Skateboarder Tino Razo Takes Us Inside the Hidden World of L.A.'s Backyard Pool Skaters
Up on a hill in Silver Lake, behind a nondescript stucco apartment building, a kidney-shaped swimming pool has been outfitted with an elaborate deterrence mechanism. The inside of the aging concrete basin has been framed out from side to side with two-by-fours and covered with chicken wire. A blue plastic tarp is draped over the whole thing. Someone really didn't want people to skate this pool.
A few years ago, the empty pool — before the booby trap was built — was a "gift" from former pro skater Tino Razo to his buddies. "My friends had been bringing me to a couple [pools], then it dawned on me, I wanted to start actually giving them some back," he says. "Randomly, I was sitting [at a bar in the neighborhood], and I just started to look around. I found three [empty pools] right in this nook." He and his friends skated it four times in a single month, which, granted, is pretty much asking for annoyed neighbors, the cops or, in this case, an egregiously angry landlord to put the kibosh on a good time. Everyone's a critic, but some are handier with a hammer than others.
Down the hill, on a major thoroughfare that we'll leave unnamed, Razo shows me the former site of the "Shit Bowl," a swimming pool that when he found it had a thick layer of sludge at the bottom that approximated, in appearance and aroma, actual shit. Armed with buckets, brooms and industrial trash bags for hauling gunk, Razo and his buddies spent three days cleaning the pool until it was skateable. Since then, the modest bungalow that once occupied the property was razed and replaced with an ultramodern, two-story box of a house, and the pool, he assumes, has been replaced with one of the more contemporary, easier-to-insure square ones, all sharp angles and no transitions — the scourge of skateboarders. We make our way up the driveway toward the backyard to confirm his suspicion and simultaneously turn on our heels as a resident walks out through a side door. It's startling but exciting — as Razo explains, being where you're not supposed to be is part of the fun.
Both the hillside pool and the Shit Bowl are immortalized in Razo's new book of photographs, Party in the Back. Shot over the course of roughly three years, all on film with a Yashica T4, the photos chronicle Razo's experience of a resurgent but largely invisible skate subculture that's as much a part of Southern California's DNA as towering Mexican fan palms and corner doughnut shops.
"To me, this book is like a photographic window into the melancholy of suburbia, with a gooey, triumphant youth culture center," Razo's editor, Johan Kugelberg, says via email. That melancholy is amplified by an unexpected tragedy that befell Razo after the book was completed, a loss that is all too intertwined with the Southern California way of life.
The images, presented without captions, trace a path through the backyards of abandoned midcentury mansions in the Hollywood Hills and modest ranch homes in the San Fernando Valley out to a demolished nudist colony near Palm Springs. Skaters are suspended in time against pools' plain white walls. In one photo, a cop glances backward over his shoulder as Razo shoots.
"He has an eye, clearly, and this book is a really nice glimpse into a specific world within skateboarding, bringing the viewer into an exclusive world that most will never be able to experience," Huntington Beach–based street and skate photographer Ed Templeton says of Razo.
The landscapes feel timeless but simultaneously reverberate with the urgency of impermanence. It's a trip over the fence, skateboard in hand, a view of L.A. and its environs from the deep end. The face of Southern California is constantly changing, but in backyards throughout the region, skaters are keeping their subculture alive.
On paper, Razo is perhaps an unlikely candidate to produce what amounts to an anthropological document steeped in Southern California youth culture. He's 40, an amateur photographer and, at least initially, a reluctant Angeleno. When he and his wife, Desiree, moved here in late 2010, the adjustment wasn't easy for the longtime New Yorker. "In New York, I was so used to just leaving the house and letting days unfold. Tons of shit would happen. Then coming here, you walk out your door, there's nobody out there," he says. "It's a pretty fucking lonely town." At 37, he broke down and got a driver's license for the first time, which improved matters.
But he's also a lifelong skateboarder who, like most nonlocals, festishized SoCal pool culture from afar. As a kid in Vermont, he got his start skating in the driveway with his two older brothers, Marc and Andre. "Then," he says, "you start to learn how to stand up, and then you go further out of the driveway into the streets. And then you find a hill, and then you go down the hill however many times. And then you move into the town and then you start skating the town stuff, and then you find out that there's skateable stuff in industrial parks, and get into industrial parks."
He moved to New York after high school to attend the School of Visual Arts, where he studied screen printing, but admits the exploit was mostly a "decoy" that allowed him to skate the ultimate metropolis. "A huge part of skating for me is exploring. It's always been like that. It really drove me away from my parents' house. ... Shit, it drove me to New York City, it drove me that far because I wanted a metropolis where it's modern architecture and all that kind of stuff. I found a full pipe in a subway tunnel before. I've skated underground there, I've skated the projects there, I've skated every type of place."
As it does for lots of skaters, architecture played a crucial role in shaping his style. Skaters are products of their urban environments in that sense, and some of the tricks they perform were even developed as ways to react to hazards of city spaces, such as potholes and fucked-up streets. But for skaters, everything — from ramps to banks — is just a substitute for a backyard pool. A skater looks at an empty pool the way a painter considers a blank canvas: It's a void that offers endless opportunity.
