Bill Shannon is probably most known for his inventive style of skateboarding and break-dancing, aided by his modified crutches. Bill’s story is more rad then inspiring. More about an artist figuring out his world then someone overcoming adversity. That being said, this is an epic interview. Read some now, get hyped, go skate, and come back to finish it up. Today is Go Skateboarding Day and I hope all of you are getting out to meet up with friends and future friends to skate. — Mr. Fakie.
—update– I forgot to mention Bill’s Wife, Leah Lizarondo is a food writer and Vegan. She blogs at The Brazen Kitchen. Check out her site for some rad recipes and drool worthy food-porn. Leah’s chickpea french frys look extremely tasty. —–
For anyone that has seen your work, they see a talented dancer who uses Crutches in his routine. The use of the skateboard then might just seem like an adaptive way to get around. But you started skateboarding between using the crutches as a child and then again as an adult. How long have you been skateboarding and how did you get into it?
I started skating around 82-83. Me and my brother got a skateboard from a neighbor kid in the 70’s. We took it out to my grandfather’s house in South Carolina. He had this warehouse that we would skate around in a little bit. It was an old 70’s carving board. We decided that we wanted to take it to Pittsburgh, and so we hid it in the trunk. My dad was packing the trunk, and being kids we didn’t realize that he was obviously going to find it. (laughs) He was putting in the suite cases and they wouldn’t fit, so he pulled all of them out and found the skateboard. He was like, “there is no way you can take this to the city, you’re going to get hurt.” So he took the board out and smashed it over a tree trunk and just killed the board.
I was probably like 8 or 9 years old and I was on crutches at the time with a brace and getting on the board was the first real smooth gliding moment I had ever experienced. Because being on the braces you’re kind of klunking along so getting on the board was like stepping on another planet. So that first park rider type board, just planted this seed in my brain. Even when I was 8 or 9, the next time I got a chance I was going to acquire a skateboard by any means necessary.
So then my grandmother who would get us stuff that we weren’t supposed to have decided to get us skateboards. It was right when skateboarding was coming back after the death of skating in the early 80’s. I think a Jeff Phillips was my first board. It was the one with the wall being broken through and of course Tracker Trucks, which I later abandoned for Indy’s. So yeah, that early childhood experience of just gliding and not being so encumbered by the crutches and braces. Just standing on the board, I was using the crutches and pushing and grabbing on the walls and things and just getting this nice fluid and flowing motion. That just stuck with me.
So you had the crutches on when you first go on a skateboarding?
Exactly I was on crutches from 5 to 12. I had my first encounter with a skateboard when I was 8 or 9 years old and the board was smashed into pieces, so that ended. My Grandmother would get un-birthday present for us, whoevers’ birthday it was got a present and the other got an un-birthday present. So for my 13th birthday Me and My brother got boards at the exact same time. Which you need that peer one-up-mans ship, it really helps to build up your skills. So we got our skateboards together that year. I had learned to walk normal again by age 12, 12 1/2. I appeared normal, although my legs were different lengths and my hips weren’t round and I had limitations. I couldn’t jump I couldn’t run really aggressively. But when you looked at me you just saw a normal looking kid. So I got the skateboard then, and really started to get into hip-hop around 83. Double Dutch Bus, Sugar Hill Gang, all of that.
So music was a big influence, but was it skateboarding that brought you more into the music scene?
I think the whole music thing started with the dancing. I started break dancing and thats when I really started to like music and buy records. I think that breaking and skating were really interesting cultural influences on me because they allowed you to establish your own style and your own path. There was no team structure or team rules. If you came out in a circle and were copying the other person, you were immediately a biter. Your not allowed to bite. A popular saying back then was, “Biters go toothless” and you would say it with a lisp like “toof.”
So the same with skateboarding. Who’s got the unique style? Because it was so unique back then. If you saw another skater across the street you would cross the street to go talk to him, so it kind of evolved together.
