In 1990, World Industries released Mike Valley’s pro-model deck that became known as the Barnyard board. Emblazoned on the top of the deck, Valley’s unmistakable message, expressed through a cow with paintbrush in mouth, “Please Don’t Eat My Friends.” Mike V. made a reputation for himself, particularly on being a vegan. Nine years after he made his diet known to the world, he would be eating animals. Mike Vallely is now vegan again along with his family. The re-issue of the Barnyard board from Valley’s company, Street Plant Brand and collaborations with Servant Shoes and Pizzanista Pizzeria featuring Marc McKee’s art from that deck, re-ignited a conversation about veganism, politics, and the past.
I met Mike Vallely at his front door, he greeted me into his home, offered a glass of water and we headed back to the garage. Mike introduced me to his daughter Emily, his partner in Street Plant, who is busy answering emails and filling orders. The two car garage has no room for a vehicle, rather it serves as a warehouse, shipping department, and office. Short of manufacturing, the business is authentically DIY and the whole family is involved.
A few weeks before over a brief email exchange, Mike lets me know he isn’t into doing interviews, “The only exceptions I would ever consider would be discussing kindness to animals or kids wearing helmets, I will do this interview as long as the topic stays focused on veganism.” That is exactly what I came to talk about. The storied skater who once was so adamant in his beliefs of animal rights, beliefs so strong that in the past they led to fights and altercations with friends, had since been abandoned to such an extent that Vallely openly poked fun at the ideas of vegetarianism. In a 2009 interview with Erica Yary, on the topic of why he quit being vegetarian he quips, “I got hungry, I got really hungry.” So what I and many others have wondered is, what changed? In Fall of 2015 Mike, his wife Ann and both daughters Emily and Lucy all went vegan. To figure that out, I wanted to know what was different and how Mike started on his path in the first place.
Powell-Peralta released Mike’s first pro model in 1988. The artwork, now a classic, is an African elephant. He had to fight for it, a move that caused ongoing tension within the company. The concept was balked at, not fitting into the aesthetic of skeletons, flames, and bugs. “I want to remind people…” is what Mike said to Stacy Peralta for his reason of the graphic choice. A reminder of what? Vallely recalls seeing a television program on endangered African elephants and feeling that their biggest obstacle in survival was humans. “I actually cried watching this program, it was so unbelievable to me that this could be happening to the most beautiful majestic land animal.” At seventeen Mike starts a radical process for a kid from suburban New Jersey. “When I first started questioning this stuff I didn’t know vegetarianism was a thing. Just like I didn’t know skateboarding was a thing until I saw it for the first time. It was the same kind of awakening. It just made me question everything.”
Mike developed his message for his next ground breaking skate deck. Though his original vegetarianism concept had gone through the artistic license of Marc Mckee and Steve Rocco, coming out the other end florescent and cartoonish, the words were clear. “Please Don’t Eat My Friends.” It was the first skateboard with a vegetarian message and would be for at least two decades. Mike was undoubtably making his mark and influencing kids. He was also drawing a lot of anger out of people who saw his voice as a threat.
With limited resources and no community to support his then budding ideas of animal rights and vegetarianism, Mike adopted a lifestyle in which he could figure things out on his own. He began cutting things one by one out of his diet as he understood the harm they caused. The big change would start after hearing The Smiths “Meat is Murder.” Even among close friends Mike met resistance. “I was trying to explain what I was doing and what I was trying to accomplish to an older friend, a confident that was in the know. He started ripping me apart with ‘…cheese this, and your shoes [are leather]’, it was really kind of mean and I was hurt by it. I was trying to do something good, and instead of encouraging me and giving me stuff to think about, he was like, ‘You’re a fucking idiot.’ If you’re going to do one thing then you have to do everything.’” At that point Mike had never heard of a vegan or really understood it. The people would often come across as rude or condescending even when they were in the know.
