Q+A: Stevie Williams
“A LOT OF MY TATTOOS ARE RANDOM—KIND OF WRETCHED, REALLY—BUT THEY ALL HAVE MEANINGS TO ME. AT THE END OF THE DAY IT’S MY BODY AND I’LL PUT ON IT WHAT EVER I WANT TO.” – Stevie Williams
“Professional skater” sounds as if it would be a pretty easy job: you get to travel all over the place and get paid to skate. not so fast. At its core, being a great pro skater isn’t just one job; it’s really more like four jobs wrapped into one. Few people have ever understood this part of it greater than Stevie Williams. in order to be a successful pro you can’t just be a skater—you need to become an icon. Knowing this, Williams made himself a brand. he started his own skating and clothing company, DGK (Dirty Ghetto Kids), appeared in video games, fused the world of hip-hop with that of skating, and, when there was time left over, he’d get on his board and become one of the most respected technical skaters in the world. here, Williams talks about building that brand, the crazy risk he took to become a pro, and some of the ink he has that drives his mother insane.
INKED: How did you get your start in skateboarding?
STEVIE WILLIAMS: I started skating 20 years ago. From the first moment that I could land an ollie I knew that was what I wanted to do. When I figured out that you could turn professional and make money while traveling around the world to ride a skateboard, I knew that’s what I would be doing for the rest of my life. And I stuck with it.
How old were you when you turned pro?
I went pro at 19, in 1999. From 2000 through now I have been able to maintain a healthy 12-year career as a professional skater. I started my own brand when I was 22, called DGK. At that time I wanted to express my creativity that I had learned through skateboarding and my physical skills with my friends we handpicked to represent the brand. Fast-forward 10 years later and we have probably one of the most innovative street wear–skateboard companies that is pretty dominant over any other skateboard lifestyle company right now. It’s just hard work, blessing, and skills. We have a great distribution company and a good team that represents the brand.
Was running a clothing brand as natural of a fit for you?
I’ve always had brand awareness, but it isn’t just me in charge of the brand. I have a company and a partner to smooth the mechanics of the brand so I can go out there and work, promote, and skate. So the brand can have some legs.
Tell us a little bit about your signature shoe that Supra just released.
The new shoe is called the S1W from Supra. They asked for my input and I pretty much told them that I wanted a classic- looking shoe that not only has the Supra feel to it but also represents me and the shoes I like to skate in. When they brought that first sample to the table I told them right away that they nailed it and we should move forward right there. It’s super hot, it’s got about six different color waves. It’s a big high- top shoe. It’s pretty dope.
Obviously the shoe’s name—the S1W—are your initials, but is it also a shout-out to Public Enemy’s security detail, the S1W?
Kind of. I think that the feel of it with the black has a militant style. It’s an innovative brand that Supra and I have together, and the name fit. It’s a dope name that we thought totally represented that shoe.
Can you describe the creative process that goes into creating a new trick? Is it something that often happens organically while skating, or do you think about it off the board for a while before attempting it?
You have to think of the trick in your head before you go try it. You got to go there, skate, feel it out, and then try the trick. If it works, you work on it and film it. If not, you move on and try another trick. You need to be creative enough so that you leave the day with something healthy. Every day isn’t the same. It’s always a battle when you hop on a skateboard and go skate if you are filming or taking photos. If you are just skating for fun, then it doesn’t really matter. I haven’t really skated for fun in a long time.
That’s always a pitfall of turning something you love into a profession. Skating is always fun, but it’s still a job. It’s not a bad job to have, but it’s still a job.
How did you decide that being a technical skater was your niche?
Years and years of skating. It’s like basketball. You might start off dribbling really good and having a nice 15- or 20-foot shot. Yet as you play ball and learn ball and become more experienced, who knows? You might become one of the better three-point shooters in the game. You still have to start off with basics. Learn your craft and find out what you’re good at and improve your craft. Some skaters are good at everything while others are only good at a few things. Just because you are good at only a few things doesn’t mean that you aren’t a great skateboarder. You just need to practice that thing and make sure that you can dominate that skill. That’s what I’m pretty much known for. Being really good at the things that are more technical and being real creative.
Do you feel like your tattoos are another way to showcase your originality and creativity?
My tattoos are what I have experienced in my life. What I have and what I stand for in my life. A lot of my tattoos are pretty random—kind of wretched, really—but they all mean something to me. At the end of the day it’s my body and I’ll put on it whatever I want to.
What are some of the pieces you have that stand out?
I have a huge tattoo of a heart with my mom’s name and “I Love You, Mom.” On top of that, I have a scroll that a couple of my friends also have. I have “San Francisco” on the left side of my arm and “Philadelphia” on the right side of my arm. When I was younger, I went out from Philadelphia to San Francisco to skate. On my back I’ve got an Uzi shooting out money—a money gun. At that point in my life I felt that was what life was like. I like to share these moments and so it was like a party gun popping off. On my chest I have “Hard to Impress.” I have so many tattoos now it’s hard to remember them all. I have a bunch of DGK tattoos, a bunch of Stevie Williams tattoos. I’m not done. I just got another tattoo done the other day. It says “Urban Legend” in Spanish. I look at myself as a walking urban legend.
I haven’t given up skateboarding but I’m still walking with the stature of a legend. I’ve got my son Paris’s name with an Eiffel Tower, some family tributes.
