Meeting… Leo Valls!

Portrait: Daniele Marzocchi
were leo valls' skateboarding to ever retain only one remarkable quality, that would surely have to be its faculty to glide the man along the tracks of one long and fancy journey... not just literally - although leo does like to punctuate his lines with some uncommon manoeuvers - but also figuratively: over the span of the past ten years, from his "MINUIT" (YOAN TAILLANDIER, 2010) breakthrough video part to his section in the latest transworld video, "RIDDLES IN MATHEMATICS" (CHRIS THIESSEN), LEO looks like he has gone through several steps and stages. maybe, starting with a certain BLUE Period in SAN FRANCISCO - a WEST COAST ballet of sorts, eventually culminating with a GROOVE celebrated alongside zach chamberlin and predating some later adventures further down south - in between panic attacks At the core of new york city - the big apple - and a handful of japan excursions... and where to rest best in between exploration sessions than where the heart is: leo's hometown of bordeaux, france, the marble streets of which straightforwardly endured him growing up. as to look back on and ponder this unusual pace of living, we managed to catch up with leo just around the time of another retreat back to said quiet environment of choice, recently encapsulated by blake myers under the form of a sixteen-millimeter "GOOD WEEKEND".

LIVE Skateboard Media: Hi Leo! Where are you right now and what have you been up to?

Leo Valls: Oï oï, Aymeric! I'm in Los Angeles right now, spending the holidays with my wife's family.

LSM: Ha, enjoy! So, in between ten years of extreme fish-eye clips and your booming Instagram clips, it's only logical that people commonly associate the idea of your skateboarding to something super dynamic, be it as far as how it's performed or how it's presented. How did you and Blake first get in touch, and what eventually drew the both of you to work together? Blake's approach is definitely more openly contemplative - and mellower - than, say, those of the likes of Yoan Taillandier, Zach Chamberlin, Colin Read, Chris Thiessen or Julien Januszkiewicz.

Leo Valls: I first met Blake naturally by just spending a certain amount of time in California; he was working for What Youth at the time, being in charge of all their video content. We got in touch, went filming together and ended up getting along.

He is quite the discreet, smooth operator, I actually remember forgetting that he was out there filming me on quite a few occasions, at spots. Which I think is a good trait in a filmer: it enables them to capture more natural - and thus, more authentic - footage.

Screenshot from Blake Myers' "Good Weekend"

Blake is actually very well-rounded, familiar with many different formats and also filming plenty of surfing, or shooting small documentary films. He has a clear mental picture of what he wants to achieve; at some point, we were watching a lot of surf and skate movies shot on super 8 or 16mm film (mostly Thomas Campbell's), and that's when he told me about his idea of really getting into 16mm filmmaking and working on a project together - all the while expecting it to be a long and expensive process.

But it turned out to be mostly an interesting one when, for instance, going for a trick for which you know in advance you will only have a very limited amount of tries - and you won't even get to check the clip and whether or not you did it to your liking before the film gets developed, weeks later. It is a stand for a more poetic look, too, which arguably might better capture the essence of particular settings, locations, spots - as though to make the viewer feel like they are being teleported into the session. And this feel actually is something I've been interested in for a very long time, as far as skateboarding is concerned. So that's what we're trying to achieve with this project.

As far as I'm concerned, I've always been into videos; I watch a lot of movies and love video editing, be it long films or short clips such as the ones Seb Daurel and I make for the "Sebdoshow", for instance.

"I've been lucky to meet skateboarding's geniuses, from Mark Gonzales to Takahiro Morita; as your average little Bordeaux skater, of course you're going to soak it all in"

Speaking of which, I think my favorite movie in a while has to be Jim Jarmusch's "Down By Law", featuring Roberto Benigni and Tom Waits, where Benigni plays the character of a romantic Italian locked up in a New Orleans jail with two other American cellmates. Very little action, many scenes featuring people just being bored in jail, some dark humor and most importantly, a deep feel of immersion. Whoever has not seen it yet can easily find this great movie online, I guess.

LSM: Would you say you are trying to find yourself through skateboarding? Everybody is more or less consciously prone to a certain existential anguish, skateboarders are no exception and in fact, many of them are actually trying to define their own character and exploring their identity by the means of their practice. Would you say this explosive past decade of yours represented some kind of youthful introspection process for you and now that you seem to have found your own style, you've reached a certain maturity as well as a vision of yourself you can finally be at peace with? In this new clip, more than very comfortable, you really look at ease - almost relieved, even. Do you reckon this relief might be an actual thing and this new piece with Blake might announce a taste of more relaxed aesthetics - or am I just making this all up and should we expect more extreme fisheye Leo Valls clips edited to KRS-One in the future (with the Olympics around the corner)?