At eighteen or nineteen Mike recalls feeling young, sensitive and reserved but was still putting his ideas about vegetarianism into the public sphere. His reservedness didn’t stop him from speaking his mind, but he wasn’t quite able to face down the reaction it received. “I was very sincere and very serious, I couldn’t laugh at it, I wouldn’t accept their jokes.” Mike became confrontational, facing down those that might poke fun before they had the opportunity. His two friends in the skateboarding world were Christian Kline and Ed Templeton. These friendships would often gravitate towards sitting on a curb and talking, bouncing ideas and concepts off one another without judgement. Both Christian and Ed would become vegetarian and then vegan through their friendship with Mike. While Ed was moving closer to a professional career, Mike recalls, “Ed was very consistent in pushing me to stay engaged in the skateboarding world, where I had lost the love for it. I still loved my skating but I had lost an interest in being bullseye for everyones hatred.”
Mike felt he had pulled so far back from the industry that his mere presence was treated as a gimmick or a flash in the pan, soon to be over. Though his unique style and creativity in skateboarding still brought him deserved accolades the criticism came hard. “I had a target on my back and the arrows being shot at me were from people I respected, people I looked up to, my heroes. Older skaters would say to me ‘come on Mike, settle down, you don’t really [believe this], when you grow up you’ll see.’ They would treat me like everything I was talking about was a waste of peoples time, a waste of pages in the magazines, that I should let my skating do the talking. I just felt there was so much more to communicate.”
The backlash caused a reaction similar to an abusive relationship. Some days Mike hid away, sheltering himself from the naysayers and ready to check himself out of skateboarding all together, and the next have brash confrontations with people in the industry. All the while being drawn further into the business that was dishing out the abuse. A close friendship with Ed Templeton throughout was a driving force that kept him connected to the skateboard world through the hard days of the late 80’s and early 90’s. By 1995 Mike felt that he had reclaimed a viable career in skateboarding and was going to make the most of it.
At the end of the 90’s the skateboarding industry had matured. A broader interest in skating and all things extreme had drawn in corporate America which looked to included skaters on their rosters. Skateboard focused brands also saw the boom. Mike had an aggressive street style that was unlike any other. It was unique and tapped into a raw energy so loud, it refused to fall on deaf ears. The prosperity that a top level skater could achieve in this wave of pop-cultural enthusiasm was very real and within reach of Mike V.
“By ’97 I began to see that something bigger was coming and I was positioned to be on the front lines of it. I was going to benefit from this great growth in skateboarding.” He had worked hard to stay at the professional level and was determined to hold on to his spot amongst the great modern skateboarders. Mike wanted to have a big impact with his message. “ If you’ve got Tony [Hawk] spinning in the air, and you have Koston flipping his board, and Jamie going down these big drops; That’s great, but who is going to talk about creativity, expression, individuality. These things were the undertone of my whole career and I had a very large vehicle to tell my story.” That desire to go big would bring him great success but not with out some great compromises. Mike laments with regret, “I can’t even relate to that [idea of going big] now.”
His focus and consistency paid off, Etnies tapped Mike V. for an opportunity to have a pro model shoe, considered the pinnacle in achievements of a professional skateboarder. As Mike would describe though, this was not without hesitation on Etnies part. After all, despite other large corporations pursuing him, within skateboarding Mike’s reputation preceded him. “I still had this stigma attached to me. When the Oakleys and the Dakines came into my life, they didn’t know how the skate world viewed me. They just saw what I was doing and said, ‘Rad, we want to work with you.’ but Etnies knows the noise and they can’t reconcile the value [of having me on the team] and the noise.”
The concern with that “noise” was, Mike again would be an easy target. What would the magazines like, Thrasher or Big Brother write? Mike was again sensitive to the idea of being the center of controversy and the skate brands with preserving a reputation. “I was going to crazy my way out of skateboarding. By being such a severe individual I was not going to get the pro-model shoe or other opportunities that were coming my way.”
