Culture

Tony Hawk at 50: Skateboarding Legend Talks Career, Fame and 'The Simpsons'

At nearly 50 years old, Tony Hawk is still doing Tony Hawk things. And that's pretty remarkable, considering just how badass Tony Hawk things are. 

Three years ago he skated the first-ever spiral loop. At 48, he landed a 900—the trick he was famously the first to land in an X Games moment that shot him to an entirely different level of fame. Hawk will turn 50 on Saturday and is celebrating with a video that shows him re-landing 50 of the tricks he helped innovate.

Tony Hawk sort of is skateboarding in a similar way to how Tiger Woods defines golf for a lot of people. He was, and is, an immensely talented skater but he also helped define the moment when skateboarding hit the mainstream in the late '90s. He helped create Tony Hawk Pro Skater—one of the most popular and fun sports video games of all time—that earned skating legions of new fans.

At nearly 50, Hawk is still a competitive skater and has become an ambassador for the sport with a foundation that helps build skate parks. He also has loads of stories in the bank from a wild (and wildly successful) career.

Hawk chatted with Newsweek and talked about his career, skating's ascendance into the mainstream, being on The Simpsons and the time he met Charlize Theron. The conversation was edited and condensed for clarity. 

The big news is that you’re turning 50 soon, how are you feeling about that?

I feel weird that it’s big news. I’m embracing it. I’m still very active, skating and doing things, so I don’t feel the age so much.

I don’t feel the weight of the milestone of turning 50. You know, I’m just happy to still be out there and sort of relevant, I guess.

You obviously already done a lot, but what do you want to do moving forward? The big goals.

I’d like to foster the growth of skating internationally. I realize that with the Olympics coming, that’s an opportunity to show it on a bigger venue but, I’m more interested in … skating starting to grow in places like Cambodia and South Africa, Afghanistan and there’s a skate community in Uganda. And to me, that’s the exciting part about how far skating has come.

Whatever I can do to raise awareness or promote the growth, that’s what I want to do.

tony hawk new Tony Hawk is pictured skating. He talked with Newsweek recently about turning 50 and his long career that helped bring skating into the mainstream. Courtesy of Tony Hawk

You kind of helped bring skating into the mainstream in the U.S. What makes you feel like you’re this ambassador and why do you take on that role?

I think I sort of fell into it.

In the ‘90s, when the X Games started, people knew my name from the previous generation. It was sort of like I had this crossover, [I] was bridging a gap. And I was still doing well. I had the experience and history with skating, I could speak to its roots as well as its future. It was never something I ever intended; it was more bestowed upon me and I was happy to take responsibility.

I remember in the late '90s and it seemed like everybody was getting into skating. Was there a moment where you realized something’s changing here? 

Before that time, especially in the ‘80s, the only people who liked skating were the ones that were devoted to it, skaters themselves. Through the ‘90s with the success of the X Games and the success of our video game, suddenly there was a fan base—that’s the shift I noticed the most, people were happy to tune into a skate event just as much as they were for a baseball event. 

Because they had this knowledge, or they were playing video games, or really in tune with the competition, they really understood the nuances of the tricks and the difficulty. That’s when the shift came, because before then people just thought skaters were wild and throwing caution to the wind and there was no true appreciation of the difficulty of what was happening.

I was young in the ‘90s when skating really took off. I don’t think it can be overstated how important the game was—I couldn’t skate for more than like 15 feet without falling off a board but I could play your game—it made me way more aware. What was the ratio of people who came up to you saying, “I skate and want to be like you” and people who said “I play your game and I love it?”

Back then it was equal. Nowadays the older generation's go-to is video games.

So you’ve done a lot in your career. Did you do anything back then that, now, you appreciate more?

At the time it seemed very cool and looking back it was by far the coolest thing: being on The Simpsons. There was no better measure of being in pop culture, being appreciated than being invited to guest star on The Simpsons. To me, that was the epicenter of cool...for having made it in a relevant way, in a cool, cultural way.

It definitely seems like a surreal thing. Everybody has their fake Simpsons avatars on social media, but you had the real thing.

And just the experience of doing a table read with all the voices there, that’s probably the most memorable thing about it to me—seeing it come to life.

hawk Tony Hawk skating in 2016. He spoke with Newsweek about skating at 50 years old. Courtesy of Tony Hawk

I can imagine there for a while in the '90s your level of fame was pretty nuts. What’s the weirdest fan encounter you can remember from that time?

Ummm, I remember I was eating at a restaurant and a woman left her table to come up to me and say hi and tell me how much she liked my work. And it was Charlize Theron.

Whoa.

I was pretty happy. I didn’t recognize her and then she got closer and I was like, “Holy shit that’s Charlize Theron.” She came and talked to me and I was like “This is too surreal.”

But it would be things like that or people kinda stopping in their tracks, you know? Literally standing at a urinal and asking to shake your hand. [Laughs.]

What do you—if somebody asks to shake your hand at a urinal what do you even say?

I was like, “Eh, let’s wait till we get outside.”  

Being such a famous ambassador for the sport, what do you try to teach people about skating? What should they take from your career?

