This story is part of Image Issue 16, “Interiority,” a living archive of L.A. culture, style and fashion that shows how the city moves from the inside. Read the whole issue here.
There are stairs and then there is Hollywood High 16. In this oral history, the legends of the form pay tribute to the iconic stairway of iconic stairways — a historic landmark where the evolution of the sport has come into view.
Atiba Jefferson, 45, photographer, director, DJ, restaurant owner and skateboarder: I think the coolest thing about Hollywood High is that you can always drive by and see what’s going on.
Ryan “Beagle” Ewing, 41, filmmaker and skateboarder: It’s good that it’s open to the public — anyone can just admire.
Jamie Foy, 26, professional skateboarder, three-time X Games medalist and Thrasher’s skater of the year in 2017: It’s just so accessible. Obviously, the name of the spot is the name of the school. There’s no hiding that spot. A lot of times in skating it could be like, “Oh, I don’t want people to know about this spot.” But Hollywood is a big a— spot, and everyone knows where it is. And everyone is more than welcome to go get their piece if they want to.
Dashawn Jordan, 25, pro skateboarder sponsored by Nike, Toy Machine and Spitfire: Every time I drive by, I almost want to go look at it just ‘cause.
Geoff Rowley, 46, pro skateboarder, Thrasher’s skater of the year in 2000: I mean, it is a spectacle. It’s right on the side of the road. Parallel to the sidewalk.
Paul Rodriguez, 37, pro skateboarder and actor, eight-time X Games medalist: There’s an energy of history that’s gone down there, where these historical moments happen.
Atiba Jefferson: It’s the Great Western Forum. Or Staples Center, really. It’s Lambeau Field or whatever iconic battleground. It’s pretty wild that it can exist.
Beagle: It’s one of the only spots in L.A. that will never be knobbed. The handrails are still there, and it will never be knobbed because it’s basically a tourist attraction.
Zion Wright, 23, pro skateboarder sponsored by Vans, Real Skateboards and Red Bull: It’s kind of like what people go to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower. If you’re going to California, if you’re going to L.A., that’s definitely one of the spots you’re trying to hit or go see.
Patrick Praman, 26, amateur skateboarder, sponsored by New Balance, Real Skateboards and Spitfire: There’s other 16 stairs in the world. But it’s just the perfect rail and 16 stairs.
Arto Saari, 41, pro skateboarder and photographer. Thrasher’s skater of the year in 2001: It’s just a weird high block of concrete in the center of L.A. that doesn’t mean much to most people. Most people just walk right by it. They don’t think anything of it. It’s just another staircase, another rail, whatever. But as far as the skateboarding world goes, the rails are pretty perfect for how big it is. And how gnarly it is.
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Paul Rodriguez: It’s a historical landmark for skateboarding. There are certain buildings in certain cities that can’t be touched because they mean so much to that city. And the government protects it from being changed. I feel like it’s the equivalent of that. It should be a landmark that’s protected and never allowed to be changed.
Erik Ellington, 45, pro skateboarder and owner of Deathwish Skateboards and Human Recreational Services: To me, the architecture of it symbolizes what I envisioned as a Los Angeles high school to look like. There’s something beautiful about it even without knowing what the history of skateboarding is. You’re just gonna look at the two sets of stairs or sit and look at the mural. It’s kind of like an altar.
Arto Saari: In a skateboarder’s eyes, it’s an incredible — incredible — spot, and it has a lot of history. As far as people who don’t skate, they probably wouldn’t look twice at [it] walking by. They’re not looking at how smooth the concrete is, how perfectly the angle of the rail is and what kind of steel it is. Has it been skated? Has it not? Does it grind good? Or is it gonna stick?
Dashawn Jordan: I would describe it as a 16 stair. It’s one of those spots that’s a staple in Los Angeles skateboarding. You could be not even a skateboarder and you know about Hollywood or know that people have skated there or know — in some type of way, shape or form — what that spot is. That high school has a history to it — it’s right there, the mecca of Hollywood. The spot just holds so much weight, and it’s continued to be talked about for years. It is definitely a piece of history.
