Photo Credit: Guilhermo Guillis
Most skaters can recall the first skateboard magazine they read, or the first skate video they saw, like it was yesterday. And if you started skating in the early-to-mid nineties – arguably street skating’s heyday – that video was likely on a VHS cassette tape. The baggy pants, über-technical tricks, and classic rock-influenced soundtracks represented the essence of what skateboarding was at the time. One company that etched its presence in the industry was Neighborhood Skateboards. Its founder, Julio de la Cruz, brought a distinctly Latin vibe to the brand when he started it in 1993, shortly after leaving New Deal. Ernie Mendoza, Mark Gonzales’ cousin, contributed much of the early artwork appearing on the boards, adding to the Latin flavour. I caught up with Julio over the phone while he was driving across Brazil – a country he’s called home since moving there from LA in 2014 – to ask him about his life, the early nineties, and the brand he’s fathered for nearly 25 years. – Daniel Kratochvil
Where are you these days?
I’m working for one of the biggest skateboard manufacturers in the world, BBS Manufacturing. We make two million skateboards a year, and sell them all over the world. I represent Latin America. So, I go all over Latin America and sell decks to different shops – all made from real maple – even American brands. I help bring skateboarding to different cities, and promote it as what it is: a lifestyle.
Is representing Latin America important to you?
Hell ya! I speak the languages: a little Portuguese, a little Spanish. I used to be a professional skateboarder, and so I have to know what’s up.
Photo Credit: Guilhermo Guillis
Take me back to the New Deal days. What was it like skateboarding in LA during the early nineties, and pushing the limits of technical tricks?
I started skateboarding in junior high. I saw some kid do an ollie, and I was like ‘Damn, how do you do that? How do you make the board stick to your feet like that?’ That same kid gave me a Neil Blender board, and I tried it, and basically learned how to ollie on my first day. After that, I would get up at six o’clock in the morning and skate before school. I would go to school and be full of blood from slamming, and trying to learn new tricks. I started skateboarding in the neighbourhoods of South Gate and Huntington Park in LA. These were the homes of guys like Armando Barajas, Shorty Gonzales, and even Mark Gonzales, so skateboarding was cool in my neighbourhood. I used to do nose slides, tail slides, and hand rails. My friend, Armando Barajas got on New Deal at the time, and I was waiting to get hooked up too. Remember Chris Miller?
DK: Yeah, I do.
He told me he was going to hook me up when I met him skateboarding in Venice Beach. He was like, ‘Yeah I want to get you on my team’, and he gave me his number. But I ended up loosing his number, and so I never called him back! I was waiting to get hooked up, and one day I went to the Powell Skate Zone – there was a contest going on there – and I had all kinds of people watching me outside skateboarding. I was like, ‘Damn, if I can get people to trip out on little weird tricks that I do, I’m just gonna start doing this [professionally] now!’ It was all about confidence. I was trying to do the most technical stuff out there.
A lot of people credit you for influencing their style, or motivating their progression, like Chris Haslam. Do you ever get stoked knowing you’ve influenced other pros?
Oh, hell ya! I love Haslam! Haslam visited me in LA because I used to have my own skatepark. It had a restaurant, a video arcade and skate shop attached to it. So basically, I would have parties with the pros, and give them free pizza. People used to come to LA to my pizza restaurant/skatepark, and eat free pizza – all the skateboarders – and we used to skate. That’s where I met Chris Haslam.
DK: That’s awesome. What was it called?
It was called the Bell Skateboard Station. It’s still there, but it’s only the skatepark there now. I was running it for like four years, but after I left, nobody was doing what I was doing. I was doing contests, and I was getting pros there every weekend. It was fun – it was good times!
What made you start Neighborhood? Did you have a falling-out with New Deal, or did you always see yourself opening up your own company?
I used to go to the New Deal warehouse – you know how [a company] sends you a box of four or five boards for tours – I used to go to the warehouse and grab like 10 or 20 boards, and go on trips of my own! They would look at me like, ‘Nah, you can’t be doing that!’ I was too much, and they couldn’t really handle me. I wasn’t a bad person, but just way too much. They talked to my mom at the time and they were like, ‘Julio’s good, but we’re going to kick him off because we can’t handle him, he’s too crazy.’ So after their meeting [to remove me] I was like, ‘I’m the boss-man here, homey.’ I took Armando, I took Shorty, I took everybody. I did it out of reaction. The skateboard industry thinks they own whatever you do. We’d go to demos, and they’d want us to do the tricks we’d do in the videos because that’s what people knew about. I was at one demo trying a kickflip bigspin late heelflip – trying all this new stuff – and I wasn’t landing it. The team wanted me to stick to the tricks from the videos because that what kids bought, and videos were what people knew about.
Did you intentionally want a Latin vibe for Neighborhood, or was that a coincidence?
I told Armando, ‘Let’s do our own thing.’ So basically, what we did is talked to Lance Mountain first. Lance was like, ‘No one’s gonna want that LA gangster stuff.’ But look at some of the companies out there now! We weren’t trying to be gangster. Believe it or not, my biggest fan base is white people! You know who helped me out in the beginning? Tony Hawk. I ran into him for the first time in Venice Beach. Five years later I ran into him again when I was starting Neighborhood, and he remembered me. I was like, ‘How do you remember me, you’ve met a thousand kids!?’ And Tony said, ‘You were super loud, and jumped in on our demo, and we were just doing a Bones Brigade demo!’ After that, the first Neighborhood videos were made at Tony’s house.
DK:Was that Mi Vida Loca?
Yes. Mi Vida Loca and Personalities were made at Tony’s house.
DK: Was Tony stoked on the technical skating you were doing?
Oh, hell ya! Tony Hawk has always been a great friend of mine. I did a demo with him once at a charity event in Las Vegas too. He’s always been a great influence and a great help.
Photo Credit: Guilhermo Guillis
Neighborhood went quiet for a number of years in North America, but it’s got a strong presence in South America. When did you relocate there?
What happened was I originally licensed a deal for Neighborhood in Japan. So basically, we signed a deal with [a distributor] called Unicom. I was making enough money in Japan that I didn’t really need to be out there fighting against Chocolate, or Girl, or all these other brands [in the US]. At the same time, there were also Spanish distributors that used to buy my boards from California to sell in Latin America. So, while people were fighting for people to sell in California, I was making more money selling Neighborhood out of the States than in the States.
What do you think about skateboarding in the upcoming Olympics, and what that means for skateboarding?
Nobody knows where skateboarding is ever going to go. They were trying to make it part of the Olympics for a long time. Are they going to take regular dudes and drug-test them too? I just don’t know. Skateboarding’s a lifestyle, a cry from the streets, you know? Believe it or not, everybody that skateboards that I know has lived on the streets. Whether there was some problem at home, or not being able to get a job, we all ended up sleeping in the streets at some point. The reason I think I lasted this long, is that I never became a druggie or addict.
DK: It seems like you’re more addicted to skateboarding.
Oh, hell ya! You know what I’m addicted to? Talent. I’ll put all the money in my pocket just to get a skater known.