To the uninitiated, I’m trying to show what positive impacts skateboarding can have on kids’ lives, especially kids that feel disenfranchised or outcast. Like what skating can do for them in terms of their self-confidence and their creativity. 

But beyond that, just that it’s a legitimate activity. Some people don’t like to say it’s a sport but I believe it’s a sport. It’s a lifestyle and it’s a culture and it’s an art form. It hits all those things, you can choose which you want to focus on.

When you were coming up and you devoted your life to skating, could have ever pictured this? Like where it’s a mainstream activity, and a lot of people are interested in it, and you’ve ascended to a height of celebrity where people want to shake your hand at a urinal. 

Oh, no, not at all. That’s the thing with my generation of skating, nobody got into it to be rich or famous because that type of success didn’t exist. Even the very best skaters basically got their photo in a magazine and maybe competed for a $100 first place. There was no true career that you could have from skating. That was never a motivation.

I had [success] once through the ‘80s at a very formative time, thinking that it was the biggest thing it could ever be. Little did I know....When it hit, it was something I didn’t expect at all, to be well-recognized, to be compensated for something that I did for free every day—it’s still surreal. To this day, I still can’t believe I get to make money riding my skateboard. That notion is absurd to me.

And I feel like, to this newer generation, that can be a motivation. They see that people have been successful doing it and that there are recognizable skaters out there that make a good living.

tony hawk 4 Tony Hawk skating in a half-pipe. He was the first-ever skater to land a 900 in competition. Courtesy of Tony Hawk

It seems that you’ve never gotten tired of it. How do you not get tired of doing it, of getting out and skating every day?

Honestly, it’s always challenging. There’s always something new to learn. Even at my age, I’m not trying to break records or anything, but there are these subtle tricks and tweaks I can do to my existing repertoire that I like, that I enjoy testing. I know at some point I won’t be innovating new tricks but just to be able to just do some of them and have that form of freedom is what I love.

I think at some point I only got tired of the obligations that came along with the success I had, in the sense that it brought me away from skating. It wasn’t that I was a prima donna and I didn’t want to work, a lot of the stuff that was happening was starting to pull me away from the core of why I got there. I had to bring it all back, I’d say about 10 years ago, maybe a little less. I got back to basics and was skating as much as I could, letting other opportunities fall away.

I’m glad I did. I feel like my skating got better. My peace of mind was happier. I wasn’t pulled in every direction. I was not—skating for me was not a springboard to being an actor or being a celebrity.

Is your identity is becoming a business more than just living your day-to-day life?

Yeah, yeah. And I felt like if I’m going to be out there doing this, I’ve got to walk the walk. If I’m going to be out there promoting things or talking about skating, I need to be out there actively doing it as well.

What’s your skating routine look like now? How much are you skating per day, what are you trying to do?

You’ve caught me in a crazy week because I’m trying to finish this video that’s going to be released on my birthday, so I’ve been skating every single day trying to finish this. I was trying to document 50 tricks I’ve created over the last four decades of skating.

But if it’s not crunch time like now, I’m probably skating at least three or four times a week for a couple of hours.

I gotta ask, you landed a 900 at 48, is there another one in your future?

I don’t ever make ultimatums like that, it all depends on the scenario, if I’m feeling good.

For this particular video, I purposefully didn’t do it. Because I didn’t want that to be the focus of it. I’m trying to hopefully rest on my prior accolades.

I guess it’s like I can’t swallow my pride on that. I’d rather—I’m hoping people recognize that I had more to contribute.

Looking forward—forgive me, this is going to sound like one of those questions they ask you when you’re a senior in high school—but what’s the thing in the next couple of years that you want to do that you haven’t done yet?

That’s a good question. I’d like to see more equality in skating, in terms of support for girls and boys. I feel like that’s coming much faster than it had been, say, like 10 years ago.

I think that beyond that just to do what I can to raise awareness and the need for public skate parks. That is my passion, that’s my foundation and the work I’m most proud of. We’re up to 588 parks we helped developed over the last 16 years.

You talked about this broader community of skating and it seems like that’s a goal aimed at changing the community itself around skating.

Yeah and just this stigma that it’s this boys' club. Like I said, I feel like that has been changing very quickly and the attitudes are much more open than they were 10 or 20 years ago.

Now that you’re about to turn 50, looking back at some of the stuff you did when you were younger—I’ve kinda got in mind the Jackass days—is there anything you look back at like “I can’t believe I did that?”

The most traumatic one was when I crashed really bad doing Wild Boys. Because it came at a time when I had been skating almost nonstop and doing tours, demos and really putting myself at risk but taking it for granted.  I ended up breaking my pelvis and getting a really bad concussion.

That injury forced me to rethink my values and also it showed me how much I loved skating. Because I was willing to push through a really traumatic injury at an age when people would generally sort of give up. When I got hurt I was like 37 or so....to push through that, to get back on my skateboard and keep doing it on a professional level showed me how much I love it.

You just found a way to get back out and do it again.

Yeah and having that perseverance. I wasn’t trying to get back on my skateboard because I thought that my livelihood was in danger. I just wanted to get back on my skateboard because it was my passion. And it defined me.