By Dylan Deprey,
For a map of Milwaukee’s best skateboarding spots, click here.
The blaring punk music of Riverwest’s Fuel Café reverberated in patrons’ eardrums as they walked through the door.
Rob Owens, a veteran of the skateboard industry, sits in line like any other normal customer.
Once outside, the brisk October wind blows the smoke of his burning cigarette into the streets.
These are the same streets he has been skating since the eighties. These are the same streets that have raised him.
These are the same streets that have almost killed him.
These are the same streets that have educated him to be the man that he is today.
The streets of Milwaukee are the skateboarder’s urban playground. Stairs and handrails are normally seen as a necessary piece of architecture but to skateboarders doing a trick down it can be the final banger for a video part.
The rough ground can gash the palms of any innocent skateboarder mistakenly hitting a single pebble.
It takes work to skateboard well; it is even harder to skate the streets of Milwaukee well.
The ground is rugged and the spots are far and few.
The pioneering of transition skateboarding started in the 1970’s. Skateboarders snuck into the empty pools in Venice (Dogtown), California.
In the words of one of the late pioneers, Jay Adams, “You don’t stop skateboarding because you get old, you get old because you stop skateboarding.”
With the inverse rate of age to the length of a professional skateboard career, Rob Owens is the epitome of this.
At the age of 40-years-old, Rob Owens is the owner and rider for his Milwaukee based skateboard company Grime Official.
Owens and the Grime Official crew are skateboarders who represent the gritty street life of Milwaukee. They skate the crustiest of ledges with ease.
Their skateboarding shows that technical skating can be done anywhere. It doesn’t need to be done at perfect California skate spots that are in every professional skate video.
Through their story, you can learn a lot about how skateboarding works in Milwaukee
The wind whips the loose parts of his hair into the air. He shivers and tries to stay warm in the jet black, long sleeve, Grime Official shirt that is his livelihood.
Like every other skater he has a shoelace dangling as a makeshift belt to hold up his jeans. As he puts out his cigarette and sips on his coffee he headed inside from the frigid Wisconsin weather.
As he sits in the back of the small café, he engages in small talk, skater small talk that is.
The conversation revolves around how it’s going to hurt when you fall because it’s so cold out. How it is Saturday, and security shouldn’t be a problem if you’re skating downtown. Whether or not to salvage the brittle piece of wood you have left as a board or change it for the freshy waiting to be set up.
In Owens’ eyes anybody who rocks anything from a Grime Official board to a sticker on their board is part of the Grime Official family.
“These are the realest skateboarders out there. They are in the streets everyday. It’s not corporate, it’s skateboarding in its rawest form,” Vinnie Oestreich, filmer and sales representative for Grime Official said.
The Midwest skate scene has been in the shadow of an industry focused on East and West coast since the spawn of skateboarding. The frigid winters and humid sweat inducing summers can’t compare to the beautiful Los Angeles weather.
With this in mind, Midwest skateboarders have this unspoken bond that creates a tighter feeling of togetherness.
There is a “if you make it, we all make it” sense of accomplishment for those that rise to the professional ranks.
Milwaukee has been a driving force in the Midwest skate scene. Indoor skate parks Cream City and Four Seasons have held national contests and professional skate team demos. In 2014 the Sky High skate shop team won the solely street based contest in Chicago.
The scene has also grown outside of the city. Recently skate plazas have been built in Wauwatosa and West Allis.
Adam Draus, 22, has been skating for 12 years. He is an employee at Surfin’ Bird Skate Shop in Green Bay and Appleton for three years.
“They (Grime Official) have always made their presence known in Green Bay,” Draus said. “We’ve known about them since we were kids.”
Draus described how he would watch in awe at local Green Bay skateboarder Derek Bain, a pro for Grime Official at the time at Skateside Indoor Skate Park.
Draus described Milwaukee as a bigger, grittier and rougher version of Green Bay.
“Look at the name Grime Official. They are skating the worst spots.
It’s shitty ground that hasn’t been serviced in 10 plus years. They are from the Grime.”
Draus has skated with Owens and the Grime Official team.
He explained that they are a very charismatic group of guys.
“They are high end low lives. You can tell they weren’t raised in the cul-de-sac.”
“This is a group of guys who are hungry but appreciate what they have.”
The Milwaukee Skate Scene
Many local Milwaukee skaters know Rob, often from running into him at the D.I.Y Skate Park in Estabrook Park. It’s not unheard for him to roll up and start talking or even place a bet on a game of SKATE. After about five minutes, that’s usually the recipe for five dollars less in their wallets.