During the shoe talks, SoleTech (Etnies, Emerica, éS, Sheep) had planned a skate-trip to Australia. Bob Burnquist, Eric Koston, Marc Johnson and Chris Senn would be there. The team manager was less than thrilled with the idea of Mike Vallely coming along. Mike recalls, “He was like, ‘Were going to bring Mike on this trip? He doesn’t even drink or party…’ It was just this thing put on the table. ‘What a drag, we’re going to bring this fucking drag with us?” It affected Mike and his wife, Ann deeply. Mike didn’t care about drinking or partying either way, it just wasn’t something he valued and now this idea people had jeopardized his future. “I told Don Brown, ( Head of Marketing at Sole Technology) ‘No worries, I’m down to go out with the boys and have some beers,’ and the sense of release was like this cloud left and the sun came out. ‘Mike’s cool, Mike’s cool!” Etnies Vallely would go on to be one of the best selling skate shoes at the time, and the original black colorway was even a synthetic nubuck material.
The excitement felt by Mike’s sponsors elevated his career and brought him to a place where he could achieve those dreams. One could look at it as vindication, or persistence. He stuck to his guns and eventually people everywhere saw the stoke! Looking back though, Mike sees it as a bitter sweet time.
“It was the start of a new season in my life, but ultimately as I look back on it now, it was a great compromise. I compromised who I was for acceptance. Once I left my own course and tried to fit into someone elses thing, all of the walls around me crumbled.”
Mike was focused on his professional skate career and his family. By 1999 he had given up being vegan. “I wasn’t focused on myself or my soul on a deeper level. I had tuned myself out. I don’t even know what justification I would have had but I was totally lost.” I asked if he had met any negative backlash to giving up veganism. “No not really. It’s so stupid. You chop that one piece out of the stairs that you’ve been climbing and then you’re just swimming in the bullshit. People are so happy to see you there. ‘Hey its good to see you eating meat again!” As Mike would describe, he felt lost for the next 15 years. His commercial successes are noteworthy. Mike competed and won many skate competitions, his likeness has appeared in video games a couple with his name on them and has been in major Hollywood films. This, without even touching the countless accomplishments within skateboarding. He is proud to have been able to make these things happen.
In 2014 Black Flag was touring. Mike V. was managing the band, driving the van, and after things went sour with Ron Reyes, Mike was also now the lead singer. In July they played Louisville Kentucky at Headliners Music Hall. Mike took walks before shows to think, trying to get lost, and clear his head. Though he didn’t know it at the time, the venue was a short walk south of the Butchertown neighborhood. Historically a part of Louisville that contained slaughterhouses and rendering plants, walking west on East Main Street one might confuse the unremarkable white brick wall for just about anything. What Mike heard though made him take notice. “I was walking along the side of this building and then I heard this screaming, which I really believed to be the sounds of terror of children on a roller coaster.” Mike continues to hear the screams as he rounds the corner of the building and thinks, “This must be one hell of a ride!” and then is confronted with the truth; very large, very pink pigs being prodded off of a stock trailer and into the building. “The thing about the screaming, it wasn’t one uniform sound. That’s what made me think that it was children, it was a chorus of individual voices. If it would have been a uniform pig sound, I could have easily said to myself, ‘dumb pigs being slaughtered’ and rationalized and justified that, but the individual voices I couldn’t ignore. And when I realized they weren’t screaming because they were on a roller coaster, but were screaming because they where being murdered, I went, ‘Oh fuck, I can’t live like this. I can’t rationalize, justify, or turn a blind eye to it.”
Like most people, Mike had built up the walls that say, eating animals is normal but now and maybe more impactful than his first stint as a vegetarian something changed. “You have an experience like that and then the walls completely crumble, I am walking through the dust of my own creation that has now been shattered.
“I’ve gone so far away from who I was that I’m not able to confront this. I’m not ready to confront my family, and tell people, I can’t fucking do this.’ I’m not prepared for the backlash.” Mike admits to feeling selfish for having such reservations. He instantly starting eating vegan through the rest of the tour with a looming fear for the inevitable conversations at home.
Ann Vallely, Mike’s wife was at one time vegan and vegetarian. Their lives had drastically changed and one could think that the same walls of protection Mike had built rationalizing eating animals, would be similar for Ann. The lifestyle the Vallely’s had been accustomed had taken a hit and there were already considerable changes the family was getting used to. Financial hardships had cause them to lose their house and cars; Now when Mike tells his family what exactly he has experienced in Louisville and sees their reaction, he feels he is going to lose his family too. So he folds, with tears burning down his cheeks, he says ‘whatever’ and the tension that Mike has been holding onto all these years continues growing.
