Photos by Jean Feil, words by Arthur Derrien.
One of the best things about skateboarding is its diversity. I can’t imagine there being another niche culture out there that offers such a wide spectrum of personalities. Do Sammy Baca, Wade Desarmo and Leo Valls really have anything in common other than the actual object they choose to have fun with? Well, not really. Their approach to skateboarding is so fundamentally different that it’s almost not the same activity. Yet they are all part of this same world, and I’m sure a lot of people would be able to admire all three of them on their individual merit. Skateboarding wouldn’t be the same without the people who whole-heartedly dedicate themselves to a certain approach, and that’s exactly why interviews such as this one are so valuable. If someone has spent years unconditionally devoting themself to a vision, then they are bound to have a lot of interesting arguments to justify it. Leo Valls is a perfect example of this. His skating is the result of a thorough thought process and we are lucky enough to have him break it down for us.
Hi Leo, how have you been? I heard that you just recently came back to Bordeaux, where were you before that?
Yeah I've been away quite a lot, I spent half of last year in SF, and then I went on that Magenta trip to Japan (featured in issue 109). After that I came back to Bordeaux for a bit and left again to go to New York... Now I'm back at home, in France, and it's just rainy and cold. I can wait to get out of here...
Okay, I wasn't quite sure whether or not you were still living in Bordeaux... I was also wondering how you managed to spend so much time in the States, because it's quite hard to get visas that allow you to be out there for long...
Well my wife is American and she has to finish university in San Francisco, so we live there for half the year.
After we got married in 2011, I went to the American embassy to apply for a one-year tourist visa. The interview went really well and the immigration officer granted me a visa that allows me to go back and forth (between France and the States) as much as I want. The only condition is that I’m not allowed to stay in United States for more than six months at a time. For the moment I'm satisfied with the arrangement because I like coming back to France after having spent quite a long time out there. On the other hand, I'm not saying I won't apply for a green card once we've decided where we want to live. Finding a new apartment every six months can sometimes be a bit complicated...
San Francisco and Bordeaux both seem like two very different cities for skating, in terms of spots as well as the way the scenes are organised, or is this a misconception?
San Francisco is a very pleasant city. Its hills, its architecture and its colours make it seem unique, especially from a foreign perspective. It's a city where skating revolves around speed, control and simplicity. You learn to powerslide rather than push and to let yourself go. It teaches you to really enjoy how everything feels. Hill skating was quite common in the nineties, yet it seems to have gone out of fashion around the year 2000. I feel like it's an aspect of skateboarding that should be developed. Even if the scene is quite divided, like in any other major city, it always felt welcoming. I feel well integrated and I’ve met some great people such a Ben Gore, Evan Kinori or Carlos Young...
Bordeaux, on the other hand, is a much smaller city; it’s quite dense. Its renovation, that started just over ten years ago, created a lot of new spots and with them came whole new generation of skaters. Its marble streets, its old buildings and its lights are part of its unique charm. These things are what I like about Bordeaux. They make it standout from any other city and they are the reason why it attracts so many out-of-towners. In a medium sized city with so many little spots, it's easy to cruise around and let your creativity express itself freely.
If it weren't for skateboarding, where would you rather live? Which city do you feel has the best quality of life?
I grew up in Bordeaux. My whole family lives there, along with my childhood friends and I know the city inside out. Everything is easy here, whether it’s skating or just going for a drink with friends. Vivien Feil even recently moved out here and has set up an office for Magenta. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel like I need to be out of the city as often as possible, but Bordeaux remains my home no matter what.
You mentioned the Magenta trip to Japan earlier on. If I’m not mistaken, that wasn’t your first time out there. Can you tell us a little more about those trips?
I try to go to Japan every year. Throughout my trips, I got the chance to visit most of Japan’s major cities as well as exploring the countryside.
I also quickly became friends with some Japanese skaters; some of them even came to visit us in France. The bond we have is built from our common vision of skateboarding, a vision in which the aesthetic side prevails. Currently, in a time when the skateboarding isn’t going anywhere – in terms of technical progression, the Japanese are showing us that there is a lot still left to explore, from an artistic point of view.
Japanese culture is extremely complex and very difficult to grasp. Going back there is always an interesting experience. You learn a lot from these trips, and your return home is always quite thought provoking. Japan was deeply scarred by the Second World War and, as a result, after became very Americanised. Certain aspects of traditional culture remained, particularly those linked to art and craftsmanship – in Japan, everything has to do with mastery. Whether it’s martial arts, design, food, tea or skateboarding. The Japanese have tried to recreate American skateboarding, except it has been filtered by their culture. They produce their own interpretation of it.
I’ve been to Japan with Soy several times, he’s the one who opened me up to this side of skateboarding in the first place; he helped me understand the phenomenon. Not only have these trips inspired us, but they also gave us bearings, enabling us to compare the experience with what we were used to seeing. I strongly recommend whoever reads this to go over there and form your own opinion about the place.
