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Ryan Lay – finding the right thing

Skateboarding is in constant change and in the process, ideas and role models are changing as well. Outsiders, punk rock kids, smoking slackers in baggy pants, fearless moshers, streetwear hipsters, athletes – all these labels were or are sometimes more, sometimes less the main label in skateboarding. Nowadays, the scene has pluralized, and all kinds of characters find their place in it. If you look at Ryan Lay, he is something like a connecting link between the old and the new times in skateboarding. He went through the “classic school” and didn't get his pro status because of his Insta fame. Nevertheless, he always saw everything from a different perspective and earned his own place in skateboarding. Working at a non-profit organization, participating in an election campaign for Bernie Sanders, having his own podcast, doing self-organized tours to marginalized regions – not every pro can write that into his CV. Ryan, on the other hand, advocates a more open, tolerant, and inclusive scene, which sometimes unintentionally makes him the poster boy for a new type of skateboarder even though he still sometimes yells at his board behind a grocery store just like the rest of us. You know how it goes. To wrap this up in one sentence: there are some Ryan Lay fans in our editorial team and we’re happy to finally have him in the mag.

How’s the situation with Corona in Arizona?

They’re opening up parts of the state today, which is bad. We fumbled this whole thing so badly. I talk to a lot of friends in Europe and it seems like it has been handled much smarter there. Other than that, it’s fine for me here. I have a house and a yard.

I saw that you hiked through the Grand Canyon a few months ago.

Yeah, from rim to rim. That’s kind of a hobby of mine lately, section hiking.

How long does it take to go from rim to rim?

It’s about 30 miles. It’s hard to explain, but it’s hard to grasp the size of it till you’re in it, and the lighting is really beautiful too. We started hiking at sunrise and finished at dawn the following day. That was really magical. There’s another trail that goes through the whole state. It’s 800 miles and I’m trying to do that next March. It’ll take a month and a half.

Ryan lay bs grind

Backside 50-50

Are you doing a lot of this lately?

I just started getting into it. It’s good to deal with the demons in your head.

Are there a lot of demons?

Nah, probably not much more than in anybody else’s. It’s nice to take some time off from work. If I go on a vacation and have my computer and my cellphone, I’m not really decompressing in the way that I want to.

I read that you like to look for spots in little towns in Arizona. How is skating there?

Skating in the Phoenix Valley can be pretty rough just because most of the new stuff is near commercial spaces and it’s not very interesting to skate. I try to go to mining towns. I did this with Clem. We were in a copper mining town called Bisbee. It’s pretty wild to see what we do to the earth, but the architecture is interesting, it’s old. I mean, Europe is an entirely different world. Most of what we know here was built in the last 100 years and many commercial developments happened in the last 30 years.

"I tend to skate in short intense bursts and really try to push myself. I feel like if, at the end of the day, I don’t feel some sort of soreness, I haven’t really succeeded that day."

Clem told me how dedicated you were and that you tried a trick till you could barely walk, which is also because you skate big spots. You seem like a really calm person. What changes when you step on a board?

I’m a relatively calm person, but skateboarding brings it all out. I don’t really want to focus my board, but I’m stubborn as hell when it comes to getting through things. Also, as you age, skating takes on different roles in your life. Parts of it become a job. I also have work to do at home, so if I’m out skating, I’m trying to get something done. I tend to skate in short intense bursts and really try to push myself. I feel like if, at the end of the day, I don’t feel some sort of soreness, I haven’t really succeeded that day. Thankfully, skating is never easy for me, so every time I go out, I know that it’s gonna be a battle. I like going out with the mindset of trying to just get one thing and spending the day exploring and finding the right thing. A lot of times when I go out, I feel like finding the spot and thinking of the trick is half the battle. Once I realized I can do this trick, I almost feel like it’s starting to be over – which, as far as filming goes, is a bit of a relief. I have a love-hate relationship with the kind of mental health part of skating. We’ve almost been conditioned to the abuse. I often think if I retire from skating, and in particular filming, performing… I wonder what will take that role?

I can’t imagine either.

I also feel like skateboarding is an incredibly fickle or trivial activity. It’s good to have that outlet to work through frustrations – problems you have at work, problems you have with your relationships. I think it’s healthy to have an outlet disconnected from those things. You’re comfortable behind the grocery store screaming at your skateboard. You’re maybe not so comfortable screaming at work. There was an old teammate of mine who told me that he would get in arguments with his partner and then just take the board out of the house and focus it. I always thought that was funny.

Ryan lay fs flip

Frontside Flip

Well, if it works for him… Let’s talk about the Skate After School project you’re doing cause I was surprised how big it got.