The heartfelt story of the Louisville slaughterhouse sits with his family. It becomes an occasional conversation topic, particularly with Emily, Mike’s oldest daughter.
“She’s a very serious young woman. She does her leg work and does her research. She began the process in her own way to reconcile the story I had and the life she had previously lived as a young vegetarian.” Emily would share information, and the whole family began to go with her, back to a life that Ann, Mike, and Emily had previously lived. Mike describes Lucy, his youngest, as a sensitive and caring person, having an immediate understanding to the path the family was taking. “Our nature as individuals is really at home with this lifestyle.”
The struggles Mike V. felt came from many directions. The reliance on brands telling him when he was getting paid, or if he was going to be a sponsored skateboarder was a massive part of this pressure. He admits that, “the healing process only started once I decided to not be subservient to the skateboard brands.” Where Mike is now may have been in the making even before the Black Flag tour and Louisville. What is now Street Plant Brand, a self funded skateboard company, began as an Instagram account managed by Emily Vallely. As Mike tells it there was no intention of making products. It was more of a look back through the archives of Mike V’s career. Perhaps what Mike felt was again nearing an eclipse.
As Street Plant [the Instagram] became more active, including Mike’s poetry and prose peppered among rad images and videos of skating, it became obvious that there was something more there. He was able to make the leap to a skateboard company of his own in large part because of Emily. Mike recalls she told him, “You’ve taught us to be self-sufficient and the D.I.Y. ethos. This is still who you are at your core but you’re still holding onto something that’s [not there]. You can do something that’s yours and we’ve got your back.” Jokingly but with some truth Mike tells me, “Two years ago, if Red Bull or Nike would have called me, I would have gotten down on my knees and begged ‘please, please, can I just get on the cruise ship out to sea.’ and now I wouldn’t answer their calls. I’ve taken the right steps in the right direction to do right for me and my family. It all sort of set the table for where we are now.”
The changes that brought the Vallely family to start Street Plant Brand and as a family to live a vegan lifestyle came from a place of honesty, introspection, and real engagement. Nearly 30 years before, Mike was exploring these ideas and cementing his core beliefs. His steadfast beliefs eventually were moved and adapted by the changing realities as a young person starting a family. When Mike described his reason for letting his diet waiver, it got down to competing interests. He was perfectly fine with eating potato chips, junk food or whatever he could scrape together. That wasn’t something he was comfortable doing with his family. Self sacrifice can be easy, it’s something completely different when you factor in the people you care about, not wanting them to go through the same hardships that you would impose on yourself.
Mike Vallely may be known for his massive drop-ins, hand plants, and brawling. Over the years the fights he engaged and those massive drops he took required some heavy determination. As we spoke it was clear that what came after was much harder. Getting to that place of realization and living a vegan lifestyle isn’t easy. Allowing oneself to then stray, pile on the rationalizations, and assimilate to a world that is waiting with open arms and a side of bacon is much simpler; And as many may not want to admit, the path of least resistance. Harder is to dig out of the self-imposed justifications, face what you’ve known all along, and admit you have to change.
The Vallely family are talking about veganism and sharing their lifestyle. The Vallely women run a blog, The Vintage Vegans, where they post recipes, interviews, and cruelty free fashion editorials. Mike is staying grounded. Now when he talks about vegansim, it isn’t a defense or a reaction, it’s a celebration.
At present we are not going to see a new vegan skateboard shoe with Vallely emblazoned on the side. He has decided to keep his name off of sponsorships and other companies products. What you can expect from Mike; he will be skating for Street Plant Brand, touring and staying engaged in the skate scene. Taking a look back at the original content that launched Street Plant, Mike got back to his core beliefs. Looking to the future expect Mike to continue bringing creativity, expression, and the individuality that started it all.
editing assistance provided by Kevin Marks and Joey Zittnan.
Thanks to Mike for inviting me into his home. Today is the 5th Anniversary of Vegan Skate Blog and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate.
–Mr. Fakie aka Kerry