Three issues in with the fourth on the way, Graham Tait’s magazine predominately featuring Scottish skateboarding content but also reaching further afield, is receiving nods of approval and fist-bumps from all over due to its film-only/non-digital photo policy. I recently spoke to the Focus Skate Shop manager, photographer and skateboarder about how it all started, the inspiration along the way and why things are only going North. Hats off, enjoy –
Photography – Graham Tait, Jonathan Black (Portrait)
Interview – Stephen Cox
Let’s start off with you telling us where you’re from and how you got into skating.
I was born and raised in Livingston and as far back as I can remember I’ve been interested in skateboarding. I remember asking for a skateboard for Christmas when I was I Primary 3, so I would’ve been seven? Yeah, that sounds about right. At this point it was just a toy and I’d bum board around my street and push it to the shops on my knees. Livingston skatepark was relatively close but I was too young to really understand what went on there, and what was possible on a skateboard. Also, it was the other side of the shopping centre and I wasn’t allowed out to play that far away. I remember my best friend in primary school getting a skateboard at the same time, along with his neighbour who was a little older than us. I think because there were three of us our parents let us venture down to the park one Saturday afternoon. This must’ve been about 1989 so there hadn’t been any extensions build yet; it was just the original park. I spent most of the day too scared to go down the “hills”, so I bum boarded down the mellow transitions a couple of times but mostly watched the bigger guys. I remember thinking that the whole place was amazing; graffiti everywhere, skateboards, bmx’s, and best of all, no parents. That day really stood out to me growing up. We had our photo taken by someone that day by Kenny Omond or another photographer Tony who used to always be there. I’d love to see that photo! I spent the next couple of years just skating to the shops and going down hills every now and again, nothing too crazy, then a new kid moved into my street. I’d see him pushing about on a skateboard and one day he told me about a place called Crofthead Barns where a friend of his family went on Friday nights to skate. He had never been but wanted to go. It was the other side of Dedridge, where I stayed in Livingston so it wasn’t too far away. We got a lift there that week and I couldn’t believe it. I felt the same thing from my first time at the skatepark. This place was tiny but there were so many people there. Skating inside, outside, little fly offs everywhere; it was amazing, and all done for the love by a man called Kenny Omond, this was my first proper introduction to him. It was my first taste of what could be done on a skateboard, you could actually do tricks! That was the summer of 1993, the decks were getting thinner and the wheels were tiny, baggy cut off jeans also seemed popular. I spent the next 4 or 5 months learning to ollie in my driveway and going to Crofthead every week before finally getting a set up from Kenny for Christmas. I caught a lot of shit from my big brother and his mates. They’d talk to me in a Bill & Ted voice, and say stupid things like, “Cowabunga Dude” to try and wind me up. I managed to get a copy of Propaganda – which I watched numerous times a day – and within weeks, my big bro and his mates were all skating too.
Pretty much from that first night at Crofthead I’ve been hooked. That’ll be 20 years this Christmas that I got my first proper set up. Jesus I’m old.
How did you become more actively involved in your scene?
During the last couple of years at high school I became more and more disinterested in it. Not that I hated it or found it difficult, I was just more interested in art, craft and design, and the more creative subjects but this was only a small percentage of the classes. I used to skive off and go round to my friend’s house. He was on the dole so he wasn’t up too much at the time. I’d wake him up and we’d watch Trilogy and Welcome to Hell and drink tea. I did this quite a lot without really thinking about it. Eventually I got caught, as you do, but my mum was pretty cool about it. She knew I wasn’t out causing trouble or doing anything stupid, so I didn’t get into that much trouble.
And you perused your artistic interests then?
In fifth year I applied for the photography class and managed to get in. This involved getting a bus to West Lothian Collage in Bathgate, twice a week. I had never owned a camera before or really used one so it was all new to me. This was before digital so we were all given Pentax K1000’s told the basics and sent out to shoot some photos. We did everything on the course, developed our own film, used the darkroom to make prints, really old school looking back: developer, stop, and fixer trays. Seeing your photos appear on the paper had a big impact on me. The lecturers were really encouraging and they thought my photographs were good; it was really because of them that I stuck at it. When the end of fifth year came I didn’t really know what I was going to do with myself – couldn’t watch Trilogy and drink tea forever – so I decided to apply for the NC Photography course at West Lothian Collage, and got accepted.
But you were still skating?