Skateboarding really brought me into punk rock and hardcore. You know Circus of Death was one of the first bands that I really liked. They were a local Pittsburgh. The drummer from Agnostic Front, Will Shepler was in Circus of Death. I got introduced to punk rock, like The Minutemen, D.R.I., all those bands. I was really into hip hop and I didn’t understand it until I went to a live show. I thought, “man this is some really fucking ugly music.” Then I went to a live show and I was like, Holy shit this is so fucking cool!” And you know Run DMC was coming out with hard times and Dead Kennedy’s were talking politics, so it was also like the political thread continued. Even though the race issue was so radically different back then. You know you had the Bad Brains, and the inverse of that you had certain dancers or artists like the Beastie Boys that crossed the racial boundaries in their respective areas. Before I was into hip-hop I was into Bob Dylan, Gill Scot Heron – the revolution will not be televised, so just on and on and on. So those lyrical, politically conscience type of stuff during the Reagan error (era) helped them sort of co-exist in my mind.
You probably had a unique way of getting around on the board?
I was always kind of forced into a more conservative style of skateboarding. I was really focusing on flow control and carving. I was looking back to Dogtown and Alva. Thats what I was emulating. In the 80’s skating was moving in the the ollie era. Acid drops were really big, foot-plants, and fast plants and that kind of stuff. It was like the heyday of (Mike) Vallely. So I kind of had to stand a little bit to the side of that and hack it. So my brother was sort of my vector, my mirror in a way. He was placing first in a lot of contests. His skating was much more dynamic then mine. I think he was more of a natural then I was. Which I think that was just part of growing up with braces and crutches and shit and being told like, “don’t take any risks.” So even though I lost the trappings of it, I still had risk of impact on the hip. I had a very strong psychological avoidance of any kind of risk. So I pushed that, I took a lot of risks on the skateboard.
So what was the skate scene like for you in Pittsburgh? What was up with the Squirrel Hill Skate Protest?
First of all this was in the early days when people didn’t know what the fuck they were seeing. I was friends with Brian Cummings and Neil Grant who were in a band called Shape of Rage. And you know they’re were just fucking punks. They wanted to do this big skate jam, called The Oakland Skate Jam where all the skaters in Pittsburgh would convene. Brian Cummings was a photographer who documented the early days of the Pittsburgh skate scene. He was someone who took picture before the digital age as if it was the digital age. So people around him in that era had documentation of what was going on. So he documented these skate jams which was pretty much the seed of a lot of the future of Pittsburgh skating. So in these skate jams we would just gather together and tear through Oakland. Like we would literally skate through this one building on the CMU campus. We would hit up all the banks and spots and we would end up downtown at the Green Banks. We would hit up the Blind Banks, I think we went to the Clemente Banks one time. So you know a lot of people would get together and just shred the streets. No warning, no police, no announcement and just went crazy. That was in the early days, like 85, 86, 87.
Then as skateboarding started to catch on, (Pittsburgh) City Council announced they were going to ban skateboarding. And so we decided to go to the hearing and protest. Then we found out that the people behind it were the Squirrel Hill Business group, sort of the upper class wealthier people in Pittsburgh. So these kids, their own kids are skateboarding in front of their stores, marking up their curbs, spitting on the side walk. And they just wanted to get rid of this nuisance. They wanted their shoppers to feel safe, and here are these kids with black bandannas and spikes on, spitting and swearing and they’ve got skateboards. They were pushing this ban, so when we found out they were having this big side-walk sale in Squirrel Hill we decided that would be the perfect day to go through Squirrel Hill with our “skateboarding is not a crime” and “don’t ban skateboarding” signs. So we got a bunch of people together, probably like 20 strong and we whee all on our skateboards tearing through their sidewalk sale, where everybody had their little knick-knacks, their dresses and shoes and crap on the side walk trying to sell it. So we hit the hill, and this cop was looking for people who looked like they were directing it and I was one of the people who organized it. Me, Neil Grant and Brian Cummings had made this thing happen. So he pointed at me and motioned for me to come over to him and I just ignored him and was like, “I’m not coming over to you.” Which was stupid. If I was older I would have been like, “Yeah we’re here to protest, we’ll be done in 20 minutes, we’re just gonna make our statement and skate through.” But because I had to be a smart ass and was ignorant about how to handle cops in that kind of situation, he was super pissed off. So he jumped out of his car, chased me down, slammed me to the ground, pulled my hair, broke my neckless, ripped my shirt I mean he was mad. But there was so many people there including The Pittsburgh Press documenting the whole thing.
Did they book you?
They ended up giving me, Disturbing the Peace and like one other thing they ended up giving me on some ticket that I never payed. The ACLU took up our case and representing us because the way they broke up our protest. That was kind of interesting.
So what happened with the ban did it go through?
