Dirk Vogel: Writing the History of Skateboarding
Dirk Vogel

Writing the History
of Skateboarding

Illustration by Morgan Anderson

Some might say that the only way to be successful in skateboarding is by becoming a pro. Dirk made it otherwise — by writing about it. Learn more about his iconic books — „Made for Skate” and „Skateboarding is not a Fashion”, documenting the history of skate brands and shoes.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your interest in writing and skateboarding.

I grew up in a suburb outside of Wiesbaden, Germany, close to Frankfurt. My interest in writing definitely came first. When I was nine years old, I asked my parents for a typewriter for my birthday. My friends and I had a kids’ detective agency at the time. We had all kinds of gadgets from a magazine called YPS, like fingerprint powder, secret codes, and also ‘official’ detective ID cards we received in the mail, which was huge for us when that letter came in those days before the internet. I was in charge of documenting all our cases. Most of it was in my imagination, we never caught any criminals. But even as a kid, I always enjoyed sitting at a desk writing stories.

Virginia Beach, summer 2020.

And skateboarding?

Skateboarding really hit when I was 14. I had been riding my BMX bike on dirt tracks and little jumps we built. One day my friends picked me up. “You gotta see this!” They took me to these empty swimming basins with perfect transitions on the side, in the city of Wiesbaden. There was already a full scene of older kids, like fifty of them. Catching air and popping ollies over stacked up boards. It was the summer of 1988, so they were wearing Vision Street Wear, Airwalk and Santa Cruz. The coolest thing ever. I was a little grommet with a crappy complete board with wheels that wouldn’t even turn and a geeky polo shirt my mom had bought me. I felt so uncool and out of place, but I just wanted to be part of skateboarding so bad.

So I became addicted, did nothing but skateboarding every day and at some point got somewhat good. I won the city championships in my age class and also skated in national championships in Germany, one year got second place. In 1995 they put me on the poster for the World Cup. I was sponsored by a skate shop called Gerich in my town, which is how I met the founders of Urban Supplies distribution, Jörg [Ludewig] and Christian [Seewaldt]. They were distributing all the cool brands like World Industries and DC Shoes and wanted to start their own magazine, called Limited Magazine. So that was my start in writing and learning about graphic design on a Macintosh, and I owe those guys a lot for opening the door. The first pro interviewed was Jeremy Klein in 1994, and like many people from that era we’re still in touch.

Left: Dirk Vogel, ollie on poster for Münster Skateboard World Cup, 1995. Photo by Helge Tscharn.
Right: Dirk Vogel, fakie tailslide at West Los Angeles Courthouse, 1994. Photo by Jörg Ludewig.

You say that writing for skate magazines converged your interest in writing and skateboarding. But have you or have you ever considered writing in other genres?

Yes, my two cousins had an advertising agency that published this city events magazine in the mid-1990s. So I did assignments interviewing business owners around town and covering local events. In the early 2000s I became a reporter for a daily newspaper, which led to meeting people from all walks of life and understanding how society works on many levels. Over the years I have worked in lots of different genres including eyewear, product design, luxury real estate, tech and video games. I’m always interested in what’s next and through my work I get to see a lot of things before they become public, which is the best part.

You and Jürgen Blümlein wrote two books, documenting the history and evolution of skateboarding fashion and brands — can you tell us more about them? Where did this interest come from?

I first met Jürgen Blümlein when I was an editor at a European skate magazine called Kingpin and wrote about exhibitions he organized through his non-profit, the Skateboardmuseum. In 2005 he put on an exhibit about skateboarding shoes at Bright trade show in Frankfurt. And he wanted me to write the text, in English, for a booklet to accompany the exhibit.

Ultimately that little booklet morphed into a 420-page illustrated book about the entire history of skateboard shoes, “Made for Skate”,

released in 2009. Then we decided to do a similar book about the history of skate fashion.

First edition of “Made for Skate” hardcover books at Skatelab in Simi Valley, California, 2009.

Your book “Skateboarding Is Not A Fashion” documents era-defining skateboard brands and their owners. Do you think that someday people would find interest in going back and documenting the current era?