We started as a small community project nine years ago. The point of our program was to give kids who didn’t have access to skateboarding a place to learn how to skate. Now we work with eight low-income elementary schools serving around 250 kids a week. We have an office, a warehouse. It’s definitely grown over the years. When we started, there was only Skateistan and a couple of other organizations. Now there’s a whole blossoming world, which is great. It’s also great for me to have a little responsibility outside of skating.

What is your job there?

I work with the board of directors, I handle all the fundraising, marketing, photo stuff, managing the budget, making sure that we’re on track with our annual goals. Most of the time when I’m at the program I’m filming, shooting photos or working on creative projects. It’s a lot of fun. I realized during the first few years, as much as I love working for kids, I don’t necessarily have the temperament to handle 30 screaming kids that just got out of school. [laughs]

Is this your career plan for the time after skateboarding?

In a lot of ways, I am moving into the after already. I’ll probably become a full-time staff member at some point this year. I haven’t had a lot of stability with skating in the past, so I’ve worked hard to transition into this and skate when I can.

"I don’t make a living with skateboarding, and now I’m in my early thirties […] At a certain point, you have to make some calculations."

What does “not much stability” mean?

To put it clearly, I don’t make a living with skateboarding, [laughs] and now I’m in my early thirties. I love skating, I had great opportunities and I continue to work on projects I’m into, like this interview, but I also realized that, at a certain point, you have to make some calculations. There are also other things out there I want to do and accomplish. I’m really excited for this next stage in my life and thankful to have sponsors that are on board with it, but it’s hard in skating right now, there’s not much of a middle class. There are a lot of income disparities and inequalities, just like in every other industry. There are people who have shoe deals with the big brands and they make a decent living. For everyone else, it’s kind of hollowed out.

I think you’ve found a really good balance between being a pro and doing your own things. I feel like Welcome found its own way as well. First, it was ignored from the rest of the industry, then there was this hype after which some people left. There was some restructuring and now it feels like it’s an established company.

That is pretty much spot on. When I got involved, it was a very small brand in an era of skating where established brands dominated the market. There wasn’t this cultural capital that there is now, which I think is also true for magazines and media. It’s diversified a lot. When I got involved, I had already decided to go back to college and was working at that time and then it started to take off and I think, as a result of that, it lost a little bit of its initial audience and some of the riders who were there because they wanted something that was not part of the mainstream. That happens, every team goes through those moments. Success can be scary, and you have to make certain compromises if you want your employees to make a living. A handful of us had been there pretty much since the beginning. The people who have moved on, I think, are doing well too. Chris [Milic] is doing Frog skateboards and they’re doing well and are good friends of mine. Now Welcome’s a pretty established brand and it’s nice to have a little bit of stability.

Ryan lay switch bs noseblunt

Switch Backside Noseblunt

Are you working on something with Welcome?

No, I’m not working on anything right now. I film a little bit. Personally, the trip to Palestine was the first trip I had self produced and I want to do more of that. I’ve filmed a lot of video parts here in Phoenix and it’s not getting any easier. I get a lot of joy from meeting new people and new scenes, especially scenes that are underrepresented.

You already have a destination in mind?

I have some friends in Jordan that run an organization and I heard there’s really good spots there, but it’s hard to even imagine traveling right now. I have a lot of contacts from people I met at Pushing Boarders. I’d really love to do a documentary series of sorts, that would be great.

I heard you traveled to meet Bernie Sanders?

Yeah, I was pretty involved with his presidential run. I helped run Skaters for Bernie and we did some campaigning and social media organizing. I went to Iowa and Nevada and knocked on doors before the caucuses there and canvassed here in Arizona.

Ryan lay switch ollie over

Switch Ollie

So you were really into it?

I felt like it was a very pivotal moment that I personally didn’t want to regret not participating in. I’m thankful in a way even though he lost. We all put so much energy into it. It’s kind of dangerous to believe in politicians, but I felt like his campaign was the vehicle that we needed at this moment in time to be the catalyst for change. Funny enough, I got invited to skate at a rally at the Venice Park and I got to meet him. But yeah, things at the moment are pretty rough and I feel bad especially for the people who don’t live in this country and have to deal with the repercussions.

I also really hoped that with Bernie, a sane person with good intentions would finally go to the White House again.

The media really destroyed his campaign and I definitely think that his own party joined forces to stop him. He had the momentum to get through, but they just wouldn’t hand it over to him. They did everything they could to stop him because, unfortunately, corporations control this country.

"The US is a deeply individualistic place. We kind of expelled anything resembling a collective mindset, which makes it hard to reach collective goals, like universal healthcare or simply caring about the people next to you."

He’s considered a socialist for some reasons, like, as if free healthcare is a socialist idea.

I think he’s a social democrat, which is pretty standard for politicians in Europe. Here, they align him with Fidel Castro. It’s a pretty good illustration about how right-wing our politics are. People that Americans consider the left-wing party are right-wing in any other country. We have a two-party system and both parties are captured by corporate wealth. That’s the thing to overcome.