I was still skating everyday so the natural thing to take photos of was skateboarding. I didn’t have a camera so one of the lecturers gave me a loan of a Pentax for the summer. I can still remember the first photos I shot. It was of one of my favourite skaters Sandy Bingham. He could do every trick, and with pop. He was years ahead of his time; I think everyone knows one of those guys. He was from Prestwick near Glasgow so I didn’t get to see him skate as much as I’d like to, but he was really good. I did the NC Photography Course and then the HNC the following year. I learnt so much from my lecturers there, it was a really small class, I think around 8 people. It was really tight. In 2001 after the HNC, I applied to Stevenson Collage in Edinburgh to do the HND, which was a completely different experience. There were so many students, all fighting for enlargers, lecturers time, and help. I guess a lot of these people didn’t know what they wanted to do photo wise, so they were still figuring out what to do. I knew what I wanted to do and what direction I wanted to go in but I didn’t receive any encouragement and was told there was always one guy in the class that took photos of skateboarding. I would try to base all my briefs around skateboarding as I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my photography, but I’d always get a hard time for doing it. I found that I had to be really motivated; most of my class mates were all out getting pissed and messing about, while I was in the darkroom trying to figure out how to print a sequence on the same piece of photo paper. I highly recommend going to a smaller college, they don’t look as good on your CV but I promise, you’ll learn a whole lot more.
Funny that you say you were told there was always one in a class. How is skateboarding perceived as a subject of photography to those that don’t know it?
I guess your lecturers want to you to experiment with different surroundings and subjects to see what interests you. I had no interest in still life or fashion and had already found what interests me, so I stuck to my guns. If you get into photography i think you will automatically start shooting photos of things you love, for me it was skateboarding.
I think my lecturer was trying to wind me up by saying that, I think he thought I was wasting my time by taking skate photos. He was a knob so I didn’t listen!
Glad to hear it. So when did Focus come into the picture for you?
During that time I had moved to Edinburgh and Focus Skate Store opened its doors. It was ahead of its time – for Edinburgh – and was one of the first independent stores in the city to have an e-commerce website, I think? I may have just made that up, but anyway, they were looking for photos for the website and adverts and they got in touch. I started shooting photos for them and covering shifts here and there in the shop as well as working a bar job and collage. The Tony Hawk boom had just happened so skateboarding was “cool”, and I managed to get a few photo jobs here and there, I had a couple of bits in Sidewalk and even landed my first cover on The Big Issue. After I finished my HND I took my loan money and went to Australia for a year. When I was away I was offered the role of Manager at Focus when I got back and I took it. I’ve now been there full time for over 8 years.
What have you had in Sidewalk?
The first photos I ever had in Sidewalk were of my big brother doing a bunch of stretches for an article Andy Rae did, about stretching before skating to prevent injury. Looking back they were terrible! I had just met Wig [Worland] at Livi and he told me to send down some photos and he’d give me some advice, so I did. He was super helpful and told pointed me in the right direction. Around the same time I was skating a lot at Bristo Square in Edinburgh and Ben Powell was there with a bunch of English guys. We were talking about a local guy called Mark 92, who used to skate there a lot. I had told him that I had just shot a sequence of him doing a fakie Flip tailslide bigspin out, which at the time was pretty tech. Ben told me to send it down so he can have a look at it, they ended up using it for a ‘New Blood’ a couple of months later, I had the best skate ever the day that Sidewalk came out, I was so hyped! I was still living in Livingston at that point and still at College. Percy and Kingy from Document were always up shooting bits and bobs there so I got speaking to those guys and they helped me out with what equipment I should be looking into, like radio slaves and off camera flashes. They were always really helpful and keen to see what I was shooting too.
What did you learn from Wig? When I spoke to Oliver Barton he seemed to hold him in such high regard, as do most people.
I’ve only ever met him once in the flesh and that was at Livi, he shook my hand and gave me a box of film. I was so hyped! I spent the next few weeks shooting some bits and bobs and send them down to him. He sent them back with notes and pointers on the slide mounts, which was a big help. I remember speaking to him on the phone after and thanking him for taking the time out to help me. From the interview you did with Oliver I see that Wig gave him good advice that he still practices today. I’ve only met him the once but by the sounds of things he’s helped a lot of people over the years, what a gentleman.
How did the Big Issue cover happen? Bit of a strange one that to me, but to be honesty I’ve never actually held or looked at one.
With Focus being new to Edinburgh and skateboarding getting a bit of buzz in the early 2000’s, they would get approached from people looking for photos or info on skating. Sibs at Focus would always hook me up and throw photo stuff my way. I’d never bought one till that day either. I didn’t even know I had the cover till I saw the seller holding it in his hand. I like that the issue was sponsored by HP “All Day Breakfast” in a can.
