Capturing the free spirit of LA's pool skaters with Tino Razo
Skating empty swimming pools is nothing new. Especially in Southern California. Anyone who’s seen Lords of Dogtown, or the sun-soaked photos of Glen E. Friedman, will know a thing or two about it. An empty pool is spied from a slow-cruising car. A fence is hopped. A session ensues, with shouts of “rad!” and “gnarly!” reverberating from the contours of the pool. Then the sound of sirens in the distance. Cops pull up, skaters bolt, and the search for a pool begins anew.
That scene has been playing out since the 1970s, the golden era of pool skating as depicted in Dogtown. So what’s new today? The haircuts and boards have changed, sure, and Google satellite technology has made it easier to spot abandoned pools, but the free spirit of the thrill-seeking skaters remains the same.
For proof you need look no further than Tino Razo’s new photobook, Party in the Back, which pulls back the curtain on today’s SoCal skate subculture. Armed with a Yashica T4 camera, Razo captured the urban adventures of his pro-skater friends over roughly three years. Over the phone he tells me how he discovered pools at mansions in the Hollywood Hills, hustled his way into people’s backyards, and had both good and bad run-ins with the cops.
With Party in the Back, was there something you were trying to capture about LA pool skating?
There was no real purpose to start with. The camera just started coming along, and as I started shooting, a body of work presented itself. I just kept moving and building on it. Photographing the pools is super on-the-fly, because all the sessions are 45 minutes to an hour, so you can get out of there before people are onto you being back there. And as far as being able to clean the pool and skate the pool and shoot the pool, it’s really a quick, frantic runaround for me.
I heard you discovered abandoned pools at mansions in the Hollywood Hills; were they all abandoned?
They were mostly abandoned, or in-between people living in them…
How did you find those places?
It was a lot of driving and scouring. A lot of just looking at Google Earth from the satellite view on the computer at home, or driving and having someone sitting shotgun, looking at Apple Maps while we’re in neighborhoods where we know there are pools and stuff.
Once you found a pool, was it just a matter of scoping the place out and hopping a fence?
Yeah. We’d sit in the car for a second, take in what else is happening aside from the house we want to get into. There are a lot of elements. First, is there a car in the driveway of the house where you know there’s a pool? Do you have to go and knock on that door and try to talk to this person and find whatever way you can into their backyard? Or is there someone mowing their lawn in the yard next-door? Are there people walking around? Is it busy? Like how inconspicuously can we do it? It’s really situational, but you’ve gotta take in all the surrounding elements before you jump back there.
And yet skating is not the most inconspicuous activity. What was the response from people who caught you skating?
It’s gone every which way. In sketchy neighborhoods, sketchy dudes would just pop up because they hear you and maybe they intimidate you to get you out of there. Or they could get excited that you’re there and stay and watch. And even in nice neighborhoods you’d see neighbors pop over the fence and be like, “Cool, man, I used to skate when I was a kid!” and shit like that. Every single person we encounter on a daily basis, the amount of genuine sweethearts you roll across, or people who just want to be an asshole, it’s the same shit [laughs].
For the most part, if it’s neighbors and people like that, you wanna get out of there because they’re just gonna call the cops. Maybe you’ll try and throw out a couple of words to see if you can get a feel on what their vibe is, if you can work with it or anything, or if it’s just a quick instantaneous “Get the fuck out!” you’ll be like, ‘Alright, let’s go.’
There are many stories of skaters bribing security guards with cash or free shoes. Did you try that?
Oh, 100%. A lot of times when you get to a house, and you see there’s an empty pool back there, you send the best fucking person with the best people skills, that’s who you send to the door. Just give a knock and see how it goes from there. It’s all about feeling people out, then asking, ‘Do you have kids, do they skateboard? Do you skateboard, because we can always get free skateboards from sponsored friends?’ And then it goes into, ‘Okay, you don’t skate, how about shoes? Do you like this brand of shoes that my friend rides for, because we can get you some shoes?’ Or they answer the door drinking a beer and we’ll say, ‘Okay, we’ll get you a thirty pack of that brand of beer’ or something.
One of your pictures features three cops after a bust and one is smirking, looking over his shoulder at you. Were they cool about it that day?
They came in not cool [laughs]. We had some open container beers back there, so they were really coming at us after that and also for breaking and entering. The place was an old hotel of some sort; I guess back in the 60s or 70s it was kind of like a Madonna Inn kind of place. And that place had been handed down through a family, and where it ended at was this one lady who was obviously mentally ill and living in that entire place by herself. We were skating for a good amount of time but I guess she called the cops. They showed up and all that happened – the open containers and the breaking and entering. Then they ran our IDs. As they were running our IDs they must have seen that a couple of the guys we were skating with were pro skaters. They came back after like 45 minutes, after trying to stress us out, and they were like, ‘Hey, we’ve seen that you guys actually know what you’re doing… let me see what you guys can do!’ They let us skate and watched us and were taking photos of us on their cellphones for like 15, 20 minutes. Then they said, ‘Okay, we’re gonna let you stay, but get out of here in an hour and keep the beers hidden a little better’.
To me, your photos are less about the skating and more about the experience. Did you try and be a fly on the wall, with more of a detached view?
For a lot of it, definitely. It’s also like, as I started realizing I had a project on my hands that I really wanted to accomplish and everything, I found out that there was a Japanese photographer who had shot a book – and I believe it’s just called Pools [by Taro Hirano], and it’s a beautiful book, with really nicely shot empty pools and stuff – so I quickly realized I’m not trying to do that. I wanted to show the whole experience, as opposed to shooting pretty photos. Like, show everybody, try to get the feel of what the fuck we’re actually doing, you know?
This subculture still seems like a hidden corner of a larger industry; is it coming back again?
It’s crazy, because a lot of people that build skateparks now are older skaters and they know exactly how to fucking do it and what we want and stuff. And there’s always going to be a big bowl that obviously stems from pool shapes. It’s crazy because now kids can show up at these real pools and instantly rip them. Which is crazy to say, because they’re fucking hard as hell to skate! I’ve been skating for over 30-something years, and if you didn’t grow up skating something similar to that, and you’re gonna jump in on that, it’s fucking very intimidating. It’s hard. It’s scary.
Tino's book is available via: http://anthology.net/book/tino-razo/