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Mörizen Föche, aka “Mofo” - Photographer/Graphic Designer/Mag Production Veteran

June 15, 2009

Mörizen Föche, aka “Mofo” - Photographer, Graphic Designer, Mag Production Veteran

Mörizen Föche, aka “Mofo,” has been in the industry since skateboarding hit the map, a time when clays wheels evolved into urethane and fiberglass decks were the hottest setups on the block.  It was at this time, the mid ‘60s to be exact, that Mofo found skateboarding, the new craze that would fill the pages of his career to come.  With little more than a high school art education, some yearbook photography experience under his belt and a love for skateboarding, Mofo joined the ranks of Thrasher Magazine, working with Founder Kevin Thatcher (KT) as one of the first pioneers of the mag.  It was this experience that forced him to wear multiple hats, giving him a unique skill set in photography, graphic design/creative management, magazine production, et cetera, that continues to give him a solid stance in the industry today.

Mofo said it best, “I never set out and picked this as a career; it picked me.”  This quote rings true throughout, and Mofo reflects on the beginnings of skateboarding, his view on the progression of the industry (for good or bad), his story that led him to where he’s at in his career, and everything else on his mind for that matter.  Here’s Mofo to break it down.

You’ve been in and around the skate industry since it hit the streets back in the ‘70s.  What got you into skating?

Escondido, Calif. (1965) — Rex Marechal and Javie Beltran, two friends I met in kindergarten at Felecita Elementary School - a couple of Mexican kids and a surfer.  Rex’s family was fairly well off, and we’d usually hung around his huge house; I think it was the oldest house in town, a mansion on top of a hill, off of Tulip I believe. His older brothers, Pete and Tony, were Bohemian types with the long hair, and into surfing and progressive music.  To us kids it was insanely edgy and different than anything we knew.

Skateboards were around, but our approach to them was like a caveman banging rocks together.  We carried them around, and just rode them straight down the sidewalk or driveway.  By the time we were finishing junior high, some new looking skateboards started showing up around the old mansion on the hill.  They were very different, made of “fiberglass,” with wheels of this stuff called “urethane.”  Taking turns riding, we found new limits and enjoyed the new ability to turn sharper and at speed. The low power turns down steep hills were out of this world – a completely new sensation.  We loved it, but I couldn’t afford one.  They were expensive!  So mostly I just putzed around on clay wheels, then used ‘thanes slapped onto a Black Knight.

What was most attractive about this was the fact that it was such an individual activity.  Sure, we participated in it together, but it wasn’t a team mentality, like a pick-up game of baseball or basketball.  It was just me and this contraption, and whatever limited physical ability I could bring to the equation.  Whatever I accomplished at this was mine, and all mine.

Since skateboarding was new and developing before my eyes, via the pages of Skateboarder magazine where I saw images of skaters riding spots that were literally just up the road in the surrounding towns (San Marcos, La Costa, Carlsbad, Vista, Encinitas, Cardiff, etc.¬), it beckoned me with a flavor of an elusive and exclusive freedom.  And that private in-the-know freedom that skating offered was like a beautiful goddess, or a weekend date with a Playboy Bunny to this 15 year-old kid.  I wanted to be enveloped in its arms, no matter what it took. The Great Spirit must have been on my shoulder, because since those days, skateboarding has always been in my life.

You’ve watched the progression of skateboarding since the beginning and experienced it firsthand.  In your opinion, how has skateboarding progressed or changed in the past couple decades - for good or for bad?

The correct answer to that is skateboarding has essentially progressed and changed for the good.  BUT!  There have been periods where the so-called “progression” was a conscious direction rather than being spontaneous, and things came about badly, even to the point that those periods are looked back upon with regret.  Some piss-poor decisions were made against the natural course of the grain of skating, and now we’re stuck with crap stains on our history.