[Laughs] sound rotten. And you were still shooting in Australia then?
I tried to shoot with a few guys in Sydney, and actually met Michael Mackrodt out there. I was a nobody shooting for nothing so it was hard trying to convince people to shoot with me, I was having too much fun skating and drinking to really care that much, so I wasn’t stressed about it. I was also broke so I couldn’t really afford the film of developing. When I got back from Australia all the equipment had upgraded from 35mm to medium format. A lot of studio photographers started selling their equipment to go digital so I managed to pick up a Hasselblad pretty cheap. This was 2005, and around the same time I hurt my back. I’ve had a bad back for as long as I can remember, but not enough from stopping me skating, or doing normal stuff. I had put it out a few times before, and had been to osteopaths and had physiotherapy to see if that would help, but it didn’t. Then one day out skating it just went. My whole right side fucked up pretty bad. I put my pelvis out too and couldn’t lift my right leg for nearly two weeks. I was fucked. From that day forward my back has always been sore. I’ve been to hospital, had X-rays, blood tests, seen back specialists, but nothing has helped. I couldn’t really skate properly anymore, so I that’s why I started taking photography more seriously. It was my way of keeping in with what was going on. I had just started running Focus too so it was hard to be surrounded by skating everyday and not actually be able to skate properly.
How have the shop and the local scene changed since you began working at Focus?
It was rad seeing kids come up through the shop. At the time the Edinburgh scene was all street skating, and mostly at Bristo Square. I had been sending stuff to Sam Ashley at Document who liked my photos and I started getting published in there. Mostly single photos in the ‘Frames’ section, but it was rad. I was really into what Document was doing. The layout was always clean and the photography was great. For the next couple of years I was watching kids get better in Edinburgh and trying to get them motivated to push themselves. I’m pretty sure I used the “if you just land it, it’ll probably be in Document” line a bunch of times, which thankfully worked out. So when I heard the news that Document had went under I was gutted. There were so many photographers trying to come up and now with only one magazine in the U.K it was going to be nightmare getting photos published. I don’t think I shot much for a few months, Edinburgh Skatepark had just been built and I’m not really into taking photos at skateparks. The scene changed with hardly anyone skating the streets, which sucked for me as I still wanted to shoot photos but not much was happening.
Is the limited amount of magazines in the UK thing part of the initial invention of North? Tell us about the processes of getting everything started up.
To be honest, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was still shooting on film and most had now switched to digital. I didn’t like the look of digital; there was just something not right about it. It’s getting better now but at the time it just didn’t look right to me. I was also going through a lot of personal stuff. I had to spend a lot of time at home so I wasn’t able to go out and shoot anything. To cut a long story short, my girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer so I’d stay at home to look after her. Sadly she passed away and this was the major motivation of me starting North. I had one of those life’s too short moments and thought fuck it, I’m going to make a magazine. It took me probably the best part of 2 years to from the initial idea of doing it to getting the first issue out. I was a bit all over the place for a while and didn’t feel like doing anything, but once I started getting ideas of what I could do I started to get really motivated. I put out the first issue with all my photography; I guess I wanted to prove to myself that I could actually do it. Also, I would’ve felt like a dick if I had asked for photo submissions from people and it didn’t work out! My plan to keep it all film would hopefully make it a little bit different and if people were into it they could submit their film photos. There are still enough rad photographers out there shooting on film and doing their own thing. I want to have those guys in North: people that are shooting for the love of skateboarding and photography. I introduced a guest photographer section in issue 02 and plan to have this in every issue.
When you say it took a lot of work, what surprises did you run into along the way? Is the magazine funded in its entirety by advertising?
It took a lot of work in the respect that I took every photo for the first issue, did the layout and all behind the scenes stuff like advertising and distributing. I have no experience with designing anything, and had never used any layout software or anything other than Photoshop. I even bought InDesign for Dummies, but that didn’t really help. The hardest part to organise is the advertising. The magazine is free so I rely on the support from companies to advertise in North so I can get it made. I knew I was going to have a tough time getting advertisers in the first issue, but managed to get half of the costs covered, which was a huge help. And I sold a bunch of personal belongings to get the rest of the money together. I – used to – have a problem with buying trainers, over the years I’ve accumulated a fair amount of old skate shoes. Koston 2s and 3s were my favourites along with original DC Lynx. I had about 10 pairs of K2’s at one point and most were brand new samples. I’d much rather have a magazine though! So basically yes, I need companies to support North and advertise so I can get it out there. I’m still trying to figure out if it’s possible to make a living out of it; print media is a funny one. I know for a fact if I tried to sell North it wouldn’t work. I’d probably sell a few, but there’s no way every stockist would take 50 copies and be able to shift them. I’d rather more copies went out for free than charge £5 and only sell half as much.