Leo Valls: Haha, thanks Aymeric, I don't think I will manage to come up with an answer longer than your question, but I'll try to address that point still!

Obviously, everybody is trying to find their place and identity all the time - which is actually very important, for it drives you to dare getting into new experiences. It really is something one needs to learn to cultivate, in order to remain able to question their current state of being, and grow as a person.

Screenshot from Blake Myers' "Good Weekend".

I think over the years, and over the course of my numerous trips overseas, I was exposed then inspired by a succession of different styles, cultures and personalities. I've been lucky enough to meet many of skateboarding's geniuses, ranging from Mark Gonzales to Takahiro Morita; as your average little Bordeaux skater, of course you're going to soak it all in.

LSM: Ever since your early clips with Yoan for Metropolitan up to meeting Takahiro Morita in Japan, Colin Read in NYC or seasoned photographers such as Richard Hart or Shinsaku Arakawa, it looks like you've always been surrounding yourself with real artists actively mastering their media of choice, in order to have your skateboarding documented. Now, Blake is really into 16mm film which has to be quite an oddity in modern skateboarding, being money- and time-consuming to work with in exchange for true cinematographic quality (ie. old Powell or TransWorld videos). Maybe because of how precious it is, that format really seems to exalt the essence of the moment being documented, as opposed to disposable megapixels better suited for recording performances and successions of attempts at stunts. Is this will of working with noone but passionate craftsmen in their respective fields something conscious to you? Would you say it has to do with personal expectations of quality - posterity even, maybe? 

Leo Valls: It is true that - as I was just getting to - I've been lucky enough to surround myself with many strong characters of the creative type. Through the video projects I've worked on in the past, I've met a whole microcosm of expressive, passionate filmers and photographers, each and every one of them trying to exalt their personal nature by the means of their art of choice, rather than just aiming at pleasing the biggest possible crowd.

"It's a small world we live in - and an even smaller one
we street skate in"

More often than not, a strong relationship emerges between the skateboarder and the filmer or photographer; especially as you start envisioning working on common projects together.

It usually is by traveling and physically meeting people that you end up building this network of connexions. It's a small world we live in - and an even smaller one we street skate in.

Switch flip in LA. Ph. : Daniele Marzocchi

Here's one example: back in 2013, Josh Roberts (now my friend) from Australia took the initiative to send me a physical DVD copy of his first real video, "Domingo", by mail. I had never heard of Josh before, nor of his work, but I turned out to really dig the quality and sincerity of his video. Raw, honest street skating, visually simple yet creative, with an emphasis on the intricacies of Perth's urban aesthetics - rather than a succession of skate stuntmen sweating it hard trying to pull off the hardest tricks they possibly could. Then in 2014, the opportunity arose to go to Perth with Jimmy Lannon and Koichiro Uehara - without having met Josh before - and we filmed the Magenta video, "Crossing the Perth Dimension". Three weeks later, we were friends with Josh and his entire crew.

Josh has been a great friend since then, regularly teaming up with us on trips such as that Dubai one we took a few months back.

LSM: Going back to the idea of skateboarding as a way to cope with existentialism - and broadening that logic to geographical terms, one might logically wonder whether your pronounced taste for foreign travels (which appears to date back to earlier than the first Magenta trips as you were already going to Japan and SF before the company was even a thing) might have to do with some kind of inner quest as well. What do you reckon? When did you start going on trips, even? The context of a particular location is a reoccuring theme in your videos in general, as well as at the core of this new series of clips you're just launching now with Blake. To plenty of skateboarders, their urban environment is merely an accessory but you constantly seem to make it a point to actually try and introduce the viewers to the heart of the cities where you film, like a loudly screeching tour guide of sorts. What does that mean to you?

Leo Valls: I've always looked at one's specific environment as a main focus you can't help but actually consider if you're going to document and present street skateboarding. I find it really interesting how a local scene will sometimes try to adapt and skate according to its urban and cultural settings.

The idea contradicts the one of some sort of skate globalization, according to which skateboarders worldwide should all skate the same way, following the same codes, as though all originating from the same physical area. It actually is what makes nowadays' skateboarding rich and diverse.

