Interview: Houston Pro-Skater Dan MacFarlane Explores New Skateboarding Realms

Dan MacFarlane, owner of Mentality Skateboards and the man behind the bestselling how-to DVD Skateboarding Explained has been a professional skater for more than two decades.

Though he made a name for himself on the competition circuit, he’s begun focusing on street skating that pushes the possibilities for urban landscapes. His latest release, Skateboarding Realms (available on iTunes and DVD), includes everything from walking up flights of stairs on a board to Natas spins across multiple parking poles and vertical launches up flagpoles. In anticipation of Mountain Dew DIY Fest at Spring Skate Park in Houston this weekend, as well as Green Label Live, Houston (free—RSVP here) here’s our interview, where he talks about how the aim is not to go “bigger, bigger, bigger” but more original.

I’d never really thought of Houston as a place you could do a lot of street skating before.
I hear a lot of kids these days saying I’m putting Houston on the map. It’s kind of funny. Skateboarding in Houston’s been big since the early ’80s when it was on the cover of Thrasher; I know guys who have been skating here since the ’70s. The second skateboarding happens somewhere, you see people street skating, whether it’s the style Natas Kaupas and Mark Gonzalez brought into the industry by doing the first handrails and wall rides or just cruising down parking garages. Street skating in Houston has always been prevalent because of the cityscape.

So you see Mark come to Houston and doing a street plant at One Shell Plaza, downtown, and then doing wall rides in your city; it just spreads and spreads and spreads. I’d say the reason that you don’t know it’s prevalent is because it’s pretty much an underground activity.

Houston’s not really friendly to street skaters or parkour to anything like that in general. They don’t like you on their stuff.
For sure. When you watch Skateboarding Realms you’re seeing 100 percent underground stuff. A lot of people aren’t looking at those places that way. Myself, I’ve driven by that flagpole spot since the year 2000, and I never thought those tricks were possible. And the reason I sort of morphed into those unique spots was because a lot of the main spots like Tranquility Park all became abutted or torn down. So I had to look for stuff that people weren’t consciously noticing or ever thought it was possible. That’s the unique thing about our cityscape; it’s always changing. You can drive up and down the street for a year and spots will disappear and reappear; that’s part of the art of skating. It’s an ever-changing landscape. It’s an adventure.

It’s like when I talk to street artists. I ask them why they create something they know is going to come down, and they say, “Dude, the walls themselves are coming down.”
I can really relate to the street artists. I know [writer] Give Up is a skater. From what I understand, Give Up bought one of the first Mentality boards, and I know he’s a ripper. There’s a very similar mentality to street artists and skateboarders. Even Shepard Fairey is a skateboarder. I saw one of the first OBEY stickers near the Houston Skate Park in the late ’80s. That DIY and even punk rock ethos of skateboarding and just doing what you can with what you have at any given moment is part of the excitement of skateboarding and street skating.

See, now that we have all these public parks I don’t even really want to go to them because they’re made for skating. A big part of my adventure is to go out and find a new spot that no one’s seen or no one’s though of skating in a certain way. Sometimes spots lend themselves to inventing new tricks and combos, which is always fun.

It was weird to watch your YouTube channel with your early vert tricks and then watching Skateboarding Realms; it’s so different that I’m not even sure how to describe half of the stuff you’re doing now. It’s like watching a Jackie Chan movie with a skateboard.
That’s a conscious effort to introduce something that hasn’t been seen before or even thought-of before. These tricks were not about “go bigger, bigger, bigger.” It’s more about creating something that can inspire people to want to create, themselves. For a long time I was competing, ranked top 20 on the Van’s Triple Crown Circuit. Doing that so long I came to realize it was a form of keeping up with the Joneses on a skateboard. You win this contest and then it goes away or you do this one big trick that’s gnarly like a stunt then six months later someone one-ups you.

So I wanted to go in a totally different direction of thinking of just some really weird stuff. It was my most artistic video presentation. It was an adventure to even come up with them or find those spots or look at them in different ways.

Do you still consider what you’re doing street skating or is it something different?
I think it’s still street skating. My focus is on street skating, but at the same time I feel like I’m trying to work some vert elements into it. Like going vertical on a flagpole: that had been in my mind for a long time.

I’m trying to take skating to new realms. The goal is to continue the progression for myself and to contribute to skateboarding as a whole as to what can be done.

We’re building a lot more parks in Houston. It seems like skating has gone mainstream in a way.
I was actually one of the first people who helped raise funds for Jamail Skate Park. It’s institutionalized in a sense that yeah, now there are places to go—but there’s always going to be places you can go.

There’s this sense that the city is trying to say, “OK, you guys need to be over here now,” and that skaters are saying “That’s sweet and thank you, but I kind of just want to go down the street and do this thing instead.”
I tell people this all the time: that the tricks I do in Realms cannot be done in parks. I was at the Spring Park, the largest park in North America; look at all those obstacles there. I would never have come up with those tricks if I was going there to practise. That’s why you just don’t see me at those parks anymore.

There’s also a lot of silence out there on the streets where you can sit there under a streetlight and tap into your creative mind. Stare at a piece of architecture then go home, go to sleep, and wake up with a new trick.

I never really thought about a skateboarder just sitting there quietly doing artistic geometry in their head before.
There’s a way to tap into your subconscious mind. I’ll have a strongly held goal to make a unique video part, and then I’ll drive around this great city for days or weeks looking for the place where the trick can happen. I’ll go there, do some standard tricks and just keep asking myself, “What is possible here? What can be built from here? What can be weird or over the top or super gnarly?” or whatever.

A lot of times the ideas that come to me I have a lot of internal resistance: Is that too weird or too over the top? One-footed nose wheelie, is that right? Because having to please my sponsors for so long you don’t want to do anything they don’t like, and that’s not who I am. That’s always going to be inside a skater, I think, the desire to create something new.

I rode for Zorlac and companies like that. There was always this certain brand of skating and an attitude that you have to go do this contest or you have to do this trick because it’s currently in. In my experience with this new social media landscape and the ability to be independent and get distribution on iTunes, it let me know that I could do whatever I wanted. That gave me an option and encouragement to be more creative.

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