Oh absolutely they banned it in the city and you can’t skate on the side walk and you can’t skate in the street. Now there are so many kids skating that they don’t really enforce it to much. Its more of a selective thing.
So what are you’re skate spots in Pittsburgh? A lot of them are gone now, the Clemente Banks, the Green Banks…
The busway banks are pretty much destroyed, the blind banks are gone. Uh well because using crutches has sort of transformed my skating I’m not really to the point that I session spots. I enjoy some hills in Pittsburgh. I’ll downhill Forbes down into Oakland from Squirrel Hill. Its nice because theres only the one intersection and its a three way, not a four way. Its nice to have a street you can zip down and not have to much risk. So thats a really nice hill to go fast on. I downhill Stanton a lot down into East Liberty. I like to session East Liberty. There are a couple nice lamp posts to wally. There are a couple good walls for wall rides. Skating has really changed though. I’m in my 40’s now so Im not at crazy as I used to be.
Whats your deck setup like? Do you use a bigger board because of the crutches?
Actually because of the crutches it requires a little bit of a smaller board. So If i do like a ollie 180, or a kickflip or whatever, the rotation of the board doesn’t hit the crutch if the board is a little bit shorter or narrower. So I’m pretty much using a smaller type of deck. I’m actually working with Scum Co., they are making customer decks to get a better cut for me. So were working on that right now. My son is actually at Woodward right now, so I’m also exited about that. He’s getting a whole level of experiences starting out skateboarding then I ever did.
So he’s just getting into skateboarding?
Oh yeah, he is already really solid on the board, but he’s really going to get a chance to experience a real park for an extended period of time. Mr. Smalls shut down and that was really the only thing on the northern end of Pittsburgh. Now you have to go all the way down to South Park to have a decent park to skate.
There is the bowl over on Polish Hill, but not much else.
Yeah but thats not really a kids spot and you know he can go there and skate but its not really a park.
So I wanted to ask about the issue with your hips, its called avascular necrosis?
Avascular Necrosis to the head of the Femur is the technical term for what Perthes disease does to your hip during childhood. Now once you turn 11, 12 years old the disease no longer effects you. It stops and you go through puberty and are sort of left with the aftereffects of that in your adulthood which is Bilateral Hip Deformity which is degenerative. That means the longer use use something, the faster its going to wear out. The longer you rub a square peg on a round whole the more the square peg is going to get ground down and the round whole is going to get damaged.
So catching up to where we were before, I got my first board in the 80s, I got into Hip-Hop, I got into hardcore and punk rock music. Eventually though I stopped listing to punk rock and hip-hop and started listing to Jungle and really got into electronic music. I moved to Chicago for a bit and then I moved to New York. Thats when the reemergence of the crutches happened. My hips started to go bad again in my early 20’s. So my teenage years I skating and kinda functioned relatively normally. Then as time went on the degenerative nature of the hip disease took its tole and by my early 20’s I was in a lot of severe pain and you really don’t want to have bilateral hip replacement in your early 20’s because you can’t really depend on them. So I went into using the crutches again. I started using the single point crutches, and I thought, I wont be able to break anymore, I wont be able to dance any more, I wont be able to skate anymore because it was so severely painful. Then I discovered the rocker-bottom crutch. Where the crutch doesn’t come to a point but looks like the letter “U” on the bottom. So I took the pair I got and snapped them with in a few days trying some dance moves on them. So I went back and took the shape and refined it and made it much more durable for skateboarding and dancing. Then in Chicago I developed this rhythmic style of dancing on the board. Because when your moving your arms to move the crutches its this left-right left-right naturally. So when your carving left your moving your arm right. So it becomes this musical form inherently by executing it in a way that makes sense and keeps up your momentum. So once I started de-weighting into my crutch instead of pushing with my leg I got this freedom of movement so my feet could sort of dance on top of the board. So that developed into what I call, “Step and Roll.” Which is doing foot work and steps on the board while I’m rolling with the crutches to propel myself. You have variations too. You can still ollie, you just can’t ollie and fly. Its more like your ollies are planted.
You were in Art School in Chicago?
Yeah I had a full scholarship. I had a disability scholarship, a need based award and a recognition scholarship. The reason I went to the (School of )The Art Institute of Chicago was because it was free.
So how did your parents feel about you going to art school? A lot of parents aren’t into that and feel like you should go to school for something more employable. Especially considering the physical nature of your art and the eventual limitations.