Geoff Rowley: The first time I saw Hollywood High was on the cover of Slap magazine. It was Pat Duffy doing a 180 nosegrind down the rail that looked like it was so steep that you shouldn’t be doing that trick down it. This was in the early ’90s. [Duffy appeared on the cover of the February 1993 issue of Slap.] And I moved to the U.S. in ’94. When I started to skate all kinds of rails and big gaps and harbors, I was looking for every bit of terrain to just annihilate and go after. I remember that photo of Pat and going, “Why have I never seen that spot again? Why have I never seen that spot anywhere? Like, It looks like it’s in California. Where is it?”
Atiba Jefferson: You think about that Duffy cover — I mean, I was in high school. It was kind of one of those things that became [something] overnight. Like, wait, that’s that spot? That spot, to me at least, was kind of this overnight success of the standard of what big skateboarding was, whether it was via stairs or via the handrail.
Jamie Thomas, 48, pro skateboarder, owner of Zero Skateboards and X Games gold medalist: I remembered seeing the photo. And I was like, “How’s that possible? How could you 180 fakie nosegrind?” He definitely had an amazing ability — he was a pioneer of modern rail skating. He had an amazing perspective to be able to try things that previously weren’t possible.
Geoff Rowley: It’s Pat Duffy’s fault that everybody skates Hollywood High. Because he was the first to step up to it.
Beagle: The first time seeing it was when Jamie Thomas did the back[side] lip[slide] on the Hollywood High 16. I think that was 1999. Back at that time, back lip is like, “Wow, what else can you possibly do on that rail? Like to beat a back lip?”
Mike “Lizard King” Plumb, 39, pro skateboarder: I was just like, “Holy s—! This dude is next level!”
Paul Rodriguez: I remember all of us just freaking out about it. And me not realizing where that was. I was 14 when that video came out. You know, I have a really bad sense of direction. I had no idea that [place] was called Hollywood. One day, I forget who I was with, I don’t know if I was with my mom or my friends. Whatever. We’re just driving. And we drove right by Hollywood High. I’m looking at it: “Oh my God. That’s the Jamie Thomas [spot]. Oh my God. It’s right here. I can’t believe it’s here. Wow!” And that. That was my first time realizing, “Oh, s—! That’s the spot. Right?”
Jamie Thomas: Someone once asked me: “What’s the best feeling you’ve ever felt riding a skateboard?” And I’m like, there are a couple of tricks I’ve done in my life where I just felt like they came from heaven. [Where] I was trying it and then all of a sudden I was riding away. There’s this euphoric feeling of riding away from a trick that you don’t even know how it happened. Anyway, this was one of those tricks.
Erik Ellington: Funny story — Jim [Greco] and I were on that session. Jamie went there to backside lipslide the 16. He tried it for probably about an hour while me and Jim were sitting there like, “OK, you ready to go to the next spot?” And then [we] went across the street to Kenny Rogers Roasters. It was was across the street before the Mel’s Drive-In. Way before all the development and stuff. We ate a full plate of food, sitting there, watching him keep trying it. Jamie tried it for probably 2 1/2 hours. It got to the point where it was getting just dusky. In the footage, you see it’s getting dark. We went back over there, and we spent another half hour, 45 minutes. So that was one of the most intense things I had witnessed on [the spot].
Jamie Thomas: I just had this vision of doing it. I’m like, “I’m going to do it until I make it, or until I seriously die. I’m going to do it no matter what.” I had never really stuck very many back lips on a rail that big. And I just got into a rhythm of sliding on, but never putting it down. It started getting dark. I couldn’t even see the rail anymore. The L.A. smog was so bad that the ground was kind of blackish. And I had a runway where I had been trying it for an hour or two. And I just followed the path. I could see when the stairs came and I just ollied, guessing where the rail was. But I’ve done so many that I was like, “I’m not going to stop. I’m not going to stop until I make it or until I clip.”
