisted, doing a 180-degree turn and landed back in the pool, completing the very first aerial. This revolutionized skateboarding and many extreme sports. Many of the tricks performed on skateboards, and later snowboards, wakeboards and BMX bikes, would be performed in midair from that point on. In a trippy loop of karmic feedback, Pro surfers now perform the aerial manouvers that these skateboarders did.

The story of the Z-Boys has been captured in a documentary, ‘Dogtown and Z-Boys’, directed by Stacey Peralta, one of the original Z-Boys. The film ‘Lords of Dogtown’ starring Heath Ledger, was released in 2005.

Text by Howard Collinge- The Unique Creatures 

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