’89 domande a Miki Vuckovich – USA Skateboarding

Name? Miki Vuckovich (@mikivuckovich) (www.mikivuckovich.com).

What’s your job? I’m Director Of Development at USA Skateboarding (@usaskateboarding), the national governing body for skateboarding in the United States. I’m responsible for developing programming that focuses on the cultural aspects of skateboarding and building the donor base to help support that work. 

Mark Gonzales and Neil Blender photographed by Miki, Sacramento, California 1988.

What did you study? I studied writing as an undergraduate in the 80s. I’m currently in a graduate program at the University of San Diego for a Masters degree in Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Yes, I’m in my 50s. 

If you were a character of a movie which one would you be? Popeye. I miss Robin Williams.

How long did it take you to learn how to do your first kickflip? Months. Haven’t done one since about 1995. 

Do you think Hegel was right to put music as art at an higher level, or do you think the figurative arts, especially at an emotional level, are on the same level? I have no idea what Hegel did or said, but music is among the highest arts, so it can’t be put high enough. 

Can you give us a definition of art? Art is something you sense that creates an emotional reaction. 

Your favorite style icons? That’s quite an open question, but how about Natas Kaupas, Leica Gmbh, and Iggy Pop.

If you could speak in world vision for 15 minutes what would you say? Everybody, chill the fuck out. And get the damn vaccine.

Tony Hawk and Miki Vuckovich. Miki was the Executive Director of the Tony Hawk Foundation.

Do you think exist an objective aesthetic value or you think aesthetic value is just subjective? Absolutely subjective. We each live different lives, and everything we see, ear, and experience molds our aesthetic values—our style.

Mark Gonzales photographed by Miki, Los Angeles, 1993

If you could have a super power what would you choose? To repair my shattered mobile phone screen with a single tap. Either that or flying. There’s a monument in Moscow to Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, which depicts him atop a 40-meter titanium pillar flying upward toward space, as if his body itself were a rocket. It’s simple, but mesmerizing. 

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When, in your opinion, can you define a person as an artist? When their work moves you, when you have an emotional reaction to what they’re doing. They may not even know they’re creating art. They may just be taking out the garbage, but doing so with balletic poise. 

Do you think that the relationship between art and drugs is just a cliché? Yes. I hate that people (artists included) rely on drugs. Live and create as you are. If you take mushrooms and make a great painting, the artist is you on mushrooms, not you after you’ve recovered. I’ll compliment you the next time you’re stoned. 

Matt Hensley photographed by Miki, Vista, California 1989.

Do you have any political orientation? Socially liberal, fiscally somewhat conservative. Everyone should work hard, but no one should have to worry about starving or being homeless. Just live deliberately, with purpose, as Henry David Thoreau suggested. Karl Marx wrote, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. I wouldn’t go that far, but maybe like Mick Jagger said, “You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need”. I’m somewhere in between that. Here’s another way to put it: Obama was great, Trump sucked. 

Who is in your opinion the best skateboarder in history? Ooh, good question. I’ll say Mark Gonzales, for the sheer fact that he did what most of us couldn’t even imagine, and he has a deep appreciation of all the various types of skating, historically. Street, vert, slalom, freestlye, etc. If you watch him skate, even today, you can see him tap into each of those disciplines and mimic the styles of many eras. All in a couple pushes down the street. Truly amazing. 

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And right now? Lizzie Armanto (@lizziearmanto) is one of my favorites to watch skate today, for her effortless style. Also, Shawn Hale (@hale) is incredible. His imaginative and utter dismantling of skate spots is so unique. He really epitomizes what skateboarding is about—a tuly individual approach to his environment. Kind of the way Neil Blender rode in the 80s. 

The most overrated? I’ve never seen an overrated skater. Skateboarding itself has been culturally underrated my whole life. I’ve spent my career trying to convince more people to appreciate it for the amazing sport and art that it is!