I was trying it over and over and over and over and over. And I knew it was so dark that I had a few more tries. And then I put it down and I was riding away. And I didn’t even know I was riding away until I went over the little metal triangle thing that the gate rides on. I hopped over that. And that’s when I woke up and was like, “Holy cow. I’m riding away. This is the best thing ever. I fought for this trick. And I’ve dreamed about it. And now I’m riding away from it.”
Geoff Rowley: The backside lipslide that Jamie did was a turning point.
Beagle: Andrew Reynolds’ varial heelflip down the 16 — I think it was in 2010 — was just such a big leap. It’s such a big deal. That’s one of my personal favorites there.
Dashawn Jordan: Reynolds killed that spot. So clean and precise. He made it definitely look like it wasn’t a 16 stair.
Paul Rodriguez: I love the way Reynolds jumps down stairs. So fluid and graceful. My favorite thing to see.
Geoff Rowley: You don’t have to look very hard to see a picture of Andrew Reynolds doing some ridiculous flip trick down the 16 stair — the varial heelflip. And then you go there, and you see that it’s way over your height. Any normal human recognizes that jumping off 15-foot walls all day long, and flipping and spinning your boards, is crazy stuff. And that’s what skateboarders do.
Andrew Reynolds, 44, pro skateboarder and owner of Baker Skateboards, Thrasher’s skater of the year in 1998: Erik Ellington, Jim Greco and I used to live across the street, so we would hang out on the front part of the school and skate with the kids. There’s some small stairs and ledges on that side. To me, I just liked that it was close to my house and we could all skate the front and sometimes get sparked enough to go get a clip on the 12 or 16, and still be a mile from home.
Erik Ellington: Some of the things that are my favorites may not have been the best tricks that have been done. Just because it was so impactful to me: Chad Muska nosesliding it and crooked grinding it. Dustin [Dollin]’s kickflip crooked grind on the 12. At the time, doing something that technical down a 12 stair was just totally crazy. I filmed Arto’s switch frontside boardslide from the top. At the time, that was just so unheard of. And then Dustin’s blunt slide, because he had just come off of knee surgery. Jamie Thomas’ backside lipslide the 16.
Arto Saari: The strongest memory that comes to mind is probably Daniel Harold Sturt’s photo of Jamie Thomas doing a back lip. That image is imprinted in my head.
Sean Malto, 33, pro skateboarder, Street League gold medalist and the recipient of Transworld Skateboarding’s rookie of the year award in 2009: One of my favorite tricks right now is Jamie’s fakie 5-0. It’s a simple trick that is scary as hell.
Patrick Praman: [Jamie] Foy’s fakie 5-0. Nollie-ing is one thing, but popping fakie is so brave. Zion’s half-cab, back Smith is like, That’s not a rail you do that on that.
Jamie Foy: When I first moved to California, I did a 5-0 on the 12. Going into my skate career, I was like, “If and when I go pro, I would like to have a fakie 5-0 that is outstanding [compared to] all my other fakie 5-0s.” So what popped into my head was I want to bring it to the 16.
The 12 is tall and petite. And the 16 is kind of long and mellow. It makes a big difference. When you get to the 16, you can’t really just jump to the bottom of that thing anymore. You gotta just send it and be ready for what’s to come. That’s what’s cool about it, you’re up there at the top, ready to try a trick. Like, “Whatever I’m gonna try right now is gonna be like, you know, try to be up to par with what I’ve seen in the past.”
Zion Wright: The lead-up to me going to try it, I had a dream about it. Like, “I’m gonna go try Hollywood.” When I had the dream, it was more so on how I did it. And I did it with my foot coming off of the board. And literally the way I did it, my toe was kind of hanging off and then it adjusted as I landed perfect. It was like I had the vision and had the dream about that. We hit Chick-fil-A after.
