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Monstro do Rio

Do you realize how easy it is to connect with like-minded people in the era we live in? You just send a message to a skater anywhere in the world, whom you enjoy watching, or someone that inspires you with the projects they are doing, and you have a very high chance that they’ll reply and be stoked. From there, you can develop a connection and potentially link up and build projects together.

That’s basically what happened between Sergio Santoro from Brazil, Ben Koppl from the US of A, and myself, writing this intro from my home in the South of France. We’ve basically been putting out skate content straight from the heart on a regular basis, whether it’s in skate media or on our personal social medias, got hyped on each other, and decided to travel to meet up and skate together! When Sergio hit me up out of the blue in 2018, telling me he wanted to come visit me in Bordeaux to skate together, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was stoked. I remember waiting for him at the Bordeaux train station with my friend Rémi Luciani, a super nice filmer from Nice. Sergio’s train was late, and Rémi and I started filming a line in front of the station to pass the time. I did the line, got excited, and started to bomb the hill by the entrance of the station. When I looked up, there was Sergio, all smiles, ready to share his awesome positive energy with no time to waste. We were off to a good start. One week later, we had filmed Monstro de Rua, a fun and spontaneous video in the streets of my hometown of Bordeaux. I promised Sergio that I would go visit him in Brazil as soon as I could, but I had no idea COVID 19 was gonna freeze the world for about two years, and that this visit would have to be postponed. Fast forward to 2022, when it felt safe enough to cross the oceans again, I decided to finally embark on the Brazilian adventure I pictured. Rémi, who had quite a blast filming the Bordeaux video, was instantly down, and Clément Harpillard, our hilarious Parisian photographer friend, jumped on as well. I then contacted the great Ben Koppl, also known as @rollersurfer, whom I had met under the same conditions as Sergio and who said yes without hesitation. We all got together in the warm, jungly, and chaotic city of Rio de Janeiro for a ten-day trip that would become an experience of a lifetime. One of the best skate trips I’ve had the chance to participate in on so many levels. We skated night and day, listened to amazing street music, met some unique skaters that do projects for the love, saw monkeys, had over 20 açai drinks each, and brought home this photo article that you’re about to discover, an exhibition, and a skate video called Monstro do Rio that you can watch on the SOLO website soon. Saudade!

Leo Valls

Let’s start with how you guys met.

Leo: Basically, we met through social media. Sergio and Ben are two very creative skaters that produce a lot of content on social media and absolutely skate the way they feel like, which is something I value a lot, and we connected through this. Now as skaters, we can connect with like-minded people and make plans. Ben visited me seven years ago, then Sergio came in 2018, and I always promised to Sergio that I would visit him in Rio and I thought Ben would be perfect for this trip. It came really organically.

Sergio: In 2018, I had the opportunity to visit my aunt in Berlin and do a big Europe trip. I hit up Leo on Instagram when I arrived at my aunt’s house, saying that I’m in Europe, and right away, Leo was like, “Come visit me in Bordeaux!” That got me so excited! I’ve always been a huge fan of Leo’s skating and being able to skate with him in his hometown felt like a dream.

Ben Koppl Leo Valls double

Ben Koppl & Leo Valls – Ollie over backside powerslide

So you and Ben have met in Rio for the first time?

Sergio: Yeah! Ben and I have been friends through Instagram for a few years now, and I’ve always wanted to meet him and skate together. When we were planning Monstro do Rio, Leo had the idea of inviting Ben and that was magical. We had such a huge connection.

Ben: For me, it was a really split-second decision. I had a pretty difficult autumn, bad weather, COVID, and other stuff happening; and then I got the invitation to Rio and I thought, “Nothing that I’m doing is more important than doing that.” I pretty much immediately said yes. Everyone’s down, let’s go. Sergio had a place for us to stay – it went from zero to a hundred really fast.

This was your first “real” tour, producing for a magazine, right?

Ben: Absolutely right. I have traveled with my girlfriend for work or for other reasons. The first time I visited Leo, I was living in Barcelona, working as a Spanish-English translator. I’ve always wanted to meet him and skate together, but I was basically there for work. Last autumn, I was on a trip with Film Trucks and we filmed a complete video, but the trip wasn’t specifically for that video. My girlfriend came as well, so it was 70% holiday and 30% skating really hard.

You all skated Bordeaux and you all skated Rio now. Which town suits your skateboarding best?