Rob Owens has witnessed the trends of skateboarding.
He has seen the transition from technical skating in baggy pants and big shoes in the nineties, to the no-complying hipster-infused rolled up Dickies style becoming more mainstream today.
To him, the one consistent aspect of the scene that has stuck around since the eighties, though, was the formation of cliques
“It’s the total opposite of what skateboarding puts out there,” Rob Owens said. “Skateboarding is about acceptance, love, and brotherhood.”
Adam Berte, 30, has been skateboarding for 16 years and is an employee at one of the two local skate shops in Milwaukee, Phase 2 skate shop.
He has witnessed and experienced the skateboarding cliques.
Berte theorizes that the cliques stem from the geography of Milwaukee.
The different neighborhoods range from the inner city to the suburbs.
Like street gangs, they compile kids of the same likeness.
He explained how kids in the same neighborhoods learn to skateboard together and are more likely to be closer to each other.
He believes that the cliques aren’t always negative. Instead they stimulate healthy competition and progression within the skateboard community.
“If some kid from a different neighborhood lands a trick you wanted to do down something, then you’re going to want to try it down something bigger and better,” Berte said.
“You might start some beef some times, but it gives you thicker skin and that is what you need in skating,” Berte said.
He also explained that this skate crew mentally is getting better.
“If you are in it for a long enough time and enjoy skateboarding, you will eventually meet new people,” Berte said.
Rob Owens: The Milwaukee Skate Legend
At 6-years-old Rob Owens started skateboarding on a cruiser his dad had found in their garage.
A couple years later his father bought him his first real board, a Veriflex.
At 15-years-old Owens moved with his parents from the city at 48th and Hampton to the outskirts of Germantown.
After living with his family for three years he moved out of his parents house in 1993.
“It was a culture shock going from the city to the suburbs,” Owens said.
“I felt like I was too black for the white kids and too white for the black.”
Owens and his friends lived in a house on 27th and Wells.
The daily ritual prescribed was skating all day and partying all night. Owens took to hustling on the streets to make a living.
As a result, he was shot twice after an altercation at a party on Aug. 8, 2000.
Around 2002, Owens was approached by professional skateboarder Ron Allen and asked to ride for his company, Energy Skateboards. Ron Allen was a well-known California street skater who had parts in H-Street videos, Shackle Me Not and Hokus Pokus.
After seeing Owens skate in California, Allen offered him the shot at going pro.
He wanted Owens to skate for his company Energy Skateboards by taking the contest route and competing against other big name skaters.
“I was young and naïve. I didn’t know what was up; I just took the opportunity,” Owens said.
Energy Skateboards was an independent company in the industry. They didn’t have the financial backing to get sales going. This had Rob patiently waiting to make a name for himself.
“I wanted them to back what I was doing on my board; they were a California company and I wanted to represent Milwaukee,” Owens said.
In 2003, Rob Owens created Grime Official skateboards.
Unlike riding for a different company he was in creative control in designing a brand that he felt represented his city.
During this time Owens was staying at a friends house in Milwaukee. He was contemplating on moving. At this point his life would be changed forever.
He reminisced about back in the late eighties when Red Arrow Park was the place to skate and meet up with homies.
“Nobody cared about what brand you repped, everybody was just about skating,” Owens said.
The one spot in the city today where skateboarders have a sense of community is buried in Estabrook Park.
The abandoned tennis court turned DIY skate park has given skaters the freedom of creativity.
“It’s crazy, just the fact that the city is letting it by,” Owens said.
“It’s such an un-Milwaukee type thing to let skaters have their own place.”
There are obstacles for every kind of skater at Estabrook.
There are transitional pieces created out of rubble, parking blocks and quickcrete. These allow for skaters to flow smoothly around the park.
The park also incorporates street influenced objects like wooden grind boxes and flat rails.
Even the iconic, crusty cement ledges from the demolished East Side library were relocated to Estabrook.
Estabrook is skater funded and skater built. According to Owens everybody is cool with one another.
This includes the respect and welcoming feeling between the locals and out-of-towners.
This also includes skaters and other sports like BMX and scooters.
He smirks when Zumiez, the mall skate shop, is mentioned.
“The skate shop brings the culture to the community,” Owens said.
“They are all skater owned and the owners still skate.”
Owens pointed back to the days before the Internet. This is where the skate shop was the place to hang out.
Where skateboarders would watch videos and read magazines, taking in the culture.
The two local skate shops Sky High and Phase 2 have supported the Milwaukee skate scene since the late eighties.