Jamie Thomas: So much crazy stuff has gone down on the rail. Like the Yuto trick — nollie 270, switch back lip. All that stuff is so heavy. It’s really mind-boggling. All the Jamie Foy tricks. Skateboarding has gone nuts.
You know, one of my favorite tricks, though, was Chris Haslam’s kickflip back Smith on the 12. And he flips right into the rail at the top. And it’s the most beautiful back Smith after kickflipping in. I just remembered being totally shocked at how good he did that. It was phenomenal. He did it so, so, so good. It’s probably the one of the best kickflip Smiths ever done. I remember staring at it for an excessive amount of time and being totally blown away.
Chris Haslam, 41, pro skateboarder, recipient of Transworld Skateboarding’s reader’s choice award in 2005, sponsored by Brainchild Skateboards: I was living on Lanewood. We were right there every single day. I was doing that trick at best-trick contests. I was doing that a lot back then. I’m not a big rail guy. So my heart was in my throat. It took me about 30 minutes of constantly rolling up to shut my brain off so I could commit. I was so nervous.
It was mellow that day. Usually, I don’t want anybody watching or a huge crew of dudes skating — I don’t like any of that stuff. But I was so focused; I knew that I had to get that. It was such a big opportunity for me. I wanted to have something that would impress people, really.
Jamie Thomas: He did it as good as you could do that trick on anything. Like you couldn’t have done it better on a flat bar.
Dashawn Jordan: I would say Lizard King front nose. That was kind of crazy. I believe it was a cover. He had the headphones on. Front nose is such a scary trick down a rail in a 16 row. I just remember being like, “Whoa! He front nosed that!” All the homies are there in the background under the little shaded area. It was so sick. It’s so much stuff that’s been done. Derrick Wilson, nollie heel. Nyjah [Huston]’s tricks. But it was definitely the front nose for me.
Lizard King: I always wanted to skate it. And I always wanted to front nose it. But it took me some time to mentally prepare myself for what the hell was going on. Then one day, someone was talking s— to me. And I was just like, “F— it, today is the day. I’m going there.”
I was living on the floor in [my friend’s] apartment. I set up a new deck. I sat in his backyard and just did fake front noses onto this couch that he had in his backyard for a couple of hours straight. Having a beer, hanging out and getting the motion down in my head. Who knows what I was doing.
Then we went there. I had never skated it. I’d ollied the stairs a couple times. But I’d never skated the rail. And when we got there, I was mentally trying to get myself to just break the ice. And then I front boarded it first try. And I was like, “Holy s—, dude. I think I can do this.” I skated the 12 for a second, doing some front boards on it. And I was just like, “Dude, you know what? I feel good. I’m going to turn around. And I’m going to front board the f— 16 right now.” And then when I popped, and I slid down, and I rolled away, I was just like, “Dude, it’s on!” Had I stuck or had something weird happened, who knows how the day would have turned out. But since it just worked perfect, it clicked.
Jamie Foy: That was one of my first solid memories of knowing what the rail was. Honestly it is one of my favorite tricks that has gone down on Hollywood. The way he did that one was so perfect.
Atiba Jefferson: Rowley, for sure. His front board [slide]. Arto’s switch front board. To me, that was so ahead of its time. And so insane. That is just crazy. Even still to this day. That trick is wild. Jamie Thomas, Andrew’s lipslide — those are just, to me, iconic. Then you obviously have Nyjah. That’s the thing about that spot. You can’t really just pick one moment, because there’s so many great ones.
Sean Malto: It was my first trip to Los Angeles to skate. We drove from Kansas City during the winter. I think I was 13 or 14. We skated it at night — we had a generator to light up the 12 and the 16 at the same time. I said, “F— it, I’m going to back Smith the 12, feel good and then try the 16.” I think I back Smithed the 16 second try.