"I think what visually looks best is what physically feels best"

I think that is something I understood spending time in Japan, meeting and skating with the locals - the Japanese really tend to push their own style and claim their own identity.

For instance, I know that personally, I like to skate flatground, do powerslides and hit ledges, most logically because I grew up here, in Bordeaux and this is what we have: marble streets and ledges. However, we really have little to no handrails, for instance, unless you go way out of your way into the suburbs; downtown here has no handrails as compared to what one might find literally everywhere in - more recent - cities in the US.

LSM: The process of learning each new trick comes with a specific intent for each, from the skateboarder. In the case of someone who's been skateboarding for a considerably long time and who's simulatenously gone through many different phases in their development growing up as a person ("on the side", the nerdiest might be tempted to say!), some of the contents of their bag of tricks ends up reflecting past eras of that person's evolution corresponding to specific segments of their life where they were prone to certain feelings, emotions, urges. It can be funny seeing a grown-up skate and occasionally mix up displays of bouts of intentional spectacular demonstration (say, in your case, loud and fast quirky manoeuvers such as those noseblunt powerslide things), and then sometimes aspirations to more simple, classic vibrations (say, with switch flips, or nollie tailslides). When you've been skating for twenty years, your skating really is all a collage of current aspects of your personality, but also vestiges of past traits - would you say that is your case? In this new clip, it's pretty intriguing to see you land timeless nollie tailslide to fakies into one-footed powerslides, or juxtapose elementary noseslides and nollie backside lipslides with those noseblunt powerslide to wheelie combos…

Leo Valls: What really gets across and translates through skateboarding is the energy, the amount of passion and pleasure one puts into it, so I think what visually looks best is what physically feels best - regardless of how you might skate. 

No way I look at skateboarding as some kind of homework where you really need to watch your paper to make sure your word fits the teacher's (or the industry's) point of view, in order to - hopefully! - score a good grade.

Screenshot from Blake Myers' "Good Weekend".

I often find myself thinking about what Ben Gore says, regarding downhill skating in SF: "do the tricks you feel comfortable with and take them to your own environment, with speed and a creative eye for awkward spots"...

People from all over the world regularly hit me up online with super positive feedback, that's multiple times a day and nothing makes me happier myself than knowing that I have this power to inspire and motivate people to be and act like themselves.

LSM: Now, after discussing your past progression and the paths you did take, what's up with the ones you are still left to take - do you have an idea of where you're going? I know you've been enjoying working with the city in Bordeaux lately - a beautiful place, as immortalized in Blake's edit - more specifically, trying to reconcile the local authorities with the skateboarders. Bordeaux being your hometown, does this process represent a way to remain in touch with your personal roots, all the while not ever having spent as much time overseas as you're doing now - maybe looking for an achor somewhere? In a nutshell, how would you say you foresee Leo Valls' future?

Leo Valls: I can't predict what my future will be for sure, but right now I feel really good with, on one hand, a place in Bordeaux and, on the other hand, the possibility to just leave whenever and travel so much.

I think as a skateboarder, it is important to remember how to remain a local, and get involved in your hometown and original scene.

It's only upon living in California and Japan that my hometown hit me with how special it was, what it had to offer. It's only by venturing over to new fields that one eventually realizes the true potential of their home turf.

"Bordeaux is booming right now, and I'll keep getting involved"

Bordeaux has been blowing up as far as skateboarding is concerned, for the past decade; it is now a renowned landmark, consistently visited by crews of skateboarders from the whole world over, and I keep running into new kids just starting out, every weekend. The city has so many skaters living here now, at first noone knew how to react and they started to ban skateboarding in most plazas and public locations downtown, giving everybody tickets.

Between this and a new police station popping up right next to the city hall in the middle of downtown, it had suddenly become really hard to skate here for a while - upon the first glimpse of a police car, you needed to run, pretty much. So, a small group of us eventually got together and started interacting with the mayor and people at the Bordeaux city hall, submitting the idea of regulating the skateboarding at the problematic locations by essentially allowing it, but only on certain specific days of the week, and with proper communication about it.

As this idea eventually came to fruition, most of the skaters here ended up playing along and now, the city is clearly completely changing their approach to downtown skateboarding, in the best possible way. It is now possible to skate those problematic plazas again, and one doesn't have to constantly worry about fines, trials or even just having the police on their back.

Bordeaux is booming right now, and I'll keep getting involved, as to ensure skateboarding here gets considered in the best possible way as the city keeps expanding.

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