The east coast powerhouse who made a mark in the '90s era, Donny Barley. We revisit the unspoken history of the legend.
──DONNY BARLEY (ENGLISH)
[ JAPANESE / ENGLISH ]
Special thanks_Element Japan
VHSMAG (V)： When and how did you start skating?
Donny Barley (B)： Age eight I watched the movie SKATEBOARD with a ton of kids from my church, later that year I found a skateboard in someone's trash, it was a banana board. I used it often, I oiled the bearings but it was pretty old and beat up. Because of that I was more into riding my bike. At age ten I witnessed some older kids riding bigger boards and I was completely mesmerized. At age 11 my bike was stolen and I started to save my money for a new bike. Age 12 I went to go buy a new bike and saw a whole selection of those big skateboards. I changed my mind quickly and purchased a Sims Kamikaze (rising sun) board, with Blue Gullwing trucks and red and black Sims street wheels. Being such a small boy it came up to my rib cage. If a hill was too big I would butt board down it. I took it everywhere I went and skated every second. My friends all had bikes, they would tow me around everywhere we went. It was meant to be!
V： Who were your influences?
B： In the early to mid 80’s I came across some BMX and skate magazines and I saw Christian Hosoi (riding a rising sun board) and he was a favorite Instantly. Then I discovered Eric Dressen and he became my favorite skater and still is, I had three or four of his Dogtown boards. Around the same time my grandmother called me into her room and Tony Hawk was on TV, pretty funny to learn about him from my grandma! In the late 80’s I enjoyed all the skate videos I saw. The Bones Brigade, Santa Cruz videos, Sick Boys and then graduating to the H-street video. Into the 90’s the videos and the magazines became easier to find, I was influenced by everyone!
V： Your part in Eastern Exposure 3 had a huge impact on Japanese skaters. You were on Toy Machine back then. Was that directly through Dan Wolfe? how did that all come about?
B： Thank you! And no, I actually met Dan in Pennsylvania in 1992 at a skatepark. He was skating with Maldonado and Bam, we filmed lots of tricks that day and exchanged phone numbers. Later we skated Philly and filmed more, those clips are in Eastern Exposure 2. I moved to SD, California and within a year I had migrated up to SF with some friends and ran into Chris Senn. Stayed with him for a few months, then moved in with Satva Leung and Rob Welsh. Satva got me connected with Toy Machine! Dan came to California and told me he was making a new video and asked me if I would film a part. We started filming in SF and then went back to Boston and Philly.
V： How was it like skating with Ricky Oyola and Matt Reason in Philly? Did they have any influence in the way you skate?
B： Dan and I flew from SF to Boston, to film with Jahmal, Robbie Gangemi and Panama Dan and everyone in Boston at the time. That was amazing! I was already familiar with the city because I grew up near it and skated it plenty of times before I went to California! We got some work done for sure. The day we got to Philly we went straight to Rick's house on South Street. Those guys had been anxiously waiting for us, planning out all the things they wanted to film. Dan showed them all the footage we filmed. That was a big moment for me. That was the realization that we all had a grand opportunity to shine together. The fire was lit!! From that point on I was following those guys around Philly in awe! Both of them had unique styles and different trick selection. Both of them so driven to just annihilate spots, everything was fast, all the grinds long, the ground was rough, popped flip tricks in traffic, creative lines and super high quality switch skating. It was raw, the scene was renegade, just lawless.
V： I remember in the mid 90's a lot of skaters were into tech tricks. Was it a conscious decision to go simple and raw, so-called "east coast style”?
B： I don't think so. I think the trick selection made sense for the type of “skating down the street” mentality that existed then. The fun and risk of skating fast in traffic made basic tricks the realistic norm. I should say basic tricks DONE REALLY WELL! We had plenty of sessions at City Hall and Love park trying more technical tricks. Matt and Rick could do anything they wanted on a skateboard and Fred Gall was another one. My skating grew in so many directions during that time.
V： In the same year you had a part in Toy Machine's Welcome to Hell as well... How were those two parts different in your eyes?
B： Eastern Exposure was a lil more innocent, slowly building confidence, testing my limits. Doing most of the skating with east coast guys on uncharted skate spots not known to the skate world yet. More city skating down the street. It was really really authentic! Welcome to Hell was filmed in a variety of cities and consisted of us getting out of the car to skate a spot, which didn’t really bother any of us. Jamie Thomas drove the car, directed the shots, filmed the clips, gave encouragement and paid for dinner (laughs)! Another remarkably driven individual with a vision. He led us by example and it was a large task to keep up. Because you saw him strive so hard you had no choice but to strive along side him. Making a video for the brand and team you ride for and being a part of building the team also instilled a deeper sense of pride. It drove us to push our limits daily.
V： Barley grind was the ender in that part. Did it get coined from that video? How did that come about?
B： I think that came from a photo in Thrasher? Mike Burnett might be the one who coined the name.
V： How do you feel that a trick is named after your name?
B： It’s a great honor, unbelievable sometimes! And it’s grown to become a deeper honor for me, my dad passed away a few years ago from cancer and it just means more since he passed.
V： In 1998, you got announced as the rider for Element in Third Eye View. How did you get hooked up with Element?