Dashawn Jordan: My first memory was — I want to say I wasn’t fully living here yet. And I was with my friend, Christian. We would bus everywhere to skate. I believe we were in Hollywood for something, just skating by, and he was like, “Yo, that’s Hollywood High right there. You know, everybody be skating that and getting structure there.” So we went up to the top of the stairs and kind of looked at it. It was at night. That was a little glance. Like, “Whoa, this is crazy.” I had no intention and plan on skating that thing. And then I went there later on and that was, well, my first ad in Thrasher for Grizzly Skating. The 12 stair. I was maybe like 17.
Geoff Rowley: My best story is that I showed up, and [Andrew] Reynolds had come to do a trick. I’d gone to film Arto [Saari] do a trick. And P-Rod [Paul Rodriguez] showed up unannounced to film a trick as well. I was filming. P-Rod made the switch frontside heelflip. That was his first Fourstar ad. Reynolds made the fakie flip down the 12, wearing a black suit with a black tie and a white shirt. And Arto almost made his trick. I think he was trying varial heel or switch frontside flip. And he didn’t make it. That was my best memory: Showing up and just seeing a group — I mean, Paul’s one of the best skaters that ever lived, and so is Andrew — all planning on getting buck wild. That’s the kind of stuff I live for. That’s my best memory and favorite memory of Hollywood High.
Paul Rodriguez: I don’t remember it super perfectly. But I remember being there. I remember Rowley was filming and I was tripping. Arto was there. Reynolds was there. I’m new on the scene at that point. I’m not used to being around these guys. I’m inspired. Like, “I want to join in. I want to be involved.” I’m hyped. The boss [Andrew Reynolds] got the fakie flip all buttery. And then I wanted to keep skating.
It’s crazy how long, before the dominance of the internet, you could sit on your footage. Like stack clips. And how long people would work on video parts.
I feel like Hollywood High is one of those rare spots, where it’s almost like the early guys laid that foundation, and then it almost became a rite of passage. If you got to clip there, you’re now part of that spot’s history. It’s a claim to fame. If somebody does a trick there, it’s noticed. It’s remembered. For sure.
Arto Saari: If you skate it, get a trick on it, it puts you on a certain level.
Patrick Praman: I tried to skate it years ago. And I got smoked on it. And I kind of wrote the rail off in my head. Like, “OK, I don’t need to skate this thing.” Then I went back and I remember feeling really good at the time. It was kind of a now-or-never thing. It happened so fast. Once it was done, it was a really, really good feeling. To be honest, it was more of a relief than an enjoyment. I had a lot of friends that were there that had a lot of confidence in me. And they were thinking it was gonna be really fast, like maybe four or five tries. And it took so long. I was skating for an hour plus. It was gnarly for sure.
Ryan Sheckler, 32, pro skateboarder, entrepreneur, actor and owner of Sandlot Times skateboards, star of the MTV-produced show “Life of Ryan”: We always used to stay at the Roosevelt Hotel when we would be in L.A. We would check into the hotel, grab our boards and then just go to Hollywood just to see who was skating it. Because there’s pretty much always someone skating Hollywood. That was my big draw to it. I would get there and start thinking about a trick and then all of a sudden, people would show up or people would drive by honking their horn, cheering you on. Because of the location, famous people drive by. There are so many clips of random famous people stopping and watching people skate it because it’s well known in Hollywood.
Paul Rodriguez: Skate spots are almost like famous people to me. When I was a kid, seeing Hollywood High when I was driving by got me just as excited as if I were to see Michael Jordan walking down the street.
Beagle: I think Hollywood enjoys it. I think it brings tourists and travelers to the high school. One of the first times filming there, we were filming for “Baker 2G,” which came out in 2000. We were just at a stoplight right next to the 12. And I saw a drug deal go bad between two guys. One guy was kind of choking the other guy. And the guy finally got free and ran down the street, and the guy that was choking him ran in a bush and grabbed a skateboard and then ran down the street chasing him with a skateboard. And I was so excited that [one of them] had a skateboard randomly. It was perfect to be in the opener of the Baker 2G video. There’s always a lot of drugs and tourists. It’s very hijinks.
