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Cover Story: Going Big

How to have fun and make a living at skateboarding in Cincinnati

By Mike Montgomery · April 2nd, 2003 · Cover Story
  A man and a skateboard: a self-portrait by Fat Nick.
Fat Nick

A man and a skateboard: a self-portrait by Fat Nick.

Sitting in the attic-turned work space of Nick Accurso's apartment, I'm surrounded by an amazing amount of clutter -- CDs, computer disks, reels of video footage, posters torn from skateboarding magazines, roll upon roll of film and stacks of new, used and broken skateboard decks.

Aside from all of the computers and video editing hardware, the place looks more like the bedroom of my adolescence than a functioning office for three working professionals. Yet it's exactly that.

The room might be disheveled, and the three taskmasters who share the space might operate under the radar of the rest of contemporary society -- but a tremendous amount of "work" gets done here.

Accurso, Tony Heitz and Joe Castrucci are quick to suggest the work they do is a labor of love. Their efforts and their commitment, however, have been at the crux of Cincinnati's skateboarding scene for years, mirroring and propelling the drive and dedication of countless others who make up this town's growing skateboarding community.

That these three have been singled out along with a handful of others for profiling in this article isn't really the main point. The goal is to expose the bigger picture -- that the efforts of the individual can impact the greater community, that you can make a good living doing what you truly love, that dreams can come true and that the Cincinnati skate scene, with its strong ties to the global skateboarding community, is thriving right under your nose.

'Skateboarding opened my eyes'
Nick Accurso -- "Fat Nick," as his friends call him -- has been skating for more than half his life. Like most skateboarders, he had an instant attraction to rolling down hills, but it took seeing his older brother actually performing tricks on his board in the driveway to really ignite his passion.

Little did Accurso know that, 16 years later, the innocent sibling rivalry would manifest itself in the form of a skateshop co-owned with that same brother, Chris.

Now recovering from a recent major knee surgery -- yes, he hurt himself skateboarding -- Accurso finds himself sidelined from the activity he loves for the second time in his life. He injured the same knee 10 years prior while living up to his nickname, which he earned for "going big" -- doing tricks over large gaps. Apparently, you can only throw yourself down double flights of steps so many times before your body finally interjects with a request for a temporary dose of sanity and rational thought.

Reflecting on his years already invested, he's fast to offer that if skateboarding takes the use of a limb as a fee for a lifetime of riding, he's happy to pay it.

Lights from the city's skyline are reflected out the window of Accurso's bedroom/office. The icy stillness from a recent winter storm is offset by the warmth of his musings on his treasured youth.

Maybe you've seen the shirts or the bumper stickers, but despite the cliché he insists that skateboarding "saved his life."

"One of the most interesting things about skating growing up," Accurso says, "was that, by the time I was 15, I'd already done more and gone more places than most of the kids I knew. I was so heavily into it, yet I was pretty much the only one that rode skateboards in all of Elder (High School). Most of the kids there seemed to be mainly interested in sports like football or baseball, so I was kind of an outcast. I had to find friends outside of my school, which meant finding friends in other parts of town."

He says that since neither he nor his friends could drive yet, they used to meet after school and take a bus to Clifton, where they'd skate. Then they'd take a bus downtown and skate some more, returning home after midnight on the last bus run.

"That was kind of unheard of," Accurso says. "None of my other classmates would even leave the West side. That routine pretty much took up four to five of my teenage years.

"When I think back on it, I realize that all of the friends I have now were created through skating. It gave me a different outlook on life. I wasn't stuck on one side of town, I wasn't stuck with one group of predetermined friends, I wasn't stuck with the 30 people in my class. I got to venture out and meet people who lived different lives than my little suburban life."

Raised in an Italian-Catholic, middle-class household, Accurso was instilled with a strong code of morals and values from an early age. Rather than frowning on some of the illicit activities his newfound friends engaged in just to "get by," he saw the situations as learning experiences.