The most underestimated? Andy Anderson (@authenticandyanderson), though the Olympics sort of changed that.

What is the night you spent the most money to have fun? No idea. I’m not a splurgy guy. May have picked up a dinner tab in New York with family and friends. That and a hotel room is easily four figures. 

What’s your favorite artist? Depends on my mood. At this moment, Aleksandr Rodchenko.

What’s your favorite show business character? The Grim Reaper from Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life.

If you could choose which historical era to live in, which would you choose? 1850, St. Petersburg, Russia. Don’t ask me why. Spent a chunk of the 90s walking that city and imagining what life was like back then. It’s a gorgeous place to walk. Would have been even more amazing before the automobile. 

If you could spend a day with an historical figure who would you choose? Abe Lincoln. Boring choice, maybe, but he took on the racist South when no one else would. We have a lot more work to do there, unfortunately.

In 1985 Miki’s first published image appeared in Thrasher Magazine, though he went on to join the TransWorld SKATEboarding photo staff, shooting the sport and culture around the globe. The Atom Bomb and Other Pleasant Dreams is his photography book.
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Who are the people that inspired you the most? My family. My wife and daughter inspire me to be the best I can, at whatever I’m doing. And my parents—they were born in villages in Yugoslavia and came to the U.S. as teenagers. They finished college and my dad ended up teaching American History to native-born kids. I’ve been to their villages. It’s quite a gap between life there to where they ended up half a world away. My dad grew up in Detroit in the 1950s.

Randy Janson photographed by Miki, San Diego 1993

What do you think is the hardest trick to do with skateboard in your opinion? The obvious answer is anything that Rodney Mullen (@rodneymullen) does, because only Rodney Mullen can do those tricks. For a reason.

What makes one skateboarder better than another? The best skaters are the ones who skate from the inside out. They do what they feel, their skating is an expression of what’s inside. Skaters who mimic what they see in videos are mimes, not skaters. Skateboarding is an expression, not a series of actions you copy from someone else. We take inspiration from one-another, but our expression of a trick is individual to the point that it may not even resemble the same trick. Look at Mike McGill’s 540 (watch here Mike McGill’s 540s) compared to Christian Hosoi’s.

What is the best trick you have ever done? Invert. I was trying to learn them at Del Mar once, in the keyhole pool. The Godoy twins were there, and gave me some tips. After a bunch of bails, they both looked at each other, then at me and said, “Next one”. I made the next one, hand on tile. 

Can you tell us a trick someone else has done that you wish you could do too? Backside and frontside ollies in a pool. I would love to feel that floating sensation over a transition. 

What is the thing you like most about Italy? Gino Bartali, the Giro d’Italia, and Campagnolo (yes, cycling). I think everything great about Italy is represented in the quiet heroism of Bartali, the passion of the Giro’s tifosi, and the amazing design of a Campy C-Record group set. 

And one you don’t like? Lazio and their racist Ultra fans. All of football’s racist hooligan fans should be banned. But Dejan Savicevic is a friend of our family, so I support Milan. 

Where have you been on vacation when you were young? Yugoslavia, England, Italy (Rome, Bari), Mexico, Disneyland.

Where are you going on vacation now? Just around California, because of COVID. We don’t really get to vacation much in the U.S. A long weekend here and there. 

Image Copyright Miki Vuckovich

Do you think it would be correct to create a place where man can live in the state of nature, making him free from a choice of social belonging that is instead taken for granted? I think most people need order. As much as we complain about crowds and taxes and traffic, you put us in nature with nothing but free choice and we’d go insane. Most of us find comfort in the limited choice we get in modern society. We’re creatures of habit. The truly free people could handle a true state of nature, but there aren’t many of those. Like Devo said, “Freedom of choice is what you got. Freedom from choice is what you want.

Lance Mountain photographed by Miki, San Jose, California 1988.
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What’s the topic you are most expert in? Why skateboarding is important and why communities should embrace it. I could talk all day about the ways skateboarding benefits youth. I’m a living example of that. 