Well, we actually plan to document the current era at one point in a book. You see, the fashion book is planned as a trilogy. Book 1 covers the history from the 1950s all the way to 1984. We initially wanted to put everything in one book, but it was just too big of a mission. First, we had to learn about how to present fashion items in an illustrated book, like the photographic style and layout — all of which was really easy in the sneakers book. But this was hard! And I had to find the vocabulary to even talk about skate fashion. So to make a long story short, we were working at it for seven years and no end in sight until we talked to Christian Hosoi who suggested, “Just make two books!” Once we decided to only go until 1984, we had a focus, a deadline and finally published that thing in 2018. Right now we’re working on book 2 of our fashion history, which will cover 1985 until the mid 1990s.

Book launch event and skateboard fashion exhibit in downtown Los Angeles for “Skateboarding is Not a Fashion”, 2018.

Your book “Made for Skate” tells the story of skateboard footwear — from classics by Vans, Airwalk, еtnies, and Duffs, to hard-to-find and one-of-a-kind shoes. How do you think these and other skate brands have evolved, are they as authentic as back then?

In terms of authenticity the one that really stands out for me is etnies and all the Sole Technology brands. etnies really ushered in the era of the modern street skating shoe with a cup sole. They took that formula laid down by the Nike Jordan and Nike Dunk and fully adapted it to skateboarding. etnies even manufactured the first run of DC Shoes! Looking at Vans, they are now a $3 billion-per-year global lifestyle company. So the brand is accessible and meaningful to a lot of people, but they are definitely doing amazing things to support skateboarding, like building concrete skate parks for their Park Series contests and donating them to cities around the world. Or their House of Vans venues, like the one in London where we launched the 10-year edition of “Made for Skate” last year. But overall, the skate shoe landscape has definitely changed and crystalized around the three big global brands, with all that comes with it.

“Made for Skate” original book launch exhibit at Skatelab skate park and museum, Simi Valley, California, 2009.

Recently Thrasher Mag, considered as one of the hardcore skateboarding media, featured a Louis Vuitton shoe ad. What is your point of view on that? Do you think that high-end fashion does have a spot in the skateboarding culture? And why do you think they are interested in it?

High fashion has always had an interest in skateboarding. When Alva Skates made really futuristic and off-kilter clothing in the early 1980s, all the New York fashion stores and labels paid attention.

I guess high fashion is always looking for something that’s underground and edgy and reserved for select subcultures.

It all boils down to how they approach it. Some fashion houses think it’s OK to steal from skateboard culture, because they think it’s so small and niche. Like when Jeremy Scott blatantly ripped off artwork by Santa Cruz artist Jim Phillips.

With that said, the Louis Vuitton campaign is much different. First of all, it officially features an amazing skater, Lucien Clarke from London, who was also involved with the design of the shoe he endorses. And second, keep in mind that Virgil Abloh knows about skateboarding, has skated himself and has been using his platform at LV to shine a light on some really cool individuals. Thrasher probably charged them a good buck for the ad as well, so I don’t see any problems with it.

Do you think that there are cycles in the skateboarding industry in terms of what’s trendy and what’s not? Nike is a good example of a company that tried to embrace skateboarding several times in the last 40 years.

Yes, trends definitely move in cycles in skateboarding. Just look right now, baggy pants are making a full comeback.

The only difference today is that it’s not just one huge trend that’s dominating at one time like in the 1980s and 1990s. There are so many trends and micro trends in play right now and so many ways you can dress and be a skateboarder.

And today’s kids are really free and open-minded and playing with it.

As for Nike, one story we found through our books is that they actually sponsored a pro vert skater by the name of Brad Bowman in the late 1970s. He wrote a letter to the founder of Nike, pointing out the significance of skateboarding, and they supported him. Skateboarders in the 1980s were the ones who embraced Nike in a big way, especially the Jordan 1 model. Today they are the biggest brand in skate shoes, which nobody would have predicted just 20 years ago. They support some of the best riders on the planet and advance the design of skateboard footwear. They make sure to do things for the culture, like support our books and let us design cool limited-edition shoes, which Vans has also done for us.

You’ve conducted interviews with iconic skateboarders such as Tony Alva, Lance Mountain, Steve Caballero, Christian Hosoi and many more. Do you have a favorite story from some of them that didn’t make it to any of the books?

