L.A. Man: Profiles from a Big City and a Small World
by Joe Donnelly
Rare Bird Books, 284 pp., $16.95
During his more than 20 years writing for Raygun, L.A. Weekly, Los Angeles Times, The Surfer’s Journal or Slake: Los Angeles—to name a few—Joe Donnelly’s profiles of the famous, the underground, and the notorious were required reading. Some of his best and boldest work, which finds him road tripping with Wes Anderson, surfing with the Malloy brothers and shooting pool with Sean Penn, among other adventures, comes together in his new collection L.A. Man: Profiles from a Big City and a Small World (Rare Bird Books | April 17, 2018).
Here, Donnelly is engaged with the massively influential and equally elusive outsider artist Craig Stecyk, whose relationship with the Z-Boys skateboarding team all but codified modern skateboard ethos and whose body of work indelibly shaped the West Coast aesthetic. Donnelly’s author’s note from the beginning of the chapter explains some of his fascination with Stecyk and this midstream excerpt find Stecyk grappling with his polymath, mid-century influences.
Understanding Craig Stecyk
Originally published as “Father of the Now”
New Times Los Angeles, September 12, 2002
Author’s note: This is sort of the second part of an accidental ontology I began when I was researching and reporting the Dogtown story for the LA Weekly. While putting that story together, the enigmatic C. R. Stecyk III made quite an impression on me. The more I learned about Stecyk, the more I wanted to know and the more I knew, the more I came to understand how much he had shaped the West Coast aesthetic while remaining an underground figure. Stecyk spoke in riddles, wrote under a pseudonym, and left his art unsigned by the roadside or tacked to trees. He had hardearned trust issues and skirted along the edges of reclusion and asceticism, keeping company with a small inner circle. I thought he was a foundational figure, a confounding and unheralded genius, and I wanted to get his story out from the shadows.
The words are now accepted as fact, but when Stecyk wrote the “Dogtown Chronicles” and manifestos like “Skate and Destroy” for Thrasher magazine in 1980, they offered put-upon kids the oldest new way of looking at things in the book, which was basically, “Fuck you! You suck! We’re going do things our way!”
In the hands of the Z-Boys and the next-generation skaters like Mark Gonzales and Christian Hosoi whom they inspired, that attitude rapidly morphed skateboarding from a tame distraction for surfers caught on a day without waves into a subversive and rebellious lifestyle for kids everywhere. It was the official sport of punks. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that Craig Stecyk would be the one to sound the rebel yell. He was in the right place at the right time and had the right tools. If he will admit to anything, it’s that he’s a product of his environment, having come of age in a place and time when the extraordinary was everyday. Consider that he grew up next to a bust of Will Rogers and an attendant plaque that read: “The Main Street of America ends here.”
“Just another victim of Manifest Destiny” is how he puts it.
He’s not kidding about that. Both sides of his family have colorful histories that Stecyk doles out in small, cryptic parcels. Grandparents with whispered IRA links, frontier homesteading, scandalous interracial miscegenation with Native Americans on the western plains, a grandmother who went to the grave thinking the government would eventually give back the land she lent to Teddy Roosevelt for Yellowstone Park—these oral histories spun his own family’s mythology. It’s no wonder Stecyk would eventually turn his ear and narrative sense to the landscape of surfer heroes, skateboarding rebels, and outlaw artists outside his door.
The Ocean Park neighborhood in south Santa Monica was a lucky place to be born, and 1950 was a good year to be born there. While the East Coast was retiring into a post WWII stratification, a good 300 years of practice under its belt, Southern California was still an unruly adolescent. There was money to be made in defense, aerospace, Hollywood, and a thousand offshoots of those industries. On the Santa Monica/Venice border, life was boho and beat in the purest sense: you didn’t have to sweat the rent, and cops and city ordinances were few and far between.
Stecyk didn’t have to look far to find transgressive lifestyles. His father was a photo documentarian in the Army Signal Corps during the war. “He was one of the first guys to photograph Hiroshima; the ground was still warm,” says Stecyk. Both his parents were artists, too, setting up a ceramic shop in their courtyard. They encouraged young Craig to experiment with the materials at hand, be they cameras or clay.
For work, his father painted cars at an auto assembly plant and became both a friend and business associate of legendary car chopper George Barris. Stecyk talks about when his dad drove one of the very first 1955 Thunderbirds from the assembly line.
“His first impulse was to drive the thing over to George’s, which was a couple blocks [from the plant] in Lynwood, and they customized it before day one,” says Stecyk. “The attitude was, ‘You can’t drive this stock thing.’ It had a continental kit, different trim, fender extensions.”
Before long, Craig was a regular in Barris’s shop, apprenticing under the likes of Kenny “Von Dutch” Howard and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, both of whom fathered the custom car culture craze in the fifties and sixties by reviving the pin-striping tradition long after manufacturers had ceased putting such fanciful touches on stock cars. The work of Von Dutch and Big Daddy in turn bled into the lowbrow art phenomenon of R. Crumb, Robert Williams, and Zap Comix, a style of art that has recently been brought back to prominence in part by Juxtapoz magazine.
“I had access to all of them. I remember the paint, the technique, the materials. I had all that stuff around me. I was aware of it all. I mean later, obviously, I used a lot of it,” says Stecyk, who still spends much of his time prowling the desert junkyards of Riverside and San Bernardino counties for parts to use in art projects. “Somewhere in there, there might be the whole idea of maybe deconstruction, or assemblage or something. The whole concept that you could take different elements and put them however you wanted to do and then change it around any time you wanted to. That was just how the people I knew did things.”