Have you ever been in love? Yes.

Have you ever had a homosexual experience? No. Had a few dudes ask over the years, but politely declined. 

Where do you live? San Diego, California. If you remember the opening scene of Edward Scissorhands, that’s basically my neighborhood. 

Which neighbourhood? Clairemont, about a mile from the Clairemont Skatepark, and also a mile from the Linda Vista Skatepark. In other words, I’m equidistant from awesome.

Linda Vista Skatepark (@lvskatepark)

Where are you from? Northern California—San Jose.  

Other cities where you’ve been living and how long? Also grew up in Cupertino—my school was a block from the original  Apple Computers office. My family lived in Yugoslavia for a couple years when I was a toddler. And I moved to Russia for about a year after college. 

Ivan Bogomolov photographed by Miki, Vladivostok, Russia 1992
Miki in Leningrad in 1990 photographed by Andrea Drushell

Which languages do you speak? English and Russian.

Which are your favorite places in your city? The skateparks, the dog park by the bay, and The Casbah (our local music venue). 

Favorite movies? Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Meaning Of Life, Star Wars, Delicatessen, Taxi Driver, Wings Of Desire, A Sunday In Hell, Robocop.

Favorite directors? Wim Wenders, Martin Scorsese, Jorgen Leth.

Favorite songs? Stand Up (Minor Threat), Police Story (Black Flag), Sand In My Joints (Wire).

Favorite bands? Wire.

A famous band you don’t like? Too many to list.

Favorite books? Frankenstein; Notes From The Underground.

Favorite authors? Dostoevskij.

“Limonov is a mix between D’annunzio and Pasolini”
Gennaro Sangiuliano
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Favorite artworks? All of Cartier-Bresson’s photos.

If you can choose 5 celebrities to have party with who they would be? Pelé, Eddy Merckx, Henry Rollins, Barack Obama, Lady Gaga.

The material good you most desire and envy? I’m trying to scale down the stuff I have. Less is more.

The quality you would like to have and don’t have? There is so much I don’t understand, but would love to. So, intellect would be nice. In other words, a RAM upgrade.

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As a photographer, if you had the chance to document an historical event, which one would it be? The D Day landing at Normandy, France during World War II (assuming I would survive), or the 1916 Giro d’Italia, the most brutal bike race in history (81 riders started the 3,000 km race, but only 8 finished). The human struggle that ultimately leads to victory or survival, I believe, reveals the essence of life. 

Polski Skaters photographed by Miki, Warsaw, Poland 1992.

The best photographer in history in your opinion? Cartier-Bresson, no question. He knew where to stand, where to point the camera, and exactly when to capture the image. Which means the camera had to be set and ready. Lots of people can make a great image if you give them an 8×10 camera and all the time they need to compose, wait for the right light, and think about the subject. None had the instinct of Cartier-Bresson, which is the critical characteristic of all great photographers today. Cartier-Bresson was the first modern photographer.

Frankie Hill photographed by Miki, Santa Barbara, California 1990.

If you had the possibility to remove social networks from the world, would you delete them? Now that we know what we know? Yes. Write a fucking letter.

And what about globalisation? People and stuff should move around less. Huge container ships floating around the world full of crap needs to stop. Use less shit, use local shit. Pay more for it, which means you’ll use less and your neighbors can earn a living. 

Shaun White photographed by Miki, BBHJ Ramp, Mojave, CA

The craziest experience you’ve ever had? Watching the cross-town derby between FK Partizan vs. Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia in 1978. There was a 4-meter fence and a moat around the field, but the fans still invaded the pitch. Absolutely insane atmosphere. 

What do you think about influencers? They don’t influence me. I get upset when I see my daughter watching some of that stuff. But she’s smart. 

What’s your favorite historical character? Did I mention Abe Lincoln?