In the midst of the street-centric '90s, Razo headed southeast of the city to the rundown beach town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, and skated one of his first pools with friends Rick Charnoski and Coan "Buddy" Nichols, the filmmakers responsible for the definitive 1999 pool-skating video Fruit of the Vine.
Nichols says that even all these years later, he recognizes parallels between their project and Razo's photography: "The perspective from our film and Tino's book, the similarity between our perspectives, is pulling back from the edge, from the trickery and the actual act of skateboarding. Although that's in there, it's more about the peeking-over-the-fence perspective. It's more about how interesting the surroundings are, not just the pool."
He adds, "Skating is so prevalent in pools that you don't really have to even put that much skating in [a book or documentary] because people know that part."
They explain now that they made the film — which documents sessions with skaters from L.A. up the California coast into Oregon and Washington, and over to the East Coast — because they feared pool skating was on its way out and wanted to document it for posterity. Luckily, the art form survives.
As Fruit of the Vine demonstrates, pool skating isn't exclusive to our region, but the style was born in Southern California of uniquely SoCal circumstances. In the mid-'70s, the kids of Dogtown's Zephyr Competition Team — aka the Z-Boys — invented a style of skating that was heavily influenced by surfing, as opposed to the rollerskating-influenced style of the day. Before pools, the Dogtown kids skated the banks of sunken playgrounds at elementary schools located in valleys throughout the city. Then, in 1976, the worst drought in California history (at least until 2013) resulted in backyard pools being drained or not filled at all. Around the same time, urethane wheels were invented, making the experience of riding dramatically smoother than it had been on clay wheels, which jammed up on contact with something as innocuous and ubiquitous as a pebble.
After the morning surf session was over, Jay Adams, Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva and company bombarded backyards and skated till the cops came, using a swimming pool's walls to approximate the curl of a wave. For the most part, the midcentury pools they skated back then are the same ones being skated today — it's an experience preserved in amber.
From the start, it would appear that at least half the fun was the adventure and tenuous legality of the activity. "Skaters by their very nature are urban guerrillas," Zephyr team co-founder Craig Stecyk wrote in 1976. It's still what appeals to Razo, even as an adult — or, rather, especially as an adult. "It's always like that bad-kid feel. You know when you're a kid, I don't know if you snuck around warehouses in the area you lived in or something like that," he says as we drive through Laurel Canyon. I suggest that everyone tries to recapture the recklessness of youth in one way or another. "I hope so," he says, "because it feels fucking amazing."
Although California plays a leading role in Razo's work, his New York roots and experience as a graffiti artist influenced the photos' formal aspects, including their almost abstract lines and concentration on blank spaces. They're reminiscent in tone and subject matter of the photographic work of Ed Templeton, whom Razo has known since 1994, when the former first exhibited at Alleged Gallery on Manhattan's then-gritty Lower East Side.
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Templeton has released several photo books documenting skate and youth culture, including a two-part series of images of teenagers smoking cigarettes. He and his wife, Deanna, also were featured in the 2008 documentary Beautiful Losers, alongside a cadre of artists who were intertwined with the skate world, such as filmmakers Harmony Korine and Mike Mills, and street artist Shepard Fairey.
Razo's photographs also reflect that era's shoot-from-the-hip aesthetic, creating artfully composed portraits of fleeting moments amid suburban ruin. "[Razo's] photos capture the zeitgeist of suburbia and the fringes of the desert in its forlorn beauty while simultaneously documenting the lifestyle of skateboarders utilizing these abandoned realms in a physical yet poetic way," Templeton says.
There's a story behind every image in Razo's book. There's the decrepit house in the middle of L.A., which they were sure was abandoned. It turned out not to be, but they still wanted the pool, so Razo knocked on the door and offered to do some badly needed yardwork for the guy every couple months in exchange for a few small sessions, just three or four skaters. The owner declined and added, "And please don't tell anybody else about this place." Razo now jokes that there are probably bodies in the basement. I saw the house — it's not a totally off-base theory.
Other homeowners are more receptive to simply being asked for permission. A mother in the Inland Empire was glad to have the guys skate her pool, hoping that her sons, who'd gotten wrapped up in gang activity, would benefit from the good influence. A dad in the Valley let them skate in exchange for T-shirts and shoes for himself and his kid (a number of Razo's friends are pros who have sponsorships, so free gear isn't hard to come by). An aging actress in Brentwood, an old acquaintance of another skater, was almost indifferent to their presence. "I remember saying to her, 'Oh my God, this is so amazing that you have this,'?" Razo says of praising her immaculate, empty pool. "She's just like, 'You think so? Have fun.' She just went into her room and watched TV. We didn't see her the rest of the time."
Then there are the places where getting consent isn't plausible, which means jumping fences and risking run-ins with dogs, excitable neighbors and cops. Sometimes people want to be pissed off but can't once they start watching. A guy who lives behind the building with the now–booby-trapped pool in Silver Lake caught them and came down, they'd assumed to admonish them or threaten to call the police. "But there were a couple guys that were really skating it well, so he got excited," Razo recalls. "He was like, 'Damn, all right.' Then he left and came back with two six-packs of Corona."