Leo: They’re so different! You know, I’m really interested in studying how skateboarders develop their own style and identity depending on their architectural and cultural background. I was excited to skate Rio with Sergio and study how he developed his own personal style there. For me, growing up with all the marble flatground and the small ledges in Bordeaux, I developed the tricks I like to do.

In Bordeaux, you filmed Monstro de Rua, what does that mean?

Sergio: When I was with Leo in Bordeaux, he would sometimes say “Monstro de rua!” He got it from Tiago Lemos.

Leo: Yes, Tiago was saying that to me on some DC trip. It means “street monster.”

Sergio: Here in Brazil, when someone is a gnarly skater, we say, “Monstro!” And “de rua” complements the expression for being a great street skater.

Leo: I remember that in Japan people say “Skate Baka” for crazy street skaters. Remember that one, Ben?

Ben: For sure, and Oni Push – which is like “demon push.”

Leo: Seems like there’s a skate dialect in every country and an expression in every language for crazy street skaters.

Ben: But Rio has real monsters. The street where we had dinner last night had crocodiles or alligators in the canal.

Ben Koppl Leo Valls toilet paper roll

Ben Koppl & Leo Valls – Backside Boneless and Backside Lipslide

How is street skating in Rio?

Ben: Bordeaux and Rio are super different cities for skateboarding. In Bordeaux, everything is close and the ground surface is quite good. You can skate around with a crew from spot to spot and find interesting small architectural things that are fun to skate. From the outside perspective, Rio de Janeiro is pretty much the opposite of that. While it has beautiful smooth plazas along the waterfront, the place where we were staying – on the hill – is far from the downtown area and a lot of the ground surface is almost unskateable. A lot of streets are cobblestone or brick, but something that makes skating in Rio really fun is that it has such diverse terrain. There’s every kind of ground surface from perfectly smooth plazas that remind me of Japan to almost unskateable super rough, steep hill spots. Rio also has every kind of flavor of people, music, and culture on top of it. It’s a really dynamic place.

With all the rough spots in Rio, how come your style is so smooth, Sergio?

Sergio: Well, I usually skate at the port and there’s really smooth ground and ledges. They made all these plazas for the Olympics in Rio, and now that’s the main meeting spot for most of the skaters. During the Monstro do Rio days, we skated a bunch of random spots. It was so nice to go exploring like this in my city. We would skate places that I’ve never thought about skating before, it was amazing.

Leo: We filmed a lot in Sergio’s neighborhood in Santa Teresa. It’s really hilly and there are a lot of cobblestones and super rough sidewalks. As Ben said, in Rio you can find all kinds of terrains, materials, graffiti, paintings, trees, and nature everywhere. It’s like a jungle city. It’s a big chaos but in a good way. It’s inspiring, a very interesting place to skate, and a good challenge to test your ability to adapt to different places and cities.

Ben: One thing I loved was how much the terrain and diversity of Rio made us dig deeper on those different experiences we’ve had in skateboarding. Bordeaux is a really flat city, but Leo spent a lot of time in San Francisco and is an amazing downhill skater, which really showed here. Sergio’s time in California gave him some amazing transition skills. Me and Leo’s connection to Japanese skating also made us overlap in the way we approach certain spots. Because there’s so much different stuff in Rio, everyone had to dig a little deeper in terms of ability and experience. It’s cool to get out of your comfort zone and find new ways to interpret terrain.

Sergio Santoro Ben Koppl toilet paper roll

Sergio Santoro & Ben Koppl – Knee Nosemanual and Indy Grab

Sergio Santoro Grind to hangten

Sergio Santoro – Backside 50-50 to Hang ten

How would you describe the influence of Japanese skateboarding on you?

Ben: Eight years ago, I lived for a year in a smaller city called Okayama, teaching English. I moved there because of my fascination with Japanese skateboarding. I had no connections within the country, I spoke no Japanese and I did not have a significant social media presence at that time. It was a really transitional period in my life. It was the first time that I filmed a video part and the first time I felt like I had something to express through skating. I just wanted to go to Japan to see what would happen. I was really involved in the small local scene and met a lot of my heroes: Takahiro Morita, Chopper and Dal from the Osaka Daggers, Gou Miyagi – I was able to skate with all of those guys that year – really changed my skating.