Can you define yourself with an adjective? Perplexed.

Favorite TV series? Happy Days.

If you were an animal which one would you like to be? Eagle or a crow.

Obed Rios photographed by Miki, NYC 1989

Have you ever had sex with more than one person? Nope.

What time do you usually go to sleep? 11 PM (PST).

What time do you usually wake up? 6 AM.

What’s your favorite city in the world? St. Petersburg, Russia.

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Do you believe in some religions? No, they’re all mostly wrong, but all have one or two things right. It’s typical of humans to try and define God. Life is the process of learning our place in the universe, and thereby becoming closer to God. That’s the process of enlightenment. To have someone hand you a book as a child and say, “Here’s what God is all about”, is insane. God is not a religion. The path to God/enlightenment is within. No one can define that for you. For sure not some English monarch in the Middle Ages selectively translating an ancient scroll. Give me a fucking break. Learn to read the Dead Sea Scrolls in their vernacular, and maybe we have something to talk about.

Image Copyright Miki Vuckovich

What’s the first thing you would do if you win the lottery? Turn my phone off.

The richest person you know? Not sure. I don’t ask people what they’re worth. 

Your favorite dish? Bowl of oatmeal.

Do you have some phobias? Snakes and Nazis, just like Indiana Jones.

Favorite fashion brand? Not a fan of haute couture. But I appreciate Tommy Hilfiger. He was watching a skate session once, and when some thugs attacked the skaters, he jumped in and started swinging at the thugs. 

How important is it for you to be rich from 1 to 10? 1.

And fame? 1.

How important are fame and money to impress a partner? 1.

And what about beauty? 10. Beauty is a quality that comes from within. You sense it, not see it. Everyone has the ability to be beautiful. 

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And intelligence? Intelligence is something you’re born with. I like people for the choices they make, not what they are born with. There are lots of intelligent assholes out there. And they’re smart enough to know they suck. I have huge respect for the intelligent people I know who use it to help lift other people. They choose to be generous and share their gift. 

Ed Templeton in his interview (read here ’89 domande a Ed Templeton) told us that you are the smartest person he knows, who is the smartest person that you know? Clearly not Ed Templeton.

Ed Templeton photographed by Miki

The most precious material thing you own? Family photo album from when I was a kid. That’s all there is, no digital backup. 

What do you usually drink at the bar? Local beer, wherever I happen to be. Draft, if possible.

Image Copyright Miki Vuckovich

An advice you can give to someone that want to do your job? Yeah, scram—I got this. If you mean different job that’s similar to mine, then just be sure you believe in what you’re doing, that you’re committed to the mission of the organization. If your job is to promote something and grow support for it, no one will join you unless you can show you’re committed. They won’t buy into your idea if they don’t believe you already have. 

Image Copyright Miki Vuckovich

Do you know someone being a real racist? I’ve had family members drop the N word and make generalizations about Mexican immigrants. It’s tough to try and bring people close to you into the 21st Century. But if you persist with compassion, they’ll budge, at least a little. You can confront their biggotry in stages instead of making a huge scene and backing them into a corner. That usually just cements their position. First step is to get them to turn off the Fox News.

Image Copyright Miki Vuckovich

Do you think that if people couldn’t post on Instagram about it, they would take part as well to social movements? I think a lot of people use social media to pretend they support something, but don’t actually show up. We create personas on social media that aren’t who we are. They’re avatars. 

What do you think about the existence of royal rulers for birthright? God didn’t make you a ruler, you have to earn your leadership. I say that even though I have the crest of the last king of Montenegro tattooed on my arm. It’s an homage to my heritage. Montenegro is the part of the former Yugoslavia that my family comes from—members of my family were flag bearers in the Montenegrin Royal Army for over 200 years. I think the Netflix series, The Crown, does a good job of depicting why birthright is crap. 

