The Elusive Edge of Success: Why wasn't skateboard pioneer Brian Tucci able to cash in on his renown?

By Matthew Stanmyre
Sunday, May 24, 2009

The sun is dipping into the horizon, spilling light over the pink marble at Freedom Plaza in Northwest Washington on a blustery afternoon. Brian Tucci knows he can't create the image he needs if it's too dark, so he has to get moving.

"I just gotta run across the street and get my board," Tucci says.

He jogs across Pennsylvania Avenue and returns moments later clutching a skateboard he'd temporarily hidden from the U.S. Park Police force, his nemesis for two decades. "Undisclosed location," Tucci says, snapping the board onto his specially designed backpack and explaining, "I've lost too many boards" to police confiscation.

It's just after 5 p.m. on a Monday, and Freedom Plaza, the epicenter of the District's skateboarding scene, is alive. Despite long-standing efforts by the police to keep them out, about a dozen young skaters whiz through the east end of the plaza, the wheels on their boards growling.

At 36, Brian Tucci is the ruler of this realm, a skateboarding pioneer who helped redefine what was once an all-white, West Coast sport. Zipping down city streets on his skateboard has fed Tucci's creative impulses, which, through the twists and turns of his life, have also included an acclaimed foray into hip-hop music and countless hours painting abstract art.

Tucci ties his blue-and-orange sneakers, swings the backpack over his shoulders and leaps onto his mountain bike. He looks at the friends who will join him for the trip -- two buddies who go by the names Corn and Beast Master -- then pedals with them through the plaza. They head up 15th Street and then west on Pennsylvania Avenue, so close to the traffic that they can feel the warm exhaust on their legs. Tucci turns down 20th Street, then stops just before L Street.

"This is it," he says, in front of a three-foot-high concrete ledge between the New York Gourmet Deli and a parking garage. The group begins its preparations: Tucci peels off his sweat shirt and does stretches on the sidewalk. Corn, whose real name is Chris McDonald, sets up camera equipment next to the ledge, the edge of which Tucci coats with a stick of wax.

Tucci visualizes the skateboarding trick he's about to perform: He needs to gather speed and glide down the sidewalk, navigating past pedestrians, then make a sharp turn at the last possible moment to reach the ledge. Once there, he will leap with the board on the bottom of his feet -- a move called an "ollie" -- onto the ledge and slide across it with both sets of wheels, a complicated maneuver called a "backside 50-50."

If Tucci can land the trick and have it captured by the click of McDonald's camera, he expects to earn $200 to $400 from Transworld Skateboarding magazine for the photo. It's a modest sum, but it would be the most money Tucci has seen in a while.

He stands at the crest of the hill on 20th Street, looking down toward the ledge. One foot is on the skateboard, the other is on the pavement. "All right," Tucci says. "Let's make it happen."

Tucked away in a corner of his mother's house in Northeast Washington, there are boxes of Brian Tucci signature skateboards and stacks of shoe boxes filled with yellowing magazine clippings that span more than 20 years.

Some of the signature boards were made in the 1990s by Peoples Skateboards and One More Skateboard Co., Tucci's former sponsors. One of the boards, which Tucci helped design, has an outline of a slave ship on the bottom; another has a mock Washington Redskins figurehead with shaggy dreadlocks, Tucci's former hairstyle. There are more recent boards, such as one made last year by his current sponsor, the San Jose-based company Circle-A, which depicts a blackbird riding in a teal-colored hot rod.

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