11 professional skateboarders you need to know about
© Alexey Lapin / Red Bull Content Pool
To know these skateboarders is to know skateboarding, for it was exactly their love and passion that drove them here.
To put together a list of 11 skateboarders you need to know about was no easy task. For every skateboarder on this list, there are ten others worthy of their slot. However, when it comes to understanding skateboarding, these skateboarders each gave their lives to skateboarding in contributions of heart, career accomplishments, personality and pushing not only what is possible on a skateboard but what it means to be a skateboarder. Red Bull put them in order of birth date because this is not a competition, but rather a hall of recorded reverence.
- February 3rd, 1961 – August 15, 2014. (age 43)
- Venice, California. USA
Jay Adams endures as the raw symbol of professional skateboarding. As the first Z-boy to enter a pro contest in 1975, Adams placed second and immediately was celebrated for his low-to-the-ground surf style and unorthodox approach to skating. While contestants were doing handstands and kickturns, Adams was slashing and airing (literally) off the course in ‘skate and destroy’ spirit. Like many skateboarders who would come after him, skateboarding was Adam’s outlet from a troubled youth. Adams morphed this chaotic energy into something both gnarly and beautiful. And like the story all too familiar with skaters, when pros rise in skating there are many obstacles beyond riding their boards. In other words, no professional skateboarder is perfect - and that’s okay. This Dogtown legend taught us that as long as the passion outweighs the slams, skateboarding will never die. Go bigger, go faster and whatever you do, do it with style.
- May 12th, 1968 (age 52)
- Carlsbad, California. USA
When the world thinks professional skateboarding, the world thinks Tony Hawk. Reaching professional status at only age 14, Tony has gone on to win over 60 competitions, transcending the eras of professional skateboarding to new heights of popularity. Without asking for it, Tony Hawk became the public spokesman of professional skateboarding after he became synonymous with the first ever 900. Tony dropped in on the vert ramp at the summer X-Games in 1999, performing an aerial maneuver of two and a half rotations. As the trick heard around the world, Tony has since appeared on television shows like "The Simpsons" and "Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?" and countless T.V. commercials while launching one of the most successful and recognizable video game franchises in history. Thanks to Tony Hawk, ‘professional skateboarder’ became a respectable career. Not that skateboarding needed any validation in this respect, but Hawk became the giant’s shoulders upon which all pros now stand. Tony is still extremely active in the skate community, and with every major sport function around the world – where skateboarding needs a representative – Tony is there. Skateboarding is very fortunate for that.
Mark “The Gonz” Gonzales
- June 1, 1968 (age 52)
- South Gate, California. USA
There’s only a handful of skaters recognizable by just one name; Gonz has indeed reached Prince status among skating’s disciples. After landing the November Thrasher Magazine cover in 1984, Mark Gonzales joined Vision Skateboards as a pro rider. Gonz was known as one of the first truly developed street skaters, grinding kinked handrails and hitting street spots previously unfathomable to past generations. Even with all his contributions on his board Mark’s greatest contribution is arguably his status as the effigy of the professional skateboarder. As he has throughout his career, Gonz continues to teach us to keep skateboarding unique at all costs. To always be true to yourself and remember why we stepped on a skateboard in the first place – to have fun on our own terms.
- August 17th, 1966 (age 54)
- Gainesville, Florida. USA
While Rodney Mullen, aka the Godfather of Street Skatingboarding, might not have invented the kickflip, he certainly perfected it. Rodney’s largest contribution as a professional skateboarder could easily be the sheer amount of tricks he invented or his impressive run as freestyle world champ, winning 34 out 35 freestyle competitions after turning pro at the age of 14. However, most skateboarders would agree Rodney’s greatest contribution to skateboarding is his mind. Skating is built and conceived upon the innovative mind it takes to create tricks and skate spots out of thin air. While the origin of the ollie is up for debate, Rodney was the real champion of taking the ollie and producing the very first flip tricks. If it wasn’t for Rodney’s pioneering vision, skating would not have come nearly as far as it has today. There’s a reason that after Tony Hawk, usually comes the name Rodney Mullen.
- June 28th, 1974 (age 46)
- Kettering, Ohio. USA
While all skateboarders owe a debt to the skaters that came before them, Rob Dyrdek catapulted professional contest skating to its greatest heights with Street League Skateboarding. SLS has gone on to build skateparks all over the world and seen purses of $250,000––something Dogtown skaters would never have imagined. Additionally, in a world where retired pros largely without higher education have found themselves as real estate agents or small business owners, Rob raised the potential for a retired professional with his television shows “Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory” and “Ridiculousness.” While we certainly revered Rob for what he did on his skateboard he will forever be remembered for his accomplishments off one. From a young 16-year old pro, forgoing his senior year of highschool to pursue his dreams, take this reminder from Rob: as skateboarders, anything is possible.