Definitely, and what benefits or negatives are there with having a smaller amount of contributors?
I’m really stoked that photographers are into North and want to contribute their photos; I’m always super hyped when I get emails through with photos attached. With each photo that they submit, I want to do them justice. I’ve always preferred photo issues of magazines so that’s what I have in mind when I’m doing the layout, keep everything clean and simple. The major downside is that most people are shooting on digital, so I may be missing out on getting some rad photographers work in the mag.
What other magazines or publications have inspired you in the respect of a clean, simple layout? You mentioned Document earlier.
My favourite skateboard magazines are SB Journal from Japan, 43, and Skateboarder which is now gone. SB Journal has a pretty simple layout, the photos are always interesting and the architecture and surroundings are dope. I’d really like to go there someday. I can’t read Japanese so I’m forced to pay more attention to the photos. 43 is rad too, I like the full-page photos and minimal text. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of reading skateboard magazines articles. I like interviews but that’s pretty much the only thing I’ll read. Skateboarder was good at doing little things, ‘Howl’, ‘Ins & Outs’, ‘Viewfinder’ etc. They didn’t over do it and made it interesting. Document was dope and Sidewalk is rad and does great things for the U.K scene. I recently subscribed to Kingpin; the photography in there is amazing.
I’ve noticed rather bare pages which some might say aren’t needed having mentioned the costs and what not. How important is it for you to have this type of layout?
The one thing that bothers me about most magazines is text on the photos. Is that weird? Does anyone else get annoyed by these things?
I know what you mean.
It used to bug me when I was younger and wanted to put photos on my wall. There would always be some quote on it or part of the interview, it bugged me. With North I want people to notice every photo. Some magazine can be cluttered and rad photos can go unnoticed or they’re run too small. I don’t know if what I’m doing works well or I’m wasting space, I just lay it out how I’d like to look at it and hope that other people like to look at it too.
With North being more so photo-centric or less text-based perhaps would you ever increase its size?
I think I’ve started with a good size. I was a bit worried that it wouldn’t be taken that seriously and people would think it was just another zine. Zines are rad, but I wanted to do something a bit more substantial and memorable. I’d love to make a few special issues that were bigger somewhere down the line but that could be costly.
I want to do a Livingston Skatepark Issue, it’s the 35th anniversary is soon so that would be amazing. I have a collection of slides from Kenny Omand that were shot by a man called Ian Urquart. He took photos of the construction of the park along with the first ever skateboarders there. Kenny has so much stuff himself, I need to go visit him soon for a chat. I tried to get something going for the 30th anniversary but it fizzled out. I’d love to get shots from photographers who have visited Livi over the years and do a special issue and an exhibition. Scotland hasn’t seen something like that it ages, If I can figure out how to get it done then it could happen!
How important is it for you to focus on the areas geographically that you do? What sort of feedback have you received in this respect so far?
It’s still early days, I feel like I’m still winging it a bit. It would be cool to do bigger runs and send a bunch across to Europe and The States. I have a few contributors from New York that are hyped on the North, which is amazing. So to get some copies over there would be sick. With the magazine being free I definitely think there’s more scope to get it further afield. North is based in Scotland but it’s not strictly a Scottish skateboard magazine. I’m down for photography from everywhere but it just so happens that I live here, so most of the people I shoot are Scottish. I do need to travel a bit more though.
Did it ever feel strange publishing something where the content was largely your own?
It did feel weird. I wasn’t sure if everything was going to come together in the beginning so I didn’t want to ask any photographers for photos or help in case it never actually happened, I didn’t want to let anyone down. Plus I had enough stuff for the first issue so I thought what the hell, I’ll just do it.
Are you a bit tight for time then?
I do struggle managing my time a little. I have so many ideas for articles, videos, the website, bits of clothing that I’d like to make. All while sorting out my own photos, contributors, advertising, distribution, and holding down a job at Focus. North is a one-man operation but Keen Dist are now helping me out which is great. Shout out to Mike!
Lets hear the inspiration then.
I’ve always been so stoked on U.K skate photography. Wig Worland, Leo Sharp, Horse, Percy Dean, Kingy, Sam Ashley, Alex Irvine, Oliver Barton and loads more have all killed it over the years. I’ve pretty much had help and advice from all of them at some point too, which I’m thankful for. I love skate photography, everyone has photos that I’ve been stoked on, but as far as favourites go, I’d say Oliver Barton, Sem Rubio, and Brian Gaberman. You can tell when a photo is shot by one of those guys; their individual styles are great and always get me hyped. I really like what Dave Chami has been doing too. His large format and the infra-red colour shots were amazing. Zander Taketomo is killing it too; he’s a good dude.
