Pro skater and philanthropist Tony Hawk started skateboarding in 1978, and had turned pro by 1982 at the age of 14—years before skateboarding would go mainstream.
“When I started skating, it was at the tail end of a wave of popularity,” Mr. Hawk recalls at the Bitcoin Conference 2021 in Miami, Florida. “But, when I say wave, it was considered more of a fad or a trend. It was like surfers were choosing skateboarding when the waves were flat. And so, when I got into it, it was sort of already dying. But, I was watching the Dogtown crew and I saw how they were doing the aerials. And that’s what drew me in. ..Those guys are flying. They are literally flying out of swimming pools, and I want to do that, however I can.”
However, Hawk was small and skinny. “I tried to fly and ended up knocking my teeth out, getting a couple concussions, but eventually figured it out,” he admits. “And then, as I got really into it, and basically devoted all my time to it, it was the least popular that it could have been at the time. So, when I turned pro, it was literally me filling out a contest entry form and checking the “Pro” box instead of the “Am” box. That was it.” There was no contract offer for Hawk. There was no celebration or anything, either.
“It was more like ‘Oh, you moved up to the pro categories. Now you’re competing for $100, first place.’ But…skateboarding went into another boom of popularity in the eighties. A lot of it was from Back to the Future. Back to the Future was a catalyst for people to get into skateboarding.”
And then skateboarding enjoyed a wave of popularity again and then died quickly in the early 90s. “And that’s when the X Games came into play around 1995…That’s the first time we ever had an audience for skateboarding. It was a home audience. And that’s when there was a tipping point: skateboarding is here to stay more than ever. Then, we released our first video game in 1999. And, I feel like with those two things it was the perfect storm of people understanding what skateboarding was.”
Over the years, when there was no money in skateboarding for him, Hawk was driven by love. He also always felt like he was making improvements. “That’s what I love most about skateboarding was that there was always something new to learn. It doesn’t matter how good you are at it. You can still improve your skills, you can still learn new techniques. There’s still new tricks still being developed.” That’s what always pulled Hawk in.
“Even through the slow years, I was able to skate, maybe not so much for a living, but I just found time to ride my skateboard, because that’s what gave me the most joy. So, in those slow times, I hustled and did whatever I could to make ends meet. At one point, I was doing exhibitions in amusement park parking lots. We weren’t even in the amusement park. We were confined to the parking lot on some janky halfpipe. And I was doing that three times a day, for $100 bucks a day for a week. And that paid my mortgage. That was it. Like it was just whatever you could do. And, for me, I was still living the dream.” He was, after all, skating for a living.
“It was a meager living, but I was still doing it,” said Hawk. “It was just a passion…”
When Hawk turned pro at 14, most of the other pros were between 18 and 20 years old. “I was this weird kid with this weird style. They used to say that I did circus tricks, because I was more focused on the tricks than looking cool when I did it. I was an outsider in this outsider activity, which was isolating, but at the same time, it gave me a fire to prove myself. And so, once skateboarding got a little more popular, I already knew what it was like to be an outsider. I already knew what it was like to get a lot of negative feedback.” So, he just pushed through.
“But also, I embraced the idea that skateboarding was for misfits. I felt like an outsider and a misfit as a kid. So, I found my community and my tribe in skateboarding and at the skatepark.” He still advocates for that.
“Skateboarding is a place to belong no matter who you are, where you’re from. And I’m proud that it’s come this far. It’s been crazy.”
On his way to the top, Hawk says he did his best to stay away from distractions. “I was so hyper-focused on being good at skateboarding that I wouldn’t allow the distractions to interfere with that, in terms of partying and going too far in excess, because I saw my peers partying the night before an event, and then they couldn’t skate the next day. Skating is what brought us here. Skating is the reason that we came to this town. How could you let that slip through your fingers?” That was Hawk’s attitude.
Activision had asked Hawk to lend his name, and expertise, to a skateboarding game they were developing. “It was exciting,” he says of Tony Hawk Pro Skater, which was released in 1999. “It was also a daunting idea that somehow we’re going to emulate skateboarding in a video game. I was excited, because I grew up playing video games. And I always loved technology.” The last video game that had been around was Skate or Die for Commodore C64, and an arcade game called Top Skater, Hawk recalls.
Skate or Die:
“So when Activision approached me about doing a game, they already had the engine going there and had little tricks—basic tricks—all these kick flips and stuff,” he said. “And when I saw their engine, I thought, this is it. This could actually represent skateboarding well given my input and the resources I have, and all the skaters that I know, I feel like we can make this something.” He says the goal for the video game was to make it something that skateboarders would be inspired to buy a PlayStation.
