The Totally Xtreme Life Of Alexis Sablone
How Many Tokyo Olympics-Bound Skaters Are Artists and Architects, and MIT Grads, Too?
- Interview: Maxwell Neely-Cohen
- Photography: Lucka Ngo
In the middle of the legendary 2002 skate video PJ Ladd’s Wonderful, Horrible Life you’ll find a 5’4” 16-year-old Alexis Sablone, face almost invisible under a beanie. She hurls herself down gaps and stair sets as Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano” blasts in the background.
When I was 16, my schoolmate and future professional skateboarder Zach Lyons brought me that VHS tape and said it would change my life. He was right. It showcased a generation of skaters that would define that decade—technical, intricate, and powerful, all under moody Boston skies. We all immediately tried to skate like them.
Sablone would go on to study at Barnard and MIT Architecture, win three X Games Gold Medals, design numerous skateboard graphics and animations, and show her drawings and sculptures around the world. Alexis and I became friends almost a decade ago, during a shared short-lived experiment with living in Los Angeles, where we would skate and explore and try to figure out what was next.
Now 33, Alexis designed and released her first pro shoe with Converse this past June, and was named to the inaugural US National Skateboarding Team heading into qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Watching Alexis skate is like watching a fighter jet perfectly navigate a narrow canyon. She dances with the pavement, eyes scanning ahead for what is next, each push throwing her forward until the crack of her tail pulls her upward to hover. Her kickflips are the stuff of absolute legend, precise flicks and catches of spinning wood and metal that defy gravitational logic.
Off her board, Alexis works on her various art projects with total attention and fixation. Every time I call or text her, she is working, or in transit to work. I sat with Alexis while she built shelves in her new Brooklyn apartment to talk about childhood drawings, skatespots, bookstores, and bodies.
I remember you once telling me that the only thing you’ve done longer than skating is drawing.
True. As long as I can remember.
Is it that simple, that you don’t even know when you started?
From the time I was six I was really into photorealistic drawings. They definitely were not actually photorealistic, but they were approaching that—they didn’t look like kid drawings. I would stay there for hours, doing them again and again.
Was that the main way you’d spend your time?
Yeah, drawing. There was a lot of time planning inventions that were never made.
Wait really? What were the inventions?
They were often sci-fi inspired. There was a walkie-talkie watch that I really wanted to fit into a Tic Tac box and have watch batteries go around the wristband. There was some parachute device...but that was basically just me jumping off my balcony. Then the ultimate one was, I had this Gray’s Anatomy book that I would pore over, mostly because I wanted to recreate the drawings, but I wanted to Frankenstein a small two-inch person out of insect parts that I would save. I was taking sewing lessons to craft a little wardrobe once my person was ready. I had a collection of small little things for furniture for when my two-inch person would be alive.
Do you have any memories, and they can be from later on, of being really obsessed with the design or aesthetic of certain items?
I really liked matchbox cars. And the toy cars you could get at gas stations. I had a big Hess Truck. It would light up. I was really into compasses. I have one here my mom got me when I was little. Knives, especially ones which had little scissors that folded out. Watches. Those clear plastic telephones from the 90s where you could see all the parts. I loved that. Anything plastic where you could see all the moving parts. I loved the inside of walkie-talkies. I would save my money and go to Radio Shack. Other than that, I don’t know, I loved a lot of cars, which is weird, because I’m so not a car person. And most of all, the aesthetic of certain movies, like Back to the Future and Blade Runner. Blade Runner still. But pretty early on, the things I became obsessed with were skateboards. The graphics of skateboards.
You’re just making me realize I totally have the memories of thinking skateboard graphics were amazing before I even had a skateboard. Thinking, "Holy shit! What is going on with that?"
Yeah, totally. My interest in design before skating was just fine art, Da Vinci drawings, certain toys and mechanized things. Honestly, what I’m wearing now is almost identical to when you look at my preschool picture. Red crewneck sweatshirt. Jeans. A baseball cap. But I think skateboarding gave me aesthetic choices. All the different parts and pieces you could choose. Style became a thing that existed. And so my style changed. It was all camo. I went through all the phases of 90s skateboarding, but it didn’t look right because I was very tiny.