- October 10th, 1976 (age 44)
- Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Bob Burnquist is synonymous with two of the gnarliest words in professional skateboarding: Mega Ramp. Not only was Bob Burnquist an essential member in creating this novel obstacle in skateboarding, Bob is arguably its crowning jewel. The Mega Ramp requires a custom board for its 70-ft plus roll in, a liability waiver and usually a helicopter as a filmer. With less than a handful of professional skaters even able to accomplish the feat, Burnquist stunned the skate world with his ability to produce switch aerial maneuvers onto boxes and rails for switch grinds and slides. As if it couldn't get any gnarlier, Bob launched himself (with a parachute) into the Grand Canyon in 2006––nearly costing him his life. We are also honored to add Bob to this list as one of the most recognizable international skateboarders. Bob began skating in Såu Paulo at age 11, remarkably turning pro three years later at 14. Truly, Bob Burnquist is a testament to Brazil’s ability to produce some of the world’s best skateboarders.
- July 31st, 1975 (age 44)
- Fort Myers, Florida. USA
It would be impossible to create a list of professional skateboarders you need to know about without including Elissa Steamer. While skateboarding knows Elissa’s contributions without the need to reference her gender, we all celebrate the thousands she has inspired to step on a skateboard. Certainly, the feminist revival of the past five to ten years would not be possible without Elissa, who stands as an accomplished street skater who still in 2020 produces some of the rawest street clips we’ve seen. Her career skyrocketed as a standout in one of the most celebrated pro skateboarding videos of all time, Toy Machine - Welcome to Hell in 1996. She has since appeared in the first five installments of the Tony Hawk Pro Skater video games and has ridden for companies like Baker, Bootleg and Zero Skateboards. Elissa has also taken home four X-Games gold medals all while filming for major video parts in the streets. Elissa is a testament to skateboarding and skateboarders everywhere, that no matter who you are, you're a skateboarder first, foremost and forever.
- May 20th, 1977 (age 43)
- Lorain, Ohio. USA
Chad Muska, like Jay Adams, became the icon of a generation. His signature backpack and boombox still echoes in the minds of skateboarders fortunate enough to witness the golden era of the 1990s. Muska came from humble beginnings and eventually moved to California with next to nothing to pursue his dream. Maple Skateboards was Muska’s first sponsor when he appeared in the 1994 video, Rites of Passage. Muska was homeless at the time of the video but shortly after became a prominent pro for Toy Machine before a dispute saw his contributions to Toy Machine’s Welcome to Hell erased. However, the Muska name touched every part of the world where skateboarding existed in 1998 when Shorty’s Skateboards released "Fulfill The Dream." Muska brought more than just his incomparable ability to noseslide huge handrails and frontside flip through his legs, he brought a whole outlook and energy to skating that welcomed everyone to the session with open arms. When you watch Muska skate, you feel like one of the crew. Like you’re right there with him living the dream.
- September 28th, 1979 (age 40)
- West Chester, Pennsylvania. USA
It’s impossible to fit everything you need to know about Bam Margera into a single paragraph. As a professional skateboarder, Bam holds the title of most skateboard decks sold in history. In an interview with the 9 Club Podcast, Bam revealed at one point he was making $20,000 a month just from board sales. Before he turned 23, Bam was an overnight sensation thanks to his rise with CKY and the Jackass movies, ultimately snowballing into his reality television show "Viva-la-Bam." Although he began his career on Toy Machine in 1997––1998 and would go pro for Element in 2001, Bam built a career with his famous ‘drop-ins’ from insane heights and slapping his fans in the face (by request). Although he is arguably the most commercially successful skater of all time, his place in skateboarding history is ambiguous and enigmatic. Bam became a symbol (much like his heartagram) for the adolescent skateboarders across America who wanted to clash with societal standards. While he appeared in such videos like "Welcome to Hell," "Elementality" and "Audio Footwear’s One Step Beyond," Bam went on to become more of an ambassador for skateboarding by the time his reality show had taken off. Bam had his own demons with alcoholism after the passing of his lifelong best friend Ryan Dunn and seemingly dropped off the face of the earth after the "Jackass" films ended. In the last handful of years something really amazing happened. Bam came back to the skate world unsure of how he would be welcomed. Skateboarders remembered just how much Bam Margera meant to them and collectively welcomed him back into the family with open arms. This is not only a testament to the healing powers of skateboarding but the impact Bam had on the skateboarding world.
- December 30th, 1989 (Age 30)
- San Clemente, California. USA
Ryan Sheckler’s career transcends both skateboarding culture and skateboarding history as one of the most documented careers of all time. Ryan won his first X-Games gold in 2003, at the age of just 14, exploding his public persona. The name "Sheckler" became synonymous with child prodigy, as Ryan was seen touring the world ollieing and kickflipping gaps that not even skaters twice his age were capable of skating. Even with his skating being one of the few capable of pushing the sport to new heights (literally), Ryan found himself early in his career as a polarized figure. As someone unapologetically himself, Ryan pushed the envelope of what a skateboarder can pursue off a skateboard. His emergence into pop-culture and reality T.V. left a bad taste in some skate circles, but ultimately, as Ryan grew older and continued his devotion and passion to skateboarding, he is now and has been for years, one of the most revered and respected skateboarders of all time. Ryan has proven he is one of those unique skateboarders who can attack any contest course with ferociousness but then step off the board and genuinely connect with fans and friends alike. In 2020, Ryan opened his private skatepark to 13 of the world’s best skaters for our Red Bull Solus contest for yet another hallmark to his illustrious career.