Razo is protective of details about how they find pools — there are telltale signs that a house is vacant and/or that there's a pool in the backyard, but anyone who's dedicated to finding spots could pretty easily figure those things out on their own. He did share some helpful suggestions — for instance, never skate a pool alone. As easy as it looks in video footage, navigating a pool on a wood board with four plastic wheels is hard as hell. "In surfing, no wave is the same, you know what I mean? Same in pools," he says. And pools are made of concrete, not water.
"You could skate the one pool and get used to it, but if you're avidly going out and skating a lot of pools, no pool is identical," he adds. People who build pools "aren't coming in with that kind of brain, you know what I mean? They're coming in with the basic shape, and whatever the people want. The pitch of the pools is going to be different, the shapes are going to be slightly different, and everything like that." He says he heard about a friend of friends who broke his hip while skating a pool alone. Luckily it was a known and active pool, so the guy was discovered fairly quickly.
Also, always carry a skateboard — that way, if the cops show up, there's no question what you're up to. Cops actually tend to be kinder to skaters than to scrap-metal thieves.
In more ways than one, Party in the Back is a love letter — to skating, to California and to Razo's wife, Desiree. She and Razo left New York when legendary skater hangout Max Fish on the Lower East Side, the bar where they both worked — Desiree as a bartender, Tino as door guy and then bartender — shuttered after 21 years (it's since reopened). Desiree was quicker than Tino to embrace the Southern California lifestyle. A lifelong swimmer — a "waterwoman," as Tino calls her — Desiree dove into the surf scene and started freelancing as a stylist, while Tino started his job at the Supreme store in West Hollywood. Eventually, they separated.
After the separation, Razo turned to pool skating as a kind of therapy. "Moving to California re-hyped my love for skateboarding. I used it more as transportation in New York, toward the end of me living there," he says. "Just being here and seeing places I've seen in videos since I was a kid got me really excited. I just started really loving skateboarding again."
Like a lot of people who move here from other metropolises — places with better public transportation, less traffic, more walkable neighborhoods — Razo realized he needed to stop trying to compare L.A. to New York because it was making him miserable: "Once you actually fucking just give up and start letting it be what it is and enjoying it for what it is, that's when I feel like it really starts to get magical and fuck yeah. I feel like it's helped me as a person. I don't know. That's all corny, but you know what I'm saying."
When he started taking photos of his friends' backyard pool adventures — along with the houses, the people and watchdogs they came across, the logos of long-defunct swimming pool contractors — he didn't know it would turn into a book. A body of work just sort of presented itself. Johan Kugelberg, the book's editor, knew Razo through his brother Marc. Kugelberg grew up skateboarding in Sweden and had always been fascinated by the SoCal scene. "Backyard pool skating seemed very romantic back then, it still is, but now peppered with a poignant sadness of failed American dreams — architectural, suburban, personal," Kugelberg says. "I've edited a bunch of photo books and staged quite a few exhibits with all kinds of amazing photographers, so the moment I saw Tino's work I knew it was the real deal."
Razo completed the book in 2015, but the excitement of wrapping up such a massive project was short-lived. On Sept. 10 of that year Desiree — who was going by her maiden name, Zondag, although she and Tino never divorced — died while surfing in Malibu. According to a news report and Razo's own understanding of the accident, she was impaled in the chest by her own broken longboard and died almost immediately. She was 36.
In a handwritten essay on the book's final page, he dedicates it to her. It closes: "She is the first person that I've known in my entire life to die doing what she loved. ... I loved you, I still love you, and I will continue to do so till my time is up. This one's for you, Desiree."
The Los Angeles housing market being what it is, Razo agrees it's odd that one of the vacant houses he shot for the book — a '70s ranch with a circular fireplace in the middle of the living room — is still vacant. The pool is empty and ready to ride, at least as long as the people who live in the house next door are at work.
It's in a pretty tony section of L.A., but monied areas are surprisingly accommodating to skaters. "People with money, you realize they move out of places so quick it's fucking crazy. Like, if I wanted to, I could probably do a project in Beverly Hills if I spent enough time ... because of people coming and going," he says. "[You've got] people being rich for a second and then not rich, or rich people being sick of their fancy house and wanting another fancy house. They're always alternating out there — it's fucking crazy."
Since he finished the book project, he isn't spending as much time actively searching for new pools, but it's safe to assume the next generation of skateboarder is ready to pick up the slack. According to filmmaker Charnoski, pool skating is in the throes of a resurgence and has been for the past six years or so: "Like, [there are] articles in magazines now on how to find a pool, how to patch a pool, how to drain a pool."
He adds, "I could sit here for 10 hours and talk about stories, because it's always different. No matter fucking what. Every single pool has its own scenario, its own story, its own risk or nonrisk. That's a part of the most interesting thing about it for me, especially growing older as a skater, it's like you're just not as interested in trying to break off all the tricks — you're just trying to really relish the fucking cool experience and the uniqueness of it."
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