Mess photo by Levy

Jesse Martinez postcard.

It's well documented that skate rats lacking consistent access to pools and ramps developed street skating in the early-'80s. Gonz and Natas Kaupas are rightly celebrated as pioneers but another rider is often overlooked for infusing an instinctual aggressiveness into the burgeoning skate style—Jesse Martinez.

"I grew up in a violent atmosphere," Jesse says. "My entire family was in the local gang here in Venice. That's pretty much all I saw: drugs and violence." And, in a serendipitous way, grand theft auto. Jesse's older cousins retrieved a junky skateboard from a stolen car and gave it to the six-year-old. He's skated ever since.

"When I was a teenager, the gang came up to me in an alley and said, 'We want to jump you into Venice 13 midgets.'" Jesse bucked family tradition and refused the offer. "I just wanted to skate. My older brother was in the gang and said, 'F you white boy, then go skate.' They all called me 'White Boy' for years because I skated."

jesse m classic postcard

Jesse. Classic postcard. Sean M collection

This is not to say that Jesse spent his non-skate time at the library. In 1984, Stacy Peralta, impressed that Jesse "rode walls," asked the 19-year-old to ride for Powell Peralta. "Stacy really helped me out," Jesse says. "I was skating [and winning] a lot of amateur contests but I was also doing a lot of things I shouldn't have been doing."

"Jesse and Natas were two trailblazers at the time and I felt we needed one of them on the team," Stacy says. "Jesse was an opportunity to expand on the tone of the Bones Brigade. He wasn't like the other guys. He was really a true street guy and I don’t mean a street skater, I mean a person who played by the rules of the street and didn't come from any sort of comfortable background. He was a very edgy guy."

"Early street contests had obstacles that translated a lot of vert tricks to 'flat,' so vert skaters often dominated," longtime friend and legend Rodney Mullen says. "Jesse didn't really have that background—he adapted his skating from scratch to what was around him in Venice. Jesse is one of the true founding street skaters." 

Jesse's unique edge was a needed ingredient in creating street skating's identity and Powell sent him around the country to help grow the brand as well as the new style. "I know that I would not have gotten as big as I did if Powell Peralta hadn't sent me out on the road," Jesse says. "The best years of my skate life were on Bones Brigade tours."

Jesse added a rare component to live demos. Kevin Harris—Powell pro and former tour manager—instantly pinpoints that element: "Chaos," he says. "I'd never seen it in skateboarding like that before. Jesse brought such an unrefined determined style to skateboarding that it inspired a lot of people. It really made kids believe that they could make it too."

"There is such a raw, unvarnished honesty about Jesse," Rodney says. "It comes through in the way he skates—it's so committed and so raw and really embodies what street skating was at the time."

By 1986 Jesse was the next in line for a Powell Peralta pro model. He shaped a deck and the coveted experimental sticker announced that Jesse had arrived as a pro. Unfortunately, that trademark chaos and rare experimental deck doomed Jesse's future with Powell. "I did a few things that I shouldn't have done," Jesse says. "Usually, when I wound up getting into fights on tour, it wasn't because I started it, it was because I was sticking up for another Powell rider. If somebody was messing with a Powell rider, I stepped in between. If the guy took a swing then we wound up fighting." This really wouldn't be a problem if Jesse merely engaged in fights, but he finished them.

One night on tour Jesse was given his per diem money. A bystander seeing the wad wisecracked that Jesse must sell drugs. Words were exchanged, the man started a fight and Jesse finished it. He finished it so well that the police traced his board, which was left behind, back to Powell and Jesse spent a few days in jail. Lawsuits were aimed at both rider and sponsor and Jesse and Powell parted company. (Jesse was eventually cleared of all charges.)

Jesse Martinez deck g2g

Jesse TRIBUTE deck

Both parties understood the situation and regretted the conclusion. "It was not the end we wanted to achieve," George Powell says. " Basically, every one admitted failure. But Jesse was a gentleman—he was honorable with us. He owned his behavior."

"We got along very well," Stacy says, "but Jesse was somebody who I couldn't keep corralled no matter how much I tried. It was such a bummer to have to let him go. To this day he still has our logo tattooed on his arm and he believes in it." "I got that tattoo after I was fired," Jesse clarifies. "His Powell Peralta tattoo—that is Jesse," Rodney says. "He got that tattoo right after being booted off, which is such a window into his nature—committed, no matter what."

His commitment to skateboarding never waned and over the decades the chaotic Jesse evolved into an ambassador of skateboarding. "Once I got into my 30s, I stared thinking, what kind of legacy am I leaving?" Jesse says. "A punch first and ask questions later reputation? I started telling kids, 'Look what I did back then was not right. The battle is over. Skateboarding is forever and you don’t need to fight over the stupidest things. I was under the hallucination that if I was disrespected, I had to retaliate, which is the stupidest fricken' thing I ever learned. I tell the kids it's better to walk away because you could be killed over the most minor BS."

Jesse currently sits as the president of the Venice Skateboard Association, which originated as a loose group and advanced into a foundation that petitioned for a skatepark and now works with the L.A. Police. "It's not just me, it's a lot of the older guys who have also taken on the role overseeing the park," he says. "The V.S.A. has gone through many roles: We fought for a skatepark for over 20 years and now we've slowly become this maintenance company. We clean it seven days a week. We don't allow graffiti. We supply drinks and helmets and support kids if they need it. We help the kids with ice or bandages. It's become a job that we're doing for free. We've come a long way from kids skating and causing madness." And, of course, Jesse rips the park. "I love hearing wheels spinning or my trucks grinding. I don’t want anything to take away from that feeling."

jesse martinez two decks

Jesse, Now and then

Besides recognizing Jesse's contribution to skateboarding, Powell Peralta also wanted to pay tribute to a life dedicated to improving our favorite activity. In early 2011, Jesse and George met in Santa Barbara and finished what they started 25 years earlier. "I don’t know why but I was nervous about meeting George again after all these years," Jesse says. "He carries a lot of weight without saying anything. I hadn't seen him since I was let go. George was as nice now as he was back then. It was really nice to see him and I felt … I don’t know, maybe I should have been paying for the meal instead of him. It made me wonder, 'Jeez, have I grown up? George Powell is still buying me lunch?' I was honored then and I'm honored now."