My favorites are always the behind-the-scenes stories. Like when we met Steve Rocco for an interview, the night before Thanksgiving 2012 in Hermosa Beach. Just because Rocco had such a big influence on my youth with all the controversy and rebellious spirit he brought into skateboarding — and because he never gives interviews. He gave us so many great quotes and stories, which are going to be featured in the next books of the skate fashion series. After the interview he brought out some longboards and we went over to the pier in Hermosa Beach, which has this long downhill leading up to it. So we skated down the hill, and at one point I put my foot down to brake and Rocco zips by next to me and says: “No, it’s cool. Just let it ride!” It was just the kind of moment I will never forget.

Interviewing German skateboarding pioneer Titus Dittmann at Bright Tradeshow, Berlin, 2012.

“Made for Skate” already has a somewhat iconic status among the skateboard community and not only. Did you expect this to happen when you began working on it years ago?

No, not really. Like I said, we initially thought we were just making a little catalog for the exhibition. What really helped was that the whole sneakers hype became really strong when Made for Skate came out, so the 1st edition sold out rather quickly and we had a chance to do a second one and add some more pages with new brands at the time. There was also enough demand to do a ten-year anniversary edition, which launched last year, and we added over 200 pages of new material to the book. We also got to design special versions of the Caballero and Geoff Rowley shoes as limited releases for our launch events from Vans.

With photographer Cap10 and Jürgen Blümlein at the book launch event for the 10-year edition of “Made For Skate”, House of Vans, London, 2019.

Skateboarding has always bridged the gap between people from different countries, cultures and backgrounds. Would you say that all skateboarders have something in common, what makes it so easy for them to find common ground?

Of course skateboarding is not perfect and there are issues like homophobia and misogyny, which have improved over the years. Just like everywhere else in society. But I can honestly say that

skateboarding is probably one of the most inclusive and least racist cultures out there.

I grew up skateboarding with people from so many diverse backgrounds and the only thing that really mattered is that they were down to skate and share that experience. And do it with style. Plus,

by spending a lot of time out in the street skateboarding you end up seeing a lot of real things that people with a more sheltered upbringing may never be exposed to,

which forever changes the way you look at the world.

In your opinion, how has skateboarding changed in the last 50 years? Do you think it’s still as raw as it was before?

That’s a great question.

The sheer act of skateboarding will always be as raw as ever, because it’s just super hard to learn.

Taking it to a level where you can catch air on ramp or skate a handrail in the street takes just so much raw commitment and long-term effort. And that level of control will always be reserved for the few people crazy and fixated enough to put in the time and go through the pain. So that will never change. But today it’s become so much broader, like, what it means to be a skater. You don’t get beat up in the streets for being a skater like back in my day and there are so many casual ways you can engage with it, with cruisers and longboards. And who’s to judge? People can just have fun and enjoy a leisurely skate and with the pandemic right now, we’re seeing one of the biggest booms in history. Or you can also have a kid and be the manager of their career as an Olympics skateboarder (laughs).

What’s next for you? Are you planning on publishing new books or materials?

Yes, Jürgen and our photographer Cap10 and I are working hard on book 2 of the skate fashion series. It’s just difficult to find the time because we don’t really make money with these books and pay for all our travel. So we depend on sponsors to help us with book launches and research. But it is coming along, and we have amazing interviews with people like Hosoi, Caballero, Mike Vallely, Jeremy Klein, Rocco and so many more about all that skate fashion in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. We just finished a huge chapter on Vision Street Wear and interviewed their main designers and art directors from back in the day. Thanks to everyone who supported us, and major thanks to you for running this interview. The last few interviews I did never saw the light of day after I sent my portrait photo.

Why is that?

I have a condition called alopecia and lost all my hair five years ago. So I get a suspicion that when people saw my photo, they decided not to run my interview. Maybe I’m just reading into it, but it has happened several times now over the past years that the interview was ready to go and once I sent the portrait, radio silence.

Dirk Vogel

Has alopecia affected you in any way?

I’m otherwise totally healthy and maybe it just pushed me to take care of myself a bit better, to get exercise and watch my diet. And I learned that as far as skateboard fashion goes, I can probably never wear camouflage again. I’m this German, 6-foot-4 white dude who is now totally bald. When I first lost my hair in Los Angeles, one day I had these HUF camo shorts on during my bike ride down by the beach and got some interesting reactions. One dude gave me the Black Power fist, and another called out, “Here comes the German panzer division!” Not what you’re trying to hear when your hair is falling out in patches, but it definitely made me conscious that the skate fashion you choose to wear really matters! (laughs)

Dirk Vogel

Published 20.11.2020