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.
Tucci opens one of the shoe boxes and thumbs through a stack of magazine clippings from Transworld, Thrasher and Slap that detail his skateboarding exploits. One photograph, from Slap in 1997, shows him in Silver Spring performing a trick he invented called a "backside 360 walleye." In that trick, he rides off a wall and does a 360-degree spin in the air.
"He's a legend," says Jake Phelps, an editor at San Francisco-based Thrasher.
"When I think of D.C. skateboarding, I think of Brian Tucci," says Lance Dawes, a Washington contemporary of Tucci's who is now the skate team manager for Independent Truck Co., a leading manufacturer of skateboard parts. Yet unlike skateboarding's biggest stars -- Tony Hawk, Rob Dyrdek, Bucky Lasek and Shaun White -- Tucci has never found a way to cash in on his renown. Instead he has lived a nearly destitute, nomadic existence, couch-surfing at the homes of buddies, shacking up with girlfriends or staying at his mother's house.
Tucci says he files tax returns each year, but the money he makes from skateboarding is so negligible that "it's not even on the radar." Most of his meager income comes from sporadic, brief stints as a waiter or bartender at various Washington establishments. Even so, he's never really considered giving up professional skateboarding or finding another way to earn a living.
"It's an addiction," Tucci says. "I can walk right out the door, take three steps and put my board down, and I'm instantly having fun once I roll, like, five feet. So that's all it is for me. It's just the exhilaration of just being free to do what you want."
Almost 25 years after receiving his first skateboard from his mother, Tucci still rides as if the board is an extension of his body, navigating the sidewalk with subtle twists of his hips. At 6-foot-2 and with a swimmer's broad shoulders, he looks both imposing and natural when he skates. He has the scars on his limbs to document years of tumbles, but has avoided major injuries, preserving his body to a degree that awes his much younger skating companions.
"This dude's a beast, man," declares Beast Master, a 19-year-old acolyte whose real name is Cordero Sellers. "He rides like he's a 12-year-old. He's so sick, 'cause he skated back in the day and now he skates in our time. It's like, Dude, how do you find the energy? I can barely find the energy to skate. But Tucci, he's amazing, man."
When Brian Tucci was a baby in 1972, his mother would tote him with her to the art history class she took at what was then called Mansfield State College in northern Pennsylvania, and he would coo at the bright-colored slides on the overhead projector.
Tucci's mother, Denise, later became an art teacher in Ithaca, N.Y., where they moved when Brian was about 5 years old, and she filled their home with her abstract paintings. When she was through with her acrylic paints, Brian would take the leftovers and try to imitate what his mother had painted.
As a child, Tucci would spend days at the roller rink in Ithaca learning tricks and break dancing, then turn around and take ballet lessons and compete on the swim team. From an early age, he sought adrenaline rushes by racing BMX bikes and attempting difficult spins and twists on his roller skates. He came home frequently with fresh scrapes and bruises from falls.
The last day of summer before sixth grade, Tucci came upon some neighborhood kids who had made a small fire in the woods near their houses. One of the kids dared Tucci to throw a rock on an aerosol can of household cleaning solvent that sizzled in the fire. When Tucci did, the can burst, emitting a fireball that engulfed his body.
Tucci staggered home, and "the skin was hanging off his face and arms," Denise says. "I took him to the emergency room, but I was shaking getting him to the hospital. I can remember my whole body shaking."
Tucci suffered second- and third-degree burns on more than 40 percent of his body, from his face to his ankles. Doctors said his burns were similar to those caused by napalm. The pain was excruciating, and he spent six weeks recovering in the hospital. After surgery to graft skin from the back of his legs to the burned portions of his body, Tucci returned to school, but with a protective mask covering his face.
"I went from being the popular kid to being like kind of outcast," says Tucci, whose face still bears scars from the accident. "Kids were scared of me."
Tucci was just glad to be alive: "It gave me a second birth almost . . . a sense of having a second chance. And from that it made me a little stronger than I guess I would have been otherwise."
About six months later, in 1985, Tucci and his mother moved to Washington, where he attended the private Lab School, which caters to children in kindergarten through high school who have learning disabilities. Tucci had a high IQ, but had trouble articulating his thoughts in writing. His essays and book reports came out in a blur of words with little punctuation.
When his mother gave him a skateboard for Christmas that year, he was hooked. At the Lab School, Tucci became friends with Chris Hall, another future professional skateboarder. Most afternoons, they would start skating near the Capitol, then roll through downtown, into Georgetown, over the Key Bridge and on into Rosslyn, hitting prime skating spots along the way. Sometimes, they would duck out of school early to skate.