Image Copyright Miki Vuckovich

What drugs have you done? Smoked a few joints in the 80s. Thought it was dumb. Then I heard Minor Threat and found my tribe. Was Straight Edge until I was 22. Since then I’ve allowed myself a beer now and then.

Are you in favour of the liberalisation of soft drugs? Yes. Dope doesn’t make people criminals, making dope illegal makes people criminals. It’s a bad choice, but it’s a personal choice. We don’t need to fill our prisons with pot smokers. 

And hard drugs? No. Even when they’re prescribed they’re a problem.

What’s your best talent? I have a pretty sharp bullshit detector. I can smell a rat.

What are the clothes you can’t stand to see on a man and on a woman? Whatever the latest thing is. If it’s on a magazine cover, don’t wear it.

What’s the item of clothing you spent the most money on? Spent a few hundred bucks on some cycling shoes once. They lasted me a few years and thousands of miles of riding, so probably a good investment. 

Can you tell us a number from 1 to 89? 86. It’s the year I graduated high school. 

Favorite restaurant and bar in the city where you live? Dan Diego’s Irish food down by the bay, and the Livewire pub in North Park. I played for their soccer team in the 90s. 

And club? The Casbah, it’s a great small venue, and my band played there a few times in the 80s and 90s. 

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Your ideal holiday? Somewhere warm with a pool with the family, like Palm Springs. And no agenda. 

What would you have done if you had not done your job? Probably opened a skate shop or started a magazine. 

If you could compose the best band in history, who would be in it? John Bonham, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Bootsie Collins. 

If you could compose the best band of today, who would be in it? Ian Mackaye (guitar, vocals), Chuck Biscuits (drums), Matt Freeman (bass), and Dave Yow (vocals). Plus, Pat Smear (second guitar) because he’s Pat Smear.

If you could choose someone to follow you on Instagram who would you choose? Probably John Cleese. 

Miki with Toy Machine team, Weed, California 1995.

Do you think that if there were no hypothetical partners to impress, human beings would pursue success so spasmodically? Depends on your personal motivation. If you do things to project an image, then it would matter. But if your motivations are personal, then you’d do what you do regardless of what others may think of it. 

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Do you think that in certain environments, especially those in which we find fame and money, there is a lack of certain values? I would hope that I don’t compromise my values, regardless of the environment. But I’m sure that some people are willing to make adjustments as opportunities present themselves. But we don’t really know until we find ourselves in that situation. 

What is your position on the fact that most of people do a job they don’t like for eight hours a day, go home, eat, sleep and then start their next day in the same way? Do you think this imprinting that our society has makes sense, or is it going to empty man’s life? I couldn’t imagine doing that. I’ve always pursued what I love, and designed my life around that, versus chasing the dollar and doing something I might regret. I’ve been lucky I could do that. Not everyone has that choice (or allows themself that choice).

Does the current concept of democracy make sense to you? There is no real democracy today. Just slightly varying ranges of choice. In America, the range has gotten much narrower. The choice between Democarats and Republicans isn’t Democracy. It’s the choice between light grey and dark grey, and ignoring all the other colors of the rainbow. That’s “dumbocracy” in America.

What is your position on a hypothetical enlightened dictatorship that could direct the good of people? Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. You saw what Trump tried to do. We were two clicks away from Germany in the 1930s. That was a close call. And he’ll try again.

What do you think about the psychological profile of politicians? Generalizing and keeping in mind the existence of due exceptions, do you think that politicians get to do their job for personal interests, such as ego satisfaction or economic profit, or for an ethical and civic help vocation? I think the job of a politician today is impossible. You’re bound to disappoint everyone and satisfy no one. So, I think a lot of them say whatever they need to to win an election, then spend their time doing favors for whomever will give them a job after they’re voted out of office. 