Well my father was really instrumental in making it happen. there was a lot of red tape in getting all the funding. The state of Pennsylvania was paying a little bit, The Art Institute of Chicago was paying a little bit, the Federal government was paying some. So coordinating all the paperwork so everyone was on the same page to pay the astronomical amount to go to school there was a whole lot of stuff I would have never gotten done with out my dads help. My mother was basically like, “Why don’t you get a nursing degree first and then go? Its security of a job.” I told her, “uh uh.”
So when you were going to the Art Institute did you have a particular focus, were you in the performing arts department?
By the time I had got to The School of The Art Institute I had gotten several PA Council of the Arts awards. I had done shows, and was already a functioning artist by the time I had got into art school. So as I mentioned before the only reason I went was because of the money that I was going to get to go. Otherwise I was just going to continue to make my work. So when I got there I was actually in Independent Study and I really didn’t attend very many classes. I just got credit for projects I was already doing. So I was like going and doing this and that and showing videos of the projects I was doing. I had to attend Art History, so I took a lot of film history but for the most part I was really Independent and was very stand-offish to the whole experience of going to school. Which was my high school pattern too. I failed high school. I dropped out from lack of attendance and then I failed my summer school senior year. Luckily my girlfriend at the time was like, “You have yo get a high school diploma.” My parents partitioned the school board and got me into Lechy in the Hill District which was a school for pregnant girls. So when I got into The Art Institute it was the same deal. I didn’t want to attend classes, I just wanted the credit. So I ended up doing independent study and doing performance and video.
Did you have anyone there you liked working with, and Professors or anybody?
I mean there were great people there. Some of the Professors were really great artists, but I didn’t really work with them or anything. Very independent, very solo. I wasn’t really a team builder. Which is a weakness, its not a strength. I don’t look at it like a strength.
So about some of your work, like the RJD2 video. You have people who are trying to help you out. They see the crutches and they see a “disabled person who needs help,” and it seems from the actions and movements you’re playing off that. Can you talk about some of the movements you do, like the crumpling up in a ball or freezing? Has anyone ever been bummed out by that?
Uh, I don’t think so. I mean the one way to look at it is that in a way I’m sort of provoking people. But that sort of stuff happens if I’m performing or what ever I’m doing. I could be picking up a glass at a function and someone will be like, “Oh are you going to be alright picking up that glass?” I mean people are naturally going to be concerned and are going to intervene in my path. So regardless of my path others are going to choose to intervene. So when you look about it you might think, “He’s instigating to get them to intervene, or by dancing around he is getting them to intervene.” But by default people will intervene if I want them to or not. So the nature of my performance is not defined by my desire to get people to get to intervene with me. It just happens and thats an important distinction because its not Jackass. You know its life and there is a big difference in the goals. If I decided to spin downstairs on crutches and do a “spinner no footer” down the stairs, I’m not doing that so someone thinks I need help. Its because I’d like to achieve a technical end to a trick thats really hard to do.
But your still conscience of that? That if you fall doing something people are going to say, “What was he thinking trying to do that in his condition?”
Well thats a good question, but I was educated by street culture. Street dancing and skateboarding. So if I do a spin on crutches and fall on the street my feeling is, its my right to try and spin on crutches and If I happen to fall down then I’ll get my self up. And I’m not going to go around saying, Oh well I better not go around thinking If I do that people will think I need something, so there fore I can’t do it. You know, you don’t stop your trajectory or your practice simply because your worried about what other people are going to think or other people are going to be scared for you. You can’t shape your life around other peoples fears about your own situation.
So how do you feel about that art scene in Pittsburgh?
Its exploded on the East End. I grew up on the East End, I went to Peabody High School. I saw what Garfield and Penn Ave were like in the 80s and the early 90’s and yeah its changed dramatically and gentrified somewhat. There are a lot of arts groups and art events happening there that are very exciting.
Anything you want to mention your working on currently?
I’m doing a video instillation for the New York Science Center called Human Plus. Its a show about prosthetics and robotics. I’m kinda there representing the human impulse and how its the most critical factors in any assistive technology. I’m actually setting up this shot of this guy Dergin Tokmak who’s a dancer who uses crutches. He’s really amazing acrobatically, He’s a B-Boy you know. I’m doing performances here and there too.