- November 30th, 1994 (age 25)
- Davis, California. USA
Nyjah Huston grew up before our eyes as skateboarding’s prodigy and now sits back comfortably as the winningest skateboarder in Street League Skateboarding history. When we ask ourselves the significance of contest skating in 2020, when we think about the potential of Olympic Skateboarding, Nyjah is the focal point of these conversations. At age 11, Nyjah won the 2005 Tampa Am, by 2008 he would go professional and go on to (usually) win or (always) place in each contest he entered. The skateboard community continues to weigh in on the man Nyjah has become with his alluring past of austere rastafarian roots and a father who managed Nyjah’s career in ways that often left Nyjah isolated. Nyjah has since become his own caricature, dominating contemporary contests and pop culture in polarizing fashion. It’s hard to say if the polarizing is mainly from his contests winnings––surely in the six figure range––or his unapologetic competitive nature that can leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. Nyjah represents a unique debate in skating: can someone ‘win’ at skateboarding? Do the contests really matter? Either way, Nyjah Huston has gone on to produce some of the gnarliest video parts the world has ever seen. Even as a kid, Nyjah was flipping down stairs sets exceeding the count of his age, while today raising the level of handrail skating to death-defying stature. Nyjah resides in an elite group of skaters pushing skateboarding to new heights. Where there are conversations about the future of skateboarding, Nyjah Huston is certainly in them.
How Do Skateboarders Go Professional? How Much Do They Get Paid?
Just like today, the first board companies in the early 1960s needed Pros to help sell boards. They took the gnarliest and most talented teenagers they could find and boom–entered them into a Pro contest. As the sport evolved, it was still about selling boards but the board companies focused on marketing and the value of the skateboarder meant skill, style and their ability to win contests. Throughout the Z-boys era, contests were the main endorsement sealer with photo ads in skate and surf magazines as the auxiliary marketing material. However, by the 1980s the two points of this scale would switch places.
Documentation in both print and video began to outweigh contests. Skateboarders began to be judged not based on their ability to bring home a medal for their sponsors but the amount of photos and video footage they could create for full-length projects and the pages of Skateboarder, Big Brother and Thrasher Magazine. A skateboarder would prove his or herself to said sponsor with the amount of footage (and the quality of that footage) as a commitment to not only the brand but skateboarding. Instead of hoping paying competition goers would come and see your skater skate, (advertising your brand), teenagers across the globe could pop in a VHS or flip through the magazines and watch them over and over again.
For many pro skaters it always began with someone in the industry first taking notice of them. Sometimes this is in the wild, random encounters, like Tony Hawk, who first saw Andrew Reynolds or Jamie Thomas who first saw Elissa Steamer. Other times it was the contest circuit where someone would get noticed. Take Tampa Am in Florida. Red Bull’s own Felipe Gustavo was first discovered as a Brazilian phenom after winning the contest in 2007. The rest is history for Felipe.
After a skater is discovered a company will start sending him or her boxes of company goods. The skater then produces more footage and photos wearing and skating the product they are ‘flowed’. Afterwards, the company has a photo to send to the magazines announcing their newest amatuer rider. A few hundred bucks a month is now sent with each box and depending on the footage and their ability to gel with the team, the rider will be invited on tour. Soon the association with said brand is so strong it is clear that the rider is on the team. If things continue in this direction, the board company will eventually turn the rider pro, adding their name to the bottom of a board and qualifying them to enter pro contests.
Although the ways in which skateboarders reach the pro ranks has changed over time, the accomplishment has never wavered in recognition and reverence from skateboarding and its peers. Truly, anyone who has ever stepped on a skateboard with the aspirations to go professional understands this feat is at the heart of the passion that drives skateboarding not only to new heights, but as an industry and an economy. That is precisely why this list was drafted in a way that reflects how these skateboarders influenced the professional landscape (and continue to do so).
Professional skateboarders have always been paid by their sponsors and from the earnings of professional skate competitions. While these mechanisms have largely remained the same, the landscape has dramatically changed. Novel forms of entertainment like television shows, podcasts, reality television, video games and films have helped these professional skateboarders become some of the most influential of all time. That being said, the majority of professional skateboarders are not afforded such opportunities. It is largely believed the average professional skateboarder makes $1000–$3000 a month, with the mean somewhere around $30,000 a year. The top tier skateboarders can make up to $10,000 a month, but these skaters make up less than 10% of professional skateboarders. There are many who hope that skateboarding’s induction into the Olympics Games will raise earnings but for a profession built by passion and has never been ‘about the money’, it’s hard to say. What we do know for sure is professional skateboarders are some of the most unique and special individuals on earth, each one of them a piece of stained glass in the mosaic of the skateboarding industry.
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