Atiba Jefferson: That’s something that I say is really something people don’t realize. There are so many distractions. Every time I’m there, I’m like, “This place is so hectic.”
Paul Rodriguez: People are always honking at you. People are always stopping on the sidewalk. The crowds build up. But that’s all part of the allure.
Andrew Reynolds: Even when nothing would happen, it was still fun because it’s super active right there. When you drive by, it’s fun to pull over and watch and yell out “get it!”
Dashawn Jordan: In a way, it kind of hypes you up. People just stop for you. If there’s too much going on — like [people] asking questions and kind of being obnoxious — then that becomes a thing. But other than that, it’s motivation to get it.
Jamie Foy: Anytime you go to Hollywood, it’s definitely like, “Yeah, pull up! Come watch.” Big squad and it accumulates even more, because people walking down the side of the street just start watching and start talking. Like, “Whoa, what are you doing?”
Zion Wright: That’s the contagious part about skateboarding. You’re always going to get juiced and have that influence from someone who impacts you to go and do what you want to do.
Beagle: One of the proving grounds for all the skaters coming up is to compare their new, never been done tricks to old-school tricks. That’s how you can tell this person is stepping it up. I think it’s essential to skateboarding for the ones that love to huck it.
Zion Wright: As far as the way the progression of skating is going, there’s going to always be someone itching and wanting to get over there to put something gnarly down.
Jamie Foy: You just try to go there and leave your name on the spot with whatever trick you’d like to do — if it hasn’t been done yet.
Dashawn Jordan: People want to be in that book of being able to get a trick there, you know what I mean. They’re like, “I’m trying to be a part of this type of thing.”
Jamie Thomas: I mean, tons of stuff has happened now. Skateboarding has changed forever with Instagram and YouTube. We can never be impressed as much as we were when you were getting smoke signals once a year. You waited on everything so long, and the anticipation made it so great when you got it.
But it’s just wild what’s physically possible. If someone would have said, the day I was back lipping it, that someone’s going to come here and do a nollie 270 switch back lip I wouldn’t even know what to say. Like, how are you telling me that’s real?
Geoff Rowley: It’s a professional standard that has been well documented. The tricks that have gone down at that spot have been documented from the basics all the way through to the kind of tricks that Nyjah Huston and Dashawn Jordan and those guys have done on it. Like the back-to-back tricks — it sets the standard. And I think it’s good to have those icons in anything that you do, so we know the difference between a pro level and an amateur. I would say that to step up to Hollywood High — and to do it in a way that a lot of the top pros have done, very nonchalantly — takes a certain amount of level of skill.
Beagle: It evolves so much. Like, Andrew Reynolds being not only the first person to kickflip the 16, but also lipslide the rail. Now lipslide is just a warmup to kids. And people are doing half cab to backside Smith grinds. It helps make the evolution of skateboarding so clear.
Atiba Jefferson: Everything always kind of progresses. That’s what I think is so wild about it. It’s the longevity. There really isn’t anything like Hollywood High. L.A. has a lot of iconic spots. But Hollywood High, to me, is still the leader of “Oh, s—!” Like L.A. High or all those other schools — Lockwood. You’re like, “Damn, that’s so dope.” But [at] Hollywood High you’re like, “Holy f—!” It’s Evel Knievel type s—. If you’re a pro skater and you need to stop the world of skateboarding, you go there and do something. You want to get noticed? You go there and do something.
Sam Muller is a Los Angeles-based photographer. He is the founder of 2001 Magazine and his work has appeared in SSENSE, Thrasher Magazine, 032c and more.
Additional reporting by Elliott Wright.
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