There were those who set about trying to control the way skateboarding should be, which was according to their needs or personal vision.  If ANY of these people actually skated, they sure don’t come to mind.  There were others though, whose vision were to let skateboarding evolve naturally - to find its own way.  Trying to “control” the direction of skateboarding back then was like pissing up a rope.  In the early days, most of the “businessmen” involved had never skated, or just surfed, as snowboarding wasn’t born yet.  There were some commonalities between surfers and skaters, but there was still a huge difference.  Trying to emulate a faux-surfer fashion and expression, while residing inland far away from the sea, was quite the role to play. It was transparent, and it was phony. Skateboarding happened on the hard, unforgiving surfaces of concrete, asphalt, stone, marble, plywood and plexiglass. By this time, of its own accord, a “skater-type” slowly evolved into its own beast.  For a while there, skaters were a creature of intense independent thought.  Attempting to control inspired skateboarders back then was akin to herding cats, and trying to “control” the direction of skateboarding, just like pissing up a rope.

My job was to sit back, observe, experience and document this phenomenon, and convey that onto the pages of Thrasher magazine.  We [Thrasher] would either set the stage or provide the environment/setting in the form of DIY backyard/parking-lot competitions or BBQs at a backyard ramp, with the sole purpose of bringing top riders together - both known and unknown.  From there, it would spontaneously combust, and then I’d photograph it.  From this vantage point, I was able to see its natural progression, and inversely what, how, and who was attempting to control it.  This of course, would just not do.

The attempts at being hip and cool stood out as exactly the opposite. The hard-core element could see through that, and called bullshit on it.  The impressionable young and fresh consumer was conned into believing a fabricated image of a skater-dork/nerd, falling for its hook line and day-glow accessory.  Later, during these past two decades, skaters matured and began occupying positions of manufacturers, players and business owners.  In a way, they sort of re-invented the wheel in how skateboarding business was to be conducted.  During this time of trial and error and pushing the envelope, success was not always the end result.  Notice the price of the average skateboard has barely changed at all since the early ‘90s. There’s an interesting story to that, but you’re not going to hear it from me.

A bad thing, in my opinion, is that there should never have been the demise of vert skating at the end of the ‘80s.  I didn’t agree with the edict to only cover street skating - huge mistake!  It was the betrayal of an entire sub-culture of hard-core skaters, many personal friends - some practically family - who were virtually cut off and left to die on the vine, and their livelihoods severed.  Somehow people got the idea, or impression, that the validity of vert-skating was deemed passé, as if they were the flavor of the week.  The way I saw it, which was not from a manufacturers standpoint, was that the big change in the direction of the market had a lot to do with which direction we pointed the camera lens when we pressed the trigger.  Show less photos of vert, sales of vert go down. Show more photos of street, …?

How has content in skate mags changed since you’ve been in the industry (i.e. balance of pic’s, editorial, advertising (endemic/non-endemic), etc)?

A large percentage of each of the first hundred issues of Thrasher were designed from scratch.  I designed a lot of elements of the mag including many of the covers, fun stuff like subscribe ads, feature stories, logo and advertisement designs for Thunder Trucks, and advert’s for Independent and the OG Santa Monica Airlines.

For a while there, before Bryce Kanights came on board, it was just Kevin Thatcher, aka “KT,” and me as the Thrasher staff.  Our freeform and innocent approach to design was: “Here’s a good shot of so-and-so who rides for so-and-so co’ who doesn’t advertise yet.  Where can we put it?”  It was basically a learn-as-you-go period.  One thing that I thought was pretty damn funny was that a lot of the style of what we did was copied by advertisers.  I liked using the Xerox machine to do my work, and KT used the stat-cam.  My stuff had the photo-copy look due in no part to a sense of style, but more a sense of getting it done.  Soon, the Xerox style was everywhere, and I was getting asked by high-end end artists as to how I did a particular thing, or that a particular advert’ was amazing.  I thought they were making fun of me because I had absolutely no clue what I was doing.  But nowadays, most pubs are formulaic in design and content - boring.  These days, it’s square inch analysis.  It’s the finicky tastes of the current kid-of-the-week, so it’s no surprise that the industry has precisely what it has now—a lot of crap that looks the same, trying to out-ambiguous the next guys advert’.

Our motto at Thrasher used to be: “DON’T GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT. GIVE THEM WHAT THEY NEED.”  Some companies actually followed this, but I guess somewhere along the line that was lost in the fog of a growing marketplace.  For awhile, all I could see were photos of guys floating over a handrail.  How many magazine covers from the ‘90s and the last ten years have been of handrails, or multi-steps?  Skating was less about maneuverability and more about floating thru the air. The skate-shots were taken from farther and farther away, as opposed to the full-frame in your face imagery of the ’70s & ‘80s.  After that, whadaya expect, digital photography lowered the bar for photographers and snap-shot artists alike.