Now moving on to something completely different. You've been pro for at least three years. At the time you went pro for Metropolitan, and now you have a Magenta board out. Has anything changed for you since you turned pro?
I think that it's important for each of us to try to understand why we spend so much time wandering the streets on our skateboards and how we can gain something positive from it. Turning pro really made me think about this, and I feel like it’s helped my vision of skating has mature over the last 3 years. For instance, I asked myself a few basic yet fundamental questions: how do people perceive what I put out? What is going to satisfy me and make me evolve? How can I offer something original, something that will help me standout?
I realised that if you take a step back and think about what you are doing, you can really give your skateboarding the direction you want. This reflection can help you get rid of certain rules you impose upon yourself, in turn allowing you to progress.
What do you feel it takes to turn pro? Being ‘pro’ can be quite an abstract concept, where some ams, like Mark Suciu, have tons of coverage and are technically ‘better’ than a lot of pros. Do you feel like the word ‘pro’ has lost it's original meaning, or is it simply that someone's level of skating can't (or shouldn’t) be assessed?
Being pro means skateboarding for a living. To be able to do that, your skating needs to interest enough people for companies to decide to support you financially. Right now, lots of pros and ams that are technically good athletes receive this support from major companies and it allows them live comfortably. I think this is a good thing.
Now, if we consider skateboarding as an artistic activity, then the clumsy concept of someone’s ‘level’ loses all of its relevance. I, for instance, find it appealing when someone's skating has a unique aesthetic, something that really transports you into his world. This can be done through spot selection, by moving in a certain way, by speed, by rhythm or by trying to express a message. For example Bobby Puelo's skating is the result of a thought process, just like Takahiro Morita's or Gou Miyagi's.
Now, let’s compare skateboarding to other artistic activities such as painting or music. Unless an artist's technical abilities are ground-breaking, for his art to be of any interest/relevance to the art world, he has to make it stand out by offering a new artistic vision, by inviting people into the unique world he has created, by exploring new areas of his discipline. Where would painting be today if people had only explored figurative painting and its technical aspects? That's why I think skateboarding becomes particularly interesting when it's conceptual and abstract.
But sadly, it's not an easy task as skateboarding is surrounded by this ‘extreme sports’ culture that makes people want to see skaters go higher and further etc. But I'm happy to see that, today, more and more people understand what we are doing, particularly with Magenta, so I thank them for their support.
I noticed that with Magenta you guys have tried to do things differently in terms of videos exposure.
Instead of filming for 2 or 3 years to put out a full-length video in which everyone has a part, you’ve chosen to put out shorter videos more often. Why did you guys take this route?
These days everything goes live on the internet faster than you know it, the sheer amount of skate videos that come out every single day make it necessary for us to put out clips regularly. The aim of these short edits is to get people to pick up their boards and hit the streets as quickly as possible.
We pour a lot of energy and devotion into each of our videos, so it made sense for us to keep putting them out on DVD. We feel that it's important to give some of our projects a material form, so that some of the people that are really passionate about what we do can possess the videos as objects.
By the way, our next DVD is going to be called ‘Soleil Levant’ (Sunrise); it will be longer than the previous ones and will feature the whole team.
Sounds sick, I'm looking forward to seeing that. I can imagine it'll be filmed on a VX... It’s funny that less and less videos are filmed on a VX, yet all of the footage we see of you remains filmed on that camera. Is this by choice? How do you feel about HD’s slow takeover? Do you think those cameras are adapted to skateboarding?
Yes, it's out of choice, it's because the VX creates an atmosphere that suits our company, it allows us to give the skating and the editing a certain dynamic. That doesn't mean I'm not open to any type of camera, it's just that its easy too get caught up in trying to do something really tech, and forgetting that what your are doing actually has to have a direction, has to reflect a certain vision.
To me, the most important thing is to establish a real connection with the filmer or the photographer, making sure that you share the same vision; it's the best way to have a coherent result. I need to have my say and even help with the editing, no matter how complex a task it can be.
I bet that's because of the amount of skate videos you've watched... I remember that a few years ago you were really into old videos, is it still the case?
I was also wondering if you were very bothered about any recent major productions?
I've always watched a lot of skate videos; I like to know what's going on. That includes all of the videos that came out in the nineties; they influenced me enormously, as well as the recent super-productions that have come out since. However I believe that if you are really passionate about something, it is your duty to dig up stuff that's less accessible, to search for that special something that was so hard to get a hold of, rather than simply enjoy what you can find anywhere, as it is inevitably destined for a more general public. If music is your passion, it's unlikely that you'll be into mainstream music. It's the exact same thing with skateboarding. A lot of underground projects are released every year, and they are exactly what I enjoy.
For instance, in 2012 Josh Roberts from Perth, Australia released ‘Domingo’ and Ryuichi Tanaka from Kobe, Japan released ‘Strush’. These are just two of the many creative gems that comfort me in thinking that underground skateboarding is still alive and well.