I never really understood how it could happen that Trump got elected.

The US is a deeply individualistic place. We kind of expelled anything resembling a collective mindset, which makes it hard to reach collective goals, like universal healthcare or simply caring about the people next to you, or in light of recent events, fighting a global pandemic. So many people in the US are concerned with just their family and their private property. That leads to widespread isolation and atomization. We have a deep fear of each other. The US is founded on this concept of free, inexhaustible real estate that you’re entitled to sovereignty over, real estate we obviously stole from a native population. That lays the groundwork for some of his success, but then you a) have a good 40% who don’t vote, mostly because they don’t think it makes a difference, and b) aside from Bernie, no one was speaking to the pain people are enduring in this country. Even though Trump is a racist demagogue, he speaks in a way that addresses the pain that people are feeling, and what we’re left with is an opposition party that doesn’t care about that pain… a lot of people are suffering, whether economically and/or from healthcare problems, they’re afraid of the future. Trump presents all the wrong solutions, but at least, he’s addressing their pain. The great success in Bernie’s campaign was to say, “Don’t blame yourself. These are systemic issues and the precarious situation you find yourself in is the fault of big corporations that have captured every sector.” Unfortunately, until the opposition party changes or is destroyed and rebuilt, we’ll see more of Trump or someone like him.

Ryan lay switch bs grind

Switch Backside 50-50

It’s a weird one, but let’s get back to skateboarding. If you had your own skateboard magazine, what would it look like?

[Thinks] I don’t know if I would want to be in the magazine business, it seems tough, but I do have a skate podcast I’m involved with. I think an important thing for skateboard media is to find a way to distance itself a little bit from advertising and I feel like that’s kind of an issue. I’ve seen a lot of success at least in left media in the US with self-funded projects and I think that might be a path forward. I guess if I had to run a skateboard magazine, I would try to do it that way. In addition to that, skateboard mags have this aversion to non-skate advertising and I actually think that’s a detriment to everybody. Often, skate mags don’t take a critical position and you have this advertorial kinda stuff… In other sports media and in the art world, it’s totally common for people to review a performance or someone’s work. I think people crave that. It doesn’t need to be shit-talking, but a good way to shape a culture is by offering healthy criticism - and one thing we know about skaters is that they all have opinions. Unfortunately, there is very little editorial space for that outside of internet forums and comment sections. I always thought, is it that much of a sin to bring in a mattress company or whatever and then have the freedom to say, “well, I actually have an opinion on this video“ instead of the standard “check out this sick video“?

How is it with your Vent City podcast? Is there something you wouldn’t say?

We keep it real open. Obviously, we all have our own restraints due to our connections to the industry. Ted [Schmitz] works at Thrasher, he’s the web editor now. We’ve tried to build a culture where people understand that it’s fine to make criticism. It’s not an insult to someone’s character to offer an unfiltered opinion about a video. A lot of skate media also focuses on stars, which again is due mostly to the advertising model. That strikes me as a big issue because a lot of the most interesting skaters are not people who get paid to skate. They’re people on the peripheries and you never really hear their stories. Pushing Boarders really opened my eyes. There are so many rad people in this world. Sometimes it’s fun to talk to pro skaters, but oftentimes it’s just somebody I’m interested in for something else entirely. For example, there are some people who are organizing against bringing the Olympics to L.A. and they’re not even skaters, but they have a really interesting perspective on what the Olympics will do to the city in terms of displacement. What does it mean for skating to be complicit in that process?

So I guess you’re not the biggest fan of the Olympics.

You know, it’s here, but on an aesthetic level, I don’t really care for it, it looks pretty silly. They could be so much more exciting. I’d prefer best trick contests instead of focusing exclusively on consistency, but well, I’m not the target audience. It will be exciting for women’s skateboarding, but on the whole, the way the Olympics as a development project destroys neighborhoods and communities is always going to be a disaster.

A lot has changed in skateboarding over the last years. What was the last change that excited you and what still has to be done?

A really great thing that happened recently is that Alex White, a friend of mine, became my team manager at Krux and that’s the first time I’ve ever had a woman in a management position and I think that’s a big step forward. I think there’s a push towards more diversity in management and content creation. Shari White directed and produced that Vans video. That’s a big change. I’d really love to see some structural changes in skate companies. Employee-owned skate companies and/or co-ops, more community projects, a little more concern with supply chains would be great (I know what a challenge this is when margins are so slim), healthcare, more emphasis on mental health and well-being. I wish we could all just pump the breaks a little bit with consumption and production. Everybody needs to slow down and I definitely feel like that’s a big takeaway from Coronavirus. People are driving less, they’re working less, spending more time with loved ones. That’s wonderful because we live in such a work-obsessed economy, especially in the US. I know personally that it takes a lot for me to not feel guilty if I don’t have a productive day.