I’m always dazzled when I see some guys walking around with cases full of gear to shoot something clandestine.  When the spot gets busted, how do you run away with all of that to slow you down?  I started setting up remote flash units with radio slaves in the early ‘90s at a few contests, or at permission spots.  This was toward the end of my Thrasher tenure.  Now it seems that most photog’s use that approach for everything.  It looks so un-spontaneous and contrived to me.  A lot of the digital images have an over-produced look to them. The images are less about the photography, with PhotoShop splicing composites, all those filters, bells, and whistles than actual skating.  Let the skating speak for itself.  Get the settings, timing, angle and composition, then let the action handle the rest. Try doing all of that image magic in your head when taking the shot!

Who was more original: old school or present day skaters, and why?

Old school, 100 percent!  Old school made something amazing from nothing.  The new school, including the ‘90s fat-pants who “carried” their skateboards from spot to spot, and more recently the girly-pants guys, hand-rail riders, the step-hoppers, the one-trick ponies, and the abundance of “Accidental Pro’s” (who really have no business being pro) are following the path of a trail already blazed - taking something already pioneered and turning it into something else. If they were at the beginning of the evolutionary cycle, they wouldn’t be who they are today.

Kudos must go to the rare beast, the all-around, skate-anything-to-a-pulp riders.  Now that’s natural progression: putting everything together and riding it all.

When and where did you get your first job in the industry?

In ’77 after school, I made skateboards in a San Jose garage for Mowrey Skateboards.  We also pressed the decks for Gremic skateboard shop, the Pegasus.  Then in ’81, I went up to San Francisco and hung around Ermico at Hunters Point Naval Shipyards where Indy’s were manufactured and Thrasher was being put together. I sat around there drinking beers and eating french fries from Café Grease, until one day they put me to work.  It was all trial and error from there, and I learned by making all the mistakes that could possible be made, sometimes making the same mistakes more than once.

You created and managed a lot of original content and segments for Thrasher Skateboard Magazine since its beginning.  What major projects did you work on, and what would you call your “claim to fame”?

First thing I did there was “Wild Riders of Boards,” which I wrote and illustrated.  The story line was a sort of soap opera involving two rival skateboard gangs from the streets of some western town.  They were the Vato Locos and the Zekes.  They clashed and skate-dueled on the streets and in pools.  Since I could make it up, I invented and described tricks that I imagined to be completely impossible and wouldn’t happen in a million years.  A decade later, the same tricks I imagined had become standard.

I created “Skarfing Material” under the nom de plume ‘”Chef Boy A I Hungry,” which was some bullshit department that I thought of off the top of my head.  How hard was that!  I’d make something to eat, take photos of it, make up some BS story and print it. But it was mainly a way to write off a couple meals a month – y’know, for research. Who knew it would become popular.

I created “Igor’s Record Collection” and the “Skate Rock” department of the magazine, which involved handling the creation of the album compilations.

I did the majority of the travel articles for the first decade of Thrasher.  Flew to some state, stood next to a pool or ramp all day taking photos and drinking beer, stayed up all night drinking whiskey and beers, ordered tons of delivery pizza, caused mayhem throughout our hotels, sometimes changed hotels up to twice a night, woke up under some bushes or on the floor of some strange hotel room, shot a session or contest all day in the sun, raced to airport without wrecking the rental car (not always succeeding), assigned onto plane, drank more, landed un-ass plane, few hours sleep, started processing film first thing in the morning, wrote story at the bar that night, made prints in the morning, and then tried to match up the lies written in story (the truth would of been less believable than the fantasy)!  The fantasy of course, amounted to changing people’s names, adding an extra zero to the end of any quantity of anything (beers, pizzas, girls, spectators, fights, arrows, hours, grams, oz’s, etc).