"I really did come from the perfect family," he says. "That's the one thing that put me in check. I had anything I needed or wanted. Sure I had to work for it, but I never had to worry about divorced parents or any of that crazy stuff I'd see when I met up with my friends from other parts of town.

"Kids would be yelling at their single parents and I'd be like, 'This is insane! What the hell's going on here?' So in a very real sense, it's because of skateboarding that I opened my eyes and saw that not everyone had it as good as I did."

Aside from whatever life lessons he might have learned from skateboarding in his formative years, in the very least it's provided him with an all-encompassing sense of purpose throughout his adulthood. In fact, you could say that -- more than just being a mode of transportation -- skateboarding has been the figurative vehicle that's gotten Accurso to where he is today.

Thrown off course from amateur or professional sponsorship by repeated injuries, he stayed involved in other ways. When his friend and current office mate Castrucci started his own board company, Solid, Accurso shot photos for ads, posters and articles in national skateboarding magazines. Taking the next logical step, he completed a degree in graphic design at Northern Kentucky University, which led to his position as art director for the (then Cincinnati-based) skateboarding magazine, Strength.

In 1999, sensing the growing need for a skater-owned and operated skateshop in Cincinnati, Accurso, his brother Chris and his longtime friend Heitz opened Anonymous Skateboards and Accessories in Clifton Heights.

It serves as a central meeting point for many of the area's skaters, and on any given day you can find an assortment of characters there -- little kids buying their first set-ups, touring pros stopping through town, old johns just hanging out.

The shop also sponsors its own competitive team, comprised of riders Gary Collins, Kokomo Joe, Dave Caddo, Doug Korfhagen and Chad Zellner. Through promotions, contest sponsorships, video premieres and other forms of information exchange, Anonymous has, since its opening, been key in catalyzing the Cincinnati skateboarding scene as a whole.

At 28, Accurso now has the perspective that only time and age can afford. He reflects fondly on the past while keeping a keen eye on all that lies ahead.

"Wherever you're from in skateboarding, you can end up in the same place," he says. "I mean, you can find all these people who have lived a life similar to yours, but on their own terms. It's because of skateboarding that I see everyday things differently. Just driving down the street, I see a crack in the sidewalk or a bump or a ledge and I'm thinking of how I could skate it, whereas someone else in the car is just staring off into space.

"Everything I've got is definitely because I've had a different outlook on life. Coming from Price Hill, I would have never gotten outside that little world, but through skating I've traveled all over, taken trips overseas and just had an amazing amount of experiences. Skateboarding has forced me to take chances."

Accurso continues to run Anonymous (231 W. McMillan Ave.), shoot photos (including all the photos with this story), produce skateboarding videos and publish an independent skateboarding magazine, all while maintaining a full-time job as a graphic designer at Envoi Designs downtown.

'It's basically freedom'
Joe Castrucci's story isn't that far removed from Accurso's. He too grew up on the West side, in Oak Hills. He too came from a good family, and he too got hooked on skateboarding at an early age.

Despite the fact that he could have easily followed in his father's footsteps and joined the Castrucci family business -- dad Steve owns a little car dealership you might have heard of -- he instead chose to pursue a career in skateboarding.

"I'm not really into the sales side of things," Castrucci offers. "I've always been more into the creative side of things."

As he can easily attest, having a job that you love to do every day is far more important than making a ton of money. Luckily, things have worked out nicely, as he ironically makes good money and is pretty damn successful as it is -- and he gets to create until he's blue in the face.

Castrucci, 25, is the videographer for one of skateboarding's most established and respected companies, Alien Workshop, filming and editing footage of their riders for promotional videos. He's also the art director for one of their offshoot board companies, Habitat, and does graphics and designs for all of Workshop's respective brands and products -- ranging from skateboard decks, wheels and bearings to clothes, accessories and aggressive advertising campaigns.

Needless to say, he stays quite busy.

If you were under the impression that every major skateboard company was headquartered somewhere on the West Coast, you certainly wouldn't be in the minority. Even Castrucci himself was unaware that his current employers were based just a short drive up I-75 in Dayton.

