Paul Anthony “Tonan” Ruiz's wheels are parked inside his girlfriend's apartment — five skateboard decks stacked vertically against a wall, a hand's reach from the front door.
The boards are battered, ridden, worn transportation. Ruiz, to steal Jay Adams' mantra, is 100 percent skateboarder for life.
At 43 years old, he's sunglassed, muscle-massed and tattooed — though his skin's frequent meetings with concrete have taken chunks out of a large skull-and-bones tattoo on his shin.
Ruiz has been part of the Venice hard-core skateboard scene since he was a little boy. He has earned his skateboard stripes, has pulled the cherry job of living on the beach in a trailer next to the Venice skateboard park while it was under construction and, given a choice between waves and work, might be inclined to go with the former.
But Ruiz is also something else. He is the proud owner of a sewing machine.
Just before Halloween, he helped a single mom out with a few stitches. She had discovered that the Avatar costume she'd purchased for her daughter at Kmart was too big. “We tapered the arms,” he says.
More frequently, he personalizes his wardrobe of factory-made shorts, shirts and jackets with blue bandana trim and other accessories.
“A lot of males think [sewing] is a feminine thing,” he says, explaining how people react to learning that he not only owns a sewing machine but uses it. “I believe it throws them off. They don't expect this person to have a sewing machine.”
Let the record show, this man once attempted to use a giant, home-fashioned catapult to launch himself into a skateboard run at a highly excessive speed. The fact that the experiment was fairly unsuccessful did not mentally scar Ruiz, and the reactions to his sewing do not perturb him, either. “Sewing is one of the oldest professions,” he explains, care of the History Channel. “We've been dealing with fabric since way back.”
Referring to the notorious child-labor practices of some high-profile corporations, he says, “Everybody should make their own fashion. I think it should be in the curriculum at school.
“Instead of clipping all the cool things for kids, like home ec, you should push sewing — how to make patterns. It would be cool to see people sewing for old ladies, for people who don't have anything,” he says.
Ruiz's sewing epiphany came shortly after high school, when he was living in San Clemente and working at Tony Alva's skateboard factory. He went to the skate industry's annual trade show in San Diego, where the attendees included a man wearing an exceedingly fine aloha shirt.
“I asked him where he got it, and he said he'd made it. He made all his own clothing, from his hat down to his shorts.”
Turns out, Ruiz was talking to Jimmy Ganzer, the surfer and artist who founded Jimmy'Z, the Southern California clothing line.
Though Ruiz couldn't afford the quality names of the day — Op and Gotcha — he had always been interested in clothing's visual aspect and was immediately inspired. “I got tired of accepting what people were selling as clothing.”
So during the day, he silk-screened designs at Alva Skateboards or, if there were waves, surfed with the crew. At night, Ruiz took a sewing class at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. Working from patterns, he produced a pair of shorts and a button-down shirt. He hadn't gone to college, but with his sewing he landed himself an “A.”
Ruiz didn't have his own sewing machine. But there were plenty of people in the area, a surf and skateboard industry hub, who loaned him theirs and taught him new techniques. He didn't get the sewing machine he owns today until he was living along the Venice canals, in a bootlegged apartment.
One day, he noticed a neighbor's parents cleaning out the neighbor's apartment — stacks of her possessions lay outside. He'd always been on friendly terms with the woman. “Where is she?” he asked.
Her parents didn't say much but told him to take whatever he liked.
The sewing machine was a Necchi Esperia; his neighbor had been Lana Clarkson.
The Necchi Esperia, Ruiz will tell you, is “a domestic industrial machine. It doesn't have too many fancy things, but it's a workhorse. It will go through leather, canvas, cotton and pretty much any fabric.”
Like Ruiz's own physicality, the Neechi Esperia is compact. And though its steel skin wouldn't take well to tattoos, it's been personalized in Ruiz's style: It's decked out with skate logos.