Chuck Taylors and Tumult: Venice Beach in the 1980s
Photographer Josh ‘Bagel’ Klassman has spent his whole life documenting skateboarding in Venice, Los Angeles. Thrashing Converse Chuck Taylors and Vans Half Cabs with the likes of Scott Oster and Jay Adams in the 1980s, Klassman not only snapped the bohemian spirit of the sun-kissed skating mecca, but also the seedier underbelly of the so-called ‘seaside slums’. We invited Klassman to share his lens.
Venice Beach was nutty in the 1980s. It was seedy and funky. It was riddled with graffiti and a lot of debris. To us though, it was absolutely beautiful. We had the beach and the palm trees. There was tonnes of diversity. Venice is the most diverse city within Los Angeles, for sure. When people asked us where we were from, we’d tell them Venice. Not California or LA. For us, it was a pride thing. We were completely different to everywhere else.
Still, there were places you didn’t want to go in Venice. Especially if you weren’t from here. In a lot of ways, it was a ghetto by the sea. A seaside slum. Tourists loved Venice because of the boardwalk, but you wouldn’t even think of stepping foot a couple of blocks east of there.
You had to have eyes on the back of your head. I lost a lot of friends to gang-related violence and drug overdoses. In the 1980s, crack cocaine ruled everything. It was big in America and huge in Venice. It didn’t discriminate. It didn’t matter if you were poor or from the middle-upper class. It just brought people down. I’ve lost a lot of people to drugs, alcohol and violence.
When you add the fact that Venice was the second-largest tourist destination behind Disneyland every year, it made the place even widler. I remember one year in the early 90s, we actually beat Disneyland in terms of tourist numbers. You could feel the tension. It was too crowded. You could just tell shit was going to go down. Not shortly after, the LA riots broke out.
However, I always say, it’s asinine to destroy the fabric of what made a place cool to begin with. People seem hellbent on wanting to kill the funkiness of this place. Once you get rid of that, you have a sterile, cookiecutter city that’s just like everywhere else.
We grew up with bums, crackheads and junkies, but we didn’t look at them like that. They were just another person we said ‘hello’ to in the morning. For us, it was normal. It made me a better person and more well-rounded than some of the more sheltered people growing up around the same time.
On a typical day, I would get up really early and go surfing. After school, I’d go down to the pavilion to take skate shots of my friends hanging out and usually getting into trouble in some way. We’d usually drink pretty heavily and look for mischief. By nighttime, we were like Animal House. We just went nuts. We’d go out, look for trouble, and get into brawls and all that kind of shit.
We were the mecca of skating in the 1980s. We had everyone. Scott Oster and Jay Adams. Joey Tran and Tim Jackson. Back then, the skating gene pool was just nuts.
The number one sneaker back then was the Chuck Taylor. You could get them for $18 on the boardwalk. We liked that they were hightops for the ankle support. Everyone pretty much wore the black ones. Even though they had the thin canvas, they still had the stability. For me, they were cheap, they were sold on my block, and they looked cool.
But people were definitely wearing other sneakers, too. Vans were really big, especially the Caballeros (Half Cabs). If we’re talking about comfort, those were my personal favourite. I wore Vans for lightyears until my mum stopped buying my shoes because I wasn’t a kid anymore. And then I was like, ‘Oh, Chuck Taylors are $18!’.
Still, they would get destroyed within a month. They were so cheap, so we would just skate them, destroy them, and go get another pair. There wasn’t much longevity. Plus, we’re talking about Chuck Taylors that were sold on the boardwalk. Who’s to say if they were even real. Maybe they were just knockoffs?
Either way, we were punishing everything we owned: skateboards, bikes, surfboards, cars, clothing. We just destroyed everything. Even with a really sturdy pair of sneakers, they’d get destroyed.
I still go down to the pavilion every day. You can definitely tell the kids that are from Venice. They just rip. They have a harder edge. The torch has been passed to the younger generation, and they’re doing justice to that crazy past.