I’d decided that it would be cool to make every April issue be an April Fools Issue, so I proposed it and it happened for a few years.  Basically we’d invent crap, and put it in the magazine. Stuff that you could tell were lies – sort of.  That’s where Joey McSqueeb, the “Worlds Greatest Skateboarder,” came from. The guy would be doing a float-over-you deck trick by waving his arms real hard and jumping up and down on his board as he rolled by.  We’d get a sequence of that, then eliminate the frames where he comes down on the board, and the sequence is of him flapping his arms, and floating over the board as he goes by.

How did this previous role shape the foundation for where you’re presently at in your career?

Thrasher magazine was very DIY in the beginning. In fact, I was the second employee. So, with a high school art education and some yearbook photography under my belt, I was ready to watch and learn.  For the next 10 years I experienced the evolvement of Thrasher from a little-known, niche-tabloid ‘black plus one-color’ rag, to a four-color standard magazine trim publication that had become the most recognized and popular skateboard magazine in the world.

To get there, we were required to wear many hats, to cross-train in all aspects of magazine production, which for most of the first decade, was manual paste-up.  We did pre-computer production with wax, galleys, ruby and amber lith, max-opaque, #11 exacto blades, burnishers, over-lays, call-out specs, setting-type, and film and registration marks.  I learned how to look at the big picture, analyze requirements and needs.  I pre-visualized the articles, designed the layouts, executed the production of photos I needed to shoot to spec’, did film development and printing, half-tone making, and outlined and executed the logistics.

In recent years you’ve worked as a publishing consultant, designer and freelance photographer for Etnies, Independent, Erotica, Birdhouse, Thunder, Freshpark, Skullcandy, Bechtel, Wells Fargo, Palm as well as various mainstream corporate entities, and you’re well equipped in various roles.  What would you call primary strength?

Creative project management and direction.

What’s the trick to staying relevant in an industry where there might be people half your age doing the same work as you?

My approach is to look at what everyone else is doing, study it, digest it, then throw it out the window and do something completely different because the real “core” skaters get tired of crap.  The key is, the moment something becomes hip, it’s already un-hip.  By digesting the current “fads,” visualize the potential for the next evolutionary direction.  Keep your eyes and ears open.  Experience the heart of the matter.

For example, be a fly on the wall in the vicinity of both those who are at the cutting edge of the scene, and those who buy into the scene.  That’s what makes you relevant.  Those who attempt to create what they think is viable on their own, usually don’t succeed.  What you think “it” is, is one thing. What “it” really is, is usually something else entirely. I’ve often thrown out what I think, invented an “isn’t,” and had success - not always though.  Without trying something new, you become stale.  “New” meaning “in-the-spirit-of...”  Too much stuff is being marketed to the public that’s so damned tired, boring and stale.

What are you working on these days?

Right now I’ve been taking on the occasional free-lance projects: photo, graphics, illustrations, design, et cetera, while working on a book project on skateboarding.  The book digs into the spirit of how I approached conveying skateboarding in Thrasher magazine during the first decade of the publication, and to describe what it was like back then: our ignorance, our innocence, our mischief.

I’ll also be working as a camp counselor at a kid’s day camp called Saratoga Springs, outside San Jose this summer.

The word on the street is you always wear shades when taking photos, even at night.  Is there a reason for this, or is it simply the “Mofo Way”?

This is true for a few reasons!  One, I kept losing my shades, so it’s easier to keep track of them if I’m wearing them.  I also kept breaking them, thus wearing them keeps them unbroken. The main reason is so that no one can see where I’m looking.  Back in the early days, there were only a couple of skate-togs shooting for mags at events.  It wasn’t uncommon to see just one or three pub’ photographers at any give event.  It got to the point that at EVERY event some chatty-type person would come along and start “the gab,” asking questions like:

“So, what kinda camera you usin’?”
“Ya gonna use an F-stop with that?”
“How long you been shootin’?”
“What kinda film?  How fast?  What lens?”

Then they’d start following me around and shoot where I’d I shoot. They’d see where I was looking and then go there.  Or worse, they’d see where I was about to shoot, then go stand in the background, so they could be in my photos.  With the shades, I could deceive them, making them think I was planning to shoot in a particular direction, while setting up my shot out the corner of my eye.

Mostly, it’s a good way to check out the ladies.  And now that I’m getting on in my years, it’s a good way to take combat naps anywhere, anytime.

The When Game: Starring You!