Leo: Japanese skateboarding is also a big inspiration for me. I went to Japan for the first time in 2008 and randomly ended up at the Overground Broadcasting premiere, which blew my mind. That’s when I realized that skateboarding can be what you want it to be. You can do whatever you want with skateboarding and the most fun part is to break the codes and rules of the industry and play with it. Since 2008, I went there about eleven times and even lived there. I also skated for Takahiro Morita’s clothing company Libe. It’s been a big influence and all three of us are influenced by creative skaters, people who are themselves with their skateboards and don’t care about what the industry thinks but more about what feels right and connects with their personality.

Ben: Overground Broadcasting was the video I was watching when I decided to move to Japan.

Sergio: I grew up skating a lot of contests in California. At the beginning, I was really inspired by Ryan Sheckler because I started skating at the skatepark where he grew up and was local. Seeing him all the time at the park doing huge airs and kickflip indies was so inspiring for me. My first skate video was PJ Ladd’s Wonderful, Horrible, Life. I would watch that almost every day before skating, PJ’s beautiful lines definitely inspired me a lot. Then when DVS Skate More came out, I got fascinated by Daewon Song’s part and style. I started practicing more manuals and using more creativity in my skating.

Did it also inspire you to skate loose trucks?

Sergio: Yeah, for sure. Besides Daewon, I was also watching a lot of Matt Rodriguez videos and there is one where he’s showing his setup and he cuts his bushings in half, so the trucks are looser. I did that for a while, but my skating style changed the most when I went back to high school in California in 2012. That’s when I discovered doing wallrides and slappies. In Brazil, there were not really places to learn that and not that much influence to do no complies and stuff. So seeing all these different tricks was magical for me. I started learning so many new tricks and there was a huge change in my style.

In Brazil, there’s more classic street skating then?

Sergio: Now there’s a lot more diversity, but before, it was a bit harder to see different types of styles. There are so many amazing skaters now with all kinds of styles here in Brazil. It’s beautiful to see.

Ben Koppl drop boardslide

Ben Koppl – Drop in Boardslide

What inspires you guys to do a certain trick? Is it the spot, do you plan tricks on trick lists, or are you looking for a certain feeling you want to get?

Leo: For me, it’s a lot about the feeling. I really like how sliding on the ground feels, so I do that a lot. I also try to find spots that look good in my eyes. I’m really interested in the architecture and what the footage or photo’s gonna look like.

Ben: What’s really important for me is the process of playing and experimenting: approaching an obstacle and finding a way to skate it. I went to conventionally good skateboard spots and couldn’t find inspiration. However, I enjoy that process of going to rough spots and making something work, making it look cool. Having grown up in a small town without many good skate spots, I learned to enjoy the process of making a spot that isn’t so perfect and finding new and interesting ways to skateboard on new terrain. A lot of my skating doesn’t necessarily involve super creative movements, but it’s the line or the obstacle where the creativity comes from. There is an obstacle course component to what I do. It’s fun to bring that to a place like Rio where there is a lot of strange architecture: stairs in the middle of a sidewalk or natural quarterpipes in the middle of the street. It’s super fun to figure out what tricks work even if you’ve never tried them before.

Normally as a skater, when you come to a spot, the classic set of tricks pop up in your head and make it easier to decide which one you wanna do cause it’s limited. When you guys come to a spot, however, you powerslide around, use your hands, and use all kinds of different combinations. There are endless possibilities. How do you narrow it down to finally decide that that’s the trick you want to do?

Leo: For me, the most fun is to find non-spots cause I’ve been on so many trips where you go to a spot that has been skated already and I really feel uncomfortable with this idea of going to a spot where you have a long list of tricks and you are supposed to do something different or better. The most fun thing is to find spots that most skaters are not even gonna look at and find something to do at these.

Ben: Because Leo and Sergio are both extremely talented ledge skaters, one of my personal challenges on this trip was to actually film a normal ledge trick, which is something I’ve never really done. I’ve almost never filmed a ledge line in a video part.

Sergio: When I get to a spot, I usually never have anything planned. I start skating the spot and slowly figure out trick ideas and creative ways to skate it. A lot of times, I have a trick or line that I’m trying, and in the middle of the process, I change some things. I feel like that gives a touch to some of my tricks.

Leo Valls fifty fifty to nocomply tailslide

Leo Valls – 50-50 to No Comply tailslide

Leo Valls Flamingo slide

Leo Valls – Flamingo slide

You’ve already mentioned ABDs, Leo. I guess you guys don’t have to take care of that too much with your style of skating.

