The Z-Boys: The History of the Skateboarding Pioneers of Dogtown

This Group of Surfers Brought Skateboarding Into the Limelight

Jay Adams In 'Dogtown And Z-Boys'
Archive Photos / Getty Images

Dogtown is an area of West Los Angeles --  a poor area on the south side of Santa Monica that covers Venice and Ocean Park beaches.

Throughout the 1970s, the surfers in Dogtown were aggressive and antisocial. They fit into the stereotype of the time that surfers were poor dropouts. For a lot of these young people, surfing was all they had.

Surfing at The Cove

Between Venice Beach and Santa Monica was an abandoned amusement park right on the water called the Pacific Ocean Park Pier.

The locals called it the P-O-P. In the middle of the POP was an area where the huge wood pilings and rickety piers were built in a U-shape, creating a kind of secret cove. And that's what the locals called it --"The Cove." It was an incredibly dangerous place to surf, with largely tilted wood pilings jutting from the water and not enough room for all the surfers. But the local surfers of Dogtown prized their secret surf spot and defended it fiercely -- often with force. Outsiders had to earn their way in.

This kind of lifestyle and mindset drove into these young people the need to prove themselves. They knew what performance was about, they knew that they had to prove themselves to be anyone.

Jeff Ho and Zephyr Surfboard Productions

In 1972, Jeff Ho, Skip Engblom, and Craig Stecyk started up a surf shop called Jeff Ho and Zephyr Surfboard Productions right in the middle of Dogtown. Ho handcrafted surfboards and pushed the limits and ideas of surfboard design.

He was unique, cutting edge and a little crazy. Craig Stecyk was the artist who designed the surfboards' graphics. Most surfboards at the time used soft, rainbow images or calm, pretty island scenes. Stecyk pulled his graphics from local graffiti and made Zephyr surfboards reflect the area where they were made.

The shop also started up the Zephyr surf team. Dogtown was full of young surfers who had nowhere to go and who were hungry to prove themselves and gain an identity. The Zephyr team provided just that. A lot of what went on in the shop was sketchy at best, but many of these kids came from broken and messed-up families, and the Zephyr team provided a home.

The Zephyr Team (or Z-Boys)

The Zephyr team had 12 members:

  • Shogo Kubo
  • Bob Biniak
  • Nathan Pratt
  • Stacey Peralta
  • Jim Muir
  • Allen Sarlo
  • Chris Cahill
  • Tony Alva
  • Paul Constantineau
  • Jay Adams
  • Peggy Oki
  • Wentzle Ruml

While surfing is what pulled the Zephyr team together, skateboarding would be what would pull them apart. But not before they changed the world forever.

Skateboarding's Rebirth

Skateboarding was a hobby that had a short-lived flash of excitement in the late '50s. In 1965 skateboarding's popularity fell off the face of the Earth. At that time, skateboarders rode using dangerous clay wheels, and anyone who wanted to skate had to build their own skateboard from scratch.

But in 1972, the same year that the Jeff Ho and Zephyr Surfboard Productions shop opened, urethane skateboard wheels were invented. These wheels made skateboarding smoother, safer and more reasonable.

Today's skateboards still have urethane skateboarding wheels.

From Pastime to Passion

The Z-boys enjoyed skateboarding as something to do after surfing. The activity grew from a hobby for the Zephyr team into a new way to express themselves and to show what they were made of. Style was the most important aspect of skateboarding to the Zephyr team, and they pulled all their inspiration from surfing. They would bend their knees deep and enjoyed riding the concrete like they were riding a wave, dragging their hands on the pavement like Larry Burtleman. Burtleman touched the wave as he was surfing, dragging his fingers across it. This move in skateboarding became known as a "Burt" and is still in skateboarding language today to refer to dragging fingers or planting a hand on the ground and turning around it.

The skateboarding of the Zephyr team was unique and powerful. At the same time that they were sidewalk surfing, skateboarding was growing in popularity in other areas of the U.S. For the rest of the country, skateboarding was slalom (riding down a hill back and forth between cones) and freestyle. Freestyle skateboarding is mostly dead today, but back then it was a huge part of the sport. Imagine ballet on a skateboard or mixing ice skating with skateboarding. Freestyle was supposed to be graceful and artistic.

While the Zephyr team had nothing to do with freestyle skateboarding, they were familiar with slalom. The Zephyr team also skated at four grade schools in the Dogtown area. These schools all had sloping concrete banks in their playgrounds. For the Z-boys, it was a great place to skate. It was in these places that each skater developed his own style. 

The Del Mar Nationals

And then in 1975, the famous Del Mar Nationals were held in California. Skateboarding had gotten popular enough that a company called Bahne Skateboards held the first big skateboarding competition since the 1960s. The Zephyr team showed up in their blue Zephyr shirts and blue Vans shoes and changed the skateboarding world. The Del Mar Nationals competition had two areas -- a  slalom course and a platform for freestyle. The Zephyr team mocked the freestyle competition, but they entered anyway. The crowd loved their low, aggressive style, "Burts" and inventiveness. They were like nothing anyone had ever seen.

The Dogtown Articles

Also in 1975, Skateboarder magazine re-launched. In the second issue, Stecyk began a series called the "Dogtown articles," with his first one called "Aspects of the Downhill Slide." These articles told the story of the Dogtown team.Stecyk's photography was even more inspiring than his surfboard art, and his articles fanned the flames of the skateboarding revolution that had started at Del Mar.

Only a few short months after the Del Mar nationals, the Zephyr team was ripped apart by the fame and popularity that they had won. Skateboarding was on the rise, new skateboarding companies were cropping up, and more competitions followed with even larger cash prizes. Everyone wanted a piece of the Zephyr team, and Ho couldn't compete with the money his team was being offered. The  Jeff Ho and Zephyr Surfboard Productions shop closed down soon afterward.

The Zephyr team did get together for a while at a place they liked to call the Dogbowl. This was a large pool on a huge private estate in the upscale area of North Santa Monica. By that time, they had all gone their own ways, but there at the Dogbowl, they were able to hang out together one last time.

Each member of the Zephyr team moved on, some to bigger and better skateboarding, some of other things. A small group of outcasts from the slums of Dogtown had changed their own lives, and the skateboard world, forever.

To find out more about the history of the Zephyr team, see Warren Bolster's photography book, watch the Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary or see the movie "Lords of Dogtown." Or go here to read more about the history of skateboarding.