They bring pro teams to Milwaukee for demos and support the skate scene.
“You can’t go in to Zumiez and ask them for a spare bearing because yours broke,” Owens said.
“It doesn’t work like that.”
The thing that annoys Owens the most is how kids will buy boards and clothes from Zumiez but will go to events like the Sky High block party.
“They’ll support the scene, but not put any money into it.”
Adam Berte has seen the effects at Phase 2 from the increase in business at skateboard companies in the malls and online.
He attributes some of this to the state skateboarding is in right now. Skateboarding became popular in the early 2000’s and skate shops flourished.
This push died down during the recession in 2008.
“The popularity of skateboarding in mainstream media has died down and right now we’re in limbo.” Berte said.
He also mentioned how local shops give skaters more then just the product they can get on the Internet.
“Skate shops are almost like comic book shops in a sense,” Berte said. “We have the passion, we’re not in it just for the money.”
The Fight Back to a Normal Life
It was Sept. 4, 2004, just another normal day. Two masked men broke into the house Owens was staying at.
“They told me to get in the backroom, so I could get tied up. I just sat in the chair. I told them to take what they want and go and they weren’t having it. They shot me in the ribs and I was like, ‘ok here we go again.’”
Owens wrestled and boxed throughout high school. He fought off the attackers to the best of his ability.
“I must have got some shots on them because during the fight they shot each other.
That’s how they got caught. Their getaway driver brought them to the ER.”
During the scuffle, Owens managed to escape but was shot 22 times.
“I was shot in almost every organ of my body. They got me in the face three times.”
Owens was in a coma for around two weeks. He was in excruciating pain. Oxycontin was one of the few things that could alleviate the pain.
As the reach for the subsiding pain increased, so did his dependency on the pills.
At this point in his career, Owens attributes the hiatus of Grime Official to his dependency on the painkillers.
“You know people take prescription drugs like Xanax Bars and Oxys for fun. I didn’t do it for fun. I was in a lot of pain.
There came a point when I was like I don’t need these. It feels like somebody punched me in the face, that’s how messed up the nerves were. I’m going to have to live with this pain the rest of my life.”
After stopping the pills, Owens explained how he felt he went crazy. He experienced severe paranoia and hallucinations.
Once he felt “normal” again he began to drink alcohol. This would have been totally fine, but he forgot that after he was shot in his liver, it processed alcohol different.
Up until 2013, Owens had been fighting himself. He focused on his company and avoided the distractions. He strived for the normalcy skateboarding gave him when he was a kid.
For Owens, learning to live with the positive is the epitome of his future. He learned from his past and is striving to live the life he was meant to live.
After being gunned down twice in the streets of Milwaukee, he still lives out his dream of maintaining his name in the skate industry.
“Being young and dumb, everything is the end of the world, you only believe what you see and you don’t know shit,” Owens said.
“Insecurities are everything, and any negativity erases all the positives.”
His outlet was skateboarding.
He hung out with people that had nothing going for them and nothing to do, but he always had skateboarding.
“You know a smart man can solve the problem but a genius can avoid it all together,” Owens said.
When Owens decided to create a team, he wasn’t just looking for talent. He wanted to create a group of talented skaters that had the cohesiveness of a family.
To Owens “good skating” is just an opinion. He wanted to skate with people whom he enjoyed watching skate.
“I always thought I was a decent skater but I never felt complete,” Owens said.
“I picked people who were better then me, people that were more technical.”
One of these skaters was Racine native Patrick Hergins.
Hergins has been riding Grime Official boards since 2003.
“I was just chilling at Sky High (Skate Shop) and Rob said he saw me around skating,” Hergins said. “Then he just asked me to skate for his company, and I was down.”
After Rob Owens second shooting in 2004, Grime Official went on a hiatus. The team did the two things they knew best, hustled and skated.
“We were sitting on hella (Grime Official) stickers,” Hergins said. “We would just sneak the logo onto shit at skate events, just trying to keep Grime Official alive.”
Some of these events included the annual Sky High Block Party.
This is where the shop closes down the block for a session on ramps and rails in the street and barbecue.
Going pro in the skateboard industry is the highest award a skater can get from a board sponsor. It shows that the rider has put in the work to have their name on a board and make money from it.
With the resurgence of Grime Official into the skateboard scene and after years of skating and touring, Hergins had his dream come true.
Hergins’ name was inked onto a board and he was placed in the professional ranks of the skateboard industry.
As of lately, Grime Official has been working at becoming a national player in the skateboard industry.
Being a Milwaukee based company they have networked with shops throughout Wisconsin.