Really loved the Charlie Myatt cover of issue 03. Where did the idea come from?
I walk past where I shot that from everyday as it’s on my way to work. I always thought it would make an interesting photo; you don’t really get the opportunity to shoot something like that very often. I had to dust off the old 35mm Canon for that shot as I didn’t have a long enough lens for the camera I usually use. The colours came out pretty good; I even made sure he was wearing a red t-shirt to help him stand out. It took ages to get the timing right, that ledge is huge; I don’t recall anyone even skating it before. I was trying to make sure I got the pedestrians walking across without any buses of traffic in the way. I got lucky.
I thought it was hilarious that you packed up and left without talking to him on the phone. Did you ever find out how long he stayed there for?
I called him a dozen times with no response! He must’ve seen the missed calls and realised that I had left. I saw him about 20 minutes later so he didn’t hang about too long after.
The Adam Paris photo is a beast too.
Paris kills it! I wanted to shoot a park photo with him so we went with Aaron Wilmot to Burnt Island Skatepark in Fife. He makes everything look rad, he commits to everything, did it a few times too. I shot Aaron’s nosegrab from his interview 10 minutes later. They killed it that day! I like shooting with those guys, they’re really positive and a lot of fun to be around.
I interviewed Harry Lintell recently when he was in Copenhagen, you know him well? The back smith photo is nice.
That was the first and only time I’ve ever met him. Tez called me up and said he was in town and did I want to hook up and shoot some photos. I was hyped and headed out to meet them and Saughton Park. They were filming for the Superdead Promo and Harry was looking for photos for his Haunts in Sidewalk. I showed them to a few street spots and managed to shoot 3 rad photos with Harry. I’d never really seen much from him before but was blown away by how good he was. I think he had just turned 18 too, which was insane. The ledge he back smithed is so big that I hadn’t even considered anyone skating it, and the rare blue sky looks great!
Saw Ed Templeton is down for North. How did you bump into him?
[Laughs] yeah. Issue 03 had just arrived that day so I had a couple in my bag. I knew that he was in Edinburgh because he had checked into the National Museum in Edinburgh on Instagram earlier that day. I thought that it would be funny if I bumped into him on the street, and I did! I gave him a copy of the mag and took his photo outside a baked potato shop. He was really nice as was his wife, he gave me a shout out on his Instagram, I was stoked!
You were stalking him then is that what you’re saying?
[Laughs] yeah, I hung about the baked tattie shop waiting for him, they have great vegan fillings.
That’s Ed and [Chad] Muska to cross of the stalker checklist then. How did you get to shoot the wallride?
Supra were doing a demo in Edinburgh as part of their European Tour. Ben Bodilly was keen to get me on board to show the guys some street spots before the demo. Muska was down to take a look at some spots and had actually seen the Bristo Banks the day before. His flight got in the day before most people so he went sight seeing on his own, which was rad. Chris Johnson and Shad Lambert were there shooting photos, I think they both actually shot photos of the wallride too. I wanted to shoot it from a different angle and it looks like we were the only people there. Tom Penny was right beside me when I shot it. That was a rad day, all those guys were really down to earth and really fun. T.K, Lizard King, Spencer Hamilton, Matt Mumford, Muska, Penny. I’ve looked up to those guys for years and to get to show them around and shoot some photos of them was amazing.
Who’s killing it locally then?
There are loads of people killing it right now. Miles Kondracki, Daniel Nicholas, Charlie Myatt, Adam Paris, Aaron Wilmot, Mark Burrows, Russ Hall, Shezz, Dunder, too many to mention. There’s always a session going down whether it’s with the Thursday Club boys, Saughton Park, or on the streets. Scotland has a really good scene with loads of people documenting different aspects of it. Dickson from SYB is always shooting the Glasgow boys and Russ has the Thursday Club covered with his photos on Instagram. There are some good filmers too; Zander, Simie, The GSS boys, Paul VX, we just need the weather to be a little bit better and we’d be sorted.
What’s coming up for issue 04?
I’m hoping that I have enough content to do a New York issue. I’m lucky enough to have a good friend out there who always hooks me up with a place to stay. I’ve just got back from there and managed to hook up with the 5BORO dudes, those guys are out skating everyday and killing it. Big shout out to Tombo for hooking me up!
Cheers for this Graham, looking forward to 04.
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