B： Two reasons I guess. Jamie Thomas started Zero and Dan Wolfe became the Element team manager. He wrote me a letter and listed a bunch of reasons why I should ride for Element. He won my heart, man. I knew Jamie would be focused on his project, I was fearful of what Toy Machine would become without him.
V： What was the thing that drew you to Element? I assume it was a big decision for you to leave Ed Templeton's company.
B： I trusted Dan Wolfe! That was the main reason. Then I had a team of guys I already loved (Tim O'Connor, Reese Forbes, Kenny Hughes and Bill Pepper). I don't think I shed any tears in front of Ed when I quit but I know I did privately. It wasn’t easy. Ed took such good care of me and I had to make a really selfish career decision for myself. And not the last.
V： World Tour in 2000. Switch hardflip at the Santa Monica triple set was amazing. How long did it take and how do you feel looking back at it?
B： The first time I went, I landed it first try and stepped right off it... I boast about that because it rarely happened for me. I had to go back, the third visit I landed it. And I landed a sketchy one too. That always bugged me to be completely honest. So, I tried it a half dozen more times and never rolled away cleaner.
V： Eventually you left Element to skate for Birdhouse? Then to Zoo York. How did it feel riding for an east coast company, the area where you're from?
B： My Birdhouse run was short but super fun, I had the best time being around Tony Hawk and the team on the tours. The way Tony interacted with kids and fans, his skills as a skater! A mind blowing year without a doubt! Sal Barbier had just brought his Aesthetics team over to Zoo York and wanted to include Kenny Hughes and myself. To name a few, it was Harold Hunter, Rob Welsh, Zered, Kevin Taylor, east coast guys that I loved and I just couldn’t say no. Shifting from board brand to board brand wasn’t the wisest move but I just wanted to skate with all those guys and get back to NYC.
V： What made you decide to go back to Element after that?
B： The economy of the country and other reasons too. Zoo was dealing with some tough finances and could no longer pay me a salary. I was running my skate shop FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH. I was a new dad, I had just purchased a 130 year old house that I was rehabbing. I wasn’t really prepared from the economic downturn, neither was the nation. Ryan Kingman (team manager) from Element asked if I would be willing to work for the brand as an ambassador and that perhaps it would evolve into more, possibly a sales position. At a desperate time of need to provide for my family I sort of had no choice. I was working at the skate shop and landscaping for extra cash, my wife was waitressing, we rented our home so we wouldn’t foreclose on it, my dad had just passed away. It was a tough and humbling time for my whole family, everything at once seemed to be falling apart and I eventually had to close my store. Without Element we would have literally been on the street. So... my dedication and love for the brand goes real deep. The founder Johnny Schillereff took a chance on me and I’ve just been a grateful employee ever since. I was one of the lucky ones, thank god it worked out!
V： You started working in the industry at Element. How was the transition like at first? Did you have any experience in the business side of things?
B： I had my skate shop, which was a perfect education to help me get started. The first few years took some evolving for me. Learning to understand the Element customer, understanding the chain of command in a business, all sorts of things. With all the ups and downs everyones given me the space to grow. It's been tremendous.
V： What are the struggles you had to face and what's the most rewarding thing working behind the scene?
B： It’s a bummer to see the team riders leave, but as you read, I’ve been there. It’s also a bummer to see coworkers go as well. It’s extremely rewarding to sell product for the young skaters that turn pro and be part of helping them grow. Being close to the team riders and connecting whenever possible is really special for me at my age.
V： What's your position at Element right now?
B： Hard goods sales for the east coast, Maine to Florida. I do a variety of events at retail doors throughout the year, sometimes outside of my territory. All the trade shows. I try to contribute in every way possible.
V： You had Burly chino in 2015, which was rad that the brand celebrated your legacy in skateboarding. How do you feel all the things you've done in the past being remembered like this?
B： Again it's an honor for me, I have three daughters and they get to see dads achievements in skateboarding get recognized. I give thanks every morning and night! Skateboarding has saved my life a few times over.
V： Now you have the Legends Collection with Bam. Could you explain about the collection?
B： One day Johnny emailed me an updated version of my old Smoker graphic. It was the NON SMOKER version. It made me LOL!! He said he wanted to make a small collection and that he would tell me more soon. I just wrote him back and said, " LETS GO, STOKED!" I was a cigarette smoker, I also had my struggles with substances. It’s a long story. A few years ago I got the help I needed and I’ve lived a sober life ever since. Johnny and my close friends at Element saw my struggles and supported my recovery. So this collection has a deeper meaning to me and to a few people at Element. And this is the first time I’ve actually mentioned it.
V： You have a long history in skateboarding. What's the fondest memory?
B： The very beginning, butt boarding down hills, getting road rash, learning to tic tac, picking the scabs off of my knees, jumping off launch ramps, learning to drop in. The innocents of it all, TRUE LOVE!
V： What's next for you? Any project in the works?
B： Lately I’ve been teaching skateboarding locally, small skate camps this summer. Its really satisfying! I dream of doing them all over the world, its been consuming my thoughts, FREE SKATE CAMPS! I dream of going to Africa and teaching in underprivileged communities. Bringing my wife and daughters with me to help. Skateboarding saves lives! Hopefully one day, pray for me 🙂 !
Born in 1973 in Connecticut. He gained global recognition with fast and powerful skate style in the '90s. His most notable work includes Eastern Exposure 3, World Tour, etc. Currently he's the icon and east coast sales of Element.