From the start, Tucci was known for his fearless style, his determination to test the limits of his body and physics. He had one speed on his board: as fast as he could go. It was always Tucci's speed and "pop" -- his ability to ollie high into the air -- that distinguished his skating.
"He definitely skates with a lot more speed than a lot of people do," says Keir Johnson, the director of Catalyst Skateboards and a friend from the D.C. skating scene. "The ollie is the basic building block for all tricks, and Brian has a really good ollie . . . Watching him skate, we would just be amazed by the things he could skate over and jump over. He could get on top of things that didn't even look real."
Freedom Plaza became the mecca for the city's skaters thanks to its smooth, pink marble and high ledges that were perfect for tricks. Future professional skateboarders from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Richmond trekked to Freedom to experience the park's unique dimensions.
"You could sit there, and Brian would just be completely dominating," Johnson says. "Brian would, like, put on a show on the weekend. When Brian and those guys would really start going off, we would all just sit down and watch them because it was really amazing."
When Tucci was 16, he nabbed his first sponsorship, from Intensity Skates, a shop in College Park. The shop gave Tucci a store discount and free T-shirts, and paid his contest entry fees. More important, it sent a highlight film that Tucci had cobbled together of his skating exploits to an up-and-coming California-based company called H-Street. The film showed Tucci doing tricks throughout the Washington area -- jumping a ramp in the circle near Third and T streets NW, zipping through a parking garage in Silver Spring, hurdling benches downtown.
An executive at H-Street, Mike Ternasky, loved Tucci's street style; it was something different at a time when vert skating -- in bowls and half-pipes -- dominated the scene. H-Street soon added Tucci to its team of sponsored skaters, a groundbreaking moment for many reasons: Tucci was one of the first East Coast skaters to earn sponsorship from a West Coast company; he was one of the first skaters to actually hail from an urban environment; and he was one of the few African Americans in the sport.
Ternasky flew to Washington in the fall of 1989 and filmed Tucci for four days -- one day in the District, the other three in New York City, during which Tucci skated the infamous Brooklyn Banks, which are sloping brick walls under the Brooklyn Bridge on the Manhattan side. Tucci's footage turned into a 35-second role in H-Street's now classic skate video, "Hocus Pocus." During his scenes, Tucci rocketed over the waist-high benches downtown and completed a "front-side nose grab" on the Brooklyn Banks.
"It was only like 30 seconds long, but it was very hard-hitting. It blew people away," Johnson says. "People really remember that part. He had so much raw energy that it really stood out."
Tucci became a relative celebrity within the skateboarding world, recognized at contests from Florida to Boston. But he declined H-Street's invitations to move to California to train and develop his career, a decision that limited his ability to capitalize on his momentum.
"I just don't think I wanted to leave D.C. at the time," Tucci says. "I just didn't really know how to handle it. I didn't really want to be away from my home." Eventually, Tucci signed a professional contract with One More Skateboard Co. He received one paycheck before the company folded in 1991. At 18, Tucci saw his career sputter to a halt.
It's a Wednesday evening, and Brian Tucci is standing atop a home-made skate ramp in the bowels of a repurposed Northwest rowhouse called "Fight Club," an unlicensed, underground hangout for skaters. A swarm of people with cigarettes dangling from their fingers and plastic cups gripped in their hands are bunched into an elevated corner of the room, where they can watch the action in the skating bowl.
A four-man band is bunched in the opposite corner of the skating bowl, wailing away. Drums pound. A bass guitar booms. The lead singer screams into his microphone. The deafening noise bounces back and forth in the cavernous room. Two vertical poles in the middle of the bowl help fortify the level above, and add another element of danger for the skaters.
Tucci waits, then drops into the bowl of mismatched plywood boards, zipping like a flash across the ramps. He skates so fast and gets so much air when he jumps that his head nearly strikes the ceiling. The onlookers whoop and shriek. After Tucci slides across the lip of one of the ramps, other skaters take their boards and whack them against the lip, a skateboarder's form of applause.
After his brief association with One More Skateboard Co. came to an end in 1991, Tucci began spending more time with his childhood friend Mao Clemmons. They would sit in Tucci's living room and compose rap songs, using broomsticks to make beats on the coffee table.