Are there certain artists or studios that you prefer to go to?
Nah, I don’t care. I’ve got some wretched tattoos. It don’t matter to me. I just make sure that shit is clean. I’ve gotten a lot of tattoos in different places and different parts of the world. All that matters is what they mean to me, not to anyone else. As long as that needle’s clean, baby.
A dodgy tattoo doesn’t take away from the story or the meaning.
Yeah, [and] I got a couple of them. My mom don’t like my Uzi spitting out money on my back. I was just having a great time in Australia a couple of years ago. I was stressing from all the bills and child support. At that point of my life in Australia I felt as if I was relieved from all the stuff I had been tangled up with the past couple of years. I had a chance to free myself and not worry about how much money I was spending or how I was spending or who I was spending it on. I just didn’t give a fuck. For a good three weeks I just partied. Money gun. I knew that I had to go home and hear my accountant talk shit about how much money I spent. So this is how I remembered it. I was just firing off as much as I wanted, however I wanted, whenever I wanted. Everything is in moments—nothing lasts forever.
You mentioned your tattoos of San Francisco and Philadelphia. Did you go to the West Coast because that’s where the majority of the skate scene was at the time?
When I was 15 I hitchhiked from Philadelphia to San Francisco.
When you were 15? That had to be a pretty crazy experience for a 15-year-old.
At the time it wasn’t that crazy to me. When you look at it now, it is pretty crazy. I wanted to get sponsored and turn pro. I wanted to make more money and get a bigger name. I could do that if I went to where the money was, and that was San Francisco.
Even though that trip was the first step in a very successful career, is it something that you would want your own children to do in the future? That’s the thing—my son doesn’t have to grow up as fast as I did.I had to grow up fast living on the streets of Philadelphia. My mom kicked me out when I was 10. But I didn’t get into selling drugs and shit; I got into skateboarding. By the time I was 14 I’d decided that was all I wanted to do. I spent a lot of time on the street being homeless and wishing that I could be in the position that I am now. It takes a lot of time, patience, hard luck.
Do you ever wonder how things would have turned out if you hadn’t found skateboarding?
Man, I think about that all of the time. I don’t know where my life would be. I’m so blessed that I had the opportunities and that I took on the opportunities to alter my life. Actually being known as an innovator of a craft is amazing. I’ve been around the world—the whole world—and nobody can do what I can do. Once you understand that and after you have traveled the world, after you’ve been everywhere twice and you get respect from people everywhere you go, there ain’t nowhere else to go. You can’t go to Mars. Once I understood that I was one of the best in the whole world, I was glad that I had made those choices.
Traveling around the world seems like it would have been an impossible pipe dream for you when you were growing up.
I grew up without any boundaries. So my idea of the American dream isn’t the same as most people’s. I never had the American dream. I just had my dream.
What’s the farthest away from home that you have been skating and still been recognized by people?
Everywhere. [Laughs.] From Finland to Switzerland to Australia to China to Mexico to the U.K. to South Africa. Everyone knows Stevie Williams. I had to realize that. … When people realize that you are an original and innovative kind of skater, you get respect for that.
My whole career is based on that originality. The integrity lies in that originality.
One of the most prominent places for a skater to be featured is in one of the Tony Hawk Pro Skater games, and you’ve been in more than a few. What was it like to see yourself in a video game?
It’s crazy. Doing all of the motion capture stuff, being there with Tony and doing all the voice-over stuff, I learned a lot. At that point in time, in both skateboarding and video games, Tony Hawk was pretty dominant, and I get to say that I was a part of that too. If you made it into the Tony Hawk game, it meant you were really doing your thing. After the second one I started to see the effects of it on my career. We started to have good placement for DGK in the games. It was crazy, really, really crazy. My family and friends would walk into Target and say, “Man, look, you’re in that video game!” It’s a blessing because it goes back to your ability and how people respect you and what you can do.
To some degree the video game helped turn gamers into skating fans as well.
Yeah. Sometimes at demos they expect you to do video game tricks and you have to remind them it’s just a game. They expect you to be able to do it all without falling. [Laughs.] It’s good to be an icon in a game because people can recognize the value of who I am.
Now there seems to be a big connection between hip-hop and skating, whereas it used to be between punk rock and skating. Do you think you’re at least part of the reason the connection exists?
Yeah, I’m definitely part of that. I can admit that. I had always hoped and dreamed the day would come, and now it’s here. I can’t say that I did it all myself; I can only say that I played a small part. The end result is that I’m still here and my sport and hip-hop are hand in hand. Now you have guys like Lil Wayne skating, and he’s the biggest hip-hop star in the world. Wayne’s the biggest in the world and he skate- boards, and he’s one of my close friends. When you have one of the top lifestyle skateboarders in the world and one of the top hip-hop icons in the world, you can only expect that hybrid to be stable enough and a big thing.
It seems as if skate culture in general is shifting away from the suburban kids of the ’80s and ’90s toward a more urban environment.
Yeah, most definitely. That’s evolution—it’s inevitable. Skateboarding is an attractive sport, and you don’t need to be a certain race to skateboard. Once people break those boundaries and it comes down to simple skill, then you just test your talent and it’s not about your race—it’s about your physical abilities. Just like any other sport.