Eric Koston's mission to bring skateboarding and art to the people
In a recent interview with Eric Koston, one of the most recognizable skateboarders in the world, the sports icon let his mind wander back to a simpler time at a lakeside camp in Wisconsin. He was 16 years old then, making money for the first time in his life because of the sport he loved. It wasn’t much cash, but Koston spent an entire summer living all things skate as a camp counselor helping others in the skating world.
“That was the first time I actually did that—helped kids learn how to skate,” Koston, now 40, tells SI.com. “It wasn’t anything specific. If I could help them I would help them and if I couldn’t I would try to guide them as best I could. That is where I got my first taste for that and I feel like I have always wanted to be able to help kids like that, it is something inherent in my genes.”
Koston went from that camp in Wisconsin to his Los Angeles apartment at the age of 18, making skaters breakfast and giving them rides, to the formation of the art-skateboarding intersection of The Berrics, which Koston started in 2007 with Steve Berra. And now for the next two weeks, Koston will lead the Oakley in Residence: LA installation in his hometown.
This interactive space brings together the all-encompassing skate world of Koston, a true trick leader as well as an artist looking to push all forms of skate media and inspiration. “This installation, it is everything that encompasses the creative side of my world,” Koston says. “It will all be displayed there. Oakley is helping out a lot to make this an interactive space that shows the art side, the graphic design, the videography, the skateboarding itself, everything that compasses my world."
“There are a lot of people who have come and gone and helped out in my career and to get everybody together to have a space like this and celebrate is pretty fun,” says Koston.
With merely two weeks in L.A., you could call the artist in residence effort simply an extension of what Koston’s career has turned into.
The Berrics has served as a key intersection between skate and art now for nearly a decade, showcasing everything from tricks to painting. When it started, Koston says, he saw a need to present a different way of doing media in skateboarding. The duo saw what YouTube was doing—it was early then—and the opportunities for video, especially within their own skate park.
“We had a lot guys, big pros, big ams, and it was private and never seen. This should be seen,” Koston says. “Pros that are different personalities, but good friends, they come into the place and skate together. We wanted to show the diversity and show what was going on with skateboarding.”
At the time, feature-length videos, which could take three to five years to create, were the main avenue to present skating. This timeframe forced skaters to hoard tricks for years for the feature shoots, often leaving the skater out of the public eye for years at a time.
“If you aren’t doing stuff in between there to be seen, you can kind of disappear,” Koston says. “Kids will forget. The Berrics is a place you can do other things, be visible, show more personality while still doing these big projects.”
The initial plan of The Berrics has evolved beyond that, now showing skating and art in one location with the goal of telling the stories of skate past, present and future.
“As it has grown, there are other parts of skateboarding and we want to tell those stories,” says Koston. “Skateboarding is not just about the skateboarding. It is about the art of... the artist in... the people who help keep this industry alive. Not everyone is a gnarly top pro, but our industry is really fun and you can be impactful and creative. A lot goes on that if we could tell those stories to a non-skate audience and get them more interested in what we are actually doing, we can make it more understandable to a broader audience. In order for the sport to grow, we have to make these stories understandable and these skateboarders more human.”
That goal of showcasing the surrounding world of skateboarding bleeds into the Oakley artist in residence effort, with workshops that help tell the story of skate. “Not only is there trick, trick, trick progression,” he says, “but also the graphic, photography and videography.”
While ensuring skating stays accessible beyond the board, keeping the sport relatable while on the board isn’t lost on the legendary skater. While he still wants to challenge himself with trick progressions—he’s currently putting the finishing touches on a major Nike film that should be out by December—in order to keep skateboarding exciting, he wants to do it in a way that everyone can relate to.
“Sometimes the guys (on a video) are so good, where you watch their part and you are like ‘Woah,’ just stunned in such amazement,” Koston says. “When it becomes gnarly trick after gnarly trick you go to this place where you don't understand. To introduce it to a new generation, you have to also be somewhat understandable and attainable and real to them. If it is so insanely beyond them, it has almost the opposite effect.”
But that presents a precarious balance for Koston of creating relatable content while pushing himself to bring something new to the table, something progressive. “If it is too easy and you can do everything, it would be boring,” he says. “You have to chase those things that aren’t attainable to keep you driven.”
While Koston may occasionally chase the unattainable on the board, he wants his skate story to be more about how it was on Lake Dolan over 20 years ago. He wants to tell the entire story of skating, tricks, art and all. From The Berrics to his artist in residence, he wants others to do the same.
Skate as art—that’s Eric Koston.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.