Stecyk is quick to point out that this accumulation of influences wasn’t in the least bit self-conscious. Given his environment, it was merely inevitable.
“It was what you thought America was supposed to be,” he says. “Isadora Duncan danced nude down the streets of Santa Monica. C’mon, there was a lot of stuff going on. Robert Benchley [the humorist and one of Dorothy Parker’s circle; the guy who, most importantly, said, ‘There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t’] was drinking at the pier with Stan Laurel. Mae West was down the street. There were honky-tonks, full-on carnival red light districts. It was a fun neighborhood. Then you’d have these women in bat costumes.”
The women in bat costumes were the nuns who taught him at grade school. They were suspicious of Craig from the start because he came from a mixed Catholic/ Protestant household. Their fears were confirmed when, in art class, the young boy painted a purple barn with a black sky. “All the bells went off. It was a Catholic school,” says Stecyk. “There were tests and stuff.”
Before long, he was sent for a series of psychiatric evaluations. Fortunately, the psychiatrist was a progressive thinker and thought it was fine that Craig’s favorite color was black. He was recommended to a high school program for kindred eccentrics.
“At that point, I think Craig understood art had implications,” says Skip Engblom, Stecyk’s accomplice in more than a few guerrilla art stunts, such as planting a fake bomb on Santa Monica Beach on Independence Day to protest patriotic celebrations at the height of the Vietnam War. “I think he saw that, through art, you could create impact. I think that might be one of the things that sent him on the path.”
His environment also determined the type of artist he would become. It was not to be an effete, establishment sort, molded by painting fruit bowls in a Swiss finishing school, even though Stecyk did take a side trip into the formal art world, earning a master’s degree in fine arts from Cal State Northridge by 1974.
Although his stint in Vietnam is clouded in mystery because of his refusal to discuss it, Walter Gabrielson, Stecyk’s professor at Northridge, believes Craig was trying to find “some truth” in formal art after his disillusioning experience in Vietnam—a war that his father’s decorated service in WWII may have compelled the young Stecyk to sign up for. Gabrielson, who counts Stecyk as among the handful of “original” students he met during more than two decades of teaching art, says the academic bureaucracy “failed” Stecyk. The budding artist quickly returned to the streets where he had grown up sidestepping clashes between two rival Latino gangs vying for turf in a ghetto section of beach between the jurisdictions of the Santa Monica and LA police departments.
Meanwhile, Pacific Ocean Park developer Abbot Kinney’s unlucky dream of a Mediterranean-style resort at the Venice and Santa Monica border, sat crumbling into the sea. North of there, the 10 Freeway was under construction, cutting a swath between north and south, leaving a wake of abandoned buildings and juvenile mischief. The local boys called this area of benign neglect Dogtown.
“For me, it was an endless source of material. You’d go in and rearrange furniture [in abandoned houses] so it looked better. Take out the windows so the air moved better, cut holes in the roofs to change the light. Paint up the walls. There were clubhouses, wardrobes. Pictures were still on the wall,” recalls Stecyk. “I would venture about gathering up detritus from block after empty block and add it together, making these walk-in assemblages. I suppose, in that sense, it was empowerment.”
It also offered a lesson about progress and its little-publicized side effect. “When they were building the freeway, it went through the heart of the neighborhood and created a barrier, and people who lived together went to different schools. [We witnessed] the continuity and the social structure torn apart, people moving, houses vacated. What emerged was a DMZ.”
The theme of progress and dislocation would stick with Stecyk and pop up frequently in his more personal artwork. But, meanwhile, he and his friends threw block parties, because the cops rarely ventured into this area. The construction zone offered other possibilities, too. “I started riding skateboards on it,” Stecyk recalls. “We’d ride down the off-ramps into the traffic on the 405. The first time, it was accidental. After that you’d do it on purpose. All the interesting girls would hang out there because all the interesting guys were there.”
In the water around the rubble of Pacific Ocean Park, the scene was equally amplified. A testament to both inspiration and indifference, the pier, jutting as it did for hundreds of yards into the ocean, formed a dangerous but enticing surf break where the local surfers went through their rites of passage. The break became the proving ground for the Zephyr Shop surf team and famous skaters like Peralta, Alva, and Adams who became the Z-Boys. They’ll tell you being a Z-Boy was great, but you had to cut it at POP first.
Taking cues from the local gangs, Stecyk began tagging his own tribe’s turf with graffiti, creating icons and images that would find their way onto the Zephyr Shop surfboards and skateboards and later across the country and eventually into skate culture’s lore. The Dogtown cross, the “vato” rat-bones icon, the ominous warning of death to invaders sprayed in a familiar hand on the concrete walls of their local break—all became marks of a movement that would wait years to be given its name.
Excerpted from L.A. Man: Profiles from a Big City and a Small World (81 – 86), courtesy of Joe Donnelly and Rare Bird Books. Mr. Donnelly will discuss his collection of profiles in L.A. Man at Skylight Books, Los Feliz, on April 12 at 7:30 pm, and at Chevalier Books, Larchmont Village, on Thursday, April 26 (7 – 9pm)
Featured Image courtesy of C.R. Stecyk
Joe Donnelly is an award-winning journalist, writer and editor. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Journalism at Whittier College. Donnelly’s short story “Bonus Baby”, published in the spring/summer 2015 issue of Zyzzyva, is featured in the 2016 O. Henry Prize Stories Collection as one of the 20 best short stories of the year. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Huck, Los Angeles Weekly, Los Angeles Times, takepart.com, Washington Post, and many more.