Every skater I’ve ever known, especially the good ones, look at skate spots a certain way. They analyze how to move through a space, what makes a place worth skating, and each have their unique way of deciding where to skate. How did you develop that?
The texture. The city. When you flatten it into an image, is it interesting? Is it worth exerting myself at this spot? I did skate New Haven and Hartford growing up, and I went to Philly in the height of the LOVE Park era. Those were obviously pretty formative experiences, but it wasn’t until I started going to a city on a regular basis, which for me was Boston, that I started thinking about spots in that way, about how they might look or feel. I think it had to do with growing up in a pretty small suburban town. You kind of took what you could get. There was a loading dock behind the supermarket. There was one bench in front of the movie theater. They all have a certain kind of look that’s suburbia anywhere. So I think the experience of skating through a city, especially one as geographically small as Boston, with filming in mind, you start to see it through the view of a camera. It becomes an act of composition.
As an artist you’ve worked in a whole bunch of mediums: sculpture, illustration, design, and animation. How do you decide what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it?
It’s a mix of intuition and whatever ideas are bugging me the most. It’s a seesaw effect. If I was just working on an animation, by the end of that, I’m so over it, all I want to do is build something. To use my hands. I take a break from one to do something else. And then it reverses. Back and forth. From one medium to the next. It’s the impulse to do the opposite of what I just did.
One thing that’s really interesting to me about animation is that it’s an art that is often related to bodies. It involves having to think about how bodies move and are structured. And as a sculptor, a lot of what you’re interested in is bodies, and I promise this isn’t one of those lame merging your skating into art questions but, as someone who uses their body to skate every day…
There’s definitely something similar in the process. There’s something physical in sculpting, especially large things, where I feel overlaps with skating. Those are the times in which I can stop thinking altogether, which is rare and nice for me. Not overthink and just do. Animation overlaps with skating in a different way, similar to when you see a spot, and you have a trick in mind, and you can almost feel the choreography. You can imagine how your body should move through the space to do the trick that you are picturing. And in animation I use that constantly—have an idea and then I’m playing it through. Sometimes you have to look in the mirror and see how things are actually moving, but for me it’s most fun when I can try to imagine the fine steps through motion and break it down. And that’s what you do a lot in skating. Well maybe not everyone, maybe some people can just do it, but at least for me, I have to slow down to thousands of frames per second, dissect what’s actually happening with a trick or a movement. What I love about animation is that no matter how you visualize it, when you play it back, it has a life of its own and sometimes does unexpected things, and it can be a good surprise, whereas usually in skateboarding that’s a bad surprise.
What are some of your rituals or practices for inspiration?
Bookstores. I compulsively go to bookstores.
When you and I became close, we would skate with our friends for half the day and then leave them to go to a bookstore.
We would drive all the way across Los Angeles to go to Hennessey & Ingalls for the millionth time. I go to at least a bookstore a day. Every day.
What’s next for you that you’re really excited about?
Oh, like the Olympics? [Laughs] Surviving the next year? Right now, life is very split between traveling around the world doing Olympic qualifiers, which is a first for everyone in skateboarding, and it feels like a departure, definitely ramped up from my life before. And then I’m working on a graphic novel. I’m working on a longer animation and I’m trying to do everything for it, including like the score. I wouldn’t describe myself as a musician, but I’m really excited about that story. Then there’s these sculptures I’m working on that aren’t bodies, but are wearable, the body is involved.
Is there anything you want me to ask, or want to ask me?
What movie are we going to next?
Maxwell Neely-Cohen is a writer based in New York City. He is the author of the novel Echo of the Boom.
- Interview: Maxwell Neely-Cohen
- Photography: Lucka Ngo
- Styling: Mark Jen Hsu
- Hair and Makeup: Ayaka Nihei
- Date: November 22, 2019