“As far as I was concerned, that was a huge mark of success—that skaters saw it, and they were proud of it, and they’re like, I want to play that game, I need to get a console.”
Little did Hawk know, THPS would resonate way beyond skateboarding, and even video gamers, in general. “Before we knew it, we were on to the sequel. And I feel like that was the moment where I realized we had something way beyond what I had imagined, was when they started talking about doing a sequel.”
Skateboarding changed after the video game release, says Hawk. “It got much more inclusive. There was a lot broader spectrum of people that were interested in it, because they played the game, and, hopefully, because we had good representation in the game, as well. It really leveled the playing field, and suddenly you saw people coming from the most unlikely places to be successful skaters. It was wild. I still can’t believe that we got to do that. Twenty years later, we got to remaster the first two. And a lot of people identify with that game that got them into a certain type of music, or got them into even counterculture at all.”
With the recognition that Hawk got through video game success, his profile was lifted.
“And suddenly, I realized that my name was just not my own anymore. It was more of a brand. And I was able to branch out into endorsements and promotions, and also to affect change with doing public skate parks.” It seemed to happen all at once to Hawk.
“I was getting offers from McDonald’s and Doritos, and telecommunications companies, and things got crazy,” he said. “And the idea that I was an outcast early on in skateboarding, and took a lot of pay, prepared me for that moment when suddenly I was the King Sellout. And I was labeled as such. The “hardcore skate community” rebelled against the corporatization of skateboarding.
“And I did what I did,” says Hawk. “I didn’t change my value system to deal with endorsements. I used to eat at McDonald’s. I still do. It was more like, ‘Oh, this is awesome. These companies that I enjoy, are actually paying me to endorse theme.’ And so, I just pushed on. And now, when people talk about big sponsors in skateboarding, it’s Nike, it’s Mountain Dew, it’s all of those things, but no one is getting any heat for that, because that’s just where we’ve come, and it shows how much people have embraced skateboarding on a mainstream level. So I guess I just got lucky to receive all that flack in the early time in my life.”
All Hawk really wanted to do was represent skateboarding well. “When I had the opportunity to be in advertisements and things like that, I wanted to make sure that the skating was authentic. That it’s not just exploited. They’re not using “Yeah, radical dude, super gnarly.” It’s not that kind of thing. It’s more, this is who we are.” Hawk says it’s been a blast.
“And, because of that I’ve been able to get leverage with creative control and approvals. I just did this big Subway campaign and I was very much involved in the creative of that and I’m proud of it…it’s funny, and it’s fun.”
“It is more just staying true to your passion and following it through thick and thin,” said Hawk. “I would gladly ride my skateboard any day of the week for free, because it’s one thing that I’ve enjoyed most as an activity. And now I just happen to get paid a lot of money to do that. And I get a lot of money to talk about it. So, it’s been a wild ride. But, at the same time, if you’re doing something that you love, you’re not really working. And so, if you’re in some facet of the Bitcoin world, and you really enjoy what you’ve created, or the technology you’re following, you should stick with it, even if it’s not the most financially successful in the beginning.”
Hawk first came across Bitcoin while reading about “the chaos of Silk Road.” He was fascinated by the website’s payment program, Bitcoin, and it’s anonymous side to it, as well as the fact that it was very fast and international and it seemed to Hawk that was the future of finances ….He immediately researched, “How do I buy Bitcoin?”
“I wasn’t on Silk Road,” he quips. “But I did buy Bitcoin in 2012.” What did he do with Bitcoin once he was a hodler?
“I held, pretty much,” he said. “I didn’t do much with it.”
He did donate to Charity Water. It was the first charity he know of that accepted Bitcoin as a donation. “So, in my infinite wisdom, I gave them four back in 2012 at one of their fundraisers. I was the first one to donate Bitcoin, because I thought it was cool. But, I wish that I had held on to the four. I love Charity Water. And I know that they cashed it in quickly, so none of us benefited from the great rise of bitcoin.”
Hawk accepts Bitcoin for his initiative at Skatepark.org. “We have for a little while now,” said Hawk, pointing conference attendees to his outdoor ramp stamped with a QR code. “We are taking Bitcoin donations. Our mission is to provide public skateparks to underserved areas. We’ve been doing it for almost twenty years.” The organization helped to fund over 800 skateparks now. It’s been a multi-decade long ride for Hawk in skateboarding.
“Skateboarding took decades to be on the radar of mainstream media or acceptance,” he said. “Bitcoin has only been around a little more than ten years, and it took over a city. It’s trajectory has been faster [than skateboarding’s].”