You know you’ve got the shot when... engage the shutter.  The only action you see through the frame is the exact moment that you pre-visualized.

The shades come off when...
…the shower goes on.  Pretty much used to wear them all of the time, but nowadays, mostly just when I’m shooting.  Recently, I had to get bifocals, and started practicing shoots with them.

Editorial genius is at its peek when...
...the machine is suitably lubricated, attitude is calibrated, and the relevant vibe is determined.

You know you’re part of something truly amazing when...
...everywhere we went as representatives of Thrasher magazine with the likes of Fausto, Swensen, Riggins, myself and KT, we were warmly welcomed and complimented for our product.  Each of us different and cantankerous as can be.  Looking back, we were poster boys for the dysfunctional family.  We argued like brothers, swore like sailors, partied like Vikings and were unburdened by pesky things like “school-education.”

Though sometimes I’ve wondered, exactly what sort of magazine Thrasher would have been if we actually knew what we were doing.  It seemed like most of the time we literally were making it up as we went along.  Compared to nowadays, magazine publishing has transitioned to the simple hard-to-do-it-wrong level.  I think that our simplistic approach to conveying what, and how we thought about what we saw had a lot to do with its popularity.  I know that I was amazed each time we completed an issue of the magazine.  If I had it to do all over again, I don’t think I’d change anything.  Wait, I take that back. There’s maybe...

Fave 5: Which Would You Prefer?

Best gear for skating: late ‘70s freestyle dolphin shorts or frayed “shants” from the ‘80s skate days?

I don’t know what those pants are, and found them shorts laughable, so neither. Denim pants or some Ben Davis do the trick.

Freelance or full time?

Freelance with full-time benefits.  Now, if we can just convince the gub’mint.  I like the freedom of freelance; it’s good work if you can find it.  Insurance and paid vacations are hard-to-beat, that’s for sure.

Era of Skateboarding: Old School or New School?

Old school was: Less crowds; Less leaches; Less kooks; Less self-important arrogant asses.  Less quick-buck Chucks and less pretending to be nice while pretending to listen to them.  Most of those involved in skateboarding during the late’70s through the ‘80s had some sort of role they played and were recognized for.  Like the “wheel” guy, the “trucks” guys, or the “board” guys.  There wasn’t much anything else. There weren’t any agents, personal assistants, reps, junior mid-managers, marketing, PR, or the junior women’s sub-culture winter apparel and key chains.  Everybody just about knew everybody. You could get everybody together in a small auditorium, and it’d be no bigger than a small-town PTA meeting.

I have an attachment to the spirit inherent in the people who were into it back then. More edge, more depth and emotional attachment to what we really were all there for. I wouldn’t be surprised that most all of the people involved at that time got into much the same way I did.  I never set out and picked this as a career; it picked me.  I just went along for the ride.  There were people who’d invested more than just money into skateboarding.  They gave their heart, blood, sweat and passion to this unique activity, giving it breath, substance, controversy and relevance. Think what you like, but look how much was given by people like Fausto Vitello, Frank Hawk and Jean Hoffman. How many people can compare to the level of committed initiative by the likes of Stacy Peralta, Steve Van Doren, Eric Swenson, Paul Schmitt, Stecyk, Skipper, Red Dog, Larry Balma  and Brad Dorfman?  These are just some of the names of people who went out and made things happen.

Add to the skater element, and you have the young men who were caught in a void at the end of the ‘70s, left to fend for themselves, to create their own, new reality. And then there’s Thrasher, which was the internet, message board of its day.

When it changed in the ‘90s, I had to step off the ride.

Photography or Graphic Design – if you had to choose?

Photography.  Absolutely!  I wish I could get out and shoot more than I have.

Opinion piece (self-injected banter) or editorial (lay down the law in the company’s name)?

WTF is up with the wheel-base misnomer? The distance between the truck holes is not the wheel-base. That’s the distance between the truck holes. From axle to axle is wheel-base. And that’ll differ between truck brands. So one deck would have a different wheel-base dependent on which trucks you set it up with, and in some cases, as much as a half an inch.

And the girl-pants thing: Could it be the gateway attire to high-heels, black nylons and red lipstick?  So, if yah wanna be ahead of the curve, start designing cross-dressing clothes for when the skaters out-grow them tight pants.