Ben: If somebody told me that what I’m trying is an ABD, I would just want to be that person’s friend and skate with them because they must be into some interesting skateboarding. [laughing]

Leo also mentioned that he thinks about how a trick will look at the end. How much does that influence which trick you want to do?

Sergio: When I think about a line, I ask the filmer what they think. Sometimes I want to do turns in lines that don’t look good, but slowly we find a way, change tricks or sides, and get to a point where it works better with the filming.

Leo: When filming, there is almost something magical happening between the skater and the filmer – especially if you’re filming close-up fisheye and even more filming fast lines. You’re actually kinda dancing together with a filmer who really knows what they are doing. You almost have to adapt to the filming in a way as well, as the filmer has to adapt to the skating to make it look good. Besides that, I really like going fast. It feels and looks more powerful and dynamic. I’ve also experienced that it’s easier to edit when you put together footage that is fast. It’s about what you do, how it feels, and how it looks.

There are people who see tricks that are out of the norm as circus tricks and don’t find them aesthetically appealing, but you guys manage to combine that. Are there tricks you don’t do, cause you think they’re ugly or is every trick that feels good legit?

Ben: For me, a big part of the process is trying to imagine what good means to different people and understanding that. Something that looks good to me might not be as important to somebody else. Only doing a certain kind of skating or capturing a certain feeling of skating is like if you only ate spicy food – you’ll never add another flavor. I think when you see a good trick, you know it. Every trick is definitely able to be good, but it takes a certain kind of person, spot, and filming to bring it out. Sometimes it’s good because it’s funny, sometimes it’s good because it’s cool or because it’s surprising and not because it’s extremely fluent. I think there’s no rule you can follow, but good taste is important as a skateboarder: choosing spots, tricks, and angles that make everything come together and shine.

Sergio Santoro darkslide

Sergio Santoro – Darkslide

Did it ever happen to you that you learned a trick, and in the end, you weren’t satisfied with it, because you imagined it differently and then never really did it?

Ben: Have you ever seen me flip my board? [laughing] I have a lot of flatground tricks, but the quality is so unlikely to be good that I rarely do anything other than kickflip, 360 flip, impossible, or backside bigspin. I know a lot of other flatground tricks, but I’m gonna leave most of those to the experts.

Leo, you’re an amazing ledge skater, but you don’t want to film these tricks. Why not?

Leo: I think that goes back to the idea of speed being key to making tricks look good. For my skating, I realized that most tricks look much better if I go fast. I would rather do a noseslide as fast as I can than a nollie flip noseslide going slow. It’s gonna look more powerful, it’s gonna put a bigger smile on my face. Also, I feel like the energy you give while filming a trick is very important. If you can tell by the footage that it looks good and that you’re actually hyped to do that trick and you’re smiling doing that trick, it looks better than a trick where you’re forcing it. For me, it comes back to being honest with myself and with skateboarding, doing what actually feels good to me because that’s what I want to present with skateboarding. The main message with skateboarding is to have fun and do what feels good to you. Go with the flow. That’s what I’ve been doing for many years now.

Sergio: When I learn a new trick, I always try to adapt it with a manual or combo. For example, a while ago I learned impossible late flips, and since then, I’ve been dreaming of doing one out of a manual. Hopefully, I can get one for my next part! [laughing] I always try to adapt new tricks in combos as well. For some of them, though, it doesn’t work, because they maybe don’t look smooth in the middle of a line or combo. There are some tricks I’d love to do, but it’s a bit hard to connect.

Talking about lines, Ben, you mentioned in an interview that you prefer lines over single tricks. However, isn’t it sometimes a good feeling to fight for a single trick several times, going back to the spot?

Ben: Tricks are just one part of skating, the real art of what you’re doing is riding the skateboard: how you use momentum, how you push, how you slow down. Showcasing that is a super important part of showing how a skater actually skateboards. If I saw somebody going around town, how would they look on the board? What sort of obstacles would they choose to skate or not skate? If you don’t capture that, you miss something really important. I wouldn’t say single tricks aren’t important. It needs both to make a good video.

Leo: I feel like a line really shows the style of a skater. Pushing is extremely important in how a style is showcased, but I love to film single tricks as well. I really like fast-cut edits with a lot of single tricks.

Sergio: I think lines show a big connection of each skater and their board. It shows the ability, the heart of a skater. After landing the first trick in a line, you keep going and it’s a really cool process of how you get closer and closer to landing it. When I finish the whole line perfectly, I get so stoked. It’s different than a single trick. When I watch it, I remember the whole process. It’s like a story I was going through.