Image Copyright Miki Vuckovich

If we can consider money and the economy a superstructure created by man, and thus the effects on it of the production of money by the State, another conventional and fictitious entity, what prevents us from giving everyone what they need for subsistence in a globalized society based primarily on the exchange of goods with real value with goods with nominal value such as money? Greed. People are motivated by greed. Not only personal greed, but the welfare of those they care about. So, something that benefits a family member is a benefit to you. People will work if it benefits them or their families. Maybe if it benefits their immediate community, too. But it comes down to a personal benefit—they can see someone they care about benefiting, so they themselves benefit from it. Once you ask a person to work to benefit someone they don’t know and can’t see, the system breaks down. That’s why communism failed. Human nature isn’t wired to be endlessly altruistic. Self preservation is our basic instinct, and it’s rooted in greed. Communism works well on the Israeli kibutz, where everyone is linked together and can see the benefits of their work throughout their community. But I doubt people on one kibutz would work as hard to benefit people on another kibutz they don’t know. Ultimately, greed is the greatest motivator. Which is why capitalism dominates human societies—it’s fueled by greed and therefore better aligns with human nature than communism does. Communism is a great idea, it just better suits bees than humans.

Princeton, NJ, 2015

Do you think that prison, intended as deprivation of freedom of a subject, is a correct solution for an individual who violates the laws of society, or do you think it presupposes an acceptance of participation in the social contract that some individuals may not want? It’s one solution, but ultimately, you want to impose a condition on people who break the laws that is significant to them, that acts as a deterrent based on their own values. Some may not see prison as a deterrent. For some criminals, putting them to work outside the prison in service of their victims might be a worse punishment than sequestering them in a cell, and may do more to teach them why their crime was wrong. 

What might be an alternative solution to prison for you? Make me work as an accountant in an office building.

There are those who argue that the death penalty is a non-penalty, in the sense that at the moment in which the penalty is executed, the subject who should undergo it does not exist anymore because of the penalty itself, consequently involving however an interference in the life of the subjects close to the condemned, who would become at that point the real passive subjects of the case, what do you think about it? Death is an escape. True punishment would be teaching the criminal to appreciate the consequence of their crime, and let them live a full life in realization of the pain they caused someone. At that point, it almost doesn’t matter whether they’re in an actual prison or not.

Do you think that as animals, races also exist for human beings? I don’t think animals are capable of the evil of racism. Racism is a human plague. 

Do you think that racism is a manifestation of some kind of deficiency, an aid to fill gaps in existence for those who approach it? Could this explain the fact that often the profile of the average racist corresponds to individuals with difficult lives who have to struggle with a variety of issues and who use it as an outlet? It’s definitely related to a percieved or actual deficiency in a person. They don’t want to admit they have a limitation, so they scapegoat someone else. Instead of doing the work to lift themselves up, they try to drag others down. Racism is a lazy and sadistic disease.

Do you think that a cultural growth is always good for an individual or do you think that in certain situations it is identified with a loss of intellectual purity? It’s always good. Knowledge is good. Expose yourself to other ideas and perspectives, and adopt what makes sense to you. Being exposed to new ideas doean’t corrupt someone. It’s usually the lack of exposure to competing ideas that is the problem. 

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Do you think that culture in the hands of a stupid person can sometimes represent a problem? Only if they control it. Russia was at the forefront of modern art at the turn of the century and into the 1920s. Then Stalin decreed that Socialist Realism was the only style that would be supported by the State, and all the avante garde artists were either imprisoned or fled to the West. Some of them joined the Bauhaus in Germany, for example. But so much great art was squashed by a stupid person who had the power to control culture. Something similar is probably going on in China. 

What would you answer to the dilemma of the Mandarin of Chateaubriand then taken up by Balzac and countless other philosophers? In this case, if in order to fulfill any of your desires, you had to end the life of a person who is extremely distant from you and about whom you know nothing, without them suffering and without anyone ever knowing, would you do it? No. I’m not that important. No one is.

If you could choose a person you know to read this interview, who would it be? Jim Fitzpatrick.

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