Those freestyle sessions developed into impromptu shows at house parties, followed by a performance at an open mic night at the Kilimanjaro Club in Northwest Washington. Tucci and Clemmons added another friend to the group, Ahmad Deshae, and evolved into an eclectic live hip-hop band called "3LG," which stood for 3 Levels of Genius. At different times, 3LG had a drummer, a saxophonist, a percussionist, even a dancer and friends armed with shakers. "It was a cast of millions, man," says Tucci, who put his skateboarding career aside while he focused on music. "It was like metal guitar and cowbells. Straight chaos, but it was really, really cool."
3LG began playing venues such as the 9:30 club, Black Cat, Asylum, d.c. space and 15 Minutes club, opening for acts such as Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, KRS-One and the Roots. The group won the Washington Area Music Association's award for best rap/hip-hop group several times. Tucci was a member of the band when it won its first two Wammies, as the coveted awards are known. "B raps like he skates," says Rob Parcell, a friend who became the group's manager. "B's mad powerful when he rhymes."
But Tucci's tenure with the band ended after about three years because he didn't show up for practices and sometimes blew off shows all together. At one point, Tucci flaked on a showcase in New York City, during which the Beastie Boys were supposed to be in attendance.
"Like our big break, and I didn't show up for the meeting," Tucci says, somewhat bewildered with himself. "It was over some chick, I know that. It was stupid. It was so stupid, I know that."
"Well, that's B," Clemmons says. "It was really hard to get him to commit to things. B was just not the most responsible person. He still isn't, but that's my brother. That's his thing."
Tucci sits at a table in his mother's home on Girard Street in Northeast with a canvas in front of him. On it, he has created a storm of blue smudges -- dark blue, light blue, royal blue, electric blue.
The living room features brightly colored paintings on the walls and sculpted masks by the front door. All the artwork is by either Tucci or his mother.
"For me, [painting is] really just kind of like a bookmark," Tucci says. "It's the synthesis of everything that I have going on at the time. . . . Somehow, it always falls together. I never know what I'm going to do until it's finished. I just know that the paintings have stopped, and then I know I'm done."
Tucci goes into the corner and pulls out some skateboards that he's painted over. Some of the boards have tickets, fines, old spray paint cans and chunks of stone from Freedom Plaza glued to them.
Tucci says the pieces of concrete and stone he finds at Freedom Plaza are among his most cherished possessions. He considers the park an extension of his home. No matter how many times he's been shooed away by Park Police, he believes he belongs there.
When Tucci got back into skateboarding after his stint with 3LG ended, he encountered a public environment that was much more hostile toward skating. The number of skaters had grown exponentially, and the police were determined to stop them. His run-ins with the police became more and more frequent, culminating in a dangerous chase through the city streets in the spring of 1997. "It was 'Frogger' for, like, seriously, like 15 blocks," Tucci says. "I'm skating upstream like a salmon."
Just as Tucci hopped a curb near the entrance to Metro Center Station, he says, an off-duty Secret Service agent clotheslined him. The officer chasing him finally caught up and arrested Tucci. He pleaded guilty to a charge of simple assault, though he can't explain why it was an assault charge. Efforts to track down his 12-year-old arrest record or reach the arresting officer were unsuccessful. At trial, he was given 12 months of unsupervised probation. The judge also warned that if Tucci was caught skating at Freedom Plaza, he would serve a mandatory six months in jail and pay a $1,000 fine.
That prompted Tucci to move to San Francisco in 1999 to renew his attempts at a professional career. He lasted out West for about three years, unable to make any serious inroads. "Ended up being broke, had to bounce back," Tucci says.
Yet even now he can't see himself anywhere except on his skateboard.
"I think I'll always skate," Tucci says. "I don't think there will ever be a time that I'm too old to skate. I think there will always be a way. I don't think I'm ever going to stop . . . I'd have to lose a leg or something. It's, like, all I know."
Tucci jogs up 20th Street with his skateboard tucked under his arm, determined to get the photo that Transworld magazine is willing to buy. The air is growing cooler, but sweat has gathered on his forehead.
He rolls back down the sidewalk, the wheels on his board clattering over the tiny crevices in the pavement faster and faster as he picks up speed.
His power and grace bring passersby to a halt. A guy wearing a brown UPS uniform stops and watches. So does a young bespectacled man with a necktie spilling down his shirt.
But each time Tucci reaches the concrete ledge, then ollies on top of it, something goes awry. His wheels slide off. He loses his balance. He doesn't get quite high enough. Tucci crashes to the concrete several times. His board slaps against the ground and echoes in the alley. The people who had stopped to watch continue walking.
"It's not happening today," Tucci finally concedes, with the night chill creeping in. Tomorrow, he'll try again.
Matthew Stanmyre is a sports reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.