"For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to be the art director for a skateboard company," he says, "but I thought for sure I'd have to move. I didn't even know that Alien Workshop was in Dayton until I answered their ad in the paper."

After sending them a portfolio that included board graphics, catalogues and a video he'd produced for his own board company, Castrucci landed the job. Through it, he's gotten to travel the world while working with some of the top professional skaters in the industry.

"I'm definitely content with what I'm doing now," he says modestly. "I like it because it's basically freedom."

Not bad for a young skateboarder from the West side, is it?

Castrucci has been busy lately with production of Habitat's first full-length skateboarding video, "Mosaic." If you can't wait for the video release in June to see his work, check out www.alienworkshop.com to see samples of some of his graphic designs.

'Nothing but a blessing'
Having grown up skating and collaborating on various projects with Accurso and Castrucci over the years, no one is more excited than Tony Heitz to finally be working alongside his old friends. When Castrucci asked him last year if he'd like to interview for a position as the team manager for Alien Workshop, it was, according to Heitz, "a no-brainer."

The oldest of the three, Heitz's life in skateboarding has seemingly come full circle. As a sponsored amateur, he's spent a number of years traveling back and forth to California as well as doing demos and attending contests in various cities throughout the Midwest. When he made the decision to stay in Cincinnati rather than moving out west, he felt he'd sealed his fate.

"I was happy being in Cincinnati doing what I was doing," says Heitz, 31, "and I kind of gave up hopes of ever really making money with skateboarding. It's never really panned out until now, but I stayed true to it, and thankfully skateboarding stayed true to me."

As the team manager for Alien Workshop and its related brands, Heitz is responsible for coordinating and facilitating the day-to-day activities of nearly 30 professional and amateur riders, a number that includes a recently added international team.

"If the riders need to do ads or something, I set up photo shoots and filming trips all over the world, from Hong Kong to Australia," he says. "I set up contests and demos like last year's cross-country tour that lasted 37 days. Basically, I'm like a soccer mom for 2003."

Acknowledging his enthusiasm for the job, Heitz cites watching the younger guys grow and progress and the opportunity for travel as the more rewarding aspects of his position.

"The older guys are pretty easy to deal with, but for some of the younger guys I'm in contact with them every other day," he says. "I sort of play the role of big brother/surrogate father, but it's great. I've met people I would never have gotten the chance to meet. I'm leaving for Barcelona in a couple weeks on a filming trip, and it's my first time overseas. I'm pretty excited.

"It's been nothing but a blessing. I couldn't have created a scenario that worked out better than it has. I've been through a lot of ups and downs along the way. Very rarely is it possible to make a living doing what you love, but thankfully I've been afforded the opportunity."

When not traveling and skating, Heitz stays busy in Cincinnati promoting events and musical groups like the Hip-Hop Collaborative, Animal Crackers and the yearly Hip-Hop and graffiti extravaganza Scribble Jam.

'Absolutely amazing'
While Accurso, Castrucci and Heitz prefer to operate from a fairly behind-the-scenes vantagepoint, there will always be those for whom actions speak louder than words. And Cincinnati is no different when it comes to hometown heroes.

Although it's not really fair to isolate Gary Collins and Kokomo Joe from the rest of the rippers in this town based on skills alone -- as there are obviously more than two high-caliber skateboarders in Greater Cincinnati -- they've been chosen because A) they're pursuing their skating beyond the scope of local sponsorship and B) they were at the skate shop when I walked in last week. There's no doubt, however, that anyone who's ever skated with them or had the pleasure to watch them skate would admit they make a formidable pair.

As Accurso suggests, you can meet people through skateboarding who have lived similar lives on their own terms, and Collins and Kokomo Joe seem to have done just that -- Collins grew up skating in Covington, whereas Kokomo Joe came from, you guessed it, Kokomo, Ind.

Despite their small-town beginnings, both have managed to land sponsorships from respected board companies as well as get coverage in a number of skateboarding's various media outlets. And despite the fact that neither of them are making any real money at this point from skateboarding, they're living the lives that everyone who's ever stepped on a skateboard has had at one time.