Leo: It’s all the details and the subtle things that make a good clip – all the things around the trick. A lot of people just focus on the trick and the difficulty, but what I personally care for is what’s around the trick. From the spot to the way the skater looks, the energy that is being shown by the skater, and the story behind the trick as well. Sometimes there’s a message a specific trick can bring to the table. I think what makes skateboarding so rich is not necessarily what the trick is, but what’s around it.

Ben Koppl frontside wallride

Ben Koppl – Frontside Wallride

You can show lines and especially your kind of skating pretty good on video, but it’s harder to showcase through photos. How was the photo mission in Rio?

Ben: Normally, it’s hard to get a certain number of photos, but I was really happy with how Clément handled everything on this trip. A huge part of that was that he was willing to pull out the camera at spots you wouldn’t even think of, because he knew they would look good on camera. He’s a really good photographer with an eye for what looks good and how.

Sergio: Whatever ideas we had, Clément was down to take photos. There were some tricks I never thought would look cool in a photo and that other photographers would not be down to shoot, but Clément was. Like the sequence with the hang ten nosegrind, I was so stoked on that.

Leo: For me, it has been hard sometimes to find photographers that understand what I’m trying to come up with. Often people are like, “I won’t shoot this. It doesn’t look hard enough or won’t be published.” It’s fun to work with photographers that get it and are ready to play with all these rules. That’s super exciting and Clément, who’s also a good friend, is down to make fun and weird skateboarding stuff look cool on camera.

When you guys met in Rio, was it the plan to combine your style and go really crazy or did you just go out and have fun?

Sergio: Leo and Ben are two amazing skaters that are a huge inspiration for me and knowing that they were coming to visit me was so exciting and special. I set up a new board and everything. For me, those days really were a big dream. I always remember the phrase Leo said when he had just arrived, “Feels like a dream,” such special moments.

Leo: The spots we skated came really organically. We tried planning but always ended up somewhere really randomly.

Sergio: The first days we planned more, but then we started exploring different areas that I’m usually not used to skate. We found such unique places.

Leo: It’s a really fun thing when other people come to visit, it’s almost like a trip cause it helps me see my own city with a different eye and find new spots. It helps me progress with skating my own city.

Sergio: Skating with Ben and Leo makes me see so many spots with different eyes. There are places around my neighborhood I never thought would be skateable. Seeing Ben and Leo skate them was magical for me.

Leo Valls backside powerslide Rio pyramid

Leo Valls – Backside Powerslide

You have in common that you skate differently than most street skaters, but all the three of you also have different styles, so you can inspire each other.

Ben: One cool outcome of a good trip is that you get pushed by somebody else to skate something you normally wouldn’t in a way you normally wouldn’t. So all of a sudden, you have Sergio trying a trick on something that is more of a spot I’d skate or me trying a trick Leo would normally do.

Ben, Jenkem called your style “goof gnar.” How would all of you guys call your style of skating?

Leo: I would call it personal instead of creative.

Ben: I see it pretty similarly. I have no problem with people calling my skating whatever they want to, but it’s just the skating that I do. Sometimes you have an idea, whether it’s art or creativity, where trying too hard to put it into words reduces it to just being that one thing. I try not to do that too much and leave things as they are, so they can be more free. If I had words to describe what I want to do with my skating, I would just say it. I want my skating to express that feeling, and the skating says it best.

Random second to last question: Did you guys ever play a Game of SKATE together with all tricks allowed?

Ben: Me and Sergio played a few Games of SKATE and it’s pretty close, but Leo would win if he joined.

Leo: We have to do it. I could kill you with all the switch flip variations.

Ben: I agree to not do a bunch of oldschool tricks if you agree not to do nollie flips.

Sergio: No nollie flips and no complies. [laughing] Me and Ben played a few stall Games of SKATE on stairs and they were the funniest games ever! We kept landing each other’s tricks. It was so much fun.

Ben: I think it would be a close game if we all did our own styles, but I would never play Sergio on a ledge or manny pad.

And finally: Do you guys reconnect for the premiere of the video in Europe?

Leo: Let’s do it!

Ben: So we’re filming Monstro de Berlin? But Seattle would be the next rational choice.

Sergio: Wow, Monstro de Berlin could make sense too! I’m so down, let’s do it

Ben: It just needs an extra week and a ticket.