I've watched them play with and one-up each other countless times during skate sessions, and so I can't help but think they're doing the same thing during this interview. Without the help of any social lubricants, it's almost impossible to coax words from either of them.

When asked where he's at with his skating these days, Collins responds wryly, "I'm at the IGA slicing deli meat, and my body feels like shit!" When asked where he'd like to ultimately end up with his skateboarding career, Kokomo Joe suggests he'd like to "change tires or drive semis."

Despite their cynicism, Collins and Joe are among the best this town has produced in years, and they know it. Just ask Tim Slusher, owner of Ollies, the recently opened indoor skateboarding mega-complex in Florence. He encourages parents to bring their kids out to the park on Saturday nights, when Collins and Kokomo Joe can often be found holding court.

"I tell kids that if they want to see a show, that's the time to come," Slusher says. "Seeing those guys skate in person is a real learning experience. It's absolutely amazing."

At 38, the husband and father of two decided it was time for a change, so Slusher sold his successful insurance firm and invested nearly everything he had in a 59,000-sq.-ft. skate park. Eschewing the warnings of more timid co-workers, friends and family, he and his wife Jean An sunk their hearts into the project and haven't looked back.

The idea for the park was sparked while Slusher was building a backyard ramp for his 11-year-old son. After realizing that, aside from the $25-million outdoor concrete park that opened in Louisville last year -- hint, hint, Cincinnati -- there really weren't any world-class skateboarding facilities in the Tristate. So Slusher crunched some numbers and hired Team Pain -- arguably the best skatepark building crew in the country -- to construct a signature indoor wooden park that would hopefully help put this area on the map for years to come.

With an average of 800 to 900 kids passing through his doors each week, he's already seeing the payoff.

"It's more than I ever thought it would be," Slusher says in his office next to one of the many ramps at Ollies, the rumble of wheels on wood and the clank of metal on metal failing to drown out his enthusiasm. "The excitement of the kids and the atmosphere down here is amazing. My father thought I was totally insane, but he saw me walking around here and he saw the difference. My mood changes as soon as I walk in the building."

Slusher says one of the best thrills is when small kids approach him to show off new tricks they've learned.

"You're really sort of their stand-in parent while they're here," he says, "and it makes you feel really good to see them enjoying the place so much. It's nice to have a job now where I get to spend time with my own children, but I also feel like I'm doing a lot for other kids."

Ollies is open 2-11:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-midnight Saturday and noon-6:15 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10 per three-hour session (session times vary). The park is located at 8171 Dixie Hwy., Florence, 859-525-9505.

Filling a need
With free public skateparks popping up all over the country, it's a shame that Greater Cincinnati skaters have had to rely almost entirely on privately financed facilities to hone their skills.

Although temporarily overshadowed by the newness and grandeur of Ollies, Fairfield native Matt Cones saw Cincinnati's need for an indoor park years ago. Combining his love of skateboarding with a business degree from Miami University, he built Sessions Skatepark in the TriCounty area. Since opening in March 1999, the 8,000-sq.-ft. park has hosted a number of local and regional contests as well as provided a great place for kids to continue riding on rainy days and throughout the winter months.

Like Heitz and Slusher, Cones cites "watching kids progress" as one of the more rewarding aspects of the job. A former sponsored skater himself, he now has his own board company, Am Skateboards. If they're not sneaking off to skate at Ollies, you can usually find his team riders -- Billy Craig, Tony Opp, Ryan Brockman and brothers Chad and Joey Bowers -- killing all of the obstacles at their home base, Sessions.

Sessions is open 3-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 3-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 per two-hour session (session times vary). The park is located at 32 West Crescentville Road, TriCounty, 513-671-7433.

This is by no means a complete representation of the area's skateboarding facilities, shops and resources -- it's simply intended to shed some light on the fabric of a subculture that's woven itself over the years into a tight-knit community.

If you want to learn more about skateboarding, go to your local skateshop and buy a board. It'll change your life. ©



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